Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Tradition of Evasion


I am hard-pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would have come out differently if I were not Catholic.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a speech in 2007

When the way Christian ethics is taught and practiced conveys the understanding that the Sermon on the Mount does not contribute to Christian ethics, it spills over into the overall orientation toward Jesus' teachings as a whole. It conveys that Christian ethics is based on something other than following Jesus.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (2003)

As Obama shortens his list of possible Supreme Court justice nominees (after the announcement of Justice Stevens' retirement), talk has shifted to the role of religion in how Justices decide cases. Currently, there are 6 Catholics and 2 Jews on the Court and some folks are pressing for the appointment of a Protestant Christian since 50% of Americans claim this label (of course, there is also talk about Obama picking another woman and/or another racial minority).

The role of one's religion (or lack thereof) in decided Supreme Court cases seems obvious to me. If one's religion means anything at all, it must affect more than simply how one prays, reads the Bible or sings worship songs. One does not simply check one's religion at the door of the sanctuary. Indeed, a true faith animates everything one does, from what one eats to who one loves to how one rules. Scalia's claim seems absurd. I assume it comes, ironically, from an understanding of faith and "vocation" that Martin Luther (the original Protestant) made famous: two-realms dualism. For Luther, radical teachings of Jesus like the Sermon on the Mount (i.e., love your enemies, do not commit adultery or lust, do not kill, do not pile up treasures on earth) were intended to be obeyed by the professional Christians (monks, priests), but not the rest of us.

Instead, Luther proposed that the Sermon on the Mount (and other biblical teachings) was about inner attitudes, not actions. It was a split that has greatly affected Western Civilization and has given powerful men, like Scalia, the opportunity to continue the great church-state divide between a "spiritual life" and the rest of life. This is what Stassen and Gushee calls "the tradition of evasion." Since Luther, the radical vision of "the kingdom of God" inaugurated in Jesus the messiah (in the Christian tradition), unfortunately, has rarely pertained to politics, economics, marriages and social conventions. This is a gigantic reason why the poor do not consistently get fed, educated, housed or medically treated like the rest of us in a "Christian" society like the US. It is why Christian divorce is rampant and why systemic racism continues in the US (have you seen the statistics on how African-Americans still suffer discrimination in the realms of death sentencing, bank loans and job hiring). In 20th century American history, it is precisely how Bull Connor, the Protestant police chief of Birmingham, could attend church on Sunday and then, on Monday, militantly combat Civil Rights marchers with fire hoses and attack dogs. When all the focus is on the attitude of my heart, then any emphasis on actually performing the Script is shelved.

In the end, I believe that faith as a label does not tell us much about Justices or anyone else for that matter. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are Protestants...so was Adolf Hitler. What does matter, however, is the kind of lens through which that brand of faith is viewed. EasyYolk envisions a kind of political-economic movement where Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Anabaptists, Muslims and Atheists come together under a "progressive" framework that places a priority on being in solidarity with those traditionally and consistently marginalized in our world: the weak, downtrodden, poor, oppressed and vulnerable. These groups can be energized by a progressive movement that views society's powerful, wealthy and famous as ones to be constructively and consistently criticized (a systemic approach to justice that still takes personal responsibility of everyone into account).

On a personal note, my own progressive Anabaptist brand of Christianity infects every aspect of my life. When Jesus preaches "peace," he was not referring to a warm feeling in one's heart concerning eternal salvation. He charged his disciples to love and pray for their enemies. This kind of peace deeply (and imperfectly) affects my foreign policy stances and my strained relationships in my family and workplace.

Justice Scalia can claim "objectivity" by proposing that his Catholic heritage never touches his judicial considerations, but the real reason that he can boast about being both Catholic and pro-death-penalty is because, quite simply, he places a priority on order and redemptive violence rather than on how capital punishment is implemented unjustly on the basis of race and class. And, take it from one who has just recently come to understand the powerful effects of unexamined white privilege, when one is both white and wealthy like Scalia, that's usually how the world is perceived.

--Theological Autopilot

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