Thursday, February 18, 2010

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

I always find it amazing how we conflate words, especially words that are important. For example, we conflate infinite and aeternal (i.e., eternal). Both words have negative prefixes (i.e., in and ae), but finitude has to do with space and aeternity with time. When we discuss the divine nature we say God is infinite and aeternal, that is, God is not bounded by space nor limited by time. A little closer to my point, we also conflate repent and guilt, as well as guilt and contrition. On my view, which arises from my experience, guilt is what leads me to contrition, which means being truly sorry for my sins. In this way, true contrition leads to true repentance. On Monday I quoted the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who sums this up well: "To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently." So, while contrition is necessary for repentance it is not sufficient in of itself. What allows us to move through guilt to contrition and ultimately to repentance, to perceiving things in a new way, is mercy. God's mercy, as Brit Hume recently, controversally, and correctly pointed out, much to the chagrin and even embarassment of some of his colleagues in the news media, is Jesus Christ.

This brings me finally to the conflation that concerns me this morning, the conflation of justice and equality. As Bishop N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England and a leading scholar of the New Testament and the early church, pointed out last summer in an article for The Times of London, in which he addresses a vexing issue that gives rise to a lot of confusion precisely because of the frequent failure to make important distinctions when we address it, "the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls...never means 'treating everybody the same way', but 'treating people appropriately', which involves making distinctions between different people and situations." It strikes me that our unwillingness and increasing inability to make important, if sometimes detailed, distinctions between different people and situations is the pressure point at which we try to jam these two words together. Stated simply, justice and equality are not the same, there is no identity.

The Holy Father makes much the same point as Bishop Wright in his Lenten message this year, in which he takes as his starting point Romans 3:21-22: "The justice of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ." He begins his message with a reflection on the fundamental meaning of justice and by quoting one Ulpian, an ancient Roman jurist, to the effect that justice is "to render every man his due."

Our Lenten disciplines of intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are time tested means of growing in our love of God and neighbor, whom we are to love without distinction, which is very difficult. Nonetheless, what it means for me to love one person concretely looks different from what it means for me to love another person. A major factor that determines this is my relationship with that person. It is not unjust for me to recognize that I have more responsibility towards wife than I do to any other woman, even my mother, or to my children than to other young people, etc. Above all, I am incapable of being perfectly just because I am limited. For example, I am neither infinite nor aeternal. So, with the psalmist, I pray: "Do not call your servant to judgment for no one is just in your sight" (Psalm 143:2).

Mercy is what brings justice and equality into conversation. God is merciful. In Christ, God gives us Divine Mercy. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, the Holy Father pointed out that "[g]race does not cancel out justice" (par. 44). Mercy is certainly a grace, the greatest of all the many graces, that is, gifts our good and loving God showers on us. Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict explains this dynamic very plainly:

"God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).

This is not to assert that evildoers cannot and will not sit at that table, they can and will because Jesus Christ is our invitation to the heavenly banquet. The Holy Father's observation prescinds, I believe, from just this point. In the end, we all want the same thing: happiness, fulfillment, completion. Heaven is all of that and more. Even though it is what we are made for, let's be honest, heaven is not our due. At the end of the opening paragraph of his Lenten message, Pope Benedict asks a question posed by St. Augustine long ago: What is our due when we desert God? It is a rhetorical question which merits a one word answer: hell. But condemning us is inconsistent even with God's justice because God made us, we did not make ourselves (this is an observation that requires some explanation). God's justice requires that He take pity on our nothingness. The giving of His only begotten Son is proof positive both that God loves us, not mention how much, and that God is just. "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).

Before we protest that we would never desert God, let's be mindful that deserting God is a very succinct definition of sin. In other words, we would and we do desert God. Another, more traditional, way of defining sin is preferring something, some activity, even some person to God. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

A deep diaconal bow to KRad for today's title, which I adopt as my Lenten focal point this year.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis


  1. It always happens that the right thing comes along at the right time ... so your post is very helpful at this particular moment, and particularly about giving each one what is their due. It would make so many situations more clear. Thank you.

  2. Scott:

    I read your piece a few hours ago, but wanted to think about it a bit before I posted. You have put the difference between justice and equality in unprecedented clarity (pun intended for clairity) for me. I mean, it only makes sense. Is it just if we treat a two year the same as a five year old? Of course not, but those who argue that there can be no justice without equality would be COMPELLED to say that yes, the two year old should be treated equally with the five year old. This, of course, would be unjust to both children. It would impose an unjust hardship on the younger and the older loses out on the lesson of justice.