Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (


Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 3)

June 11, 2019

We may seek to anticipate the likely conclusions of Pompeo’s human rights panel by looking at the experts who will be on it. One prominent name that has been mentioned is Robert George. As mentioned above, he has in the past used Kantian logic to explain himself; however, he is a conservative Catholic who has used the term “natural law” in a more Thomistic way to attack homosexuality and abortion, for examples.[i] But I think it is likely misleading to look to the commission itself for predictions as to how our nation’s international policies will develop. In general, President Trump and his supporters, including Administration and Republican leadership, have expressed contempt for “experts” and have pointed to their policy of bringing in people “who were not ‘qualified’ in the conventional sense.”[ii] And when their own experts, hired by them to determine the truth of some matter, have presented facts that were distasteful to them, they simply reject those findings.[iii] The real question therefore does not seem to be what “natural law” means or how it is defined, but how the term is used in an environment where facts, words and values are not fixed realities.

The true philosophy of the Trump Administration, and functionally of the Republican Party as a whole, is not “natural law” of any sort; it is empirical relativism leading to moral nihilism (or perhaps they would prefer the term “realism”). Even this may be too imprecise. In the last two years, the “leader of the free world” has denied mocking a disabled reporter, when literally thousands witnessed the act and millions saw the recording; he has claimed that more people attended his inauguration than attended Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary; he has denied calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple” when in a room full of people who heard him do it and wondered why on Earth anyone would lie about something so obvious and so petty; he has asserted that protesters were in fact cheering for him while they gathered around a giant statue of him sitting on a golden toilet; and so on. He has called for the death penalty for five black kids even after they were proven innocent of the crime of which he accused them, and another person was proven guilty. The birtherism, conspiracy theories and so on aren’t just ignorance or racism; they are proven real-time denials of common reality. The Republican party has become the party of “alternative facts:” the denial of objective reality and its replacement with truth-claims that are more convenient. As Harry Frankfurt has argued, this isn’t really even lying. The liar is concerned about truth; he or she wants to avoid a particular truth, to deceive for some purpose. The liar depends on other people accepting that what they see and hear is generally true, just as the counterfeiter depends on the existence of real money in order to pass the fake money he’s made as real. Republicans today operate without any regard for the concept of “truth.” The standard form of verbal communication for this administration is neither honesty nor lying; it is “bullshit.”[iv]  The bullshitter is not engaged in conveying information or communication; it is some other sort of verbal activity, oblivious to the existence of truth. That seems to be the most accurate description of what we see today coming from the highest levels of government and those of the press who serve as its promoters: verbal activity that does not bother to worry whether or not what is said is true, because the point is not to speak truth but to promote the president, to belittle some person, or to attain some other goal. As Frankfurt says, bullshit is more dangerous to truth than lying, because bullshit attacks the entire concept of communication. The liar is still committed to the notion that we communicate with one another to convey information; it’s just that the liar hopes to slip some false information into the mix. The bullshitter denies the relevance or significance of communication, and asserts instead that we talk or shout or tweet or write for other purposes: to emote, to self-promote, to roar, to whine, whatever will best forward the bullshitter’s will-to-power.

In this view, there simply is no such thing as “objective truth” or “reality.” Literally everything you think you know is up for debate, and what will count as “fact” is resolved as nothing more than a contest of wills. From an epistemological perspective, you could call this “relativism;” as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, of that which is that it is, and of that which is not that it is not. If I say the Mueller report totally exonerates Donald Trump, and refuse to read it or listen to you tell me what it says, I can hold onto my belief like a Japanese soldier guarding his jungle hideout even as the Americans raise their flag over the island; and as long as I do this, I haven’t surrendered. For many people, it is more important to “stand up for what I believe,” i.e. to assert his or her own version of reality, than to be “lose the argument,” to be defeated and forced to accept objective reality. This view, which is increasingly common among self-proclaimed conservatives, seems to resemble Nietzschean pragmatism more than any other epistemological stance I can think of. What will count as “real” is what promotes my goals, serves my ends, or makes me feel more powerful and more comfortable.

The fact that this sort of aggressive pragmatic relativism, this construal of reality as a battleground for wills, has become the operating epistemology of the Republican party has profound ethical implications. If I can simply declare that I never said someone was “nasty” despite eyewitnesses and recorded evidence, if I can simply create new realities, then I can also create new moral realities. What is “true” is what I want to be true, and my saying it is my attempt to create a new truth; therefore, what is “good” is what I like, and my moral claims are merely my own will-to-power, my attempt to bend others to accept me as the moral center of the universe. If there is no truth, there is no moral truth, and all morality collapses into nihilism.


To be continued….

[i] Conor Finnegan, “State Department to Redefine Human Rights Based on ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’”; ABC News 5/31/2019 (

[ii] Chris Cilizza, “The 29 Most Eyebrow-Raising Lines from Jared Kushner’s Axios Interview;” CNN 6/3/2019 (

[iii] Coral Davenport, “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report;” New York Times 11/25/2018 ( As another example, the Republican response to the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in U.S. elections has been to reject, bury and ignore the conclusions of all the legal and forensic experts hired to uncover the facts.

[iv] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp. 19-24, 29-34

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 2)

June 11, 2019

What Pompeo seems to be saying, therefore, is that the Republican government wants to redefine this notion of “human rights” in terms of a particular definition of “human nature.” Is this necessarily “misogynistic” or “homophobic”? I will mention the sophistic argument that if it is based on “human nature” and “natural law” then of course it can’t be, since by definition it can’t be an “irrational” hatred of women or fear of gay people if it is “natural.” This is circular and unlikely to quell any concerns by people who are not already convinced that the particular “nature” on which this “natural law” is based is the true one. The real question, after all, is whether this proposed alteration is likely to be harmful to the interests and desires of women, gays or anyone else. Aristotle’s philosophy stated that all non-Greeks (whether Asiatics, less civilized Europeans or whatever) were inherently “irrational” and thus natural slaves, most fulfilled living lives in slavery to the wiser Greeks. Likewise, he believed women were inherently less intelligent and less rational than men, and would only be truly happy living in households controlled by Greek men. In essence, he looked at his own Athenian culture and judged all others in comparison to it; those that gave greater rights to women or to non-Greeks were said by him to be disordered in some way, and those that were a completely different culture he deemed “barbarian,” a term that literally meant “non-Greek speakers,” fit only for domination. Clearly, a society based on that sort of “natural law” would be bad for women, since women would only fulfill their “nature” by running the household for men who were active in the political and economic life of the society, having and raising children, and managing their slaves. Whether it would be bad for gays is another question; the Greeks accepted and expected male-male sexuality, particularly between older men and teenage boys. But in the Catholic understanding, the fact that there are two genders suggests that sexuality is intended for reproduction, and any expression of sexuality that cannot possibly lead to pregnancy is unnatural and disordered: not only abortion, but homosexuality, contraception, and masturbation.

But the Thomistic view of natural law is not the only possible one. Utilitarians in the 19th Century had a very different view of human nature, one that emphasized pleasure as the motivation for all actions, and thus defined a “good” act as one that brought the most pleasure possible to the most people possible, or aimed to reduce suffering to the least amount to the fewest people possible. Based on this understanding of human nature, and of nature in general, they were politically active supporting laws against animal cruelty (since animals too can suffer), in support of workers and poor people (such as opposing debtors’ prisons), supporting the rights of women, and so on. Kantians by contrast argue that “human nature” is to be guided by pure practical reason, apart from concerns about sensation; therefore, what is moral is what is done out of a sense of duty towards the universal moral law. A prominent example of this sort of moral law reasoning is the philosopher Robert George, who in an interview argued against Peter Singer’s extreme utilitarianism by asserting that we must base our legal understanding of human rights on the principle of always treating others as ends in themselves, never as means towards another end (Kant’s second version of his Categorical Imperative). By this understanding, any law that seems to treat another person as less than infinity valuable would be immoral and unnatural, even if the person wished to be so treated. For example, from a Kantian perspective voluntary suicide to escape a painful terminal illness would be wrong since it would be treating the other in terms of sensation rather than as a rational being whose every moment of existence is valuable regardless of whether it is pleasant. So taking the legal definition of “natural law theory,” we can wind up at radically different legislation based on different moral theories. A full commitment to natural law as both a philosophical and legal principle would most likely argue that moral people reasoning together will be able to discern the moral principles inherent in human nature and base legislation on those principles. Whether this idea should cause alarm to any group would depend entirely on how they expect this administration, and the panel it has created, to define “human nature.”

To be continued…

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 1)

June 11, 2019

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

—–Kellyanne Conway




Secretary of State Pompeo of the Trump administration recently announced its intention to offer “fresh thinking” on the nation’s commitment to human rights by launching a new panel to investigate how to base our conception of human rights on “natural law.”[i] This has raised concerns with many in the LGBTQ community in particular, who have interpreted it as a weakening of the commitment of the United States to gay and lesbian rights (and possibly others). Are these concerns justified? Just what does these terms mean, anyway? Is this, as its proponents contend, a desirable effort to put the concept of “human rights” on a solid foundation? In this paper, I shall attempt to explore the public claims on behalf of this attempt to redefine our national policy in terms of natural law, “natural law” has historically meant and what it more generally means, and what a claim to commitment to natural law means in an era of alternative facts.

For any non-philosophers who may stumble across this, let’s start with the basics: what is “natural law”? In philosophy, it refers to the idea that morality should be deduced from facts of nature, and specifically human nature. In its most common form, Catholic moral teaching, it has its roots in Aristotle’s ethical thought. Aristotle argued that a human is a rational social animal. That is, the human soul, or Form, or essence has a vegetative part, which is to say it is alive like any plant or animal. Humans are also sensitive, like any other animal; they feel and sense their surroundings, and react to it to gain food or whatever else they desire, and to escape what is harmful. They are social; a single human cannot gain everything he or she wants alone, but needs to live in a community with others. And what makes humans unique is that they are rational; they can guide their actions by reason, and can enjoy simply thinking and understanding philosophy, history, science and other general areas of knowledge. Therefore, a fulfilled human life is one that includes not only the essential bodily needs and some comforts, but also includes a life guided by reason and in community with other likewise rational people. As St. Thomas Aquinas took over Aristotle’s philosophy and sought to reconcile it with Christian theology, he argued that this understanding of human nature revealed a natural law, alongside the divine law revealed by God through Moses and the other prophets, and finally through Jesus. While revealed law is of course only knowable to those to whom it has been revealed, natural law is understood through immanent knowledge, through understanding nature, which is something any rational and observant person can do. Part of the point of distinguishing “natural law” from “divine law” is to say that natural law is accessible to, and thus also binding on all human beings.

Legally, the idea of “natural law” is that legal regulations should not be based on some more or less arbitrary social convention or social contract, but on philosophically and (at least generally understood as) universally knowable moral principles. Laws should not discourage actions that are morally fulfilling for humans to pursue, and should discourage those that are unnatural or harmful in some way. If we want to say, for example, that people should be punished for driving faster than 45 miles on this particular road, it is not enough that a majority of people think it’s a good idea; we need to show that driving faster than that is somehow good for people (such as preserving life) and that it does not unduly restrict their natural freedom (as banning all cars might, since people have a right to own and use property within reason, including cars). Thus this sort of thinking is radically opposed to Hobbesian social contract thought, which says that all laws are ultimately “good” simply because the government says they are good and the rest of society obeys them because living according to the social contract is better than living as an outlaw or solitary exile.

To be continued…

[i] Nahal Toosi, “State Department to Launch New Human Rights Panel Stressing ‘Natural Law;” Politico 5/30/2019 (

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 2(b)

May 23, 2019

In Volume II of the Special Counsel’s report, Mueller describes ten areas that could represent obstruction of justice. In each case, he presents all the evidence he was able to gather, including facts as testified by eyewitnesses or by intelligence sources, as well as areas where he was not able to ascertain the facts because witnesses, including the President* lied, refused to answer or claimed not to remember.   After presenting the history of the events and all the evidence he had available, he offers an analysis as to whether each of the three essential elements for an obstruction of justice case were present: the obstructive act, the nexus to an official investigative proceeding, and the intent. Some of these, on close consideration, he does not seem to consider obstruction. In no case does he come out and say that any is obstruction; as we’ve seen, he had already ruled out any possibility of making that determination himself, since he sees this as the job of Congress. But in some cases, he states that the three essential elements definitely appear to be present, thus leaving the reader with the only logical conclusion that the White House was in fact obstructing justice and continues to do so.

  1. The President’s Conduct Related to the Flynn Investigation

Before Michael Flynn began his work as Trump’s National Security Advisor, he had two phone conferences with the Russian ambassador. Since there is only one President at a time and until January 20th that was Obama, it was improper for him to discuss foreign policy matters. Nevertheless, Flynn discussed the sanctions Obama had imposed on Russia in retaliation for its interference in our election. While lying to the press is not a crime, Flynn lied under oath to the FBI about these calls, which is a crime. These lies occurred while Mr. Trump was President. And because he had committed a crime and Russia knew about it, he was vulnerable to being blackmailed by Russia. This was a serious matter. The President had a private dinner with James Comey, the director of the FBI, and asked for him to swear loyalty to Mr. Trump personally, and shortly thereafter asked him to go easy on Flynn. He also fired Sally Yates, then Acting Attorney General, who initially brought concerns about these lies to White House attention. Despite having been briefed before becoming President about the Russian efforts to subvert our nation’s electoral process, and advice from his own advisors that Flynn had possibly violated U.S. law, it was not until Feb. 13 that Flynn was finally forced to resign, and even then White House efforts continued to cover for him.

  1. Obstructive Act: Comey claimed that Trump privately asked him to “let Flynn go.” Trump disputed Comey’s account, but Mueller points out that there is good evidence that Mr. Trump lied; not only did Comey testify under oath (something Trump has refused to do) but there were independent witnesses that Trump did indeed hustle everyone else out of the room so he could talk privately, which he denied. Was this really an “obstructive act,” or merely Trump expressing the wish that Flynn be spared further humiliation? Mueller argues that it was obstruction. First, Trump arranged to make the statement privately, suggesting that it was intended as a request that he did not want others to overhear. Second, he was Comey’s boss, and when your boss says “I hope you’ll do this,” that is generally a request. His thrice-repeated “let this go” reinforces the view that this was an order.
  2. Nexus to a proceeding: At the time of this clandestine meeting, there were no grand jury subpoenas out as part of the FBI investigation. However, everyone in the White House knew that Flynn had lied, that this was a violation of U.S. law, and that the FBI at least might prosecute. Thus there was a nexus to a possible proceeding, and attempting to head off such a possibility qualifies as obstruction of justice.
  3. Intent: While there was an attempt to get McFarland to falsely claim that she knew President Trump had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions, there is no evidence that at that moment he actually had directed Flynn to do so. There is therefore no evidence that Trump was trying to cover up any criminal activity of his own. That is significant, since it goes to the question of intent: did Trump intend a cover-up? Did he have a personal stake in Flynn’s fate?

What Mueller did find is that while Trump may not have had a personal legal stake in the Flynn investigation, he did have a personal emotional stake. He considered and still considers any mention of Russian interference to be a challenge to his legitimacy and to the greatness of his achievement. There is evidence that Flynn was fired to try to end the Russia inquiries, that Trump reacted with “annoyance and anger” when the Flynn story broke because he thought it made him look bad, and that when told that firing Flynn would not end things he tried to pressure Comey to wrap things up. Also, while Trump has been publicly supportive of Flynn, privately he has been disappointed and angry and has mostly been motivated to keep Flynn from saying negative things about him. Overall, Mueller shows that Trump’s concerns were personal, rather than motivated by sympathy for Flynn or concern for justice: he didn’t want to look bad and thought that Flynn’s actions cast doubt on Trump himself.

Thus, the Special Counsel finds that all three elements of an obstruction of justice seem to be present:  the obstructive act itself, the official investigation which is being obstructed, and the motive to do so.  To confirm whether this is in fact obstruction of justice, and to punish the violation of law if it is, requires that Congress investigate and hold impeachment hearings; no other remedy is permitted under DOJ guidelines, while impeachment and possible removal is.  After removal from office, the DOJ guidelines forbidding prosecution of a sitting POTUS would no longer apply, and a criminal investigation could proceed.

To be continued….

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 1

May 16, 2019

Redacted Reactions to the Redacted Mueller Report: I read it so you don’t have to, but you really should. Part One


“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

——Special Counsel Robert S Mueller III, Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election

Reading the redacted Mueller report is a lot like watching an R-rated movie on television when you were a kid and your parents didn’t let you see the original version in the theater. You can still get a lot of the experience. You know the crimes are pretty bad, the villains are villainous, and somebody just got screwed; but you’re pretty sure you’re not getting the whole experience, and whether it’s for titillation or for actual context that would make the rest more comprehensible, you want that whole experience. In that analogy, the Barr summary is your parent saying, “You don’t need to see that filthy version. Trust me, he says “Yippee-ki-yay Mr. Falcon” in the original too. Really, it’s all pretty boring, and you should just forget about it. And who wants to see a bunch of monkey-loving snakes on a monkey-loving plane anyway? It’s just silly. Just watch the movies I recommend; they’re better and I’ve checked them out to make sure there’s nothing that will confuse you at your young age. Trust me.” And somehow the oft-repeated “Trust me,” and the implication that you can’t handle the truth unless it’s been baby-birded for you by your parental authority figure just makes you want to see the original for yourself even more. So it is with the redacted Mueller report: what’s there is already pretty disturbing, but you sense there’s more that would either make the rest more understandable or reveal the true importance/horror what you’re being shown. And with Barr having gotten the job of reading it for you by first publishing a 16 page essay on how, without even seeing the evidence, he knows Mr. Trump didn’t do anything wrong because he’s the President and presidents can’t and don’t do anything wrong, his reassurances are as convincing as your parent telling you that “The Human Centipede” is a boring movie about bugs.

The first thing I learned from the Mueller report is that the early characterizations of it were misleading at best. It does not, for example, “totally exonerate” the Trump campaign even on the issue of conspiracy to defraud the U.S.A. It generally uses less committal phrases, like “did not substantiate” or “were unable to reach a conclusion.” In fact, there were numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence and other agencies. The report concluded that little short of an explicit quid pro quo would be likely to win a conviction, and much of the coordination between Russia and the GOP was implicit. That is not to say that there were no crimes; it is only to say that DOJ guidelines led Mueller to only recommend charges if he were sure of a conviction, and that nothing short of a recorded statement between two people saying something like, “Hey, I have a great idea for how we could fix the election and then give you Ukraine in exchange; it’s illegal but let’s do it anyway” would hold up. Trump’s campaign chairman and Russian oligarchs did, for example, discuss dividing Ukraine, but other members of the team were too uninterested to follow up. Kushner and Don Jr. among others did hold a secret meeting with Russian representatives and then lie about it, knowing that the meeting was about Russian efforts to help Mr. Trump win the election; but Mueller concluded that most of the Trump Team were too ignorant to definitely know what they were doing was illegal and too arrogant to ask a lawyer or diplomat whether they should be doing this. To them it was no different than negotiating a real estate deal with Yakuza or Russian Mafia members, which they’ve done for years and saw no reason to stop. Without proof that Jared and Donnie were intelligent enough to know that dealing with a foreign government to get help winning an American election is not only immoral and unpatriotic but also illegal, Mueller didn’t feel he could show criminal intent. But “we couldn’t prove it because Manafort and others blatantly lied,” or “we weren’t sure they knew they were breaking the law even though they lied to hide what they’d done,” or “we determined that it wasn’t worth the trouble to prosecute these crimes because we weren’t sure of getting a conviction” is something less than “total exoneration.”

At the same time, things apparently aren’t quite as bad as I and many others had feared. Yes, the Republican Administration is just as petty, venial, greedy, selfish, deceitful and unpatriotic as we thought; but they’re also disorganized and disloyal and often just plain dumb. They stab each other in the back, or work at cross purposes due to lack of communication and different personal agendas. For example, Erik Prince discussed how he worked to set up a covert back channel between the Trump campaign and Russia, only to have Bannon ignore his reported early success due to disinterest. He either failed to understand how significant this opportunity was, or it didn’t fit into his plans for the coming civil war between liberals and white nationalists; in any case, he wasn’t upset because it was illegal or deceitful or upset at all, but merely bored.

The coordination between Putin and the Trump team was something like a tango; the partners don’t verbally communicate, but respond to each other’s movements to stay in sync. One side would give hints and the other would act on the perceived hints, but rarely were words spoken that could come back in court as evidence. If Trump said he hoped something would happen or his people said they needed something, Russia would provide it without explicitly being asked. But much of this was one-way; Russia was working to provide the Trump campaign with whatever it needed, but when they came back hoping to capitalize on the good will they’d earned they found that no one on the Trump team had a plan of how to help them. They couldn’t even find anyone with the authority to answer their questions except for those, like Bannon, who had their own agendas and were too busy to respond.

Furthermore, by the time Putin’s people came along to try to build bridges to the Trump administration, they found that he was so weakened that he was unable to respond. Mueller repeatedly mentions that some representative of Putin would approach some Trump advisor with plans for Ukraine or Syria or lifting sanctions on some oligarch, only to be told that the Trump team was under too much scrutiny due to its perceived pro-Russian attitude and Putin’s pro-Trump attitude. As Spock says in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, “Only Nixon could go to China.” Nixon was well-known as a Red-baiter, hostile to Communists whether they were American, Russian or Chinese. Therefore, when he unexpectedly opened negotiations with the People’s Republic of China, no one seriously thought he was betraying his nation for his own ends. Trump is no Nixon, at least in that sense. He and his family boasted for years about how much business they did with Russia and Russian oligarchs, and everyone knew that the Trump-Kushner Syndicate would make a significant profit if U.S. sanctions were lifted. Trump has borrowed heavily from Russian sources, and pursued deals like the Moscow Trump Tower project which he then lied about to the American people. Thus, he is compromised, an easy target for blackmail or more subtle pressure. And therefore, any time Putin made an effort to reap the rewards of his success (in Moscow they said “Putin won” when Trump won), he was told “we’re too weak now, we can’t be seen as being too friendly to you.”

So those of us who thought of Trump as “Putin’s Puppet” were too worried, according to the Mueller report. The Trump team is too chaotic and incompetent to carry out a decent conspiracy. As one of their surrogates puts it, they can’t even collude with each other, so how could they possibly collude with Russia? Mueller backs up Graham on that assessment. And when they might want to collude, they are too afraid of seeming like Russian stooges to risk doing very much. Mueller describes multiple efforts by Putin to follow up on his success in installing Trump, but concludes that they have foundered not because the Republicans were patriotic or even minimally honest, but simply that they were incapable.

Aside from this, there is little surprising in the first half of the Mueller report: depressing, distressing, but not surprising. Most of it has been reported in the mainstream media, the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC, BBC, public radio and television, even occasionally on FOX News if you avoid the prime-time pundits and the Dawn of the Sycophants and stick to Shepherd Smith and Chris Wallace and the rest of the “News” division. Mueller’s investigation largely supports the reports of what Trump calls “Fake News,” showing time and again that the facts support the actual news media reports and that, when put under oath and confronted with the facts, even Trump’s employees admit this. By contrast, having sorted through a great deal of evidence, including electronic records, sworn statements from multiple witnesses and so on, the Trump/GOP assertions have been show to be false more often than not. Between the flat-out perjury, the public lies that get quietly retracted when under oath, the half-truths that later get corrected again and still turn out to be misleading, and the assertions based on arrogant ignorance, the Mueller report makes clear that you should not believe anything from Team Trump, whether it comes from the Trump Crime Family, the conservative media echo chamber, or the GOP as a whole. So while Mueller has shown that the GOP Congress and White House are failing to protect American sovereignty and democracy, or even actively working against these as far as they are capable, there is still one pillar of American democracy that the report suggests is doing its job fairly well under the circumstances: the free press.

What Jesus Didn’t Say

March 12, 2019

It’s been too long since I posted anything here, and I regret that.  Once I got my most recent book out on Kindle I was focussed on writing this sermon, the first I’ve preached in over thirty years.  You can listen to it here: ; it starts at about 31 minutes in.  Or if you prefer, you can read my draft below.  



What Jesus Didn’t Say





I confess that I have some nervousness about preaching again after a twenty-five year hiatus. I’ve given lots of lectures, but to share God’s word with God’s people is more intimidating than sharing my own words. What could I have to say that is fitting to the significance, the sanctity of this setting? Nothing, really. Our human words are, as Paul said, like cheap pottery holding precious jewels. Besides, a lecture with a lot of pretentious vocabulary is a good lecture; but no one wants a sermon with a word study. Lectures and sermons are just different.

Then I read the lectionary selections for today, and hope dawned. Both the reading from the Prophets and from the Gospel are about teaching! And I’m a teacher! It seemed to me providential, or at least lucky, that of all the days that I could have been invited to preach, I’d have scriptures for the day that seem so suited for my background.

First, Nehemiah. Nehemiah is not usually known as a teacher. I don’t think his book is the first choice for Rally Day sermons. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Exile. He was a cupbearer to the Persian king, and got permission to return to Jerusalem and direct the rebuilding efforts. My memories of Nehemiah are that I usually heard from him when the preacher was launching a capital fund drive. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. He was about separation between people, about conflict, and about building a wall to keep them away from us. But this scripture we read today is not like that. It is in fact just the opposite. First, consider the setting. Scaffolds were set up by the Water Gate, a public square where everyone could gather. They aren’t in a sacred space separated from the life of the people, where only the men could gather, and of those only the ones who were not ritually unclean for some reason like having just attended a funeral. No: they are in a public space, and everyone is invited. Men, women, even older children, everyone who was capable of listening and understanding was invited to come and listen to the Word of God. And there was to be no separation between the clever and the uneducated, or between those who were proficient in Hebrew and those who, over the long exile, had come to speak Aramaic as their primary language. There was to be no separation between those who were in the front row and those who were further back and couldn’t hear as well. Levites moved among the crowd, explaining and interpreting, “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” And there was to be no separation between those who attended worship and those who could not; those who heard were to celebrate, and were to provide food and drink and celebrate with those who had not been there to hear the word of God taught, so that everyone could share in the joy of the LORD on this holy day.

It seems as if there are two Nehemiahs. One has his people building walls, each with a sword on his hip, with half standing guard while the other half worked, ready to fight, to keep outsiders away. The other is a uniter, not a divider, bringing people together. And historically, both are the same person and both tasks were important to preserving the faithful, and the faith. What would have become of the word of the LORD if Nehemiah had only built the walls, but not taught the people? What would have become of them if he had only taught, but they had no walls, no protection from bandits and enemies, no secure home? So we can’t really say either is unimportant. As Christians, though, we can ask, which is most important and most relevant to us, as disciples of Christ in the world today?

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue. Any Jewish male could be invited to read from the Scripture and offer interpretation. The leader of the synagogue would generally invite someone beforehand; they didn’t just pull people out of the crowd unprepared. Jesus had been teaching in the neighboring villages, full of the power of the Spirit of God, and had gained quite a reputation. Now he was the hometown boy made good. No wonder the leader of the synagogue invited him to speak! So he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he selected a well-known messianic prophecy. He read the words of the prophet, that the Spirit of the LORD is upon him because God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. God has sent him to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. To an observant Jew that was not just a metaphor or platitude; the year of God, the Jubilee, was to be a monumental shaking of the social structure. According to the Law, every fiftieth year was the Jubilee, the year of the LORD’s favor. All slaves were to be freed. All debts were to be forgiven, so the poor could start over with a clean slate. Those families that had fallen on hard times and sold their land at some point during the last forty-nine years were allowed to return and reclaim their property, for free. Was Jesus referring to a literal Year of the Lord’s Jubilee that had just occurred? It doesn’t seem very likely that the Romans would have gone along with this festival of freedom. But when Jesus spoke of the Year of the LORD’s favor, it meant something concrete and special to the congregation. It was to be a time when everyone lived off the blessings of the LORD, enjoying the bounties of their past labors. It was a time when those who were impoverished or oppressed or troubled with physical impairments were to be renewed, whether by having their family inheritance returned or having their sight miraculously restored. And Leviticus makes clear that the Jubilee is to be a time when rich and poor come together as family, as children of God and joint tenants in God’s land; no one is to cheat another or begrudge another, but all are to celebrate together the blessings they have received as children of the covenant, receivers of God’s promises.

And Jesus does two remarkable things here. The first is that he cuts off Isaiah. The original prophecy ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus leaves out the talk of vengeance. He leaves out all talk of punishing “them” to glorify “us,” even if the punishment is perhaps deserved. With Jesus, the day of the Lord’s favor is a blessed day for everyone, and all are invited to share in the good news. The congregation would have heard that prophecy before, perhaps many times, and would realize he had made an important change. What he was not saying was as noteworthy as what he had said.

And then, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not “someday.” God has proclaimed that this, despite all appearances, despite the tax collectors and Roman soldiers and Herod’s despotism, is the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus began his ministry by traveling the countryside telling people to repent, for the kingdom of God is among you, now. It is still among us, even though we can’t see it any better than they could who lived under Roman occupation.

What does this mean for us today? I’m not going to discuss what it meant then, since the lectionary saves the end of this story for next week. I’m going to leave it where the lectionary leaves it: Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled. Not “the day of vengeance,” of warfare against the wicked, but the day of the Lord’s favor, the day of good news, of release and renewal and rejoicing for all God’s people. Nehemiah—I haven’t forgotten him—-Nehemiah had to build the walls of Jerusalem, but that is not the last word. What gives all the building of walls and the Temple and everything else meaning is that day when everyone worshipped together, everyone was taught equally, everyone celebrated together: for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Thanks be to God!

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard



…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.


—-Søren Kierkegaard



The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

July 14, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt



22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[f] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

—Genesis 18:22-33


Before anyone asks, no, this is not going to lead into a silly comment about Lot’s wife.

There is a popular theology these days. I say “popular” because it dominates many of the largest churches in the United States, the most prominent Christian colleges, politicians travel to seek its blessing and, when they are elected, they bring its preachers to their offices to pray with them, so that the preachers in turn receive the blessing politicians have to give—-prestige, visibility, pride, and worldly influence. In this popular theology, the United States does not have to be a particularly just nation. It does not have to be a particularly good nation. In this popular theology, it does not have to be a particularly wise or smart nation. It does not have to be a particularly hard-working nation. No, in this popular theology, the only thing that the United States has to do is put “Christians” in charge—but not just any Christians, no: only a special kind of Christians. Christians who pay attention to the 92 times the Bible tells us to show kindness to immigrants—we don’t need those. Christians who pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers”—- away with them! Only Christians who know that even though Jesus never mentioned abortion or homosexuality, these are the sum and substance of the Gospel—-those are the sort of Christians who need to run the nation and make its laws. If we make laws that require the rich to pay taxes to provide food for the hungry, we rob charity of its moral worth; but if we make laws requiring people to be straight or to never have sex without risking disease or pregnancy, then we not only support the moral worth of those things but we deserve an extra reward—for forcing others to be good. And the extra reward for those who force those others to obey and be good, while not forcing the rich and powerful to do anything at all, is that God will reward them by making them rich and powerful themselves, giving the crowns of the world to the saints. This popular theology is called “Christian Reconstructionism,” or more broadly, “Christian Dominionism.” It’s no wonder it’s so popular. In the Middle Ages you had to pay money to buy indulgences to get out of living according to the Gospel; now, you don’t even have to do that. Simply by seeking to rule over other people, you get the blessing of God, who gives you the power you seek, so long as you agree to never use it against those who already have wealth and power or use it to make others do anything Jesus actually asked them to do. And not only will the individual Dominionist be rewarded, but the nation itself will be magically blessed. God will give the nation military power, without scientists to design weapons; God will give them wealth, without economists to understand how tax policies affect the nation; God will give the nation influence in the world, without the hard work of diplomats trying to listen to and understand other nations to find common ground. Close some abortion clinics, round up some immigrants, throw the gays on an island and watch them die out, and Jesus will fly up on a magic sleigh drawn by Peter, Paul, and the other reindeer, to give everyone toys—I’m sorry, I got a little confused there for a moment.

The Reconstructionist theology names itself for its claim that Christians must reconstruct society. Democracy, they say, is flawed because it doesn’t put Christians in charge; we need to get rid of democracy, get rid of the social safety net, get rid of public schools and public hospitals and rely solely on Jesus and the churches—but of course, we also need to close all those “progressive” churches, so only the right sort of churches, the ones that don’t think society should help the poor, are available help the poor? I think I got confused again. Let me back up and start over.

Reconstructionist theology reconstructs the Gospel in its own image. According to Reconstructionist theology, Sodom was destroyed because godly men like Lot weren’t in charge. Only if Lot and Abraham had conquered the city and imposed laws banning homosexuality could Sodom and Gomorrah been saved. And unless conservatives can overthrow the pluralistic, democratic society that weakens us now and impose their views on the majority, God will destroy the U.S. the same way; but if conservatives do take over, and impose strict laws controlling everyone’s sex lives, every other problem will be solved without effort.

That’s one vision of how Christians can save the world: by taking over and making everyone else live like them. That is NOT the vision presented by Abraham. Abraham prays for Sodom. He does not say, “Spare them, and I’ll take over and run things right.” He says, “LORD, will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? What if there are only ten? Will you spare the whole wicked, wretched city for ten people?” And God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” We don’t have to run the world to save it. We don’t have to outnumber the wicked or to dominate them. We can’t. There will always be more wicked; being wicked is just too damned easy. And they will always have political power. Satan said to Jesus that he had the ability to give thrones and kingdoms to whomever he wanted, and Jesus did not dispute that; he simply rejected that sort of power. But as long as there are a righteous few, judgment will be delayed, and more will have time to hear the good news and repent.

How can so few people do any good, if they aren’t rich or powerful leaders but just ten righteous people out of thousands? Abraham’s prayer appeals to God’s justice. God, it seems, doesn’t accept “collateral damage;” God practices collateral healing. Rather than destroy a few good people in order to punish the wicked, God would spare the wicked to save the few good ones.

Jesus echoes this idea. He tells the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds to say that God will not root out the wicked from the world immediately, lest this injure some of the righteous as well; rather, the wheat and the weeds grow together until the end of things. That is one way to say that Christians should participate in society; just by being in society, they help it since God will preserve the society for the sake of the faithful. But that doesn’t suggest much in the way of a positive contribution. It doesn’t suggest that the society is improved or helped. Sodom would still have been Sodom even if ten righteous persons had been found in it.

Jesus uses other models to suggest how we should live in the world and participate in society. You are the light of the world, he says. It isn’t enough to just be in the world, hiding your goodness away like a precious gem, afraid to risk losing or tarnishing it. You have to let it shine like a lamp in the darkness that everyone can see and use to guide their own steps as well            You are like salt. Salt was so precious in the days of Jesus that people were paid in salt; our word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.” Salt is necessary for human life. It also preserves food, which is one of its most valuable characteristics in the warm Mediterranean climate without a nice cold fridge around. And even a little can flavor a whole lot of food. It lends its nature to what is around it. It doesn’t, as they say, dominate the taste of the food; it enhances and preserves it, bringing out what is best and perhaps covering up what is not.

Jesus even says we should be holy like God is holy. In the Books of Moses, God’s holiness is a separation. God is so holy and powerful that when God gave the Law to Moses, it was forbidden for anyone else to approach the mountain; even animals that wandered onto the holy mountain were to be killed. But Jesus says we should be perfect as God is perfect, who allows the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and sends rain to the just and the unjust. God’s holiness is his omnipresence, not withdrawing from those in need but providing even for those who do not acknowledge their need for God.

God doesn’t demand that Christians should strive to dominate human politics. God also doesn’t ask us to withdraw from the world. We are told to teach the world, to help the world, to do good and show kindness and love mercy and walk humbly with God. It is a narrow road for sure, neither going too far into politics or not enough. Jesus says we are to be salt; and if the salt has lost its distinctive nature, lost its saltiness, then what good is it? It is fit only to be cast out. As Christians in the world but not of the world, we are forced daily to be involved with things and people that do not follow our ways. We are told we cannot serve God and Money, but we must have money to survive. We are told to serve the world, but often that means working with politicians who have the power to help or stop us, and who have little regard for God or people. No doubt we would be safer to live as monastic communities, apart from the world. Many days I think the Amish are on to something. But that is not, I think, what Jesus intends for us, his disciples. We need the church as a place of rest where we can renew our faith and energy from time to time, but we then need to go out and continue being salt. One day Christ will return. We pray every week, Lord, thy kingdom come. But God has told us that in the meantime, we are not kings yet. We are salt. We are servants. We are preachers and teachers. We are the ten righteous people in the city who can save the whole from destruction for another day. That is our call, and that is the Gospel.