I have observed two kinds of tyranny in the media and public forum when it comes to moral, religious, or political conflict. The first kind is a tyranny of bigotry which takes firm held beliefs about politics, religion, ethics, etc., and attempts to coerce or shame others into agreement. It disregards the humanity and dignity of those with whom it disagrees. The second kind is a tyranny of tolerance. This tyranny regards “tolerance” as the highest (if not the only) virtue, and then attempts to coerce or shame others into a malleability of all other beliefs besides tolerance. It is as though anything but indifferent relativism is a hate crime.
This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown. Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by. Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement. Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us. This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.
In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).” Being rejected again and again hurts. Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.
Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12) For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred. For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby. No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.
Our actions have a cyclical affect. Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others. Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others. Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us. Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect. Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day. Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day. However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.
It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse. The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being. However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted. This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend. Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.
We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet. But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet. We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us. We love because He loves us. The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him. During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day. Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective. Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith. But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.
This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs. We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways. While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store. I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16). Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.
Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it. If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle. Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions. We are called to be cycle breakers! Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed. Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.
*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.
*Image via Wikimedia Commons
Did you know it’s estimated that in 2011-1012 about 7.1 billion people were considered chronically undernourished? Or did you know that the estimated number of orphans world-wide is around 1.5 billion? Statistics like these are often employed to raise awareness and are often effective in alerting an audience to the magnitude and importance of a problem. However, they can also have the unintended effect of overwhelming an audience. In light of solving a problem that seems hopeless, how are we supposed to respond?
a) walk away
Even when faced with a small problem, it’s tempting to leave it alone believing someone else will fix it or it will be resolved on its own. Dirty dishes in the sink? Maybe I can pretend I didn’t see them and my roommate will wash them when she gets home. Or maybe they’re not actually a problem at all; maybe she put them into the sink for a reason. As ridiculous as these excuses may sound, they still run through our mind and cause us to realize there is a daily temptation to ignore and give up on the small problems.
When faced with a huge problem, especially one that doesn’t personally affect us, the temptation becomes even bigger to just walk away. Of course, nobody wants to admit this. Nobody would say, “I don’t care if global hunger continues” because theoretically, everybody wants the problem to end. While there are some who actively work to fix the problem, many seem content only expressing a desire to fix the problem and then ignoring the needed work.
b) settle for less
Sometimes when confronted with a large problem, sometimes one attempt won’t offer a solution so it’s necessary to begin by taking small steps. The small steps then offer a better approach by breaking the problem up into manageable pieces. This approach can be extremely useful and is often necessary to begin addressing the problem.
However with this option, there is a risk of contenting oneself with only the small steps and never resolving the larger problem. For example, removing a tree means the roots eventually need to be removed. Beforehand, sometimes its necessary to prune the branches which is an example of taking small steps to fix the problem. However, sometimes only the branches are pruned and the trunk is never touched. Similarly with a large problem, sometimes actions are only taken to relieve the problem and fail to follow through in solving the entire problem. This option is tricky because it follows the same lines as an appropriate response. However, this option becomes faulty when the small steps fall short of addressing the problem either at its core or in its entirety.
c) try harder
Especially for those plagued with guilt or self-doubt, trying harder seems to be the simple solution to an unsolved problem. We know that when we care about something, we will spend time and effort with it, so if we truly cared about an issue, it would then seem we should spend a maximum amount of time and effort. However, this mindset is a recipe for burnout since it usually doesn’t realistically view the problem’s extent or man’s ability.
Although these options differ in their approach, whether it’s overworking or underworking, they all fail to offer a satisfying solution because of one simple reason. They forget the basic truth that’s taught all throughout Sunday school: the right answer is Jesus. While it’s somewhat of a trite saying, in this case it’s the correct answer. As believers, we are now children of God and we are in the process of being fashioned like Christ.
Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” We are called to be obedient to this command in a way that mirrors Jesus’ love. Jesus didn’t abandon the world or settle for the minimum, but in His life and death, He fully engaged with life’s essential and daily problems. While we don’t have Jesus’ divine ability to completely fix the world’s problems, we do have the motivation and the ability to mirror His love. This doesn’t mean trying harder to solve immense problems but rather trying properly by pointing to the ultimate solution of Jesus.
Finally, in spite of our feelings of hopelessness, the truth is He has already overcome the world. Jesus loved us with a love that carried Him through the earth and the heavens and we have been shown this love. If we are filled with this love, our response to the world problems around us will not cause us to become overwhelmed or afraid. Instead, we will be able to act in a way that demonstrates Christ’s love and thus allows our love to be stronger than our fear.
Society is no one. It is the no one who sits in judgment over an activist’s appeal. It is the nobody standing in support of a preacher’s morality. It is the no one who cares for and supports you in your personal growth. Of course, everyone together is society, and good society demands good people to make it up. Society is so much a little bit of everyone that it is very little of anyone and is a dry reed ready to splinter and stab anyone who leans on it for support. And yet, society is something.
If everyone ditched trousers in favor of kilts, “but everyone’s doing it!” would be a meaningful appeal. Although traditional clothing can have deep and significant meaning, monks with manuscripts are no match for punks with printers. Mindless manufacturing is efficient, so whatever the original pattern is, it wins. People just copy, and to a point, they don’t mean anything by it. Copying is a glandular function, not an intellectual one. When I look at pictures of old Mormon homesteaders, all I really see is a bunch of people dressed like pioneers with a surplus of wives. What everyone did covered all the bases the Mormons cared to clothe, but the ideas on the inside were what mattered, and it was for those ideas that the Mormons’ neighbors drove them out.
G. K. Chesterton said something about agreeing to live in peace with each other so we could settle the theology, and he rejected the notion of agreeing on the theology to support settling down to live together. For instance, I consider whether I have a girlfriend to be more lastingly meaningful to my spiritual life than whether women should be ordained, but I refuse to throw up my hands with a resigned “C’est la vie!” so I can get on with romance if society judges one way or the other about women’s ordination. Society says do this and do that. Society thinks this and that. Society has the intellectual depth of a bowl of dog sweat.
Now for a gay marriage reference. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does not, they are liars. If gay marriage supporters say society supports them and it does, they nevertheless commit themselves to perpetual evangelism because opinions come in and out of style just as much as they think they do. If they win the externals without the conversions of hearts and minds, they are going to lose. In the push for gay marriage, as in any other thing in society, there is an A Team of thinkers somewhere doing the intellectual heavy lifting. When they die out, others will come after to continue the push, but good leaders do not keep the mob going so much as they fashion individuals out of the proletarian dust, breathing life into their hearts and minds.
I think that everyone should think the same things that I think. Even if their ways of thinking are different, they should reach the same conclusions and arrange them in the same places that I do. If I have not thought about something, I should hardly dare to call anyone to agree with my position on it. If I am wrong about something, I should hardly dare to surrender when we change the subject and I am right about the new topic. How is it possible for me to demand agreement from others while still calling upon them to do their own thinking? How can I believe in agreement, which builds society, if society is no one? The individual, the lone man or woman, has free will. Society only has momentum.
There are, from time to time, individuals who incarnate their societies’ values and interests. Kings, priests, prophets, scholars, poets, philosophers, entertainers: they live differently than all their family and friends, but they are accepted as part of society, even essential members worth the sacrifice of many lives of ordinary people. The Church has its own catalogue of exemplary people, and in some Christian traditions, they are the Saints. You know, with the capital S. Saints achieve in their lifetimes the reality toward which the Church is struggling and striving, that being union with God and the active revelation of him in every aspect of their lives. Not everyone gets to be a capital S Saint and painted into icons (or for evangelicals, have books and movies made about them), but everyone does get to choose who they will imitate. What is more, they have the choice to imitate a way of life or just drift with the dispassionate tides. Tides care about nothing. Saints care about the smallest things. Free will exists, but my free will and yours are not the only two in existence.
Call it God, call it powers and authorities in the heavenly realms, call it your mother in law’s dead hand strangling you from beyond the grave: all of these wills are working on you. References to society as some sort of authority are like references to a rickety canoe as some sort of stability. That canoe keeps us out of the water, but currents and cataracts work no matter how much we argue about where and how we should go. Society is no one, and we have free will. Society is everyone, and we have duties. “Society says” is a “shut up, stupid” against disagreement and forms a poor argument and even worse proof for anything. Society demands named individuals to stand up and be counted as examples and authorities to be cited. Society demands that something other than society should speak, because society has no will. Society has only momentum. Society is no one.
Capitalism is often deeply intertwined with the American’s idea of patriotism and Christianity, and for good reason. Capitalism, like the Christian life, encourages discipline. As seen through America’s rise as an economic super power over the past century, capitalism can give a man with a good work ethic the opportunity to move from rags to riches, achieving the American dream of full life, liberty, and happiness. In recent years, however, more Christians have questioned the negative affects of capitalism on humanity and whether American Christians should accept all capitalistic ideas as part of their worldview.
Like Victoria Van Vlear, who recently posted an article on Evangelical Outpost called Why You Should Listen to Communists, I believe we can learn more about capitalism and its limitations by studying the economic system that juxtaposes it: communism. Unlike Victoria, however, I am not surprised that communism’s founder, Karl Marx, was able to revolutionize entire countries with his theory. Marx was eccentric, yes. And there is no denying that communism has been used to oppress people in horrific ways. Yet Marx’s ideas point out some serious flaws in capitalism, flaws that we American Christians cannot ignore if we are to be responsible stewards of our possessions and love others well.
Therefore, I’d like to take a Marxist perspective on some of the harmful effects of capitalism. The problems capitalism creates, though different than those of socialism, can still be severe and debilitating. Capitalism creates vast wealth but also immense poverty. It provides jobs and products for consumption, but it also promotes alienation, overconsumption, and exploitation. Capitalism has brought us wealth, but this wealth might come at too great a price.
– Let’s begin with alienation. Marx tells us that capitalism alienates us from the purpose of our labor, because in a capitalistic society the worker ceases to labor out of his or her own will and volition and begins to labor to meet another person’s goal. In other words, most of us are working for The Man. According to Marx’s essay Alienated Labor, man differs from the animal inasmuch as he “makes his vital activity itself into an object of his will and consciousness.” Man creates through conscious, vital activity. As beings created in the image of the Creator, an essential part of our being must be to create and labor to bring our ideas into reality. In a capitalist society, however, we waive our right to labor for our own purposes, trading our labor for wages in order to fulfill the desires of another human being. In Alienated Labor, Marx goes on to argue that the result of this is “man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions…and feels himself an animal in his human functions.” In other words, when we sell our labor instead of experiencing the fruits of it ourselves, we can feel enslaved. Work can become the thing we do just to make money rather than a sacred opportunity to exercise our image-bearing quality of creativity. As a result of this shift in our understanding of labor, work becomes the place where we feel least human and least fulfilled, which entirely contradicts the intrinsic nature of labor as an expression of our purpose and humanness. In a capitalist society, our labor is only as valuable as the wage we are receiving. In a perfect society, however, our labor would do more to enhance human dignity: we would see the whole fruits of our labor rather than paper money equivalent to our labor.
– Next comes overconsumption, which is partially a result of alienation from labor. Because his work makes him feel like an animal, man looks to physical pleasure to help him feel more human. It is for this reason that Americans live for the weekend: we have sold our entire week to someone else, working in someone else’s office for someone else’s purpose, so that on the weekend (the only time that wholly belongs to us) we can live in excess for the final and exclusive end of experiencing pleasure and fulfillment. As man grasps at appetitive pleasures in search of purpose, capitalist society continuously uses advertising and stereotypes about economic status to suggest that consuming makes him more human. Capitalism encourages consumption to a fault: industry purposely engineers dispensable things, and the things industry creates still don’t fulfill the majority of humanity’s basic needs. A trip to a majority world country like Swaziland brings the realization that a number of people have cell phones that will break in three years but come from a village that still has no access to clean water. While many go without food, there are thousands of cars in dealerships all over our own country with no one to buy them. Instead of focusing on improving the health of humanity, capitalism has led to an excess of material things falsely deemed necessary and ignored true necessities.
– Finally, capitalism allows for the fulfillment of the purposes of some at the expense and exploitation of the majority. As we grow alienated from our labor and our humanness, we become alienated from one another. As demonstrated in the documentary The Corporation, virtually every corporation in the United States outsources labor from parts of the world where protection for workers simply does not exist. CEOs like Phil Knight of Nike Inc., have, in the past, completely ignored the conditions in their factories because their factories exist halfway around the world.* Few have ever actually visited their factories to see the working conditions, allowing the CEO’s primary focus to be monetary gain rather than concern for the human condition. Capitalist society is structured in such a way that exploitation becomes a necessary evil in order to create competition, and the capitalist can even exploit without coming face to face with the consequences of his actions. In this way, capitalism damages the morality of the capitalist.
I am not positing that communism represents an adequate solution for or response to the problems created by capitalism. I am positing, however, that Marx predicted the negative effects of capitalism that we are experiencing today, and that makes him worth listening to. I never would have been able to identify these problems if I hadn’t read Marx. We ought to listen to communists, and not just to compose better arguments against their ideology. We ought to listen to communists because they can help us see the problems with our system and work with us to respond to these problems in ways that improve the quality of life for the worker.
Realizing some of the flaws of capitalism helps us remember that the American Christian is not inherently a capitalist. To be a rich Christian (and that includes us—most American Christians are rich compared to the majority of the world) amidst poverty and hunger is to contradict the main focus of the Christian faith: human reconciliation and flourishing and the advancement of God’s kingdom. You might believe that the pros of capitalism outweigh the cons, but Christians, at least, should think hard about what it means to subscribe to any system that does not promote human flourishing for all.
*Nike has, as of late, improved their social responsibility. For details, click here.
Don’t panic. I am not a communist. I’m a patriotic American, and I fully believe in the freedom and opportunity of the capitalist system, in which hard work, motivation, and diligence gives way to success.
I did, however, just finish reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, with (I hope) an open mind.
Let’s face it: nobody agrees about everything. We’re all constantly trying to convince each other that our opinions are the right ones. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of automatically dismissing other beliefs. Instead, there are several key reasons why you shouldn’t disregard someone else’s ideas before hearing them out:
1. They might be right—or at least, partially right. It would be a mistake to allow pride to keep us from learning from others. Ever heard the saying, “Every lie contains a grain of truth?” The people who disagree with you feel just as strongly about their ideas as you do about yours.
Take the Communist Manifesto, for example. Most capitalists think communists want to take away freedom. In the Manifesto, Marx writes, “Rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.”
After reading an admission like this, it’s easy to balk. But Marx is trying to solve a very real problem. He thinks society is fundamentally ill because the rich no longer care about the laborers, but only about profit. And he’s right—the consumer world is often heartless. I just don’t think Communism is the right way to go about fixing the problem.
2. By understanding their view, you can better understand your own. Automatically dismissing Marx’s ideas as crazy and impractical doesn’t formulate a better solution to the problem. Instead, I should work through why Communism is a bad idea, because it will help me truly understand and appreciate capitalism.
This is why we study history. We’re hoping to learn from the dead and not repeat their mistakes.
3. You have a better chance of convincing them your opinion is right. This works two ways. First, you’ll understand their argument well enough to refute it properly. If you’ve done the work of understanding their side, you can reasonably show them why your view makes more sense.
Second, “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” A shouting match will only offend your opponent. If you aren’t willing to listen to others, they won’t listen to you.
Honestly, after reading the Communist Manifesto, I’m amazed that Marx was able to convince anyone to follow his views, let alone revolutionize entire countries. He makes large, generalized statements that are untrue, unresearched, and unfair. Yet he gets away with them because he is so passionate about the subject.
But I’m glad I read it, because it has given me a more charitable view of Marx. It’s not that I agree with his views, but I no longer see him as an evil villain, conspiring to destroy human happiness. He was a humanitarian, a visionary who saw a problem and dedicated his life to finding a solution, even if that solution turned out to be flawed.
The Guardian warns that continuation of this debt crisis translates to the end of the American dream. It cries out, “The US has enrolled at IOU University where no one graduates until his debt has been paid in full.”
The central concern here is that the uninhibited spending translates to an impending paralysis. As is supported by experience, a budget operating on costs that dramatically exceed income is unsustainable. It’s only a matter of time before a budgetary disaster takes place. So proclaims that wise adage, “When your output exceeds your income your upkeep will be your downfall.”
What shape does the American federal debt downfall take? Since there are a multitude of complex predictions out there, it’s probably best to explain what the Federal debt is not like.
Federal debt is not like personal debt.
We are inclined to think that both types of budgets, personal and federal, are so similar that the only significant difference between them concerns the size of the figures they use in budgetary calculations. We tend to think of the federal budget as a little personal budget on a much bigger scale.
However, the main difference is much more important: it concerns the system within which the government budget operates. Let’s consider the different systems personal and federal budgets answer to.
We, with our puny individual budgets, don’t want to accumulate debt because we are accountable to debt collectors. We face an American justice system that condemns the inability to pay back excessive debt. We also face a credit rating system in which, given a bad credit rating, we jeopardize future credible promises to delay full payment of something.
International debt repercussions work a little differently. The American debt operates in an international system which operates anarchically. This international anarchy basically means that a country can do anything they want without worrying about someone calling 9-1-1 (no established international emergency hotline). There is not an international debt collector that makes a country pay back its debts.
If no one enforces international debts, why would one nation want to lend money to another nation? The main accountability mechanism in the international system is credibility (the same principle underlying personal credit ratings). If someone never pays back money we lend them, we probably won’t want to do business with them ever again. Other countries will only believe that we will pay back our debts if both our record and our position reinforce the trustworthiness of our promise to pay them back in the future. The fact that countries have to continually do business with one another motivates good behavior and punishes unfulfilled promises. There is no international emergency hotline, but the pressure to maintain credibility keeps countries accountable to the promises they make to one another.
It’s also important to understand exactly how countries manage debt. American debt accumulates not because that we’re spending money we don’t have, but because other actors (both foreign and domestic investors) choose to invest their money in America. The government issues bonds (or treasuries), which it sells to buyers near and far. Basically, these bonds say that the buyer will be paid back the full value of the bond plus interest when he sells the bond back. The federal government does not print money it doesn’t own, it asks people for money, saying it will pay them back later.
Notice that the whole American debt system rests on the choices of investors. If people don’t want to invest their money in the Federal government in return for its commitment, the federal government cannot have debt.
The fact is investors worldwide find it choiceworthy to invest in the American federal government. This means that the federal debt is substantiated by those willing to trust that the federal government can credibly commit to paying them back in the future.
They trust the American economy. They trust the word of the American federal government. More to the point, multitudes would place bets on our stability over and above the stabilities found anywhere else in the world.
Thus the federal debt is not as scary as it seems. We like to conceptualize it as an analogy to personal debt. But it federal debt is not the Federal government begging others for money; it is others begging to invest in the stability of our government. The disparity between personal and national debt illuminates the altered priorities and motivations of a Federal government.
We may be in the IOU University, but we can still graduate confidently knowing that others believe in us enough to invest in us. Federal debt derives not from our indebtedness to others so much as a credibility debt worldwide.
“President Obama’s ‘I don’t know’ Strategy – and its Limits”
So declares the title of an article that echoes the general frustration that “‘I don’t know’ has become a regular refrain for this White House.”
Should we criticize the president for his “not knowing” or validate the presidential claim to ignorance? We must realize how much the president can reasonably know about his administration, to determine exactly how responsible he is for the decisions of those who serve under the executive.
When considering the responsibilities of a president, I am reminded of President Truman’s farewell address, which puts the presidential job description in perspective. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), the first president to deliver a televised farewell address, gave us a sort of ‘sneak peek’ into the life of a president.
He emphasizes the strain of a relentless presidential schedule:
“Since I became President, I have been to Europe, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, Wake Island and Hawaii. I have visited almost every State in the Union. I have traveled 135,000 miles by air, 77.000 by rail, and 17,000 by ship. But the mail always followed me, and wherever I happened to be, that’s where the office of president was.”
People criticize the scandalous nature of frequent presidential “vacations.” But, in a manner of speaking, though the president leaves the Oval Office, he never truly leaves his presidential desk.
Truman also presents the exhausting presidential way of life:
“And all these emergencies and all the developments to meet them have required the President to put in long hours—usually 17 hours a day, with no payment for overtime. I sign my name, on average, 600 times a day, see and talk to hundreds of people every month, shake hands with thousands every year, and still carry on the business of the largest going concern in the whole world. There is no job like it one the face of the earth…”
Truman certainly allows us to sample the burden of the presidential position. But he is not asking for a pity party; he is asking that the people remember just how demanding the presidency is. Truman wants to push the people not to relentlessly criticize the president’s positions, but partner with his presidential successor (Eisenhower) in his struggle to carry the weight of domestic and foreign affairs.
I don’t want to say that criticizing the president’s claim to ignorance is necessarily bad, but that sometimes the president does have a legitimate claim to ignorance. Truman’s farewell demonstrates just how valid such a claim can be. The president has so many responsibilities, people, and urgent decisions weighing on his shoulders that it would be unrealistic to think that he knows absolutely everything that happens within his executive jurisdiction.
But does a valid claim to ignorance eliminate presidential responsibility?
Absolutely not; the president is still responsible for all the official actions and policies of his administration.
As evidence, consider the debate among the founders to determine whether the American presidency should be one person or multiple people.
Some thought that the presidency should consist of an odd number of collaborative leaders, kind of like the bench of United States Supreme Court Justices. Under this system, we would vote for, say, 3 leaders, each with their own area of expertise and party alignment to ensure balanced, experienced, deliberative executive leadership.
The main problem with this multiple-actor presidency idea was the utter lack of accountability. If a bad decision is made, who do you blame? Do you kick them all out of office? Since the presidency collaborates secretly, do you simply make an educated guess about which president is responsible for bad decisions? Maybe it was a 2-1 vote; do we still punish all of them?
The single-man presidency solves this problem. Blaming is a mode of accountability. And if executive decisions go awry, there is only one person we can blame, the president. The founders chose a unitary presidency, partly so that we can blame him for bad decisions.
So, just how valid is a presidential claim to ignorance?
Claims to ignorance send us a strong signal: the president wants us to think he is not responsible for a bad decision that was made. He is communicating that he was so burdened with other presidential demands, that he cannot be held responsible for a specific flaw we want to blame him for.
I think we can do more than draw attention to a specific flaw. We can do more than seek a rhetorical response from the president. We can keep the president accountable. Accountability does not mean criticism of his claims, but of his conduct. Give the president’s speeches the benefit of the doubt, but keep him strictly accountable for his actions. The power of his words shouldn’t matter as much as the prudence of his decisions.
In the case of ignorance-claiming, the president claims no responsibility for an imprudent action. This is an exciting opportunity to witness the president’s prudent decision-making at its finest: how he reacts to exposed failure within his administration. It is not what he says in response, but what he does in reaction to the failures of those under his superintendence, that really counts.
When the president says, “I didn’t know.” We should respond, “Now that you know, what shall we do?” It provides a space for decisive presidential leadership and our more meaningful partnership.
Don’t endlessly propound his blameworthiness, but assess the ways he compensates for and adjusts to the past failures in his administration. Executive limbs answer to him alone; the executive head answers for their failures and glories in their successes. Don’t get stuck on assessing how he answers “I don’t know” but who he becomes now that he knows. Does he get stuck in the presidential claim to ignorance, or does the president assume decision and responsibility in spite of this ignorance?
My colleague, Mr. Daniel Larsen, recently published an insightful article arguing that a government that cannot be trusted leads us to a Savior who can. He poignantly articulates how the general lack of trust in American political leaders pushes us toward a better hope in Christ. That government deficiency illuminates Christ’s sufficiency. I want to argue that the government’s questionable trustworthiness is not quite a deficiency, but a central strength of the American system: Distrust of government cultivates unmitigated, self-revealing honesty.
As Americans, we are always looking for savior statesman to protect us from the vast pool of untrustworthy politicians. We are distinctly aware that candidates tell us what our itching ears want to hear, not necessarily what their true intentions are. By discrediting themselves individually, politicians have discredited the whole community of American political leaders.
From fear of the government’s power to spy on its own citizens to the deception of the Watergate Scandal, the government has shown one thing about itself – its questionable, if not absolutely compromised, trustworthiness.
However, by “government,” Americans mean government leaders, not standard government functions. We subconsciously trust government responsibilities like keeping our currency credible, delivering our mail, and (most certainly) collecting our taxes. But we do not necessarily trust our leaders’ actions in the wake of national emergencies, urgent policy-making, and other pressing issues.
Does this mean that our system of government is less trustworthy than other government systems?
Not necessarily. Our distrust of government does not illuminate a structural deficiency, but an intentional efficiency, an efficiency that allows us to clearly perceive the shortcomings of government leadership.
Elected government officials repeatedly offend us, the voters. Over and over again, candidates that seemed courageous and convicted at election time either compromise their previously nonnegotiable positions or pursue all kinds of scandals once they reach office. And we are left wondering whether anything any leader or candidate says can be trusted.
Washington, in his farewell address, articulates this tendency as, “…that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates the human heart.” Men, even government leaders, are corrupt, seeking to further their own ends at the expense of, and by the deception of, those around them. With power, this inner depravity becomes more apparent: leaders view their powerful position as a way to accomplish well-intentioned ends, without concern for the nature of the means, however dishonorable or misleading.
The really smart men who constructed the American form of government recognized this human depravity as the core element that the American political system must account for. Madison famously said, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary” (Federalist Paper 51).
Madison therefore espouses a system in which, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
This counteraction, which plays out between the three of branches of government, more specifically structures the ways that individual leaders interact. If I am a leader, and I want an easy way to reduce the power of an opposing or disagreeable leader, I can simply discredit him in the eyes of his voters. This not only significantly reduces his trust-based power but also nearly eliminates his chances of reelection.
This does not mean that political leaders will not act deceptively and try to outsmart the system. Neither does it seal the failure of deceptive leaders. But the structure does motivate leaders to rat each other out.
If nothing else, the fact that we are aware of the government’s ability to spy on us or Nixon’s Watergate Scandal should lead us to trust the efficiency of the system’s built in lie-detector. When everyone who disagrees with you is trying to figure out when you are lying, it’s difficult to get away with a lie. Thus, our government leaders seem so untrustworthy because the structure of government encourages leaders to call out the untrustworthiness of other leaders.
The political system does not corrupt our leaders so much as it exposes a deeper corrupt nature already within them.
So, though we cannot necessarily trust our leaders, we can trust the system to make known their untrustworthiness. The failures, shortcomings, and corruptions we continually see in our government should not make us despair in our government, by the very fact that we see these evils. If we discover the untrustworthiness of our leaders, the government system is actually doing its job. Therefore, my distrust of our leaders actually signals the system’s reliability; the American system deserves my trust because it naturally distrusts.
So, here’s a structurally dependable strength: my government will be transparent, even if it communicates its own lack of transparency.
Other government systems may portray themselves as better, more virtuous, or less corrupt, to which we should respond, not with praise and congratulation, but unease at the thought that men are so blind as to think they can deceive us about their own corruption.
Distrust is never a good thing; yet distrust of government is a good thing insofar as it exposes its own untrustworthiness for all of us to see. I’m not advocating a blind distrust and cynicism of all American government action, but an open-eyed trust of what the government as a whole tells us we should trust it with. The government structure is doing its job. It’s our job to perceive the structure’s limits: those things we should not entrust to the government, those spaces in government with no built-in motivations to self-expose hidden flaws.
Leading up to the legislative stalemate that caused the government shutdown, names were flying about, mostly in the direction of Republicans. Since they controlled the House and were sending bills which did not fund Obamacare to the Democratic Senate, the Democrats were frustrated; they were being given no alternative but to defund or delay the healthcare law, or let the federal government shut down. They angrily demanded the House come to their senses and send a continuing resolution without that poison pill of hindering or potentially killing the President’s favorite enacted law.
In that endeavor, they had some choice words. Senator Harry Reid said they were anarchists. Representative Pelosi called them arsonists. Some said they were catering to Tea Party ‘extremists’. Many said they were taking the American people hostage, though it seems the only hostages in the matter were our monuments and national parks. Finally, the senior White House adviser said that the president and his party, while being open to a fair debate about the issue, would not deal with people who have bombs strapped to their chests and Tom Friedman went so far as to say Republicans in their tactics are exactly like the terrorist group Hezbollah.
Politics are messy, and always have been. Name-calling and personal attacks, for all of our rhetoric about ‘keeping it clean’, are nothing new. Adams’ Federalist campaign against Jefferson claimed, if the famous author of the Declaration were elected, that wives and children would die and the country would be destroyed. So much for the innocent times of the Founders. Edward Stanton, running against Lincoln, called him the original gorilla. Hardly classy. But then Stanton became Lincoln’s secretary of war, because Americans usually get past the pettiness. Insults last only as long as the political cycle that engenders them, after which nothing permanent remains of such ugly hostility.
However, it should be apparent that equating one’s domestic political antagonists with enemies of the state, who continue to kill our fellow Americans on the battlefield, crosses a line. Unlike the similarly inappropriate but clichéd insult of Nazism, this threat is real, and linking it to those who disagree with us is disrespectful to real terrorist victims. It is also a dangerous precedent, should the affinity be repeated often enough to blur from slander into belief.
Since the Tea Party embodies much of what the established opinion makers despise (such as absolutist religion, distrust of authority, and defending gun rights), they have already and continue to be seen as “extreme”, which has now morphed into “extremism” when their representatives stand against the established system. Political strategies, like using funding bills to force the opposing party to compromise, are a healthy part of federalism and have been legitimately used by both parties before; but because this touches the issue that the intensely disliked minority cares about most, the establishment and the media that follows their narrative readily accepts the idea that this is extremism. It’s easy to paint them as crazy, so crazy that they remind us of the crazy terrorists.
This callous use of rhetoric is potentially a grave threat to the stability of a society like ours. If it becomes a norm to legitimize these attacks, we will face a culture where disagreement can be seen as treachery. Already there is a sentiment that the promoters of the second amendment are sheltering mass murderers behind their ‘rights’ to easily access weapons. Never mind the constitutional law, never mind the arguments which have maintained the second amendment through centuries of murders, and never mind the majority of normal citizens who don’t abuse that amendment; look at the dead children and wake up to the fact that the gun-party is a menace who must ‘see reason’ and give it up already.
As for those standing against abortion or homosexual marriage, their motivations are likened to minority persecution of the pre-civil rights era. That subtle hint of prejudice, like the kind so hatefully demonstrated in the last century, marginalizes any disagreement on these issues. When the Supreme Court cites an ‘animus’ in the proponents of heterosexual marriage, and when those who believe abortion is a moral evil are seen as misogynists, how can anything but the opposing view advance the American cause? How can one be allowed to hold those opinions if society deems these views as illegitimate and dangerous?
While rhetoric is appropriate for any cause, words that take such a toxic turn lose the power of persuasion and become the tyrannical instruments of overpowering the opposition. Calling legitimate governance terrorism and other citizens’ values bigotry can only lead to diminished liberty. Social stigma could eventually become political censure, so that what we label today will get targeted tomorrow; the IRS already did so against multiple conservative and religious organizations. When any group can be so persecuted, everyone is vulnerable. We must be sure to keep discourse within the legitimate spheres of free speech, lest our speech take freedom away.