CHRISTIANITY & CULTURE

The Gospel lives in conversation with culture, and if the Church holds back from the culture, the Gospel itself falls silent.

– John Paul II


THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE & TRADITION

The West has, in general, embraced the moral vision of Judeo-Christianity.  Our current, post-Christian culture is animated by the moral residue of this tradition. We value empathy and love, justice applied with mercy, we desire freedom for the oppressed, view war as something to be avoided, show concern for the marginalized, and are convinced of the value of caring for poor, ill, and needy. These are all primarily the results of the Judeo-Christian influence on the West. 

However, much of our culture no longer appeals to Jesus or the Bible or religious authority to justify these moral claims. In reality, our culture is mostly unreflective about many of its moral convictions and values. When justifications or rationale are sought or expressed, they tend to be rooted in arguments from humanism, appeals to reason, and practical considerations for the general stability of society. 

Returning to our earlier assertion that morality primarily relates to human flourishing, we begin to encounter another set of questions.  Who’s vision or opinion or judgment of flourishing? Who’s standard of thriving and well-being?

There seems to be a degree arbitrariness to the claims concerning moral truth and human well-being. (Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?)

Consider the role honor played in ancient and even middle age civilizations. Maintaining one’s honor was valued as one of the highest moral goods – even if meant seeking violent retribution on those who tarnished one’s honor.  Or consider the centuries-long Christian reaction to heresy where theological “error” often resulted in being burned at the stake or tortured to death.  The moral thinking on slavery in the West was slow to change.

There is no meaningful moral identity for the abstract individual. The individual has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities – families, neighborhoods, school communities, professional associations, social groups, and religious and cultural traditions.

There is no isolated, pure, individual floating on a cultural-historical blank slate. One’s moral reasoning is shaped and upheld by a shared rationality – a conveyed worldview and wisdom of what a good life is about. And this shared rationality comes from community and culture. 

Rationality as a human capacity is not exercised in isolation. It is the collection of theories, beliefs, principles, and facts that the human subject uses to judge the world, and a person’s rationality is, to a large extent, the product of that person’s education and moral formation that takes place in various communities.

Communal rationality comprises all the intellectual resources, both formal and substantive, that we use to judge truth and falsity in propositions, and to determine choice-worthiness in courses of action. Rationality in this sense is not universal; it differs (usually slightly) from community to community and from person to person, and may vary over the course of a person’s life or a community’s history. Communities and cultures are in turn supported by and informed by traditions.

VALUE CONFLICTS – KINGDOM VERSUS EMPIRE

The Roman Empire and it’s harsh, dehumanizing culture was the background reality for Jesus and the first Christian communities. The oppressiveness of empires is a theme throughout scripture. The Jews were liberated from the oppressive, enslavement in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, meaning place of narrowness. The Egyptian Empire represented the harsh, narrowness of the day. Babylon, Persia, and other Empires threaten and stand in contrast. with the people of God throughout the texts.

Empire therefore represents the social, moral, and cultural antithesis of the Kingdom of God. Empire is a metaphor, a symbol, for the systemic structures of dehumanization, oppression, harshness, and slavery. The Biblical vision of worldly empire includes portrayals of the values, political, economic, and social structures that emerge from and are reinforced by oppressive rule. John Dominic Crossan provides a modern summation of the primary traits central to worldly imperial control.  

Materialism/Consumerism is dysfunctional thinking that equates a good life with having more things. This mindset leads to an unending desire for the accumulation of material goods as a means to happiness. Within a consumerist culture, other human goods eventually become subjugated to the pursuit of material gain. As the dysfunction spreads, even the mechanisms of consumerism itself begin to fray – work loses its dignity, wages grow stagnant as the owner-elite skim ever deeper from the gains of productivity. Plutocracy, wealth inequality, cultural bifurcation, and the loss of meaningful creative opportunity tear the social fabric.

Slavery in its strict form, is thankfully rare in developed nations. Yet its overt practice continues in many parts of the world and more subtle forms of slavery exist even in the developed countries. A fundamental precept of justice is that a worker is due their wage and the benefit of their labor. Obviously, others may also benefit from such labor, but only in a system of free and fair cooperative agreements. Many of the industrialized economies are now witnessing deteriorating and exploitive terms for workers and ownership and upper management unfairly benefiting from the work of those deemed below them.

Sexism/Patriarchy is the result of complex attitudes, practices, and biases that allow men to exercise undue control over women, preventing their full participation across society, as well as the oppression of many sexual minorities who serve little interest to the male sexual power elites. The dignity of the individual person is lost as they are treated as an object of sexual gratification, a means to an end of ego sexual fulfillment. The Ego Imperial culture promotes hyper-sexualization. Often, exploitative sexual practices are favored and furthered – including promiscuity, pornography, abusive fetishes, prostitution (the commodification of sex) and subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexual abuse and control. Marriage, committed relationships, and family life suffer as a result.

Elitism is a fundamental preference for the powerful, the wealthy, and those who sit atop the hierarchies of social and cultural control. Many elite use those below them to further their own ends. In this sense, the elite become social parasites and create abusive structures that denigrate the poor, the marginalized, the misfits, the elderly, the young, the ill, the undereducated – all those who do not demonstrate social “utility.”

Violence is the natural result of the glorification of the imperial ego. Tensions, divisions, and hostilities are fostered and even manufactured on all societal levels as a way of furthering the control of the political and economic elite. Violence is seen as an acceptable means to social control and permeates all aspects of the culture. On the level of geopolitics, war is used as a tool of empire building and for exploiting weaker and poorer nations.

Ecological Abuse is the unhealthy practice that results from seeing humans as separate from nature and not an inherent part of the ecosystem. There is nothing wrong with harnessing nature’s powers for human betterment; the problem comes when humans dominate and use nature without regard for the long term consequences. Abusing and ruining nature is the not the same as benefiting from nature’s bounty.

The alternative vision of God’s kingdom is rooted in Jewish and Christian claims of human dignity, the value of life, the interconnectedness of all things, the inherent goodness of nature – and stand in sharp contrast to those of worldly empire.

Peace is the radical opposite to the vision of violence and coercion of Empire. The Kingdom rejects violence as a solution, calls for gentleness and reconciliation, and strives for relationship between individuals, communities, and nations based on empathetic reciprocity and generosity.

The Equality of Justice flows from the recognition of the equal dignity and worth of all persons. The recognition of the equal dignity of all human beings in turn calls for equal treatment under civil law, equal treatment within religious communities, and equal treatment and opportunity for all regardless of ability, gender, age, ethnicity, economic status, and so forth. Equality also works against patriarchy and all forms of abuse and degradation. Equality is the antidote to elitism and the skewing of power to the few. Its based in consensus, the valuing of diversity, equality, and rule of law.

Christian social tradition asserts that natural rights and responsibilities flow from human dignity and the social nature of the person. Human rights are, properly understood, not granted by the state or any other entity, including the church. Rather, human rights are inherent in each human person and should be recognized and respected by all individuals and all social institutions. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to others, to our families, and to all levels of community. 

Preference for the Lowly is sometimes called a preferential option for the poor. Such a cultural attitude eviscerates elism, plutocracy, and autocracy. In large part, it was the practice of this conviction that fueled the growth and dedication of the early Christian communities. In these communities the lowly, the marginalized, and the destitute found hope, support, and love. For many, there belonging was a matter of life and death.

While there may be an inherent rightness to caring for the poor and needy, there is also a practical benefit to the society as a whole. Radical wealth inequality, crushing poverty, educational deficits, and neglect of disadvantaged communities breeds social instability, civil unrest, class resentment, and ultimately also threatens the well being of those who are better off. 

In a fundamental sense, societies may be morally judged according to how their most vulnerable members are fairing. The gospels command us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first, remembering that the Kingdom of God has a preference for the lowly, needy, and the marginalized. 

Authentic Community is understood as rooted in openness, mutual cooperation, and justice. It is the result of the proper affirmation of the intrinsic social nature of the human person. Community is realized through participation, subsidiarity, and inclusion. To strive for genuine community is to resist the urges of isolation, alienation, and unjust discrimination or oppression.

The person is not only sacred but also social by nature and therefore, society is a natural byproduct of human nature in general.  How we organize our society – in economics and politics, in law and policy — directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to thrive as individuals and in community. The family is a fundamental institution of society and all forms of family life should be supported and strengthened. 

Authentic community is based in empathy, the Christian motivation for compassion. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Empathy facilitates prosocial and cooperative behaviors among individuals and groups and allow for various forms of compassionate action. 

Human beings cannot flourish without participating in the broader social-cultural order. Therefore, all manner of exclusion and marginalization should be avoided, including racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination. 

Simplicity is contrary to materialism and consumerism. Simplicity is not the denial of the goodness of the material world, rather it is the refusal to equate the quantity and quality of material good with a life of value and purpose. Simplicity strengthens us so we are not overwhelmed by the consumerist culture.

PRINCIPLES – NOT MODELS

The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation …
– Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus

The above are principles and ideals, not specific models. Christian social teaching does not endorse political parties or specific philosophies or policies, and only comments on such in terms of their affirmation of human dignity. Individual Christians may be socialists, capitalists, or other, democrats or republicans, progressives or conservatives, but must refrain from suggesting that the Christian social vision itself requires a specific program, party, or policy.

Specific policy and party alignment should be a matter of individual prudence, acknowledging the possibility that informed Christians, and other people of good will, may disagree on concrete means to achieve shared goals for the common good.

Christians are called to be salt and light to all, and leaven within their communities. This implies cultural and political engagement. Therefore, Christians are obliged to engage in social and political concerns, offering their values and voices to the political process and social conversations. Further, when offering political input, Christians have an obligation to provide reasoned arguments for their positions. 

Political participation does no mean political control. Most Western societies are secular democracies that affirm the separation of church and state. Christians, like all others, should be free to offer their opinions, values, and insights in the marketplace of ideas and in political, moral, and cultural discussions. However, at no point, should Christians, or others, seek to prevent participation in any social arena, by others of good standing and good will. Christians lose credibility to the extent they seek to control others and society. All forms of integralism, Reconstructionism, yearnings for Christendom’s return, and other such schemes are dangerous, hostile to the gospels, and incredibly imprudent. 

Christian social teaching – the social, economic, and cultural vision that emerges from the gospels and Christian experience – is a rich treasure of wisdom concerning principles for building a just society and for creating the social conditions that foster thriving for both individuals and communities. In this sense, Christian social teaching is the political, cultural, and economic application of the principles inherent in the Kingdom of God. These principles and ideas are found by searching the teachings of the scriptures, especially the gospels, and by reflecting on human history. The vision that emerges urges consideration of the following principles and assertions:

Christian social teaching proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of an authentic vision for society. This assertion has implications for issues of abortion, euthanasia, medical technology and other issues of bioethics. It also speaks to matters of war and peace, crime and punishment, and in particular, the death penalty. In general, the basic approach to Christian social teaching is to affirm all life, call for its protection at all stages, and avoid circumstances where human beings are treated as the means to an end, and not ends in themselves. 

Human beings are equal in their dignity and comprise not only a species, but a family, united in our common nature, regardless of our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers and sisters keepers, wherever they may be. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the cultivation of empathy, a prerequisite for compassionate social change.

Notions of the common good, social stability, and communal welfare all require a commitment to solidarity and social cooperation for their achievement. Our concern for one another, animals, and the planet are grounded in both intellectual and practical concerns. 

Further, human dignity indicates that all people of good will have a right and a duty to participate in society, for human flourishing requires social, economic, political, and cultural participation. Arrangements that foster participation are equality under the law, democracy, basic access to economic means of production, a respect for human creativity and labor, and an unending respect for human freedom. 

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in the created order. The basic rights of workers should be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative. At the same time, concern must be exercised to avoid excessive inequality of wealth which can threaten the overall stability of the social order. 

Care for the earth is a requirement of Christian practice, and one clearly and strongly spelled out in the Hebrew scriptures. We are called to protect all forms of life and the ecosystem itself. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored, and which include fostering conservation, reducing pollution, and engaging in sustainable practices that balance human need with environmental concern. 

TOLERANCE, INCLUSION, & PARTICIPATION

Participation in the full array of social institutions and structures is essential for the well-being and development of socially-natured humans. Human fulfillment is impossible outside of community. Therefore, concerns of inclusion and participation are serious matters for Christians, and all people of good will. Unjust exclusion isn’t simply unfair, it’s damaging to individuals and whole communities in lasting and profound ways.

The contemporary culture’s emphasis on values such as equality, inclusion, aid to the needy, and justice for all have part of their roots in the Christian tradition. Granted, many conservative Christians have violated these principles, as have some on the left. 

As in any age, primary social values are often invoked unreflectively, resulting in prevailing moral sentiments that are in need of better reasoned footings. Moral and social concerns often are expressed in the buzzwords of the day, yet unfortunately, those words and terms are often nebulous.

Not everyone shares the same views or even the same values. We will find ourselves disagreeing with others concerning politics, economics, and cultural issues. Further, the behavior of others may be found wanting, lacking the approval of some. In such cases, civil, respectful, reasoned, and open dialogue is encouraged, and demanded by human dignity. A just society finds ways to encourage inclusion and participation even amongst disagreement. Key to maintaining inclusion and participation is the notion of tolerance. 

Toleration is the tacit acceptance of an action or idea which one dislikes or disagrees with, and where one is in a position to disallow it but chooses not to. As such, toleration implies disagreement and disapproval, and therefore is not the same thing as full acceptance or agreement. 

Inclusion is the desire to foster the highest degrees of participation as possible, extending hospitality to all people of good will. The opposite of inclusion is exclusion, which seeks to prevent others from full participation in the normatively prescribed activities and institutions of the society in which they live. Ongoing exclusion, particularly due to one’s identifying with a particular cause or group, is considered marginalization.

Yet inclusion and toleration have proper limits, despite the connotations of much of the current rhetoric. The notion that no one, for any reason, should ever be excluded from certain aspects of society is misplaced. The biblical commands to welcome the stranger do not apply to the invading barbarians outside the gates seeking to destroy you and your way of life. Nor do they apply to those who wish to do us harm. There are people – be they violent, abusive, oppressive – who are not fit for civil society and actually pose a danger to others. While such people should be treated humanely, they also help us understand something of the limited nature of inclusion.

POWER & FREEDOM FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

Nor does the Church close her eyes to the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism among those who, in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious, claim the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom.
– Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus

Social power is the ability to influence the thinking and actions of others without the need for coercion. Social power compels, influences, motivates – but never forces. Coercion is a form of power unto itself, rightfully contained in government, employed by police, military, and overseen by impartial courts. 

Christianity owes its initial growth to its social power – the appeal of its message and the integrity of the witness of the early communities. Love, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, and humility are usually attractive in their own right. A community that embodies such values and seeks to meet the needs of others, while respecting the freedom of others, should be highly appealing.

Yet there is a sense when reading the gospels that the Kingdom of God operates under different rules – we the rejection of power in nearly all forms when we read turn the other cheeklove your enemiespray for your persecutorsblessed are the meek, the peacemakers, and Jesus’ example of nonviolent resistance to Rome and even his own execution. 

The soft, but very real, power of the Kingdom is rooted in peace and nonviolence. Peace is achieved through justice rather than conquest, unity and cohesion achieved through love rather than conformity. 

Classical Greek and Roman political philosophy conceived of freedom as a cultivated condition of the human person, achieved through self-discipline, the practice of virtue, and knowledge of the good. Christianity echoed these sentiments, understanding that freedom was freedom from – tyranny, oppression, hardship – but also, freedom for – goodness, love, service, and so on – a notion strongly asserted in Judaism. 

In the classical view, freedom is the acquired state of being able to govern one’s self according to truth and goodness. Granted, freedom extends to a freedom of conscience to determine for oneself what is true, good, and meaningful. 

However, freedom understood as the ability to do whatever one wants, without restraint other than concern for harm of others, is not the classical or Judaism or Christian view, and accordingly is understood as a pseudo-freedom. Any sense of freedom that understands the concept as the ability or right to pursue any desire so chosen typically ends in slavery to ego, the passions, addictions, or our baser instincts.

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