The biggest news in the last week or so has been the death of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 2nd women in U.S. history to have been appointed to the highest court in the land. Ms. Ginsburg was a pioneering advocate for women’s rights and is held up today as a feminist icon, especially among the younger generation of political activists. I didn’t know much about Justice Ginsburg other than that she was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and that for the last 10 years, has been the senior member and the leader of the liberal bloc of the court. What I found fascinating by reading her obituary and listening to some commentary about her career was the strategy or the method she used to persuade others to rid sexual discrimination from the law. She started from the premise that those who held a different perspective on the law were not hostile to women or filled with hate, but simply needed to be educated to see how the law was discriminatory. As a lawyer, she went after laws that were intended to protect or benefit women but, because they were based on stereotyped notions of men and women, could have the opposite effect. She also took cases in which men were discriminated against by the law because of sex stereotypes, like widowers being deprived of survivor benefits because it was assumed the man was the primary breadwinner. But what she was also known for was that she prized collegiality, i.e., companionship and cooperation with other judges on the bench. She respected the other’s commitment to the common purpose they had as judges, even if they had different perspectives. She had personal friendships with many of her conservative colleagues. It was well known that there was great mutual affection and a warm personal friendship between Justice Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative leader on the court. Ginsburg remarked in a speech she gave in 2016, in the heat of the last election, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” This is the lesson that her young adorers who see her as a role model need to take to heart, for it was, I believe, the secret to her success. Legal change and cultural transformation happen through personal relationships and the ability to talk to people “on the other side.” One does not “win” in the long run by crushing one’s opponent or beating them at an argument but by engaging the other with decency and respect. It is a process that takes time because relationships take time to form and to grow. A big part of our political dysfunction today is the notion that we can bypass this relational dimension. We think we can make things better and change views by simply changing the rules or the laws, or speaking louder than our opponent, or expecting obedience simply because someone is an “authority”. There is also a strong movement simply to exclude certain viewpoints from the public square. Simply listening to someone who is “controversial” or giving them an opportunity to speak is viewed as supporting that position among the modern “thought police.” The thought of seeking to have a relationship with someone from the opposite point of view and engage in an actual conversation is looked at with suspicion in our hyper-partisan culture.
In the chief priests and religious leaders of his day, Jesus faced an entrenched establishment that viewed him with suspicion. They were interested in upholding the law and not breaking with tradition and were blinded to how this reduced religious perspective was contrary to God’s will and the damage it was doing to the most vulnerable in the society. They had separated themselves from the public sinners and had made a judgment that certain people were saved and others were lost and nothing could be done to change that situation. In the face of this opposition, Jesus engages in a conversation. He asks their opinion. He asks them to judge a case. And uses their logic, a conclusion they’ve come to on their own, to challenge their presumptions about who is saved. Their error in thinking is that if they say all the right things, their work is done. They are the holy and righteous ones – those already saved. They already know what is right, so they have no need for conversion – there is no need for them to change their minds. We have to be careful not to, like the chief priests, turn our faith into an ideology – a belief system of teachings and practices that will “save us” if we hold them fast. Conversion is a journey of a lifetime. Faith is always in development because it is a relationship with God, a person who in the flesh is the way, the truth, and the life. To forget this relational dimension makes us close-minded, self-absorbed, and very judgmental of others. And it also keeps us from entering the kingdom of God. It is quite arrogant to think that “I’ve made it” and have nothing more to learn or that there is no good for me in engaging with someone who has a perspective different than my own. It is contrary to Christian thought and the human condition itself that our gain is something definitive that will no longer be contested – that we can get to the point where we no longer have to be personally responsible. We hear Ezekiel preaching in the first reading against the claim that the people were being punished for the sins of their ancestors – that sons would suffer the guilt of their fathers. And that conversely, fathers would be charged with the guilt of their sons. That is not how God works. Moral choice and responsibility lies with the individual and is not determined by the group, family, or tribe one belongs to. It is about personal responsibility. “Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. The virtuous man’s virtue shall be his own, as the wicked man’s wickedness shall be his” (Ez 18: 20).
Only the one who commits the sin is guilty. Likewise, one does not enjoy a special privilege in the moral order because one comes from a virtuous line. If the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil, he will be held accountable and suffer the consequences. In a similar way, if the wicked man turns from wickedness and does what is right and just, he will live. What matters from God’s perspective is if one is living in a right relationship with him now. Our judgment is not a performance review or an accounting to see whether on the whole we’ve done more good than evil. Rather, it is about personal responsibility – are we responding to his presence in our life now? Judged in this biblical light, we can see how problematic the contemporary movements are that wish to address historical discrimination by punishing the sons for the sins of their fathers – holding us responsible now for the sins of our ancestors and at the same time morally justifying similar discriminatory behavior or even violence by the aggrieved group against the so-called privileged class because of the historical injustice. Ruth Ginsburg sought to change the law so that men and women were treated equally under the law. She was not claiming that there were no differences between men and women, and in fact she recognized that those inherent differences should be celebrated, but those differences should not be the basis for law that would constrain any individual man or woman’s opportunity. We won’t learn anything if we start by putting someone into a certain political camp or labelling them this way or that. Ruth Ginsburg has something to teach us that we will miss if we look at her life and death simply through the lens of political power. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable; it is possible to talk to each other with decency and respect as fellow human beings. And the way to bring about change is to look out not only for our own interests, but also for those of others. It is not just her legal opinions that are her legacy but her witness that an attentiveness to the other person, even someone who disagrees with you, is the path to conversion for ourselves and the other. That is something worth working for all the way until the end of our life.