Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

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.

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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…

True and False Religious Freedom

May 2, 2018

https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/27/opinions/paul-ryans-firing-of-patrick-conroy-should-worry-us-all-parini/

The conservative attitude towards religion, and religious freedom, has long been convoluted.  Conservatives have always been vocal about their traditional rights and privileges, and denounce any violation of their “religious freedom.”  However, conservatives have generally been slow to protect the religious freedom of others who disagree with them.  It is natural that this should be so.  Being authoritarian, conformist and conservative are not necessarily the same things, but are definitely connected.  To be authoritarian is to be inclined to submit to “proper authority” and conversely to expect obedience when one occupies a position of authority; to be conformist is to seek to obey the social norms of those around one; and to be conservative is to resist change and to prize stability.  There have been plenty of conformists who were conforming to liberal peers, and there have been plenty of liberals who either sought to obey a charismatic leader or sought to be one.  But the essence of “liberal” is to value change, particularly change that aims to establish equality of all individuals; to be “conservative” is to resist change and to value the stability of a hierarchy.  Thus a conservative is more likely to judge other religions to be “wrong,” not merely in the sense of being mistaken but to be positively harmful.  Other religions challenge the traditional social order and moral values of one’s own group.

Historically, Evangelicals have disrupted social norms, but have done so in the name of a “return” to “tradition” or “heritage.”  Sometimes the “return” is actually something quite novel, but rarely is it recognized as such by its adherents.  For example, through Middle Ages and the Enlightenment there was no systematic culture war between Science and Religion.  Most of the educated people, and thus most of the scientists and philosophers, were themselves clergy or monks, or at least educated at religious schools.  As the Enlightenment moved towards the Modern period, there were increasing numbers of atheists like Hume and Nietzsche, but also many intellectuals who were believers (Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, etc.).  Likewise, most religious thinkers accepted the teachings of science, and sought to offer theological responses to developments in the natural and social sciences.  The intense “Culture Wars” we accept as normal only really began in the 20th Century, with the publication of The Fundamentals.  In attacking Darwinism and science as a whole as an alien ideology, Fundamentalist Protestants redefined what it was to be a Christian, without really realizing what they were doing.  While once almost every Christian recognized that the Bible had allegorical as well as historical truths and often felt the allegorical, moral meanings were more important than historical literalism, today large portions of American Protestantism argues that unless the Bible is 100% literally historically true, it can’t be trusted to have any moral or spiritual value.  This would have struck most Christians as absurd for the first 1900 years of our history.

In the case of the Prosperity Gospel, even preachers who recognized that they were changing the traditional teachings of their religious communities have simultaneously denied that they were anything other than Bible-believing conservatives.  Jim Bakker turned the Assemblies of God from an anti-materialistic Evangelical subculture resisting too much integration into the commercial or political mainstream into avid consumers and political players, fully comfortable with and even hungry for wealth and power.  The religion that taught “You cannot love God and Money” and “The love of money is the root of all evil” was transformed into a religion that not only accepts money, but expects it as the reward of faith and which measures spiritual worth by financial worth.  This is way beyond the notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic.”  Our Puritan ancestors might have thought that hard work was a virtue and that God would bless the faithful with material rewards for their labors, but we go further; we look at a billionaire and assume that he is morally and spiritually praiseworthy, since God wouldn’t give a bad person money.  This is a radical change from the Biblical witness, which has a much more nuanced and mixed view of prosperity.

But the Prosperity Gospel and other forms of conservative Evangelicalism do share one thing in common:  religious intolerance.  While they jealously guard their own religious freedom, those “liberals” challenge the social order and the rightness of their own views by threatening to bring in other perspectives.  In the face of such threats, conservatives are likely to respond either defensively or judgmentally.  Glenn Beck famously denounced “progressive” churches that advocated for “social justice,” warning his millions of television viewers and radio listeners to flee such evil places; he was quite unaware that his own Mormon religion was itself one of those “social justice” churches until the leaders pointed out that he was changing their traditional religious message to suit his 21st Century agenda.  Paul Ryan behaves defensively; a Jesuit challenged his views, threatened his moral authority, and rather than just let the priest spout his powerless words, Ryan gave him the only power true Christianity has ever known:  martyrdom.  Ryan fired a chaplain for expressing his religious views.  That is pretty much the opposite of the “religious freedom” Republicans pride(!) themselves for upholding.  But today, “religious freedom” often means nothing more than the freedom of conservatives to enforce their values and views on others and demand accommodation, while denying any sort of accommodation to others.

Paul Ryan’s devotion to the writings and teachings of Ayn Rand are well documented.  It is often forgotten that Rand hated Christianity more than she hated Democrats, likely more even than she hated Socialists.  She correctly saw that Christianity means raising up the weak and pulling down the mighty (see Luke 1:46-55), the very opposite of her teaching that the rich are smarter and more virtuous than the rest of us.  She also saw that Christianity is not about worldly social structures and power, but is “mystical,” in her words, rather than materialistic.  Many conservative politicians and religious leaders alike claim to be both Christian and followers of Rand, but they are either liars or fools, and Ayn Rand would be the first to say so. That is why she urged people not to vote for Ronald Reagan, even when he was running against a Democrat (http://www.openculture.com/2014/10/in-her-final-lecture-ayn-rand-denounces-ronald-reagan-the-moral-majority-anti-choicers-1981.html). In attacking the Capitol chaplain for praying as his religion taught him, saying he was too “political,” Ryan was in fact imposing his politics on another person’s religious freedom; and furthermore, he was attacking someone who actually had a thorough working knowledge of religion, had studied it and was mentored spiritually as well as academically.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope.  The Jesuits have a long history of both intense intellectual achievement, and vigorous social activism.  In fact, during the days of European colonialism and the genocide of the American peoples, the Jesuits were frequently attacked by the rich and powerful because they opposed the enslavement and robbery of the poor.  They were even “irrevocably” dissolved more than once.  Compared to what some of them suffered, Father Conroy’s loss of a plum job is so minor as to barely register on the Martyr Meter.  But from a political perspective, it is important.  He was fired for practicing his faith.  Unlike Kim Davis, he didn’t deny anybody else the right to do what they wanted; while she in good conservative tradition asserted her “religious freedom” to deny others their freedom, Father Conroy simply prayed.  Yet she is held up by Republicans as a victim of religious persecution, while he is fired from his job.  Certainly, if “religious freedom” means anything, and if Evangelicals will demand the freedom to speak about their faith, to witness to people even when they have made it clear they don’t want to be witnessed to, then for them to not stand up to defend Conroy is sheer hypocrisy—-or else it is an indication that the phrase “religious freedom,” which sounds so glorious, means something very different in the mouth of a Republican.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 6)

March 13, 2018

“Falwell… stands labeled by Niebuhr as ‘false prophet.’”[1] And despite praising Falwell’s contention that the Christian must be involved in politics, and despite having misgivings about some aspects of Niebuhr’s theology, the analysis in this thesis largely agrees. Understanding why and in what ways Falwell is a false prophet not only shows us the heart of this thesis, but offers hints into Comey’s own motivations.   These hints are more for the reader’s exercise, since mindreading is an inexact science; so I will try to summarize Comey’s critique of Falwell and let you entertain yourself by speculating what part all this might have played in Comey’s controversial decisions of 2016 and 2017.

Falwell claims that his theological pronouncements are the clear word of God, supported by direct warrant from Scripture. He does not mean by this that there is no room for interpretation; he is not a strict literalist in the sense that if the Bible says to let the word of God be inscribed on your right hand, that you must literally write or tie Scriptures there (Deut 11:18). Or as Comey points out, the mere fact that the Bible reports similar events differently does not mean that Jesus at one time fed 5000 people with no commentary, then did it again with extensive commentary, despite the differences between Mark’s and John’s accounts; rather, we must interpret the Scriptures to make them harmonize. But Falwell does claim that, correctly interpreted, the Bible provides the Christian with direct instruction, and that this instruction is largely identical with the political and moral proclamations of Falwell himself. And upon close examination, this notion does not hold up. Many of Falwell’s claims seem to have, at best, indirect warrant from Scripture, requiring some degree of analogical or imaginative thinking. This is true not just of peripheral issues, but of claims that make up the heart of Falwell’s message. Falwell’s claim that God endorses capitalism and that capitalism is in fact the only economic system that God approves is highly dubious. As Comey points out, Falwell relies on Proverbs for his claim, but the proverb he cites is not particularly direct; it only reflects the idea that hard work should be rewarded and laziness leads to poverty. Falwell simply ignores large portions of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets, where the Bible makes its most sustained ethical teachings, and which seriously question the unlimited right to property and profit. Instead, Falwell, like other fundamentalists influenced by Rousas Rushdooney, relies primarily on selective reading of the Torah and Wisdom literature. But even in the Torah, the right to property is severely limited. For example, in the Year of Jubilee all debts are to be cancelled, all slaves set free, and most radically, all land sold by anyone is to be returned to that person’s family (Lev 25:8-17). Leaving aside questions like the ownership of Manhattan and assuming that this law only applies to “godly” nations like Israel and (according to Falwell) the United States, imagine what this would do to the real estate sector alone! While houses in “walled cities” may be sold permanently, no one in America lives in a walled city; and in any case, even if you stretch the definition of “walled city” to include any metropolis, this would still exclude suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Every fifty years, all this land would be returned to the original seller’s family. That’s a pretty serious restriction on capitalism! What this points to is that while the Bible allows for people to profit from their own work, or to make a reasonable and fair profit from business, the true source of capital in biblical times, the land itself, belonged to YHWH, which God Himself had distributed to particular tribes and families to manage. It was therefore a mixed economy, neither wholly socialist or wholly capitalist; the ultimate means of production, the land itself, belonged to God and by extension to the nation and people as a whole, while all profits from the land belonged to the individual. Even here there were restrictions, such as the prohibition against going back over your own fields to gather up anything the harvesters missed the first time (Lev. 23:22). Instead, even when dealing with what was unarguably “private property,” the landowner was required to provide for the poor. Again, the treatment of landowners in the Torah is not like the unlimited property rights asserted by Ayn Rand or even John Locke, who claim that private property is an essential right based on one’s right to one’s own body and thus to the “fruits of your labors.” It is not even like a franchise, where a largely absentee owner gives out a license in perpetuity for the franchisee to run the local gas station or McDonald’s as if he or she owned it outright provided certain minimum standards are met. Instead, the Torah treats landowners much more like managers, whose books are subject to evaluation on a regular basis by the true boss, which is God. And in a theocracy like Israel is described and like Falwell seems to want America to be, to say property is owned by God is to say that it is owned by the State as God’s agent. The socialists have a strong case if they wish to claim direct warrant from Scripture, at least as strong as the capitalists do.

The point is not to say that the Bible provides direct warrant for socialism, communism, capitalism or any other sort of “–ism;” the point is that the Bible does not provide direct warrant for our human “–isms” and that we commit idolatry when we claim it does. It is another example of our pride, leading us to exalt our particular preference or heritage to divine status.

[1] Comey, p. 89

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.