Last updated: 11/26/2023
Thesis: Atonement represents not an affirmation of justice, but rather instead its unraveling.
Note: This essay is a work in progress.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. (Isaiah 53:3-8 KJV)
Like a lamb to the slaughter. When Christ was being dragged onto the cross, he was helpless like a lamb, blameless like a lamb, and wearing the blame of another’s sin, just like a lamb.
A man who committed no crime (Luke 23:4) nailed next to a thief, all while a murderer walks in his place. He who spoke the Scriptures (Matthew 5:17) branded a heretic by the very same priests and scribes who preached Messiah. The one child of God to have never sinned against God forsaken by God (Matthew 27:46). The blood of the faithful shed so the faithless may live (Jeremiah 3:6-10, Ephesians 2:4-7).
Nowhere in this portrait of Calvary can we speak of justice as we know it.
Where was “justice before the law” when the Roman state chose to wash its hands (Matthew 27:24) of an affair it carried out? Where was the justice of religion when lies were allowed to prevail over truth? (John 12:42) Where was God to right these wrongs, and lift away his son from the altar the way Abraham lifted away Isaac?
God was on the cross. God – the Divine, the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Truth – stood not above this predicament but directly in the midst of it. God – the Invisible, Timeless, Formless God – the one who said unto Moses “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14), the one who stood in opposition to the sculpted and graven images grasped by the hands of men, stood here in a historical moment among men.
The contradiction of Incarnation stands at the center of Christianity. This perfect God – so completely and utterly removed from how we live, what we experience, what we are capable of – taking the very form most familiar to us. In doing this, what Christ did becomes an example for what we are to do (1 Peter 2:21), what Christ experienced becomes our experience (John 15:20), and the question of what he represents is quite literally a matter of life and death for us.
To do as many Christians have done, and simply write off atonement as a settling of debts, is to neglect the revelation present in the process of its realization.
Until we tackle the question of Calvary, it will continue to haunt over us like a spectre. Any Christian can tell you that the redeeming work brought about resolution, but what is the substance of that resolution? What is it’s nature? Does salvation mean things continuing on as they had before? What is preserved? What is fulfilled? What is dissolved?
The events of that night do not stand in some remote “dispensation” tacked onto an arbitrary timeline. This scene is a microcosm of the larger drama that continually, cyclically plays out in human history. The same questions of justice, politics, theodicy, morality, which we never seem to fully resolve loom over that night all the same.
The conceit of both the traditionalist and the progressive is to overstate the uniqueness of historical periods. No amount of philosophical, scientific, cultural, or technological progress will ever change the fact that we are men and our institutions are brick and mortar. We cannot so completely advance past our position or degenerate below it that these fundamental questions to being: how we are to live among other beings and what we are to make of our eventual demise will cease to bear relevance.
If turning to the past was enough, there would be no need for God – this ultimate religious crystallization of tradition – to be put to death. Yet if the present holds the answers, there would be no need for God to resurrect.
The process is the same irrespective of whether we are talking about morality or politics or religion. We must first put to death the notions of the old, as they represent attempts by man to define righteousness on his own terms. And at that precise moment the old has been done away with, in that brief moment of uncertainty, we discover that contained within the carcass of the old notion is a higher essence, only realized through its negation. Christ said he came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), but the nature of this fulfillment is that it realizes itself through destruction.
Or to put it in simpler terms, the failure of the Romans and Jews that night was not just the failure of specific peoples in a specific historical period, but symbolic of something much larger. Each figure is ultimately an archetype, representing the responses men have taken to making sense of their fallenness. In the Pharisee we see the religious man, the one whose gaze is so fixated on the heavens he forgets his own existence on Earth. Whereas the Roman is emblematic of the secular man, the one so preoccupied with managing and living with men’s fallenness, that the concept of a righteousness which exists beyond his line of sight appears absurdity.
By studying the Roman, studying the Pharisee, one will see how God was crucified not by a people, but people: their virtues, their institutions, their practices all falling apart before God’s presence.
1. The Failure of Roman Justice
If we are to read Scripture purely as a historical document, as an account of things past, we inevitably relegate its relevance to that of relic. Yet this is what we continuously do as Christians. The fundamentalists and modernists wage their war primarily over the historicity of various Biblical events, but what unites them is the implicit relegation of Scripture to this status of document, each word to its own dispensation. Both the apologist and the historical-critical scholar, in their attempts to reconcile Scripture with “history”, place themselves in a position of pure retrospect, s sort of distant analysis.
Yet to do this — to speak of Rome purely as that state which existed from 509 BC to 476 AD — is to sever the personal connection between the Gospels and the reader. As I see it, such a perspective is limited; it prevents us from properly being able to identify and see ourselves in the situation, the crisis faced by Christ and Israel throughout the Scriptures.
The progressive conceit is to believe that history is linear; that it continually advances from barbarism to civilization. The Bible tells us otherwise, time is cyclical: one generation passeth, and another generation cometh, but the Earth abideth forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:4). The marks of our mortality, our inability to do good (Romans 3:10-11), means that humanity is continually destined to repeat it’s mistakes, as a dog returns to its own vomit. (Proverbs 26:11). And in history we see this: ideas and institutions may take new forms, but every new idea bears the heritage of a previous tradition. The fundamental motifs and attitudes underlying the Roman Republic leave their footprint all over our modern secular civilization. The blood of the Roman runs through liberalism.
When the artists of the Renaissance were rebelling against the religious dogmatism and stagnation of the Middle Ages, what did they turn towards? The humanism of the Greeks and Romans. The valorization of reason, a concern for the mortal, and an increased belief in science over the superstitious. Machiavelli prided himself on reviving the Greco-Roman spirit in politics. Even in art and architecture one could see the Roman influence all over. This continued into the Enlightenment, with the arts once again finding their prime influence in Classicism. Politicians and philosophers began to look to Cicero, and we see this influence how we run our democracies even today. Separation of powers, codified citizen rights, republican government, all of these have their roots in Rome. One need only look at the volume of Latin used across our legal system to appreciate the legacy.
Yet for all of these traits, the common theme is separation: separation of one branch of government from another, separation of the spheres of life in which government may or may not intrude, separation of authority into democracy. Separation is the essence of secularism. It is a myth that a secular society need necessarly be anti-theistic, or even atheistic. The secular society tolerates religious beliefs, insofar as each keeps to its own realm. The religious sphere mustn’t mix with the government, mustn’t mix with the workplace, mustn’t mix with public life.
Likewise the Romans also bestowed their own form of religious tolerance: their ire was reserved for those who were not content with a place in the pantheon, those who posed a threat to the political balance.
So when we read into the role of the Rome in Scripture, what we are really being given an insight into is the justice of secular society. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17), because the law of Caesar is the law of “each to its own sphere”. And it is the language of justice which precisely formed the bedrock of Roman society: the grounds on which they define justice and the grounds upon which they claim authority are one and the same.
For Romans, justice was the value that most legitimised their right to rule other peoples. Internally, it was a leading political principle that justified the power entrusted to emperors and senatorial, equestrian, and decurional elites… Yet, it nonetheless addressed elites, city-dwellers, land-holders and peasants from widely different ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds as stakeholders of a social order governed by law and justice. Remarkably, many genuinely believed they were. The ‘rule of law’ imposed by Rome was eventually—if not initially—accepted as legitimate by the vast majority the empire’s inhabitants. During the first centuries of our era up to a quarter of the entire human race expected justice from Roman authorities or Roman backed local authorities and arranged their lives accordingly. (Verboven and Hekster 2017, 1-2)
Justice existed not purely as some lofty ideal for the Republic to realize, but as synonymous with the Republic itself. To be Caesar was to be a god in the world. To appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11) is to put one’s faith in him as the embodiment of Justice. Low-level jurists may fail you, but ultimately Caesar will see what is right.
Roman religion had many gods and spirits and Augustus was keen to join their number as a god himself. This was not unusual: turning political leaders into gods was an old tradition around the Mediterranean. There was also precedent in Roman history – Aeneas and Romulus, who had helped found Rome, were already worshipped as gods. (PBS, “Augustus”)
The relation of the emperor to the law and to justice is one of the more central themes of this book. The emperor was guarantor of justice, source of statutory and precedent law, the highest judicial authority, and the ultimate enforcer of distributive and corrective justice. Emperors were judges who received petitions and issued rescripts on paper involving litigants who wanted a ruling on a legal point. Emperors also heard lawsuits or prosecutions themselves and issued verdicts (decreta). This was mostly but not exclusively on appeal. Fergus Millar famously summarized this as the petition-and-response model, showing how emperors were expected to be approachable by their subjects and guarantee justice. Emperors were also legislators of general laws, holding extraordinary legislative powers from Augustus onwards, ultimately even allowing Ulpian to argue that princeps legibus solutus est. (Verboven and Hekster 2017, 4)
As the law of Caesar is said to be the law of God, so the law of the world becomes the law of God. All men in their separation are united under Caesar, but only insofar as he continues to act as their mediator. In the moment Caesar may hold the crown, but authority ultimately rests with the people: Vox Popli, Vox Dei.
1.1. De Jure
As history progressed, we found we no longer needed an emperor: a Republic alone proved sufficient. But where democracy meant an end to Caesars, it would still build itself upon halls of marble. The buildings of Washington D.C. would be deliberately modeled after a Roman temple: no longer honoring a man, but procedure itself (Architect of the Capitol, “Neoclassical”)
A law of procedure exists for men, among men. It is by definition interpersonal, as it derives its authority from the bottom-up, as opposed to instating it top-down. Every democracy envisions itself as a social contract, an agreement between individuals as to how they can cooperate in a society.
Before the social contract, people relied upon a “primitive” (or more accurately, intuitive) conception of justice. To carry out justice was to live by Hammurabi’s famous words: an eye for an eye.
In traditional societies, this justice would be realized either personally or through the extended family unit in blood feuds. If you or someone within your kin has been slighted or hurt, it is your moral duty to exact vengeance. An attack on my brother is an attack on me, blood can only be repaid with blood. To turn the other cheek would not be an act of mercy, but of weakness.
Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129). (Greer 2021)
Under this conception, the essence of justice is retribution. But what is retribution but a form of balance? An eye is to be exchanged for an eye, no more, and no less. To go too far is tyranny, to go not far enough is cowardice. It does not matter if the loss is unrecoverable, my loss can be made right if someone else is there is someone else’s loss to balance it out.
Among these traditional societies were Ancient Greece, Ancient Israel, the Antebellum South, and most notably the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages, from beginning to end, and particularly the feudal era, lived under the sign of private vengeance. The onus, of course, lay above all on the wronged individual; vengeance was imposed on him as the most sacred of duties … The solitary individual, however, could do but little. Moreover, it was most commonly a death that had to be avenged. In this case the family group went into action and the faide (feud) came into being, to use the old Germanic word which spread little by little through the whole of Europe—’the vengeance of the kinsmen which we call faida’, as a German canonist expressed it. No moral obligation seemed more sacred than this … The whole kindred, therefore, placed as a rule under the command of a chieftain, took up arms to punish the murder of one of its members or merely a wrong that he had suffered. (Greer 2021)
If we are to speak of the Enlightenment as a response to the supposed “barbarism” of the Middle Ages, then what we see is a move away from the highly personal, punitive justice towards a cosmopolitan, procedural justice.
The societies of old structured themselves in a highly localized fashion. One’s concern was one’s own family, one’s own village, one’s own immediate surroundings. The strength of these communities are built on exclusion: one is compelled to participate because one has no other choice. Outsiders cannot be held to these obligations, and therefore outsiders cannot be trusted.
By contrast, our image of a modern civilization is (just like Rome) one where we continually come into contact with “outsiders”. Your family could be different, your culture could be different, your values could be different, and your interests could be different: we still meet in the market, in the schools, in the streets.
This movement from the particular towards the universal warrants a rethinking of justice, as when these groups experience conflict, their intuitions also conflict. We have seen the destructive trail left by lynchings, pogroms, and blood feuds, and recognize them as having no place in a civilized society. We recognize how when we cannot speak of a common justice, the only language left is the language of power: might makes right.
So the secular society derives common justice from common law. Every citizen is afforded the same rights, the same boundaries others may not violate, and the same procedures when those boundaries are crossed. Justice is to be identified with neutrality and consistency, towards the aim of cooperation. Or to use the words of the renowned Roman philosopher Cicero, justice is “an attitude that assigns each person their due and thus preserves the cohesion of human society. Our nature is endowed with an innately civic and social character.” (Wolfe 2020)
Justice is no longer identified with honor, but the underlying principle of balance still remains. But as opposed to a balancing of loss, we now speak of a balancing of interests.
If a crime is committed against me, I don’t immediately lash out because I trust that the State (which enforces the contract) will properly balance things on my behalf. The State might value process, but at the end of the day, what I am paying attention to is whether or not the one who offended me gets the due retribution.
On the flipside, criminals are deterred from acting out because they also have that confidence that if they do, they will receive appropriate and just harm due to due process. He may not like or comply with it, but he recognizes it as legitimate anyways.
This brand of justice is considered procedural because it finds its definition not in punishment itself but in everything surrounding it. Trials, constitutions, rights, appeals, all of these form the basis of procedural justice.
Legitimacy is ultimately a collective perception, and as long as it exists people should be willing to peacefully cooperate, even if begrudgingly. Individual men may have their own short-sighted impulses, but in the long-term the wiser judgement of the State and its process should prevail, and people should have enough of a share of satisfaction to preserve order and balance.
After all, cooperation is the ultimate aim of the social contract, and its ultimate source of moral legitimacy. The secular man knows murder is wrong, because murder is an infringement upon another person’s boundaries. To undermine boundaries is to undermine the balance which keeps peace and order. If everyone murdered everyone, society wouldn’t function, so murder is wrong. If nobody paid their taxes, society wouldn’t function, so not paying your taxes is wrong. The entire system is self-regulating.
Even criminals have their own system of cooperation and order. Criminals don’t exist entirely dispersed as lone-wolves, but rather instead form gangs and organizations with their own rules and expectations for cooperation. Once again, there is a set of restrictions: it’s wrong to snitch, it’s wrong to defy orders, it’s wrong to unnecessarily start fights. All of these laws once again, are based upon what is necessary for continued cooperation and stability. Or to put it more concisely: a godless society privileges not anarchy but equilibrium.
1.2. Vox Popli, Vox Dei
As such, the language of the contract becomes the language of justice: cooperation, consent, freedom, boundaries, fairness. We are no longer dealing with empirical concepts but moral ones. The neutrality of this balance, the neutrality of the institutions underpinning liberalism is in reality a false one.
A contract by definition requires two independent actors. If they aren’t independent, they cannot enter or exit the contract of their own volition. For a choice to be free, it has to be independent of external influence, therefore each sphere of society must be strictly segregated. It must assume equality, not just in some abstract quantitative sense but in a qualitative one. If every man is to be granted the same rights, same due process, etc, then there must be commonality. All people must foundationally have the same approach to resolving conflict, the same desire for cooperation, the same social organization which allows for independence, etc. Diversity is only conceived in terms of detached icons (cuisine, language, fashion, etc) but never in the terms that are actually relevant to the stability of such a balance: communal structure, religion, political inclinations, etc).
We are no longer dealing with a contract which finds its neutrality in “unbiased, objective” judgements regarding human nature (as secular society claims) but rather instead an ideology which merely assumes the universality of its applicability. Ironically, the modernists return back to the medieval logic — dogma derived its legitimacy from church authority and the church derived its authority from dogma. Now, the Humanist philosophy points to civil society as its proof, whereas institutions are to be defined in relation to Humanist ideals. The logic is circular, but the conclusion is clear: Society is Truth, Society is Justice, Society is God. This transcendence afforded to the social realm in order to self-justify its ideology is what Marxists have long termed reification.
The foundation of justice according to liberal thinkers from Hume to Locke to Hobbes is derived from the laws of property and commerce: both entirely social constructs which have taken radically different characters at different points in history. Even many socialists took to arguing capitalism’s injustice based on capitalism’s own premises.
Justice éternelle was Proudhon’s principal category of judgment, which he used to decry the glaring inequalities of the present, so Marx singled it out for special abuse… Later, in Capital, Marx repeated this point: “Proudhon creates his ideal of justice, or justice éternelle, from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities. He thereby proves, to the consolation of every good petite-bourgeois, that the production of commodities is a form as eternal as justice. Then he turns around and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, as well as the corresponding legal system, in accordance with this ideal. What would one think of a chemist who, instead of studying the actual laws that govern molecular interactions, claimed to regulate such interactions by means of eternal ideas such as naturalité and affinité, etc.” Reversing cause and effect, Proudhon tried to transplant the ideological superstructure of society onto its material base. (Wolfe 2020)
Because procedural justice claims not just a pragmatic, but a moral authority, it implicitly is assumed the development of institutions must lead to the progression of outcomes. However this “must” is a normative “must” as opposed to an empirical one. There is no iron law of nature which states that institutions will magically conform to this Platonic ideal of procedure which perfectly balances everyone’s outcomes. That is why, even in a 21st century America — one which has undergone countless reforms, progression, and upheaval — we still see widespread discontent with the state of the contract.
And where procedure diverges from outcome, that is when the detached neutrality of procedural justice gives way to social justice. The impulse underlying social justice is an explicitly normative one, it doesn’t just simply assert that the institution is aligned with the ideal, but actively seeks to make the institution align with the ideal. It emerges where procedural justice fails. Some of the common issues brought up by proponents of social justice include:
- For every 1000 incidents of sexual assault in the US, it is estimated that 25 will actually lead to any form of incarceration. This is only among reported incidents, as victims are often discouraged due to both long been not having been taken seriously by authorities and fear of retaliation (an example of this is how 62% of those who report their own abuse in the military experience some form of retalitation).
- Going off of exonerations, African-Americans make up approximately 14% of the population, but 47% of all wrongful convictions. In other words, an innocent black person is seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than an innocent white person, 3.5x more likely to be killed by a police officer while unarmed. Accountability is difficult, especially since reports are handled internally, settlements are paid with tax dollars, most union contracts have provisions which undermine disciplinary action.
This isn’t even to get into the other myriad of issues surrounding race, gender, class, etc. which were the focus of the bulk of social reform efforts over the past century. Regardless, these sorts of questions point to failures of justice not in some abstract moral sense, but also in the practical terms upon which procedural justice grounds itself. Affected groups do not trust the state and civil society to satisfy their end of the contract, and in turn seek justice extrajudicially. This could be rioting (such as with the Watts Riots), protesting, forming communal self-defense units (such as with the Black Panthers), or through media campaigns (such as MeToo). In each of these cases, we see a return to the more vigilante, intuitive senses of justice which is to be delivered from one’s own community. Whatever the cause of these concerns, or how valid we assume any one concern to be, it’s ultimately irrelevant: perception is king. As mentioned before, legitimacy in the social contract exists not as a transcendent truth, but as a collective decision. Polarization is up, faith in institutions is low, and political violence is on the rebound: this is ultimately what is relevant.
Of course, a secular society is perfectly capable of admitting its own injustices, but the failures never lie with the contract itself, merely our implementation of it. “Not enough accountability”, “systemic bias”, “insufficient representation”: these are the sorts of critiques liberals will level at injustices in the status quo, whether we’re talking about the market, policing, or even media. But what these critiques share in common is that rather than undermining the system, they reinforce its necessity. Progressives are reformists at heart: regulation, representation, and oversight all involve further expanding and refining institutions to ensure everything is functioning as “intended”. A failure is not an indictment of the ideal, but rather instead an indictment of reality for its failure to conform to the ideal.
This is the trap many fall into when critiquing liberalism: it’s a complete motte and bailey. To point out disconnects between procedure and outcome (the keystone of liberal justice) is to level an attack against the current-justice, not the ideal-justice. The shape of that ideal-justice is always nebulous, discursively insulated from any questions of what its reality would actually mean. When one discusses the virtues of the system, the ideal-justice comes out, but when one discusses the vices we now speak of the current-justice. So comes the great irony that leftists (such as Proudhon) critique liberalism on grounds of being insufficiently liberal.
So one can critique the current-courts as unfair, the current-markets as unequal, or our current-government as un-democratic, but the values themselves go unquestioned. But why should that be the case? Just as we can’t take for granted that insisting upon our current institutions will lead to just outcomes, who is to say that there exists such an ideal configuration of institutional parameters where everything balances out? Who is to say that we can even speak of a society built on a universal independence, a universal fairness, a universal equality, when we can’t even consistently define these terms?
Even take a concept such as basic as “neutrality”: what does it mean to be neutral? Obviously, on a basic level we can say it means to not arbitrarily discriminate, but that isn’t the only form we see in our society. In contrast to traditional taste-based discrimination (for example, denying a job to someone because you take personal issue with their race), economists have also widely noted the existence of statistical discrimination in our society. In scenarios where information is limited, economic actors (employers, lenders, university admissions) may take to incorporating demographic statistics in order to assess risk. To cite an example:
On paper, sounds rather neutral: an employer with limited information has to make a probabilistic judgement, and consider all sources of information. As long as the statistics are objective, then shouldn’t that remove the bias? After all, this should mean that opportunities writ large will go to the groups deserving. But once again, we run into another divergence between procedure and outcome, this time manifest in the vicious circle: a phenomenon in which the results of this process inadvertently reinforces the initial statistics which caused the problems in the first place.
Statistical discrimination adds to the existing injustice suffered by the subject group. This is realized through a dual mechanism. First, statistical discrimination contributes to existing injustice directly through causing disadvantageous outcomes for the group. For example, statistical discrimination in the workplace increases the difficulty for members of minority groups to get employment, salary raises, and promotion, preventing them from moving out of poverty and improving their living conditions. These consequences, in turn, reduce their access to good education and skill training, which then worsens their performance in the workplace, creating a vicious circle. Statistical discrimination in education, housing, and services also exacerbates the quality of life of minority groups. Besides the material disadvantages, statistical discrimination causes reasonable feelings of powerless, stigma, resentment, hatred and other traumatic experiences. (Sun 2021, 18)
So, what are we to make of a system which reinforces the problems which it punishes groups for? Is it systemically unjust? Is it not neutral, since the spiral only occurs to previously discriminated groups? Even if we were to run these judgements through an algorithm (whose entire purpose is to process data and identify quantifiable trends), we still see questions regarding their objectivity be raised:
So clearly this isn’t just a matter of “bad actors”, but a larger crisis of definition: should one define neutrality with respect to the procedure or with respect to the outcome? Regardless of whichever side one takes on the issue, the implications end up raising a great deal of ambiguity regarding what exactly these concepts mean. And because these are normative concepts, there’s no reason to assume this ambiguity will ever be resolved.
It’s precisely because the entire framework rests upon such a quixotic foundation that it takes upon an absurd character. Vox popli, vox dei fails because the people are not God. How can the State stand as a neutral mediator above men when all these institutions are directly the product of men? When one speaks of systemic bias as the root of political evil, are they not implicitly positing that their Platonic system requires the complete absence of humanity to function? But then what is a political system if it have nothing to do with men?
This question holds not just on a level of practical implementation, but even the foundational ideas, which is why “well it can’t be perfect, but we can try” is not an argument. It neglects the fact that even the ideals against which all things are calibrated are in and of themselves immanent in their character. Which is why liberals struggle to define things like justice, why a line such as “equal is not equal” can be said without a hint of irony, and why we are called to have faith in institutions in order to protect the health of said institutions.
Either way you look at it, to appeal to such an ideal requires one to appeal to an authority outside of men and things, to what is functionally a god. But this god has to define himself in concord with the ideals of property, justice, and right: all concepts which have their roots in social organization. This god in harmony with society is in reality defined by society — it becomes more accurate to say society becomes god. Men place themselves in the position of god.
But in striving to become god — to conform to this ideal law that has been erected — limitations become all the more apparent, and the drive towards perfection becomes a drive towards purging humanity. So it is that personal forms of domination and social organization give way to domination by abstract forces. No longer is there a king, but a bureaucracy. Legal and political systems become increasingly byzantine to navigate and absurd. One in theory is given class mobility, but the market renders all labor fundamentally alien. Men no longer find themselves primarily oppressed by other men, but by the products of their own creation. The aforementioned ‘qualitative equality’ has the effect of stripping all men and things of their sense of agency and individuality. This purification of mankind is indistinguishable from its annihilation.
Capitalist society, as the latter saw it, had made everything equal by subjecting it all to indiscriminate exchange.
“One man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour,” Marx explained. “Time is everything, man is nothing; or else, he is but time’s carcass. Quality no longer matters, as quantity alone decides everything; hour for hour, day for day. Yet this equalizing of labor is by no means the work of Proudhon’s ‘eternal justice.’ Rather, it is simply a fact of modern industry.” In other words, far from conflicting with the norms of capitalist production, the “eternal justice” championed by Proudhon instead hypostatized them. (Wolfe 2020)
This is ultimately the conclusion of secular justice — far from overcoming religion, it finds itself hopelessly trapped within it.
2. The Failure of Jewish Justice (section in-progress)
But it was not just any place in Rome Jesus was arrested, but right within Jerusalem. Not just anywhere he started his ministry, but within the midst of Galilee. Just as he could trace his lineage all the way back to Jacob, so his context inseparably became that of Israel’s.
And Israel at this time found itself in the midst of an identity crisis: with no more temple, no more independence, the nation now had to grapple with the question of what it meant to be God’s chosen people. How essential is the temple to worship? Is there an Oral Torah? Can Jewish identity only be realized through political independence?
Contrary to the assumptions of many Christians today, the Jews of Jesus’ time were far from united in their answers to these questions. As much as we love to joke about church infighting today, the environment in which Jesus found himself was not so different. Among the factions you had:
The Sadducees, who traced their heritage back to the priest class of old. Their practice was at the heart of the temple, keeping the old rites, hierarchies, and scriptures. But in order to maintain their aristocratic status, they favored assimilating to the surrounding Roman culture politically, culturally, and spiritually. They held to the written Torah but not nearly as strongly to the Oral Torah. By extent, they also rejected a lot of the supernatural beliefs present in Jewish tradition: resurrection of the dead, angels, etc.
The main foil to the Sadducees were the Pharisees, revivalist leaders who often represented the Jewish masses as opposed to the priestly elite. They saw the Sadducees as having compromised Jewish identity through their assimilation. Whatever claim they had to the temple and ritual was compromised by their capitulation. As a result they separated (their name, פרושים, literally means “to separate”) from the grounds of the temple, from Roman culture, and from “impurity” into the streets. They preached the oral tradition, putting an emphasis on halakha not just in the temple but in daily life. They saw this tradition as instrumental towards preserving Jewish identity and separating it from the surrounding Roman culture.
And then you had the Zealots, revolutionaries who resented Roman rule and believed Jewish identity could only be maintained through political sovereignty. They were a loose group, for whom political and religious motivations often blended. They believed Roman rule had to be overthrown at all costs, and a Messiah would come to lead them in their liberation. To them, the position of the Sadducees and Pharisees did not go far enough, as even the Pharisee separatism did not directly challenge Roman rule.
Of course, despite their disagreements, no matter how bitter the fighting got, they were still all Jews in the end: bound to the same God and bound to the same promise. The God of the Zealots, Sadducees, and Pharisees was still — unlike the Roman gods — wholly perfect, wholly indivisible, wholly transcendent. They disagreed on the meaning of identity, the meaning of approach, but neither of these factions questioned the link between Jewish identity and Jewish law. The hope of the Zealots, the tradition of the Pharisees, and the lineage of the Sadducees all found their roots in those fateful words spoken unto Moses. Israel was to be a “treasure unto [God] above all people”, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. (Exodus 19:5-6 KJV)
The laws delivered upon Sinai — which comprise the heart of the Torah — weave together notions of law, justice, and identity. When it is declared “justice, and only justice you shall follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20 RSV), it is done so right in the middle of Moses’ delivery of the law. Similarly in Leviticus, we see how God ties the keeping of his commands to Israel’s own separation (Leviticus 20:22-24). You are not to eat the same food as the others, not to marry their women, not to spend the seventh day as they do, not to worship their Gods. But you are also to not take bribes, not bear false witness, not make use of dishonest scales. Israel’s justification is to be in its separation, and its separation defined in terms of its pursuit of justice. To the Jew, the Law is the expression of the connection, and so under a system of halakha, tradition, guidance, and law all become synonymous.
Where Israel failed to keep these commandments, one need only turn to the Book of Judges to see how easily adopting the customs of the surrounding nations became losing identity, losing the law, and losing God. (Judges 2:10-19) But no longer would there be any judges to rescue the people. No more prophets. No more kings. Israel had no sovereignty under Rome, neither did it before Rome. Neither this generation, nor their fathers’ generation, nor the generation before that could remember anything resembling national sovereignty. The throne went not to a David, but to a Herod: a puppet of Rome rather than a King of Jews. The old temple was reduced to rubble, the construction of the new one dependent on the patronage of Israel’s conquerors. So in this period — where even the moment of crisis, the time of Lamentations — had long been forgotten, where is the Jew to find his grounding?
For the Sadducees, the answer was the temple. As long as Israel had its temple, the temple they worked so hard since the time of Cyrus to rebuild, then that site in the center of Jerusalem could stand as the center of Jewish identity. They had the law, they had the rituals, they had the authority all of which they could insist upon: and as long as they kept it within the temple walls, they need not worry about the Romans giving them grief. And it is through this logic, so it could be that Israel’s own priests felt un-threatened by the forces of Hellenization. They readily accepted the Roman rule, culture, and ways of living because through doing so it would ensure good relations and thus the preservation of the temple. As long as Israel maintained its rituals, its Levitical laws, and its hierarchies, the tradition would carry. They took great pride in their lineage and connections, seeing themselves as the heirs of the Maccabean revolt which liberated Israel from the Greeks all those years ago.
3. Beyond Justice
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