The Chief End of Marriage
Living Justly: One Disconnect at a Time
Costly Forgiveness: The Bomber and Me
What Was the White Rose?
The Bell Ringer
The Church I Dreamed Of
Christianity’s Third Divorce
Finding the Balm in Gilead
Digging Deeper: Issue 2
Heaven in Hell’s Kitchen
Saint Francis, the Artist
Vera Mae Perkins
Readers Respond: Autumn 2014
Family and Friends Issue 2
Birding in the Bush
Composting as Prayer
We’re All Adopted
The Economy of the Early Church
Poem: Little Religion
Insights on Building Justice
Plugging the Hole in Our Gospel
When Love Demands Justice
Plough: Jesus teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, his righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Today “justice” has become a buzzword in Christianity and beyond. What does Jesus’ justice look like?
Professor George: Jesus is heir to the great tradition of the prophets who cried out for justice. But by justice he does not mean something narrow – claiming my rights, or even defending other people’s rights (although the defense of rights is part of justice considered comprehensively). Instead, justice according to Jesus means establishing the kind of interaction and cooperation with others in which we truly love as Jesus loved: we must will the good of the other for his or her own sake.
What are the problems with talking about justice merely in terms of rights?
In our modern, post-enlightenment discourse we sometimes reduce justice to a very individualistic concept of rights. This has caused some critics of what is called “rights talk” to reject the very idea of rights. Such critics claim that speaking of “rights” amounts to capitulating to the modern cult of the imperial self, and thus encouraging selfishness, self-regard, and self-interest in a sense so narrow that it is incompatible with Christian faith.
But when Jesus and the prophets speak about justice, they are not speaking of a narrowly individualistic rights-based conception of justice. Certainly we must honor the rights of all persons, but we must do far more than that. We must seek to establish a community in which all members can flourish. The goal is the flourishing of each human person in all the diverse aspects of his or her personality and being, including the social, moral, and spiritual.
So when we think of justice in Christian terms, we need to make sure we understand justice in far richer ways than it is typically conceived in contemporary political or academic discourse.
You mentioned the prophets. Let’s look at justice through the eyes of prophets like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, who kept hammering away at a few core themes: idolatry, the oppression of the worker, care of the widow and the orphan. What can we learn from them?
Idolatry is always a temptation; it is not something that Judaism wiped out or that Christianity has cured. We will always be tempted to put something else in the place of God, and then (in effect) to worship it. That need not mean bowing down before a golden calf or a painted totem pole, which nowadays we can avoid easily enough. But do we worship money? Do we worship power, comfort, status, prestige? All of these things, which are not bad in themselves, become soul-imperiling when they are put in the place of God.
No matter how good the goal is – fighting poverty, protecting the environment, even defending people’s fundamental human rights – if approached in the wrong way it can become idolatry. We have to worry not only about the temptation to do bad things, but also the temptation to do good things for bad reasons or in bad ways. A bad way is one that is not in line with the will of God and the dignity of human persons as creatures made in the divine image and likeness.
Jesus made a remarkable observation about the prophets in speaking of his cousin John the Baptist. He asked his listeners: “When you went out into the desert to see John the Baptist, who did you go to see? A prophet?” Then he told them: “I tell you, he is a prophet and more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:7–9). Here’s the point: John was not a political figure; he was not someone working to establish a more just regime of economic or political relations. Instead, he called everyone to repentance: to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. What’s more, he had a very concrete understanding of what sin is. We know this from the circumstances of his martyrdom. John, whom Jesus singles out as the greatest of all prophets, was killed because he railed against the illicit marriage of Herod. He protested the corruption of the institution of marriage by a political leader whose job was to serve the common good.
It would have been very easy and very safe for this great “prophet and more than a prophet” to keep his mouth shut about the king’s private life. Yet John would not censor himself on the subject of sin. Because he understood the importance of the institution of marriage to the flourishing of human beings, and thus to the common good and to the very concept of justice, he fearlessly spoke out. His witness cost him his life.
Why Marriage Matters
You are one of the leading defenders of the traditional understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman for life. Why does marriage matter to the pursuit of justice?
If social justice is ultimately about the integral flourishing of human beings in society, then what could be more fundamental to justice than marriage? Marriage is the original and best department of health, education, and welfare. It plays an indispensable role in providing children with the structure, nurturing, and education that enables them both to flourish and to contribute to the flourishing of others. It enables them to become people who will respect themselves and respect others, and will order their own lives according to virtues like honesty, integrity, conscientiousness, the willingness to work hard, to defer gratification, and to respect the property and lives of others.
All these virtues are indispensable in any society, since its legal, political, and economic institutions depend on them. But these virtues aren’t produced by legal, political, or economic institutions: they are produced by the family, which in turn is based on the marital covenant between husband and wife. When that is compromised – when the marriage culture begins to erode and then collapse in a community – the consequences are easy to see.
In this late season of our time on this planet, we have had enough experience with family breakdown, failure of family formation, sexual anarchy, and out-of-wedlock childbearing to know who the victims are. The victims are children – children who in such circumstances are often doomed to a life of delinquency, despair, drug abuse, criminality, violence, and incarceration in a vicious cycle. It’s for their sake that we care about marriage as a public good.
I’m sometimes asked by colleagues: Even if you are right about marriage, why do you spend so much of your time on a “moral issue,” as they put it? Why don’t you concentrate on a real issue of social justice, such as fighting poverty? And I say to my friends: You really don’t get it! Marriage is the greatest anti-poverty program that was ever created. In fact, it is so effective at enabling people to live in dignity and avoiding the collapse into poverty that one would almost be tempted to think that it is no mere human creation.
Are you saying that restoring the marriage culture will solve all social ills?
No, it’s not going to be a panacea. It has got to be a part – a critical, even central part – of a larger effort at social reconstruction. People need jobs. Getting married is great, rebuilding the marriage culture is great, but fathers in particular need to have jobs. In so many cases today, men in impoverished areas cannot find work. So there is an important economic component to the problem as well. We must not fail to recognize that. But once you get the thing going properly, you will find there is a virtuous cycle: by rebuilding the marriage culture, you improve the culture of education, and thus people become more employable, which attracts employers to a community. Everything needs to be working together in the same direction. It works the opposite way too, of course: when marriage breaks down, the virtuous cycle turns into a vicious one. So we really do need to spare no effort in rebuilding the marriage culture.
Preach What You Practice
There are people who may agree with you, yet still object that absent a miracle, it may be too late to save the institution of marriage. How do you respond?
First of all, I believe in miracles. So our first obligation, I think, is to pray. We know there are real victims of the collapse of the marriage culture. For the sake of those victims we should be on our knees before God, asking for his blessing, never supposing that he is unable to help, while offering ourselves to be his instruments in rebuilding a vibrant marriage culture. The collapse was swift, and it’s always a lot easier to tear down than to build up. I still believe it is not inevitable (as some say it is) that the next three to six generations will grow up without a healthy culture of marriage. With God’s help, we can rebuild it.
Second, we need to model strong marriages in our own lives, and we need communities that will put a premium on nurturing marriage and enabling people to be good role models of what it means to be a husband, a wife, a father, a mother.
Third, we need to not only practice what we preach – we also need to preach.
That’s not advice that Christians often hear.
Preaching is not popular. People say, “I don’t want to sound preachy or condemn other people; I don’t want to impose my values on others.” Well, the prophets did not worry too much about that. When they saw that justice was in the balance they were willing to say what was on their minds.
We need to do the same. We need to go forth making the argument that marriage is the institution that brings together man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union, conferring on those children the inestimable blessing of being brought up in the loving, committed, covenantal bond of the mother and father whose union gave them life.
Paying the Price
You made those arguments in your 2012 book What Is Marriage?. In the two years since you and your co-authors wrote it, the very things your book sought to defend have taken a beating: the US Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, numerous states have redefined marriage to include same-sex relationships, and we’ve witnessed a procession of church leaders “evolving on marriage,” just as President Obama has. Are you discouraged?
As a West Virginia–born banjo player, I am a great lover of the traditional music of the mountains. One of my favorite songs comes from the Carter Family, who were among the first bands to record mountain music back in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s a hymn called “Hold Fast to the Right,” and the chorus summarizes my messages to all Christians and all men and women of goodwill:
Hold fast to the right, hold fast to the right,
Wherever your footsteps may roam.
Forsake not the way of salvation, my boy,
That you learned from your mother at home.
We must hold fast to the right, however much others might “evolve.” Marriage is a natural reality, testified to not only by the Bible in Genesis 2, but also by many great philosophical thinkers outside the Christian tradition: Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Musonius Rufus, and Plutarch, all the way up through modern figures like Gandhi. We don’t need to reinvent marriage; what we need to do is hold fast to the right.
Now, the problem is, of course, there are countless temptations today to deviate from the truth or to give up. You will be subjected to intimidation, your career might be jeopardized, your social standing in the community might be placed in peril, you may lose opportunities for honors and recognitions. We live at a time when witnessing to the truth about marriage comes at a price, though to be sure, not the price John the Baptist paid. Still, to lose a friend, to experience family discord, or to be branded as a bigot or homophobe is no fun.
You’ve been no stranger to such painful experiences. Who do you take inspiration from?
Well, certainly from Pope Francis. Recently I had the opportunity to meet Pastor Arnold of the Bruderhof communities after having read his wonderful book Sex, God, and Marriage. No one can be in the presence of such a man without being inspired; he is one of my new heroes. And I see wonderful young people out there who are doing bold and brilliant work, for instance my young co-authors Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, and other former students such as Melissa Moschella and Micah Watson. In the Southern Baptist community, there’s Russell Moore, and in the Jewish community I take great inspiration from Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who is another of my former students. And of course, there are great intellectual heroes such as Mary Ann Glendon, Hadley Arkes, Leon Kass, Gilbert Meilaender, and rabbis David Novak and Jonathan Sacks. I could go on, but I have been blessed with so many role models and heroes old and young, Protestant and Catholic, Christian and Jewish. I am one blessed guy.
On Truth and Humility
You have surprised people by your friendship with Cornel West, the famous Afro-American Studies scholar and talk-show host who often takes positions radically opposed to yours, including on marriage, affirmative action, criminal justice, foreign policy in the Middle East, and a host of other hotly contested issues.
There is no bond between two people more powerful, in my opinion, than a shared love of truth. That will include the desire to be corrected when one is in error. My vocation as a scholar and as a Christian is to get at the truth. That means I need to avoid falling so deeply in love with my own opinions that I prefer holding them, even when they are erroneous, to being corrected. Cornel West sees his vocation in exactly the same way. I love my dear brother Cornel because he is a lover of truth. Yes, we have important differences of opinion, but they are relativized because of this shared love of the truth. Ours is really a cooperative venture in pursuit of a common good: “West and George, Partners. Business: Truth-Seeking.” So when we engage each other, we know that neither of us is seeking victory – something only one party in a contest can acquire. Rather, both of us are seeking truth – a common good that interlocutors can share.
Christians have a special kind of relationship to the truth, because Jesus told us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” No matter what domain we seek truth in, at the end of the day we are seeking Christ. That is why we should always be open to fraternal correction.
Openness to being corrected isn’t a habit that’s often associated with the fight over marriage.
It is tough to be both passionate for justice and righteousness, yet also detached enough to be willing to entertain criticism, knowing it’s just possible that one might be wrong. But we have to do that; we need to keep an open mind.
I have made something of a career out of criticizing the thought of the great nineteenth-century liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, especially his 1859 essay On Liberty. Yet right in the middle of that essay, in the chapter “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” Mill makes a compelling point. He shows, in effect, that all of us need to earn the right to have our opinions, and we do that by considering very carefully, sympathetically, and in the best possible light what reasonable people who disagree with us have to say.
Now when I say “earn the right to an opinion,” I certainly do not mean earn the right to freedom from government interference with the expression of one’s views. What I do mean is that if you don’t understand why some reasonable people of goodwill disagree with you, then you don’t really grasp the basis of your own view, you don’t have a grip on the reasons for holding it. You are a mere ideologue. That’s why the kind of open-mindedness Mill calls for – in other words, the virtue of intellectual humility – is critically important.
Renewing the Church
Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality has never been so much at odds with the wider culture since the first few centuries of Christianity, when Christians were a minority in the pagan Roman Empire. In what ways can the early church serve as a model to us?
Here I face a particular challenge, and I am in no position to preach to others. The model of the early church is one of living with simplicity not for the sake of simplicity itself, but for the sake of the gospel, so that no worldly things impede one’s devotion to Christ. And that is something I find very hard. I am not good at it. Yet that is the model the early church gives us. I have enormous admiration for those who seek to live in this way, whether within monastic communities or communities such as the Bruderhof, or simply as lay people striving to live simply.
Your effort in the Bruderhof community to live the gospel on the model of the early Christians is certainly great for your own growth in faith, but I hope you understand that it is not simply for your own spiritual benefit. It is for all of us, even those of us who lead very different lives. We receive an enormous benefit from your example of discipleship, simplicity, and generosity, and from your willingness to live out both the teachings of the Ten Commandments and the virtues of the Sermon on the Mount. Even more importantly, we on the outside benefit from your prayers. I encourage you with all my heart to remain faithful to this vocation. I repeat, it’s not for your own benefit, but for the sake of other Christians and the whole world.
In the Catholic Church, we now have Pope Francis who models his own personal life on the example of the Christians in the early church, carrying his own bags, living in humble abodes, avoiding the grand trappings of the monarchical papacy. He is a great example not only for those of us who are Catholic but really for all Christians and for all people.
Why have Christians been so ineffectual in offering a living alternative to the materialistic and hedonistic culture around us? How does the church need to change?
The church should not be soft-spirited, any more than we should imagine that God is soft-spirited. The church should be willing to speak truth, including to her own people. How many clergy do not want to offend their congregants, and so pass over in silence many of the moral demands of the Christian faith! They fail to speak up to defend the lives of innocent unborn children or the institution of marriage. They fear that people will be offended by a priest or minister preaching the whole gospel.
If we are going to speak truth to power, which we need to do, let’s start by speaking truth to our own Christian people. Clergy need to speak truth to their congregations, and all church members need to speak truth to one another.
“Well no,” people may say, “I don’t want to bring up controversial issues; it will bring division in the church.” They’ll even misuse the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.…” Or they will misappropriate, “Judge not lest you be judged.” But here we must remember another word of Jesus: “I did not come to bring peace but the sword.” Sometimes division is the price that must be paid for speaking the truth. Let’s recall again the man whom Jesus praised above all others: John the Baptist. Do you think John the Baptist worried for even three seconds that he was being divisive in his preaching? We need to follow his example.
Interview by Peter Mommsen on June 25, 2014.