One of the marvels of nature is how tremendous beauty, diversity and harmony are built on some of the most elementary building blocks. Mankind, with his genius, by means of technology and art, has made what Dante once called the “grandchildren of God”: the works of our hands. Some of these works, as the liturgically, biblically and theologically informed person knows, can be elevated to divine purpose. Others are perverse: creation twisted and morphed for malicious purpose. Human societies as well as individuals thrive or perish in relation to whether they embrace transcendent moral truth, or revolt against the same.
In the past few weeks, the United States has been involved in a societal debate. There is a paucity of commentators and ‘influencers’ who are able to come to grips with the magnitude of anger and distress with clear thought and sober judgment. Further few have the courage to stand against the fury of the mob. The assertion by a very vocal ideological minority is that the United States of America is systemically racist. I do not have the time or resources to either confirm or refute that assertion, although there are plenty of others who have. I for one have serious questions, especially legal and historical, for those who make this claim. Yet what I find most troubling in almost all this public rancor is how much anger seems directed toward systems as proxies for individuals, rather than individuals as representative of, or contributors to, systems. Once again, I think the Church has a lot to share in regard to this debate.
In philosophy, the subject of mereology is one of the oldest around: what is the relationship of a whole to its parts? Aristotle of course famously said that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, this philosophical debate spills over quite readily into questions of morals and especially problems within society. Traditionally, our culture has been, as Alasdair MacIntyre famously reminded us, one based upon the question of justice as that which defines moral social exchange. However, in criticizing the ‘system’ as it currently exists, no one seems to be able to define what its alternative is, other than its destruction. This is different than civil rights movements in the past. It is also why ‘defund the police’ chants are so common, a manifestation of legal and juridical nihilism: there is no moral end (telos) behind the current moral panic, just like there is no real moral end to any of the dilemmas of post modernity. As the slide into the absurd continues without seeming to stop, the human person and his dignity is probably the first and greatest casualty in this newest iteration of the culture war. When a society cannot decide with certitude that the most innocent of life, that of the unborn, is worth defending against the will of another, we have completely undercut the basis on which we can say definitively that any life ultimately matters. This is not just a further attack on the concept of universal human dignity from the common moral sense; our current societal spasms, with their emphasis on ‘system’, are also attacking individual or personal human dignity and agency.
In the vast majority of traditional Western thought, an individual has been conceived as having a natural association with his family and his community. Let me state as a relevant aside that this is not just the insight of Westerners, whose thought is demonized as simply the thought of “old white men”. This is also a thought fundamental in Confucianism and other philosophical traditions. It belongs to the common moral heritage of humanity, not simply to the variant of homo sapiens sapiens with the least melanin in their bodies.
Especially in light of the Civil Rights Act in the United States, and as we have strived to remove unjust laws like segregation and the like, even going so far as to promote Affirmative Action to undo the damage wrought by economic and educational inequalities, one has to ask: where do these assertions of systemic injustice come from?
As a citizen and as a person who believes in the classical, immemorial conception of Justice, I can completely support reforms in policing, public policy, and other matters. But what I find so disturbingly lacking in this wave of discussion of “civil rights” is that it has been completely evacuated of the metaphysical underpinnings of human dignity. Without this, we are poised only to create new aggrieved classes, not a truly just society. A society is only just in so as its individuals are. As Augustine famously remarked in his commentary on the Late Roman Empire, without justice, civilization is merely a “den of thieves”, preying on each other.
An important set of truths that we as people of faith are well positioned to reassert is that of solidarity/subsidiarity. That is to say, it is simultaneously true that people have a duty to both care for their neighbor, and that said care is most authentic when done in the most “neighborly”, relationally local way possible; as such, it is a work that cannot be sublimated into the “system” outside of the responsibility and moral engagement of individuals. Most leftists dismiss social conservatives out of hand because most Western social conservatives now are Libertarians. Libertarians usually over-accentuate the individual while diminishing the scope of his necessary relationship to society. The fading Judeo-Christian cultural consensus, which transcends the Left-Right conflict of modernity, reminds us that, in the words of the late Christian Philosopher Ravi Zacharias what ultimately determines our societies’ direction is not whether it is left or right, but “up or down” in terms of its moral sense.
Christians, as Our Lord reminds us, are the leaven that makes the whole loaf of society rise. Wherever and whenever we are at our most authentic, we constitute an essential corrective to the tendency to disassociate individuals and systems. Our metaphysical worldview makes us capable of saying “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” in the same sentence, because we do not view these as unrelated or opposed premises. They are related in ways which we have taken for granted. Unfortunately, most of our media and college-radicalized youth are disciples of Saul Alinsky, for whom polarization is an end to achieve power by destroying the creative tension between the fundamental ideas which have governed our laws and behavior. Most of the conflict we see, in my opinion, is driven by an ideological monomania, which has no underlying principle save that of revolution and counter-revolution.
All people of good will have a common obligation now to resist the “freezing”—to use Alinsky’s term—of persons and ideas, and to reassert the societal sovereignty of the “Logos”, or a society built on reason and transcendent value. One need not necessarily have a dogmatic commitment to Christianity to share and promote this. Wherever reason and dialogue is fostered over facile denunciations and hysteria, we hold back the forces of chaos and rebellion which seek to root up and undermine our common heritage. For us, our strategy is not solve et coagula, but sape et cognosce; seek to know what is true, so that we may in the end arrive at a common understanding. Unless we do this, we will find ourself under the Empire of Lucifer, to whom Alinsky dedicated his magnum opus. And that will not be a kingdom of light, but of thick and stultifying darkness.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Scutum et Lorica site.)
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