A reader writes…
Just spent an hour in traffic court this am. I sat there feeling angry at how smug & self-righteous the judge was. Almost all of the people there were there for minor or technical infractions, no seat belt, proof of insurance, expired plates, failure to pay tickets & court fees, traffic cameras, one or two speeders [they used to be the majority, but enforcement is so intense I believe this has tailed off], and one minor possessing a marijuana joint. Most were harshly lectured in an impatient demeaning tone. Quite a few were warned or threatened with jail time. No one as far as I could see among the 50 to 60 people there were criminal or dangerous from what I can see.
The procedures went quickly. Assessing you best option would be difficult even for the college educated which many of the defendants were not.
All I could think of was the vast amount greed & crime on Wall St which has spread enormous sufferings and burdens to average people around the globe. Almost none of this massive criminal behavior was punished and many of the perpetrators are back to bonusing themselves after being bailed out with public tax dollars after bankrupting their companies with criminal, arrogant, greedy behavior. No such laxity for the modest & the poor who are caught the moral equivalent of jaywalking. It makes me very angry. It is so out of proportion & unjust.
The attached article contains more examples of harsh justice for minor infractions or pure nonsense. I’m not sure of the date, but the article even mentions an unfortunate teenage girl arrested for eating a french fry in a DC train station. The Calvinist US has never been big on mercy or understanding for those outside proper society circles, but the “war on Drugs” during the Reagan era seemed to put these mean spirited and uncharitable instincts into overdrive. Zero tolerance & War on Terror have only further entrenched these horrible tendencies. Big crimes are ignored or talked away, small nonsense gets the hammer of “justice”.
Christian culture could create reform movements that reined in the power of capitialist robber barons, shamed sweatshop owners, and destroyed the injustice of debtor’s prisons and the English slave trade, because the anti-viral agents of the Christian emphasis on the dignity of the poor acted against the natural tendency of fallen man (seen, for instance, in chemical purity in the caste system of India) to simply bless class differences as The Will of God. This sort of thing is typically greeted with scorn by people who are pretty sure they Know a Thing or Two about how Christianity Made Everything Awfuller. But the reality is that there was a real change which occurred when the Christian vision of the human person invaded the world of Greco-Roman paganism.
So, for instance, after inventing the idea of the university (unknown in the pagan world) Christendom then went on to fling doors wide open, not merely to the vanishingly small elite, but to the riff-raff. The invaluable Mike Flynn writes:
Between AD 1200 and AD 1500, hundreds of thousands of students – a quarter million in the German universities alone after 1350 – were exposed to science. … During these years, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth, and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities. – Michael H. Shank, “Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science, ed. Ronald L. Numbers.
Then as now, as Edward Grant explains in his various books, the vast majority of students went into secular life after graduation. During their time at university, students were given color of clerical orders — which is how the English language got “clerks” from “clerics.” This was to provide them with what we now call “academic freedom,” since it barred the secular lords from interfering in the business of the universities.
We tend to know the details of the lives of people who became important, and of course one way of becoming important was to enter the Church, especially for those commonly born. A couple of examples: Gertrude of Helfta was a poor orphan who entered the Benedictines, and eventually obtained her doctorate in theology. Nicole Oresme likely came from a peasant family in Normandy, since he attended the College of Navarre which was a royally-sponsored “fraternity” for students too poor to pay their expenses while studying at the University of Paris. (FYI “Colleges” were not themselves universities, but more akin to the eating clubs at Princeton. They were more like a combo of frat house and dormitory.) Albert of Saxony was the son of a farmer in a small village near Helmstedt. He was sent to study at the University of Prague and the University of Paris because of his talent. What we would call an academic scholarship. Now all three entered orders and one became an abbess, a saint and Doctor of the Church, and the other two became bishops. But they did not get to go to uni because one day in the future they would become players in the Church.
Other developments, chosen at random, include a distinct raising of the status of women in comparison to paganism (don’t believe the guff about the pagan world as a paradise of goddess worship and revered healer women. The reason the Greeks practiced pederasty as a social institution was because the theory was that young men were ennobled by focusing their love on a noble object. Since it was a foregone conclusion that women were ninnies, the ennobling object was the older male. Once the boy was himself a man, the relationship was expected to end and the male was to take a wife so that she would fulfil her obligation of raising up young for the good of the state.) In the medieval tradition, directly due to the impact of the Blessed Virgin on western thought, an idea occurred that had never occurred before: the notion that the love of *woman* could be ennobling.
Similarly, what most moderns don’t know is that slavery died out in the in the Middle Ages. It was in the Renaissance and the Age of the Commercial Nation-State Reason it enjoyed a big revival.
In a post-Christian culture, the universal pagan tendency toward “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must” (never fully extirpated, but definitely opposed by the Christian tradition) has less and less to hinder it. As a result, you can expect the institutions of society to be ordered more and more toward pagan ends: namely, protecting the powerful and squeezing the weak. In the end, this stuff is due to sin–and it is Jesus who saves from sin. Refuse his salvation and we will get what we want.
On the bright side, Jesus remains till the end of time and the hope of receiving his grace is always there and God has his own plans that will, in the end, run rings around Satan.