Saturday, April 26, 2008

Souled Out Again: The Coupling of Justice and Mercy

A few disparate thoughts today—a day on which I am returning home from my trip, and have little time to blog—from E.J. Dionne’s new book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008).

I like Dionne’s constant coupling of mercy and justice. Dionne notes that our American political discourse today is impoverished, because it tends to dismiss the “hard” language of justice for the softer discourse of a kindler, gentler mercy that has no real substantive content. We talk rhetorically about being kindler and gentler—more merciful—but have no measures, no benchmarks, for what it means to be merciful, since we eschew considerations of justice as we natter on about our mercifulness.

In fact, as he notes, we have relegated questions of social and economic justice to some religious and political netherworld, where they have little impact on our deliberations about what it means to be good, civil, humane people. We have drawn a line between authentic “religious” input in the political sphere, confining it to areas of sexual ethics or the morality of family life, and conversations about economic justice, treating the latter as though they have no connection to the moral or religious realm. As Dionne notes,

But how does one define justice? That question is central to sorting out what government’s role in the marketplace should be. Here again, one of the most important debates among religious people has been buried beneath a mound of media reports about sexually charged questions that are presumed to appeal to a wider audience (p. 81).

In Dionne’s view, this avoidance of rhetoric about justice in our political discourse, and the confining of the religious contribution to sexual morality and family life, radically impoverishes our public discourse. The major religious traditions of the world have a great deal to say about justice as the enfleshing of mercy, about how justice affects family life:

The narrowing of our moral and religious vision is one of the great tragedies of American politics since the late 1970s. Our traditions, most certainly Christianity and Judaism, teach us that we should not lie, cheat, or steal, and that we are supposed to love our neighbor. Shouldn’t the question of how such moral rules apply to our economic and social policies be a matter of lively debate within our political system? It is simply absurd to say that religious voices can be heard on family life, but not on the economic underpinnings of the family; on personal responsibility, but not on the responsibility of great economic actors; on generosity of the spirit, but not on the economic works of mercy (p. 89).

Dionne uses strong language to characterize this deliberate narrowing of our national discourse about politics: he calls it sinful. This analysis implicitly challenges the churches themselves. It suggests that churches do not serve their adherents well when they talk about mercy without speaking of justice. It also implies that churches mislead the public when they cause us to imagine that one can be authentically religious without seeking justice in all areas of life. As Dionne puts it,

The narrowing of the focus of religious engagement in politics to abortion, gay marriage, end-of-life questions, and a handful of other cultural issues is—it’s a strong word, I know—a sin. It limits the reach of faith. It suggests to some who might otherwise contemplate belief that religion is primarily about right-wing politics and drives many people away. In the case of Christianity, it radically confines a tradition that through history has had much of importance to say about the just ordering of political, economic, and social life (p. 123).

I am thinking of all of this today, in light of my recent experiences at a United Methodist university in Florida, and as the UMC General Conference continues. Methodism is very attractive in its rhetoric of mercy. Methodist ministers speak freely and easily about their work as a ministry of mercy.

Yet in recent decades, as have other Christian churches, Methodists have often tended to accept the neo-conservative blackout of justice discourse in the public sphere. The silence of the United Methodist Church about the justice dimensions of its institutions’ treatment of gay and lesbian persons, for instance, strongly undermines the claim of the UMC to be merciful to gay and lesbian persons. One cannot practice mercy without being just. One cannot be just without practicing mercy.

This constant coupling of justice and mercy was clear to John Wesley, and is an insight of Wesleyan spirituality that Methodism needs to recover today, in order to be a prophetic voice within the public sphere. When justice is uncoupled from mercy, when churches cave in to the pressure of neo-conservatives to treat discourse about justice as if it not at the very center of moral discourse in all religious traditions, churches end up being churches captive to culture (which is to say, captive to wealth and power), not churches that offer a salvific word to culture.

In making these observations, my intent is not to single out or attack the United Methodist Church. It is to speak out of my experience working at two UMC institutions, and, in particular, out of an experience of conspicuous injustice (and lack of mercy) at the last of those two institutions.

I speak as an outsider to the Methodist tradition. At the same time, the scriptures and credal traditions that bind one Christian church to another point all of us to a shared goal of living justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. What happens in one Christian communion affects other communions. It is in the collective interest of all Christian institutions to craft a language in which justice and mercy meet in the public sphere.

It’s also in the interest of all Christian institutions to model the church’s own life and that of its institutions around a shared ethic of justice and mercy. The churches will be credible, when they speak the countercultural word of the gospel to culture, only to the extent that they themselves live counterculturally.

Nothing is more countercultural than living justice and loving mercy. By embodying that goal in its own life and exemplifying what justice coupled with mercy can mean for human communities, the church makes the reign of God present in a way that urges secular social institutions along the path of mercy and justice.

With regard to gay and lesbian human beings, the churches have a long, long way to go. We continue to be subject to ugly injustice within the churches themselves. To the extent that this is the case, the churches forfeit their right to profess to be embodiments of mercy. They also undermine their countercultural message of justice for society at large.


colkoch said...

Bill EJ Dionne should be mandatory reading for every one who calls himself a Christian. I am so tired of family values issues being used to cloud REAL issues or as Dionne says: "It is simply absurd to say that religious voices can be heard on family life, but not on the economic underpinnings of the family; on personal responsibility, but not on the responsibility of great economic actors; on generosity of the spirit, but not on the economic works of mercy (p. 89)."

Anyone who doesn't think this has been purposeful is either delusional or has themselves made a purposeful choice not to think for themselves.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, we just got in from our long, long trip and I'm very happy to see your response. Makes things seem worthwhile, somehow.

You're right, Dionne should be mandatory reading, especially for people who think that the religious traditions of the world have something positive to contribute to pluralistic conversations about more humane societies.

I like how he tries to recover the much broader range of Catholic teaching on life values, which almost got obliterated in the 2004 election, with those Catholic Answers voters' guides.

You're absolutely right: that attempt to mute the voice of churches that have something critical and countercultural to say about economic exploitation, unjust war, unjust hiring and firing procedures, the attack on the family at the economic level: this is deliberate.

The Institution for Religion and Democracy is an example of a leading neocon think tank that has deliberately targeted three mainstream Protestant churches--the Episcopalians, the United Methodists, and the Presbyterians--to mute their social teachings by adroit use of the gay issue as a wedge issue.

What's of great concern is that some of the leaders of those denominations have been just as happy to cozy up to the neocons in this campaign to impoverish Christian values discourse as many American Catholic bishops have.

The UMC bishop, Timothy Whitaker, to whom I address my open letter gets his utterances and essays picked up and published by the IRD. As long as he narrows the focus of UMC teaching to abortion and gay issues, they're quite happy with him and other Methodists who shove the Social Principles into the shadows.

Steve and I were talking about some of these issues as we returned from our trip. It's ironic that we who are gay often end up sharing the care of family members who need us as they age and become seriously ill--ironic, since we're told by the religious right that we are anti-family.

It's also difficult to fulfill these obligations to our aging family members when the same Christians who tell us we're anti-family make our lives almost impossible by firing us without cause, cutting off our source of income and health insurance.

We who are gay have families, too. We ARE families. Economic injustice impacts our lives as well as the lives of other families. It would be wonderful if the churches could recognize this, and help Americans in general to see the connections between economic injustice and destruction of families, both gay and straight.

colkoch said...

"It would be wonderful if the churches could recognize this, and help Americans in general to see the connections between economic injustice and destruction of families, both gay and straight."

Wouldn't this just be the cat's meow.

The trade off might be that we wouldn't have over done evangelical mega churches, or brand new cathedrals, or gold toilets for evangelical leaders, or new wings on our hospitals, or limousines parked in the garages of our bishops mansions.

In spite of all that hardship, I'm willing to pay the price.