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The Wisest Fool: How Clichés Foil Social Justice

It’s always frustrating when our most polished arguments are seemingly bested by a cheap, one-line expression. I can’t even keep track of how many times I’ve been robbed of the opportunity for productive conversations about the morality of this or that law because my opponent inevitably digs up the only concept he vaguely remembers from his high school American Government class—usually the separation of church and state or something along those lines. Parroting this phrase is somehow a game-changer in the debate and can only mean one thing for anyone talking about anything that smells remotely of morality, ethics or, worse, the Bible: You lose. In his latest book, “The Tyranny of Clichés,” bestselling author and AEI scholar Jonah Goldberg denounces this and many other tactless truisms as “the kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument.” Written in a refreshingly frank style, it’s sure to be a great read for any who share his frustration with conversation ending clichés. The most basic species of cliché is when somebody uses a concept or phrase they don’t really understand. Jonah’s book, especially as it treated Martin Luther’s often overlooked Catholic piety, made me think of a parallel type of cliché that is routinely used particularly within Christian circles to bring overly expedient cloture to oppositional conversations. Often called “proof texting”—using a single verse as definitive evidence for a theological assertion—is a common method of argument in popular conversations about what Christians ought to do and believe. This cliché imports the moral authority of all of scripture even though it only superficially connects the biblical evidence to the argument. When it comes to social justice, a hot-button issue for Christians, one of the most habitually proof texted passages of scripture is Acts 2. To illustrate this, I refer to an article written by Jim Wallis last year in praise of President Obama’s stimulus initiatives. Far from making an unsophisticated case, Wallis discusses the moral imperative provided by Acts 2 in light of other verses that appear to contradict its strong redistributive endorsement. “Hard work was praised by early Christians, but so was ensuring that every person was provided for,” Wallis writes. But the appearance of balance is, in this case, the very epitome of a third variety of cliché. From his exegeses, Wallis concludes that “Those who can work should work. Those who need work should be helped to find it. Those who can’t work should be provided for.” But these modest principles are immediately enlisted in support of increased federal spending on infrastructure and public sector jobs, and extending unemployment insurance. He even goes as far as to suggest that most people believe “the country would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.” Somehow, when it came time to “ask how our moral values influence policy decisions and priorities,” Wallis could not help but to recap the policy ideas of the Left. This instantaneous (and I think premature) jump from Christian principles to redistributive practices does little more than reassert preference because it fails to consider how free-market capitalism might serve those same values. This is cliché because it purports to avoid the pitfalls of proof-texting (an example of the first type of cliché) but only nominally considers the merits of any interpretation other than its own. The polemic over welfare is not the only place we have allowed clichés to free us of our responsibility of doing the hard work of biblical interpretation. From the question of environmentalism to our responsibility for illegal aliens, Christians have avoided defining the edges of what we believe by using “one size fits all” memory verses. Quite frankly, this behavior makes God’s word into an idol—one which is easier for us to reconcile with our feelings and preconceptions than the scandalous truths of the Bible. Not taking a position because this somehow demonstrates humility, or a proper respect for the mystery of God’s word, is the biggest cliché  of all and defines the third and most dangerous kind of cliché. Under the motto of “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” or “I can only see a part of the picture he’s painting,” those who call Christians to “live in the tension and love it” should search their hearts to be sure they are not just rationalizing a lazy theology. After all, those same people would probably not make the claim that the Bible doesn’t give us everything we need to know to live moral lives (although this is the direct implication of those catchy phrases). Clichés are particularly nasty and must be avoided because they hide what is being communicated, even from the one who is saying it! I close with one last quote from Wallis’s article, one that I stand behind 100%: “It is simply not enough to just repeat ideology at a critical time like this.”