Americans talk a big game about “justice” today, but the sorry truth is that many don’t actually care about justice at all. What is thought to be the solid rock of justice by most contemporary thinkers is really just the fickle sands of sentiment—an all consuming, emotion-driven, foolish, relativizing substitute for justice, truth, and morality.
This is a strong claim, but I’ll prove it to you with the following quote.
“If a small group of men were always regarded as guilty, in any clash with any other group, regardless of the issues or circumstances involved, would you call it persecution? If this group were always made to pay for the sins, errors, or failures of any other group, would you call that persecution? If this group had to live under a silent reign of terror, under special laws, from which all other people were immune, laws which the accused could not grasp or define in advance and which the accuser could interpret in any way he pleased—would you call that persecution? If this group were penalized, not for its faults, but for its virtues, not for its incompetence, but for its ability, not for its failures, but for its achievements, and the greater the achievement, the greater the penalty—would you call that persecution?”
You are likely answering with a hearty “Yes!”—as you should.
But not so fast. We haven’t reached the punchline yet.
If your thinking is in line with cultural trends, then you are currently in the unfortunate position of King David, just before Nathan the prophet brought down the hammer. Brace yourself as you read the rest of the quote:
“If your answer is ‘yes’—then ask yourself what sort of monstrous injustice you are condoning, supporting, or perpetrating. That group is the American businessman.”
When is the last time you heard someone standing up in the public square to defend the rights of businessmen—not based on the dehumanizing pragmatic grounds of “the greater good,” but on the grounds of justice for the businessmen? And if there were such a voice, would it be greeted with applause, or with sneers, by the most influential teachers today?
The reason such a voice does not exist—the reason it is unthinkable that such a voice could be championed within our culture (let alone, in the Church)—is that most people can’t even begin to conceive of justice being an issue when it comes to the rights of businessmen. Why do they need justice?
Justice—we are made to believe—is for the needy, the suffering, the weak. It’s not the type of thing needed by the successful, the ambitious, the strong.
That’s a lie. The strong need justice just as much as the weak do—if not more so, today. But that’s beside the point. Our concern for justice shouldn’t depend on “who needs it.” It shouldn’t depend on needs at all.
The fact that we only care about justice when it comes to those we regard as needy reveals that justice is not our true concern.
The classical understanding of justice is no respecter of persons. It is not concerned with what people need—only with what they are owed by others. Justice is blind to all but that which is relevant to determining what each is owed. Justice is equal weights and measures. It is absolute and universal equality before the law. It is each person receiving precisely what they are due—with no shortage, and no excess.
Justice includes restoring those who suffer—but only when, and to the extent that, they suffer from injustice. Aid to those in need is merely one possible application of justice among many, and it is only an application of justice when the need has been caused by an injustice. To conflate this one possible application of justice with the essence of justice, as such, is a dangerous act of foolishness which ought to shock thoughtful people—especially thoughtful Christians.
Consider the absurdity of this way of thinking when contrasted with God’s attitude toward needy sinners, as expressed in Romans 9:15: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” God’s position amounts to: “I do not necessarily care what you need. My justice will give you precisely what you deserve (which is eternal wrath)—unless I choose to have mercy on you. And no amount of sob stories on your part, whether truthful or not, will change what you justly deserve. Your only hope is my mercy, not my justice.”
Contrary to the delusional fads about justice in our culture today, God’s justice is ferociously meritocratic. Ours ought to be as well.
So, why isn’t it? Why do we despise merit-based justice in our society? Why do we only focus on that one application of justice that is restoring a victim of injustice? Moreover, why do we then proceed to conflate the status of ‘being in need’ with the status of ‘being a victim of injustice’—as if the only possible way someone could be in need is through injustice, and the only instance of injustice in the world is that some people are in need? Is the essence of justice exhausted by the practice of fulfilling needs?
None of this is rational. But that’s why we’ve come to this point as a culture. We’ve traded out rationality for emotionalism; we’ve traded out the goal of making sense for the goal of stirring up sentiment. We are not concerned with the dictates of reason any longer. We now dance to the tune of feelings. It doesn’t matter if we have no argument, so long as we have a sob story. It doesn’t matter if the arguments we claim to have are blatant non-sequiturs, or riddled with strings of other fallacies, so long as the strings of the heart are plucked.
I dare you to look at any hot button issue today and tell me with a straight face that this—this reality-skirting, truth-suppressing, mind-evading, tugging-at-the-heart-strings, sophistry—is not the modus operandi of leading intellectual figures on that topic—both within, and outside of the Church.
Look at the issue of race, for example. We are told that white people cannot be victims of racism because they are part of a “privileged” class. It doesn’t matter how bitterly a white person might be the target of racial slurs, animosity, or even gross injustice based on his skin color. The fact that we can’t illicit a sense of sympathy for him on a wide enough social scale means that he has not been a victim of racism. In fact, if he were to claim he’d been a victim of racism, he would be chastised for his “white fragility.”
Or consider the fact that we are told to place a person’s “lived experience” above any questions of fact. If someone feels that they have been the victim of racism (or sexism, or any other type of “oppression”), then only a mean-spirited bigot (we are told) would ask questions in order to determine whether those feelings are justified and accurate.
Today’s intellectuals consider it a great evil that we would ask such questions—or worse, that we would attempt to provide reasoned and fact-based answers if someone’s emotions are at stake. They have even likened this sin to physical violence and given it a name: “micro-aggression.” If you hurt someone’s feelings, today’s intellectuals count it as morally comparable to doing physical harm.
Though that’s not entirely true. It depends on whose feelings you are hurting. It’s only tantamount to physical violence if you’re hurting the feelings of someone in an oppressed group. If you hurt the feelings of someone in an oppressor group, that person whose feelings were hurt will be mocked for their fragility. What determines whether someone is in an oppressed group or an oppressor group? How do you tell the difference? Oppressed groups are those we feel sorry for, and oppressor groups are those we do not.
The only problem is that there are multiple groups we, as a society, tend to feel sorry for. This means that the oppressed groups must compete to jerk the most tears from the public’s eyes—in what has been aptly named “the oppression olympics”—in order to obtain that privilege of being so “under-privileged” that they will be allowed (even championed!) to utter any epithet, hurl any slur, shamelessly smear any opponent, and advocate for any atrocity—by simply appealing to our culture’s twisted sense of sympathy.
Pity, grounded in nothing but the arbitrary emotions of the masses, has become a blank check used to justify every form of evil—from violence in the streets to violence in the womb; from disordered roles within the Church and the home to disordered sexual desires; from envy-ridden social factions to envy-ridden political policies—with all their advocates parading around in the false moral righteousness of being thought of as “victims.”
The culture—and the Church—are drowning in a sea of sinful sympathy and sensitivity. Truth, justice, reason, and civility are being desecrated in a mass orgy of sob stories and misplaced pity. We have been bewitched by mindless sentiment, and our impending destruction is just—ifwe do not act swiftly to rouse ourselves from this insanity.
Awake, Oh Sleeper
How can we rouse ourselves? How do we correct course? We should acknowledge: In some contexts, sympathy and sensitivity are a sin. Feelings are not the standard of morality. The most touchy-feely, sympathetic, sensitive person in the world can yet lack love, goodness, and righteousness. There are objective moral standards for the way you think about and act on your feelings—even your feelings for other people whom are sorrowful.
What are those objective moral standards which ought to govern our feelings? The first principle: Reason as the absolute standard for cognition and knowledge. Feelings—whether your own, or someone else’s—are not a means of knowledge about the world.
The only knowledge your feelings can give you is that you feel a certain way at a given time about a given subject. In and of themselves, feelings cannot tell you—or anyone else, for that matter—why you feel that way, or what caused you to come to the state of feeling that way. They cannot tell you whether something is good or bad, true or false, just or unjust. And they cannot tell you what the best course of action is—either for yourself, your Church, or all of society.
The second principle: Feelings must follow the truth. Contrary to the caricatures you will likely hear, I am not claiming that feelings do not matter, or that they should play no role in our lives. The question which those caricatures evade is: What do feelings matter for, and what role should they play in our lives? The fact that feelings are not a means of knowledge about the world does not mean that they are therefore devoid of any significance.
Feelings, or emotions, are a way for us to experience and to express our deepest values; and they reveal to us the nature of even our subconscious values. As we learn about the latter, we can find clues even about our most basic subconscious beliefs. Notice though that they can only give you a report of what you (or someone else) values, or of what your evaluation is of a given thing. They cannot tell you what you ought to value, or whether your evaluation is right or wrong. You can have a negative emotion in response to something true or good, and you can have a positive emotion in response to something false or evil. Either instance would be a revelation to yourself that you have disordered desires or values that you will need to work on—with the goal being to respond in proper proportion to the true and the good with positive emotions, and to the false and the evil with negative emotions.
If we are to give feelings their proper function, we must labor to conform our feelings to the facts of reality—including, and especially, the facts about what is good and evil. But since feelings are an automatic reflection and response to what we already believe about reality (especially moral reality, concerning good and evil), the only way to conform our feelings to reality is to first conform our beliefs to reality. Before answering the question, “how should I feelabout x?” we need first to answer the question, “how should I think about x—and x’s relation to good or evil?” The truth of whether or not (and to what extent) “x” is good or evil will determine how you (or others) ought to feel about it.
We should long for ourselves, and for others, that our rich emotional lives would correspond accurately to all of God’s reality; that we would love that which is true, holy, beautiful, and glorious, and that we would loathe that which is false, depraved, distorted, and profane. If this is to be our goal, then we must learn to hold a firm rein on our emotions. But to do that, we need to understand more thoroughly the severe weight of what is at stake.
The Wages of Sentiment
When someone (whether we ourselves, or someone else) attempts to use feelings as an argument, we must count it as a grave and subversive assault—whether consciously or not—against all that is true and good. To substitute feelings for an argument is to treat as a means of knowledge that which is not a means of knowledge, which means that it is an attempt to counterfeit knowledge, and thus to corrupt our only means of grasping what is true. It is the attempt to distort the concept of reality in the mind of one’s victim, in order to be a sort of god to them—determining, by the whim of one’s emotions, what the victim ought to count as reality. And if the victim surrenders from a misplaced (and suicidal) sense of sympathy, he will have given himself over to the deadly principle that reality is whatever others want it to be.
The act of substituting emotions for an argument must be viewed as a vicious and deadly spiritual attack. The extent to which the perpetrator is successful is the extent to which serious spiritual destruction will be the result. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator causes the destruction with full conscious intent, or merely in the “heat of the moment”—anymore than it matters if a gunman is motivated by malicious intent or drug-induced delusions: They must be stopped. After stopping them, relevant issues regarding intent may be examined as we evaluate whether or not (or to what extent) they are worthy of discipline. But when the spiritually lethal weapon of subversive irrationality is being waived around, the first and most urgent need is to neutralize the threat, and then to be sure that everyone knows that no such assault will ever be permitted in our midst; that even if the assault were less than fully intentional, the neglect of one’s own emotional life which precipitated it is still culpable.
We must make it clear—both to ourselves, and to all of society—that the implicit destruction of reason under the guise of emotional “good intentions” is a grievous act of wickedness which may never be tolerated. We must learn to hold a sword to the throat of our emotional urges until they surrender all control and submit fully to the rule of our minds—with our minds being ruled, through reason, by all of God’s revelation. We must learn to ignore, and even to abhor, all emotional appeals about a given situation until the truth of the situation is revealed, in order to then identify the proper emotional response; and to be prepared to be maligned as “mean” as we take every thought captive and pursue righteousness in the life of our minds.
If we value truth, justice, and righteousness, then we must become absolutely militant against the irrational, unjust, and wicked bewitching power of sentiment—first in ourselves, then in the Church, and then the world.