Saturday, December 03, 2005

Mirror of the just man

Ecce Homo I haven't done a quote from Pope Ratzinger's Introduction to Chistianty in a while and even though I have finished the book there are still one or two passages I want to share, including - perhaps even especially - this one. When I first began to look over what Christianity teaches, to look at the gospel story and to try penetrate why it has been so compelling to so many for so long, this was one of the things that leapt out at me. I was happy to see our Pope confirm it. Expanding on the Apostles Creed where it says "... suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried," Ratzinger writes:
The fact that when the perfectly just man appeared he was crucified, delivered up by justice to death, tells us pitilessly who man is: Thou art such, man, that thou canst not bear the just man - that he who simply loves becomes a fool, a scourged criminal, an outcast. Thou art such because, unjust thyself, thou dost always need the injustice of the next man in order to feel excused and thus cannot tolerate the just man who seems to rob thee of this excuse. Such art thou. St John summarized all this in the Ecce Homo ("Look, this is [the] man!" of Pilate, which means quite fundamentally: this is how it is with man; this is man. The truth of man is his complete lack of truth. The sayings in the Pslam that every man is a liar (Ps 116 [115]: 11) and lives in some way or other against the truth already reveals how it really is with man. The truth about man is that he is continually assailing the truth; the just man crucified is thus a mirror held up to man in which he sees himself unadorned. But the Cross does not reveal only man; it also reveals God. God is such that he identifies himself with man right down into the abyss and that he judges him and saves him. In the abyss of human failure is revealed the still more inexhaustible abyss of divine love. The Cross is thus truly the center of revelation, a revelation that does not reveal any previously unknown principle but reveals us to ourselves by revealing us before God and God in our midst.
I think this is a very profound insight into what it means to be human. The Pope points out just before this passage that Plato, in his Republic, writes a something quite similar. See The Republic, book 2, 361e. "Justice in the State and the Individual." I cannot let this passage go without discussing the ideas of negative and positive liberty. Positive liberty is the belief that people need certain things in order to be free, in order to fulfill their potential. It is a view that is seems to draw on naturalistic and mechanical impression of human life. If it allows for spirit at all, it does so in a secondary sort of way. The human soul can do no more than deal with the material circumstances it finds itself in. To ensure that humans society flourishes it puts forward that various levels of goods need to be distributed and that this distribution cannot be left to chance. It suggests, in other words, that an Agent is needed to fulfill the role of just distributor and invariably the Agent chosen is large scale government - national governments, the UN, that sort of thing. Many, many Christians subscribe to this line of reasoning. If Ratzinger is correct, however, how can this be right? Human governments are made up of human agents, who are, we are told, "continually assailing the truth." I think these points of view are irreconcilable. Government has legitimate functions, but addressing issues as large as these is not among them. Giving large, sweeping powers to governments made of men as John describes them is a recipe for disaster. Witness the US Oil for Food program and countless scandals large and small. I have always favoured negative liberty, in which freedom in is considered to be freedom from unjust and unnecessary human obstacles. It contains in it the idea that human laws are prone to abuse and must be regarded with wary suspicion. It is compatible with idea of human fallibility. This is not to say that there is no need for people (in the form of government) to step in a take steps to prevent the strong from abusing the weak. Those are legitimate but when we search for solutions to problems we begin from the small and the local. When we refrain from jumping to the phrase "systemic prejudice" at every turn, we avoid needlessly giving huge, sweeping powers to the government. The powers we do grant can be abused but, being small and local, will provide less scope for the grossest sorts of abuse. That is what I think Ecce Homo tells us about human governance. There is still the question of how we are to know at what level a problem should be dealt with, and how we can attempt to minimize the need to appeal to human authority at all. For that I want to bring in another passage from Ratzinger but it will have to wait until later today.