A right to one’s opinion

Surprised_By_Joy_C.S._Lewis_First_Edition

I was reminded today of a wonderful anecdote told by C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. Unsatisfied by the progress of his son’s education, Lewis’ father transferred him into the care of a private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick (“Kirk” or “The Great Knock”) to prepare Lewis for university. Kirk walks Lewis from the train station to his house, and Lewis recalls:

small quotesI began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties and indeed found increasingly necessary to use with my father. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.

“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”

I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word.

“Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?” I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based . . . my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts need to be [based] on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”

By this time our acquaintance had lasted about three and a half minutes; but the tone set by this first conversation was preserved without a single break during all the years I spent at Bookham.

Perhaps it is all too clear how this anecdote struck me on April 27, 2020. We are now surrounded by a myriad of opinions justified by nearly nothing at all. In the age of too much “information,” we consider it a useful skill to discern which opinions to ignore, but it has been a long time since I remembered that a person might actually be held to account for expressing an irrational opinion.

Jesus said (admittedly in a different context) “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and this is worth remembering and taking to hear—may we be intentional in our speech and take great care with our opinions.

Political SCOTUS?

Evangelisto Ramos was tried for second degree murder in Louisiana in 2016. After a two-day trial the jury voted 10-2 to convict him.

In 48 states (and in federal court), this would have resulted in a “hung jury” and a mistrial. Unfortunately for Mr. Ramos, he was tried in Louisiana, which (along with Oregon), permits non-unanimous verdicts, so he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The question before the Court was whether the conviction was constitutional.

On this point—the point which Evangelisto Ramos was most interested in—the Court decided (6-3)1 that his conviction was not constitutional.


Here’s the scorecard:Ramos


Justice Gorsuch, who needed four Justices to join him, managed to make a 5-4 majority out of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kavanaugh for most of his nine-part opinion. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, of course were appointed by President Trump. Ginsburg and Breyer were Clinton appointees. Sotomayor was appointed by President Obama.

That means that Gorsuch could not attract the votes of the Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Alito (both George W. Bush appointees) or Justice Kagan (an Obama appointee) for any of his opinion, and that Justice Kavanaugh (Trump) couldn’t agree with him on three parts, and Justice Sotomayor (Obama) could not agree on one part. Justice Thomas (President George H.W. Bush) thought the conviction was unconstitutional, but for a more-or-less completely different reason, so he did not agree with Gorsuch on anything that he wrote, just the decision he made.

Who says that Supreme Court justices vote politically?


1The only other part of the 87 pages of opinions that were published today that garnered this kind of majority was that Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh agreed that whatever Justice Gorsuch thought he meant by part IV.A. of his opinion could not possibly be right.

NOTE: The greyed-out sections of the chart represent the parts that are not legally binding—73 out of 87 pages!

P.S. One headline “Supreme Court rules criminal jury verdicts must be unanimous, overturning decades-old precedent,” rather misses the point. Ramos overturns a lone case which stuck out of 500 years of precedent and which was of doubtful coherence—a 4-person plurality opinion combined with an odd 1-person opinion by Justice Powell—that “decided” that Louisiana could sort of get away with it, though Gorsuch writes that “no Member of the Court today defends either [the opinion of the four or the opinion of the one] as rightly decided.”

Returning to reality

O'connor TSOMI have been reading about Flannery O’Connor in Jonathan Rogers, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor (2012), which is excellent.1

During her life O’Connor was often rebuked for the violence in her fiction, but she explained how it was not at all inconsistent with her Christian faith:

small quotes blueI suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.2

I was struck by this, I think, because it seems particularly apropos to our current situation in which our lives have been violently reduced, and much that was extraneous has been torn away from us.

It seems to me that O’Connor echoes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain (p. 81: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”) and in “Learning in War-Time” (The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).

O’Connor, as diligent “sub-creator,” looked for ways that her character might be brought to grace — our creator (and hers) is now doing the same.


1Isn’t that a perfect title? The Terrible Speed of Mercy is a great place to start a study of O’Connor. [Ed. note: It turns out that “the terrible speed of mercy” is a phrase of Flannery O’Connor’s.]

2Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (1961) (emphasis added).

Without the numbers

esvI’ve been reading in the ESV Readers Bible, and I am somewhere in Luke — not exactly sure where (that’s the point, right?). Anyway, John the baptizer has just sent two of his disciples to try to find out whether Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah (since he has been doing all sorts of amazing things).

John’s disciples say: “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The text says that

In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them,

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Notice this — there are six types of people in distress: “blind,” “lame,” “lepers,” “deaf,” “dead” (“distressed” might not be the best word for dead people), and “poor.” The first five are given what we would expect a true miracle worker to give:

    • the blind receive their sight,
    • the lame walk,
    • lepers are cleansed,
    • the deaf hear,

and

    • the dead are raised up

But the sixth receives something quite unexpected — it is not “and the poor are given food,” or “the poor are given money,” or even “the needs of the poor are met.” Instead, Jesus says

the poor have good news [the word is “gospel”] preached to them.

Only one who is authoritatively the Messiah* would be so bold as to give something of eternal value where there are more “immediate” needs.

I draw two conclusions:

  1. Even in this time of crisis, we need to give “good news” to those in distress, even as we need those immediate needs.
  2. We need to remember that life is more than what we consume.**

 


*The numbers and the cross-references can have great value, of course, as they help us keep track of what we learn — if you can find Isaiah 26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; and 61:1, you will see that these acts are part of the redemption that the Lord promises to bring about.

**I’m pretty sure I read that second point about a fourth of the way through Matthew, but I can’t find it now.