This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives on Identity and Rights

In my two previous blog posts on political theory (here and here), I explored some of the fundamental ideas that separate conservatives and progressives. Here, I want to examine one other difference and add libertarians into the mix: the question of the relationship between primary identity and rights.
I argued in Conservatives and Progressives redux that conservatives and progressives have fundamentally different concepts of identity: conservatives see identity primarily as an individual matter defined principally by our choices; progressives tend to see identity primarily in terms of membership in a group, typically defined by involuntary, generally immutable characteristics. While there is much more that can be said about this (such as whether some of these “groups” really exist over time or whether the characteristics are in fact immutable), here I want to look at the implications of identity on conceptions of rights.
Conservatives argue that rights are an individual matter, and that true rights are beyond the reach of government. In the language of the Declaration of Independence, we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights—that is, rights that cannot be taken away by government. These rights come to us as individuals, not as members of any particular group. Thus equal protection under law is a vitally important principle to the true conservative.
Progressives acknowledge individual rights but tend to argue primarily in terms of group rights. Membership in a group can give special rights that are conferred on the group by the government, particularly if the group can claim past oppression. These group rights trump individual rights when the two come into conflict. As a result, equal protection under law is not a useful concept to progressives.
As an example, look at hate crimes legislation. A conservative says, if I murder you, it doesn’t matter whether the motive is robbery, a thrill kill, revenge for a perceived wrong, or race; I am guilty of murder, and I should be punished accordingly. A progressive says, no, if the motive is race, it’s more serious, as long as the person is in a protected category. Thus whites that attack blacks are presumed to be guilty of a hate crime, but blacks who target whites are not. Equal protection under law does not apply—some people get more protection than others.
Similarly, affirmative action laws say that members of protected groups have to be given special consideration in hiring or admissions to school. All other things being equal, if it comes down to a choice, the minority gets in and the member of the non-protected group does not. This is usually justified on the grounds that it is a remedy for past discrimination, but the person who is not admitted is not the one who was guilty of discrimination. In other words, to ensure equality, some candidates are given preferences based on race or gender, while others are in effect disadvantaged for the same reasons through no fault of their own.
Unionization is another example. If I want to work for a unionized company, I must join the union whether I want to or not. The union’s rights as an identity group trump my right to free association and to enter into a contract freely with my employer. And what’s more, I have to pay for the privilege of joining the group that I am forced into if I want my job.
All of these are defended on the grounds that without them, we would be back in the bad old days when racial discrimination was rife and when businesses routinely abused their employees. The conservative response is that you do not fix one kind of discrimination by instituting another: violating individual rights is wrong, no matter what the reason and no matter who the victim.
The conflict between group and individual rights can get very complicated. Same sex relationships are a case in point. How do the different groups negotiate the balance between individual rights, group rights, and other social considerations in this case? I will explore this issue in a future article or blog post.

Monday, May 21, 2012

New article: Biblical Succession

My new article is up at the Colson Center. It's about biblical models of succession and is based on a devotional I did at the Centurions graduation this year.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Echoes of Eden

I’ve been away for five of the last six weekends, with the sixth being Easter, and the end of the semester hit this past week, so my blogging has been almost non-existent lately. I have been thinking about different things, though, and so I’d like to put in a bit of theological speculation here.
I have a friend from China whom I’ll call “Faith” (not her real name). She was visiting us at one point and commented that she couldn’t figure out why Americans like to have animals in their houses—it struck her as a strange thing to do. I don’t know if that was just Faith, or if there was something in her cultural background that led her to that conclusion.
She’s not alone. Some Puritan divines thought that having pets was a frivolous waste of resources.
As the owner of an Australian shepherd and two cats, I must admit that there are times when I’m inclined to agree with Faith. I didn’t grow up with normal pets—all of ours were cold-blooded, invertebrates, or rodents. And sometimes, they can be a pain. But I would genuinely miss the animals if they were gone, especially Scooby (our Aussie), who is getting on in years.
So I began wondering about pets. I know they exist in lots of cultures. Dogs are used for hunting and herding; people keep birds and sometimes hunt with them; cats have been used to control vermin and even as guard animals. But even aside from working animals, people around the world keep animals for companionship. Shar Peis were bred to be companions in China, as were Pekinese. Dogs and cats are common pets in all European cultures, and our Compassion International child in India had a pet goat. I know very few young children who aren’t fascinated by animals and want to pet them.
So what is it about animals that so intrigues us?
I think the answer lies in our past and our future.
The Bible tells us that with the fall of humanity into sin, it estranged us from God, from our neighbor, from ourselves, and from nature. The vision the Bible gives us of Eden suggests a place and time where people lived in perfect harmony with the natural world, a harmony that is now broken.
The harmony of Eden is something we long for, and its restoration is promised in Scripture. Isaiah gives us a picture of our eschatological hope, a redeemed world in which:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Is. 11:6-9)
In other words, in the New Heavens and New Earth promised in Scripture, the harmony of nature will be restored. The Gospel of the Kingdom promises no less than Jesus, who is Lord of all, making all things new and restoring and redeeming our broken world to wholeness once again.
In light of this, I suggest that our love for animals is a distant echo of Eden and an anticipation of the redemption of all Creation in Christ. It’s something people are instinctively drawn to, as the image of God in us cries out for its fulfillment in being stewards of God’s Creation.
So I’m sorry, I can’t agree with the Puritan divines on this one. Hopefully, Faith, if she reads this, will understand a little better the charm in having animals. And for those of you who do have pets, I encourage you to see yourself as stewards of Creation before God as you take care of them, and look forward to the day when the harmony of nature is fully restored by Christ.