Free Speech, Amazon and Your Community

In the name of supporting freedom of expression and consumer choice, Amazon made a controversial book available for sale to Kindle users: “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct.” According to an MSNBC news article, the book offers “advice to pedophiles afraid of becoming the center of retaliation.” According to the author, his work is (misspellings his own) his “attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian rules for these adults to follow.”

The reviews on the book’s page reflected the outrage of many of Amazon’s patrons, to whom Amazon defended their choice to sell the book. Responding that “it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable…we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.”

The purpose of free speech

Amazon is correct in that they do have the freedom to publish such material. But does that mean they should?

When it was included in the Bill of Rights, free speech was not designated arbitrarily. It was included to protect an individual’s rights from being trampled by the federal government—not to give the individual permission to do whatever he wanted. Freedom of speech is foundational to all other freedoms because it preserves space for dissent, for ideas and opinions to be heard—but it is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to pursue truth.

In order for truth to surface in public dialogue, there must be public space for a free exchange of ideas. Wendell Berry, in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” argues that freedom exists because people will disagree, and that freedom is “a way of guaranteeing to individuals and to political bodies the right to be different from one another.”

Notice that Berry does not say that free speech is protected for the purpose of doing what we want—it exists for the good of society. Because freedom is not the license to do whatever we please, our individual freedoms come with corresponding duties to our communities. In the case of this book, Amazon is the private individual and the community is all the families that shop

Why Amazon was right to remove the book

After a few days, Amazon removed the book from its site, presumably because of the public outcry and threats of boycott. And they were right to do so. Respect for the community should not be taken lightly. According to Barry, only the sphere of community can mediate between public and private interests.

Community “identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests”—namely, virtues such as trust, temperance, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. In order for communities to flourish, they must encourage these virtues. Properly functioning communities will “invariably, not as a rule . . . enforce decency without litigation.”

Absent this idea of community, where decency is encouraged, “private” comes to mean an area which individuals defend as space for doing what they please, even if this includes limiting or destroying the rights of others. The community alone has the power to influence behavior by dictating “what works and what does not work in a given place.” Only a community can determine for itself what is good and what is harmful.

Community has an interest in being able to protect itself. And for the sake of freedom of speech, the public ought to let it. But free speech is not an absolute right. It only exists as people concur that it should. Says Berry, “One person alone cannot uphold the freedom of speech…[It] is a public absolute, and it can remain absolute only so long as a sufficient segment of the public believes that it is and consents to uphold it. It is an absolute that can be destroyed by public opinion…If this freedom is abused and if a sufficient segment of the public becomes sufficiently resentful of the abuses, then the freedom will be revoked. It is a freedom, therefore, that depends directly on responsibility. And so the First Amendment alone is not a sufficient guarantee of the freedom of speech (emphasis added).

The standards of a community ought to be considered because the community is a part of “the people” whose support is necessary to uphold free speech as a right. This is why it is not right for Amazon to ignore the opinions of the community in the name of free speech alone.

Amazon is correct: individuals do have the right to make their own purchasing decisions. However, when the community complains, Amazon ought to listen.  Communities are rightfully interested in their own self-preservation, and this includes upholding some sort of moral standard. Where public laws exist to bind the government to a particular arena, communities exist to uphold morality and decency, and to tell people how they ought to live. The government should not do this, and an individual alone cannot. Therefore, we must rely on the community to be the mediating pathway in many areas. If a community determines that it ought to uphold certain standards of decency, the public sphere ought to listen. If free speech exists only because the majority of people support it, individuals should not destroy that which allows the community to flourish with their freedom– lest they lose it.

Finally, it is right that the government not control what books Amazon sells. It is dangerous when the government involves itself in our ability to freely exchange ideas. Yes, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct” is offensive. However, the government should not make a law, and it will not have to, if the community is allowed to function properly. Decency will be encouraged, and there will be no desire—or need—for litigation.

When Govenment is a Bureaucratic Babel

When a man claims he can build a tower so tall that it reaches God, raise your eyebrows and ask skeptical questions. Beyond warnings against architectural hubris, the story of the Tower of Babel also says much about modern understandings of government.

Continue reading When Govenment is a Bureaucratic Babel

Not Your Own

If there’s one thing most people agree on, it’s that human beings have an unqualified right to do what they want with their own bodies.

There are, of course, a few exceptions, most of which are mired in debate.  For example, should a minor be able to get a tattoo or piercing without parental consent?  Even in such cases, however, the notion of absolute, individual autonomy is rarely questioned (in the example I just gave, the question is whether parental rights over their children outweigh the child’s autonomy, not autonomy itself).

As with most things in the Christian worldview, here also we find our deepest cultural assumptions challenged.  The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, writes:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again…

Within the context of marriage, Paul actually asserts that the spouse has authority over one’s body.  A wife has the right to her husband’s body, and vice versa.

This passage could be twisted by the wicked into a pretext for rape, but that is clearly not what Paul means.  Such authority does not turn one’s spouse into a plaything.  Rather, Paul is arguing that within certain contexts we do not have the unqualified right to do whatever we please.

In this case, he is focused on the sin of sexual immorality.  Though we are free in Christ to do many things, including expressing our sexuality, we are not free to do so in any way we see fit.  In marriage, we belong to another person.  Crass expressions like referring to one’s wife as “the old ball and chain” are a twisted reflection of this truth.  When you have a husband or a wife, you are no longer free to say, “It’s my body, and I will use it as I see fit.”  Your body belongs to another.

Ultimately, of course, your body does not belong to your spouse (especially for those who aren’t married!), but to God Himself.  And He has a deeper claim on how you ought to use your body than a spouse could ever have.  Literally everything done on any given day should be accomplished, first and foremost, with the glory of God in mind.  That’s a big task, and it doesn’t leave much time for thinking about your own rights.

Freedom from any sort of enslavement is a good thing, or else God’s own Son would not have died to set us free from our bondage to sin.  I’m glad we live in a libertarian society where I won’t be fined or put in jail for refusing to give my spouse her conjugal rights.

But this passage ought to reorient our thinking generally away from a “me-and-my-rights” mentality.  In human sexuality, I ought to be thinking first about how best to love my wife, not how to satisfy myself.  I would call this simply obligation or duty, but that would fail to fully capture what Paul is teaching here.  As the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 1, puts it:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own,

but belong—

body and soul,

in life and in death—

to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

A Time for Silence

President Obama should not speak in support of the Iranians protesting the recent presidential elections.  In fact, no US official, in power or out of it, should publicly support them.

First, it’s redundant.  Is there any doubt that anyone in Iran (much less, the world) knows whose side the Americans are on in this conflict?  A diverse population, young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity, Persian and Arab, male and female, are uniting in peaceful protest in the streets of Iran’s major cities, marching in silence against corruption and violence in their electoral system.  The protests echo the footsteps on US-80 to Montgomery, and earlier ones to the sea at Dandi.  It is a movement that is growing exponentially by the day, with almost 3 million people reported at rallies today to mourn those murdered by the Basij for participating.  Is there even a chance that the world might question, especially in light of recent clashes with Ahmadenijad, what outcome American leaders favor?

Second, it would undermine the movement.  The election wasn’t about American-Iranian relations.  The protests don’t even represent a massive ideological divide in the Iranian electorate.  As many commentators have observed, Mousavi’s policies aren’t dramatically dissimilar to those of Ahmadenijad.  This movement is about political legitimacy.  Iran is an illiberal democracy, a system with the trappings and functions of a democratic state but without the guaranteed civil rights and civil liberties necessary to maintain a true democracy.  The Guardian Council decides who may or may not run for office, but the Iranian people expect that the elections themselves will be legitimately decided by the voters.

This election was obviously and audaciously rigged.  The movement is a genuine, grassroots rejection of the results by the electorate.  Already, the Iranian government is attempting to prove that the U.S. and Israel are behind the protests, to discredit this as genuine outrage on behalf of the citizens of Iran.  We must not lend aid to that attempt at propaganda.  We must not cut the legs out from under our brothers and sisters who refuse to be silenced.  Our speech would silence them in their own country.

Third, it would endanger the protesters.  Ahmadenijad was elected by the skin of his teeth in 2005.  His popularity has declined as he failed to make good on any of his campaign promises.  The only popularity he seems able to retain in the electorate is what he gets from being an outspoken opponent of the U.S.  The more we oppose him, the more powerful he gets.  Some analysts have even speculated that he would have no power at all in Iran if not for the Bush administration’s rhetoric.  The rhetoric was intended to call him out, but some argue that it merely gave him legitimacy within the country (especially since U.S. statements rarely distinguished Ahmadenijad from the rest of Iran).

If President Obama speaks out against Ahmadenijad and the Supreme Leader’s decision to ignore the will of the people, he will only help those in power cling to it more desperately.  It could allow the government to become more brutal in its attempts to suppress the protests, casting the violence in the language of struggle against U.S. imperialism.  We must protect those who are willing to lay down their lives for freedom.  Sometimes that means not saying things that make us feel better about ourselves.

What can we do instead?  This is a time for the people of America to act on behalf of their leaders.  If you’re not on twitter, sign up here. Follow #iranelection or #gr88 to find out what’s going on.  Change your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30 to help confuse Iranian authorities who are trying to arrest protesters.  Visit this Guide to the Cyberwar site for more information on how to help (and not accidentally hurt) the Iranians’ fight for freedom.

And pray.  As our own Rachel Motte so elegantly said, the sons of Isaac pray for the sons of Ishmael, for we all come from the same father. ‘

An Exciting Day for the Judicial Branch

This morning dawned with the Obama administration’s announcement of his nominee for Justice Souter’s replacement.  The well-managed leaks from the West Wing made sure Sonia Sotomayor’s name was already familiar in the press, but commentators have found plenty to discuss on air anyway.  It seems the old partisan battlelines are being drawn, though as some have said (including our very own Dr. John Mark Reynolds), the GOP would be wise to save its limited political capital for another fight.  There will be plenty of those!

Judge Sotomayor is a brilliant choice for Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court.  Though many on the Right will try to paint her as a radical liberal loose constructionist, her record shows Sotomayor is an experienced, methodical judge who painstakingly examines the intricacies of the law.  While she enthusiastically advocates an interpretation of the law that promotes equality in cases of race and gender discrimination, her ruling from the bench has demonstrated her work as a jurist who considers each case on its own terms.  She has frequently left idealism aside in order to reach a decision that accurately applies the principles of the law.

A lot will be said about comments Judge Sotomayor made at a 2005 panel discussion at Duke University Law School, which have been circulating on YouTube ever since her name was mentioned in a pool of likely candidates for nomination:

All of the legal defense funds out there, they’re looking for people with court-of-appeals experience, because it is – court of appeals is where policy is made.  I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don’t make law, I know. [The audience laughs.] OK, I know, I know. I’m not promoting it, I’m not advocating it, I’m, you know. Um. OK.

It lacks eloquence, as off-the-cuff remarks often do, and seems to advocate unbridled judicial power.  The trouble with using this statement to prove Sotomayor is a radical revisionist who legislates from the bench is twofold.  First, her record simply doesn’t show that’s the case.  Second, it’s just a little civics 101.  Someone, usually the White House, proposes policy.  Congress enacts legislation to put that policy in action.  The Executive Branch, usually the bureaucracy, executes that policy.  But in the policymaking process, the courts determine what the law says.  That interpretation determines what the policy looks like in practice.  Instead of fearing a radical jurist, we should be delighted that a nominee to the Supreme Court recognizes that power and, so far, has cautiously exercised that power.  Let’s hope for a quick confirmation full of excellent debate over constitutional interpretation!

Of course, the more exciting judicial news of the day came around 10am Pacific time from the California Supreme Court.  In a six-to-one majority, the Court upheld the voter-approved ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, Proposition 8.  Immediately upon receiving the news, scores of protestors crowded the streets of San Francisco and other California cities, railing against the blow to human rights and calling the justices all manner of names.

Regardless of where you stand on gay marriage, however, you have to accept the legality of the situation.  The California Supreme Court wasn’t asked to rule on gay marriage at all.  In fact, its previous ruling on the subject, In re Marriage Cases in June of 2008, overturned voter initiative Proposition 22, a 2000 ballot initiative that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.  Likewise, the 2008 ruling precipitated Proposition 8, which amended California’s constitution to prevent same-sex marriage.  The question before the Court for today’s decision was simply whether or not the Constitution had been legally amended by voter initiative.  Was it an amendment, which the California constitution allows voters to determine in general election, or was it a revision, which is a legislative matter?

The question came to whether or not Proposition 8 was presented to voters in the right form, and whether or not it substantially changes the constitution’s equal protection provisions.  The Court decided today not for or against gay marriage, but that the authors of Prop 8 had done their homework while drafting the amendment.  Unfortunately, it was not in the Court’s jurisdiction to decide whether or not it’s idiotic to allow 50.1% of voters to substantially amend the state’s constitution.

Gay marriage proponents vow tonight that the fight isn’t over.  For now, in California, it seems it may be.  Much more substantial changes need to be made to the method of constitutional amendment, or a small percentage of the electorate must be convinced to overturn the amendment in the next election for anything to change.  After all, Prop 8 passed by a margin that was hardly decisive.  But even then, the fight won’t end here.  Ultimately, gay marriage is a federal issue, and must be decided by the Supreme Court.  It is the ‘full faith and credit’ clause, not any lingering moral code set forth by the Framers that pushes the argument into the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.  And, it seems with the recent action on the issue in Iowa, Washington D.C., New York, and elsewhere, we won’t be able to ignore the federal battle for much longer.  The state initiatives are just a prelude to the moral conversation we must have on the issue.  Its outcome will determine who we are. ‘

Let Freedom Ring

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


“Liberty has never come from Government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it… The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.”

             Woodrow Wilson

He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.

             Thomas Paine

What is the right to Liberty, and how should the government protect and provide for it? 

I have spent time, off and on, over the past week trying to find the words to answer this question.  My best thoughts amount to this: liberty, as we refer to it in terms of government and it’s citizens, is the space provided by the government, by which the citizens are allowed to explore and appreciate the ambitions of their hearts.  Where this space exists, there is liberty; where it is absent, there is tyranny.  The greater the space, the greater the liberty: every additional intrusion by the government into the private lives and personal governance of it’s citizens is a stripping of liberty.

Should the space be absolute, should the government be entirely restricted from inserting itself into our lives?  The answer is obviously no!  We are a people of law, and our government exists to protect us and allow us the peace necessary to make the space of liberty a good thing.  Liberty without a government is not unlike the freedom of being homeless: with nothing to tie you down, the world is open to you; however, there is also nothing to shelter you from the harsh reality of the world.  We need a home to protect us; in the same way, we need a government to serve as a safe-guard against the unfetered wrath of nature. 

However, just as we would not be shut-in to our homes, never to venture out and appreciate all that the outdoors has to offer, so we will not be so encompassed in the safety of our government that it becomes impossible to enjoy the joys that exist apart from the government.  Our government’s good is not the only or even the best good.  We should not be limited to the vision of even a democratically elected representative for our future.  Our personal prosperity, so closely tied to our ability to explore and expand our horizons, is not and should not be the priority of the government; the consequence of this reality, however, is that we need the government to give us a free hand to pursue prosperity.  Less government oversight and regulations actually means broader horizons, and while there should be some safeguards, a nation where each individual is expected to make for themselves the most of the opportunities we have all been given is a nation of greater accountability and responsibility.

Our personal excellence should be allowed to flourish; likewise, we must also be permitted to pay the price of failing. 

This last point might seem controversial.  Where is the compassion in a government that allows it’s citizens to fail, and fail brutally?  It’s a fair question…my answer is, the government’s role is not to show compassion to it’s citizens.  That is the place of the citizens; we should (and do) minister to fellow citizens in need.  In fact, charitable giving is higher when the government taxes it’s people less. 

The happy result of having fewer government intrusions and restrictions to our livelihood is citizens who are more self-sufficent, more personally responsible, and more charitable.  Liberty is not merely the privelege of a free society; it is integral for the survival and flourishing of such a society.  Less government, more freedom!

Opening the Box

In many ways a discussion on the nature of life is a tricky thing.  This is because, as Lang points out, such questions are huge and answering them “correctly” requires more time and room than we here have.  Still, as Lang has bravely offered her thoughts on this natural right and the implications for a government whose stated purpose is the protection of this right, I will do my best.

In short, our right to life is simply that: we have the right to live.  This is a right endowed to us by the Creator, and as our life springs from His original miracle, it is deserving of our protection.  We are created equal in our capacity and possession of this right; in that sense, it is inalienable.  For all mankind, this is a fundamental right, one that cannot be taken from us justly without cause.  As with all rights, this right can be revoked if our actions warrant it; but that is a matter of the law, and not one that should ever be determined based on the convenience of others. 

We take the time to state this seemingly obvious reality because, as our generation bears witness, sometimes even obvious injustices are overlooked in favor of the convenience of others.  The weak and the helpless, old and the new, require that we enumerate this right, to prevent the tyranny of the strong from abusing them for our own needs.  We must insist that the law uphold the legitimate claim to life that these demographics possess, and advocate for them in the absence of justice under the law.  We cannot state this strongly or plainly enough; the cause of the unborn (and the disabled and elderly) is the most basic and fundamental responsibility of our government.  A government that permits abortion on demand is a government where the right to life is conditional at best, never inalienable.

Up to this point, unless I am greatly mistaken, Lang and I are in complete agreement.  It is, unfortunately, at this point that our paths must part; for while we agree that the right to life is the responsibility of the government to protect, I cannot unequivocally assent to the argument that “A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.” 

I should pause; I would assent to that, if I could then assert that the suggestion that our government is such a system is at least mostly flawed.  Such a system would represent a failure to protect the right to life, as Lang’s personal anecdote bears witness.  If the default position of the government was to allow the people to live at the mercy of corporations for the simple purpose of allowing as many big companies to make money as possible, then yes, the government would have failed in it’s sacred trust to we, the people.

However, it is not so.

I am not in Fairy Land, and I have no delusions that the people do not suffer abuse from big companies; I have worked in corporate America (in insurance, actually) and I too read the news.  We all know that Big Business is very susceptible to greedy corruption, and we all agree that if possible, the government should do it’s best to prevent those business’ from grossly exploiting the people.  This has been a true Conservative postion throughout the last Century; after all TR was no friend to business tycoons.

The unfortunate reality of the sort of regulation that would be required to ensure that we all receive a fair shake from the big corporations is that it would put the state into a tyrannical position it was never intended to occupy.  Ultimately, we face a choice; to run the risk of personal corruption for the sake of allowing for personal excellence.  The argument that “Minimal government oversight and restricted government involvement may spell freedom for some, but will inevitably mean tyranny for others, usually those with the least chance of obtaining justice.” seems to forget that if the government expands oversight and restriction, we will assuredly have tyranny for all in the form of a government that has deemed itself capable of discerning what is best for us all. 

Since not even God Himself, who does know what is best for us, has forced humanity to accept governance that would eliminate injustice, the argument in favor of entrusting a body of politicians with that power seems overly optimistic to say the least. 

Our government protects our right to life, in conjunction with the other inalienable rights, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   To protect these three, deemed equally inalienable by our founders, requires a government which balances the need for oversight with the need to get out of our way; one cannot be said to be the proper possessor of these rights if the government is perpetually in the position of manipulating  society to produce an environment of artificial of social equality.  We should pity those who have less than we do; but the government should not make it It’s business to ensure that we practice virtue.

Finally, I alluded to this earlier; I do believe the government can strip us of our inalienable rights if our behavior warrants it.  How do we determine what behavior warrant’s such a punishment?  Capital crimes; murder, rape; I am fairly traditional when it comes to this question.  Once again, the power to forgive is reserved for we the people; individuals may practice mercy and pity.  The state exists so that I don’t need to take up the sword in my own defense; if I am wronged, I need to be able to count on appropriate justice being served for the crime committed.  It seems criminally wrong that we allow convicted criminals sentenced to death to live on the money of law-abiding tax-payers as they try to search for any loop-hole in the legal process that ended in their sentence for years on end; or that we shoud prefer the sentence of life in prison over the death penalty because it often better accomplishes the goal of keeping the convicted criminal away from the populace. 

I do not think we should relish the deaths of anyone, even the worst criminals.  I have taken a long road to get to this position; like Lang, my natural tendency is to reach for the sword rather than the Bible when I see injustice.  However, I do believe my first duty is to reach for the Bible; and thus my argument is that, as this is my duty, it is entirely appropriate to recognize what the responsibility of the state is, with regard to balancing the scales of justice. 

I have been thinking about this post for too long, which is part of the reason it has taken so long to get it on-line.  It is a difficult topic; I have no delusions that I have offered the best answer; merely my best thoughts on a hard subject. ‘

Calling on Mulready

I’ve posted my response to the Honorable Justice Mulready’s question ‘What is the right to life?’, and we’ve had a lively debate in the comments on the post.  I’d love to hear more of your thoughts (and debate Mulready a bit more!), but I’m also interested in his definition of the next inalienable right.

I must admit, I feel a little awkward initiating the disucssion at this point.  This morning, my pastor wisely (and rightly!) reminded us that the Declaration of Independence is not perfectly sound theology.  The inalienable three, while good guides for a secular government, are not the highest calling of Christians.  Paul’s exhortation in II Corinthians 4:17 that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” is a much better guide for our action.

But we’re talking of a secular state.  So I ask Mulready, as we continue our conversation of the right to life, what would you define as the right to liberty? ‘

Above my pay grade

Yes, the title is a cheap joke.  But I’m in the midst of submitting grades for the quarter, maintaining props for a major theatre production, and writing a thesis for my graduate degree, so I’m in need of some frivolity.  And I am, as a historian, merely a social scientist, living in a culture that values only hard science.

Mulready asks ‘what is the right to life?’  My concise answer: a lot more than the pro-life movement champions.

I was in DC for the inauguration, and on the day when my students and I were scheduled to meet our local House representative on Capitol Hill, the annual March for Life crowded the National Mall.  We arrived just in time for the scheduled concert, and even joined with the various groups marching for the cause of the unborn.

It burdened my heart, however, to see something ugly in that march for what I believe in.  The hateful manner of those marching had nothing to do with the cause of life.  Yes, abortion is the greatest evil of our generation, and yes, it deserves nothing but contempt.  But if we truly care about saving lives, we must change our approach.  Hate only breeds hate.  Grace is transformative, and only grace toward the opposition will change hearts and minds.

Okay, rhetorical critique aside, the question is: what is the right to life?  I have to answer with a quotation from my favorite children’s novel, because it’s in children’s stories we can most clearly see the truth.  We lie to ourselves, but not to our children, which is our saving grace.

At the end of Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes puts a critical line into the mouth of Rab, the revolutionary hero wounded in battle who Johnny idolizes.  When asked what his sacrifice is for, Rab responds: That a man can stand up.  It’s a simple phrase, but it ecompasses great truth.

The right to life must ensure that the weak among us survive.  Darwinism was an attempt to explain observed phenomena, not an attempt to define right action for a species’ survival.  It cannot guide human action.  Of course, I’m presupposing the existence of the soul, but this is a political discussion, not yet a metaphysical one.  With that assumption, however, every human life is precious.  The unborn, who live but live within the protection of a womb, must be protected and nurtured, whether through natural or artificial means.  The weak, the ill, the elderly, must be allowed the best care possible.  We cannot lock them away in substandard care facilities, or sequester them from human society due to inconvenience.

But these should not be controversial (and if they are, I’m writing a thesis on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, so don’t give me an opportunity to unleash my research on that slippery slope here!).  I think, however, that Mulready and I might not find common ground in my next point.

A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.

Capitalism is a flawed economic system.  Our democratic republic falls into the same moral trap.  Though some (including my esteemed colleague) might claim that it offers maximum freedom and therefore offers the most opportunity to men to act on their greatest virtues, it also rewards those who trample people on their own path to power.  Class warfare aside, what this leads to is a direct violation of the right to life.  Let me illustrate my point with a personal story.

My mother’s mother smoked like a chimney.  Everyone in her generation did, and she was a model and a local talk show host, so she had an image to maintain.  Eventually that led to cancer, as it always seems to do.  Grandma Junie didn’t have health insurance (few did at the time).  When it became apparent she was in serious medical trouble, she tried to purchase it.  The law, on the other hand, in the interest of the free market, allowed health insurance companies to act as they saw fit.  They saw fit not in the interest of aiding the sick, but rather in aiding their pocket books.  They had the power to deny my grandmother treatment due to her ‘pre-existing condition.’  Before they would insure her, they claimed, she would need to go without treatment for six months.  Because she was not independently wealthy, she did.

It killed her.  My grandma Junie died of bone cancer, which had matastasized from lung cancer to breast cancer to bone cancer in the six months without treatment.  On the day of her death, she sneezed and broke ribs from the force of it.  It was painful, degrading, and completely unnecessary.

Did my grandmother kill herself by smoking cigarettes?  Without engaging in a debate on the ethics of the tobacco lobby’s advertising, I’ll admit yes, she did.  Did that justify this painful, humiliating death?  I can’t see how it did.

I realize this is an extremely personal example, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they literally couldn’t argue with me because I had such a personal, emotional connection to it.  But isn’t that just avoiding the point?  People die because we venerate the free market over human experience.  People suffer so we can retain our economic freedom.

This isn’t the right to life.  It’s the right to stuff.

The last thing Mulready asked was about the government’s right to take a life.  This is hard for me.  I have a rather violent personality.  An eye for an eye makes a lot of sense to me, and grace seems strange.  As a historian, I’m fairly well-acquainted with what evils man is capable of committing.  And that leads me to crave violence in response.  That’s why I don’t let myself see movies like Taken or Last House on the Left.

Why?  Because I know the Gospel is more powerful than my desire for vengeance.  It makes no earthly sense to me, but the sacrifice of Alban, whose head was displayed on the battlements of a Roman fort, means more than a father’s brutal vengeance of his daughter’s abuse.  I want to cheer on Liam Neeson in Taken, but it is more True to pray for the transformation of the villain.  I want catharsis – Christ offers regeneration.

Should the state kill its citizens for the sake of the safety of the rest of them?  Pragmatically, yes.  But I’ve never been a pragmatist.  Killing the enemy doesn’t make anyone truly safe.  Transforming him into a friend does.  As a Christian, I believe this is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit, but the moment we adminster the lethal injection, or fire the bullet at the terrorist, we end the possibilty that the transformation will ever occur.  And, given the fallibility of the state, the idea of denying that possiblity in even one life frightens me.

What is the right to life?  It is, first of all, the right to the vital elements that sustain it: food, shelter, air, and the like.  But in a bountiful country such as ours, it is also the faciliation of that life.  It is its protection economic, environmental, medical and otherwise.  It is the encouragement of a system that recongnizes these needs and promotes their exercise.

Yes, that’s vague.  Necessarily so.  But we must do it, so ‘a man can stand up.’ ‘

The Inalienable Three

As is no doubt clear, the desire to post regularly vies with the priorities of the rest of our lives.  Hopefully we will manage a fairly regular discourse until we get to Summer, when our schedules might become a little more free.

However, my thoughts are never far from the issues we would like to address and discuss here, and positing a good question and allowing it to brew can often be more worthwhile than opining with frequent regularity (notice my subtle attempt to paint our infrequent posts as a clever exercise in restraint). 

On that note, I offer the next subject for our joint review: to express, as best we can, the meaning of the inalienable rights and what the government should look like to best promote and protect those rights.  Rather than try to envelope all three into one post, lets take it one issue at a time (although it will likely become apparent that these right are, apart from inalienable, somewhat co-dependant and support one another); let us begin with the Right to Life.  What is it?  How should the government establish and defend it?  Who is qualified to appreciate it?  Are there circumstances in which the government could (and possibly should) have the ability to take it away? ‘