the rules of playing fair

I’m in the middle of reading Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. This is him writing about the response of the older brother to the younger brother’s return in the Prodigal Son. He’s been talking about how the older brother is concerned with the fact that the father’s welcome of the younger brother is ‘not fair’ to the older, because it breaks the rules that let society function (“you can’t behave like that and not expect consequences…”) and how it leads the older brother to behave:

His anger with over the transgression of the rules makes him break some rather significant rules. He insists that he worked like a slave for the father, but fails to mention that he also worked for himself as the heir of two-thirds of the property… Most significantly, he projects onto his brother evil that his brother did not commit: the brother’s ‘dissolute’ living, which in the original seemingly implies no immorality, he makes into ‘devouring the property with prostitutes’

Obsession with the rules – not bad rules, but salutary rules! – encourages self-righteousness and demonisation of others. To make the rules stick, one must reduce moral ambiguity and the complexity of social agents and their interaction. Insistence on observance of the rules fosters polarities where none are to be found and heightens them where they do exist. As a result, one is either completely ‘in’ (if no rule was broken) or completely ‘out’ (if a rule has been broken).

I feel like I’ve heard this story a lot in the past few years, as the British government engages with social security systems, and especially benefits. I wonder how often we’re going to hear this story in the next few months?

Happy Election season, everyone!

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