Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bill O'Reilly, Political Alchemy, & the Ambiguity of 'Judging'

Presently, there is a “working” in political alchemy radiating its transmuting energy from the electronic athanor that is the mass media.[1]

Self-proclaimed “left-liberals”[2] who, until recently, more or less dependably voiced their implacable – and commendable – opposition to “corporate tyrannies,” now can oft be heard defending the “rights” of corporate Behemoths like A&E (technically, it is a limited liability company, I believe) to suppress the individual liberties of their employees. This suppression takes place in a roundabout way, for it is built into employment or contractor agreements.

In this way, so-called “left-liberals” who would never stand for an employment contract forbidding, as a term of employment, participation in particular sexual relationships, profess to stand by A&E as it upholds, as perfectly legitimate, an agreement forbidding expression of particular religious opinions.

Adding another dimension to this radical platform-inverting operation, the supposedly “right-conservative”[3] talk show host Bill O’Reilly just became “an unexpected ally” of “the left”.[4]

O’Reilly stated:

“Mr. Robertson, I believe, made a mistake by the condemnation line. It’s not about the Bible, or believing, or not believing in the Bible. It’s singling out a group, it could be any group, and saying to that group, ‘Hey, you are not worthy in the eyes of the Lord, or in the eyes of God. You are not worthy because of who you are.’ So once you get that personal, once you get down and into that kind of a realm, problems arise. ...I’m just going by Luke. I’m going by what the Bible says.”[5]

O’Reilly refers to comments made in GQ magazine by “reality-television” personality Phil Robertson, who alluded to a passage of the Bible (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Robertson stated:

“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”[6]

O’Reilly goes further, remarking that:

“If you adhere to the Christian philosophy you know that Jesus was quite clear, all judgments about the consequences of sin are to be made by God and God alone. We’re all sinners, and because of that the Gospel of Luke 6:37, mandates -- mandates that Christian human beings refrain from judging others. Again, that is God’s prerogative.”

A cynic might suspect that O’Reilly’s comments were carefully crafted to tap into, or take advantage of, the current “all ya need is no-judging” mantra. However, O’Reilly, as well as others advancing this “politically-correct,” but uncritical, slogan – knowingly or unknowingly – makes several errors.[7]

For the present, let us ignore all of these except two that are perhaps the most glaring.

Number one, contrary to what O’Reilly claims, Jesus did not lay down a blanket prohibition against “judging.”

In fact, Jesus issues this command: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”[8] This comports with the words of Saint Paul, who informs us that “[t]he person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things…”.[9]

The contest, therefore, is not between “judging” (which is supposedly “bad”) and “not-judging” (which is supposedly “good”). The contrast is between judgments that are right, just, and spiritually-grounded and those that are wrong, unjust, and superficial.

O’Reilly’s concentration on Luke 6:37 illicitly truncates the presentation of the New Testament’s testimony concerning “judging.” He merely ignores the inconvenient evidence.

There is yet another difficulty, however. O’Reilly’s attempted exposition (such as it is) of Luke 6:37 runs aground because it is built on several ambiguities. Let me focus on the ambiguity that is perhaps the most salient.[10]

Number two, the word “judge” is ambiguous.

In fact, it has no fewer than four different senses, which I will illustrate by way of the well-known tale, found in John 8:1-11, of the “woman caught in the act of adultery.”[11]

Here is the entire relevant passage, from the NIV:

[B]ut Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Before I remark about the above passage, it would be helpful to get a bit clear concerning the form of a moral argument. In a simple moral argument, one may begin with two premises. The first premise lays down a moral principle or rule. The second premise articulates a particular, relevant case. From these two premises, we may conclude something about the case, in virtue of what the moral precept prescribes for it. An example would help to clarify.

Let’s lay down (what I hope is) an uncontroversial moral principle, and let is serve as premise 1:

(1) It is morally wrong to torture and kill children.

Unfortunately, there is a particular, relevant case in which a man violates this moral precept.

(2) Albert Fish tortured and killed children.

We may draw the following conclusion:

(3) Therefore, Albert Fish did something that is morally wrong.

Besides this (I hope obvious) moral conclusion, we may also be interested in certain punitive measures.[12] For instance, we may wish to add something like the following into the mix.

(4) Anyone who tortures and kills children should either receive life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty (etc.).

From this new premise, we can draw a further conclusion, as follows.

(5) Therefore, Albert Fish should either receive life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty (etc.).

With just this much in place, we may detect that there are at least five different “judgments” involved in this moral argument – which argument is in a standard form that is typical of many moral arguments.

Firstly, there is the moral judgment that the asserted ethical principle is a correct one. In the above example, our first judgment might be this: “Yes, it really is wrong to torture and kill children.”

Secondly, there is the factual judgment that the case has been represented correctly. So we may say: “Yes, Albert Fish really did torture and kill children.”

Thirdly, there is the judgment that the moral principle governs the case at hand. In the present example this seems obvious, but it is often a bit trickier. Presently, we say something like: “Yes, the prohibition on torturing and killing kids really does apply to Albert Fish.”

Hopefully, up to this point, I haven’t said anything particularly controversial.

Fourthly, there is the judgment that a particular punitive measure is just. This is often a lot more contentious. I have tried to minimize this problem, here, by giving the reader a choice between either of two different punishments. We can say that a person who agrees with the justice of the suggested punishments will say: “Yes, anyone who tortures and kills kids really should be thrown into prison for life or executed.”

Fifthly, there is the judgment that the case at hand ought to be dealt with by actually implementing the suggested punishment. So, finally, a person agreeing to this final step may say: “Yes, Albert Fish really should be thrown into prison for life or executed.”

The question is this: If the story of the woman caught in adultery is a story that illustrates the injustice in a certain sort of judgment, which of these five judgments sorts is it?

Let us have a look at the case of the woman caught in adultery. As an argument, the story may be laid out as follows.

(6) Adultery is morally wrong.

(7) “[T]his woman was caught in the act of adultery.”

(8) Therefore, “this woman” has done something morally wrong.

(9) Women who have committed adultery should be “stoned” (to death).

(10) Therefore, “this woman” should be stoned (to death).

At what step does Jesus intervene? We will examine each relevant judgment.

Judgment #1 would be something like the following. “Yes, adultery really is morally wrong. Jesus never disputes the wrongness of adultery. He never questions the moral premise.

Elsewhere, Jesus even arguably extends adultery to lustful thoughts.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”[13]

Not only does Jesus broaden the definition of adultery to encompass fantasy and not only actual, physical encounters, but we also have the ultimate punishment: hell.

This does not appear at all consistent with the notion that Jesus denies the sin of adultery.

In fact, though, we can something more strongly about the passage from John’s Gospel. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus actually seems to endorse the wrongness of adultery.

At the conclusion of the passage Jesus tells the woman to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” If the woman is commanded to “leave [her] life of sin,” then, plausibly, she is presently leading a life of sin.

The only relevant information that we have about her life is that she is an adulteress. Therefore, Jesus is either (and implausibly) speaking of “other” sins that go unmentioned; or Jesus is speaking of her adultery as a sin. The most natural reading of the text is indisputably that Jesus is here saying that the woman’s adulterous behavior is tantamount to “leading a life of sin.” But, if so, then Jesus is acknowledging that adultery is morally wrong.

Notice that Jesus’s ideological foes – the self-righteous and self-deluded Pharisees – got the moral principle right.

How did they do this? Apparently, on this occasion at least, they simply read the Old Testament and reported its contents faithfully. (Keep this in mind with respect to the case of Phil Robertson.)

The Old Testament clearly states that “[i]f a man commits adultery with another man’s wife …both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”[14]

The Pharisees, despite having logs in their eyes, nevertheless got the moral precept correct, and Jesus acknowledges the principle’s correctness.

Therefore, whatever this passage does show, it certainly does not show that people are entirely unable to report true moral principles. Even sinful people can read the Bible and, at least occasionally, find and report on true moral precepts.

Hence, when O’Reilly maintains that “judgments” must be “made by ...God alone”, Robertson can happily concede the point. God did make the “judgment,” as reported in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Robertson merely quotes God’s judgment. (Remember, O’Reilly is addressing people who “adhere to the Christian philosophy”.)

Judgment #2 would come down to something like: “Yes, this woman (pointing) really did commit adultery.”

There is not much to say, here, except to point out that Jesus never disputes this either. There is no hint in the passage that the relevant woman has been wrongly accused or “framed” or anything remotely similar.

Judgment #3 would be that: “Yes, the moral premise really does apply to the case at hand.”

Jesus does not dispute this. Jesus does not say that the governing moral principle has been incorrectly applied. Jesus’s position seems to be that adultery is wrong and “this woman” ought to have made her decisions such as to have taken the wrongness of adultery seriously. This is why, at the end, she is told to quit her sinful ways.

Judgment #4, for a person in agreement, might sound like: “Yes, a man and a woman who commit adultery really should be stoned to death.”

Jesus seems to imply that the punishment is, in principle, just.

How so? He states: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Significantly, he does not say: “There should be no throwing of stones at all” or “come on, people, that was so ‘Old Testament’,” or any such thing.[15]

So far, then, Jesus seems to agree that we have (i.) a true moral principle, (ii.) a true factual premise, (iii.) a just punitive measure, and (iv.) an appropriate relationship amongst the moral, factual, and punitive premises.

What then does Jesus object to?

Remember that we earlier identified a fifth sort of judgment. To be exact, we had the judgment that a particular case ought to be dealt with by actually implementing such-and-so punitive measure.

In the Albert Fish example, we first (hypothetically) agreed to the implementation of life imprisonment or execution in cases where people torture and kill children. But then since the case of Albert Fish was a case in which a person tortured and killed children, we (again, hypothetically) reached the punitive conclusion that: “Yes, Albert Fish really should be thrown into prison for life or executed.”

Most obviously, in the case of the woman caught in adultery, this is the point at which Jesus objects.

He halts the immediate implementation of the punishment.

This is the essence of the "age of Grace" that Jesus ushered in. The punishments demanded by the laws of the ancient Hebrew theocracy have been put into abeyance. Jesus came to offer forgiveness and mercy. This punishment abrogation does not, however, involve the repealing of the moral law. The two levels - that of moral rightness/wrongness and that of punitive appropriateness/inappropriateness - are both logically and practically distinct.

Whereas the Pharisees wished to stone her to death without delay, Jesus instead shamed them into foregoing this hasty execution. To accomplish this, he used the words already twice quoted: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

I submit that the most plausible explanation for Jesus stopping here, despite his acceptance of every judgment that we previously outlined, is as follows.

Jesus is teaching us, by His example, to acknowledge that sinful people should not be anxious to punish others – particularly with the ultimate sentence: death – even in cases of demonstrable sin.

The sinfulness of adultery was never disputed.

The guilt of the woman was not disputed.

The applicability of the prohibition of adultery to this woman was not called into question.

Even the justice of the punishment – in principle – was implicit.

What Jesus encourages, however, is that this woman be shown mercy instead of justice.

Quite plausibly, the Christian should feel a pressure to emulate Jesus’s example. If Christians do so, we might suppose that it would take the following shape.

The Christian can say: Sodomy is morally wrong.

Considering a case where John Doe and Joe Schmo engage in sodomy, we can say, unhesitatingly, and based on the clear precedent of Scripture, that they have done something morally wrong.

The point, here, is that going this far is perfectly in line with Jesus’s example – not to mention with thousands of years of Christian understanding concerning homosexual sex acts.

Probably, the Christian should stop here.

What Jesus seemingly discourages is the sort of “judgment” whereby one presumes to be authorized to carry out a definitive punitive measure on a person – in the illustration, the death penalty – even in a case where the guilt and guiding moral precepts are obvious.

Plausibly, this is why St. Peter, the Apostle, exhorts his listeners to “[r]epent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”,[16] as opposed to rounding up a posse to stone the ne’er-do-wells.

Peter was merely following Jesus’s lead, since from the beginning of His public ministry He “began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”[17]

We see then that, on Jesus’s authority, the only people – to again borrow O’Reilly’s phraseology – of whom it is “said you are not going to go to heaven”, are the unrepentant.

Whatever the sin (drunkenness, adultery, sodomy, etc.), the “condemnation line” is drawn between those that repent and those that do not.

This line was not marked by you or me or Phil Robertson. No, for those who “adhere to the Christian philosophy”, the line was drawn by God Himself, as reported in the Bible.

The choice is between the Biblical worldview – the one in which drunkenness, adultery, and sodomy (among many other things that we could list) are, for some people more than others, tantalizingly tempting but sinful actions to be eschewed – and the worldview now ascendant – in which “polyamory,” “cheating,” “swinging,” and “LGBT” are “lifestyle choices.”

Practically, although the Christian ought to testify to the sinfulness of homosexual sex acts (along with other forms of sin, such as those that Robertson also listed), following Jesus’s example, said Christian would not agitate for the implementation of Old Testament legal penalties, but would rather enjoin the guilty just as Jesus would – and did:

“Go now and leave your life of sin.”[18]

[1] Large portions of this post have been adapted from a – so far unpublished – monograph on homosexuality: Matthew Bell, “Blueprint for the Opposition to ‘Gay’ Marriage.”

[2] Personally, I believe that the terms “left” and “right” are useless descriptors. In fact, more often they are less-than-useless, pigeonholing people into constrictive categories, or impelling people to adopt, wholesale and uncritically, multiple positions that are, in fact, logically quite separate (and which should, therefore, be evaluated quite independently).

As Wikipedia states a historical matter: “The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left.”

[3] I register awareness that O'Reilly has disclaimed the label "conversative," in favor of alternates such as "traditionalist" or even, apparently, "libertarian." But see “Conservative U.S. anchor now skeptical about Bush,” Reuters via Union-Tribune [San Diego], Feb. 10, 2004, <http://legacy.utsandiego.com/news/nation/20040210-0550-campaign-bush-oreilly.html>. See, also, note #2.

[4] Tal Kopan, “Bill O’Reilly criticizes 'Duck Dynasty' star,” Politico, Dec. 20, 2013, <http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/bill-oreilly-duck-dynasty-101368.html>.

[5] Quoted in ibid.

[6] Quoted in ibid.

[7] In the first place, attributing, as O’Reilly does, “the condemnation line” to Robertson, as though Robertson was pontificating, is patently wrong-headed. We may even borrow O’Reilly’s remark, here. “It’s not about ...believing, or not believing in the Bible.” It’s simply a matter of accurately reproducing the text of the Bible. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in fact states:

“[D]o you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Whatever the “condemnation,” it does not originate with Robertson.

[8] John 7:24.

[9] 1 Corinthians 2:15.

[10] Other ambiguities can be mentioned as well. One such is closely related to the error previously mentioned. The ambiguity is this: “all judgments about the consequences of sin are to be made by God and God alone” is ambiguous because the phrase “judgments ...made by ...God alone” has two different senses.

Number one, we could mean that, as a matter of communication, God alone is able to say anything at all about the consequences of sin. On this reading, no one but God can make any remarks whatsoever about sin. Another ambiguity lurking about is whether this restriction is supposed to be epistemological or practical or something else.

Number two, we could mean that, as a matter of metaphysics, God alone is able to set the actual consequences of sin. On this reading, no one but God can determine what “consequences” sin has. There are additional ambiguities in the vicinity of this view as well. For example, “consequence” is ambiguous between (at least) what we might (somewhat impressionistically term) “consequence”-as-”punishment” and “consequence”-as-”effect”.

Let us leave these aside, for the time being, and focus on the more important (in my view) ambiguity of the word “judge” itself.

[11] This case is strange for several reasons. One difficulty was that the relevant man would also be subject to stoning, and yet the relevant man never enters into the picture in this regard. However, Jesus does not appeal to this fact – which appears, admittedly, a violation of justice – as the reason why the woman should not be stoned. Second, even if the woman were justly condemned, it seems to be a miscarriage of due process to allow a “wildcat” band of Pharisees to function on the spot as judge, jury, and executioner. Again, Jesus does not appeal to this either. He merely gestures towards the rightness of mercy. Finally, I wish to register my awareness of the “textual-critical” difficulties with this passage. I set these aside as irrelevant for present purposes chiefly because this example is one that the sodomy-proponents themselves cite. Therefore, my analysis is merely a response to a text that such proponents often chose to make a fixture of their arguments. I submit that my treatment of this passage (ignoring the textual difficulties) is, therefore, appropriate.

[12] I intend “punitive” to function as a neutral term. “Punitive” measures could veer off into more specialized sorts of rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence, and so on. These discussions lie too far afield, presently.

[13] Matthew 5:27-30.

[14] Leviticus 20:10.

[15] The historic Christian confession is that Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Moreover, the same Christian confession holds that God inspired the Bible, including the Old Testament. But if God inspired the Old Testament, then God inspired the punitive measures outlined in the Old Testament. And if God exists as a Trinity, then the First, Second, and Third Persons of that Trinity inspired the punitive measures in the Old Testament. But if so, Jesus inspired the punitive measures in the Old Testament. Therefore, he is unlikely to disagree with them.

[16] Acts 2:38.

[17] Matthew 4:17.

[18] Christians are not supposed to exempt themselves in this. Far from it! Collectively, we are called to “encourage one another and build each other up”, 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Individually, we are enjoined to “[e]xamine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves”, 2 Corinthians 13:5. There is no “self-righteousness in this. Like Isaiah, I can truly say of myself: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips”, Isaiah 6:5. Like Isaiah, too, “I live among a people of unclean lips…,” ibid.