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Wednesday, April 30, 2003

More than words.

Religious liberals — like many American liberals — are uncomfortable with power. The word conjures up concepts that we don't often regard as liberal notions, like coercion or force. Some Unitarian Universalists even get twitchy about "authority," "rules," or "law" — as if the liberal concern is with power itself rather than the legitimate use of power. I'm reminded of the post-Civil War era group of religious liberals who thought the American Unitarian Association was too dogmatic, and who set up the "Free Religious Association." Sadly, the FRA embraced a notion of "freedom" that involved no actual requirements or obligations — to the point that the group's secretary wouldn't even ask members to pay their annual dues for fear of imposing on their liberty! In the end, they embraced an empty freedom, a liberalism without a shape, and passed fruitlessly away.

Which brings us (once again) to James Luther Adams, the liberal theologian and social ethicist, who often said, "By their groups ye shall know them." So here's a bit of Adams's less well-known work that Unitarian Universalists might find useful as we try to imagine the relationship between love and justice, or compassion and power:

We often hear it asserted that a wellspring of modern democracy is the Judeo-Christian conception of a divinely derived dignity of the human being. The assertion can be supported cogently.

But the dignity becomes an airy nothing unless it is protected by the respect for law and by the procedures of legitimate legal institutions. The dignity of the child of God cannot be maintained by a figure of speech. Nor can it be maintained by sentiment, nor even by the sentiment of love.

Jeremiah and other Old Testament prophets envisaged the will of God as demanding justice. Like love, justice does not become incarnate through simple proclamation. Justice requires just institutions; just attitudes alone are not sufficient. The ideals of justice promoted by the prophets were plowed into history by the Ezras and Nehemiahs, by the legalists who defined the rights and duties of the nation and of individuals and who elicited loyalty to the institutions that maintain these rights and duties. The prophets provided the consuming vision of Israel, but the law served to give body to the vision.

Jesus affirmed a love that was not to destroy but to fulfill the law. He repudiated the small matters of the law; but the love he offered presupposed the fundamental law before it could fulfill it or go beyond it. A gospel of charity apart from this law is no longer the gospel of love — it is a pious form of irresponsibility. Love may criticize and attempt to enlarge the conceptions of law and justice, but it does not demand something less than these. According to any conception of love that is fully responsible, not only does the Good Samaritan have the duty of personally assisting the victim of lawlessness; he also has the duty of bringing about the enforcement of the law that stops the thievery.

(From a sermon delivered at the University of Chicago in 1950, in Adams's collection The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach, Beacon Press 1986, page 110.)

How does this kind of thinking apply to international affairs? The question was the topic of last Wednesday's "James Luther Adams Lecture" at Harvard Divinity School, and as soon as I have an hour to polish my notes, I'll post a report here. The short version of my report, though, is that David Little identified institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court as expressions of the "organized power for justice" that Adams advocated; Little seemed sure that Adams would have opposed war with Iraq as a violation of these international legal institutions. Arthur Dyck, however, wasn't so sure. He pointed out that such international institutions didn't exist when Adams tried to rouse American liberals to oppose Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Adams's opposition to "tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression" would have predisposed him to demand international responses to regimes like Saddam's.

However Adams might have responded — and I'm slightly more inclined toward Dyck's view, although I can't imagine Adams endorsing President Bush's style of diplomacy — the crucial point is that neither Christian faith nor liberal principles requires us to embrace weakness, passivity, or even dependency on persuasion without an ultimate appeal to legitimate kinds of coercion. Love and law are not enemies, even though the law ultimately has force on its side.

"Covenants, without the sword, are but words," Hobbes wrote, an uncomfortable truth for liberals. (Martin Luther King Jr. understood it, though, which is why the March on Selma was a demand for the intervention of the executive branch to enforce the rights of African Americans to vote. He wanted Lyndon Johnson to send federal troops to enforce federal law in Alabama!) So the liberal question isn't whether law should be backed up by force, but whether the covenant that the law upholds is just.

Update 5.7.03: I should clarify one thing: It is highly unlikely that James Luther Adams would have endorsed President Bush's war. His name appeared at the top of a list of several hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers in early 1991 in a full-age ad published in the New York Times. A photograph of a military cemetary was accompanied with a headline that said, "Talk is cheaper." The text read: "We, the undersigned Unitarian Universalists, join the millions of concerned citizens nationwide in calling for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Persian Gulf crisis. Talking may not save time. But it will save lives."

It is always liberal to prefer dialogue, of course, but the real question is whether both sides are willing to talk their way to a just solution. And at some point, talking doesn't save lives: It just obscures the fact that an illicit regime is carrying on the slaughter in its own way. There does come a point where war is the preferable option, but the hard question is figuring out when you've reached that point. Adams would never have regarded the persistence of a tyrannical regime as kind of "peace." I think he would have protested against the war and against the tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression of Iraq's government. But I'm also convinced that he would not have endorsed much of the rhetoric of the antiwar movement.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 30 April 2003 at 6:16 PM

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