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Winsome? Lose Some

According to Dictionary.com, winsome means “sweetly or innocently charming; winning; engaging.” … While there is certainly nothing wrong with being kind or meek, the church must come to understand that winsomeness is not part of the fruit of the Spirit.

Addressing this issue requires starting with an understanding of natural law and natural rights.

There is a confusion when it comes to the topic of natural law.  There is also a confusion when it comes to the idea of natural rights.  There is a further confusion when discussing the two together, seeing the two as almost interchangeable terms or even synonyms one for the other.

Both those sympathetic to and those opposed to the idea of natural law share these confusions.  The confusion is grounded in the purpose of natural law as opposed to the purpose of natural rights.

Natural law is an ethic.  It describes the proper way for man to live, based on objectively identifiable truths – both physical truths as well as truths that lead to a meaningful life that is beneficial to the individual, to the broader society, for today and for the future.

This ethic is understood and can be derived, ultimately, by identifying man’s purpose, or telos.  It is to grow ever more like Christ.  But for those out there who don’t like this idea, it is beatitudo.  This word is often translated as happiness, but it is best understood as fulfillment via other-regarding action.  I know…some won’t like that either.  But there you have it.

Natural rights are rights possessed by individuals.  These are limited to rights in one’s person and one’s property.  Nothing more.

To best and simply clarify the difference: natural law (ethics) demands from me that I act charitably – in other words, to act with regard toward the other.  Call it the Golden Rule.  So, while natural law demands of me to act charitably, no one has a natural right to demand charity from me.  All they can demand of me is to respect their natural rights in their person and the fruits of their person (i.e., their property).  I often phrase it as don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff.  The non-aggression principle.  Call this the Silver Rule (yes, there is one).

Of course, there is a small overlap: it is consistent with and a subset of natural law ethics that I act in a manner that respects another’s natural rights.  To respect another’s person and property is to act charitably toward that person.  But this is not the whole of natural law, just as the non-aggression principle is not the whole of an ethical system.

Not every violation of natural law should be subject to civil punishment.  That I do not act charitably toward someone is no cause for throwing me in jail.  That someone chooses sexual behavior that is outside of natural law is also no cause for that person to be thrown in jail.

Conversely, violations of natural law should not be made legal by civil law.  In other words, civil law should not force me to affirm violations of natural law.  Civil law should not force me to sell to those to whom I do not wish to sell.  Civil law should not force me to affirm gender identities which I choose not to affirm.

As should be expected, Thomas Aquinas has answered this question of the difference in natural law and natural rights, writing:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

Not all vices should be forbidden by human law.  Only those through which human society cannot be maintained such as murder and theft.  Note, the examples given by Thomas are examples of violations against person and property “and such like.”  Nothing more.  The examples he gives are those that violate natural rights, not natural law.

Natural law separates vices from virtues; natural rights identify the just use for punishment or use of physical force.  Walter Block once noted that the non-aggression principle can be best thought of as follows:

A more sophisticated understanding of libertarianism does not say, with the NAP: “Thou shalt not murder, initiate violence against innocent persons or their legitimate possessions.” Rather, it states, that if you do, you will be punished in accordance with libertarian punishment theory.

It isn’t a complete ethic; it is a theory of punishment (or, obviously, the correspondent proper use of violent defense).

Fundamentally, civil law should be concerned solely with violation against person and property: don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff.  These are our only natural rights, and civil law should be concerned solely with defending these.

Conclusion

This post was prompted by the now bubbling discussion surrounding winsome Christians – those Christians who feel that affirming every violation of natural law ethics is the best path to win souls for Christ.  Let’s just say that hasn’t been working out so well.

In the United States, Protestant denominations that are supportive of natural law ethics regarding the current sex and gender discussions (the non-winsome protestants) are growing; those that affirm violations of the ethic (the winsome protestants) are shrinking.  I suspect the same trends are visible in the Catholic Church.  It isn’t clear to me that Orthodox Churches have yet really succumbed to this rancorous debate, but I cannot say anything with certainty on this.

How does this figure in this winsome discussion?  For the more strident fundamentalist Christians, stop trying to take the easy way out by advocating for laws regarding prohibition of behaviors that don’t violate natural rights.  Stop looking to the latest politician as your savior.

Instead, teach natural law as an ethic to live by.  Getting the state to do the work that should be done in faith through Christ and the Church is a losing game.  The issue is ethical.  The issue is cultural, not political.

As for the winsome Christians among us: don’t be shy about this teaching.  Being a poor substitute for the prevailing culture will win none to Christ.  Nor will it leave a better world for your grandchildren.

Ephesians 6: 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

It is past time to take this verse seriously.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.