Defending discrimination

“Give therefore your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discriminate between good and bad: for who is able to judge so great a people as yours?”

1 Kings 3:9

 

The word “discrimination” is kind of like a briefcase. It carries a meaning inside, as all words do. But it’s one of those words that we carry around with us often enough and rarely both to open. Instead, whenever the word might come up, we’re more likely to beat people over the head with it, never once considering that we could open unlatch the briefcase and think about what we’re actually talking about.

If you have ever been online before (as I will assume you have if you’re reading this), I’m rather confident that you have seen this actually happen. People accuse other people of discrimination, other people defends themselves from the charges, and within moments someone has a bruise on his skull that looks an awful lot like the corner of a briefcase. To whomever the charge of discrimination sticks comes defeat and shame.

But this way of things is itself quite a shame. For, if we unpack the suitcase, we’ll find ourselves reminded that discrimination is not all bad. Discrimination can be and usually is good. It is only our modern politics which has kept us from recalling this rather obvious fact.

Perhaps you don’t get what I mean. To explain, I’ll point out that the dominant usage of the word discrimination today is quite different than it has been in the past. The top two definitions which appear on Google are as follows:

  1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
  2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another

The first definition is obviously what most people mean today, but the second used to be far more common. And in today’s mad blindness to plain realities, the second is often mistaken for the first. If you don’t recognize the real differences between two things, you’re likely to consider any way that you treat them differently as unjust or prejudicial. This is what we love to do today.

The difference between these two definitions of discrimination—between good and bad discrimination—is determined by what you are doing and whether the different treatments you give are reasonable for that purpose. Let’s take an example. If you are trying to draw a realistic castle, you would probably discriminate against your bright purple colored pencils in favor of grey ones. This would make sense and be very right, because the color of the pencil is very important to what you’re trying to do. On the other hand, it would make no sense to discriminate against a pencil simply because it had been touched by the truck driver who delivered it to the Walmart you bought it from is a Trump supporter. Even if you dislike Trump supporters, the fact has nothing to do at all with your project to draw a castle.

This extends every bit as well to people. If you are in charge of hiring an engineer for a nuclear plant, you will discriminate against a 17-year-old kid who dropped out of high school and knows basically nothing but how to play World of Warcraft. You will instead prefer someone who has training and knowledge that will help him be a nuclear engineer. This is discrimination, but it is good discrimination. The reason for picking one kind of person over the other is a based very directly and reasonably on what you’re trying to accomplish. On the other hand, if you were to favor a white Alabamian over a Rwandan man, despite equal credentials in nuclear engineering, you are probably discriminating badly, which means injustice. Or, speaking of race, it is perfectly legitimate to discriminate against white women in favor of black ones if you are casting the lead for a movie about Rosa Parks.

The problem for us is that, in an era absolutely obsessed with equality, we can lose sight of real differences between people and things. So people can be accused of unfair and unjust discrimination even when their reasons for discriminating are very right. A major example of this is marriage. Up until recently, society discriminated against gay couples in favor of straight couples. Then, in the blindness of modern society, we forgot the real reasons for this discrimination, and people started to believe that it is wrong. Soon enough, we stopped discriminating and gave gay and straight couples equal access to the institution of marriage.

This was a big mistake. Like I said before, whether a certain kind of discrimination is right or wrong depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. So what is marriage for? Why did humanity originally choose only straight couples for marriage? The answer would have been easy to most of the world for most of history: babies. The most important kind of sex, when it comes to broader society, is the heterosexual, because it is the kind that actually creates new human beings, which is what society is made of in the first place. Society in general, and its institutional form called the “government,” has little reason to care about what goes on in the bedroom between gay people, because it won’t make new human life. But if straight couples can create people, then it’s hugely important. That’s the biggest reason why marriage had to be made an official, recognized part of society and government. Marriage discrimination against gay couples was never arbitrary or unjustified, because the key point of marriage as a formal part of society was that it was meant to protect the place where humans come from. Babies and their parents need special privileges and protections, thus we have heterosexual marriage. To extend it to gay couples is an example of a failure to discriminate when it is needed, kind of like putting a white Neo-Nazi in charge of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration out of “fairness.” It’s not right. It’s forgetting that discrimination is sometimes good and necessary.

So I propose that we end the pointless stigmatizing of discrimination in general. Let that first definition become second, and make the second one first. Discrimination is an essential part of human life. The only question is whether we will discriminate with wisdom and justice or foolishness and injustice. If we forget all of this, we are sure to do the latter.

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Nicene Nerdcast: Can the Lord’s Supper fight white supremacy?

In the wake of recent racially-charged events, I’ve done a little thinking about racial issues in the Church. I’m not hugely experienced with these things, so I’m don’t think I’m qualified to say that much about race.

That said, I have spent some time researching the doctrines of the Church and the sacraments. And these are relevant to racial issues, because in Christ’s Church all peoples and races are formed into “one new man” (Eph. 2:15) and are bound together as one body by the one loaf (1 Cor. 10:16-18).

This is the subject of my very first podcast. My new podcast is called The Nicene Nerdcast, and episode one is about racism and Communion. Listen below and give me your thoughts.

Download this episode

Sometimes progress isn’t progress. Here’s why.

[This is a cross-post from my other blog.]

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

If The Shack isn’t heresy, it might be worse

I argued earlier today that the charges of heresy leveled at The Shack really don’t hold up. This was, of course, a rather controversial claim. But what I’d like to add to the previous post is that The Shack being non-heretical doesn’t make it okay at all. In fact, it might make it much worse.  How do I mean?

The most insidious lies often look a lot like truth. The most dangerous scams are the ones that have some genuine credentials. And in this case, a Christian book can cause more damage if its overall project is deeply flawed while nonetheless at a technical level skating past the charge of heresy.

Make no mistake: even if I’m right that Young’s sketchy-looking theology can mostly all be classified as muddy represenations of some orthodoxy traditions, that doesn’t mean his overall project is okay. It is skewed toward a progressive perception of God as essentially toothless love, as egalitarian relationality with no concept of standard or holiness. These are framed in a way so as to not technically violate any orthodox doctrines, but create a bizarre and deficient view of God. Tim Keller put it well in his reflections on The Shack:

But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible. In the prophets the reader will find a God who is constantly condemning and vowing judgment on his enemies, while the Persons of the Triune-God of The Shack repeatedly deny that sin is any offense to them. The reader of Psalm 119 is filled with delight at God’s statutes, decrees, and laws, yet the God of The Shack insists that he doesn’t give us any rules or even have any expectations of human beings. All he wants is relationship. The reader of the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah will learn that the holiness of God makes his immediate presence dangerous or fatal to us. Someone may counter (as Young seems to do, on p.192) that because of Jesus, God is now only a God of love, making all talk of holiness, wrath, and law obsolete. But when John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, long after the crucifixion sees the risen Christ in person on the isle of Patmos, John ‘fell at his feet as dead.’ (Rev.1:17.)

All of this is far more dangerous and insidious when heresy is technically lacking. Where heresy is clear and obviously present, people can far more easily avoid danger. But when the danger hides behind orthdoxy, attempting to introduce a heterodox worldview behind technically orthodox doctrines, much more damage can be done.

This is the problem with The Shack. It takes the cover of acceptable doctrines in order to promote an imagination and worldview for Christian thought that funds modern progressive theology, the kind that leads to the dissolution of Christian beliefs on all sorts of important issues. So bear that in mind as a qualifer on my last post.