Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 3)

August 15, 2017

Is there a way to resolve this? Observation tells us that both reflect reality. The Torah tells God’s people how they should live, and promises that if they do there will be no poor; it does not, however, seem to be saying that no one would ever be even temporarily in need. Rather, its provisions, such as the year of jubilee and freedom for slaves, allows that those who have fallen into crushing debt should not be permanently impoverished; eventually they, or their families would be reinstated as free people and property owners, able to contribute to the economic life of the nation. The Prophets tell us that all too often human beings ignore God’s law and its call to give opportunity to the poor; when this happens, God judges the nation that has sided with the rich and powerful oppressors and destroys it. Those books such as Psalms and Proverbs, known collectively at The Writings, depict both what is and what God wants to be. These were composed on a long period of time, from the days of David until the return from the Babylonian Exile, and reflect the people’s evolving understanding of how God works among us. As Calvin says, God “condescends.” To our ears that sounds snooty, but the literal meaning of the word is joyful; God comes down to us to be with us on our level. God gives us God’s truth as far as we are able to understand it, and may reveal more to us tomorrow than we were able to handle yesterday. When people needed to know what being a godly people could mean and should mean, the Torah laid out an ideal vision of social harmony. When people needed to know how to live their personal lives to be the best they could be, writings such as Proverbs taught personal standards to follow, including both lessons on avoiding laziness and on practicing generosity towards the poor. And when people needed to know that their society had gone astray, that the rich were using the promises of the Torah to justify their own oppressive greed, and what God was going to do about that, God sent the Prophets with words of judgment and promises of redemption.

To be continued.  Next:  New Testament perspectives.

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

August 10, 2017

They Support Him, but Don’t Trust Him: Why That Matters

 

 

The definition of “reality” should be “true whether you like it or not.” Yet somehow, today even reality is a partisan issue. According to polls, only 24% of Americans believe what the White House says.[1] President Trump’s approval ratings are higher, currently about 34-38%. That means that around 10-14% of Americans think their President is a liar, and still trust him to run the country and trust him to keep his promises to them. If one of us were trying to give advice to a friend who was in love with a partner who lied and cheated, and the friend admitted this, we’d tell that friend, “Are you nuts? Get out of this relationship! You are saying you know this person is no good, so how can this be good for you?” But in today’s politics, many of us choose the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet with less care than we would put into deciding whether to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

This is largely the result of the fact that this White House does, in fact, say things that are demonstrably false, that the person saying must know are false, so casually and easily that it stuns those of us accustomed to honest communication. From the very first presidential press briefing, where the White House lied about whether Obama or Trump had bigger crowds at his inauguration, to lying about meeting Russian lobbyists and intelligence officers (and then admitting, and then admitting more, and more) to lying about whether the President is golfing when people post pictures of him golfing on Instagram and Twitter, and on and on, people have become so accustomed to White House lies that they hardly notice them. They expect lies. Even many in the President’s own political party openly question his honesty, even as they support him. Many working in the White House leak information about the lies, even while continuing to work for and support the administration. Collectively, they are saying that some things matter more than honesty. Some things matter more than having a government and having policies that are rooted in reality. Party loyalty and partisan agendas and culture wars are more important than whether what anyone says is true, or whether the government is going to do what it says it is going to do, or cares about what it says it cares about, or even whether what it proposes could possibly work even if it were implemented. So people give up on trusting their government; those who were opposed become more so, the neutral become more opposed, and even supporters lose trust but continue to support a government that they acknowledge does not deserve their trust, but which the are emotionally devoted to anyway.

This is no way to run a democracy. That is not a partisan statement. We have a real-life experiment that supports this claim.   Liberia is an African nation that was founded by freed American slaves. It uses U.S. dollars as its currency, and in other ways has long-standing cultural ties and debts to the U.S. It has come through a very nasty civil war, and is working to reestablish democracy. People can vote for their leaders, and the leaders for their part are constrained by rule of law, at least somewhat. They can’t simply demand obedience and shoot any dissenters, as North Korea does; the Liberian government, like ours, depends on most of the people doing as they are told voluntarily. The Ebola crisis was, arguably, even more dangerous than the civil war; the war killed far more people, but Ebola had the potential to spread over the whole world. The government tried to get people to cooperate in containing and fighting the plague. Many of their orders restricted individual freedoms, such as requiring infected people not to travel. Other orders contradicted long-standing social traditions; in Liberia, it is common to kiss the dead good-bye, regardless of how they died. The government told people that traveling could spread disease, that touching the dead could spread disease, that they needed to stay home, report any illness to the government, get medical care, and stay away from sick or dead victims of Ebola. The people did not trust their government. They had been lied to many times, by warlords and dictators and even, they felt, by the democratic government. When they were told something that they didn’t like, they simply refused to believe it. They wanted to believe that they could leave their home when a family member got sick, or even travel to see family at the first sign of fever to get care; they wanted to believe that they could kiss their dead relatives goodbye; and in short, they wanted to believe that their government was lying to them and that things were not so bad and that it wasn’t really a crisis. So they believed what they wanted to believe, did not trust their government, did not cooperate, and thousands of people died before the rest decided that maybe, this time, the government was telling the truth.

For the Trump supporters, the problem would seem to be different. They trust their government and apparently will trust it no matter what happens. In an emergency, presumably they would obey unquestioningly. For a democracy, that is not necessarily good, if it is not actually an “emergency.” One of those helpful patriots went to Comet Pizza in D.C. with a rifle and fired a few shots because InfoWars, one of Donald Trump’s favorite news sources, told him that the Democratic Party was running a child sex ring in the basement. This is not only a sick slander, it is laughably false; the pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement. But people could have been killed, and an apparently decent (but gullible and obedient) man is destined for time in prison or perhaps a mental hospital, all for believing a news source endorsed by his President. This is just a small foretaste of what awaits if a future election does not go the way the Trumpists want it to go, and they have to choose between accepting a democratic result or believing that millions of invisible illegal aliens voted for the other side.

Right now, the entire world is suffering the results of the White House and GOP sacrificing its credibility over a series of silly and easily-proven lies. The United States and North Korea are engaged in an increasingly violent war of words, with both threatening the other with nuclear destruction. We are used to this sort of bombast from North Korea, and   the world has seen that they don’t carry through on their threats. But when the President of the United States uses the same language and bombastic threats as the tin-pot dictator of North Korea, no one knows how to take it. Are we headed towards a full-scale nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, and possibly beyond? When the Secretary of State says we should not take the President’s speech literally, should we believe him, when we’ve seen other White House officials say one thing only to be overruled by the President hours or days later? If there is a war, and the President assures the world that it was necessary and unavoidable, or that the U.S. does not intend any harm to any nation other than North Korea, will anyone take him at his word? For that matter, if there is not a war, will we believe it is because diplomacy has won out, and not because of all those millions of dollars invested by Trump Inc. in Macau and elsewhere in China, that might be threatened in a war between the U.S. and a Chinese ally?

The fact is that today’s society is enormously complex. It cannot function without trust. We each have to assume that the others will do what they are supposed to do, whether it is buying food and expecting it not to be poisoned, or electing politicians and expecting them not to start wars either in a fit of temper or based on their personal business portfolio. Civilization is one enormous trust fall. Without trust, we pull our money out of banks and stop using credit cards (or accepting them), we can’t buy cars we can’t personally repair (so goodbye to modern computerized cars), and we open the door with a gun in our hands whenever anyone knocks: in short, anarchy, the opposite of civilization. And right now, we have a President of the United States who is not trusted by most people in his own country or around the world, who is not trusted even by some of his own supporters, and who for his part actively works to undermine trust in everyone and everything else—-attacking the press, Congress, judges, even his own political party and his own Cabinet and other officials. We stand on the brink of nuclear war, maybe; we can’t even know. And if this erosion of trust continues, it will be impossible for civilization to survive.

 

P.S. If you’ve read The Management of Savagery, the al Qaeda strategic manual, you know that this is precisely what the jihadists have been aiming for all along. The jihadists believe that their terrorism will cause trust to break down, civilization to collapse, and society to disintegrate into warring factions and tribes, allowing them to take over in the resulting chaos. Donald Trump is just the latest in GOP efforts to help the jihadists achieve their otherwise impossible goals. Jihadist terrorism is not nearly enough to either bankrupt the U.S. or to cause regions and ethnic groups to turn on each other; but GOP economic mismanagement has done a pretty good job of destroying the economy of Kansas and weakening other states, and some of the people who helped drive Kansas to the brink of bankruptcy are now helping devise federal policies. And with the rise of the alt-right and the state-sponsored xenophobia we see around us, and the conservative threats to use violence against anyone who opposes them, al Qaeda must be feeling very encouraged about its chances to break up the United States. Without the GOP cooperating with their agenda at every opportunity to serve its own desire for power, the jihadists would not have a chance.

 

[1] Brian Stelter, “Fact-Checking of Trump Falling on Deaf Ears? Far From It.” CNN August 8, 2017 (http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/08/media/media-white-house-credibility-cnn-poll/index.html)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt 2)

August 7, 2017

The prophets testify that the people did not, in fact, obey, and that there were poor in the land and often they were terribly oppressed. We read that, despite what they were commanded, merchants kept dishonest scales that would read light when weighing the grain they bought from the farmers, but heavy when selling the same grain later. The rich felt no guilt sleeping in cloaks seized from poor persons as collateral on a debt, or seizing the children of debtors as slaves and not releasing them when the jubilee year came. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others announce God’s judgment on those who oppresses the poor; but most relentless is Amos. The book of Amos starts out like it must have been a well-received sermon. He follows a pattern, “For three transgressions of _______, and for four, I will not withhold punishment, says the LORD:….” Again and again he calls out the sins of Israel’s hated enemies, the neighboring kingdoms of Moab, Philistine, Gaza and so on. His audience must have been cheering him on. “Preach it, brother! Tell it! Give’em hell, Amos!” And then he gets to his own nation, Israel: does he say, “We will crush those wicked people, because we’re the good guys”? No, he does not!  Amos preaches:

 

 

 Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

 

Amos warns the Israelites that God is angry with them, angrier than at the Philistines or the Edomites for their war crimes, or at Judah for its religious failures; God is angry at the Israelites, because they have oppressed the poor, their own neighbors and kin, and grown rich and happy off their injustice. No matter how righteous they may be in their own eyes, no matter how bad their enemies are, they will be punished because they have gotten rich by impoverishing their countrymen.

If we stopped with Deuteronomy, we might think that every rich person is being rewarded by God and every poor person punished. If we stopped with the Prophets, we might assume that every rich person was someone who hadn’t been punished by God yet, but would be. John Calvin taught that when we read Scripture, we need to read it entire, and bring the unclear passages in conversation with the clear ones. In saying this, he recognized that there would be points like this that were unclear, either because they contradicted our expectations or seemed to contradict each other. Even in a single book, like Proverbs, we see this sort of tension. Proverbs 13:23 says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice;” while Proverbs 20:13 states, “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” So Proverbs tells us that poverty is caused by the laziness of the poor person, but elsewhere says it is because of oppression and injustice. We sin if we ignore either possibility, since both are the word of God.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 1)

August 1, 2017

 

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything

 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,  and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”  have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                   You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors

—–James 2:1-9

 

I read on the internet that nostalgia for the 1980s is stronger than ever; and if it’s on the internet it must be true. (I’m still waiting for that miracle hair tonic I bought to work, but the Nigerian prince I’ve been chatting with assures me that it will.) I am never one to question a trend, so I would like to take a moment to remember Cyndi Lauper, a singer whose vocal range was only matched by her far-ranging hairstyles. You may remember that she, like all girls, just wanna have fun, but I always preferred the song “Money Changes Everything.” It’s a bouncy tune, but the first verse tells an old, sad tale: we said we would love each other forever, but I’m leaving you because I found someone new. We loved each other once, but money changes everything.

I said it was an old tale, because it is as old as the Bible. When Moses led a group of escaping slaves into the desert, no one had very much. Each had what they could carry, if that. And God led them forty years in the wilderness, and they lived day to day on the manna they gathered, which would not last and could not be hoarded but had to be received from God a day at a time, so that they could learn that one does not live by bread alone, but by relying solely on every word that comes from the mouth of God. They were equal in their need of God’s faithfulness. But the Torah warns the people not to become complacent when they enter into the land of milk and honey and become comfortable or even rich, not to become self-assured and to think that their own intelligence and industriousness has brought them all this wealth and that they deserve it, when really it is a pure gift to be received with gratitude as a gift.[1]

A good parent prepares and educates the children before they come into their own money, so that when they do they will know how to handle it and not waste it on things that are harmful, or use it to hurt others. In the same way God gave the people laws that would guide their business lives when they settled into towns and became farmers and traders. In Leviticus 19:35-36 we read that God’s people are to be honest in business, and not to cheat each other by having fixed scales to use when they were weighing out grain and produce to be traded. In 19:9-10 he tells them to leave a little something in the fields when they harvest, so that the poor and the immigrant can gather food for themselves. (Imagine that: treating foreigners the same way they were to treat their own citizens! But that’s another sermon.) Every seven years, creditors were to forgive all debts owed to fellow Hebrews (Deut. 15).  There are strict rules for lending to protect the rights and the dignity of the poor person, limiting what the rich lender can take as collateral and what measures the lender can take to collect on the debt (Deut. 24). In Deuteronomy Moses promises, “There need be no poor among you, for God will richly bless you if only you obey;” but later he says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Why did God say “there need be no poor among you,” and then “There will always be poor people”? Is it because God knew the people would not obey?

To be continued.  Next:  the prophets.

[1] Deuteronomy 8

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

June 23, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Prophets and Profits

 

 

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

—– ”Mercedes Benz,” by Bob Neuwirth, Janis Joplin, Michael Mcclure 

 

 

When I was a child, “mainline” churches like the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, as well as moderate Baptists, were all growing denominations, growing even faster than the population. It is not hard to imagine why. Catholicism was still often seen as an “immigrant” religion; it wasn’t until JFK that anyone seriously thought a Catholic could be President, or that the United States of America would survive if one did. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Native American religions and other faith groups were all small and, for the most part, either fringe faiths or dominant only in small, ethnically-defined communities. In short, there were some very this-worldly reasons to join the “mainline.” While the “no Irish welcome here” signs were largely gone, it was also a fact that the business community of the 20th Century was often a “good old boys network,” and if you wanted full access to the movers and shakers, you were probably better off joining their churches, or their country clubs (that often had “no Jews” policies, for example), or their fraternities. If you wanted your children to attend public schools, you had to accept that Protestants would be writing the prayers your children would be required to recite every day; otherwise you could pay taxes to support schools you didn’t use, and keep your children out of the mainstream American culture in parish schools, or yeshivas, etc. It was simply easier, and even more profitable to simply go along with the mainstream. Mainline Protestantism was always pretty business-friendly, since so many of the larger churches in any town depended on tithes from the well-off businessmen; in exchange, the churches gave the businessmen who wanted it some moral guidance, and the others could at least gain some moral respectability and gratitude from those who appreciated their contributions and didn’t know too much about where the personal ethics of the contributor.

This was not always so in the early days of Christianity. When Christianity broke off from Judaism some 2000 years ago, it was a persecuted and largely underground faith. Rome was actually very religiously tolerant; as long as a group was willing to burn incense to worship and strengthen the Emperor’s family spirit and the Imperial cult, Rome accepted them. To refuse to worship the Emperor was like refusing to pay taxes today: an unpatriotic betrayal, a declaration that your allegiance to yourself and your group was in conflict with the health and strength of the community. Christians were, in fact, willing to obey most laws, generally, but not to contribute to the spiritual warfare against the barbarians by worshiping the Imperial cult along with Jesus. They were thus enemies of the State and, depending on attitudes of local governors or Imperial edicts, subject to enslavement, torture and death. When the persecution ended in the Fourth Century, people flocked to join Christianity; once the Emperor started supporting it, it became a way to greater economic and social security. As a result of this wealth and power, the real devotion of individual Christians seems not as, well, devoted. In reaction, those believers who wished to experience real spiritual focus began to withdraw from society, first as hermits and later as monks and nuns living in isolated communities. This pattern held through the Middle Ages: the majority lived their lives while worshipping God as the Church told them to, while the spiritual elite, the monks and nuns, rejected full involvement in the world of money and business and power so that they could focus on prayer, meditation and study. Even Popes, who often combined wealth, power and religious authority, could be cowed by the connection to God of a monk or nun known for spiritual discipline and mystical spirituality. And among the people as a whole, it was simply a given that a monk or nun was more spiritual than anyone else, even more than the village priest who still had to live with the rest of us sinners.

That changed with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Reformers argued that monasticism was in fact “works-righteousness,” an attempt to curry favor with God instead of trusting God’s love and power alone. Anyone who thinks they can earn and deserve God’s favor did not really love God; God should be seen as a loving parent, not a demanding employer, and we are God’s children who cannot and need not earn what God gives us. Therefore, they said, to love and trust God is not to hide away from the world, but to live and work in community with all your neighbors, to hold a job and do your best, to earn your living rather than relying on the tithes and charity of those who work. Luther asserted “the priesthood of all believers:” that is, the idea that all Christians are equally close to God and can pray directly to God, without the aid of a priest or monk. Calvin went even further, modernizing Christian theology to better suit an economy moving away from medieval agrarianism and towards a society based on commerce and manufacture (such as loosening medieval prohibitions on lending money at interest, which allowed Christians to be bankers).

As Christianity was going through these changes, Europeans were exploring and colonizing America. Catholic lands continued to follow the religious and social patterns of the Medieval Church. Monks and nuns were the religious elite, the missionaries and teachers; nobles were the rich landowners and political leaders; and the majority were farmers laboring to support the Church and the nobles, without any expectation of being anything else. In English and Dutch lands, by contrast, Protestant theology reconciled spiritual devotion with mercantile ambition, so that merchants, traders and investors strove to become wealthy while also being considered godly. In fact, their hard work was seen as a sign of spiritual devotion, and their growing wealth seen as a sign of God’s blessing; at the same time, conspicuous consumption and waste was seen as arrogant and also poor stewardship of God’s blessings. This is the beginning of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic.” Protestants were encouraged to work at their jobs as vigorously as monks and nuns worked at praying and fasting, and to prize comfortable lives as signs of God’s favor the way a monk or nun would prize mystical visions or inner peace; naturally, the “Yankee trader” who followed this direction became rich, even if he lived in a community with legal restrictions on wasteful spending. As a result, the money could just pile up.

The third-generation Puritans may have lived lives of material success undreamt of by their Pilgrim forbearers, but they still remembered that spiritual devotion and material comfort were not always linked. Their settler ancestors had suffered greatly, and many had died, despite and because of their faith. “Being good” did not always mean “doing well,” and “doing well” was not always a sign that one was good and blessed by God. This was part of the trigger for the Great Awakening, where the descendants of these early religious refugees and now children of their successful grandchildren sought to revive that earlier religious fervor in themselves.

The 19th and 20th Centuries are when the growing material comforts of the United States prompted the Protestant Work Ethic to metastasize into the Prosperity Gospel. The Industrial Revolution created new opportunities for wealth and comfort for some, with poverty and dehumanizing drudgery for others. This divide grew greater, and took on spiritual dimensions, as the country recovered from the Civil War. The U.S. would not have recovered so well, perhaps not at all, without the so-called “robber barons,” the tycoons, industrialists and financiers who remade the nation and the world economic system while enriching themselves. Some, particularly Rockefeller and Carnegie, were strongly religious men of strict personal morality, and they tried to promote good religion and good lifestyles among their workers and in the world. Most famously, Carnegie said that the first half of a man’s life should be devoted to making money, the second to giving it away; he and Rockefeller competed to see who could make the most when they were young, and who could give away the most before they died. They certainly did not think they were choosing between being good men and good businessmen.

In the 1930s the age of the robber baron gave way to the Great Depression, but the mixing of religion and business only increased. The Christian Business Men’s Committee began in 1930 as businessmen gathered to pray for spiritual revival in Chicago; the movement grew and spread. Now not only were a few millionaires bringing religion into their business (and vice versa); average businessmen across the nation were gathering to seek ways to do so. In all this, there were definite continuations of the Colonial and early national Protestant work ethic: God wants you to strive to be successful, and then to use what you make to help others. The tycoons and less amazingly successful capitalists tended to attribute their success to their own daring, ability and (often) good, godly lives; those who were poor, particularly if they seemed to resent the rich or complain of bad fortune, were simply lazy and jealous. There’s a bit more of a notion that poverty says something about the poor character or poor spirituality of the person, since obvious sorts of “acts of God” like plagues, famine and so on were rapidly becoming things of the past.

At this point past becomes prologue, as President Donald Trump’s favorite preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, began his ministry in New York.[1] Peale did not rely much on Scripture or on traditional Calvinist theology, despite being a Presbyterian pastor. He drew mostly from the therapeutic theories of French psychologist Émile Coué to develop his own theory, outlined in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. If you believe that you will be successful, you can tap God’s power to achieve all manner of success, including wealth and health. Peale did not talk about sin, grace, or salvation; he preached more often about the great examples we could see in the lives of rich, successful businessmen. While guilt and repentance had little part in Peale’s preaching, there is a definite moral implication; if you are not personally successful, it is because you are doing something wrong. Perhaps your faith or your self-confidence is lacking, or perhaps you are just not a good, industrious person, so God’s blessing cannot flow through your life to give you material success. This is the beginning of what we would recognize as “The Prosperity Gospel” in full flower. Not only is material success seen as a gift from God; the lack of success is seen as a sign of one’s spiritual or moral failure.

Peale may be an early proponent of the Prosperity Gospel, but he was not an Evangelical. Peale was a Presbyterian pastor, part of the “mainline Church.” Business leaders were most likely to be moderate, denominational Protestants. In the 1930s it was perfectly legal to refuse to hire someone because of his religion; if you wanted to be a full participant in the business world, you needed to be part of the Protestant culture. Evangelicalism was not part of the mainstream culture; having been badly humiliated during the anti-evolution fights of the 1920s, Evangelicals spent most of the 1930s through the 1970s turning their backs on “the world” with its debauchery, its science, and its materialism. The Protestantism a successful businessman would embrace would be one that his community, potential customers and partners, also embraced: the mainline Protestant churches.

This started to shift in the 1970s but really became a force in the 1980s, when Evangelicals jumped back into politics to back Reagan. They also jumped on modern mass media more successfully than any mainline religion, first through Billy Graham’s radio broadcasts and then, when television took off, through televised revivals, then UHF religious networks, and finally through the Christian Broadcasting Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network, and other cable religious networks. The “TV Preacher” was born, with glitzy broadcasts and lavish lifestyles.

Jim Bakker was an early leader. An Assemblies of God pastor, he early dropped his denomination’s emphasis on personal simplicity. Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, which is a style of Evangelicalism that stresses a strict, simple lifestyle, such as avoiding drinking, dancing, make-up or jewelry or fancy clothes. Preachers like Bakker dropped the Holiness emphasis on voluntary poverty. His PTL Club promoted conspicuous consumption and even luxury for Christians, claiming that if believers had enough faith (“faith” being demonstrated in willingness to tithe to the ministry, not through acts of charity for the poor or personal self-denial) then God would pour wealth down upon them. Self-examination, contrition, guilt, and repentance were gone. There is no need to wait for treasures in Heaven; if you tithe, God will pay you off in this world.

The Prosperity Gospel obviously helped reconcile Evangelicalism and capitalist consumerism. This is a religion that the capitalist can understand; faith is a financial investment, and God always pays off eventually. And the Evangelical’s suspicion of “the world” and of wealth is replaced by not just acceptance, but even veneration for the wealthy; those who have a lot must be the ones who love God the most and thus have been blessed the most. And contrariwise, since wealth comes from having faith and doing one’s job, if one is not wealthy one is impious and lazy.

[1] Tom Gjelten, “How Positive Thinking, Prosperity Gospel Define Donald Trump’s Faith Outlook;” All Things Considered August 3, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/08/03/488513585/how-positive-thinking-prosperity-gospel-define-donald-trumps-faith-outlook) NPR

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

March 19, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

 

Common sense is not so common.

—-Voltaire

 

 

The Founding Fathers of this nation were, by and large, well-read men. They knew their philosophical heritage. Interest in Aristotle declined in the 1600s and 1700s, the period known at The Enlightenment, because Aristotle was associated with medieval, Church-controlled teaching. Plato was seen as free from the ecclesiastical baggage and restrictions, and even those who did not agree with his rationalist idealism were familiar with his works. In Britain, a new school of philosophy, Empiricism, arose, devoted to a strict attention to the information given by the senses (which Plato would have despised) and to the ideal of inquiry into truth through careful conceptual analysis (which he would have approved). Plato was, in many ways, the father of Western philosophy; John Locke was the father of modern Anglo-American philosophy. It is thus fitting to consider how the political philosophies of these two very different thinkers can shed light on the nation begun by their intellectual descendents.

Democracy, or “rule by the people,” is dedicated to the ideal that all citizens should have part in running the government. That is the ideal, or the horizon; in practice, often democracies have fallen short, and limited the status of “citizen” to a smaller group. The first democracy, Athens, excluded most of its population: women, slaves, even long-time foreigners could not vote, address the assembly, or exercise even basic rights. But still, Athens extended political power from a small aristocracy to a much larger group, and later intellectuals would seek to extend the ideal of equality still further. For his part, Plato thought all this “equality” was a terrible idea. Democracy, after all, killed Socrates; Anaxagoras and other philosophers were also persecuted by “the many.” If you want something done well, you get someone who knows how to do it; a ship’s captain doesn’t take a vote from the sailors, and the captain of the ship of state shouldn’t either. Most people are simply too irrational and too uninformed to govern responsibly or effectively. Instead, government should be run by a well-educated elite, who sacrificed their own material prosperity for the duty of governing a country that would take care of its citizens, as the philosopher-king determined was best. Stupid people simply should not have a right to vote; to allow the corruptible majority that sort of power is to open the door to tyranny.

Two thousand years later, John Locke came to the opposite conclusion. In his view, all people are basically rational, and thus all should have some voice in the government; and all are also corruptible, and thus none can really be trusted with unchecked power. Therefore, he argued that the state should be run by a government with separate institutions for executive, legislative and judicial functions, independent but interacting to create and enforce laws written according to the collective will of the people. A true government is one that governs for the good of the people and protects their interests as they have expressed them through a process of voting and choosing representatives; when government starts to ignore their will, it collapses into tyranny. Therefore, it is important that as many people as possible be able to make their voices heard through some sort of democratically-elected body of representatives.

Yet, despite their differences, there are some points on which Plato and Locke can agree. In different ways, both have checks and balances on the political power of the governing powers. For Plato, political power is separated from economic power. The leaders are “public servants” in the very real sense that they are on the public payroll. They are not allowed to extort luxuries for themselves; in fact, they are to live lives of great material simplicity. For Locke, the balancing of power comes from each individual being essentially a free person, who is understood as yielding only some rights for the sake of communal life. Each has a right to the products of his or her own labor, and furthermore each has a right to vote for representatives who will speak for them all in the legislative assembly. There is an economic check on the power of the government, as well as the political one provided by the vote. Both Plato and Locke understand the danger of tyranny, and have similar descriptions of the tyrant: a person or possibly a clique, governing not for the sake of the people but primarily for the sake and benefit of the tyrant only. For the tyrant, running the government is a means of personal profit; even when the tyrant makes laws that benefit others, it is always as an expression solely of the tyrant’s own will and for the tyrant’s benefit.

A tyranny might benefit others to gain their support, as when an apartheid government caters not just to the political leaders but also to the powerful minority that supports them. It is also possible that the Leader might have whims that benefit the people. The tyrant might like growing things and establish parks where the people also can relax, or value learning and therefore establish universities. Still, the fact that Hitler gave us the autobahn does not do much to improve our view of his tyranny. The definitive element of tyranny is that the private will and interests of the Leader become the governing force of the society. Tyrants do not distinguish between personal affairs and affairs of State; the government exists to fulfill the wishes of the Leader, and the Leader and cronies feel entitled to profit from it. Personal slights or political rivalries are treated as betrayals of the State itself, prompting threats of legal and extralegal retaliation. Plato and Locke had their experiences with tyrants, and despite their very different philosophies and very different historical circumstances they agree fairly well on the nature of a tyrant.

They disagree, radically, on how to prevent tyranny, and that suggests ways in which they view tyranny differently. For Plato, the problem is money; good governments are those that strictly limit how much property the leaders can own, requiring them to live and eat together, at government expense but also control. His real-world analog was Sparta, where the political leadership lived like soldiers on campaign, wearing simple clothes and eating plain, sustaining food. When political leaders can earn profits, Plato says, they will inevitably begin to mix their personal business with the nation’s business. A democracy that allows everyone to own property and to exercise political power will have as many tyrants as it has citizens, all competing to pervert the common good for their own benefit, until finally one tyrant wins out. Instead, the political/military aspects of the society must be firmly in control, but also separated from personal profits that motivate most people.

Locke does say that the leaders of a civil society must act according to the needs of the nation, not the profits of the leadership. However, he sees the threat as coming more from the tyrant’s overreach of power. After all, everyone has a God-given right to private property. To limit the ability of any one person or group to become tyrannical, Locke seeks to divide the power of government between different institutions; and the legislative branch in particular is to be controlled by elected representatives of the people, to make laws that reflect the will of the majority. It is when this separation of powers breaks down, and one person emerges who is able to usurp and combine the legislative, judicial and executive functions, that individual (or perhaps small group) is able to bend the government to the personal profit of the tyrant. So for Plato, money corrupts, and it is the power of money that threatens to undermine government; for Locke, power corrupts, and it is that political corruption that allows profiteering and graft.

Has one or the other proved more convincing over the course of history? Plato’s ideal society, with an elite ruling over the many, has been seen as giving comfort to tyrants, who are apt to imagine themselves as the philosopher-king he describes even when their own personal lives stray far from that ideal. And in fact, tyrants and would-be tyrants did come from among the disciples of Plato, notably including the Greek tyrant in Syracuse, Dionysius II. It is easy, it seems, to find followers who will adopt Plato’s recommendations against democracy, free speech and the rest, but harder to find those who will go all the way and renounce personal comfort and wealth in return for being granted leadership.

Locke’s heritage has been more concretely successful. The United States was founded largely by students of Locke, who implemented many of his recommendations. In turn, later British and European governments began to move more towards Locke’s vision of a limited monarchy, an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, until that has become the dominant form of government in Europe and in many other industrialized countries. While Lockean democracy has often fallen short, and occasionally staggered, rarely has it utterly fallen into tyranny. And at least rhetorically, popular sovereignty is the standard which our politicians profess to follow.

In practice, though, the actual commitment of politicians to Locke’s ideals seems less at times than their professed devotion. This is not merely to say that many would-be tyrants are less than honest about their ambitions; it is to say that while many U.S. politicians may claim to adhere to Jeffersonian ideas of democracy derived largely from John Locke, in practice they seem to think they are Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Plato favored censorship of the arts to avoid arousing the passions; conservatives in the U.S. seek to classify pornography as a public health threat (more so even than childhood obesity or chronic homelessness) so it can be restricted. Plato sought to limit participation in government to an elite that would preserve the social order; conservatives in the U.S. have argued for at least thirty years that “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” and thus sought to disenfranchise millions of Americans.[1] This temptation towards elitism (whether the “elite” is defined educationally, racially or whatever) is certainly not limited to conservatives; when I was in college, the most cliquish and self-serving of the student politicians were avowed liberals. They were all political science majors, looking forward to careers in politics or political law. Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, was a particular favorite of theirs, based on their writing in the student newspaper. Their argument was that everyone else was such a narcissist that it was up to them, the self-sacrificing student government, to run things for our good, and the rest of the citizens should just sit back and be grateful—and quiet. I guess the difference is that conservatives in the U.S. seem to have read 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale and thought they sounded pretty good, while liberals are more likely trying to recreate Brave New World. None, alas, are really trying to establish Plato’s ideal society, for they all lack the one essential requirement: complete denial of private property to leaders. In that regard, they all claim to be guardians but are in fact more like tyrants.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about Plato’s advice. Shouldn’t social decisions be made by the best educated, most clever and imaginative persons possible? And shouldn’t people who agree to serve do so out of love for the country, rather than hopes of personal gain? And isn’t it a fact that “common sense is not so common,” and that in fact the majority are not either capable or inclined to be effective leaders of society?

This, in fact, is the real difference between Plato and Locke. Plato thought that rationality is pretty rare; most people are ruled by their appetites, and therefore a society that is ruled by the many will be ruled by appetite rather than reason. Locke thought that reason was, if not universal, at least common to most people. He said that reason is the law even in the state of Nature where there is no formal law; even without police and prisons, we more or less know right and wrong and are inclined to do what is right and reasonable. We may disagree, particularly in our own interests, and that is a second element in Locke’s philosophical anthropology: human nature is always mixed. Plato famously argued that the soul has three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Reason strives for truth; appetite strives for self-gratification; and between them, spirit strives for personal honor and acclaim. Some people, he said, are motivated by their reason, a greater number by their appetite; but some are willing to forgo pleasure for the badges and parades and admiring looks that a brave, self-sacrificing life earns. Locke on the other hand assumes that people are rational and irrational at the same time, liable to self-indulgence and partisanship but also capable of social and practical reasoning. For this reason they can live in a free society where everyone has a voice, since all have something to contribute, but at the same time they need a society because in a state of complete anarchy they would find it too difficult to judge impartially between themselves and their neighbors. The civil society that Locke imagines gives a framework for the exercise of liberty, protecting it against both tyranny and selfish excess.

Since both the Platonic and the Lockean philosophies agree on the danger of tyranny, and both agree that a form of separation of powers is the best way to guard against it, we can accept this as our starting point. Plato’s model, separation of leadership from property, simply has not worked; even he admits as much when he discusses how even Sparta struggles to curb the acquisitiveness of its leaders. Locke’s plan to have separate branches of government, each checking the other so no one person can easily seize total power and become a tyrant, has had more success. Furthermore, as our history has shown by the ever-expanding right to vote, Locke’s philosophy is capable of self-correction and growth. And it is, simply, “the American way.” Our nation was founded, and our Constitution written by people who believed in Locke’s basic insights and who sought to create laws that would bring them to fruition.

Should stupid people be allowed to vote? I follow Locke here: yes! We are all stupid, at least at times, and are almost all capable of reason, at least at times. But more to the point, to deny anyone the right to vote is to put the state at war with that person. Anyone who cannot vote is little more than a conquered subject, not a citizen. A stable society is one where as many people as possible participate and have a stake in the decision, and in the success of the society as an ongoing project. And conversely, a society that denies a sizeable segment of its population the rights of citizenship, and most importantly the right to have a part in writing the laws, creates an enemy in its midst, an enemy that contributes to the economic health of the society and thus cannot simply be ignored or ejected, but who has no good reason to support that society. To be denied the vote is to be a slave, with all the injustice, and all the instability, and all the perverse dependence of the “master” on the “slave” that this entails.

[1] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People To Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

An Open Letter to Senator Rand Paul, Republican/KY

February 18, 2017

Hello Everyone:

I wrote Sen. Paul an e-mail, because his office has stopped picking up their phone for calls from voters and his voicemail box is full, asking him to support the movement within the Senate to investigate Donald Trump’s collusion with Russian spy services to subvert the American election the way Russia has corrupted or sought to corrupt elections throughout the free world.  In exchange, I got a newsletter ignoring my original concerns, and instead praising Sen. Paul’s efforts to weaken environmental protections (enjoy your leaded water!), to “broaden the tax base” by shifting taxes away from the rich and onto the middle class and the poor, and to ram through even the least competent of #Dolt45’s Cabinet appointees without even a tenth of the “extreme vetting” that seems appropriate for a Syrian infant escaping bombing by Russian jets.

I attempted to respond to Sen Paul’s newsletter, but, big surprise, the reply bounced.  It seems he doesn’t want to hear from his constituents in that manner either; he only wants us to shut up and listen.  Rather than let my efforts go totally to waste, I’m posting my reply to him here.

Dear Sen. Rand Paul, and whatever staffer might happen to get this message:

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

February 2, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

 

Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

 

—– John Locke

 

 

We can see at least three points where Locke provides us with an answer to the question of whether stupid people should be allowed to vote. The first is the description of the state of Nature, and the common point he shares with the totalitarian Hobbes: equality. The wise and the foolish, the sage and the ignoramus are all essentially equal. For Hobbes, this contention was based on his utter pessimism; believing all people are basically irrational and nasty, he thought the clever no better than the brute. In the war of each against all, the differences between the smart and the stupid matter little; each can kill the other in the right circumstances. Thus each has as much to gain by belonging to a commonwealth, and as much to give up by accepting its restrictions. For Locke, his belief in equality rests on more optimistic grounds: a faith in the rule of reason even in the state of nature. Locke believed all people were essentially free to choose good or evil, and free to choose to employ their reason to determine the right course of action. All may not be identically capable or informed, but all are essentially educable and reasonable. Therefore, no one would enter a social contract that sacrificed that inalienable equality; each gives up only those rights that all the others give up as well.

Second, each has an inalienable right to the property that is the fruit of one’s labors. Whether one is a renowned philosopher or a simple farmer, whoever does the work has joined his or her efforts to the world and made that part of it to be private property. The government I choose to live under must agree to protect my property, regardless of how informed I am about world affairs or how inclined I am to reason passionately rather than logically. That is one of the functions of civil government: to protect private property.

Third, all proper civil government is by the will of the majority. A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”[1] That story is often treated as an indictment of democracy, but it needn’t be. Every person has a right to have his or her needs addressed and concerns heard. Maybe I don’t know all the economics of free trade; but I do know if I am losing my job because the factory is relocating overseas. I have a right to demand that society do something to help me. My fundamental equality is expressed in each person being equal before the law. My right to my own work is guaranteed in society’s protection of my property. The inalienable right to liberty is lived out in the principle of government by the will of the majority: of the people, by the people and for the people. When we can all have our say, all make our case, and all freely agree to take a vote and work together on whatever we jointly decide, my fundamental freedom is actualized through the action of the government, which is responding not to the whims of a king or even an elite, but to the total pressure of each one of us pushing upon the levers of power.

It seems then that there are ample reasons for civil government to arise and maintain itself. It fulfills the needs of the individual members better than living in a governmentless state of nature could, and it coordinates group actions so that we can live together in peace and together achieve goals we could not on our own. Why, then, would any government ever collapse into tyranny? Plato pointed to the corrupting power of wealth, but Locke’s view of political power particularly rules this out; since civil government exists largely to protect the private property of every citizen, it can hardly be that owning property in itself should disqualify anyone from participation in government. Nor can Locke agree with Plato’s contention that only a small group should be allowed any political power; for Locke, political power flows up from the people, who explicitly or implicitly choose a government which is then obligated to act according to their collective will. Instead, Locke points to the weakness of human nature, and the tendency of some individuals to violate the laws of reason and to grasp for more than they ought. He writes:

 

 

… tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]

 

 

So tyranny is not only the assumption of power by someone who is not entitled; the tyrant might be an elected official. The tyrant might not be particularly oppressive, if it suits him or her not to be. The tyrant might not even be a single person, but could in fact be a group.[3] But the tyrant is motivated not by the will and good of the people, but by personal interests and whim. The tyrant is, after all, only human, and subject to ambition, covetousness, and all the other common “irregular” passions. The tyrant may see the job of government as a chance for personal advancement, or simply believe that he/she/they know better than the majority what is “good” and thus refuse to act according to their will or needs.

Locke had a stark warning of what can happen if these inalienable rights are ignored. He writes:

 

 

The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.[4]

 

 

In case that last line isn’t clear to today’s readers, the “common refuge” is to fight back. If the government ceases to represent the majority, and instead caters only to the ruler or to a small group of supporters, it puts itself at war with its own citizens, and they in turn have the right to rise up and defend themselves and ultimately to overthrow their tyrannical masters, if necessary and possible. This is literally revolutionary stuff, both when it was published and 315 years later. This is what the Founding Fathers relied on when they explained, to themselves and to the ages, why they were declaring independence from their sovereign lord and king in England. The reasons Jefferson gives in the Declaration of Independence matches exactly the behavior of a tyrant as described by John Locke eighty-five years before: “(King George III) …has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices,…For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Denying the right of elected officials to meet, or depriving them of their independence, or refusing to enforce the laws they passed, are all things Locke singles out as reasons for the dissolution of government. Add to that the seizure of property without consent, and without due process of law as passed by representatives elected by the people themselves, and the actual acts of violent repression cited by the Declaration, and this matches Locke’s description of a government that has declared war on its own people. And in that case, Locke says, the people have every right to band together, grab whatever weapons they can find, and fight for their freedom. The government that overreaches and turns oppressor does not just risk angering the people; it loses its entire justification for being considered a “government” at all, and becomes nothing more than an alien, enemy occupation. In this circumstance, rebellion is not just possible; it is the only just and reasonable option. It is not even really a “rebellion” at all, but rather self-defense against the tyrannical power that has declared war on the citizens.

It may seem like this is a prescription for anarchy. If anyone may decide at any time to rebel, what is to stop rebellions from breaking out at any time? What stops anyone who doesn’t want to pay taxes or follow the laws the majority follow from declaring their own personal independence, gathering up an armed mob or paid militia, and going to war against society? Locke is aware of this criticism and has responses. In his discussion of this, we see him trying to walk a path between two extremes. On the one hand, he says it is clearly absurd to say that one must wait until all hope is lost before one can begin to resist tyranny.[5] On the other hand, there must be limits, and there are. First, there this the simple fact of human nature: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest.”[6] By and large, people will put up with a lot before they resort to the risky and uncertain path of violence. “Better the devil you know,” as they say. It is only when the government has been seriously mismanaged, or the authorities have so trampled upon the inalienable rights of the people that they have already declared war upon them, that people are likely to resort to force to defend themselves.[7] Locke is not saying that anyone has the right to take up arms simply because he (or she) happens to not like the current government’s policy on some matter. By joining together in a community, we all agreed to live by the community’s rules and to respect the will of the majority.[8] As long as there are functioning mechanisms for the people to voice their opinions and elect representatives who will make the laws all will live by, there is no need or justification for rebellion. But when the government ceases to respect those mechanisms, and the people are left with no peaceful way to resolve their grievances and the will of the majority is not the guiding principle of the state, then the people may take up arms, overthrow the tyranny and establish a new and free government.

So, should stupid people be allowed to vote? We are all created equal, whether one is a bit smarter or stronger or better-looking. We all have the same inalienable rights. Those rights are only protected and expressed in a civil society, which means a society with the rule of law and where the will of the people is the ultimate foundation of that law. Each individual’s inalienable liberty is enacted when he or she is votes for the representatives to the legislative body. To deny someone the right to vote because he or she might vote “wrong” is to deny that person’s personhood. It is tyranny and slavery. And one always has the right, by the laws of God and reason, to resist with force anyone who tries to oppress another.

[1] “Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson,” http://www.npr.org/programs/wesat/000205.stevenson.html Feb. 5, 2000

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Second Treatise sect. 201

[4] Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, sec. 222

[5] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 230-33

[6] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 223

[7] sec. 224-230

[8] sec. 243