Thursday, 28 June 2018

Why Hypocrisy Matters

It's become a veritable international past time to point out the manifest contradictions in the political positions adopted by other groups. One of my favourites consists of people who loudly proclaim that since the unborn are human beings we must take steps to ensure that they are born, yet actively place barriers in the way of women seeking adequate prenatal care. There can be no cogent defense of such a position. Denial of such prenatal care increases the probability of fetal death, precisely what the opposition to abortion claims to find so repugnant. A coherent pro-life position must also seek and support policies that will increase access to adequate prenatal care, although exactly what those policies might be will no doubt be a matter of legitimate debate. When a self-proclaimed pro-life position lacks such coherence, we can rightly describe it as hypocrisy. But I think it is something deeper. It is a contradiction, and it communicates some very important data.

Here we can learn much from the Marxist and Freudian traditions. Both put contradiction--whether economic or social or cultural or personal--at the centre of analysis. What we learn from these traditions is that it is insufficient albeit potentially accurate to pass a moral judgment on the contradiction before us, which of course is precisely what we do whenever we diagnose it as hypocrisy. Rather, we must ask why this contradiction exists. Marxist thought will tend to see contradiction as generated by and evidence of class conflicts, while Freudian thought will tend to see contradiction as generated by and evidence of repressed desires. A Marxist account might observe that both the prohibition of abortion and the barriers to adequate prenatal care will tend to be implemented by upper-class persons and disproportionately affect lower-class persons, and thus conclude that both are elements in a more generalized class struggle. A Freudian account might observe that both the prohibition and the barriers are typically implemented by male persons while female persons are the most immediately affected, and thus conclude that both represent male fantasies about dominating and controlling women. Both will likely conclude that the arguments from morality ("protect the unborn," "universal healthcare obviates our freedom to choose") seek to obfuscate the actual motivations from self or others: a Marxist might suggest that these arguments are ideological attempts to disguise class struggle, while the Freudian might suggest that these are psychological defense mechanisms intended to avoid acknowledging the pathological drive for control. Both accounts argue that in fact the apparent contradiction has what we might call a higher-level unity, whether rooted in class conflict or in psychological repression.

It must be emphasized that in this sort of analysis what matters is not whether either of the two positions that stand in contradiction are well and good. Rather, what matters is that they cannot both be coherently affirmed by the same person at the same time. By contrast, one can coherently hold that we must protect the unborn, and from this position argue both for a prohibition against abortion and efforts to increase access to adequate prenatal care. Alternatively, one can coherently hold that both abortion and access to adequate prenatal care are necessary components of women's rights. Neither position is immune to moral critique, but the critique operates on a different level than is involved with the analysis of contradiction. Precisely the absence of contradiction allows us to more fully accept that the reason the person gives for her or his position is in fact the primary reason. This is where the Lonerganian tradition will tend to differ from the Marxist or the Freudian: whereas the latter tend to suppose that everything (except strangely not frequently their own operations: itself a not uninteresting tendency for contradiction) is suspect, the Lonerganian tradition recognizes that there must be cogent empirical reasons to suspect ill-will.

(Nota bene: I recently stumbled upon a fascinating excursus in Ben Meyer's unpublished material that aims to take fuller account of the insights provided by the Marxist and the Freudian traditions and their mastery of suspicion).

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Romans 13, Again

Every fall, graduate students who work in Lonergan studies gather at Marquette University for a conference named Lonergan on the Edge. This year, the graduate students have chosen as their theme "The Problem of Liberation." This is, I think, very timely, not just with respect to Lonergan studies but also with respect to the growing global fascination with authoritarianism. In this spirit, I want to continue thinking about Romans 13, now within the context of liberation theology and exegesis.

For those unfamiliar with the term, "liberation theology" refers to a fluorescence of theological thought in the post-war era that has focused upon the question of social, economic, and political liberation. If I might sum it up in a single sentence, the foundational premise of liberation theology is that if Jesus came to save humanity then that must entail saving humanity from unjust conditions. From this, liberation theologians argue that Christians have a duty in the concrete here and now to work towards constructing an equitable world in which all are free to become the best version of themselves. Liberation theology has made significant and enduring contributions to Christian thought, not least because it represents a decentring from the theological hegemony of white, male-identified, straight-identified, cis persons hailing from western Europe and its more privileged colonies, in order to create space for persons of various backgrounds and experiences to speak from their reality and to their world.

Liberation theology has wrestled significantly with the Christian scriptures. Some of these scriptures are easy to deal with if one is a liberation theologian. For instance, the story of the exodus has become a central leitmotif in much liberation thought. But it must also deal with narratives and passages that prima facie do not proclaim liberation but rather submission to authorities. Romans 13:1-7 is an example of such a passage. Liberation theologians and exegetes influenced by liberation theology have often attempted to neutralize this passage by saying that of course Paul understood that not all authorities pursue the good, and that in those cases they must be resisted. I find myself generally unpersuaded by these arguments. That they are on shaky empirical ground seems evident when they must resort to arguing that this or that passage in Paul implies that Christians should resist the empire and the emperor, and that of course Paul couldn't come right out and say it, because of fear of the imperial authorities. I am not as convinced as such exegetical colleagues that we can know what Paul meant to but did not say. I just don't think that we can turn Paul into a liberation theologian avant la lettre. Paul must be read in his own place, at the level of his time. And that place and time was one in which those persons with relative privilege thought that the Pax Romana was a largely unmitigated good; that slavery was a necessity and even a good; that the subordination of female persons to male was just the natural order of things; etc. In such areas, Paul frankly gives nary a hint of breaking with his apparently affluent upbringing, and in fact the classicist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix has cogently argued that in some regards Paul was even less "progressive" than his fellows.

If liberation theology--or any Christian who desires a Christianity that uplifts rather than tramples down the marginalized--is to flourish, it must come to terms with Paul on a level other than exegesis. One can pretend that Paul says the opposite of what he says, but that would constitute a failure to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. One must simply accept that Paul was, at best, indifferent to imperial rule. We never read in him anything negative about the empire or the emperor, and in his earliest biography he does not hesitate to take advantage of his privileges as a citizen. The question cannot be "Given that Paul opposed the empire, how can Christians resist oppressive state regimes today?" but rather "Despite the fact that Paul failed to oppose the empire, how can Christians resist oppressive state regimes today?" Here some of the work of liberation-oriented exegetes can be retrieved. No, we cannot state that when Paul says that there is one lord, namely Jesus, he must have considered this to be a challenge to Caesar's legitimacy to rule. There is simply no evidence that Paul drew this conclusion, and it is bad exegesis to suppose that authors are always aware of the necessary corollaries of their own statements. But we can state that this is indeed a necessary corollary of Jesus' lordship as conceived by Paul, and with that insight build towards a theological argument for resisting oppressive regimes. Paul need not have drawn the necessary corollaries of his own statements for the contemporary Christian to do so. Put otherwise, we must remember that the work of theology includes but is not exhausted by or completed with scriptural exegesis.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Jesus the Sinner: On the Theology of Jeff Sessions

Jesus is a sinner. Such, at least is the position of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


Mr. Sessions holds that Romans 13:1-2 necessitates unqualified obedience to governing authorities. And with this we can agree: a prima facie reading of these passages suggests exactly that. But as anyone with a basic theological education knows, the prima facie reading of Rom. 13:1-7 is one of the most contested in the history of Christianity. Part of the reason for such contest is that we simply know from experience that governing authorities sometimes act in ways that are utterly at variance with the highest aspirations of Christian values. To select a random instance, they sometimes pursue policies that entail separating children from their parents and crowding them into giant kennels barely fit for stray dogs. But even beyond that experiential aspect, Romans 13 itself gives us good reason to rethink the prima facie reading, for if we read vv. 1-2 as does Sessions then we must conclude from v. 3-4 that Jesus was an wrongdoer.

This will be obvious if we look at Rom. 13:1-4 in full, quoted from the NRSV:

13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Vv. 1-2 indeed say that all should be subject to the governing authorities, as Sessions argues, and it indeed provides no qualification on this. V. 3 gives the reason for the position taken in vv. 1-2: "rulers are not a terror to good, but to bad." The passage further explains that if one does what is good, one will win the authority's approval, and that if one does what is wrong one should fear violence from the authority. On a "hard reading," Paul does not allow for the possibility that the authority might execute wrath on good people. On a hard reading, Paul states that anyone who experiences the wrath of the authorities must be a wrongdoer.

And of course, as we all know, Jesus experienced the wrath of the authorities. That in fact is how he died. As such, if Sessions is correct in his reading of Romans 13:1-2, Jesus must be a wrongdoer. Jesus must be a sinner. So Jeff Sessions.

Put otherwise, Jeff Sessions is a heretic who has radically departed from the fundamental tenets of the very Christian faith by which he tries to justify the administration's policies. He presents a litmus test not just for whether or not American society has sufficient decency to be morally shocked and outraged by this intentional attack upon children and families, but also whether or not self-proclaimed Christians have sufficient commitment to their religion so as to reject rank heresy.

Returning to the man Paul, I don't think that he thought that Jesus was a sinner. That is too clearly excluded from his writings more generally. As such, I think that there are two possibilities in thinking about Romans 13 from the perspective of the author. First possibility: Paul supposes but does not say that there are authorities that act in ways contrary to the good. Second possibility: Paul has not thought through the implications of his position as articulated in 13:1-4, as it pertains to Jesus' death. I rather suspect that the latter is more likely the case. Remember that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, Acts shows a pattern of conduct on his part of turning to Roman authorities for aid. I think it entirely plausible that as someone who (I suspect) grew up in relative comfort, born a citizen in a time when citizenship still entailed a decent amount of privileges, Paul's experience of the Roman authorities was largely positive. (I've often wondered if he would write Romans 13 exactly the same the day after his execution by Roman authorities). I suspect that he has not yet reflected upon the fact that it was specifically the Roman authorities who ordered his Lord's death. I further suspect that if confronted with the fact that his words in Romans 13:3-4 necessarily entail that said Lord was a sinner, he'd say "Heaven forbid!" and rethink the matter.

In either case, the use of scripture in a contemporary context is informed but not dictated by what the scriptural writers intended. Christian theology must always remember that all persons operate at the level of their time, including the persons responsible for producing sacred scripture. As such, as much as one might recognize that the scriptural writers were inspired so as to reveal divine truth in a peculiar fashion, they did so as persons embedded in particular contexts. As we translate their insights into our contexts, with our own horizons, some things will inevitably be lost and some things inevitably be gained. Lost will be an immediate, direct connection with their horizons. Gained will be two to three millennia of historical experience and more crucially reflection upon the very words of scripture that we are reading.