Wednesday 7 May 2008

Valmae Beck: on the care of criminals

A nauseating news story today in my home state of Queensland. Convicted child-murderer Valmae Beck is currently in a coma in hospital, following heart surgery this week. Some members of the public – gleefully spurred on by a certain newspaper – are “calling for authorities to let her die,” since they are “outraged” that taxpayers’ money should be paying for the medical treatment of such a wicked person. (Nearly giddy with moralism, this newspaper adds: “When she dies, taxpayers could also be expected to pay for a cremation under Queensland law” – and the same tabloid ran as its front-page headline: “Let her die with shame.”)

Such vicious moralism is driven by a direct identification of the person with her works. In contrast, the necessary gap between person and works has been highlighted by Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel, in his brilliant book on Justification (pp. 269-72). Jüngel speaks of “the absolute primacy of persons over their works.” The doctrine of justification describes God’s recognition of persons irrespective both of their achievements and of their deficiencies. For that reason, Jüngel writes, a society must be assessed not primarily according to its successes and achievements, but according to its treatment of those persons who contribute nothing to the society’s political and economic life, such as children, the elderly, the infirm – and criminals.


Anonymous said...


How does identifying a person "with her works" differ from identifying a person with her narrative (as in Frei [channeling Ryle]), or identifying a person with her intention-actions (as in Lilburne's interpretation of Barth [in his dissertation])?

Anonymous said...

I think it's a matter of that crucial human problem: the drive for revenge. As we know, revenge belongs to the Lord, not to us, but that's not what our gut tells us. As Christians, we need to strive to do better!

Shane said...

How expansively does Juengel view "works"? The more expansive the claim, the less plausible it is.

It might be possible to separate the person and her acts. But what about the person and her intentions? Or the person and her desires? Or the person and her character? You might be able to separate one or two acts from a person, but surely not all of them. Otherwise, what you are talking about is just a body, not a "person".

W. Travis McMaken said...

I, too, am skeptical of separating a person from their works. Indeed, it is a perennial problem in Christology to unify Christ's person and his works. Why make the opposite move in theological anthropology?

It seems to me that what needs to be said is that God cares for this person despite her works. Of course, this is true for all of us.

MM said...

I think, from a few blog threads, that Beck experienced a conversion in prison and is now a Catholic-? If that's the case, she is no doubt resting in the full enjoyment of that community's unconditional extension of mercy: absolution, full communion, preparation for her death, and the advocacy that comes from the Magisterium's particular concern for the protection of the dignity of prisoners.

And, hard though it is to admit, the secular community just cannot be expected to do the same for those who are most in need of God's mercy.

Anonymous said...

I find that it is of great importance to separate person and works. To identify them would mean that hating sin would equate with hating the sinner, but I think I have (in a quite unpolished manner) showed that hating the sin equates with loving the sinner here.

That sinful works will eventually destroy the person is evident, but until we are certain of that destruction (ie. when we can prove that a person is in hell) we must separate the two in order, at least to fulfill the virtue of hope and hopefully out of love.

God's Peace.

Anonymous said...

It's a Canonite Society.

The culture of the "useful" male. Infants are thrown away, teenagers are constantly assaulted with media to imitate the media they absorb, women are reinforced by the behavior of men they are largely "put on the shelf" when they hit 40 (this is particularly disturbing), old people are remaindered into ghettos, and criminals are not rehabilitated - they too are thrown away. (And yes, I left some "groups" out - but you know who they are.)

The West for the last 100 years has been very good (but losing it's skill) at hiding all the elements that don't fit into the various strata of a socio-economic culture from the rest who do "behave" and "contribute."

Sooner or later, we're going to run out of places to put these people and that is when things will get very scary. (Oh wait, it already IS scary.)

But while lamenting about these tragedies may lead us to a sort of empathy, until we actually manifest empathy into actions (with some help from God of course through prayer), none of this will ever get healed.

My .02.


Chris TerryNelson said...

This should help give a little background into Jüngel's statement.
The distinction between person and works in theological anthropology comes back to Luther's doctrine of justification. Faith comes as a result of the justifying Word spoken to humanity. The subjective appropriation of this Word in faith "makes the person: fides facit personam. This is another way of saying "that the person is made by God through faith."

Jüngel writes: This contradicts a tradition which has had a powerful effect for a long time. The contradiction is summarized pithily by Luther in these words: "The work I do does not make the person into the person I am: opus non facit personam." Even in Luther's early works we find the rejection of this opinion, which went back as far as Aristolte. Luther expressed this contradiction most clearly in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology: "We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deed." . . . The point which Luther is combatting is found in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: "so too we become just by doing just acts." It expresses a common opinion which it apparently did not occur to anybody to dispute. THus, apparently we are what we make of ourselves. Luther did not contest the fact that Aristotle's statement seemed plausible "to a philosophical and worldly forum. What he did dispute, however, was that the true being of a human person can be revealed and determined by any wordly forum at all. No wordly tribunal can decide what sort of person I really am. the right of judgment about our personhood has been taken from all earthly individuals and courts. The only One competent to pass judgment on the being of persons is the One who made person into person. And that is God alone." (Justification, pp. 247-48).

And shortly before the paragraph which Ben quotes, Jüngel explains that evangelical ethics "starts from the given that divine action cannot be directly translated into human action, that is, that our human acts can never be any sort of continuation of divine action. The only thing that is directly in keeping with divine action is human being, which was made by God himself. Our daily struggle for secular justice can only ever correspond in an indirect way to divine action. We owe our being to God alone. Conversely, we ourselves determine our actions, even when we are wanting to act in obedience to God's command. Our being is a gift of the gospel. But our actions are required of us. They are subject to the demand of the law. If we were to see our human action as a kind of extension of divine action, we would be turning the gospel into a new law. And that would be a denial of justification. When we nevertheless ask what is the meaning of God's justifying action for our own striving for secular jsutice, it is because secular justice is, or should be, nothing other than true human righteousness. God's righteousness became actualized among us in the fact that God became human, suffered as a human being for us an died for us. It is the humanity of God that not only allows us but obliges us on the basis of God's righteousness to demand human justice and to set up criteria for human righteousness worthy of that name, so that the existing secular system of justice is made more just by being made more human" (p. 272).

It's precisely Jüngel's desire to see human beings treated as utterly dependent on God and not able to give themselves their worth through their action. That is part of the Christian vocation.

JR said...

Ben, and Chris, both -- thanks for these posts.

Ben, thanks for the note on Jüngel’s “absolute” distinction between person and works. I want to read more about this for myself. I’m curious whether “absolute” really plays out as rhetoric, or whether it translates into social policy (see below on grounds for public scorn)?

Chris, your take on Luther’s anthropology as viewing humans completely dependent on God independently of their works (even if this is a correct summary of Luther) confuses me as to how and why Jüngel (in Ben’s summary) wants to hold the common polis and our economic life accountable for “those persons who contribute nothing to the society’s political and economic life, such as children, the elderly, the infirm – and criminals?” Are you saying Jüngel has modified Luther’s convenient ad hominem ("Sihe nacheinander Schwermer”) based on an anthropology that nowadays should allow both Anabaptists and Valme Beck to evade public scorn? – does Jüngel have some kind of “absolute” anthropology independently of human acts/works that translates directly into public policy arguments about revising, say, the criminal codes themselves? – to de-criminalize crime? – to mitigate death penalties (say, ala some ideological pacifists, like Quakers)? – or, is Jüngel just waxing rhetorical (about the "absolute") about “criminals” deserving some other standard core of respect, but not “absolute?” – what’s the gist of this “absolute” language as it translates into public policy?



JR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JR said...

Chris - just a little further clarification on my questions above.

My question aren’t adversarial. Just seeking more clarity.

You quote Jüngel -- “nevertheless ask[ing] what is the meaning of God's justifying action for our own striving for secular justice, it is because secular justice is, or should be, nothing other than true human righteousness .... the humanity of God that not only allows us but obliges us on the basis of God's righteousness to demand human justice and to set up criteria for human righteousness worthy of that name, so that the existing secular system of justice is made more just by being made more human" (p. 272).

My questions begin with: after the throat-clearing affirmations have been made for a “more human” law, just what practical changes in the law must take place? – if secular law is to be “more human” based in an anthropology (according to Jüngel), then does Jüngel trust un-regenerated humans to the task of making their own laws “more human?” – who, really, decides this venerated status of “more human?”

Why not resort to some theory of “common grace?” Why not appeal to a common anthropology of shared moral intuitions (say like Aquinas? Hume? or, Darwin?), and keep good “believers” as the privileged regenerated ones who can criticize the secular polis from the outside? –- or, does Jüngel somehow anticipate the incarnation as an endorsement for a shared political enterprise between the regenerated and unregenerated, so they can make common laws together in the polis? – what real value is there to “more human” laws if the whole of unregenerated humanity affected by those same secular laws gets no voice in their making?

In that context, what is this “absolute” all about?

If everyone (regenerated, unregenerated) alike shares in making the secular laws "more human," then what’s left, really, to distinguish Jüngel from some contrary theologies, say like the theology of George Fox (Quaker), who bypasses all this Reformed jargon about total depravity, and who instead directly invokes a truly common anthropology (no less a legal ethic of covenant-keeping of treaties made with Native Indians based on shared humanity) – based on a more elegant and lean anthropology of relating directly to “that of God in everyone” (again, a Quaker phrase - only as an example)? – is Jüngel really saying that an “absolute” factor in human nature is shared among all humans by virtue of creation plus incarnation? – what’s left of all the rest of the special terminology of Reformed anthropology?



Chris TerryNelson said...

Hi Jim,
Not to worry. I see your enthusiasm behind this question in the long lines, which I deeply share. Unfortunately I do not know Jüngel well enough to comment on how far he takes his thought into the public world. I'm pretty sure I read a critique of this aspect of his thought in an essay entitled “Justification, Analogy and Action," in Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998. Hope that helps!

Chris TerryNelson said...

that essay is by John Webster, btw.

JR said...

Chris, thanks! And to Ben as well. Fascinating stuff! I’ll check the Barth riff. Thanks again. Cheers .. Jim

Anonymous said...

There seems to be some sort of transitive logic going on that runs something like this:

A human’s worth (justification) to God is not based upon the human’s actions…therefore human actions are not an extension of divine action.

Aren’t there multiple perspectives to take about actions (such as they don’t justify us before God) – but also other dimensions which are also valid but aren’t necessarily derived by any one perspective, such as:

Actions are/can be an extension of divine action when we look at what Christ did – going after the lost (the one chained in the wild), healing the sick, rebuking the disciples for being dumb. And so to some extent so can our actions be an extension of divine action in some sense, if they are prompted by the Holy Spirit (particularly small things, like asking after someone’s sick father) – and certainly we can’t plan these or even necessarily know for sure if they have been in accordance with God’s will…..

Actions can hurt or help us (regardless of the above two perspectives) – someone who gossips damages themselves and makes them more prone to gossip more….

Actions within the context of a society need to have boundaries (regardless of all the above), because it would certainly be absurd to say people who murder others should not be restrained because God doesn’t base his justification of the person on whether they murder or not…..

And so on.
There is so much going on in each of the posts my head swims. I am just suggesting that nothing about any of the perspectives may follow from any of the others.

Anonymous said...

a 'gap' to use Ben's term presupposes a distinction but not necessarily a separation.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: A human’s worth (justification) to God is not based upon the human’s actions…therefore human actions are not an extension of divine action.

There are theologies which emphasize the sovereignty of God. They say God sustains us in being from instant to instant. That seems to point to human actions as having a divine Accessory, in that God allows an axe murderer, for instance, to continue to exist as he chops away at his victim. At the very least, God could cause the axe head to fly off the handle before each attempted stroke.

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