Peter J. Leithart: When Justice Fails

Norcia Monk to Catholics: On Prayer and Fasting, Don’t Be a Baby
October 5, 2018
Rob Schwarzwalder: Final Observations About the Kavanaugh Crisis
October 6, 2018

By Peter J. Leithart, First Things, Oct. 5, 2018

God has given the United States over to divisive blindness and stupidity.

Americans watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. We couldn’t not watch, but drew opposite conclusions. The New York Times quadrant of the country found the fragile determination of Dr. Ford’s testimony utterly compelling; the National Review quadrant reveled in the outrage of Judge Kavanaugh and Senator Graham.

We inhabit different universes. We have no shared standards of conduct, especially sexual conduct. Our elites jettisoned all the old rules a long time ago, and we have to limp along on the thin reed of consent. There were odd twists in the latest spectacle. Some traditionalists excuse Kavanaugh for youthful indiscretions; for sexual progressives, his opposition to Roe is evidence he’s a creepy serial rapist. Our rudderless sexual ethics make no sense: The same people who defend pornographers and sex workers are in high dudgeon whenever someone acts out a pornographic fantasy.

We have no common standard of evidence or proof. Do we believe victims, or assume innocence? Does sincerity and vulnerability make Ford’s story creditable, even in the absence of a second witness? Even if Ford’s allegations were proven beyond doubt, we couldn’t decide whether or not a teenage boy’s drunken groping still matters thirty years after the fact. Can a nation long endure when we can’t agree on basics of decency and fairness?

While the rest of the world looked on aghast, or in bemusement at the latest permutation of American Puritanism, the “greatest debating club in the world” was reduced to stentorian exegesis of inside jokes from a jock’s high school yearbook.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a soap opera.

In the best of circumstances, the testimony would have been difficult to sort. If Ford is lying, she’s staggeringly accomplished at it. If Kavanaugh is innocent, his offended passion is completely appropriate. Even if Kavanaugh’s snarky question-for-question and evasive lawyerly precisions raise doubts, they don’t prove he’s lying about the assault. Maybe he attacked Ford but was too drunk to remember.

We’re not in the best of circumstances, and given our turbo-charged politics, there’s no chance we’ll reach a consensus. Whatever happened, whatever happens, we won’t be sure that justice has been done. No matter what the FBI turns up, one side or the other will find it useful to dissent, with vehemence, for a generation.

Alan Jacobs has cited C. S. Lewis’s notion of the “inner ring” to illuminate today’s hyper-partisan discourse. Public debate isn’t solely or mainly about logic; it’s about belonging. Left and right, we tweet and blog, update and comment to signal our membership in one tribe or another. We hate “repugnant Others” and stake out extreme positions to prove that we’re really, truly insiders.

That explains a lot, but President Trump is right to sense something “evil” going on, some super-social power at work. The evil isn’t confined to one side of the aisle. We’re all caught up in it, spinning in the vortex. As my friend Mike Bull said, the Spirit has departed, and we’re back to Babel, where no one can speak to his neighbor. God has delivered us to divisive blindness and stupidity, to the force René Girard identified as “Satan.”

It’s not as if he didn’t warn us. Paul writes that ungrateful idolaters become “futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” Isaiah saw it happening in Judah: Idolaters “do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend” (Isa 44).

This doesn’t mean we’re helpless. Or, better, our helplessness can drive us to seek justice in a higher court. We can shatter the idols that bind and blind us, and turn to God in prayer. That may seem a priss-pious response to what R. R. Reno has called a “political knife-fight,” but prayer is in the arsenal of spiritual weapons, one of the church’s primary ways of pursuing justice. Jesus compares prayer to a widow’s persistent appeal for justice (Luke 18). Psalm after psalm calls on God to see and judge, and summons Israel to praise when judgment falls. Some demons don’t come out except by prayer and fasting.

Human justice fails, often. But Christians can still send the case up to the Judge of all the earth who does right, the heavenly Judge, Jesus, whose fiery eyes penetrate dark places and bring hidden things to light.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute