Monday, June 28, 2010

Justice and human rights (Wolterstorff)

I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Here is an excerpt from pages 4-5.

Rights are normative social relationships; sociality is built into the es­sence of rights. A right is a right with regard to someone. In the limiting case, that "someone" is oneself; one is other to oneself. Usually, the other is somebody else than oneself. Rights are toward the other, with regard to the other. Rights are normative bonds between oneself and the other. And for the most part, those normative bonds of oneself to the other are not generated by any exercise of will on one's part. The bond is there already, antecedent to one's will, binding oneself and the other together. The other comes into my presence already standing in this normative bond to me.

This normative bond is in the form of the other bearing a legitimate claim on me as to how I treat her, a legitimate claim to my doing certain things to her and refraining from doing other things. If I fail to do the former things, I violate the bond; if I do not refrain from doing the latter things, I also violate the bond. I do not break the normative bond; that still holds. She continues to have that legitimate claim on me as to how I treat her.

The legitimate claim against me by the other is a claim to my enhancing her well-being in certain ways. The action or inaction on my part to which the other has a right against me is an action or inaction that would be a good in her life. A common apothegm in present-day political liberalism is that "the right has priority over the good." In the order of concepts, it is the other way around: the good is prior to the right. One's rights are rights to goods in one's life. The converse does not hold: there are many things that are or would be goods in one's life to which one does not have a right. I think it would be a great good in my life if I had a Rembrandt painting hanging in my living room. Sad to say, I do not have a right to that good. It is because the good is conceptually prior to the right that the second part of my discussion is devoted to the goods to which we have rights, and the third part to having a right to some good.

I will argue that it is on account of her worth that the other comes into my presence bearing legitimate claims against me as to how I treat her. The rights of the other against me are actions and restraints from action that due respect for her worth requires of me. To fail to treat her as she has a right to my treating her is to demean her, to treat her as if she had less worth than she does. To spy on her for prurient reasons, to insult her, to torture her, to bad-mouth her, is to demean her.

And to demean her is to wrong her. If I fail to treat her in the way she has a right to my treating her, I am guilty; but she is wronged. My moral condition is that of being guilty; her moral condition is that of having been wronged.

Lastly, rights are boundary-markers for our pursuit of life-goods. I am never to enhance the good in someone's life, my own or another's, or that of many others, at the cost of wronging someone or other, depriving her of that to which she has a right. I am never to pursue life-goods at the cost of demeaning someone. Rights have been described, and cor­rectly so, in my judgment, as trumps. It may be that a wide range of life-goods can be achieved by pursuing some course of action; but if in pursu­ing that course of action one deprives someone of some good to which they have a right, thereby wronging them, one is not to do that. That good trumps the other goods.

The language of rights is for talking about these matters. It is for talk­ing about these normative social bonds. It is for talking about the fact that sometimes by not enhancing the well-being of the other I fail to give her due respect. It is for talking about that curious and sometimes perplexing interaction, within the realm of the good, between the worth of the other person and the worth of goods in the life of the other.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Some recent reflections

Some reflections I had recently:

All too often we think that the Bible is there to help us work out what is sinful, who has sinned, and how "I" can have "my" sins forgiven. Why not read the Bible in light of what Christ has done to forgive sinners and embrace the outcasts, and how he wants us to embrace "others"?

Ultimately everything Jesus did was based on his unfailing love for humankind. But to love us he had to suffer and die for sinful humans like you and me. Yet that's the best way to live as truly human, and that's the way of life we are called to model after.

Three powerful words in 1 Cor 1:9 - "God is faithful" ("pistos ho theos")

We see the worst of fallen humanity when there is anger, enmities, hatred and conflicts within a community. We see the best of God's renewed humanity when Christ-followers learn to love, embrace one another, persevere, and trust in God's deliverance in times of pain, affliction, conflicts and hostility.

Should the church imitate the world so that people will come to church? Or should the church model after Christ's way of life so that people will be attracted to Jesus himself?

Prayer is no panacea (Heschel)

A friend sent me this quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel (from his book Man's Quest for God). I think it is good.

Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we who grope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us, and what course we should choose.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Self-improvement, dreams, or following Jesus?

I have long been thinking what life is about for Christians. Where is the line between achieving our own dreams and doing God's will? How can we be sure that we are not trying to fulfil our own desires? Are we sure that, as we seek to fulfil our dreams, we do not in the process lose sight of God's kingdom and his purposes for his creation? I think the answer lies in the Cross.

Here is something Tom Wright says in his book, Virtue Reborn (or otherwise called After you believe), page 100.

Jesus's call to follow him, to discover in the present time the habits of life which point forward to the coming kingdom and already, in a measure, share in its life, only makes sense when it is couched the terms made famous by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Come and die". Jesus didn't say, as do some modern evangelists, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." Nor did he say, "I accept you as you are, so you can now happily do whatever comes naturally." He said, "If you want to become my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me" (Mark 8.34). He spoke of losing one's life in order to gain it, as opposed to clinging to it and so losing it He spoke of this in direct relation to himself and his own forthcoming humiliation and death, followed by resurrection and exaltation. Exactly in line with the Beatitudes, he was describing, and inviting his followers to enter, an upside-down world, an inside-out world, a world where all the things people normally assume about human flourishing, including human virtue, are set aside and a new order is established. (Emphasis added)

Jesus would have said, of course, that it's the present world that is upside down and inside out. He was coming to put it the right way up, the right way out. That shift of perception is the challenge of the gospel he preached and lived, and for which he died.

What this means is that the normal standards, even the standards of virtue itself, are challenged at their core. No longer is the good life to be a matter of human beings glimpsing the goal of "happiness" in which they will become complete, and then setting about a program of self-improvement by which they might begin to make that goal a reality. They are summoned to follow a leader whose eventual goal is indeed a world of blessing beyond bounds, but whose immediate goal, the only possible route to that eventual one, is a horrible and shameful death. And the reason for this radical difference is not obscure. It is that Jesus's diagnosis of the problem goes far deeper than that of any ancient Greek philosopher. (Emphasis added)

The 'epistles people' and the 'gospels people' (Tom Wright)

The following quotes are from Tom Wright's new book, Virtue Reborn (or otherwise called After you believe), page 96. In in my interaction with Christian leaders and theological students, I certainly find that people tend to be either an 'epistles person' or a 'gospel person' - ie. their starting point is either Paul's letters, or the four Gospels (Matt, Mark...). Probably they don't know that they are doing that, but that's how their theology works.

Christians, particularly in the Western world, have for a long time been divided between "epistles people" and "gospels people." The "epistles people" have thought of Christianity primarily in terms of Jesus's death and resurrection "saving us from our sins." The "gospels people" have thought primarily in terms of following Jesus in feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and so on. The "epistles people" have often found it difficult to give a clear account of what was going on in Jesus's kingdom-announcement and his call to his followers to be "perfect." The "gospels people"—or perhaps we should say the "beginning-of-the-gospels people," since the line of thought they embrace usually screens out the last few chapters — have often found it difficult to explain why the Jesus who was doing these remarkable things had to die, and die so soon. They have often found it difficult, in consequence, to relate to the central themes of Pauline theology.

This either/or split does no justice, in fact, to either the epistles or the gospels. Still less does it do justice to Jesus himself. For him, the kingdom which he inaugurated could be firmly established only through his death and resurrection.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Christians living in the world - something from Volf

Something really well said by Miroslav Volf.

Christians do not come into their own social world from the outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would). They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders. Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again.

(Cited by Joel Green, 1 Peter [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], page 196-7)

The marginal status of first-century Christians

Another two good quotes from Joel Green's commentary on 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), page 196, 197.

Here Joel Green describes the social setting of 1 Peter, and helps us to understand the marginal status of first-century Christians in Asia Minor - and what it meant to them as they sought to live out the gospel in their daily life.

Status situation is reflected in the style of life expected of those who "belong," the restrictions applied to the "inner group" with respect to social interchange with those within and outside the status circle. Status honor is a register that accounts for wealth, particularly esteeming landed wealth over earned riches, but also other factors, such as family heritage, ethnicity, and gender. In the present case [ie. in the case of the Christians in 1 Peter], the pivotal factor is none of these. Rather, these are people whose commitments to the lordship of Jesus Christ have led to transformed dispositions and behaviors that place them on the margins of respectable society. Their allegiance to Christ has won for them animosity, scorn, and vilification. Their lack of acculturation to prevailing social values marked them as misfits worthy of contempt...

The consequence is that believers, whether male or female, slave or free, rich or poor, eke out their lives on the margins of respectable society. If they were honorable males, they are dishonored. If they were free, they now have all the access to power and privilege of a slave. If they had wealth, it does them little good in the marketplace of prestige and is likely short-lived, since, although the right kind of wealth might buy status in Roman antiquity, carrying the la­bel of an atheist or other socioreligious deviant is an easy ticket to downward mobility, economically speaking.

What does it mean to us who live in the 21st century?