STERLING, SILVER AND NIETZSCHE: A GLIMPSE INTO THE AMERICAN SOUL

NietzscheAny time a fifteen minute conversation between the owner of a sports team and his mistress is a national news story for several days running, you can be pretty sure the story gives you a telling glimpse into the American soul.  A week ago, it is safe to guess, hardly anyone outside serious basketball fans (and even relatively few of them) could tell you who owned the Los Angeles Clippers.  But no longer.

As everyone knows by now, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined 2.5 million dollars by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and banned for life from the league for racist comments he made to his mistress in a phone conversation she recorded.  His derogatory comments about blacks, in addition to being deeply offensive, were also highly ironic since his coach, along with most of his players, are black, not to mention that his mistress is half black!  Indeed, the overwhelming majority of NBA players in general are black.

Now what is striking about this story, but altogether predictable, is the unanimous, passionate condemnation of Sterling’s comments.  Everyone from Charles Barkley to Bill O’Reilly and virtually everyone else in America is in agreement that Sterling’s comments were outrageous and indefensible.   Americans, like most westerners, can be counted on to roundly reject and condemn racism any time it rears its ugly head.

But what is really interesting is the depth and zeal of the moral condemnation that is elicited by the attitude Sterling conveyed.  Indeed, the reaction seems to flow out of the deeply grounded moral conviction that such attitudes are egregious and profound violations of standards that must be upheld.  It is not just that Sterling’s comments are distasteful or personally offensive.  The severity of condemnation and the punishment exacted suggests that Sterling did something that is deeply WRONG, in the strongest sense of that word.

In other words, it suggests that Americans believe there are real moral truths, truths about things that are objectively right or wrong, and not just matters of personal opinion or perspective.  And if you asked WHY racism is wrong, you would likely be told that everyone is equal, that differences like skin color have no bearing on a person’s value or dignity.   It is deeply inscribed in our national DNA that that “all men are created equal,” and that racism is a glaring violation of this self-evident moral truth.

Here is where Nietzsche joins the conversation.  He viewed the modern idea of equality with disdain, and as anything but a self-evident moral truth.  Indeed, he saw the idea of equality as a dishonest and sentimental product of Christian morality that began in a “slave revolt” led by the Jews.  This “slave morality” was fundamentally opposed to the aristocratic morality that valued strength, power, domination, and beauty, and looked down on those who lacked these things as inferior beings.

Nietzsche put the matter like this: “The doctrine of equality!…But there exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the termination of justice….’Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’—that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make equal what is unequal’” (Ellipses in original).

As he saw it then, the notion of equality is a fiction invented by the weak to protect themselves from the strong,   It has no basis in reality.  And certainly, if you try to make the case for equality on empirical or scientific grounds, it is a hard case to advance.  All people are most certainly NOT equal in strength, ability, talent, intelligence, health, beauty, and so on.  That is the reality that was recognized and exploited with no sense of shame by the aristocratic morality that Nietzsche celebrated.

Of course, many Americans might appeal to the larger context of those words I cited above from The Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We are all created equal by God, it might be urged, and He has endowed us with certain rights, and THIS is why equality is not merely a sentimental or patriotic slogan.  We are equal in dignity and value before the Creator of the universe and that is far more profound reality than any differences that can be measured in terms of strength, intelligence, beauty, and so on, not to mention even more superficial differences like skin color.

Certainly the idea that we are CREATED, that we were deliberately designed to exist by an intelligent Being who is perfectly good, provides a powerful resource to ground human dignity and equality.  Such a God is better equipped to endow us with rights and dignity than any merely naturalistic process of evolution guided by nothing more than impersonal forces of natural law.

However, a serious appeal to a Creator comes at a price.  For any Creator worthy of serious belief must be acknowledged as far more than a guarantor of human equality.  More specifically, any God worthy of belief will ground other moral obligations as well as the obligation to oppose racism.

And here is where our divided soul is painfully obvious.  Our culture is deeply relativistic on many, perhaps most moral issues, ranging from abortion to marijuana use to extramarital sex.  Indeed, part of the irony in the Sterling story is that the person who made public the tape of the phone conversation is Sterling’s mistress!  Now the fact that this woman is allegedly having an extramarital affair with Sterling, who is still married, is not even an issue.  That does not even register a blip on our moral radar.

Indeed, the mistress culture is part of the norm in the NBA, where many players are notorious for having multiple children with multiple mistresses. Moreover, the mistress culture is arguably itself a version of domination and exploitation by the powerful.  Every now and again, there is a story about this, but it hardly raises an eyebrow. Worse, we are a nation that tolerates late term abortions, including partial birth abortions.   But let some public figure utter racist sentiments in a personal conversation, and it will create a national furor, and the condemnation and punishment will be swift and severe.

Again, what makes this so ironic is that Nietzsche is one of, if not THE, main fountainhead of the moral relativism that is so prevalent in western culture.  His radical rejection of Christian morality, and his claim that morality is very much a historically conditioned phenomenon with a thoroughly human “genealogy” is a widely entrenched belief in contemporary secular culture.   Nietzsche urged “free spirits” to throw off the yoke of traditional morality, and heartily indulge their natural instincts, whether the instinct to fornicate or to dominate the weak.

Here in a nutshell is the divided soul of western morality. It wants no moral restraint on the first, but absolute moral restraints on the latter.  The question is how long we can sustain our moral outrage for selected issues, while lacking a principled reason for doing so.

Nietzsche would chide contemporary culture for affirming the instinct to fornicate, but lacking the courage to affirm the instinct to dominate.  He poured his scorn on his fellow modern Europeans for rejecting belief in Christianity, while holding to all or parts of Christian morality.  He was convinced that the two stand or fall together, and it was only a matter of time until the moral principles which seemed so self-evident to them would lose their luster.  He wrote: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality….If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing  to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”

America is still a nation of selective moral passion.  We can still get worked up about certain issues.  But it’s much less clear how much moral substance we have left in our hands.

I Have A Dream

Today is the 5oth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.  It is hard for me to think that such egregious, institutional racism existed here in the US so recently.  King’s speech was truly a prophetic call to national righteousness, and it’s for this reason that I show it every semester when we talk about the OT Prophets, particularly Amos 5 which he cites.

As I consider Dr King’s call to equality, it makes me question how far we have really come. Continue reading

Martin Luther King, Jr Day: a Christian Holiday

Earlier this week our nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr day.  When I was younger, I was led to believe that MLK day was just an african-american holiday.  However, now I would argue that MLK day is one of the most Christian holidays that we celebrate.

One of the most significant issues that the early church struggled with was the fact that the work of God was not limited to one ethnicity.  That is, God’s plan was for the whole world and not merely the Jews.  This was not a fundamental change from God’s intention for chosing Abraham as the father of the Jewish nation.  In Genesis 12 God calls Abraham and promises to bless him and his descendants.  However, the purpose of choosing what would become the Jewish nation is so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12.3).  God chose the Jews, not because he loved them more than all the other peoples and nations in the world, but because they had a special purpose to help bring God’s redemption from sin to all the nations.

Early Christians emphasized this as they pointed to God’s work among the Gentiles.  This was a contentious issue for the early Christians since they had to sort out how the Gentiles would and should orient themselves to central aspects of Judaism, namely the works of the Torah.  As part of this discussion, Paul argued in Galatians 3 that God’s grace was for all nations (all ethnicities), and he quotes Genesis 12.3 in support of his argument.  In Ephesians 2 he returns to the issue of ethnicity and argues that God has broken down the dividing wall between Jews and the rest of the world, such that one ethnicity should not be preferenced over another, for God loves all.

Martin Luther King, Jr was a champion of these same values–no one ethnicity should be given preference over others.  It was a travesty that a nation that founded itself on the freedom and equality of all its members had embedded in its constitution  institutionalized racism.  For all the talk about the being based biblical principles, the US was far from the one of the most significant ideas in the NT.  This is not just a critique of the US, because the root problem was that the church itself had forgotten one of its founding principles.  And the church today remains one of the greatest propogators of ethnic division–as they say the most racially divided time during the week is 11 o’clock on Sunday.  Christians however were the strongest voices in the abolitionist movement, as they championed the equality of God’s grace for all ethnicities.

The US is not the church, and cannot simply be run with the morals of the church because as a democracy we have to listen to all members of society.  However, one of the fundamental values of the US is that all men and women are created equal.  The Christian version of that ideal is that God’s grace extends to all nations and ethnicities, and the church should proudly include all nations among its members.  As a result, Martin Luther King, Jr day with its focus on the equality of all ethnicities celebrates one    of the most fundamental values of the NT.  It is not just an african-american holiday.  Churches should be proud to celebrate the work of this Christian brother who called us back to our theological foundations.  However, most churches are much more likely to celebrate the 4th of July at church than MLK day.  The 4th is a celebration of national divisions rather than the international, multi-ethnic unity found in the people of God.  In that sense celebrating the 4th in church is antithetical to the NT, whereas celebrating MLK day draws us back to a founding principle of NT Christianity: God loves all people, not just one nation, race or ethnicity.

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