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Should intransigence be praised?

The answer is “Yes!” according to Richard H. Weisberg in his recent volume In Praise of Intransigence: The Perils of Flexibility (2014). Weisberg’s is actually a pretty bad book. But it states his case pointedly and with some punchy examples, enough to provoke some unsettling reflection. Weisberg, who teaches Law at the Cardozo School and is a well-known leader of the “law and literature” movement, has a simple argument: compromise, while it is often valued as a necessary virtue in politics and morals, is in fact frequently the cause of untold evil. Weisberg has some good examples of this, especially from the context of German and French responses to National Socialism and anti-Semitism, as well as from recent responses in the US to torture. His sub-argument is also important: sticking intransigently to fundamental principles not only protects one from moral dissolution in the face of evil, but it is the only way to unveil the real issues at stake in moral and political conflicts.

So far, so good perhaps. But Weisberg’s sub-sub argument probably has little going for it, at least in terms of actual fact: conservatives tend to be more intransigent than liberals, and liberals need to learn from their opponents on that score. (Please, God, no!) Finally, Weisberg’s tendentious genealogy for his various arguments is not only implausible, but it is actually riddled with historical absurdities and scholarly ignorance of such a sweep as to make me wonder why a reputable publisher would have allowed them in print: he argues that compromising flexibility as an intellectual virtue and habit can be traced to the advent of Christianity, especially St. Paul and St. John, whose fast and loose reading of the Hebrew Scriptures not only twisted them to justify their messianic presumptions, but also set in motion a whole pernicious trend of “compromising” traditional texts in situations of crisis (“emergencies”). First goes the Torah, then the Constitution. This intrinsic Christian “flexibility,” according to Weisberg, stands behind much of the destructive force of anti-Semitism over the centuries.

This is not a book review, so I’ll stick to the main point: compromise is bad and Christians have a bad track record on the issue. On this basic level, the point is challenging, and I confess that I don’t quite know my own mind on the challenge. In my experience, most serious Christians are quite uncompromising, and recent and present struggles in our churches on matters from same-sex sexuality to the doctrine of justification and women’s ordination are littered with the angry and separative debris that has fallen out from competing intransigencies. And isn’t this observation behind the argument about “religious violence,” that is, that religious people, given their commitments to “absolutes,” are incapable of compromise and hence more apt to be driven to coercive reactivity in response to opponents? I actually think there is some truth to this last claim. But, on the other hand, it is also true that the Christian tradition, and not just Aristotelian scholasticism, has long promoted moral virtues like “prudence” and epikeia, gentleness and meekness; and today there are many theologians who embrace these categories as if they offered the key to moral integrity, whistling as they go past the cemetery of their religious patrimony.

Christians have also tried — as they have in most contexts of practical disagreement — to identify hierarchies of value, only the highest of which demand intransigent commitment: the Trinity, the Chalcedonian definition, the papacy perhaps, the inerrant truth of Scripture, the two Creeds, adult baptism, love, justice, “core doctrine,” the Thirty-Nine Articles, tongues. Weisberg says that if we can be clear about our uncompromisable commitments, we can address each other on those terms, and perhaps learn something: his version of gloves-off Indaba. I doubt it works, myself, although it’s always worth trying. (What have you learned from the uncompromising pig-headedness of your last colleague, let alone opponent across the aisle, other than the occasional creativity of invective?)

Still, most people tend to shift on their hierarchies of immovable truths; and if they don’t, their friends do, or their children. The Supreme Court is a wonderful example.

Weisberg has no sense either of history or of human volatility and fecklessness. But neither do the warring factions of our churches! And, in any case, the number of self-authorized Rubicons are so numerous that maps can no longer track them and Rome has disappeared as a destination.

Still, surely Weisberg is right that we must stand our ground on what is most important, and his examples for Nazi Germany and Vichy France are pretty convicting. Are there not whole areas where it must be “No!” all the way down the line? While I don’t want to open up the hornets’ nest around Pius XII, frankly it is hard not to, at least as a comparative example about the quicksand of prudential compromise. Matthew 5:37 — let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay — has a series of parallels in the New Testament and seems to rule out the give and take of moral discussion aimed at mutually acceptable, because adjusted, commitments. Léon Bérard’s official response to Marshal Pétain’s inquiry regarding the Catholic evaluation of his anti-Jewish legislation, one of Weisberg’s striking discussions, is a good (because terrifying) example of “the perils of flexibility” given through diplomatic caution and tippy-toeing: “I have never been told anything which — from the standpoint of the Holy See — implied criticism and disapproval of the legislative and administrative acts in question.” There is, it must be said, more to the story than Bérard’s response. But the fact that one must squirrel about in arcane archives to discover this does little to undercut Weisberg’s point.

But, is “intransigence” the right word for the kind of virtue that “resists evil?” The Bible is not so clear on this, semantically. Proverbs, famously, uses the same word for commendable “prudence” as is applied to the serpent in the Garden. The “prudent” knows when to be quiet, while the fool just blurts things out; the prudent know when to hide, while the fool marches straight into the midst of evil, and so on. Much like Amos’s point in 5:13 (using another word): “The prudent will keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” Joseph and Daniel have a certain kind of prudence that allows them to discern the nuances of God’s will; but this is used in the service of the covenant, so its subtlety, while harnessed by pragmatic aptitude, has a kind of providential purpose that those who are not prophets are less likely to control. I cannot be prudent like Daniel, precisely because I do not know the future. Meanwhile, God seemingly compromises all along the way: with Abraham over the city of Sodom, with Moses and the Israelites, all the way up to what seems like the Big Compromise, which is the forgiveness of the “sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

But here is the challenge: forgiveness is not compromise, really. It is given, in its supreme act, in the face of the most intransigent of all, those bent on evil, those whose “ignorance” is marked by a lack of repentance. Yet repentance itself is nothing but a “change of mind,” the very thing that opens a heart to God’s own life.

I suppose that, in the end, I am not in favor of the language of “principles” or “intransigence” at all when it comes to the Christian life. Nor, for that matter, of the language of “flexibility” and “compromise.” Persons are not principles, and the person of God is neither flexible nor inflexible. We, on the other hand, “see through a glass darkly,” and “know not what we shall be.” So we follow as frequently stumbling disciples.

What is the moral calculus of following? Or the politics of one who always comes after? I don’t have a clear answer to that. But if I am ever to “praise the intransigent” — and I suppose that I will need to now and again — I will first need to know how to worship one with whom there is neither “variableness nor shadow of turning,” who yet declares “Behold, I will do a new thing!” while this new thing is for us, cloaked in a mystery (Isa. 43:19; cf. 42:9, 48:6). The worship of this God, whose form Weisberg cannot comprehend it seems, goes a different route than that laid out by those who dig in their heels. Indeed, it actually goes somewhere, to the side of the intransigent and the flexible both. And there, this strange God does the strangest work of all (Eph. 2:15-16).

The featured image is “More Questions than Answers” (2011) by Flickr user Tom. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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