Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

First Post of 2019: A Little Game Theory About Building a Wall

January 3, 2019

This was a Facebook post that, as often happens to me, got a little out of hand.  When I realized I’d written an entire article, I decided to just post it here too.  Enjoy!

 

One of the basic elements of game theory is that you need to understand the goals of the players; that is, if you want to predict what a government will do, understand the motives of the people making decisions. Usually, leaders want to maintain power, so they make decisions that will preserve the regime.
 
It takes a lot of work to make decisions for the nation rather than one’s own faction or oneself; it takes effort to realize that one needs to preserve the nation if one wants to have something to lead, it takes effort to be humble and honorable enough to think first of the interests of the nation and of the majority of citizens, it takes effort to find what will help the nation and do that. It takes very little effort to act on one’s own whim, follow one’s gut, do what one’s own inner demons say will make one happy in the moment.
 
#Dolt45 proudly avoids thinking, acting on impulse. He and the entire GOP have been saying that unless he gets $5 billion for a wall that can provide his base with a visual aid, a sort of security theater that won’t do much but will make them feel safer & more powerful, then his personal presidency is over.
 
He understands that he’ll look foolish if he doesn’t win. His words to Schumer and Pelosi are like the first conversation he had with the president of Mexico, back in January 2017, when the Trump “presidency” was a week old: you have to give me what I want because if you don’t I’ll look foolish. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/3/16089160/trump-nieto-call-mexico-wall and https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/01/trump-says-hed-look-foolish-if-he-agreed-to-reopen-the-government-without-wall-funding.html
 
And THAT, people, is what all of this is all about. A foolish, impulsive, selfish person, who lacks the moral or intellectual ability to be aware of anything besides his own wants and needs, is aware of only one thing: that he’ll look foolish and lose power if he doesn’t get his wall, at taxpayer expense.
 
The fact that some rich donors are also getting richer through this fight—through for-profit prisons for immigrants, through the possibility of lucrative construction contracts and so on—-is just a helpful dividend, part of what helps him to get others to support his purely ego-driven “policy.”
 
Likewise, GOP (Greedy Old Partisans) like McConnell, who have become rich beyond the dreams of avarice through “public service,” see their own power, celebrity and, most importantly, money stream threatened if Trump goes down. They saw their own chances were best if a temporary CR was passed, so initially they agreed 100-0 to keep the government open; but now that #MoronInChief has publicly rejected that solution, they fear that he’ll fall if they stick to what they initially accepted, and that he’ll take them with him. They simply have no incentive to put Country Over Party, and every reason to stick to their partisan guns.
 
And the Democrats have learned that they are dealing with a pack of proven liars, bullies and thieves, who cannot be trusted to keep any secret deals and who, left to their own devices, will destroy the nation itself through mismanagement and even double-dealing with foreign enemies. And by “Democrats” I mean the Democratic base, millions of people, who are pressuring Chuck and Nancy to stop this wall because they know that giving in will show the GOP that bullying, corruption and terrorism work, that democracy and voting and majority rule are for suckers. So the elected Democratic leaders, who represent the majority of the voters in the last election, give in to the minority party, they could find themselves out of office.
 
So that’s the game that’s being played. You have a minority party with lots of institutional political power and the support of most of the rich vs. a new majority that is struggling to turn its majority status into actual political power. The GOP are the Deep State, placing the Democratic Party in the role of revolutionaries and reformers. The leaders of these two parties each want to win for their team and cement their own security by doing so. The GOP Deep State wins if it gets its wall, and loses if it doesn’t, no matter how little good having the wall would do and no matter how much damage they do to the nation and to the millions of people in this nation if the government remains shut down. After all, the majority voted for the Democrats, so hurting the majority of people means hurting enemies of the Republicans, right? And the Democratic leaders win if they stop the wall, making not only #ToddlerInChief but now, by osmosis, every GOP leader look weak and foolish. They would look bad if they seemed to be closing the government for political gain, but #StableGenius has already said he’s proud to own the shutdown; so they have no reason to save him from his own choices.
 
The only way this changes is if the game changes. Either Republicans have to decide it’s in their own interests to override Trump’s veto, or Democrats have to decide to knuckle under to GOP strongarm tactics, thus neutering their party in the short run and committing political suicide (and possibly national suicide) in the mid-to-long run.
Advertisements

Why Were We Attacked on 9/11? Why Must We Remember? What Have We Forgotten?

September 11, 2018

https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf

This.  This is why we were attacked.

Al Qaeda was originally founded to overthrow the corrupt tyrannies in the Muslim world.  Osama bin Laden and his gang believed that the governments that they opposed were propped up by Western democracies and Communist dictatorships, and would never be removed until the influence of those outside powers was broken.  They knew they could ever do this in open war, as the Prophet had done when he led the faithful from Medina to unify the Arabian peninsula or the Caliphs had done when they led armies out of Arabia into Africa and across Asia, eventually even into parts of Europe.  Instead, they chose to rely on terrorism and attrition.  They would commit acts of terror in countries they intended to conquer, in order to destabilize them.  The government would have to commit to guarding everywhere, and still would not be able to insure peace.  People would start to turn on each other, as their government’s financial resources were drained and they had to rely on themselves for security.  Eventually, the country would collapse into anarchy, and the former national unity would fracture along tribal and ethnic lines.  This vicious infighting would be the “savagery” part of the strategy.  Then they, the terrorists who originally caused the problems, would ride in to fix the problems.  This is the “management” part.  They would restore the very social services they had destroyed, restore law and order, and bring peace.

And where would Russia, the US, and Europe be during all this time?  The plan was to lure these powers into war on Muslim soil.  This would serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and would drain the great powers of their chief advantage:  their wealth.  As they went bankrupt, they would break up and lose the ability to export their culture, their movies, their blue jeans, and their political ideas, notions about women’s rights and so on.  This is the strategy they used to shatter the USSR and, they thought, it would work against the USA too.  Big, spectacular attacks like 9/11/01 are giant, bloody recruitment posters for al Qaeda, as well as attempts to goad the West into unending war and eventual bankruptcy.

At first, it seemed like it would fail, miserably.  This is why we need to remember.  After 9/11, the entire civilized world united against the forces of barbarism and savagery.  We had more pro-USA rallies around the world in the days and weeks after the World Trade Center fell than we had at any time since the defeat of Hitler, maybe even more.  The values that our nation was founded on—that all people are created equal, that we the people should control our own government—are principles that were valued around the world, even in the Islamic world.  The Muslim world has suffered under colonization and economic exploitation, as well as centuries of economic and intellectual stagnation that had left it weak and vulnerable in the 20th Century; but even there, many people want freedom, peace and prosperity, government that works for the people and in which they have some voice, even if the form that takes is not the same as our democracy.  And even people who disagreed with us did not agree with the idea of killing men, women and children who were working, or shopping, or on school trips to the city, people who might themselves be Muslim or Jewish or Christian, American or European or Asian or African, anyone who happened to be in the World Trade Center.  And we Americans, who had been pushed apart by the Culture Wars of the 1990s, came together, despite differences in race, class or religion.  Gay and straight, atheist and faithful, rich and poor all came together to mourn as one people, and to dedicate ourselves to preserving the promise of the United States of America.  We had national prayer services, we had fundraising telethons, public expressions of patriotism surged, and military recruiters were busier than they had ever been since the end of the draft.

There were some voices of dissent to all this unity.  Culture warriors like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the Right chose to blame feminists and progressives for the attacks, saying that God hates equal pay for women and help for the poor so much that He (sic) sent the terrorists to punish us.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/19/september11.usa9  Culture warriors on the Left chose to blame the victim, saying that the terrorist attacks were just retribution for the past wrongs of colonization and the present wrongs of racism and exploitation https://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/WC091201.pdf  But the vast majority of people, from George W. Bush to Christopher Hitchens, were horrified, and we mostly saw those voices of division for what they were:  self-serving attempts to keep the Culture War Industry going and its leaders prosperous.

What we have forgotten, though, is that although we were more unified than ever, the forces of division never gave up.  Falwell and Robinson merely bided their time.  More to the point, the Republican party leaped into bin Laden’s trap.  Instead of pursuing a financially sound strategy, attacking and defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan while negotiating with other Muslim nations to side with us against this common foe, they launched a second front in Iraq, a regime that for all its despicableness had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked us.  Yes, they supported terrorists in Israel, but not al Qaeda. They launched these wars with no realistic idea how to end them, with inadequate garrison forces to control the land and prevent them from descending into the very savagery bin Laden was seeking to create.  And worst, they did all this without paying for any of it running up huge national debts where the previous president had left a surplus that would have paid off the debt if only the Bush tax cuts hadn’t been passed.  As a result of this economic mismanagement, the world experienced an economic collapse in 2008 that much of Europe, Asia and Africa still has not recovered from.  The USA, under Obama, managed to stop the economic free-fall and slowly improve the economy, which has grown steadily for about ten years now.

Today, the United States government is pursuing national and international policies that seem to be intended to make bin Laden’s dream come true.  He could never have sabotaged the USA economy without help, which he got from Republican tax cuts.  He could never have sabotaged the world economy and alliances without help, which he got from the White House.  Bin Laden could never have turned Americans against each other and threatened to break up the United States into disunited separate nations, if it weren’t for the cooperation of Republicans who called out their state militias to watch Jade Helm exercises, or threatened to shoot Federal workers who sought to enforce health care laws, or who simultaneously worked tirelessly to deprive American citizens of the right to vote while threatening “Second Amendment Remedies” against anyone they didn’t like who had the gall to win in a free and fair election.  We have forgotten what it was that our enemies wanted, and thus have allowed them to come closer to victory than ever before.

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

A Gamer Looks at US Foreign Policy under Donald J. Trump

July 19, 2018

A Gamer Looks at US Foreign Policy under Donald J. Trump

 

 

Some of the articles I’ve written have drawn primarily from my experience as a philosopher and student/teacher of philosophy. Others have drawn mostly from my background as a theologian and former candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. And some have been written primarily as a geek. This will be one of those.

Gamers and geeks don’t care much about what you do in your “job” or what degrees you have, so they have that in common with the popular culture. However, they also don’t care much how much money you have or how good you look, at least not when in their official capacity as geeks. If you want to give a gamer advice on how to play a game, you don’t say “I’m really rich” or “Look at my bikini selfie;” we’ll be happy to let you buy the pizza or show off your body but we won’t let you tell us how to play our game. Tell us about what you’ve played, what you’ve won, what you’ve learned, and what your strategy is and whether it’s logical. So I will begin with a brief resumé. I have been a hard-core board gamer since 1973. I was a demon on the chessboard and at Stratego well before then, as a child beating adults, but in 1973 I found Avalon Hill’s “Blitzkrieg” and started studying WWII strategies to win military simulation games comparable to the ones used by military academies and the Pentagon to train strategic leaders. Later I also started on role-playing games, which I played consistently for decades but have been more hit-and-miss the last several years. These also often involve strategic and tactical simulations as well as psychology and history; serious gamers will read books about Roman history to role-play their legionnaire character or read Beowulf to be a more convincing barbarian, just as serious actors do historical research.   Do I win much? As an MIB I focus more on teaching, so I don’t go around beating weak players. When I play good players, I win some and I lose some but they always know they’ve been in a fight. I rate myself as “experienced” and “competent.” And as I like to say, I can read a f@cking map. When you can read a battle map or a game board, you can tell what the other side’s strategy is by their moves, and often predict their future moves as well. This ends the unavoidably pretentious recitation of my qualifications. Geeks can often seem unduly boastful of their mad gaming skills or obscure knowledge, but there’s a reason; it’s how we know how much credence to give the other’s opinion, as well as providing a sort of bonding.

As a gamer, someone who can read a board and has engaged in a lot of military, political and economic simulations of varying complexity and realism with players of widely varying ages and skill levels, I think Trump’s strategy makes a sort of sense. I will leave out the psychological elements, such as the fact that he himself has stated that he judges people on appearances and that someone who “looks” like a general or leader awes him, as well as his stated preference for people who says nice things about him. These are legitimate because they are not based on psychoanalysis but simply Trump’s own words; but I want to focus first on the strategy, so I’ll assume it is rational even if the player is not. There are a variety of games that reflect, with varying realism, the world situation. In different ways, Monopoly and Risk (two you non-geeks may have played) can give you some idea. Diplomacy is another obvious choice. My personal favorite, because it combines elements of all of these, is Avalon Hill’s Advanced Civilization. What these games have in common is that they are all multi-player games where control of the board gives resources which, in turn, allow more control and so on. Picking too many fights or focusing only on bashing people (or worse yet, on bashing one opponent and ignoring another) leads to defeat, as the wiser player who stays out of the fight can swoop in and pick up the pieces.

In multiplayer games like these, young players (even very good ones) and adults tend to follow different strategies. A young player, say 13, who is currently first or second out of six will generally suggest to the other leader that they join forces, crush all the weaker ones, then settle things among themselves one-on-one. Part of this is that it is fun to crush another player; part may be impatience, that wants an immediate “victory” rather than wait until the game is actually over; and part probably relates to the fact that a young brain can’t handle too many details at once and deals with the overload by simplifying the board. This may seem like a reasonable strategy, and sometimes it is. This seems to be Trump’s approach. He took over a game the US has been playing since 1945. We were winning that game, slowly but surely. In that game, the top player was allied with the others against the second and third place players, keeping them in check and slowly squeezing. This required a lot of coordination among allies, a lot of patience, and at times compromise to keep the others in the alliance. Trump has decided to simplify the game by declaring the other players “foes,” his nearest rivals “competitors—and I think that is a compliment,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5riwiNTzck) join forces with the #2 guy and sweep the board.

More experienced players, however, see the danger in this sort of strategy. If you neutralize all the other players, you have no possible allies if you need them. Suppose 1st Place and 2nd Place cripple or destroy 4th-6th, and then 2 & 3 gang up on #1? Is it better to have allies who have a reason and the means to defeat you, or to have allies who are too weak to be a threat but strong enough to be a help?  True, there are times in a game when it is best to just finish off the weaker players as quickly as possible regardless of whether they would be loyal friends. For example, games like Monopoly or Risk not only allow only one winner, but give rewards to whomever delivers the death blow to another. These games force a ruthless, even bullying behavior. Other games may make it more optional or even undesireable. I’ve observed that in Munchkin or Illuminati there is a real hesitancy to eliminate any one player too utterly, at least among my players. In Munchkin it’s because it is expensive, and if you commit too many resources to beating one player you just weaken both of you and aid the others. In Illuminati players generally have their own plans for victory, and would rather try to play the other players off against one another; eliminating another can mean killing off either an ally or an enemy, or perhaps just creating chaos that another player can exploit better. In a multiplayer game, experienced players who can handle treaties and schmoozing allies will often seek to build a network of alliances which they can dominate, while treating their strongest rivals as their foes. They will often, as we say, pick on someone their own size. If they can make deals with others that allow them to save their resources for fighting the other tougher players, or better still if they can turn the weaker players into allies against their toughest rivals, that is much better than simply crushing the little guys in the hopes that you can crush them fast enough to overwhelm not only them, but also the toughest players whom you now must face without allies. That is the difference between an adult and a juvenile player: the adult will attack and try to eliminate a rival for a strategic reason, while the juvenile needs little more motivation than “because I could.” If the adult can win without fighting anyone, the adult will; an inexperienced or immature player may attack out of boredom, or just to beat someone else, without a long-term plan.

To begin to put this in more real-world term: Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France are strong nations, but none entertains the illusion that it can eliminate the US. They’re just happy to stay in the game and do the best they can. The situation is perhaps more like Illuminati or one of those other games where players have different goals that are not mutually exclusive; maybe more than one can win, or maybe one can achieve its personal goal without having to directly confront a stronger power. In Third Reich, a WWII simulation, France or Italy win a decisive victory simply by surviving to the end of the game; they don’t have to beat up anyone else if they can get Russia, America and Germany to beat on each other and leave them alone. That makes Italy and France great allies; they have very little reason to try to stab their partner in the back, and little means to do so.

The “real world” current history is a lot like that game. Currently, Germany, France, Great Britain and most other NATO nations want to provide good lives for their citizens and to continue existing; in short, they want to stay in the game, but don’t need to “beat” the U.S. or anyone else to do so. They are thus perfect defensive allies for the U.S. China has long-term plans to dominate the world, avoiding pitched battles but maneuvering economically and geopolitically to extend its power. Russia has seen its power slipping and is taking ever greater risks to try to regain lost territories and extend its power. And the United States has, until 2017, relied on NATO and similar multilateral military and trade structures to build a bulwark to keep Russia and China in check. Sometimes this meant treating Germany or Japan or South Korea a bit nicer than we would have if they were “foes,” rather than simply crushing them militarily or economically. Sometimes it even meant giving them economic or military support, rather than hoarding our resources for ourselves. To a juvenile player, such an arrangement would seem silly. Why give away anything? But an adult might see greater long-term benefits. For example, we spent much to rebuild Europe after World War II, virtually creating or recreating some countries,. But after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, NATO was activated, for the first time, to help protect us from the threat of terrorism. The resources spent over the decades building up NATO has paid off handsomely, creating a world where we became and remain the sole superpower, wealthy and secure from existential threats. Terrorists may kill some people, but they can’t conquer us unless we help them by spending ourselves bankrupt or falling into paranoid tribalism.

To summarize, I think Donald Trump is playing the Foreign Policy Game rather like a game of Risk where the previous player was pursuing a long-term strategy of slowly building their forces, gathering resources, cultivating allies to contain the only two other possible rivals. But the new player, Trump, does not understand the game or the strategy of his predecessor(s), and prefers a simpler, one-on-one conflict; so he is tearing up old agreements and aiming to sweep away all his former allies to divide the board between himself and the player who controls everything from Kamchatka to Ukraine. Eventually this would lead to a 1984 board with three powers: Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania, with the ever-present danger that either of the other two might decide to join forces and divide the other one. Given the similar agendas of Eurasia and Eastasia, is there any reason to think they won’t divide Oceania (that is, the United States and its allies) between them given the chance?

Personally, I say that if you’re winning, aim for stability. Why fix what isn’t broken? The problem is that we’ve been doing so well for so long that many Americans don’t even realize how well we’re doing, and as a result they are risking losing everything. We have a military larger than the next seven nations COMBINED. We have the largest economy and, judging by how many Nobel Prizes we win, how many entrepreneurs and inventors come to live here, how many people travel here to attend college and university, and so on, we have the most innovative one as well. The average American uses as much of the planet’s resources as 53 Chinese. From a gamer point of view, that means we dominate the world and its resources by an almost insane margin. Leaving aside the moral and other implications of that and simply looking at it from a game perspective, that is another measure of our total dominance. We were winning. More Attention to the Game, A-Holes; we were winning, and you MAGAs are screwing up a good plan!

The MAGA claim that all these other nations are taking advantage of us in trade means, basically, that the new plan is going to be to try to grab even larger portions of the world’s resources while simultaneously attacking former allies. This inevitably will drive those allies to find help elsewhere. And in fact, that is what is happening; in response to the USA’s withdrawal from TPP and threats to free trade with Europe, the EU and Japan are concluding new trade agreements and cutting us out (https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/17/news/economy/eu-japan-trade-deal/index.html). China also has been moving into the vacuum left by American withdrawal from the Pacific economic treaty. If we ditch NAFTA, we should expect the EU and China to make deals with Canada and Mexico, so they can trade among themselves without tariffs while we isolate ourselves with a trade war against the world.

We went from a 70 year strategy of engaging the world and building alliances to bottle up our nearest rivals and only national existential threats to a strategy of cozying up to those national threats while casting aside those old alliances, thus unleashing our rivals against us. The result is a simpler board for simpler minds, with fewer moving pieces and fewer commitments to others, plus the ego boost of being able to pat oneself on the back for having “beaten” those “loser” nations who were stupid enough to trust us and too weak to stop us. It would be wise to remember, though, that a chaotic diplomatic world leads inevitably to a chaotic military world—in short, the risk of war and the danger of fighting all our former allies as well as our long-time foes is greater every day. And real war is no game. What we need is a little less Risk and more Pandemic or Flash Point, less chaos and backstabbing and more cooperation; or at least, more Catan with limited conflict and more economic competition, trying to beat your opponent by building better cities instead of destroying someone else’s.

PS:  The same warnings about not starting actual wars, cultivating allies etc. apply to trade wars; you don’t want to destroy your friends just to feel like a “winner,” you don’t want to be left only with hostile rivals, and if you’re #1 with the status quo you don’t screw it up by starting fights.  Play Merchant of Venus and maybe you’ll understand.

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.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

 

Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope

 

 

There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (conclusion)

June 21, 2018

Moses had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Muhammad had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity is unique in that its founding prophet, God’s Anointed One, was powerless as the world measures power. Throughout the centuries, this has created unique challenges for Christians. Some Christians have sought to reject all force and all politics, as Jesus himself did in life, leaving the world to run its own affairs. Others have sought to blend religious and political power, calling on the Church to bless everything the State did, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. Those who wanted a “strong man” to protect them, “a king like the other nations,” have often been too willing to overlook when that king failed to protect others with the same justice they sought for themselves. And when, just as Samuel warned, that strong leader went too far and the people cried out, there was no one to deliver them (1 Samuel 8:18). During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw what a strong king with unchecked power can do, as the French king massacred thousands of peaceful, loyal Protestants. For this reason he came to advocate for checks and balances in government.[1] Likewise, after our American Revolution, or as it was known in England, “The Presbyterian Revolt,” those heirs of Calvin did not seek to establish Biblical law. They agreed with Calvin that the Law of Moses was given directly only to Israel; instead, they sought to be guided by the law of love, and by the principles of justice as these were revealed in the Bible, but to express these through creating a political order with limited power, since no sinful human could be trusted with unchecked power over the rest.[2] Those Revolutionaries did not want a “strong” leader, but rather a strong nation with strong interacting and cross-checking political institutions, which could preserve peace, order and justice while also humbling the pride of arrogant politicians grasping for power.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when one person or one small group has unchecked power, all are in danger and the Church itself liable to be attacked. That is why our Presbyterian Church adopted the Declaration of Barmen as one of its fundamental statements of faith.[3] This document was written primarily by Karl Barth and adopted by the Barmen Synod in opposition to Hitler and the nationalist Christians who were taking over the State and Church. It reads in part:

 

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.[4]

 

 

Our Reformed heritage is that no one person, and no one State can be allowed to become the sole goal and ordering principle of human life; that role belongs to God alone. When a “strong man” (or strong woman) demands unlimited fealty, that is a sin and a disaster in the making. And when a church claims the political mantle, that is simply the other side of the same bad penny, a human institution going beyond its God-given limits and mission. Those who claim they are exalting the Church by claiming Christian dominion over the State are instead demeaning it, turning it into an organ of the State rather than a holy priesthood set apart for service to God.

When we look around the world, we see forces of totalitarianism resurgent in countries that once seemed on the road to democracy, where Church and State blend to give their blessings to oligarchs. When we look at home, we see millions of Christians, including many in the highest ranks of government, who espouse Christian Dominionism, the belief that democracy should be replaced by government by and for Christian people only. The delegates to the Barmen Synod, with the Confessing Churches of Germany, can teach us much about the dangers of this heresy. Whether the Church seeks to become the State, or the State seeks to control the Church, it ends up the same way: political power gains control over religion, and the Church shrinks to being just another department in the government bureaucracy, another prop for humans seeking power over other humans. And ultimately, this idolatry of the State collapses into idolatry of an individual who claims, as that French king who massacred Protestants once said, “I am the State.”  “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The “strong man” sought by many Americans is just another idol. God does not want us to seek from political leaders what we should seek only from God. This is, no doubt, an unsettling, anxiety-filled world; but the cure for this anxiety is not devotion to a leader, it’s faith in God. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, “On Civil Government” sections VIII, XXX

[2] John T. McNeill, editor, Calvin: On God and Political Duty (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1956) pp. xviii-xix, 63-6

[3] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, (http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf) downloaded June 19, 2018

[4] Declaration of Barmen, section 5

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 2)

June 7, 2018

In case we were thinking, “Well, that’s an interesting historical tale, but it doesn’t really relate to us,” God repeats the point. For example, Psalm 146:3-7 says this:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

 

 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

 

 

Not only are God’s people told not to put their trust in mortal rulers; trusting princes and kings is presented as the opposite of trusting God, who gives justice to the poor and the oppressed. The implication of the historical story is restated as an ethical command. God’s people are not to put their trust in earthly rulers; God may use politicians to do God’s work, whether it is a king after his own heart, like David, or one who doesn’t even know his name, like Cyrus. The so-called “Religious Right” is fond of saying that Christians go astray by not paying enough attention to the Old Testament; perhaps on that point they’re right.

But I want to address Christians; and as Christians, when we look at what a ruler should be, we look first to Jesus. He is our teacher and our model, and his words and life were consistent. He taught, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27; see also Matt 23:11, Mark 9:35). That is the sort of leader he was; one who took off his clothes and washed his disciples’ feet, a job normally left to slaves. He was not a leader who would demand bowing and scraping; he was the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (which actually is a pretty foolish shepherd by normal standards). As to the other sort of leader, the one who demands respect and service and perhaps gives little back; well, if Jesus had wanted to be that sort of leader, he could have accepted Satan’s offer when he was tempted in the wilderness: bow down and worship me, and I will give you the thrones of the world (Matt 4:8-10, Luke 4:6-7). Jesus had great power, even as the world measures power; he changed the world more than any king or emperor of his day. Over half the world’s population follows Christianity. The vast majority of Roman emperors died thinking they were great, but have been forgotten by most people. But the power of Jesus was not like the power of those we usually consider “strong men.” In his day, he seemed completely powerless, dying wretched and abandoned; but those who kept their faith in him were not left desolate, because he had the power of God and still does.

To be continued….

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 1)

May 29, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol

 

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,  and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 

1 Samuel 8:4-9

 

The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes was largely responsible for much of our political language today. He said that all men (he was pretty sexist, so I’ll suspect the language wasn’t an oversight) were created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights. These ideas got picked up later by John Locke, then passed through him to Jefferson and other Founding Fathers (and mothers) of our Revolution, and thence into common use today. HOWEVER, Hobbes differs from some of these others in that he does not think this “equality” is all that good a thing. In fact, this equality of people primarily means that we are all equally selfish, fearful, irrational, and absolutely dangerous to one another. When everyone is equal, everyone has equal rights to have his desires satisfied, no matter how harmful to anyone else. He says this equality breeds conflict, and that without a strong force to keep us all in line, our lives would be war of each against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” All this equality is so terrible, Hobbes said, that the only sensible thing to do is to join together in societies. In a society, or “commonwealth” to use his word, we all tacitly choose one person, or a small group, to be better than the rest of us, to be above the law, and to be the law for the rest. He preferred a single king, but a small group like the Roman senate would be okay too, so long as there was some person or persons in charge. In his view, the State is thus an “artificial person,” created when a group of us actual people agree to give up most of our rights in exchange for protection of our lives, freedom from torture and imprisonment, and some other minimal rights. Hobbes calls this ruling power the “sovereign,” and states that the sovereign is not bound by the law; it creates the law, designates what will count as “good” or “evil,” hands out rewards and punishments, and does whatever is required to establish order. Without a strong hand with a big stick, Hobbes said, none of us could sleep peacefully; but since we all know our neighbors fear the government, we can at least trust our neighbors not to murder us in our beds. Because this sovereign must be above the law, be the lawgiver for the nation, providing for the security and prosperity of the rest of us, Hobbes refers to it as “that earthly god, or Leviathan,” which the Creator put in place to manage human affairs. He thought God was not going to rule over us directly, so we need to select someone or some group among us to take over the role of deity pro tempore.

Hobbes and Samuel don’t seem to agree on much, but they do seem to agree that the strong worldly leader is an alternative to trusting in God alone. Hobbes would probably point us toward the book of Judges, and its mournful refrain: There was no king in Israel in those days, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. The lack of a king, Hobbes would say, had led Israel to anarchy and brutality; only a strong government would impose order. But this thing displeased Samuel. He seems to have taken it personally; he was, after all, one of those judges, those leaders appointed directly by God as prophet and leader. Samuel would probably have said that when Israel lived faithfully with God, they had peace and prosperity; but when the judge died and the people ceased following the LORD, that was when they ran into trouble. The period of the judges was chaotic, but it also is depicted as somewhat democratic for its day. The judge was called by God, but then had to go out and convince the people. Gideon, Deborah, and less famous judges ruled only with the consent of the people; they had to rally the people to follow and obey them. When they died, their successors were appointed by God and accepted by the people for their leadership, not because they were of royal blood. When Samuel became old, the people wanted a strong, stable, authoritarian government like the nations around them; since Samuel’s sons were not up to the job of succeeding their father, the people wanted an official monarchy with a clear, perpetual line of succession, like all the other nations had. God said, don’t take it personally, Samuel. They aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting me, their God. They want visible power, a royal family that will hold authority over them, rather than the uncertainty of relying on the invisible power of the LORD to choose their leaders from among them. They are idolaters at heart, whether they are seeking a golden calf or a king. So explain to them carefully and honestly what it is they are choosing; and then, if that is what they want, let them have their king.

To be continued…