Whew. The Election is over, thank goodness. I am worn slap out by this long scrum of American politics. I need to pour me a stiff glass of good ol’ boredom straight up. At times, this mean season got as exciting as a World Wrestling Entertainment coliseum spectacle. Always, it throbbed with the passion of that landmark of haute couture, “reality TV” (sic).
That said, I confess that I do like watching the show for its scrimmage matchups between teams that represent various ethical systems. Most players are (or claim to be) “utilitarian” — they try to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
There are, unfortunately, more than a few who held to an anti-ethic of “I should be allowed to do whatever the heck I want.” They have their own names for themselves. But the nicest name for them from the old world is “barbarian.”
Others are more Aristotelian, holding something known these days as “virtue ethics.” The peripatetic philosopher’s Nicomachean Ethics lists public virtues that ought to characterize every politician: Courage, with regard to fear and confidence. Temperance, concerning pleasure. Generosity, about money and property. Magnanimity (i.e., “great soul-ness”), concerning honor and shame. Gentleness, concerning anger and rage. Friendliness, concerning the “general pleasantness of life.” Truthfulness, about everything. Even a Sense of Humor, with regard to just getting along with everyone.
Politicians should be made to read the Nicomachean Ethics and pass a quiz on the text (along with written exams on history, civics, and logic). Judging from how lowbrow was this last political cycle (which seems not to have ended yet), most national and state politicians should go to remedial classes in ethics. Much, if not most, of Aristotle has been forgotten. The Founding Fathers, who were to a man classically educated, are probably “face-palming” even as we speak.
But Aristotle is not enough and never has been. That philosopher’s insufficiency may turn out to be a serious fault in the genetic makeup of the American political system, genius and a thing of beauty notwithstanding.
There is a “scrimmage team” of a different, better ethic that was represented by a few candidates in this squawk box year of the 2020 election. I’ll keep under wraps, for the time being, just who these were. But I will unveil that better ethic, a sort of political philosophy that doesn’t get covered in colleges, universities, or law schools. It might get thrown around in a few seminary classes. But let’s face it, seminary is a place where philosophy goes to languish in cobwebby obscurity.
It is precisely this sort of politics that is missing in Aristotle. It doesn’t show up at all in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham.
And while it may lurk in the background, it is hidden and silent in the Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and the history of American politics and law (which is a blend of Aristotelianism and Utilitarianism).
It is the Biblical idea of “righteousness” in the Old Testament and the New.
I grew up in Sunday School under the pedagogy of two sisters, Miss Oma and Miss Vida from the Queen Vashti Ladies’ Society and who must’ve been 300 years old. Understandably, I felt for a long while not a little put off by the idea of “righteousness.” The very word was dull and uninspiring. To me, it was a whole list of “don’ts.” As in — don’t laugh — “Don’t smoke or drink or play cards or chew, and don’t go with girls who do.”
I was way off. The whole idea that Biblical Righteousness is most assuredly not just a bunch of “Thou Shalt Nots.” Righteousness is all about “Thou Shalt,” not “Thou Shalt Not.”
Righteousness cannot be and was never meant to be just religious or confined inside the walls and stained glass windows of the church. It is necessary now more than ever for American politics. Failures on all sides and deficiencies in all politicians can be chalked up, fundamentally, to ignorance of or deliberate disregard of Biblical Righteousness.
Righteousness is all over the pages of the Old and New Testaments. It is the primary concern of politics in the nation of Israel (and later, Christendom).
“The righteous man in Israel,” wrote the brilliant Presbyterian Biblical scholar Elizabeth R Achtmeier in 1963, “was the man who preserved the peace and wholeness of the community, because it was he who fulfilled the demands of communal living. Like Job, he was a blessing to his contemporaries, and thus ‘righteousness’ is sometimes correlated with ‘mercy.’ He cared for the poor, the fatherless, the widow, even defending their cause in the law court. He gave liberally, providing also for the wayfarer and guest, counting righteousness better than any wealth. He was a good steward of his land and work animals, and his servants were treated humanely. He lived at peace with his neighbors, wishing them only good. When he was in authority, his people rejoiced, and he exalted the nation ... He was an immovable factor for good ... He lived in peace and prosperity [only] because he upheld the peace and prosperity — in short, the physical and psychical wholeness — of his community by fulfilling the demands of the community and covenant relationship. For this reason, ‘righteousness’ sometimes stands parallel with ‘shalom’ (peace) ... And for this reason, too, its meaning can be ‘truth,’ for right speech upholds the covenant relationships existing within a community.”
This goes way, way beyond my legalistic list of “don’ts” and the usual agenda of American politics. Righteousness is all about keeping relationships healthy and caring for the community: it is an all-out commitment to the people and the land, “all creatures great and small.” It prohibits individual license and excess, and all other barbarian ways.
Dr. Achtmeier listed scores of Scriptural references in parentheses at the end of each of the above definitions of Righteousness. I’d be happy to supply these references upon request (see the email address below) — this would make a great Bible Study (hint, hint), especially if y’all wanted to do a church discussion on American politics (as I hear some have been doing).
It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish or none of these, or if you’re religious or not: read your Aristotle, yes, but for American politics, read your Bible more.