Sacred Democracy-The Beatitudes of Fairness

by: Posted on: July 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: In Phil Damon’s third Sacred Democracy column for Read the Dirt he contemplates fairness across multiple scales. This article is co-published with Living Democracy.

 

Often over the centuries, it has been remarked that a huge contrast exists between “The Commandments” issued by Moses and “The Beatitudes” authored by Jesus. Indeed, there is an almost evolutionary progression from the ten Old Testament laws of ethical civil behavior to the eight New Testament assurances that blessings of spirit accompany the inner attitudes of humility, kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Yet these obvious distinctions notwithstanding, each of the eighteen aphorisms shares a single, bottom-line similarity, which can be reduced to one universal moral factor: the foundation of fairness.

All the way down the list, from each of the “shalt-nots” through the much subtler “blessed are theys,” it is fairness that is the common denominator. It could even be said that if one begins with that single principle, each specific virtue would fall naturally into place, as a kind of panacea for all that ails us: morally, for certain, but in every other way as well. As we sow, after all, so shall we reap—if, that is, anyone still believes it is true.

Shouldn’t the “fairness factor” be the standard of assessment then, as we measure the integrity of our own actions—which is the place where all of us are obliged to start—and of our institutions as well? This includes the religions, governments, schools, courts, and, as they’ve become increasingly (and scarily) dominant in our society, corporations.

Because in a democracy such as our own, which is at least nominally dedicated to life, liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all, how can any value be more sacred to us than a foundation of fairness upon which to base and provide those essential blessings?

To my way of thinking, it seems hardly a stretch to say that the core teachings of all the world’s religions—i.e. the aptly named “perennial wisdom”—has laid the moral groundwork for what has led over the ages to the emergence of the democratic ideal. And over the course of our country’s experiment in democracy, the sacred impulse toward a universal fairness has served again and again as a corrective voice: against our own 150-year colonization, against the enslavement of Africans, against the disenfranchisement of women, and against the relentless repression of our own “freed” black Americans. All of this, ironically, as our institutions of government and religion have struggled to meet the challenge. Yet despite the checkered history of our religions in this regard, it has been the rank and file members of the denominations who have heroically taken the teachings they were raised by to moral levels far exceeding those displayed by their reverend leaders.

Jesus’ sermon on the mount (as Moses’ before him) was clearly a revolutionary exhortation to his fellow Jews to rise against attitudes of selfishness and superficial piety, in favor of the sacred values of unconditional fairness and the inalienable rights of others.

Thus would either of their declamations seem any less timely as a political stump speech in our sorely troubled era? Missing from both is a tone of pandering to a particular bloc or constituency, and while it can be argued that it was a homogenous group of listeners in either instance, it was for the benefit of all humankind that their words were uttered. Oh, if only we could hear something of the sort from our contemporary candidates for office.

So we know by definition that a beatitude is a blessing. But what is a blessing? Is it strictly a sacred concept? And if so, how does it fit in the secular context of a society? What are we thinking when we sing, or the president as he says, “God bless America!”

Though blessings run the gamut from simple good fortune or “godsends” to boons bestowed by spiritual masters, they can be more complex when considered in their verbal forms instead of as nouns. We may bless food, or say, “God bless,” if someone sneezes or does us a kindness (thus doubling up the blessing). Even if knee-jerk reactions, these are now also actions, and not just benefits we may or may not deserve. They always were, of course, in the subtlest of ways, but we may never have thought of ourselves as anything resembling benefactors. Who are we, after all, to be bestowing blessings upon others?

Among the profoundest answers I know of to this knotty question lies in another declamation, this time to an individual Jew. Instead of scripture, moreover, this speech is famously part of a dramatic script, in one of Shakespeare’s most well-known—as well as most controversial—plays, The Merchant of Venice, which many of us first read as ninth graders. It is the “quality of mercy” speech spoken by Portia, in her disguise as a young male lawyer, to Shylock the moneylender, who is intent on collecting a pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of the title, as the penalty on a forfeited loan of 3000-ducats.    The play is controversial mainly due to its anti-Semitic overtones, which in the four hundred-plus years since its original staging have been produced and performed in numerous perplexing ways. Yet that bitter theme notwithstanding, it is also a play about class, gender, capitalism, and one of the earliest forms of capital leverage, interest, or as it was pejoratively known at the time, usury. It was the Jews, in fact, who were forced into practicing usury as one of the few livelihoods open to them in a hostile society, further alienating them from the Venetian gentry, who would never consider charging interest to any of their fellow gentiles. Be that as it may, the theme of rising capitalism also extends to the goyim in the play, as Antonio’s loan is on behalf of his friend Bassanio, who needs the capital leverage to seek the hand of Portia. This requires the merchant to agree to post his flesh as bond to Shylock, whom he despises (As a Jew? As a usurer?), being strapped himself at the moment with all of his cash tied up in merchandise out on the open seas.

And when word arrives that his ships are lost, he is suddenly at Shylock’s mercy.

Soon of course the case goes to trial, and Portia, now affianced to Bassanio, enters the court in defense of the merchant and makes her famous plea to his vengeful creditor:

 

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,

Upon the place beneath.

It is twice blessed.

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

It is mightiest in the mightiest.

It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power….

But mercy is above this sceptered sway.

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.

It is an attribute to God himself.

And earthly power dost thus become likest God’s,

Where mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation. We all do pray for mercy

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.

 

Less moved than audiences and readers are apt to be, Shylock delivers his own famous reply (“Hath not a Jew eyes…hands…organs…. If you prick us do we not bleed? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?”), which requires Portia to resort to the use of a  “quibble”—a literary loophole once primarily considered to be a plot device, but more commonly found today in political and financial arenas—to save Antonio’s flesh and to enable the play to be categorized as a “comedy” in anthologies of Shakespearean works. Yet the moneylender’s refusal to be swayed notwithstanding, the force of the fifth of Jesus’ Beatitudes still echoes in the sacred heart of the democratic impulse: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” What better justification could there be, then, for us to utter the prayerful words and to sing those soaring lyrics, “God bless America”?

 

 


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