Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Some of my friends may now think I am the enemy. I have heard from them, and I am now to understand that the causes to which I am committed are viewed as Marxist. What causes are those, you ask? Apparently it’s any cause that smacks of “social justice.” If I am an enemy, I sure hope my friends will love me like Jesus instructed in Matthew 5:43-48!
Fortunately, saying that social justice is Marxism doesn’t make it so.
On the other hand, it does give evidence of a somewhat naive view of Marxism.
The part I really like is where my advocacy for health care reform in a capitalist economy where health care is controlled by the health insurance industry puts me in league with Marxists of all historic stripes. It is easy to dismiss me as a Marxist or pro-big government or subversive of our free-market economy when I say that I believe everyone in this country deserves to have access to quality affordable health care.
First of all, unlike Marx, I do not view human history as the history of class struggle. Second, I do not believe that all aspects of human society have their epicenter in the relations of production and labor. Third, as far as I can remember, I have never said or written anything that could remotely suggest that I am opposed to ownership of private property or desire public or government ownership of the means of production. Fourth, though I was a bit radical in the 60s and 70s, I have not advocated for a revolutionary overthrow of our government and the dismantling of our political economy. And fifth, I have a firm and abiding belief in the love and grace of God, our Creator and Redeemer, whose interest in justice for the poor and marginalized is pronounced over and over again in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
But I have learned some things in the public debate on health care reform. Actually, I think I already knew them, but the continuing abusive denunciations and dismissive characterizations by political opponents from all sides only confirmed them. There has been no excess of civility in these harangues, and I am coming to believe that political discourse in our society will forever be oppositional and simplistic.
While I think it is a complete misreading of philosophy and history to label as “Marxist” the advocacy of social justice in our country, I do understand that those who make this charge have simply chosen to frame the issue in terms of their stereotypical and truncated view of Marxism. There is a certain kind of (il)logic here, and while I can’t put all the pieces together, a certain picture does emerge.
In order to demonize your political opponent, the one who thinks differently than you and who advocates for a different policy position than you, it is important, first, to establish that your opponent is deviant. This can be done simply by labeling your opponent’s view with a term that in the public consciousness is regarded as deviant, negative, dreaded, and frightening—like “Marxist.”
Second, you have to establish that your opponent has taken a position that is wide of the field of generally accepted viewpoints. To accomplish this, it is necessary to appeal to analogies or metaphors that will convey in concise form to others the perceived essence of your opponent’s view, but in your terms, not your opponent’s terms. So, for example, the call for reform of fiscal policy affecting the wealthy is “stealing” or “robbing” or “seizing” the rightful property of someone (a view, I might add, I have never heard to describe the taxation of the poor). Or, as another example, the idea that greater regulation of the financial industry amounts to wanting “big government” or a “government take-over” will work because (a) government is construed primarily or exclusively in negative terms, and (b) hardly anyone wants more of something negative mucking around in their lives (but we want safe and well-paved streets and secure airports and a military second to none).
It’s all in how you frame the issue. I just happen to choose to frame the issue of health care and income supports and public education in terms of the pursuit of “social justice” in order to achieve a greater level of equality and fairness for all in our society. That’s my frame, and I’m sticking to it. My frame draws some bits and pieces from the sociology of advanced agrarian societies (social structure and distribution of wealth in ancient societies) and some cultural anthropology (meanings and significance of social practices, symbols, rituals, etc.). It also draws from the history of Christian faith, biblical scholarship, and theological construction.
My frame of social justice puts me in company not with Karl Marx, but with such Christian luminaries as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, two early twentieth-century activists in the social gospel movement. This movement was centered in churches and took as its cause the alleviation of poverty and the conditions that contribute to its intransigence. I’m more akin to Reinhold Niebuhr who argued that addressing the fact of human sinfulness (greed, pride, immorality) was insufficient if attention was not also drawn to the social conditions that make such sinful expressions plausible and acceptable in human society. Tragically, the historic voices of these theologians and pastors are muted by the rancorous rhetoric of those who would have us believe that the inspiration for social justice is Karl Marx rather than the Law of Moses, or the prophets of Israel, or Jesus of Nazareth, or even the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Perhaps more than anyone else, the one political thinker who influenced the Founders of this country the most was the eighteenth-century English philosopher John Locke. In his book, Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that absolute and unlimited property rights were contrary to natural law and that an individual does not have an absolute right to use and dispose of one’s property as one sees fit. He declared:
But we know God hath not left one Man so to the Mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a Property, in his peculiar Portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot justly be denyed [sic] him, when his pressing Wants call for it. And therefore no Man could ever have a just Power over the Life of another, by Right of property in Land or Possessions; since ‘twould always be a Sin in any Man of Estate, to let his Brother perish for want of affording him Relief out his Plenty. As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, and that fair Acquisitions of his Ancestors descended to him; so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as will keep him from extream [sic] want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise; and a Man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his Vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his Brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his Obedience, and with a Dagger at his Throat offer him Death or Slavery (1.IV.42).
Thomas Jefferson, himself a person of no small intellect, argued as Locke that a certain natural law had been crafted into the structure of creation by the Creator, instilling both a common and a moral sense of interest in the welfare of others. In a letter to Miles King in 1814, Jefferson stated, “God... has formed us moral agents... that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own” (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition 14:197).
Jefferson did not believe this moral agency was restricted to individuals alone. Indeed, in a letter to George Hammond in 1792, he declared, “A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society” (Writings, ME 16:263). In similar vein, in his second inaugural address he stated, “We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties” (Writings, ME 3:375).
Concerned as he was about protecting individual liberty and the rights provided by the Creator and protected by civil government, Jefferson was equally concerned that those who enjoy those rights not restrain or obstruct them in their fellow citizens. In a letter to Francis Gilmer in 1816, he declared, “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him” (Writings, ME 15:24).
The debate about the role of civil government in assuring and maintaining fairness and equality is a legitimate debate. And so is the debate about individual responsibility and social-structural inequality. Jefferson reminds us that limiting these debates to the terms of personal liberty and individual moral agency truncates the issues and serves no good purpose. Individual agency must be correlated with social-structural agency, and ultimately—in the public and political arena—with national agency. Jefferson also reminds us that there are occasions when these moral agencies conflict, as when individuals and social systems denigrate, dismiss or deny the inalienable rights of others. It is at this point that civil government has the right—no, the obligation—to intervene. This Jefferson called the moral duty of the nation. We call it social justice.
At some point, in the face of suffering, debates about the role of government and personal rights must give way to compassion and justice that moves us out of our inactivity as passive bystanders. Doing nothing in the face of injustice or absolving ourselves of moral agency is tantamount to acquiescence to injustice and, worse, identification with its perpetrators. Social justice, oriented either by religious conviction, natural law, or humanism, is a commitment to identify with those whose lives are diminished by the moral offenses of individuals and social-structural forces enlivened by individual moral agency.
It’s all in how you frame the issue. If a political, economic, philosophical or theological position is composed of a coherent and interrelated set of ideas and convictions, it is ludicrous to dismiss the position simply because one or more of its ideas or convictions is also embraced by an alternative position, particularly one that has been largely discredited. Attributing social justice to Marxism is nothing more than simplism. It is nothing more than an attempt to discredit the rationality of a view by linking the position or a person who holds it with one more broadly rejected as deviant in the public mind. The logic is syllogistic but flawed: Marxism sides with the oppressed; social justice sides with the oppressed; ergo social justice is Marxist. It’s like this argument: KKK members are bigots; Henry is a bigot; ergo, Henry is a KKK member.
I frame the issue differently. Our nation was founded on the principles of equality and fairness, freedom and responsibility. No one has a greater right to property and wealth, opportunity and achievement than anyone else. But each and every one of us as moral agents has the obligation neither to restrain nor obstruct the rights of others (negative), and to seek and promote those social and economic conditions that maximize the possibility of the flourishing of all (positive).
If I am the enemy and my Christian views on social justice are reprehensible because they are viewed as Marxist, then I sure hope my friends take note of what Jesus said in Luke 6:27-36!