Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Monday, May 30, 2011

Justice and charity

I have a bad cold, so none of this may make any sense ;) but ....

I've noticed a number of articles lately .... Are There Natural Human Rights? by Michael Boylan, Against Human Rights by John Milbank, The future of conservatism in the UK by Phillip Blond, and Inherent rights, disability and the justice of God by Stanley Hauerwas. All the articles are about the same thing - justice - and about the way we make decisions on how to treat others (and in some cases the articles are about justifying the Big Society's slashing of state run social services to replace them with volunteerism).

The article that especially bothered me was the one by Stanley Hauerwas in which he reviews Nicholas Wolterstorff's book Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Hauerwas dislikes the idea of justice as fairness as well as Wolterstorff's idea that all people have an inherent right to justice. Instead Hauerwas embraces justice as a kind of gift given, and he uses the example of disabled people as the recipients of this gift of justice. Being a disabled person myself, I thought I'd respond. First, here's a bit of what he wrote ....

[...] Like Wolterstorff, I too want those who suffer from Alzheimers to have the care that befits their status as human beings. Such care I believe, moreover, is a matter of justice. But I do not think such care is more likely to be forthcoming or sustained by a natural right theory of justice.

Rather, what is required is the recovery of communion made possible through the works of mercy. In particular, a text such as Matthew 25:31-45 makes clear that the works of mercy are not principles or values that then must be translated into a more universal or secular vision of justice ........

I know of no book that exemplifies better this understanding of Jesus as God's justice than Hans Reinders's Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics.

Reinders observes that much good has been done in the name of disability-rights for creating new opportunities as well as institutional space for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled.

They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us and they want us to want to share our lives with them. In short they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship.

If you need an image for what it means for charity to be the form of the virtues and, in particular, justice, take this scene from Jennie Weiss Block's book, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities.

She tells the story of Jason, a fourteen year old boy with profound intellectual disabilities who was born with spina bifida. He has an enlarged head and, because his arms and legs have often been broken due to a bone disease, his limbs are twisted. He cannot feed himself and must be carefully bathed and diapered. He is cared for by Felicia Santos, who is a professional caregiver.

Weiss Block reports on a particular visit, a visit that she says changed her life, when she witnessed Felicia

"leaning forward, talking softly to Jason. He was smiling. I stood for a few minutes before speaking and watched their interaction. What I witnessed between them was the purest love - the kind of love that asks for nothing in return."

That is what charity-formed justice looks like. Such a view of justice shaped by the works of mercy will doubtless be dismissed as "philanthropy." But that is exactly the perspective that must be rejected if the justice that is the Church is not to be identified with the justice of the nation-state.

Wolterstorff worries that such justice will lack the universality necessary to sustain appeals to justice as such. But no theory of justice will be sufficient to do that work. Rather than a theory, God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden..

While I appreciate as much as the next person the idea of small communities taking care of their own based on voluntary interdependent caring and charity, I'd still prefer rights and services guaranteed by law and provided by my state. Charity and justice are not the same thing - charity keeps the powerless in their place and it depends on the good intentions of those providing it, but justice raises the powerless up to an equality in which they don't have to hope they'll be treated fairly but instead can expect it. Social services and laws may not be as warm and fuzzy as charity, but they're more dependable, have no agenda, and are in a manner of speaking the powerless helping themselves through their taxes and their votes, rather than being the recipients of largess. As for the love and friendship Hauerwas mentions, those things are not precluded by fairness guaranteed through law, and they're not guaranteed with charity - it's disingenuous to set this up as a choice between the loving kindness of charity and the cold dead emotional wasteland of institutionalized welfare. We disabled need love, yes, but we shouldn't have to buy it by giving up our rights.


Blogger Jeff said...

Amen on everything you said in that last paragraph, Crystal. I agree with everything you said.

You should tell that to the Hayek brigade on the America blog. The guys who bombard the comboxes with free-market solutions on every post that gets made in relation to public policy.

8:07 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff :)

1:17 PM  

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