‘Moral tribalism’ and translating the d-word

Michael Schulson has a fascinating essay on “The Moral Tribalism of Contemporary Politics” at Religion & Politics. There’s much to chew on in that piece. I like this bit in particular:

To be clear, I do not think that the lesson here is that religion and politics have switched places, or that partisanship has become a new kind of religion. The relationship between values, group membership, and individual identity has always been complex. Especially in this year’s election, racism adds another dimension to partisan tension. Glib statements along the lines of politics is the new religion don’t capture the particular histories of religious and partisan identity.

But the moral tribalism of contemporary politics, and the concurrent loosening of religious bonds, does challenge a very common set of assumptions about the relationship between religion and politics. Under these familiar assumptions, religion is thought to be the more foundational kind of identity. And partisan identity is depicted as mutable, and as secondary to all the other ways that identity intersects with values. For example, commentators will often ask why evangelicals tend to be political conservatives. It would be almost unthinkable to even frame the question the other way: why do political conservatives tend to be evangelical? That’s because we think of the evangelical identity as more fundamental than the conservative identity.

This, again, is why I think it’s important to speak of white evangelical Christianity — because the whiteness is often more fundamental than the religious aspect of that identity.

I’m also struck by something interesting in Schulson’s citation of Jonathan Haidt:

“Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” writes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. “They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult — perhaps impossible — to convince them that they are wrong if you argue from outside of their matrix.” For Haidt, political affiliation is linked to deeper worldviews that make citizens resistant to the ideas of others. And Haidt sees a recent “shift to a more righteous and tribal mentality” within American politics.

I’m fascinated by Haidt’s use of that word “righteous.” It is primarily, almost entirely, negative here, implying a kind of self-righteousness or a sense of self-justification. This is righteousness as rectitude, as uprightness, or moral purity and correctness. It is righteousness as the acquisitive and proprietary possession of truth.

This form of righteousness is not a virtue. The righteous, in this sense of the word, are fairly awful people to have to be around. And when others respond to such “righteous” folk with a reasonable and justifiable aversion, they interpret this as evidence of those others’ guilt — an expression of their moral jealousy. That only compounds the awfulness.

This Namibian dik dik is just just adorable, right right? (Wikimedia photo by Yathin S. Krishnappa)

American Christians are particularly prone to this vicious form of righteousness — this idea that uprightness requires them to walk around like they’ve got a large telephone pole up right their rectitude. The problem comes from reading their American Bibles.

They’ve been misled by those Bibles. Those American Bibles have taught them to think that such righteousness is a mark of godliness or holiness or sanctity. That’s what their Bibles say, but it’s not what the Bible actually says.

Here again is a video of Yale theologian Nick Wolterstorff discussing the dubious translation in our English versions of the New Testament that feeds into this vicious misunderstanding of righteousness:

That’s an endearingly informal response from a post-lecture Q&A session. Here he is making the same point in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs:

Those who approach the New Testament solely through English translations face a serious linguistic obstacle to apprehending what these writings say about justice. In most English translations, the word “justice” occurs relatively infrequently. It is not surprise, then, that most English-speaking people think the New Testament does not say much about justice; the Bibles they read do not say much about justice. …

The basic issue is well known among translators and commentators. Plato’s Republic, as we all know, is about justice. The Greek noun in Plato’s text that is standardly translated as “justice” is “dikaiosune”; the adjective standardly translated as “just” is “dikaios.” This same dik-stem occurs around three hundred times in the New Testament, in a wide variety of grammatical variants.

To the person who comes to English translations of the New Testament fresh from reading and translating classical Greek, it comes as a surprise to discover that though some of those occurrences are translated with grammatical variants on our word “just,” the great bulk of dik-stem words are translated with grammatical variants on our word “right.” The noun, for example, is usually translated as “righteousness,” not as “justice.” In English we have the word “just” and its grammatical variants coming from the Latin iustitia, and the word “right” and its grammatical variants coming from the Old English recht. Almost all our translators have decided to translate the great bulk of dik-stem words in the New Testament with grammatical variants of the latter — just the opposite of the decision made by most translators of classical Greek.

I will give just two examples of the point. The fourth of the beatitudes of Jesus, as recorded in the fifth chapters of Matthew, reads, in the New Revised Standard Version, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word translated as “righteousness” is “dikaiosune.” And the eighth beatitude, in the same translation, reads “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek word translated as “righteousness” is “dikaiosune.” Apparently, the translators were not struck by the oddity of someone being persecuted because he is righteous. My own reading of human affairs is that righteous people are either admired or ignored, not persecuted; people who pursue justice are the ones who get in trouble.

It goes almost without saying that the meaning and connotations of “righteousness” are very different in present-day idiomatic English from those of “justice.” “Righteousness” names primarily if not exclusively a certain trait of personal character. And … the word in present-day idiomatic English carries a negative connotation. In everyday speech one seldom any more describes someone as righteous; if one does, the suggestion is that he is self-righteous. “Justice,” by contrast, refers to an interpersonal situation; justice is present when persons are related to each other in a certain way. …

… When one takes in hand a list of all the occurrences of dik-stem words in the Greek New Testament, and then opens up almost any English translation of the New Testament and reads in one sitting all the translations of these words, a certain pattern emerges: unless the notion of legal judgment is so prominent in the context as virtually to force a translation in terms of justice, the translators will prefer to speak of righteousness.

Why are they so reluctant to have the New Testament writers speak of primary justice? Why do they prefer that the gospel of Jesus Christ be the good news of the righteousness of God rather than the good news of the justice of God? Why do they prefer that Jesus calls his followers to righteousness rather than to justice?

I am not someone who came to the New Testament “fresh from reading and translating classical Greek.” I am, instead, someone who came to the New Testament as a white evangelical American Christian — as someone who was taught that faith was a matter of righteousness, rectitude, piety, obedience, sanctity, uprightness, etc. I came to it as someone trained to believe, as Clayton Bell wrote, that justice was “a red herring of secondary social import” and thus, at best, a semi-permissible optional hobby, but more likely a distraction from “the maintaining and preaching of the simple Gospel of God’s redeeming love.” And that simple gospel had nothing at all to do with justice.

The idea, then, that justice was central and essential to the teaching of the New Testament and of the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached was, initially, all Greek to me — as incomprehensible to me as a foreign language. Translate justice into uprightness and the moral tribalism of my white evangelical faith was confirmed and reaffirmed. “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice,” and that moral tribalism was yanked out from under me, sending me reeling.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate the significance of this or the repercussions of it. There’s a huge difference between being called to “righteousness” and being called to justice — between a faith centered on the pursuit of personal rectitude and a faith centered on just relationship. It’s transformational.

If someone suggests otherwise — insisting that this translation choice isn’t a big deal and can’t be related to anything fundamentally askew in our [white] American Christianity, cheerfully accept their terms. Say, “Fine, then. If it’s no big deal, you won’t mind if I choose to read your word ‘righteousness’ as ‘justice’ instead?” See if they suddenly have a problem with that. See where that leads.


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