So, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died, and I’ve seen how careful ministers have been to keep a neutral, even upbeat tone. Variations on this theme are calls to “stay classy” or “remember that he was a child of God” or that he had “inherent worth and dignity,” the last quoting the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Note the forms of these admonitions; I certainly did. I’d call the tone “policing.”
Let’s review. Scalia had a lifetime appointment to one of the world’s most powerful institutions, and in his time made decisions with the majority that were harmful to the nation, and others, had he been in the majority, would have harmed more. Like many other gay people, I recall with disgust his minority opinion on Lawrence v. Texas, made just days before my church wedding with my husband. This is not ancient history. Had he retired from the bench, I probably would not care so much, but had he continue to live, he could have continued to act. Remember that at the next billionaire-bought election, if indeed you’ll be able to vote. His death is both the end of his life, and the end of this work.
Still, I am worried about the actions of the living to minimize over Scalia’s record, and emphasize the private man. This looks like an attempt to play nice and minimize conflict, and that’s dishonest. The people he hurt have to pay for this dishonest accounting of his life’s work. How is that fair?
Since I write theologically, I’d like to focus on ministers and their responses. I’ve seen not one “well, thank God, that’s over” though that’s arguably a biblical response. Or even a “the less said, the better” which is reasonably diplomatic. There have been, I note, plenty of comments about his colleague and opera buddy Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like their friendship is supposed to make it all OK. Or his intellect, like smart or charming people can’t be rogues. Or in consideration of his family, like the rest of us don’t have them, but indeed, thanks to the Windsor decision (again Scalia going out of his way in his dissent) my family is safer.
When ministers defend the powerful in death — particularly those who were equally repulsed by the decedent — it tells me a lot about what side they’re on. It’s the side of authority itself, and telegraphs the power of authority over justice, the power of niceness over goodness. Perhaps it’s a fear of stirring up trouble in the church, and so again those who are hurt stay hurt. Some people will praise you for your temperate words, but others will remember that your judgment cannot be trusted when it matters. And that our behavior, the behavior of everyday people, must be managed because someone more powerful than we has died. Genteel coverups happen — though I hope it happens less — when misconducting ministers die, for instance.
“But Scott, you’re a Universalist. Isn’t God’s nature love?” You bet. Love, but not everything-goes, and I stand in our tradition here. There are two main streams of Universalist thought, but in mature (post-Civil War) Universalism, the restorationist stream was by far the stronger and, I think, the more compelling. That is, through our acts, including repentance, we are restored to God. The process may be slow and faltering, and (this is where Universalists differ from other Christians) does not end with death. God’s salvation will be complete, but surely not immediate. There’s no need to re-write Scalia into a fictional, better man before he’s cremated. God won’t be fooled; there’s no need to try and fool ourselves, either.
As a Universalist, I believe in a continuity between this life and the next. Death does not seal one’s fate. Death is not more powerful than God’s care. But it does break human relationships. Dead people cannot heal the harm they cause, and they cannot further harm the living. That’s good news to anyone who’s been hurt by someone who has since died. Nor should you be pressured into a hasty forgiveness. The work of reconciliation is between the dead and God, to be resolved and cured in time. Death doesn’t seal one’s fate, and doesn’t make them good either.
I would caution people to not forgive Scalia because it’s the nice thing to do, or expected of them. He did not repent of his action, nor seek your forgiveness. Quite the opposite. It is the way of the powerful to expect rules to apply to you and not to them. Do not comply. You are not the unreconciled party. And now that he’s gone, Scalia will have to manage with God’s docket; you do not have to plead to him, or for him.