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A Time To Be Counted Against Injustice

The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a season and a time for everything under heaven. There is, for example, a time to be born, and to die; a time to seek, and to lose; a time to keep silence, and to speak; a time for war, and for peace. This spring in North Carolina is, as usual, very beautiful – it’s a time to marvel at the artistry of God’s good creation. But it is also a political season, and, as I shall argue, despite certain ambiguities, a time to be counted against an injustice known as Amendment 1 to the state’s constitution.

The basic substance of the amendment is comparatively simple. “Marriage between one man and one woman,” it says, “is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” These words focus on specific and rather important points in law, but like so much in our politics today, they also symbolize more than they say. Now, I would like to say that this spring is a time to prevent this particular injustice and all that it symbolizes, but I am unsure that the citizens of this beautiful state will defeat the amendment next month, and I am certain that we can never defeat at a ballot box all that it symbolizes. I do know that, win or lose, this spring in North Carolina is a time to be counted against injustice.

“In everything,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “do to others as you would have them do to you.” The same teaching also appears in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke. We call it “the Golden Rule,” a name meant to draw attention to its excellence and importance, and, in Matthew, Jesus draws attention to it by saying that it summarizes the law and the prophets, or the most important moral teachings of Israel.

But the Golden Rule is not found only in the teaching of Jesus. It enjoys a near universal acceptance. It has precedent in Rabbi Hillel’s ancient and negative summary of the law, “Do not do to others what you hate to have done to you.” A similar saying appears in the book of Tobit, which is accepted as authoritative by Roman Catholics but not by Protestants, and which dates from between four hundred and five hundred years before Christ.  “And what you hate, do not do to anyone” (Tob. 4:15).  About five hundred years before the time of Jesus, something like this was taught in China by Confucius:  “What you do not like when done to yourself do not do to others.” There is also a Bahai’ saying, “Choose for your neighbor what you choose for yourself.” In fact, something like the Golden Rule comes to articulation among ancient Greek philosophers and in virtually all of the world’s major religions.

What’s more, it is not just the ancients who appreciate the Golden Rule. The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant called it the foundation of all morality. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill claimed that following the Golden Rule results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Rogues pay lip service to it, as in the convoluted but popular saying I learned growing up in New Jersey, “Do unto others as they would do unto you, but do it first.” Some argue that the Golden Rule is an essential basis for the modern concept of human rights. Even young children testify to its substance, as in the once popular defense at our house in Richmond, “But Daddy, Albert did it to me first!”

From Hillel to Confucius, Christ to Kant, John Stuart Mill and Bahai’ to Katie Ottati. Rarely in the history of human morals, or in the history of anything else for that matter, do we come across such a far-flung and diverse cloud of witnesses.  So, what’s the big deal?  Why is the Golden Rule so widely recognized as an important guide?

Most classical Christian and non-Christian teachers who comment on the Golden Rule say that it helps us to pay attention to the interests and needs of others rather than simply manipulate others according to our own interests.  They claim, as does the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, that the Golden Rule is a summary of the rule of fairness and impartiality. They don’t say that it is all you need to be moral.  Indeed, Calvin himself recognizes that living faithfully goes beyond fairness. Sometimes, as Jesus also teaches, it involves doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, and even loving enemies (Luke 6:27-28, 35).  But fairness and impartiality are pretty important. We might even say that fairness is a large part of justice and that justice is a large part of the law and the prophets.

I am being partial to myself and unfair if, when I expect a prospective buyer to be honest with me, I lie about the condition of my old Ford pickup. A student is being partial to herself and unfair when, simply to obtain an advantage over others on an examination, she asks for special treatment. A nation is being inordinately partial to itself, unfair, and unjust when it refuses to grant to foreign combatants the same rights and privileges that it claims for its own soldiers, say, with respect to their treatment as prisoners. Again, I remember, and perhaps you do, too, when Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in order to prevent black students from registering for classes. “Segregation today,” said the governor, “segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  Later – following years of struggle for civil rights – the governor apparently changed his mind.  But the Golden Rule is enough to show that he was wrong in the first place, and it is also enough to show that Amendment 1 is unfair and unjust.

In fact, the Golden Rule makes a helpful benchmark for self-examination, precisely because our own interests, insecurities, and pretensions so often lead us to do to others quite differently than we would have them do to us. Honestly applied, the Golden Rule does not let us cover up or deny our own sins too quickly. Honestly applied, it takes us down a peg because it shows that other people and groups often obtain justice only by struggling against our own inordinate interests, claims, and pretensions.

I’m going to resist the temptation here to discuss the importance of good corporate prayers of confession, although I think they are important, and instead simply note that this last point deserves additional attention. Why is it that we so often are willing to treat others in ways that we ourselves do not want to be treated? One answer is that, as we try to protect our own admittedly insecure goods and interests from challenges and threats, we overreach. And, when we overreach, we tend to treat others unfairly.  Consider, for example, the treatment of prisoners in war. A shaken nation may become so anxious to secure itself from every possible threat that it regularly subjects prisoners to torture and abuse even when it demands that its own captured soldiers be treated humanely.

Or, again, consider some current discussions about immigration. Most of us know that our border to the south has always been humanly and culturally rather flexible and fluid. This is why there are cities in the United States with names such as San Antonio, Santa Fe, or Los Angeles. Moreover, in our present global circumstance, capital is mobile.  Standards of compensation as well as the availability of employment vary sharply from one country to the next. This is why labor migrates, and why Hispanic workers cross the border between Mexico and the United States.

But today, many of us understandably feel that our jobs and broader economic interests are insecure. We also feel as if our cultural values and identities are threatened by the increasing pluralism and diversity of American society. And so, preoccupied by our own economic and cultural anxieties, we are tempted to overreach and to forget the more poignant human dimensions of poor families crossing national boundaries. The evidence is in our rhetoric when we decry the presence of “illegals,” who diverge from our own cultural type, and who “drop” babies on American soil. This is how we come to obscure and neglect the question of justice for the strangers within our gates and even for their children. This is how we come to treat the stranger and even the stranger’s child so very differently than we would like others to treat us as well as our own children.

It is no small shortcoming. The Golden Rule and a commitment to fairness support the special attention to the poor, the weak, and the outcast that is mandated by the book of Deuteronomy, by the prophets, and by Jesus. Why? Because the poor, the weak, and the outcast – including the stranger and especially her dependent children – do not have sufficient power to make others pay attention to their own needs and interests. This makes them easy targets, and it is therefore the constant temptation of those in positions of comparative comfort and power both to define justice and apply it in ways that favor their own advantage and leave out of account the plight of marginalized. This is why the treatment of the poor, the weak, and the outcast (including the stranger and her children) is a good test of whether or not a society is just. It tests whether the inordinate self-concern, partiality, and pretensions of the comfortable and the powerful have been mitigated and checked, or whether the grain scales, the educational system, the health care system, the employment opportunities, and the possibilities for political participation have all been fixed.

Now, let us return to Amendment 1.  Who does it affect?  What does it prevent?  Once again, we come across an issue focused on a minority that diverges from dominant type. The amendment prohibits same-sex marriages and partnerships from being recognized in the State of North Carolina. It deprives GLBT persons of the widely valued and acknowledged good of a legally recognized life together.  It may also deprive them of partner benefits, rights of mutual hospital visitation, and the possibility of adopting children.  Indeed, it may even threaten the ability of gay and lesbian couples to continue caring for children who have been legally recognized as their own in another state.

This is what John Hood, president of the (quite conservative) John Locke foundation, has to say about it.  “Amending North Carolina’s constitution to forbid gay unions and lesbian couples from receiving any future legal recognition, including civil unions, is unwise and unfair.”  Hood obviously is not writing as a Christian theologian (or, for that matter, as any kind of theologian at all).  And, indeed, in order to judge that Amendment 1 is unfair, he doesn’t need to think like a Christian or any other sort of theologian.  All he has to do is consider the amendment it in the light of a basic specification of fairness, such as the Golden Rule.  All he needs to do is think of how he himself and his own family would like to be treated.  For, as we have already seen, the Golden Rule and other ideas like it are hardly the exclusive possession of any one religious group; they are bits of moral wisdom that are widely recognized across a spectrum of philosophies, faiths, and cultures.

But, we shouldn’t stop there.  We should also ask why proposals such as Amendment 1 come up in the first place and why they persist.  The answer is not so very different from the answer with respect to the issue of immigration. Many people in our society today feel as if the institution of marriage is insecure. They also feel that legal recognition of same-sex marriages and same-sex unions will render the institution of marriage even less secure.  Amendment 1 represents an anxious attempt to protect a cherished good and interest, as well as a past cultural consensus and identity.  The name of a committee in support of Amendment 1 says it all, “Vote for Marriage NC.” This anxiety, in turn, connects with additional concerns about the secularity of American culture as well as its increasing ethnic and religious diversity, and the ways in which these things erode long-standing identities and values.  Indeed, the combined pressure sometimes encourages many who support measure such as Amendment 1 to see themselves as righteous defenders of virtue who stand against dissolute cosmopolitans and intellectuals.

Of course, we shouldn’t stop here either.  We, the opponents of Amendment 1, also have not entirely escaped moral pretension. Convinced that its supporters are motivated by nothing more than uneducated and gullible prejudice, we may ignore the pressures that contemporary media, commercial economies and their demands for greater education and mobility really do place on many American families. We may come to view ourselves as the enlightened and righteous vanguard of a new morally superior society.

In any case, as I have said elsewhere this weekend, I believe that in a Reformed Christian perspective, marriage is essentially an intimate community of mutual affection, companionship, responsibility, and care that is conducive to the good of a “life together.”  Therefore, when people are willing to oppose long-standing social conventions and proprieties in order to commit themselves to relationships of mutual affection, companionship, responsibility, and care, I think it strengthens the institution of marriage.  And here let me simply note once again that, when people are defending valued goods and cherished cultural identities, they are prone to overreach.  When they overreach, they are prone to treat others, especially minorities who diverge from the dominant type, in ways that they themselves would not like to be treated.  This is why the general treatment of gays and lesbians as well as legal recognition of their appropriate rights and privileges makes a good test of justice in North Carolina.

Moreover, what we learn from applying the Golden Rule, here as elsewhere, is that simply knowing a rule of fairness often is not enough to move people to act fairly.  Education and increased knowledge can sometimes mitigate the dynamic of insecurity, overreach, and injustice.  But the dynamic itself is deeper than reasoned argument and information.  And this is why, win or lose, the vote on Amendment 1 next month can only be understood as a part of a wider, longer, and strategic struggle against anti-gay attitudes as well as unjust and hurtful laws, policies, and practices across this state and every state.  It is why the wider struggle needs to enlist a coalition of institutions and interests that can pressure legislators and other institutions to recognize many of the prudential advantages of treating gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons fairly in educational, voluntary, commercial, and political contexts.   It is why, despite the acknowledged ambiguities of our own sensibilities and self-portraits, we should enlist business leaders who fear that Amendment 1 and the sorts of attitudes and policies it represents will damage commercial and corporate interests.  It is why many of us should support and follow the lead of gay and lesbian Americans who refuse to be easy targets, and who are committed to wielding their own powers and skills in order to bring about a more inclusive and more tolerably just society that will not shun their considerable contributions.

Well, that’s it.  That’s basically what I wanted to say this morning.  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.”  If you and I keep in mind the Golden Rule – “do to others as you would have them do to you” – then, even as we acknowledge at least some of our own shortcomings, it is plain to see that this spring in North Carolina is a time to be counted against injustice.  What’s more, it is also plain that the broader question of increased justice, fairness, and respect for gays and lesbians, for Hispanic immigrants, and indeed for all others is perennial.  In fact, given our anxious human tendency to overreach, to embrace the pretense of our own righteousness, neglect the claims of others, and do to them as we would not have done to ourselves, standing against injustice is really a matter for all seasons in North Carolina and everywhere else.  Amen.


This sermon was originally delivered in Hendersonville, NC on April 12, 2012 by Douglas F. Ottati, the Craig Family Distinguished Professor of Reformed Theology and Justice at Davidson College, NC, USA.  He is the author of several books, most recently Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species, and is a general editor of the Library of Theological Ethics.  His systematic theology is in press at Eerdmans.

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