Equality as an On-going Promise


What is the politics of humanity? Centrally, it is a politics of equal respect. Our nation is built on the idea that all citizens as citizens are of equal worth and dignity. Rejecting the feudalism and monarchism of their European experience, our forefathers rejected all titles, ranks, and hereditary honors. A person’s birth, wealth, and status had no bearing on his political opportunities and entitlements. The American Revolution was in that sense radical, rejecting all previous modes of social organization and opting for one entirely new, built on the idea that all persons have equal human dignity and equal natural rights. The key idea of the new political order came to be one of nondomination: the idea that what was centrally bad, in politics, was the systematic subordination of some citizens to others. Because all citizens are equal, domination, whether based on class or religion or some other principle, must be firmly rejected. [Martha Nussbaum, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law]

After the paragraph above, Nussbaum recognizes the exceptions at the time of our nation’s founding. “The Founders,” she notes, “were famously obtuse on some matters,” those matters being, of course, the persistent exceptions to the practice of equality made for women, Native Americans, slaves, and those who owned no property. After our nation’s founding, there was still much equality-making work to be done, and the task is not yet complete. Nussbaum reasons, “Our founding documents, then, are properly construed as more egalitarian in their general promise of human equality than in the particular understanding of that equality that was prevalent at the time of their composition.” That conclusion she draws is crucial to our future as a nation in this time when powerful voices are calling for the stifling of our progress in humanity as a people by insisting our Constitution must be limited in interpretation and application to what the nation’s founders could seem to have meant by its particulars at the time of its adoption. Thus these so-called originalists would strip the Constitution of its power and vitality, making it instead a frozen and restrictive document that would leave us mired in the Eighteenth Century.

This constitutional fundamentalism works quite similarly to biblical fundamentalism. For example, it might reasonably be argued that early Israel understood the commandment forbidding adultery to apply only to the protection of a man’s property rights to “his nakedness” – that is, the right to uncover the body of his wife (see the biblical book of Leviticus, chapter 18). In such an originalist interpretation, a man could not commit adultery by sexual intercourse with a woman other than his wife, unless she was the wife (property) of another man. Surely, neither Judaism nor Christianity would care to limit the understanding of adultery these days to such an impoverished interpretation of the commandment even if it may have been the popular understanding in Israel’s antiquity.

Martha Nussbaum interprets the equality of all people in terms of equal respect based upon a recognition of equal worth and human dignity. The negative is important: non-domination. There must be no hierarchy of worth and dignity that establishes a systematic subordination of one group of citizens to the domination of another. Such a principle is indeed radical in our world’s history. In a society governed by this principle, achievement would bring its own rewards but no more than its own rewards; it would not entitle the wealthy to be treated as “very important people.” There would still be orders of authority for particular tasks (executives, superintendents, foremen, etc.), but no hierarchy in the political order of society.

We have not arrived at such equality of respect for each other. Indeed, it is a state of affairs at which we cannot arrive and then stay put, but one toward which we must keep striving always. Like freedom, equality must be defended faithfully. Those who wish to dominate despise the very idea of equality and find countless arguments for its unfairness. Their indignation at being regarded as no better than people they wish to look down upon is nothing new. No less a figure than Aristotle contended that equality was not a proper partner to justice, but I’ll look at his ideas and their ongoing effects in another post. (An aside: perhaps not many people would think to connect Aristotle with Harry Potter, but J. K. Rowling put more into her series for children than even her avid fans may realize.)

I contend that equal respect for the human worth and dignity of all people is crucial, not only to the idea and ideal of justice, but also in the administration of justice when laws have been broken and people’s rights violated. For this reason, I see restorative justice as a higher form than retributive (punishing) justice, even when some measure of the latter is necessary.

Now, for those who welcome consideration of biblical faith’s view in these matters, I point out that the Bible is not static but dynamic as well as complex in its presentations of God’s redemptive (restorative) justice. The third part of the biblical book of Isaiah promises that God will bless and establish the despised and biblically rejected (eunuchs) who are faithful, and Jesus binds himself to many considered (on biblical grounds) to be unclean. The Bible insists throughout that God does not merely hold to a principle of human equality but deliberately and powerfully takes up the cause of the despised and downtrodden, shaming the proud and destroying hierarchies in the process. It is, after all, one thing to preach equality as an ideal but quite another to stand with, among, and for a group whose subordination and shame the larger society considers right and proper.