Questions came in this week that touched on Jesus at the intersection of individual freedom and community obligation. Interestingly, some came from liberals and some from libertarians, none of whom claimed to be Christian. Maybe they are, they didn’t say, but they did ask about Jesus. The issues each raised had to do with personal choices that create public obligations, and whether bad personal choices should obligate the public to pay for them.
My response will use community to mean any level of government from village, to state, to nation, and everything in between. Also, libertarian ideology has replaced conventional conservative thought, so it might as well go by its own name. One questioner asked about my politics, which are center-left, but they are always and everywhere subordinate to Jesus and guided by where he leads. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your ability to do so, and love others as you love yourself. On these two commandments hang everything revealed in scripture (for that matter, everything else anyone has to say). Then he added a new commandment, love others as he has loved us. So the question becomes, how did he show what love is? The short answer is summed up in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, which offers clear measures of how we are to be a loving blessing to ourselves and others. It puts into perspective what God said through the prophets about the standards of justice communities are to have. My favorite is Amos, who describes in some detail what it is that really ticks God off. It’s all about justice, equity, and the public good. God doesn’t have anything to say about what kind of government communities should have, but a lot to say about how they are accountable for being just and equitable.
Here were the questions.
Should anti-vaxers who get sick from preventable diseases create an obligation for the community to pay for their care, or should they be forced to pay for it out of their own pocket?
Should college graduates who chose majors that don’t qualify them for jobs get free education, or help with student debt? Why should the community be saddled with the cost of their bad choices if they can’t find a job?
Should tourists who’ve bee warned not to go certain places or do certain things have to pay for their own rescue when they act irresponsibly or illegally? Why should the community have to pay for the cost of their bad choices?
What does Jesus say? Would he say it’s morally wrong to hold people financially accountable for the cost of their own bad choices?
Each is a question about fairness and accountability for personal choices, but liberals and libertarians ask them from different perspectives. Liberals wonder if it’s fair for the tax paying public to be saddled with costs generated by individuals who deliberately act in ways harmful to the public good. Libertarians wonder if it’s fair for the community to take what is theirs to pay for undeserved public goods? Libertarians argue that the public good is rooted in maximizing the rights of individuals to pursue their self interests without restraint by the government. Liberals argue that what maximizes individual freedom is a just and economically sound community investing in public goods. That is, government done right is a tool to build communities in which individuals can thrive.
It would be helpful if there was a graph that showed where individual rights to pursue self interest intersects with the community’s need to pursue the public good so that each would be optimized, but there isn’t. Democracies can exist only where an acceptable meeting place can be worked out case-by-case and moment-by-moment driven by provisional answers to what is right and just. It’s a messy process that leads many nations to prefer strong, single party rule that leaves little doubt about what the rules are.
What would Jesus think about all this? He never answers the question. He just tells parables about reconciliation and restoration for prodigal sons, despised minorities, the mentally deranged, unclean outcasts, and expects his listeners to draw their own conclusions. He would turn the tables and ask two questions. Does your conclusion demonstrate love for the good of the other? Does your conclusion support justice and equity in the public good? The two cannot be separated, nor opposed to each other. They must work together. The best I can offer to those who asked how Jesus would answer their questions, is my own opinion based on how I understand the path on which Jesus has led me.
With that as prelude, what about anti-vaxers? The community must see to their care even though they have threatened the public good, but they must be called out for it. Choices have consequences, and theirs is to be called out for their willing disregard for the well being of others. Those who promulgate blatantly false information that jeopardizes public safety may be held criminally or civilly liable, but that’s a different issue.
What about higher education? Free education isn’t free. It’s an investment of our collective tax money in the future of the community. In a very real sense it’s a part of our infrastructure. Being an old guy whose resources are a little dated, I refer you to John W. Kendrick’s 1974 work on total factor productivity. Should we invest in liberal arts education? A liberal arts degree is not a job ticket, it’s an education in how to be a critical thinker with a solid base of knowledge about humanity and its story. It’s the essential carrier of our history, culture, standards, hopes and dreams. Democracies can’t exist without it. Job tickets come from quality trade and professional schools. They too are part of the infrastructure, and equally essential to a healthy, thriving economy. The two are parts of a whole not to be separated.
And the cost of rescuing people who get into trouble because they disregard laws and warnings? Like the anti-vaxers, they have acted unethically with disregard for their own or the public good. They made terrible choices without intending to cause harm to themselves or others, but the community is morally obligated to come to their aid. The costs are high, too high for someone to pay out of pocket. Tourism is an economic asset for many communities, and they are obligated to make it as safe a possible, knowing that people off on an adventure seldom think anything bad can happen on vacation.
My response to the questions asked must be taken as rough guidance toward the path of following Jesus on the way of love. Specific answers to specific questions about moral judgment are alway problematic because they lead to more questions about specific issues that easily morph into catalogues of approved dos and don’ts. If taken as authoritative, the catalogues relieve one of the hard work of thinking things through to make decisions that must always remain provisional. The church word for it is casuistry; it has a long, disreputable history. When asked what the Lord required of people, the prophet Micah said, “…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”(Micah 6). It’s not the easy way. It’s a struggle, but it will not lead astray.