When or Because?


Did you ever notice that we called these things stoplights even when they’re green? Did you ever wonder about that? We tend to see these things as a hindrance rather than a conveyance, or help. When I was at NYU my Religion Professor, Dr. James Carse asked us one night if we went when the light turned green or because the light turned green. 35 years later I still wonder about that. We call it a stoplight, even though it is green as often as it is red – and you can also go when it is yellow. The device actually says go a lot more than it says stop. Do you go when the light turns green or because the light turns green?

I think most Americans go when the light turns green. We wait until it says we can go safely without getting a ticket. Late at night, when there’s no one around, on a backcountry road we might go anyway, getting angry at who in tarnation but a stoplight way the heck out here. If we’re in a strange place we might not realize that intersection is considered the most dangerous in the county, 5 deaths last year alone, until a petition got a light there. So we wait, maybe, until the light changes or we zip through not realizing we are risking our lives or someone else’s life, coming the other direction.

I won’t create a strawman in this argument by projecting that in XYZ location they go because the light gives them permission. However, I admit I want to imagine that somewhere there is such a place. I imagine it’s this way most other places, to be honest, with the possible exception of Australia. I say that based on 25 years of customer service (including retail): I know that in America if I forget to charge you sales tax, you’ll be happy and walk away. But for 25 years, customers from almost all other places have all been some version of, “Wait, you’re supposed to charge me a tax on this purchase. I need to pay for roads and schools, healthcare and more with that tax. It’s my obligation to my community. Charge me that tax!” Americans don’t feel that way at all, even though we tend to pay only pennies on the dollar for each item (some countries charge upwards from 20% in sales tax). I want to imagine that these folks who demand the right to pay their sales tax also wait to go because the light has turned green.

You, dear reader, may have already begun to discern the difference. If a driver goes because the light has turned green, then he – the driver – is waiting for the state’s permission to go. The light says “go now” and the driver goes. The driver who goes when the light turns green was probably revving her engine as she saw the light from the other direction turn yellow. Must get away from these other cars. Come on light! Green! Throw it in gear and GO!

So, less a strawman than a projection, nevertheless, a projection I want to use for this post. I am sure that there are folks in both sorts of cultures who fit both of these profiles – who want to pay taxes and who don’t. I know they exist. And I think America has more of the when the light turns green sort of folks. It would make sense to be so as we are very individualistic here. The only question dividing the two American parties is really, “Which of my individual rights will the state let me force on you?” Their answers are not very different. Even our more liberal or lefty sorts tend to be focused on individual liberty rather than community rights. Laws, to these people, are a hindrance rather than a help. At best, the government does something that usually gets in the way. At worst the government stops something that an individual wants to do. There is a reason we call it a stoplight.

What does this mean for us in light of covid-19? I think it explains a lot. Although the Italian people were in the streets partying until about 2 and 1/2 weeks ago once they were put under lockdown they went willingly. They sing opera to each other from their balconies. They make YouTube videos of jets flying overhead blasting Pavarotti. They are in this together not as a bunch of individuals who happen to be together but rather as a culture and a community. When the government does something in Italy – if not in all of Europe – it is perceived as doing something to help. Perhaps it is too little, too late… but generally… let’s try this and see. Looking on YouTube for videos from Italy, what you hear on Twitter, and what you read on Facebook it’s a bunch of people grumbly but aware of their safety and the health of their society. They understand that while this is really annoying. It’s better than everyone dying. It is possible that even in highly secular Europe, this is a result of their Catholic upbringing.

There are other places where this is not the case. America is one of these places. Here when the government is doing something it’s getting in my way. Although from person to person the attitude may change slightly, generally the assumption is if the government’s trying to do something it’s probably wrong. I say this can change slightly from person to person because often times it’s a matter of well, if I happen to agree with it… And those shades of if I agree with it do, in fact, differ from person to person in America. So, for some voters anything the previous president did was right – or most anything – but anything the current president is wrong. For other voters, that’s exactly reversed. This is all a matter of personal opinion, of individual Choice: that’s the American way. This is our Protestant, “Jesus and Me, to hell with thee” roots.

For Catholic, ethics is about the common good: the individual participates society. The individual cannot be considered as a building block of society, but rather as a participant in society. There is no human-alone. Communion is what makes us who we are. The individual is not saved alone, and the individual has an obligation to the community around him. That obligation is not only for the community’s spiritual well-being which is their salvation. It is also for the community’s physical, secular well being as well. It is wrong for the individual to be greedy: but why? My greed is wrong because it robs from you. I have an obligation to see that you have your needs met. In Christian culture, everyone has an obligation to see that everyone’s needs are met. That includes salvation, don’t get me wrong. But it also includes housing, food, and health care. In other words, Christian Society relies upon – and assumes – Christian government. As we are a part of a society our collective action should be to force the government to do its job. That job is to secure the common good: both salvation and well-being. When the government fails to do its job individuals step in.

Yes, all Christians have the personal moral obligation to feed the poor and to clothe the naked. And to defend the health and safety of each other. The government – which is instituted by God – has these same obligations. God gives us our status as the divine image, the right to life, and the pursuit of happiness which means happiness in this world and in the next. This is not about material success, but real happiness. The state is established by God not to “give” us rights, but rather to defend and enforce those rights. These only exist in communion. I have no rights that trump you, as a person. My right to a job, to shopping, to free movement cannot trump your right to life.

I have described this as an American problem. We were not always that way: our American foundation documents, in fact, back me up. Just as the Catholic Church teaches that I owe you all because you are created in the image of God, our Declaration of Independence says that all are created equal and are endowed by their creator with specific rights. Our Constitution assures us that the duty of government is to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare’s advance. It’s only as we became modern that we forgot the meaning of endowed by their creator and promote the general welfare.

There are differing political and economic theories about how to accomplish the right way of right governing and economic justice. They come from both the left and the right. I have met Catholics who, individually, hold any one of these points on a spectrum. I am not aware that any one or the other actually is the Catholic position. I do know that the Catholic Church requires we promote the common good and that we weigh the common good above our individual liberties. We are obligated to live and enact justice as individuals. Equally, we are morally obligated to work towards a society and a government that does the same. We cannot, as Catholics, work for amoral governance that does not enforce God’s laws either in terms of actions or economics on the argument that I will be moral anyway. The government’s job is to enforce morality.

In the era of covid-19 this forbids me (and the. government) from acting in the name of “muh freedomz” when those freedoms can endanger others. I raise this because so many of us are treating these enclosures, shelter-in-place orders, and even lockdowns as “stoplights” rather than “traffic lights”. We are posting warnings about “martial law” and “communism” when what we should see is actions in defense of the individuals “endowed by their creator” with the first right listed being “life”. And since, properly, no gov’t can grant a right not granted prior by God (else it is only license, not liberty) then no gov’t can give us the right to endanger the lives of others. To the contrary, a Christian is obligated to support a Gov’t that seeks to take action to prevent us from doing so. No gov’t can use your income as an excuse to let other’s die and call itself Christian. No Christian gov’t can let economics hinder it from doing all things it can to protect its people.

Additionally, when all those actions have occurred, when my mobility is hindered, and when other right actions have resulted in the health of the populace, it is also the government’s responsibility to take economic steps to ensure the continuance of prosperity.

Regardless of what political form or economic theory you name this, it is Christian charity. It is acting because the government says we can, it is waiting until the government says we can go. It is giving up our freedom for the Salvation of those around us. In this we followed Jesus.

In short, covid-19 is bringing us a chance to institute, both from the gov’t and from us as individuals, charity. Don’t struggle with that grace-filled moment claiming “personal freedom”. That’s just the language of Eden’s serpent recapitulated.

When you have to remember the Preamble to the Constitution

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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