It seems like a trivially obvious observation to say that the US is a country divided. Politics, religion, entertainment, racial issues, sports, poverty, fashion, taxation…and, of course, face masks…everywhere one turns there seems opportunity to express our disagreement with another.
For the purposes of this post, I am interested in the divide over social justice: how we treat others. I want to think about the division at the national policy level and at the personal level.
I came across an interesting way to think of our division in the approach to social justice in Timothy Patitsas’ recent book, The Ethics of Beauty. Patitsas claims that in the “old world” (pre-Enlightment period) it was widely accepted that there were two, competing methods of approaching social justice.
First, there is the “you get what you fairly deserve,” pull yourself up by our own bootstraps, meaning. This is the equal opportunity meaning: everyone has the chance to make it, so what you fairly get in life is directly related to what you make of your opportunity. This might be considered pure capitalism.
The second meaning is that the benefits and rewards of society should be distributed fairly among all, that “no one is left behind.” This is the equal outcome meaning: everyone should fairly receive in the distribution of societal benefits and rewards based on needs regardless of their effort. This might be considered pure socialism.
The first meaning, equal opportunity, is in fact built into the DNA of the USA. Our Declaration of Independence says people are created equal and each has the unalienable right of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After all, the American narrative is that we are the land of the free where everyone has the opportunity to make it, to achieve the “American Dream.”
Yet, the Statue of Liberty says something about equal outcome, and that is also part of the DNA of the USA:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The implication of this is that we are a country that throws open our borders and freely shares what we have with the less fortunate.
In reality, the ideal of “equal opportunity is just that, an ideal. Philosophers talk of something called “moral luck.” Whether we are born with physical or mental challenges, make decisions that turn out poorly, born to bad parents, or are struck down by “accidents,” these are the kinds of things that effect our lives that are simply beyond our control. This is what is meant by moral luck. It is these things we refer to as our “baggage,” and we all have baggage!
So, we need both methods…each of us must pull our own weight as we can while realizing that because of moral luck all of us need some help and some of us will always need help.
Patitsas, drawing on the work of a number of other scholars, notes that these two conflicting methods of social justice have existed throughout human civilization. Some of us are drawn to one method or the other and many of us are somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes. While there can seem like an insurmountable divide between these two competing methods, in truth, both are needed. Extreme “equal opportunity” is heartless and cruel. Extreme “equal outcome” is mindless and enabling.
Throughout history a third, mediating force was sometimes present to bring these two competing views into balance: the Christian Church bringing the love of Christ. At its historical best, the State and the Church worked together (e.g., symphonia in the Byzantine Empire) to let the love of Christ balance equal opportunity with equal outcome to approach Christ-like social justice.
At the national policy-making level in the USA, we have separated Church and State. We have strayed from the intent of the country’s founders and moved away from a Judeo-Christian based value system (Oz Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide). Hence, there is no third way readily available to help us find balance in our approach to social justice; rather, we are left with only a power based approach focused primarily on the either/or of equal opportunity and equal outcome.
Governments and Churches can seem like big, impersonal institutions. Trying to solve the nation problem of unjust social justice can seem overwhelming. National policies, while often necessary, are sweeping scope and take their aim at humanity rather than at individual humans. So, I want to look at social justice from a personal perspective.
Join me in a “thought experiment”: I am walking in the city and I come across a homeless person asking for money. This person seems mostly like your average, normal, healthy person, just dirty and asking for money. I notice they are standing near a storefront with a help wanted sign in the window. What will I do? I wonder to myself, “Do they really need a helping hand (equal outcome) or do they simply not want to work (equal opportunity)?” The internal debate begins: Should I give them some money? Should I exercise “tough love” and point at the storefront sign and say, “get a job”? I am at war within myself. I need the same third mediating force: the love of Christ.
There is no one-size-fits-all response to homeless people, to continue this example, even with public policy. Here are two biblical stories to make my point. In the first story, a woman is caught in adultery by Jewish leaders and brought to Jesus with the expectation that He will condemn her to death by stoning (John 8:1-11). Note that the man was not brought to Jesus, only the woman. Jesus first turns the table on her accusers and says, “Let the one of you with no sin throw the first stone at her.” When the accusers sheepishly leave, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Go and sin no more.” That’s all He says. He doesn’t offer her counseling, or console her over the injustice of the man being unaccused, or even give her a sympathetic shoulder. No, He gives her an impossible command: “Go and sin no more” and sends her away. That is very tough love.
In the second story, Jesus meets a woman who in the heat of the day has come to the local well to get water (John 4:1-42). She has two culturally shameful things against her: She is a Samaritan, a second class citizen in Jewish society; and she has been married five times and is now living with a guy, which is why she is getting water in the heat of the day…even her fellow Samaritan’s don’t want to have anything to do with her. To her, Jesus speaks very kindly and offers her the path to eternal life; further, he tells her explicitly who He is (God!), which He rarely did with anyone.
Two women, both in the wrong, and both given very different responses from Jesus. Because He is God (all knowing and loving), we must assume His responses were designed exactly to bring about the best for each woman. There are many similar stories in the Bible…one answer to social justice clearly does not fit all circumstances.
These stories of Jesus remind me of the great golf teacher, Harvey Penick. He was a master at teaching someone the game of golf, not because he molded his students into a one-size-fits-all approach to golf, but because he saw and taught each student as an individual. As evidence, he would not let another golfer observe the lesson he gave a student because what he told the student was designed exactly for them and no other. He worried that the observer would take instruction not meant for them and try to apply it tho their game. Penick, like Jesus in the stories above, told each person exactly what they individually needed to hear.
It is so easy for us to use the Bible or the sayings of the early church fathers or writings of saints to find a one-size-fits-all answer in the application of our approach to social justice. However, to balance the right solutions between equal opportunity and equal outcome to the current problems of social justice requires that we see others around us as individual persons, not just as faceless “humanity.
Jesus walked everywhere. He moved at 3 miles per hour, which means he saw the person in front of him. Each of us needs to slow down and see the person in front of us, our “neighbor,” and to love them as Jesus does. Me, one-on-one with you—there is no male or female, black or white, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal or progressive—rather, there is only you and me, each made in the image of God and infinitely precious to Him. But, to love you as God loves you means I have to love God and draw ever nearer to Him in a loving relationship. Only in this way can I begin to love you like Christ does and offer you social justice as God would.
Drawing ever closer toward oneness with Jesus is the divine goal for humankind (John 17:3, 25-26; 2Peter 1:4). It was Jesus’ goal for the two women. We should want it for ourselves and for each other. This is real social justice. Oneness with God is what the Church calls, theosis.
So, my best response to the current problems of unjust social justice is to begin with me. I must draw closer to Jesus. If I do otherwise, then I only add to the problems in the world. St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Aquire the Spirit of Peace (Holy Spirit) and a thousand around you will be saved.” Only by my putting forth some effort and myreceivingthe undeserved kindness of God can I acquire His Spirit. And only then can I begin to see you and to respond to you, my neighbor, and to love you as an individual just as Jesus loves both of us. God’s love is the only way to mediate between equal opportunity and equal outcome.
In reality there is no great divide on the issue of social justice, there is only the love of God for all of us.