the new morality: perspectives (pt. 2)

In the last post, I defined the terms “social virtues” and “personal virtues.”

While guarding against a reactionary response that would disregard social virtues altogether, I hope to show why personal virtues deserve renewed attention.

The key insight of the new morality is a crucial one: that in order to treat all people justly, it is imperative to see them, and ourselves, within a vast context of social factors that have been unjustly contrived by history. Without that context in mind, our biases inevitably influence our judgments in ways we’re blind to.

While social virtues can be highly useful in redressing culturally entrenched injustices and creating a welcoming social environment for diverse people, they fail to compose a complete ethical system. We must be careful not to overemphasize them at the expense of personal virtues, for at least three reasons:

  1. Viewing people primarily through the lenses of systems and categories of identity can rob people of their individuality and neglect other aspects of their humanity and personality.
  2. In “real life,” in the constant and mundane interactions between persons, it’s personal virtues that actually improve relationships and promote well-being.
  3. The new morality of social virtue is subject to all the same flaws of any moral system that is imposed on people, including Pharisaicalism and harsh distinctions between law-keepers and law-breakers.

For points 1 and 2, consider the case of my friend, Raven. Among other things, she is a black transgender woman recovering from drug addiction and experiencing chronic homelessness. In terms of systems of oppression, she is socially disadvantaged in nearly every possible way. She is also a Christian believer who loves to sing and make other people smile with funny stories and kindness. According to her, these latter characteristics are at least as important to her sense of self as the former ones, and probably more important. An awareness of social virtues is necessary for me as a white cisgender woman to engage her with utmost respect, informed by the recognition that she has lived her whole life in a social world with little room for her in it. However, this awareness alone is not enough. In fact, it would be an unfair underappreciation of her humanity to view her exclusively through the lens of oppression; in this way I would rob her of her personhood despite my good intentions. To treat her with true justice, my interactions with her must also be characterized by the personal virtues of humility, “brotherly kindness,” good listening, and, ultimately, “agape” love. Love in this sense requires a comprehensive attempt to truly know and understand her, rather than seeing her merely as a matrix point of social injustice.

Consider another case: my friend, Brett. He is a white, straight, middle class male with a college degree. In terms of systems of oppression, in stark contrast to Raven, he is socially advantaged in nearly every possible way. In our cultural context, social virtue almost obligates me to “open his eyes” to the myriad ways the world has positioned him for success. Yet, it is still important for me to approach him with the personal virtues of respect, good listening, and, ultimately, the same “agape” love I have for Raven, because otherwise I rob him of his individuality in the same way I was tempted to rob Raven of hers. Things like his complicated relationship with his father and his aspirations to enter the ministry have to do with who he really is, more so than his lucky social positioning. Again, as with Raven, love here is the personal virtue that requires a comprehensive view of his personhood, beyond his categories of identity, even if I’m opposed to the systems and patterns from which he disproportionately benefits.

Balancing social and personal virtues in this way is admittedly difficult. Focusing exclusively on personal virtues would fail to account for the immense discrepancies between people like Raven and Brett. Personal virtues alone would leave Brett unchallenged in his position of relative ease, and they would leave Raven unaided with the heavy burden of finding a place for herself in a society not built for her. This would be a grave injustice. Yet, social virtues alone eventually rob both individuals of their full humanity by neglecting their personalities, their beliefs, their character, and their choices from discussions of their “identity.” Most real people, especially those untrained by the new morality, view these dimensions of themselves as more central and more inalienable to their personhood than the categories of identity typically highlighted by social virtues. Thus, both types of virtues are necessary for a more well-rounded ethical system.

Perhaps the biggest danger of elevating social virtues at the expense of personal ones is that it lends itself to Pharisaicalism and overly hard lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” We saw this in the aftermath of the last election, for example. Using social virtues as an absolute standard, progressives drew hard lines between “bad” Trump supporters and “good” Trump critics, ultimately exhibiting the same prejudice and class-based discrimination that they claimed to condemn. This is the downfall inherent in any strict moral system. It creates Pharisees who define the rules of the moral game so that only they and their imitators can win it, and then they punish those who break the rules. In the old morality, the sexually promiscuous were the “bad guys” while those with good families were the “good guys,” even if the prostitutes were generous and the family men were racists. In the new morality, the patriotic conservatives are the “bad guys” while the social activists are the “good guys,” even if the conservatives are kind and the activists are selfish in their private lives. Both the old and new systems focus on a narrow set of moral values that only their architects can police, ultimately to the neglect of other equally important values. Such Pharisaicalism leaves out many well-intentioned people and embitters many others.

To move forward, we must first recognize what social virtues are and what makes them distinctive from competing moral frameworks. This new morality has provided us with vital insights into the patterns of injustice in our society, and many of those insights should be preserved. But, we must also guard against the inherent dangers of any moral system that becomes increasingly condemning and myopic over time. And, we must recover personal virtues as fundamental for individual character development, healthy human relationships, and the ultimate well-being of communities.

the new morality: definitions (pt. 1)

As I and my generation have come of age in the past ten years, we have brought about significant changes in how we define ethics in American society. We’re still in the middle of those changes, and it may be premature to start commenting on them already. Yet, as someone with experience in both of America’s ideological worlds – raised in conservative suburbia, then educated at large public university and now surrounded by urban progressives – it has become important for me to try to understand what is driving the emerging definitions of right and wrong, and to decide where I stand in relation to them, especially as a Christian. I think one of the most paradigmatic changes happening is the shifting of emphasis from personal virtues to social virtues.

In part 1, I’ll try to define these terms. In part 2, I’ll look at some of the dangers brought about by the new morality and argue for a more balanced relationship between the two types of virtue.

By personal virtues I mean moral values that every individual ought to practice, thought of as universal and not considered in light of who the individual is or what part of the world they are interacting with. These are the virtues that religion and philosophy invented: patience, self-control, generosity, kindness. They are what a person has when he or she is a “good person.”

By social virtues I mean moral values that, unlike personal virtues, do not aim at individual character development, but rather at the perfection of social systems. In practice, they depend on who an individual is in the world, and who they’re interacting with, centering around categories of identity including race, sex, class, sexual orientation, gender (non)conformity, geography, politics, religion…etc. The socially virtuous person is the person who acknowledges what we refer to as patriarchy, white privilege, and heteronormativity and who recognizes the harm these cultural systems have inflicted on people in certain identity categories.

In response, the socially virtuous person seeks to reject and replace these systems with the virtues that contemporary academia, and my generation as a whole, invented: using socially sensitive language (such as gender neutral terms and preferred pronouns), creating art and media that challenge identity-based character tropes, honoring those whose identities have been subject to compounded social exclusion, and generally redefining what is considered “praiseworthy” on the basis of who one is and what one has experienced rather than a standardized measurement of “merit.” Underlying this ethical system is the recognition that cultural values (especially in 21st century, multicultural America) don’t arise out of a vacuum, but are imposed by powerful people on less powerful people and are thus loaded with inherent bias. Therefore, creating a more just society involves not only helping less powerful people become “successful,” but also redefining what we think of as success. At least in theory, white-straight-men relinquish their power to define “what matters,” and give it to everyone else to define for themselves. (In practice, I think the new definitions of “what matters” still tend to come from concentrated centers such as academia and popular media, which may be an inescapable feature of any ethical system.)

Because these cultural systems are so pervasive and have such immense explanatory power, discovering them feels like truly understanding the world for the first time. Thus, becoming socially virtuous in this way typically begins with a sort of “conversion story,” e.g. I once was blind to systemic racism but now I see. It also demands continual moral improvement: you start by recognizing economic gender discrepancies, but you later progress into deeper levels of insight into gender performance and masculine fragility. Again, these insights are persuasive and even captivating because of their power to explain “society”: why women aren’t CEOs, why crime is so high in urban black neighborhoods, why white men voted for Trump.

In the next post, I’ll look at what can happen when only social virtues are emphasized and personal ones are lost.

just enough loneliness

What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear — Dag Hammarskjöld

The second chapter of Genesis teaches that at the core of our make-up is a need for human relationships and the sharing of selves: “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” But then, the third chapter of Genesis teaches that one of the most devastating consequences of humanity’s alienation from God is our alienation from each other: “they knew that they were naked so they made coverings for themselves.” One of the implications of this relational alienation is that loneliness, to one degree or another, is our new normal.

In myriad ways, modern society aggravates this post-Fall loneliness, in our atomized living arrangements, our solitary commutes to work, our screens, our cultural divisions, our lack of shared spaces, the list goes on. Some groups are especially vulnerable—singles, old people, and gay men, for example—but no one is immune.

Too much loneliness can drive you into a deep, depressive hole. It’s physically unhealthy, as bad as chain-smoking or obesity. Measured against God’s design, it’s also deeply unnatural for no one else to know about the hopes and fears rattling around in your mind every day, and for your meals to be consistently accompanied by screens and not faces. Too much loneliness can literally take the life out of you.

There’s something more to be said, though, because it turns out that just enough loneliness can move us towards new ways of connecting with others that we may not have otherwise explored. When leveraged well, just enough loneliness can push us out of our vortex of self-centeredness, towards empathy and service.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that it’s easier for unmarried people to serve God wholeheartedly because they don’t have to divide their attention between what God wants and what their spouse wants. Perhaps we could also say that it’s easier for lonely people—those with more unscheduled time and greater openness to new relationships—to serve others devotedly. To say it another way, having a happy family to come home to every night provides innumerable benefits, but it also provides the spiritual dangers of complacency and indifference to the world’s pain. Just enough loneliness can push us out of ourselves, out of our living rooms, into the lives of other lonely people who need to be reconciled to God, and who need the gift of human company.

If you experience loneliness, try not to waste it. Use it well, in order to better understand the sufferings and shortcomings of others, and to serve others without needing to impress anyone. Don’t share your meal with a screen if you can share it with a neighbor.

To Christians who are single and celibate, whether as a temporary season or as a long-term vocation, this idea is especially poignant. To me it feels both painful and encouraging to think that God can use our loneliness to help us become better servants and lovers of our neighbors. I would love to say that empathy and service take away that loneliness, and that you’ll find the kind of relational connection you’re longing for among “the least of these.” But the truth is that they often don’t, and that you probably won’t, because service means giving of yourself without looking for repayment. What you will find, though, is God’s blessing (Luke 14:13-14). In that blessing there is a deep, sober joy.

I think of Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who fell in love with men various times over the course of his life and yet fulfilled his vows. Only his closest friends knew of his homosexuality. He spent the last decade of his life living and working among the mentally ill, and writing about the spiritual life. His loneliness was painful, yet it was that loneliness which drove him to a radical level of service, and to a profound depth of insight into the love of God. Both in spite of and because of his loneliness he was well-acquainted with the blessing of his Father and the joy therein.

More than anyone, I think of Jesus: the only righteous one in a world of sinners, the only one who loved God in a world of idolaters, the only one who saw the truth in a world of blind guides. He understood even their thoughts, and yet no one understood him. Who has known loneliness like the Son of God among men? Yet by his wounds we are healed—and by his loneliness we are known, accepted, received, and beloved. May we learn something about loneliness, and love, from him.

Praying

sometimes I start out praying

on my knees

eyes closed and dry

elbows on the bed

fingers locked and still

head even-keeled

my whole body piously symmetrical

the Thank You For The Food kind of praying

the In Jesus’ Name Amen kind of praying

praying in a posture I can get behind

 

what happens next happens slowly

an arm lies down

a forehead seeking shelter

eyes open in the blanket

legs crossed or bouncing

a shoulder blade protruding

my body wondering who’s listening

the Please Have Mercy On Me kind of praying

the I Don’t Know If I Can Do This kind of praying

whispering my sins into the mattress

 

sometimes I end up praying

on my bed

eyes closed and wet

hands above my head

fists in the pillow

legs at awkward angle

my whole body in desperate display

the Oh Father Father Father kind of praying

the No More Words Just Needs kind of praying

falling into everlasting arms and sleeping

Split Custody

I left home last night

And got home this morning.

Te digo que llegué a casa por fin. 

Back home it was raining in the chilly black air;

Here at home it’s humid with an endless blue ceiling.

Tal vez la humedad me hace bien después de ese invierno de castigo.

The manner of speaking is musical;

It’s got a lilt you’d have to know to listen for.

Es que noo-mbre, pucha vos, ya llegastes, gracias a Dios.

The lilt that is the song stuck in my head when I’m home;

I can’t stop myself from parroting.

Hasta mis amigos mexicanos me dicen que hablo igual a ustedes.

It’s like split custody, and you love them both;

They just take care of you different.

Dos países, dos padres, que me cuidan bien.

 

Needs

Her love for God is that of a desperate man;

     she worries what would happen with her needs met.

The problem isn’t the landscape, it’s the line;

     this city is too falsely modest for her.

No one refers to her as a nice lady;

     she is violently kind in a womanly way.

Children speculate about what’s in her purse;

     friends see hammered rhymes and cover art in there.

The problem isn’t the sacred, it’s the saint;

     the bread and wine go down like forty proof gin.

Her love for God is that of a dying thief;

     she wonders what would happen with her needs met.

generational losses & gains

The social commentary on my generation has already been prolific, and there is little to add in terms of the overarching trends, re: technology, identity politics, and mental health. So, here are just a few thoughts about what Millennial Christians seem to have both lost and gained, in comparison to our 20th century forebears. (Painting in broad strokes, of course.)

What We’ve Largely Lost

1. Doctrinal conviction.

Beliefs matter. They certainly impact life, and according to every religion, they impact the afterlife too. Whether God is a unity or a trinity, whether judgment day is real, whether our private actions matter in any transcendent sense – such questions deserve answers. Committed, convicted answers, even. Many of us are prepared to draw definitive lines on only a tiny fraction of the doctrines that former generations took for granted. Some attribute this to a fear of unpopularity or of causing offense, and that’s part of it. But I think it has more to do with our collective self-doubt. “What if I’m wrong?” And it feels more like a what-if-I’m-wrong than a what-if-we’re-wrong. Something about that personal assertion carries a lot of cultural baggage for us, and it leaves us with more grey areas than necessary.

2. Private religious practice as a legitimate barometer of spirituality.

Good ol’ Christian morals, like regular church attendance, private prayer, a sober lifestyle, and sexual chastity have slid a long way down the priorities list for us. Our recognition that such habits do not equate to godliness has overextended itself, so that we fail to see them as playing any major role in measuring the authenticity of our faith. This becomes especially problematic when we fault our churches or even God for our apathy, while ignoring the basic spiritual disciplines that have always sustained Christianity in personal lives.

What We’ve Gained

1. Better listening skills.

Young Christians seem to be much more willing to hear from other denominations and traditions. There seems to be less of a feedback loop, and more of an ecumenical spirit. Perhaps this is because unity and cross-pollination are more vital in the face of social marginalization than in times of social hegemony. I, personally, have been immensely helped and influenced by the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and liberal Protestant viewpoints that I’ve been exposed to, despite continuing disagreements. Our generation has also greatly benefited from our willingness to hear out the scientists, the mental health professionals, the Muslims, “the gays,” etc. Christian truth sometimes complements, sometimes disrupts, these other versions of reality, but in general we grow intellectually weaker by staying in the echo chamber and intellectually stronger when we engage constructively with the rest of the world.

2. The long-overdue disentanglement of “God” and “country.”

This could also be called “the long-overdue disentanglement of Christianity and the Republican Party.” Jesus never came to be an earthly messiah. He never founded any empires. For too long, American Christians have been looking for him to the build the American Dream (and, tacitly, the American Empire). They’ve tried to use laws, rather than the gospel, to make people moral. The current election has highlighted this generational divide in a painful way. Older Christians have largely made excuses for the appalling behavior and rhetoric of the Republican nominee, in the name of specific policies or (more often) in the name of defeating his opponent, while younger Christians have been baffled and disturbed by this willingness to compromise the reputation of the faith for the sake of politics. Few would call America a “Christian nation” anymore, and many of us see this as a move in a much more Christlike direction.

3. A more holistic approach to engaging with society.

It’s amazing to me how many of my friends – the majority, easily – aspire to “do good” in their career aspirations, much more than they aspire to “do well” financially. Young Christians seem to have a solid grasp of how the gospel impacts all areas of life and all parts of creation. Christ’s influence on our public allegiances is not relegated to our opinions on abortion or gay marriage. His love for us drives us to the edges of our comfort zones: racially, economically, geographically, for the victims, for the sexual minorities, for the undeserving poor. That impacts our politics, our career goals, our decisions about where to live, and our choices about who we marry, or if we marry.

What Neither Generation Seems To Have Figured Out, Yet

1. The difference between the love and affirmation.

Our parents’ generation couldn’t affirm, so they didn’t love. Because of that we think that we can’t love unless we also affirm. Yes, I’m thinking primarily of the “how should the Christians deal with the gays?” question. Notice how the question itself presupposes two distinct groups at play, with little crossover. Neither generation has answered that question in anything like a satisfactory way, if you value love and truth at the same time, or if you value pastoral care even a little bit.

I would love to hear feedback on this.

What else have we Millennials lost, gained, or not yet tackled?

 

Still There

I was hoping for a rainy Sunday, or a federal Monday

for some quiet hum or a morning in bed

for a reposed window seat or a walk down the sidewalk

where no other feet are feeling their way about.

I was putting stock in a change of pace to decrease my heartrate

running is good for the vessel but bad for the blood.

I was counting on a breath of air to refresh my mental state

A/C is good for the clothing but bad for the skin.

I was wanting to go out, or in.

I was hoping for a change of something,

for a change of something,

for a change

in general.

I was trusting in a change of something.

 

Then I got a day off,

and it rained,

and I stayed in bed all day,

and I was still there.

God Won

it is salty

it tickles the fleshy underside of his foot a little

it is pooling in the hollows above his collarbone

warms him up

 

blood like a woman caressing the tendons in his back

blood behind his ears and in his eyes

and he can’t rub it out

blood won’t leave him alone

 

he has never noticed tiredness in his fingernails before

or in his skin

there is pain in his hair

that is new

 

someone in his skull is banging hard on the door

let me out

these gates are shut from the outside

you’re trapped in there for good

 

he wanted God

God wanted him

and God won

Rich White America

I’m from Rich White America, the human race’s one percent.

I’m from daily dinners with Dad and Mom,

cul-de-sac calm and patio parties

and nothing but failure to fear.

I’m from baby books, photo books

children’s books, classic books –

books that they would read to me so I would ace the SAT.

I’m from big grass yards and imaginary friends;

all the wars I fought were sticks and pirate ships.

I’m from homework help and holidays,

spring break trips and soccer games.

I’m from homemade meals and fresh fruit in the fridge.

I’m from innocence and warmth,

crystallized on Christmas with five presents just for me.

I’m from self-inflicted issues with a satisfied stomach

and a sheltered safe haven from violence;

even sickness was sorry to disturb the peace.

I’m from landlocked tears and

and keeping one’s emotions in one’s room.

 

I’m from everything you didn’t have.

Does it help if shame and loneliness are familiar faces in this fairy tale?

If anxiety and depression are the starlets on this silver screen?

Rich White America is the strangest of normals,

and I’m not saying that it’s fair.

So please tell me instead, where you’re from?