MLK, Social Justice, and Saving Lives

In the civil realm of American society, Martin Luther King Jr. is certainly an important person to remember. He had a positive influence upon our country and the mindset of its citizens. It’s good for us all to recognize this. If I have been irritated that some Lutherans know more about MLK Jr. (because of the emphasis at school) than they know about Martin Luther, his prototypical namesake, that irritation does not diminish my respect for the good that MLK Jr. accomplished for our country and this civil society, despite his theological weaknesses.

Rev. Paul McCain posted a nice little summary about the significance of MLK Jr. on his blog. I agree with what he says there, but I’d like to point out a niggling problem in the way some have described the Civil Rights Movement. It’s become somewhat common to describe its cause as “social justice.” I deny that emphatically, because that term is a lie. It’s an attempt to dress up what we would otherwise call “injustice” as its opposite, and pollute the ideal of civil society with unjust discrimination founded upon race- or behavior-based classifications of people.

MLK Jr. was not a crusader for social justice, but simply for justice. Is it not a plain injustice to segregate a society arbitrarily based upon the pigmentation of our skin, or any arbitrary physical characteristic? Does not the evil of racism manifest itself in straight-out injustice? Is it not the human sense of justice that is violated when perpetrators of violence and murder are allowed to go unpunished on the basis of their skin-color, social standing, wealth, religion, or any other difference between human beings? Attempting to narrow our concept of justice to describe the importance the Civil Rights Movement may sound articulate, but it subverts our understanding of justice itself, and therefore actually robs men like MLK Jr. of their true importance.

If we were to admit the concept of “social justice” as a valid virtue of civil society, we would eventually find ourselves accepting arbitrary preferences in both law enforcement and in the courtroom. “The defendant has certainly robbed, raped, and killed his fellow citizens, including killing a law enforcement officer, but on account of his underprivileged upbringing, and because of his skin color, and even because some of his ancestors were deprived of their human dignity as slaves, this court finds that the circumstances mitigate his guilt in these matters. He is hereby recommended for one year of vocational counseling, and the arresting officers for one year of sensitivity training.” That would be an extreme example of “social justice,” showing that it’s really injustice behind a mask.

The ideal of justice being blind should remain our society’s ideal. She knows nothing of rich or poor, male or female, black or white, Christian or Jew, Catholic or Protestant. She knows only the law, and judges on the basis of our actions under the law. She doesn’t care what we think or believe, because she is is not God. She doesn’t care what we say (with certain exceptions, like “fire” in a crowded theater), because we have freedom of speech. She only cares whether we break the law. Also for this reason, the concept of “hate crimes” is unjust, wrong-headed, and tyrannical. If the deed was a crime, then justice already demands that the doer must be judged guilty. When we add or subtract to plain justice, we foster injustice.

So much for that. The other thing I’ve heard about recently is this justification for eliminating the law-abiding citizens’ right to be armed: “If it only saves the life of one person, it would be worth the loss of freedom for the rest.” This argument is also deceptive, and not limited the subject of arms control. The same argument is often applied to justify the loss of many other kinds of freedom. Allow me to point out that eventual death is certain for us all, but freedom is not. Besides that, I can easily use that argument against the gun-control advocate who makes it by pointing out that weapons carried by law-abiding citizens save lives daily. Therefore, to deprive those citizens of their freedom is to turn the tables and cause a daily loss of life. Who would want that on his conscience? If we err in the civil realm, it should be on the side of freedom and the protection of human life (and of private property, but that’s another blog post).

Hamilton Visit

Here are some pictures from the last long-distance visit we enjoyed here in Oregon. I was looking for one with the Abrahamsons too, but the best one I have includes underwear. I won’t say whose. I may yet find a better one from another time.

The Hamiltons at the Jacobsens'
The Hamiltons visiting in 2010
Hamiltons, Jacobsen, inflatable canoe
Hamiltons and Jacobsens and inflatable canoe

Thanks for coming out to visit. This is a bit late, but I hope you all had a good time. We should go camping together again.

Theological Issues

What does it mean to call something “theological?” What does it mean to call it “doctrinal?” I’ll give a short answer below, and in good post-modern fashion, you can feel free to give yours in a comment.

People in the church are like everyone else. We compartmentalize our lives and we make distinctions between words and ideas. Sometimes these behaviors are part of the same action. In the Church, we make a somewhat artificial distinction between clergy and laity. It’s artificial because we’re all just people. It’s somewhat artificial because there are real differences between vocations. God brings men and women together in marriage. He makes us fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. He sets rulers on their thrones and gives free citizens their responsibilities. Besides all of that, He chooses and sends His ministers to be His instruments for the work of the Gospel.

But which parts of all that are “theological?” Which are “doctrinal?” That depends what we mean by those words. In my book, “theological” comes from two words: “θεος” and “λογικος,” the first meaning “God” and the second something like “of reason” or “of speech.” It’s in the same word family as “λογος,” commonly translated “word,” but also “thought” or even “thing.” So theology is reasoning in words that involves God. You could limit that to a definitive involvement on God’s part, or you could think of it more broadly. That’s what I prefer, because theology is not really the domain of man, but of God Himself. We are His guests here, both physically and cognitively. We were created in His image. Questions about morals and ethics are theological, because they relate to God’s will. Questions about the past can easily be theological, if we recognize that history is God’s work. Questions about the future are certainly in God’s domain. Some questions are merely issues of fact. “Did Neil Armstrong really step onto the moon?” That’s not theological. “What does this mean?” That usually is, on some level.

Does such a broad application of theology limit the contributions of the laity? Some may think that I’m reserving too much here for the exclusive participation of clergy. That’s not my intention at all. On the contrary, theology belongs to God, and is His gift to all mankind. If you are human, then you can think and speak about things relating to God. That doesn’t mean all our thoughts will be right, but rather that we each have a place at the theological table.

“Doctrine” on the other hand is both easier and harder to define. Literally, it simply means “teaching.” However, it implies different things to different people. To some, it means “unreasoned, inflexible, compulsory, formulaic truth claims.” I wish I could psychoanalyze that, because it would probably be entertaining. While some may treat their doctrine that way, I do not. My understanding of doctrine as a concept follows from my understanding of theology. A doctrine is the way we summarize a particular theological proposition or point. So we come up with statements of doctrine, theses of doctrine and we have controversies over doctrine. Yet a singular “doctrine” can also encompass all the teaching of scripture.

It’s been said that doctrine divides. I don’t think that’s the best way to put it. It’s not doctrine in the singular that divides, but doctrines (plural) that divide when they conflict with each other. That’s not a very post-modern thing to say, but it’s true. (There I go again.) This is not a bad thing. If God says “up” and someone on earth says “down,” isn’t it best to notice the difference? Doctrine is an essential part of theology, and doctrines are inevitable, even conflicting ones, in a fallen world. That doesn’t mean we should avoid doctrine altogether, but that we should do our best to pick it out from the impostors.

I’d mentioned the problem we have with compartmentalization. I think that Christians are prone to compartmentalize part of our lives as “doctrinal” or “theological,” while compartmentalizing other parts as not. That’s completely understandable, because we would like to justify our wrong desires and destructive habits. It doesn’t help if we admit that God might have something to say about them. But that kind of mental discipline helps neither the virtue of our theology, nor the well-being of our faith. It’s another reason why I consider it advantageous to keep a wide understanding of theology and a wide applicability of doctrine. That works against our pride, and helps us to remember that God is interested in every part of our lives.

God’s Son was born and lived a complete human life on purpose, so that our lives could be redeemed. The exchange is His whole life for ours. He also suffered and died for every single wrong we have ever done. There’s no distinction between doctrinal sins and non-doctrinal sins. They all required the blood of Jesus, and He shed that blood for them all. Every part of your life now belongs to God, and has a spiritual significance in His sight. It should have a spiritual significance in your sight too, whether you belong to the clergy or to the laity, whether you think your life relates to doctrine or not.