Don’t Call Me That

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.

In Whom Do We Place Our Trust?

For certain, most Americans today do not trust the federal government. Whether it is the recent scandals revealing widespread abuse of power, the standard gridlock between two parties on important legislation, or the uncomfortably massive bureaucracy, the average citizen has a healthy suspicion that elected politicians do not act in the public’s best interest. This cynicism has dramatically climbed, as the present age is lamentably untrustworthy, and the nation feels out of control.

While our current lack of faith is caused by unprecedented breaches from the Obama administration, a distrust of government has always been part of the American political system. When the Founders proposed the Constitution, many feared that it would re-install tyranny under a domestic title. But the Founders shared those fears: they sought to spread power among many to prevent tyranny and maintain effective government. They believed free society functions best when the people refuse to easily give their consent and power to their leaders, guaranteeing the continuance of their liberty. At its best, the system must expect disappointment and prepare for it.

This distrust of political power, however, should also have its limits. Our alarm at having such a fidelity crisis is a fear that suspicion will become limitless. It is depressing when reality checks our patriotic ideals; despite our ability to elect whomever we chose, the greedy allure of Washington eventually and inevitably turns them into partisan self-seeking power brokers. The Jimmy Stewarts belonged to a different age, and they’re not coming back. Nevertheless, we hope sometime this disappointment will end, that leaders will rise who reliably enact our ideals and the American dream of lasting freedom is not beyond redemption.

If a certain faith in government cannot be restored, we are subject to greater danger than disillusion. As a republic, it is not feasible for the American people to self-govern directly, at least beyond the issues relevant to our immediate communities. For national and state problems, we must delegate authority to the chosen few, unless we want to lose the benefits of the many wonderful cultures and societies within the United States. We have to trust somebody, but we don’t always have the time to rebuild trust with established politicians, or to build it anew in candidates. This means we always elect with the possibility that the leader will disappoint our aims in some form or another.

That gets us back to the initial question: can we trust those to whom we give power? It is a civilized necessity, beyond the constraints even of our form of government, to reach the point of trusting another person to lead. If we never believe in someone, we leave ourselves open to following anyone. Unchecked skepticism leads to gullibility, because people must have someone to believe in; we refuse to remain in the anarchic terror of unbelief.

In such an unstable environment, it is obvious why many Americans still cling firmly to their belief in God. When many popular movements regard religion as oppressive, why do so many Americans still believe in a God they cannot see or hear? Perhaps the better question to ask is why they continue to believe in a God who loves them enough to die for them. Regardless of whether deity exists, such promises are more than what any legislative or executive official has given Americans to believe, faithful or not. Lincoln comes close, but his legacy cannot promise resurrection or eternal providence.

Some consider the slogan “In God We Trust” written upon our money and monuments to be a bygone phrase, the continuing existence of a violation to the institutionalized divide between official business and personal faith. One should likewise consider the benefit in having faith that, above the mortal squabbles which can only give us doubt, a supreme benevolence guards our nation from injustice and seeks the happiness of her citizens. We shall believe, so is it not better to trust a benign Creator and Savior, for the nation’s ultimate fate, than to trust in politicians who have and who will lead us astray?

Christian theology won’t solve the debt crisis or navigate the balance between national security and individual freedom, but it gives Americans a hope that bolsters their ability to let politics naturally unfold, without fatally mistrusting their temporary leaders. The Founding Fathers were at least deists, because they could only reconcile the rights of men if there was a sovereign God ruling the world, and could only hope for the success of federalism if people remembered the fallibility of their leaders. Jesus gives peace that passes understanding; human leaders are often tone deaf beyond patience. Americans would do well to trust in God as their sustaining liberty, and trust the government only as their conditional.

Listening as Cultural Currency: The Politics of Stories

“I just want to be heard.” It’s the battle-cry of my generation, it seems. We’ve come to the point where the thing we cry out for most is simply an audience. We don’t want to be silenced, and we don’t want to be ignored. If you listen to us, we are validated. We often express our frustration in similar terms: to be silenced is to be oppressed.

So my generation listens. This isn’t a negative, at all: it’s important that we listen, especially to those we either disagree with or don’t understand. If we don’t hear what others believe, after all, how could we speak to them well? We’ve seen this listening take place in a number of cultural institutions lately.

First, the Church is Listening to Young Atheists about why they left. The intention here was two-fold, it appears: listen to young atheists in order to understand them for themselves, to take them as they are; and to work towards shifting various facets of the Church itself to reach out to those who might otherwise leave. One of the key conclusions from the questions asked of these young atheists is relatively simple:

If churches are to reach this growing element of American collegiate life, they must first understand who these people are, and that means listening to them.

We must listen to people in order to understand them. That seems straight-forward, but a lot of people simply don’t want to listen to anyone they disagree with, regardless of the topic or the context in which the discussion takes place.

This desire to be heard is often the front-and-foremost request within LGBTQ activist groups, at least in how they relate to the Church. (I understand that, politically, the call is usually more akin to a representation and the right to marry members of the same gender; I’m specifically speaking to groups addressing the Church). Often, the LGBTQ cause is framed in terms of silence and voices: for an organization to be fair, it has to give voice to the cause; if any group does not allow those members to speak publicly as members of that group, then they are oppressing those members.

And I think there’s a lot to this. Having someone listen to you can change everything. How often do we get frustrated when people stare at their phones, rather than engage us directly? That’s not listening. Likewise, even God takes time to listen–just look at Job. The poor guy goes through what can best be described as hell on earth, and then God actually listens to him. He lets him speak. There is a time when God’s authority and sovereignty take the front seat, but God definitely listens.

So too, does Jesus listen. We see Jesus spend time with the marginalized, and He does so in contexts where it is clear that He listened (meals together, for instance). But even as Jesus listens, he also tells people to “Go and sin no more.” Jesus could listen to someone, hear their story, feel their hardship, and at the end of genuinely listening to them was still able to say “Go and sin no more.” There’s no mistaking this: for Jesus, listening is not the same as affirming.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped believing that people–like Jesus–could listen to us and still disagree with us. The validation we feel when we are heard suddenly feels less real if people still disagree with us after hearing us out. I find that a little odd: I’m actually quite okay with someone who disagrees with me, provided they’ve given my thought a chance to be spoken. Someone who shuts you down before hearing you is far different from the person who respectfully disagrees after listening to your life story.

Mackenzie thought that the issue was really a misunderstanding of love and tolerance:

Tolerance is apathetic and passive, willing to leave things be, while love is urgent and active, seeking always the good of the beloved. Tolerance is merely the world’s straight-to-VHS rip-off of love: the picture on the cover might be similar, but the content couldn’t be more different–or more disappointing.

He’s onto something, I’ll give him that. But when it comes to listening, I think we need to draw another distinction: there’s a big difference between hearing a side and agreeing with it. It’s definitely possible to hear someone out genuinely, to actively weigh what they say, to hear their passionate beliefs and thoughts, and to still come away with a different view on some given subject, whether that’s homosexuality, abortion, atheism, or your favorite sports team.

But if listening is an act of love, then Mackenzie’s right when he says that we can love without accepting, that we can listen without affirming. For a political perspective, it’s worth checking out what my friend Matthew Lee Anderson wrote over at Mere Orthodoxy:

Like all virtues, intellectual empathy needs some sharp edges to be of much use.  For just as ‘compassion’ can become a sort of loose affection disconnected from a normative order of goods, so too the intellectual good of empathizing and understanding can be disconnected from pursuit of both people’s good of discovering and affirming what is true.

It’s easy to connect the ‘intellectual empathy’ Anderson describes with the listening that I’ve been working through here: in fact, to listen well is to seek to understand your conversation partner. One way to do that–perhaps the best way–is to temporarily suspend your own assumptions to see how coherent someone else’s noetic framework actually is. This is the reason that listening is so closely connected with validation: for a brief moment, a good listener actually tries to think like you.

If we stop at listening, we’ve failed to work toward someone’s best good. There’s a time and a place to hear stories–we as the Church probably ought to be doing more of it–but if we stop there, we’ve forgotten the rest of Jesus’ words. Jesus listened to people, he met them where they were at, and he sought to love them, but that isn’t the whole story. Jesus also instructs people against their particular sins, he asks the Father to forgive us even when do not know what we are doing, and he tells us all to go and sin no more. Even as Jesus listens, he turns around and instructs.

That’s the hardest part for millennials like myself. We’re eager to be heard, and we’re eager to listen to people tell their own stories, but we’re also quick to ignore those who speak against any of our actions. We’re big on love and grace, but small on authority and correction. We seek to step into relationships where we can demonstrate love (or at least we talk about this), but we avoid confrontation, even when that conflict might lead to a removal of sin.

As believers, we ought to listen. We ought to eat with non-believers, spend time with LGBTQ individuals, live and love all people. That love should push us further than just listening. We should love people, love discovery, and love truth.

How Should Christians Interact with Politics?

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. – Romans 13:1

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.’ – Acts 5:27-30

There are many Scripture passages one could point to in a discussion on politics and “governing authorities;” these are just two, and they serve to raise the question: how should Christians interact with politics? How does our faith in Christ and His Church interact with political issues and secular authority?

I’ve never been a very politically minded person, and I must admit that I haven’t seriously considered how I, as a Christian, ought to interact with politics. Of course, many Christians are way ahead of me on this front, but this is my attempt to breach the subject in my own, small way. Being a Christian is the most important defining aspect of my life, so it only seems natural that it would influence my political beliefs and activity. The question of how Christians should interact with politics is an important one to consider, which is why I’m taking the opportunity this week, not to try and answer the question, but rather to consider why the question is an important one with which Christians (like myself) should grapple. I tread forward cautiously.

I don’t believe there is, necessarily, a single, “right” way to answer the question. Many political issues are  complex and multi-faceted, and politics is a hot-button topic for anyone because there are so many varied opinions about the right way to do things. In some cases, I think it is no different for Christians; it doesn’t seem as simple as “All Christians should vote [insert political party here],” for example. It’s difficult to paint the topic in broad, black-and-white strokes.

The difference, it seems, comes when moral issues become political issues, which is something I’ve noticed more and more in recent years. For example, abortion has become a women’s rights issue and the subject of a heated, ongoing political debate in our culture. I admit that there are complex factors involved, but the heart of the issue is the sanctity of human life. In this case, a moral issue has evolved into a prominent political issue, and as Christians we need to take such issues seriously and consider how to respond to them in light of our faith. (Of course, the tricky part is that many Christians are in disagreement about whether abortion is right or wrong, what constitutes a human life, in what specific contexts abortion is or isn’t acceptable, etc.)

Gay marriage is another example. The Church has a radically different perspective on what marriage is, as well as who can and should get married, than does the secular world. For Christians, marriage is a moral and spiritual issue; it is a sacrament, a holy mystery of our faith. But our country and culture are becoming increasingly open to varied forms and opinions of marriage. It is an important political issue for Christians to consider because it leads to other valuable questions, such as: who defines marriage (the government, the Church, or some third party)? What is marriage, according to the Church, and how does it differ from secular views of marriage? There is an important distinction to draw between civil, legal marriage and spiritual, Church marriage; the two are entirely separate from each other. No matter your opinion on what should or should not be legal regarding marriage licenses issued by the government, it is an important issue to consider because it can help clarify what Christian marriage is and how it differs from secular, legal marriage.

A further question that stems from this discussion could be, What are the potential consequences for Christians not interacting with politics? At the very least, we’d be isolating ourselves from a very real and significant part of living as contemporary Christians in this world. It seems to me that it’s better to be active politically while guided by our faith than to be passive politically, potentially falling into the belief that politics don’t matter that much for Christians. I think the development of the two issues I mentioned—abortion and gay marriage—provide ample evidence that politics very much do matter, or at least should matter, to the Christian life. The extent and form of the action one takes in response to certain political issues depends, I think, on one’s particular spiritual and life path. Perhaps monks in a monastery respond by praying for the leaders of our country; perhaps I can respond by voting more conscientiously. All Christians should strive to respond in kindness and love above all else.

I mention these things and raise these questions in an effort to explore and broaden my own relationship to politics. Some folks are too politically active…but I’m not very active at all, and as a Christian who only recently realized she ought to take politics more seriously, these are the types of issues and questions that make me think it’s time to make a change.

Image via Flickr.

On Politics: A Mixed Bag is the Best Deal in Town

Blessed are the rich in wealth, for theirs is the kingdom of men. Blessed are the indignant, for they will be promoted. Blessed are the powerful, for they will disinherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after responsibility, for they will be filled. Blessed are the successful, for they shall be shown success. Blessed are the smooth in tongue, for they will see votes. Blessed are the kingmakers, for they will be called the sugar daddies of ambition. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of licentiousness, for theirs is the coverage of journalists. Blessed are you when people misquote you, persecute you and libelously say all kinds of slander against you because of success. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in public image, for in the same way they persecuted the politicians who were before you. Continue reading On Politics: A Mixed Bag is the Best Deal in Town

Our First Memorial Day

Let us not forget in these days of divided politics those who laid down their lives so that we might live in a nation united.  They died so that an exceptional idea might live.  That exceptional idea is that men are free and equal; that every man should have the freedom of life and liberty to pursue happiness owing nothing to merit.  It is an exceptional idea imperfectly pursued, imperfectly applied, fully agreed upon, nationally recognized as our guide.

In April 1865 this nation ended a war over that idea, a war caused by conflict between that idea and reality.  Our divided house was reconciled.  The path to reconciliation had begun without those who gave their last full measure of devotion so that their friends and neighbors might, once again, live alongside one another in states united.

These fallen soldiers were not forgotten.  Shortly after the war, in the town of Waterloo, New York, the loved ones left behind commemorated the sacrifice of their fallen comrades by decorating their graves with flowers and other ornaments.

Three years after the war, under the proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, May 30, 1868 was set aside as a day to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers.  The purpose of this day, Decoration Day, was to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers in memory of their service and sacrifice.

In 1971, by a declaration of Congress, Decoration Day became Memorial Day, a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.

At the first celebration of Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.   Before they decorated the graves, General James Garfield made a speech to the crowd gathered there.  In this speech he said,

“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.

I know of nothing more appropriate on this occasion than to inquire what brought these men here; what high motive led them to condense life into an hour, and to crown that hour by joyfully welcoming death? Let us consider.

Eight years ago this was the most unwarlike nation of the earth. For nearly fifty years no spot in any of these states had been the scene of battle. Thirty millions of people had an army of less than ten thousand men. The faith of our people in the stability and permanence of their institutions was like their faith in the eternal course of nature. Peace, liberty, and personal security were blessings as common and universal as sunshine and showers and fruitful seasons; and all sprang from a single source, the old American principle that all owe due submission and obedience to the lawfully expressed will of the majority. This is not one of the doctrines of our political system—it is the system itself. It is our political firmament, in which all other truths are set, as stars in Heaven. It is the encasing air, the breath of the Nation’s life. Against this principle the whole weight of the rebellion was thrown. Its overthrow would have brought such ruin as might follow in the physical universe, if the power of gravitation were destroyed, and

‘Nature’s concord broke,
Among the constellations war were sprung,
Two planets, rushing from aspect malign
Of fiercest opposition, in mid-sky
Should combat, and their jarring spheres confound.’

The Nation was summoned to arms by every high motive which can inspire men. Two centuries of freedom had made its people unfit for despotism. They must save their Government or miserably perish.

As a flash of lightning in a midnight tempest reveals the abysmal horrors of the sea, so did the flash of the first gun disclose the awful abyss into which rebellion was ready to plunge us. In a moment the fire was lighted in twenty million hearts. In a moment we were the most warlike Nation on the earth. In a moment we were not merely a people with an army—we were a people in arms. The Nation was in column—not all at the front, but all in the array.

I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of the great deeds of the Anglo-Saxon race, from Agincourt to Bunker Hill. It was such an influence that led a young Greek, two thousand years ago, when musing on the battle of Marathon, to exclaim, ‘the trophies of Miltiades will not let me sleep!’ Could these men be silent in 1861; these, whose ancestors had felt the inspiration of battle on every field where civilization had fought in the last thousand years? Read their answer in this green turf. Each for himself gathered up the cherished purposes of life—its aims and ambitions, its dearest affections—and flung all, with life itself, into the scale of battle.

And now consider this silent assembly of the dead. What does it represent? Nay, rather, what does it not represent? It is an epitome of the war. Here are sheaves reaped in the harvest of death, from every battlefield of Virginia. If each grave had a voice to tell us what its silent tenant last saw and heard on earth, we might stand, with uncovered heads, and hear the whole story of the war. We should hear that one perished when the first great drops of the crimson shower began to fall, when the darkness of that first disaster at Manassas fell like an eclipse on the Nation; that another died of disease while wearily waiting for winter to end; that this one fell on the field, in sight of the spires of Richmond, little dreaming that the flag must be carried through three more years of blood before it should be planted in that citadel of treason; and that one fell when the tide of war had swept us back till the roar of rebel guns shook the dome of yonder Capitol, and re-echoed in the chambers of the Executive Mansion. We should hear mingled voices from the Rappahannock, the Rapidan, the Chickahominy, and the James; solemn voices from the Wilderness, and triumphant shouts from the Shenandoah, from Petersburg, and the Five Forks, mingled with the wild acclaim of victory and the sweet chorus of returning peace. The voices of these dead will forever fill the land like holy benedictions.

What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this, under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!”

In the words of Schuyler Colfax, “The supporters of religion gave their lives for a principle. These martyrs of patriotism gave their lives for an idea.”

May God have mercy on us all; may we remember well those who have gone before us.

*Image from Civil War Buff*

We Built this City on Rage n’ War

Every society has some form of origin story. A few, like America’s, are recent and well-documented. Others, as in Egypt or Greece, trace back to oral lore and ancient mythologies. But a larger question lingers beneath these accounts: why do humans form societies? Why can’t each person live, work and trade independently without governments and courts and elections and–most of all–without taxes?

Political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, writing during the late 17th to 18th century Enlightenment period, thought extensively about this question. They concluded the same thing: it’s because humans suck. Because we can’t get along without behavioral constraints, we need societies: without them, humanity would subsist in a perpetual ‘state of war’.

Since war has a nasty tendency to hinder everyone’s life and liberty, humans resort to forming social structures. Alexander Hamilton articulated the theory nicely in the Federalist Papers:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.

John Locke, whose ideas are embedded in the foundations of American political thought, outlined the transition from the ‘state of war’ to the institution of government in his 1690 work, The Second Treatise of Government. Here’s the rundown:

First and foremost, Locke grounded his theory in a concept we’ve probably heard before: ‘natural law’. Given by God and within the fabric of the natural universe, this law is discovered when anyone uses her reason properly, meaning that every human is responsible to live at least according the natural law. Accountability to positive laws that reach beyond pure natural law, whether the Decalogue or the tax code, only falls to whomever the positive laws are directly given.

Locke believe that humans who live in accord with natural law are in the ‘natural state’. In the natural state, there is no need for authority beyond individuals and their own reason. Disputes can be solved by reason, without any third party. No one transgresses the others’ rights: namely, self-protection and allowance to individually seek recompense from another person who caused the agent to experience property loss.  In other words, there is zero need for government in the natural state.

So go live in the natural state!
This is the part where everyone says, Yeah. Right.

Short of Eden, an idyll not directly addressed but lurking beneath Locke’s description of the natural state, natural human harmony is impossible. We instinctively know that greed and pride best the best of us. Visions of universal peace sans law or external authority seem ludicrous.

Which is exactly Locke’s point. Which is why we form governments.

To escape the state of war, humans willingly surrender many of natural rights to a common authority. An autonomous individual’s natural freedoms—for example, the right to exact justice without a third party—are transferred to the governing authority for the sake of general order.

So rather than holding that God first instated human government, Locke holds that we invented government as a defense mechanism. Can we buy Locke’s theory? Can the origin of social structures be reduced to a desperate human need for protection from ourselves?

Whether or not the reduction is wholly correct, Locke seems to strike a deep and true into the motivation behind human behavior. His ideas are rooted in a theistic worldview: we were created by some Being greater than ourselves to live in harmony, but some fault in us destroys that possibility. That is why Locke would never entertain anarchy or utopianism as beneficial social movements: they deny that error is woven into the fabric of humanity. We instinctively know, as Locke recognized, that without government enforced laws, people will injure others for their own benefit.

I would like to know, then, what Locke would have to say about socialism. Close your eyes and pretend that the government now takes every cent of your capital and redistributes it using social programs.

If everyone consented to this program, Locke very well may find it permissible: his political theory allows for a wide variety of economic systems. But I don’t believe that the majority of Americans are willing to give that consent.

Locke holds that the government exists by virtue of citizens granting it permission to exist and conferring onto government many rights they would have as autonomous individuals in the natural state.

In the natural state, no one has the right to forcibly take another’s property—that would only happen in the irrational state of war, which the government is supposed to prevent. So, if the government takes wealth without general consent, it wages war on the people. I’m curious…when’s the last time you heard someone say they approved of Congress’s handling of tax dollars?

Social programs and expenditures continually shuffle through Congress, sometimes even beneath nineteen hundred pages of jargon. Congressmen will use shady tactics to gather votes, as we’ve recently seen with the health care bill.

According to Locke, we built this city as a protection from blunted reason. At what point will we find that bad reasoning emits from the city? Eventually, protection from other individuals fades in light of needing protection from government.

Reforming any government is a messy business, even when bloodless—just look at Poland’s Solidarity movement or Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. But at some point, the scale tips, and the pursuit of a happy, peaceful life is more hindered than helped by the government. At this point, government causes the state of war that citizens wanted protection against.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in an 1802 letter to Thomas Cooper:

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism.

I have to wonder if, right now, Locke just might say that ‘war’ and ‘federalism’ are looking pretty similar.


Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Er…Kommunistischen?

Communism’ is a likely candidate for ‘touchiest word of the 20th century’.

While the word evokes many high-charged reactions, two seem consistent among American conservatives: First, communism is associated with naïve hippies who think there should be no war and want to sing ‘Why Can’t We be Friends?’ at Kim Jong-Il. We gape at it and exclaim, “Really? Really?”

The second association conjures up images of Soviet statues and Cold War newspaper headlines, starving citizens and maniacal despots. We think the USSR—along with North Korea, China, Vietnam, et cetera—was the inevitable product of those silly utopians.

Popular assessment of Communism treats the philosophy is as if it were like Spongebob, initially dripping with obnoxious optimism, but a Spongebob destined to devolve into a fanged beast wielding automatic weaponry. (Although, on second thought, Spongebob can’t be a communist since he owns pineapple property.)

Maybe it’s time we compare our presuppositions to what the original Communists said about Communism. It’s exasperating when people point to the Crusades and call Christianity ‘violent and cruel’–communism should receive the same fair trial that we demand for Christianity.

The Communist Manifesto was born amid the insufferable social conditions of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The Communist League had commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to create a document that would outline the rationale and goals of Communists–a fair reading of the end product will evidence that Communism, as originally imagined, was neither Utopian nor tolerant of totalitarianism.

Karl Marx openly derides “utopian socialists” in the Manifesto. He scoffs at their plan to “attain their ends by peaceful means” and end class struggle by “reconcili[ing] class antagonisms.” Marx insists that only violent revolution can destroy the Bourgeoisie/Proletariat class divide. By eradicating the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat ends class friction and becomes the only class; ‘reconciliation’ is “fanatical and superstitious.”

Although Marx died in 1883 and never saw 20th century USSR, he would have also considered the Soviet project to be Communist heresy. Aside from the fact that Russia’s leap from Feudalism into Communism contradicted Marx’s theory of social evolution, the USSR did not eradicate class struggle–not even close. The USSR, like its modern counterparts, was a society solidly divided between ‘Party members’ and ‘non-Party members’. Far from Marx’s vision of Proletariats abolishing all political powers after annihilating Bourgeoisie, the Soviet ‘Party’ was hopped up on bureaucratic steroids, constantly exercising political muscles. So, just as Marx’s Communism is not Utopianism, we should be wary of associating Communism and Stalin’s Russia or similar dystopic states.

Approaching the Manifesto with generosity towards Marx’s ideas will both address false suppositions about Communism and allow us to truly learn from Marx and honestly oppose him. The Manifesto might not have answers, but it sure can raise questions. Instead of merely going to war with Marx, read the Manifesto as if you were talking to a friend. Assume Marx knows that Utopias are unrealistic, and assume he’s not despotic.

We find that Marx has some valuable words for us. Often, his critiques of capitalism contain painful accuracy:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its pain wage-labourers…That [capitalist] culture…is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.

Marx presents a real concern for any Christian opponents: how can communism be rejected as ‘materialist’ when our consumer culture is little different? If we want to reject his solution, we need legitimate grounds and consistency. For example, theologically, Marx’s materialist teleology clashes with our doctrine of a Kingdom of Heaven distinct from a Kingdom of Earth—but so does consumer capitalism. We are challenged to find a third option: a plan to address social injustices through relationship rather than infrastructure.

Awareness and familiarity with Marx will accredit Christian responses to Communism. But, even more, developing the awareness will force us to think critically about how we ought to navigate and value our material world. Careful thought is essential, as our goal is a high one: to love our neighbor as ourselves or, as Dorothy Day wrote, “make life here for others a foretaste of the life to come.” ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Meet Machiavelli

Meet Nick. He is a wealthy man, and he works for President Noble as a high-powered ambassador. In a radical upset, Noble is ousted at the next election, and President Masse takes power. Nick continues to work at the capital for Masse—after all, it pays the bills.

In the next election, Noble manages to regain the Presidency. Nick comes back joyfully to reclaim his place of affluence with the administration, but instead, because he worked for Masse, Nick accused of treason. He is tortured, exiled, and all his property is seized. Still, Nick misses the importance and bustle of government work. He writes a book to Regis—a pragmatic guide to gaining and maintaining political power—in hopes ‘getting in good’ once again.

Welcome to Niccolo Machiavelli’s life, leading up to his writing of The Prince, published in 1513.

You may have heard some nasty slurs about Machiavelli. A despotic political figure might be called ‘Machiavellian’, or the phrase spat out, ‘it is better to be feared than love’. Not directly tied in origin to Machiavelli, the saying ‘might makes right’ is also closely associated with The Prince.

As with Darwin, who I discussed in my last ‘Classics’ post, Machiavelli should be read before being condemned. For the contemporary Christian, especially one concerned with current politics, The Prince can be a painful read. Why?: because it names a fanged, white elephant, and then faces us with the question, “If we don’t want this to be true, what do we do about it?”

The Prince, as I said, is practical: Machiavelli doesn’t lament that ‘power corrupts’, he assumes that breaches of ethicality are simply part of the power game. His words should ring true (though perhaps gratingly) in our ears:

You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.

When Machiavelli says ‘flexible disposition’, he means that a ruler should be willing compromise religious moralities for the sake of temporal power. That does not mean that Stalin or Idi Amin were Machiavellian—in The Prince, the ideal leader is sharply attune to the desires and opinions of his citizens. Machiavelli’s leader will found his state on “good laws and good arms”; reason and strength fortify his society. While Machiavelli has some less-than-pleasant suggestions for a prince (such as assassinating entire families of discontent nobility), his time and place should be taken into account. City-states comprised 14th century Italy, which meant that a powerful, rebellious family in a city was an acute danger to that city’s governor. Knowing that won’t make ol’ Machy a saint, but it will help us be charitable while reading him.

Machiavelli’s ideas are not fully compatible with Christian leadership. For Machiavelli’s prince, ‘appearing’ virtuous is vital—‘being’ virtuous is not. Deceit and cruelty, so long as they are used efficaciously to the general preservation of the state, are not lamentable necessities; they are commendable ‘prowess’.

Contemporary Christian leaders also face the tensions inherent in ‘lesser evil’ situations. After 9-11, do we ‘turn the other cheek’ or go to war? If a police officer goes undercover, shouldn’t he use deceit for a greater end? These and similar situations would swiftly lead us into a discussion of situational ethics.

Machiavelli is not concerned with situational ethics-at least, not in the same way. He handles the tension by creating a new ethical system. As he writes, “he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.” On first take, it is easy to agree with this: after all, isn’t war sometimes justified as a means of self-defense? However, when we say this, we are trying to show that war is still some type of ‘good’ even if not the most ideal ‘good’. Machiavelli, though, has no problem with actions that are ‘deviations’ from good–those that are not the most ideal good according to Christian ethics–for the sake of maintaining power.

Machiavelli uses two sense of ‘good’, and in that, he is divided from the Christian ruler. The ‘end’ which might makes a Christian’s ‘unethical’ behavior circumstantially ethical is not identical to that of Machiavelli’s prince. While temporal power can play a part in the Christian’s achievement of a ‘greater good’ (the undercover officer lying his way into a high position within a drug cartel), there is only one conception of good, and it is ethical. Actions should manifest a striving for peace and the pursuit of ideals like justice.

Machiavelli paints power itself as the highest good. When religious ethics come into conflict with the ethical of power, religion gives way. Political power includes some compatibility with religious ethics—not being overly cruel in order to maintain peoples’ approval, for example—but these are means to power for Machiavelli, not the purpose of power.

Keep in mind the double (but paralleling) standards employed by Machiavelli while reading The Prince. I encourage you to grapple with Machiavelli, but do so remembering his terms: he offers sound advice on leadership, even if The Prince never peers beyond the mere possession of affluent position. The Prince will not permit lofty, abstract idealism. Machiavelli forces his reader to think clearly, realistically, and dare I say it, powerfully. ‘

Better Than Fiction

Has our culture lost the ability to foster honest public discourse?
Sometimes it appears so. One blogger had this to say after one of the campaign debates last fall:

What is it about politics that tends to reduce normal, presumably at least quasi-thoughtful journalists (and others) to insult-slinging, cliche-hurling, party-line-toeing ideologues who all mysteriously sound the same with the sole exception of which party line they’re toeing?

Great question!

Continue reading Better Than Fiction