Envy, Justice, and Mitt Romney

This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by the resentment of success.
Mitt Romney, after winning the New Hampshire Primary

Mitt Romney has a simple explanation for the frustration of those who complain about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in this country: they complain because they resent the success of the wealthy and are envious of their wealth. This very convenient narrative allows him to dismiss and ignore the chasm that separates the 0.1% from the 99.9%.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with doubt.

Such a blessing may be inconvenient; it is surely uncomfortable. But by testing everything–especially simple explanations for complex issues–and praying for wisdom and understanding, I may hope to retain that which is good: the truth.

What if the “the bitter politics of envy” or the “resentment of success” is really a question about economic justice?

Now, whenever I think of justice, I think of my dog.

Whenever I come home, my dog is there to greet me with the excitable joy of an anxious husky. No matter how bad my day has been, her wagging tail brushes my cares away. I spend a few minutes playing with her. I get down on my hands and knees and we chase each other around the couch; she shove me with her but, and I push her gently away. She drops down into a play-bow, and I run away. She chases me, and I wrestle her to the ground, roll her to her side, and rub her belly. For those few minutes, we are no longer “owner” and “pet.” Rather, we are two young pups at play. Of course, she is not always a good dog. Sometimes, our play gets a little rough, and she nips at my hand, biting a little too hard.

“No!” I say, in a stern voice. Play time comes to an abrupt end.

“Sit!” I command. She sits.

“Down!” She lies down. I command her to stay, and she remains in a down-stay for a few minutes while I ignore her. She is being punished.

At the end of her sentence, I call her to me. She walks slowly to me with her head hung low and her tail between her legs. I pet her and give her a hug and tell her she is a good dog. Her tail wags, and I give her a treat. We resume playing, and she never nips at me again.

My relationship with my dog helps me think about the three different aspects of justice. As I played with my dog, we played as equals. This is commutative justice–a reciprocal relationship among equals. But when she misbehaved, she was punished and corrected. This is retributive justice. But then, after the punishment, I re-established the bond between us. This is restorative justice. The bond between us has grown stronger because of respect, communication, and understanding. We have a right relationship between us. This is justice.

Perhaps this is why Mitt Romney’s statement makes me sad: He does not see the issue of income or wealth inequality as an issue of justice, and by doing so, he fails to enter into a right relationship (or any relationship) with the poor or their advocates. The cries for economic justice are dismissed as the bitter complaints of people not his equals: they are envious, they are resentful. Lacking the desire to succeed, they are flawed. It is a very binary world view: “I am successful, and they are envious.”

I must continually challenge myself to see things not in terms of right or wrong, or whether I agree or disagree. I must try to see the world–in all its beauty and ugliness, in all its joys and sorrows, in all its awesome wonders and mundane familiarity–in terms of relationship. And I must continuously ask myself, “Do I live in a right relationship with it?”

This is hard. It is hard because if I want to answer that question in the affirmative, then I cannot simply dismiss anything I disagree with or anything I find objectionable. It is also hard because I realize know what the answer is: “I don’t.” My relationship with the world should be one based on love, and it frustrates me that I do not love as I should.

As Pope Benedict XVI explained in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof . . . . Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.” (Deus Caritas Est, paragraph 15)

When we hear people cry out out against the injustice and suffering inflicted upon those living in poverty, may we hear their cries with a loving heart, and not dismiss them as mere grousing. Rather, let us listen to them with a loving heart. And when we are confronted with ignorance and intolerance of our brothers and sisters, let us not turn our backs on them, but restore our relationship with them.

Let us all seek right relationships based on kindness, patience, endurance, and hope. And as we seek this, let us avoid jealousy and arrogance.

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