Proximate Justice, One More Time

IMG_7962Making peace with proximate justice.

I don’t know how to live in any other world, and yet it seems harder and harder to imagine a polis where that is possible. This weekend I am speaking, again and again and again and again—yes, four times. Laboring on Labor Day weekend as we all should be! Of course I smile.

But tonight and tomorrow I am with a group of congressional leaders at Osprey Point on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the lectures I was asked to give is on “making peace with proximate justice,” from an essay I wrote several years ago for Comment. The editor at the time, Gideon Strauss—himself a South African whose vocational passions and sensibilities were formed in the apartheid and post-apartheid years of his homeland –asked me to write on “the vocation of politics.” Seeing what you have seen in your years in Washington, thinking about vocation as you do, what do you think? A good question.

I offered him “making peace with proximate justice.” It was my best effort at understanding what we must believe if we are going to keep at it. Not of course, what we must “believe” as in spinning a story to satisfy us, in our propensity to self-deception, but more what view of history and the human condition must we be formed by, if we are to sustain a sense of vocation in the public square? The long story of the polis through the centuries is Machiavellian, in one form or another– literal and figurative stab-in-the-back politics. I’ll get what I want, and do all I can to make sure you don’t get anything! There is more to the story, of course, but that is a lot of the story.

But sometimes there are exceptions. When there are, we have the habits of heart as a people to imagine proximate justice– of something right and true and good and just and fair, even if everything is not possible.

Among several sources I will drawn on this weekend, “the largest political research survey in history” by the Pew Research Center makes all of us who care about a life together, sigh and groan. “It finds that Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history. Growing numbers of Republicans and Democrats express highly negative views of the opposing party. And to a considerable degree, polarization is reflected in the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and left.” Yes, sigh and groan.

What this means for us, increasingly, is that nothing “right and true and good and just and fair” gets done. Without an honest and healthy social ecology, we wither, and eventually die. That is true in Sierra Leone, just as it is true in Israel, just as it is true in Northern Ireland, just as it is true in the United States.

There is part of me that wants to just say, “A pox on both your houses!” And yet, that isn’t enough either. Which is why, I suppose, I am willing to step into a congressional leadership retreat, and offer proximate justice. In this very now-but-not world, there is no other way forward. We have no other possibility. But a political vision like that, with vocations that can sustain it, requires habits of heart that we don’t have.

I will quote Alasdair MacIntyre tomorrow, and his insight is profound. “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” We are stuck in this very polarized moment that we can’t get out of because… of what? I wonder what you think?

Nothing cheap can be said.

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