And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
The problem I see is this: “Religion” has become an escape clause from civil conversation and civic tolerance.
Benignly, it can be used like this: “Religion is personal and sensitive; therefore, I’m turning the conversation away from potentially offensive content.” Unfortunately, it’s increasingly used not-so-benignly: “Religion is irrational; therefore you are irrational, and I’m shutting you out of the conversation.” I can respect the first instance; the second instance is intolerant and unworthy of respect, for reasons I will attempt to explain.
Learned people will rightly quibble with my use of the term, but for simplicity and illustration I use the term “religion” here to mean a set of assumptions about myself and the world around me. In this very broad sense, everyone has a religion, even if it is not organized into a creed, institution, or society. Every person thinks, feels, and acts according — and often in contradiction — to this set of assumptions. In this sense, everyone’s religion is rational to a degree and also irrational to degree.
The problem with the second statement above is this: it’s not stating that all belief systems are a mixture of rational and irrational assumptions; it’s actually claiming that the speaker’s assumptions are more rational (and that the recipient’s assumptions are less so). In other words, it establishes the speaker as superior and freezes the recipient out of the conversation. If we aim for a secular, pluralistic society, it is incongruous to make such a claim — even if it is done in the name of secularism or pluralism. Put another way, even if it the statement was facially neutral, its effect was discriminatory.
My point is that it would be better to acknowledge that we all come to conversations and controversies with a set of assumptions about our own being and the world around us. That takes some humility and bravery, but it enables us to “negotiate” solutions that allow us to truly “tolerate” our differences in a diverse society.
Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (text version)
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
For the record: I’ve never liked Roy Moore, and recent accusations (a topic unto themselves) did nothing to change my perspective. That said, even though I may not like this choice, I can understand why people voted for him. You see, I sometimes have this thing called “empathy,” which used to be considered a positive human trait. It allows me to see how someone can be rational and good-natured, even though we are different.
Empathy played an ironic role in the Alabama election: one of the factors that led rational, good-natured people to vote for Moore is that, from their perspective, their political opponents lack empathy and see them as “others” to be used or eliminated. And their perception is, regrettably, not unfounded. Empathy communicates that you see the other person as fully human, capable of intellect and emotions not unlike your own, and worthy of a dignity equal to your own. A refusal to empathize demonstrates that you count the other person as an “other,” devoid of value beyond your ability to control and use the other. Further, and more frightening, an inability to empathize is a grotesque pathology of the mind and of the soul. Here is my theory: the lack of basic empathy toward our political opponents is crippling our politics and our civil society. The inability, or unwillingness, to respectfully afford people the opportunity to disagree will only have the deleterious effect of pushing people toward extreme options. Conversely, letting people disagree “without casting aspersions on their good sense or moral character” will lead to less extreme outcomes, and perhaps, better solutions for the problems that face all of us. So back to Alabama and Moore (or pick another question, as there will always be grotesque choices to be decided), where you find yourself exasperated by the ugliness and ignominy of others. Take it as an opportunity to exercise, and identify why and how they felt and thought as they did; and for a moment, attempt to relate as a fellow human, perhaps even more fully-human than yourself. Even if my theory on empathy is proven wrong, I’d rather go down as having tried to revive this forgotten-and-gasping quality. The alternative, as best as I can tell, is to scrap for my preferred version of human ugliness over an other’s version of ugliness.
“All progress in civilization and culture is dependent on the religious-moral life of humanity. All of history serves as proof of this. When religion and morality deteriorate among a nation, they drag down with them the best and most refined culture. Intellectual development, material prosperity, wealth, and luxury are in themselves excellent things; but when they are severed from the root of religion, they serve to advance evil far more than they arrest and restrain it. No enduring civilization exists without a healthy religious and moral life.”
Herman Bavinck on love, economics, and the reformation of society