false moral equivalence

Weapons-Grade False Moral Equivalence

As a child I remember hearing that God views all sins as equally bad. Let me be quick to say: I think that’s a load of crap.

If your understanding of God centers on a forensic view in which God acts as a judge capable only of binary judgment, then maybe that works. However, this notion requires that one understand God as lacking something crucial to good moral judgment–wisdom. Seeing human action as either ones or zeroes doesn’t require God, but a punch card reader.

The argument about God viewing all sins as equally bad depends for its intelligibility on a particular view of the atonement popularized by St. Anselm in his 11th century treatise, Cur Deus Homo, [1] which introduced the Satisfaction Theory of atonement. In brief, the Satisfaction Theory of atonement asserts that God’s honor is of such importance that even the most minor slight against that honor (i.e., sin) must be satisfied, which is to say, put right, so that honor may be restored.

Why, one might be tempted to ask, is God’s honor the overriding concern? This issue of God’s honor made perfect sense in the eleventh century when European feudalism was the dominant model of socio-economic organization. Feudalism, a system that offered land for military service, relied on a very tightly controlled series of relationships in which every person owed loyalty and honor to the person just above in the social ladder–from the lowest vassals all the way up to the lord. Infractions against loyalty and honor, even minor occurrences by “minor” personages, threaten the whole system. Therefore, honor had to be guarded vigilantly against any affront.

The Satisfaction Theory presupposes that the relationship of God to humanity approximates the feudal relationship between lord (God, in this case) and vassals (humans). On this reading, any sin, no matter its severity, calls into question the integrity of God’s role as lord, and must, therefore, be put right, so as to preserve the lord’s honor. Jesus’ work on the cross, according to Anselm, was that which put right all affronts to God’s honor.

Setting aside whether Anselm’s description of the saving work of Jesus in the Satisfaction Theory of atonement works as a metaphor (I think it doesn’t), it explains how it is that many Christians have come to view all sins as equal before God. As I’ve said, though, I don’ think it paints a particularly flattering view of God, who, in this view, is so worried about being affronted that genocide and going 56 mph in 55 mph zone are equally damning trespasses. One slight, no matter how minor …

Why the lesson in the history of theology?

False moral equivalence.

I wrote an article recently, based on the story of the Widow’s Mite. In the article I suggested that in Luke’s hands, the story of the Widow’s Mite is a way of challenging a system that pressures a poor widow (arguably the most vulnerable class of people in the ancient Near East) to forfeit her last two bits so that she too can have some “skin in the game.” What Jesus was getting at, I argued, was that his followers have no stake in propping up a system that valorizes the wealthy and the power it takes to keep them so, while creating an atmosphere that leaves the poor feeling that they need to do more in order to have some “skin in the game.”

My interpretation of the Widow’s Mite raised at least one objection for some readers. The objection, genuinely expressed, is an example of false moral equivalence. In short, the objection can be stated this way:

“Ok. So, the rich (represented politically and religiously by right-wing conservative fundamentalists) can be greedy. But, what about the poor (represented by left-wing liberal mainliners) who are envious, and seek to shame the rich? Aren’t they equally culpable? Clearly, there is sin on both sides of the spectrum that balances out in the end.”

I want to suggest that to believe that the sins of the rich and the poor named here carry the same moral weight, one has to be convinced that all sins are equally grievous to God–which belief many of us were taught from early on. As I’ve said, though, I think that’s a load of crap.

First, and most obviously, a metaphor predicated on feudalism starts with a host of problems, not least of which is a picture of God in which God is, at least in part, defined by a relationship to those whom God rules. That is to say, on this view, God, as lord of the manor, needs vassals in order to be lord. God gives in order to gain protection. Doesn’t work.

Second, equating all sins, contending that they have the same moral weight, does not match anyone’s experience of life. Human jurisprudence, in every situation I’m aware of, meticulously measures the moral differences between acts.[2] Shoplifting and armed robbery are both instances of stealing, but nobody outside a freshman philosophy class would argue that they’re the same thing; it’s certainly not a strong argument to carry into a courtroom.

Third, it is impossible to read scripture (Hebrew or Christian) and come away blithely saying that God treats the sins of the rich the same as God treats the sins of the poor. A cursory examination of scripture shows that God is often put out with people because of iniquity, that Jesus is regularly vexed by people’s sin. But, it’s probably important if we’re going to speak about moral equivalence to note who and for what sins people come under the withering glare of celestial judgment.

The people who most often find themselves on the sharp end of the divine stick tend to be those who have power and wealth. But it’s not just power and wealth as such that cause so much trouble; it’s the use of that power and wealth in ways that reify structures meant to keep the powerless and the poor … powerless and poor.

A few examples.

From Isaiah:

“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?” (10:1–3a).

From Amos:

“Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7a).

From Luke:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (6:24–26).

I know. I know. I can hear the stunned gasps: “You’re proof-texting, cherry picking the scriptures that make your point.”

Fair enough. But first let me ask, “What’s my point?”

Equating the greed and power-grabbing of the rich and the well-situated with the “envy” of the poor is a theological red herring.

So, here’s my question:

What are the proof texts that condemn with the same vigor the “envy” of the poor?

Where, for instance, is the prophetic counterpart of Isaiah and Amos who condemns nations because the poor want more than their poverty? Where is the alternate passage that corresponds with Luke’s sermon on the plain, asserting that it is the rich, the sated, and the happy who will be blessed–and woe to the poor, the hungry, and the mourning?

Permit me a few additional points:

  1. I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that the poor don’t suffer from envy. They do. They’re not perfect. I’m not arguing that the poor are sinless. However, I fear that what gets categorized as the “envy” of the poor, is often no more than an acute desire not to be poor anymore. If you happen to be on fire in the midst of a bunch of people who swimming leisurely in a swimming pool, wanting to be like those around you who are not engulfed in flames, wanting not to be on fire, in other words, isn’t envy; it’s a normal human response to living in hell.
  2. Neither am I saying that rich people are evil because they’re rich. By most standards used by the rest of the world, I’m among the rich myself. What I am saying is that if the preponderance of scripture is to be believed, the burden of proof falls on the rich to show why they are a part of the solution and not part of the problem.
  3. Am I constructing a straw man? I don’t think so. I believe that there are a number of Christians who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to square their participation in a system in which the deck is so clearly stacked in favor of the wealthy and the powerful with their participation as disciples following a man whose ministry had, as one of its organizing concerns, challenging that same kind of oppressive system–and who, when it all came down to it, died poor and powerless. And the only way I can see to do it is through a series of contortions of the conscience that winds up sounding something like, “Ok. So the fact of being rich carries with it real challenges to Christian faithfulness (prosperity gospelers to the contrary notwithstanding), but the fact of being poor is just as risky to faithfulness.” That bit of rationalization is a straw man of a whole different magnitude.

In this case, the false moral equivalence between the rich and the poor can be construed as avoidance therapy for people with a vested interest in keeping everything the way it is–a peculiar stance, I would think, for people committed to the disruption of the reign of God.

I know. I’ve used it myself.

In the hands of those at the top of the food chain, false moral equivalence is a weapon.

  1. Lit. “Why God Man?” Perhaps more clearly, “Why did God have to become a human being?”  ↩
  2. The undergraduate argument that “you can’t legislate morality” is another load of crap. Legislation is, for good or ill, the codification of moral convictions about what it is right and wrong to do. That the act may be right or wrong as a matter of political or economic convenience doesn’t make its embodiment in law any less a pursuit of some moral vision of the world. You may not be able to legislate all morality, but the legislation you have is at least informed by some moral conviction about how the world ought to be.  ↩