And Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” – I Kings 21:7
Reliable resources are connected to reliable sources — people. Generally speaking, our trustworthiness regarding this or that is tied up not only with our education and competence but our character as well.
So, for example, we can’t just be like Ahab, who took Naboth’s vineyard because he wanted it and could get away with it.
Or can we? In a recent paper for a class I am taking, I wrote the following: “One might well argue that violence from the strong – over and against the concept of the ‘rule of law’ (think here of the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard) – is the foundation not just of slavery but of most human political rule on earth.”
Thankfully, this is not the full story about what happens among us in America, and in the Western world more broadly! “A nation ruled by laws, not by men” we say. No one above the law! No one their own judge!
It sounds good to us. Presumably most all of us. Most likely, even a successful Westernized worldling opposed to the idea would feel they must at least give “lip service” to such a notion.
But looking at it more closely, even those who believe in the idea have very different ideas about what it means.
For some, it means that we should simply follow laws that other human beings — particularly those we find ourselves respecting — think are good. Perhaps here, they might even insist that we can’t assume it’s merely a contingent matter* – pointing to something like the presence of a “Golden Rule,” which has resonated with wise persons trans-culturally, trans-historically, and trans-existentially.
On the other hand, there are those of us who say that if we detect the presence of some kind of appreciation for a “Golden Rule” among the “human community of practice,” this certainly points us to the rule of something or someone that transcends us. Why do we even think in these terms of what is right and wrong, either in general, or for each individual? And how can what is personal and social arise from what is impersonal?
What happens though when times get tough? When our politics, society, and culture begin to break down? What happens when it seems – in order to survive – one simply can’t afford to trust all neighbors one could previously, at some level, deal with? What happens when one can’t afford to even trust there exists some real “Golden Rule” – much less that one is morally obligated to follow it?
Do we think seriously about what Dostoevesky said, or do we dismiss him?
Atheists balk. “We can be moral without God,” they say. “We can embrace religious values without being religious.” But can they really? Perhaps some can be relatively good to their neighbor without a belief in God, but will those who follow after them? Will these look to outdo their parents and teachers in their rejection of, for example, “Christian behavior” as well – especially under pressure?
Still, don’t we all hold on to hope?: “Well, we all have our limits to what we think is acceptable,” I insist. “All of us think there are some things that are ‘beyond the pale’ and can’t ever be permitted. Things others must not do and we could never do. We are always intolerant of some things, and we even agree on what some of these things are (less so today, but its still there: cheating on someone, murder, etc.) And at least in this sense we can’t not be moral and be in solidarity with others!”
But is this really any consolation? More: is it reasonable in chaotic times? As the appreciation for the sacred, for honor, for history, for authority, for loyalty, for commitment, slowly dies?
Especially when people increasingly feel as if they have nothing to lose?
Perhaps some things are not to be permitted when it comes to some people, but maybe – just maybe – I may have to permit things I might find distasteful for the sake of my own skin and those I’d like to protect and remain with?
Perhaps justice as entailing fairness — or even just appropriate payback within properly established channels — gives way to, or, if you insist, is just supplemented by the law of the jungle? Kill or be killed?!
(which note, can simply mean compassion or pity, but also has a meaning that assumes the concept of justice — i.e. not requiring of another what real justice truly demands…).
Which brings me to this question: Are we so confident that there is not very real religious capital, for instance, that is necessary in this equation? Should it be “Lord have mercy!”?
Without a true understanding of justice for wrongs done, we cannot live together. And yet, as human beings who know something is not right about us and the world, we also cannot live without compassion and forgiveness. For without mercy — a mercy that does not ignore the need for some real earthly consequences! — the felt need for justice in human relations often turns into hatred, despair… and unconstrained violence to the other who just isn’t “functioning” rightly.
E.F. Schumacher, in his 1977 book Guide for the Perplexed said:
Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.
As a Christian, I think this: Jesus pulled it off. He loved even His enemies. And He brings disparate peoples together (see Colossians 3)
The price, however, was high. Is high.
Too high for us.
*Many contemporary elites do, of course, believe that this — the matter of ethics — is a completely contingent matter. For example, persons of a more “progressive” mindset, influenced by Hegelian philosophy (whether they know it or not), see the matter of seeking justice very differently from, for example, those influenced by more classical notions of Christianity. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “[progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… [Today,] we are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (1909, p. 195). Of course, the wiser among non-Christians realize, en route to the positive change they seek, that building up morale through what can only be called lies and half-truths will eventually backfire. At the same time, it seems that for the Hegelian mind it is basically only a matter of time and right circumstances that determine whether *we can make something that is evolving/emerging true* – that we can “get away with it,” as Richard Rorty would say. In other words, going back to Chesterton, they alter the ideal, and then follow up by altering the real too. Of course, they can only alter the real so much (perhaps, at least to the extent that it can be done by changing laws and mores), given the presence of things that, in truth, will not alter their being — what they, in fact, are — for them.