God and Government: Christian Leadership

I’ve got two words for you: “oxymoron.”

Now, admittedly, that comment is going to get me a lot of flak (“flack”? whatever) from everyone who read Christian Leadership and thought about those retreats we went to in youth group and the really eloquent speakers you’ve heard at a workshop or lectureship. That’s not really what I’m thinking about here — I’m thinking about Christianity in government — but some of the same ideas apply.

Listen, before Jesus died, he spent a lot of time talking. A lot of people miss out on that, especially because, later, Paul spent a lot of time writing, so he kind of eclipses a lot of what Jesus had to say.

But Jesus had a lot to say about leadership and authority. He said most of it (that is, the most important bit) when he wrapped a towel around his waist, got down on his knees, and washed his apostles’ feet. We all know that story so well, and what it represents, y’know, metaphorically, that we kinda disregard what he was saying there. That is, we focus on the theological aspect of an act that is, first and foremost, a political one. Whereas, in Christ’s teaching, he chose instead to put forth the political lesson, and let us derive the theological.

Hmm…that might sound like I’m saying the same thing. The problem here is that we, as Christians, are reading the New Testament in exactly the same way we get so frustrated at scientists for telling us to read the Old Testament. (That sentence might be grammatically correct….) The thing is, something can be metaphorical or figurative and still hold literal meaning. In fact, a good metaphor ought to be wholly accurate on both levels of perception: the literal and the figurative.

So when Jesus said we ought to wash each other’s feet, and what he meant by that was that we ought to serve one another’s physical comforts, and what he really meant by that was that we ought to serve one another’s spiritual comforts…we follow that line of reasoning, and teach our kids that Christians should look out for each other’s spiritual comfort. And how can you tell? Why, because Jesus himself said that we should look out for each other’s physical comfort.

Now, if you’re one of those trying to rush ahead of what I’m saying, then you’re probably getting annoyed at my choice of passage, because this isn’t a perfect one for what I’m trying to say. It’s an excellent illustration of how we misuse Jesus’ metaphors, though. Now that we’ve seen that, though, let’s focus on another passage. There’s a story in the New Testament where a couple of the apostles (I’m going to take a wild guess and say “James and John,” rather than actually looking it up) ask Jesus if they can be first in the Kingdom of Heaven — following him, of course. Jesus rebukes them, and the other apostles get in on the rebuking because, y’know, they should probably have asked, but Jesus calls them all down. Here’s the passage:

When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that in this world kings are tyrants, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Okay, we’ve all heard that, and we understand that this means Christians shouldn’t be tyrannical. That’s not the point, though. The point is that Christianity cannot be achieved through authority. It’s earlier in that paragraph that Jesus talks about the Vineyard Workers (a parable I wrote on in an earlier post), and that parable ends with these words:

“And so it is, that many who are first now will be last then; and those who are last now will be first then.”

We also have the passage where some trickster challenges Jesus on paying taxes, and Jesus talks about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. In that passage, Jesus clearly recognizes the temporal authority structure without participating within it.

And that wasn’t a new attitude, when we saw it there. We’d already seen it in the desert, when the Tempter offered Jesus dominion over all the world. Jesus turned it down.

He turned it down, and then he didn’t go to the politicians, to change the world. When he was brought before Pilate, he answered him in silence. In fact, we have no record of Jesus deliberately seeking out politicians or trying in any way to change world or national politics.

Jesus’ message is one of a personal relationship with God. The lifestyle he teaches is a self-sacrificing one. It is not a message that makes for good government — it’s one that makes for good people. If people were good, we wouldn’t need government. Got it?

I know my dad thinks there ought to be more Christians in government — he’ll vote for one any chance he gets. The problem is, a good Christian has to be ready to forgive every offense against him. A good Christian has to be ready to give more than he is asked for, to respond to violence with submission. These things will make a good person.

But they will only make a good governor when all the rest of the world’s governors are prepared to respect like that. Or, alternately, when every one of the governed is precisely as devoted to the governor’s Christianity as he is. In the first case, none will take advantage of the governor or the state he represents. In the second case, although others will take advantage of his state, the people of the state will accept it, as they accept the same within their personal lives.

Show me a world where all of the powers are Christians, and I will vote for a Christian leader. Show me a state where all of the citizens are Christians, and I will vote for a Christian leader. Otherwise, in any other circumstances, you are either willfully sending sheep among the wolves, without any sort of defender (note that we are talking temporal authority, which Paul claims God has put in place to serve its purposes, even as the Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews served God’s purposes), or you are placing a Christian in a position that will force him to curb his own faith in order to fulfill his job. That is, a good Christian placed in a position of authority must, within that authority, be a worse Christian to properly fulfill his responsibility.

If you, as a Christian, decide to take on a leadership position — perhaps you think that, by acting to protect the weak, you can do enough good to offset the evil of not turning the other cheek, for instance — then you have made that choice for yourself, and power to you. However, I will not (or, to be more accurate, would not) advocate voting for you on the sole grounds that you are a Christian. That is because, inasmuch as you are a good leader, you become less of a good Christian. And inasmuch as you are a good Christian, you become less of a good leader.

Now, to perfectly clarify, I am talking about temporal authority. There are other forms of leadership than temporal authority, clearly. The foremost, with regard to this conversation, being that of a role model. Christ was clearly a leader, and his Christianity made him a better leader, clearly. That’s the whole point of the washing of his apostles’ feet. Jesus was not one to say “Go and do,” and have others obey him on his authority. Rather, he was one who said, “This is what I do.” And others could choose to be like him because they saw the effect Jesus’ actions had in his life and in theirs.

And this all speaks directly to my opinion concerning elders within the church. I flatly stand against the idea of elders who meet, decide what the church should do, state their opinions, and then the church does it. Which is to say: elders.

That is not what eldership has represented for the bulk of human history, and it is not what Christ called for. “Elder” is a name we use (not one the elders themselves use) to indicate someone who, by the evidence of his life, has established himself as a role-model and source of information, who we would like to follow. It is the very heart of Jesus’ method of leadership and it is (this is the most important part) an entirely optional authority. That is, it is one that you can approach and say, “I choose to live like you.” And if you do, so much the better, and if you don’t, it in no way detracts from the leader’s authority.

Ehff. I’ve gone on too long, and I’m onto another topic altogether now, but it shows what I’m getting at. In fact, it highlights it well. The very best I think we could hope for, in electing Christian leaders, would be to achieve something like the elderships we’re all so familiar with. Imagine the board of elders from your congregation as the House and Senate of the U. S. That’s the ideal of that system. That is the best that it could achieve and, honestly, it’s not much different from what we already have. You could probably name nine key political decisions that would be decided, once for all, if that were the case. Other than that, replacing the Senate with your church’s eldership would pretty much be the same as electing a bunch of Republicans.

And, no, that’s not utopia. Honestly, it’s not much better than everyday. It might be more comfortable — that is, your personal opinions on some topics would be more accessible within the community — but you can achieve that with a political action committee. And, if you think about it, that really just means someone down the street is less comfortable.

And none of that sounds like the kind of authority Jesus promoted. No, Jesus’ solution to the world problems takes place inside individual folks, not in halls all made of marble. That’s what it boils down to.

Greatness: Man’s Divine Nature

Okay, for several of you, about three paragraphs into this post, you’re going to think, “He’s talking about me!” And that “me,” in case you didn’t catch it, is shrill and outraged. Honestly, though, this is something everyone needs to hear, often. It’s not directed at or wholly inspired by any one of you. (No, not even you.) But, if it happens to speak to your own life, now, take it to heart and be glad at the coincidence that placed words into your life right where they belonged.

I’m just sayin’, is all.

But here’s the thing: everyone you encounter in your life is a person.

I need some snappier way of saying that, a clever phrase that will stick in your head and pop into your thoughts right when it’s needed. Maybe before this post is through I’ll come up with one. For now, though, we’ve gotta settle with the boring, apparently obvious “everyone you encounter in your life is a person.”

That’s a big deal, though. We live our lives inside the first-person point-of-view that so many authors have discarded as being too limited in scope. Each of us sees his life as his own story, and all the people he encounters along the way are just characters, just plot developments that push his story this way or that. Some of them we love for the impact they have on our lives. Some of them we hate, for the same reason. And the named characters keep coming back, keep affecting our lives in different ways, so maybe our feelings about that person change, shift, over the course of the story.

Even so, making another human being into a dynamic character in your story isn’t enough.

Because, behind his eyes, he’s living his own story. He’s got a whole world, a whole life of his own to live. He’s conscious and aware and trying to live his life well. Where it intersects with yours, there is conflict. In writing, we refer to all of these intersections as conflict. It could be a fistfight or an embrace, but it’s still conflict. It’s two stories trying to come to terms enough for each of them to move on, in their own directions.

This post isn’t about the story metaphor, though. In fact, my main point is that the story metaphor completely defines most of our lives, and it’s totally wrong. Or, rather, dangerously limited in scope.

Everyone you encounter — whether it’s a friend, a loved one, or a perfect stranger — everyone you encounter is living a whole life, is a person encountering you at the same time. And every one of us (I’m convinced of this) is trying to live a good life. What exactly that means changes from day to day, but every one of us is trying to live a good life.

I know you are. Right now, you are.

And yet, even so, you make mistakes. You say something offhand to someone you really care about, and it’s just devastating to them. You’ve done that, without ever meaning to offend, and you’ve seen the impact it had on their lives.

You act, trying to do something good (or at least something pleasant), and years later you see how your own actions are impacting the lives of people you’ve met, people you care about. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad ways, and you never really know which will be which.

Sometimes you just act like a jerk. I’m not accusing you, I’m just reminding you of something you know is true. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood, and something touches you off, and you just act like a total jerk. It’s a short-lived thing (because you’re not a jerk), and next moment you’re back to trying to live a good life.

And that’s okay. Life is a learning experience. You try to get better as you go along, which is the same as saying that, all the time, you’re trying to live a good life.

Now…change perspectives. Think of someone you encountered yesterday. It can be a stranger, or it can be your spouse. But think of someone specific. Think of someone you encountered yesterday, and realize that that person was trying to live a good life. That person was an awareness behind his eyes, looking out on the world and making decisions about it. Maybe he said something that hurt your feelings. Maybe he acted, in a way that will impact your life down the line (for good or bad). Maybe he was just a complete jerk.

But he wasn’t doing any of those things to you, y’see? He’s living his life, just like you’re living yours. He was making decisions, and maybe floundering and maybe just shining like the sun. We do that, sometimes, too. You do that, more often than you realize. You’re just going along, trying to live a good life, and out of nowhere, BAM!, you actually do. You flare up like a nova, and shed beautiful light on the lives of everyone around you.

I’ve seen you do it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you to read my blog.

And think about your own life. Sometimes you’re awesome. Sometimes you’re horrible. Through it all, though, remember that you’re a Child of God. You are this amazing thing, this beautiful, boundless potential, and you’re living a life learning how to live up to that potential. Remember that you are everything that you could one day be. You are the brilliant, shining moments, and the cost of becoming that, the very process of becoming that, necessarily includes the sleazy, cruel, selfish moments, along with all the rest.

And that stranger who just cut you off in traffic? He’s the same thing. That’s one of his bad moments, but he’s a Child of God, and you had better believe that there’s times he glows in radiant beauty. The same is true of everyone you meet. Every person, every single person, is a little bit of divine spark trying to learn how to shine. And all of them are seeing the world through their own faulty eyes, trying to guess what it all really means (just like you do), and making decisions, and making bad choices, and stumbling through today because, please, maybe tomorrow will be better.

That includes people close to you. That includes your Mom or your Dad. It includes boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and siblings and children who just won’t treat you like you deserve. They’re looking at a world they can’t quite get, they’re fending off frustrations and trying to find their purpose and wrestling with the injustice of it all, and when you cross their path, when you enter their life, they make a decision that will impact you.

And it may be good, and it may be bad. Switch perspectives again. You encounter someone in your life, someone important to you, someone you care about, and you make a decision that will impact that person’s life. It may be good, it may be bad. You want it to be good, but you know from long, long experience, that there’s equal chances something will go wrong.

All of us, every one of us, is trying to live a good life. It’s fair to be hurt when someone hurts you. It’s fair to be annoyed at someone acting like a jerk. But remember, always remember, every single one of those people is a little bit of divine spark, trying to learn how to shine.

I challenge you, personally, to try to see that in people. Try to see people as people, wherever you encounter them, not just as characters in the story of your life. Try to remember who they are.

And, in a very specific application of this, here’s your homework. Think of someone you care about, and who you know cares about you. Someone who has hurt you so bad that you almost discarded them from the list when I said, “and who you know cares about you.” Think about that person, and the thing he or she did to hurt you.

And think about a time when you made a choice about someone important to you, and you hurt them. Whether you meant to hurt them or not, you made a choice that hurt their lives.

Dwell upon these two things, and find the space behind this person’s eyes. Find the space inside his or her own mind, where the offense happened. And try to recognize it for what it was, rather than what it became within your life.

Please? For me?

Government: Freedom of the Vicious

On the drive to work this morning, I was listening to NPR and there was a brief discussion of the current scandal wherein the Pentagon has paid Iraqi journalists to publish pro-American stories in Iraqi newspapers.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Freedom of the Press, like the right to vote, is a liberty that is inherently most likely to be used by those most likely to abuse it.

The thoughtful, the careful, the mature and concerned citizens are going to have a degree of self-control and reasonable restraint that will prevent them from ever remotely competing with the arrogant, brash, impulsive twits who rush out to impose their worldview on an undeserving public because it is their right.

Honestly, anyone who refers to his right in that tone of voice is probably insisting on his liberty to abuse a generous system.

I guess this gets back to the Active Way versus the Contemplative Way that I established in the KJW excerpt. I’m talking about the difference between Larry King and … I don’t even know any opinionators who I would hold up as a thoughtful and educated example. And this has nothing to do with Right of Left. Even the ones I agree with in principle, express their opinions in ways I could not condone and do so with the full protection of the State behind them.

But that’s what gets to me. I’m embarrassed to hear Hannity or Limbaugh say things that I basically believe about our government, because of the way they say them. But, as a student of history, it just burns me up to hear the sea of voices decrying our government and demanding that the same government protect their right to say it.

Why? Why should a government protect the power of its opponents? Admittedly, sometimes we do. We trained bin Laden, to fight the Russians. We armed Hussein, to fight Iran. These were short-sighted mistakes, and all of us now regret that we made them, but somehow we expect the State to provide its domestic enemies with the weapons necessary to wage a war against it? It’s absurd.

It’s guaranteed by the Constitution. Yeah, I get that. I understand why the American government protects freedom of speech now. I just stand opposed to the initial promise. It is wrong to protect speech, particularly politically-motivated slander.

There should be some level of oversight, some extent of control, and I accept the loss of liberty that goes with it, because (and listen closely here) living in a Governed Society means the sacrifice of some individual comforts for the sake of a strong (and, in theory, supporting) community.

It makes sense that individuals would want Freedom of Speech. And, moreover, it makes a lot of sense that a community founded entirely on scandal and slander (that is, journalists) would want Freedom of the Press, specifically. It also makes sense that a man would want his neighbor’s possessions, and human law is about subverting that individual desire for the sake of a community that offers security and order. We do not let men do whatever they wish — why would we dare let them say whatever they wish, especially since saying is so much easier than doing.

Free speech is the strongest weapon against established government — it is the foundation of Anarchy.

Now, Toby challenged me on this in one of my recent posts (for a given value of “recent”), and the same issue still stands: societies must choose the extent to which they are willing to sacrifice personal liberties for the sake of strong government. And, naturally, the government has as much capacity to abuse its powers as citizens have to abuse their liberties. These are real problems, and a totalitarian government like Hussein’s Iraq can use a State-run press in abominable ways.

But that is not the inevitable result of government oversight. I think that’s part of the problem with the American cultural conception of Strong Government — we believe any government power must necessarily end in totalitarian control.

Did you know England does not have a protected Freedom of Speech? Certainly the country has been affected by the pervasive American culture, but the government today does not recognize Free Speech as an inherent right of its citizens. Of course, this isn’t a huge surprise, since it was England’s totalitarianism we were rejecting when we penned the Bill of Rights.

Yeah. England. Not Iraq, not North Korea, but England. And you can see any day of the week that the English population still expresses dissent, that the government is not an iron-clad structure of favoritism and nepotism. It’s a free nation, a democratic nation even, but with a measure of reasonable restraint.

I’ve just read “V for Vendetta,” a graphic novel that Daniel got me for my birthday, and it mostly focuses on the collapse of British society into a police state following World War 4. So these topics are very much on my mind, and I’m seeing in graphic detail the objections some of you would raise, but I want to make it clear: all government is a sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of security and order. And, as I said at the top of this post, Freedom of the Press, like the right to vote, is a liberty that is inherently most likely to be used by those most likely to abuse it.

God, Government, and Greatness: Adoption

I have my doubts that I will get across everything that needs gotten, but there is a base concept of Adoption which I really need to establish.

I may have mentioned this to some extent in my earlier posts on Goverment (Monarchy specifically), but I couldn’t find it if so, which means I didn’t go into enough detail.

First, I’d like you to read a passage from Romans 7. It’s verses 13-19, 22-23. The two verses I omitted do not significantly change the meaning of the text, so I’ve cut them for clarity. By all means, feel free to read the entire passage in context — I’m just not quoting it all here.

For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed….

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

This is not, of course, the only place we see reference to God-the-Father or, by extension, the members of the church as his sons and daughters. In the book of Romans, though, Paul is able to draw upon that concept more fully and powerfully because of the Roman cultural practice of Adoption.

Our culture has established its own ideas concerning adoption, specifically the conception of a second-class status for adopted children. It’s silly, it’s an easily-dispelled idea, but it’s one that persists in our culture and, honestly, that’s how we feel in relation to God. When Paul says that we’re the adopted sons and daughters of God, that makes perfect sense to the American mind. We’re not his REAL kids, but he was generous enough to adopt us.

That’s not how Adoption worked in the Roman empire.

(I referenced Goverment in my tagline, and that’s about to come into play, too.)

Y’see, when we think of old-timey inheritance, we generally think of a system called “primogeniture” whereby the first-born son inherits the entire wealth (including titles) of the father. This is one of the huge stumbling blocks of monarchy as we imagine it — that terrible corruption of passing the throne from Louis I down the line to Louis XVI.

The Romans had a system in place to prevent that, to some extent. Adoption. It was the responsibility of a Roman man to choose his own heir. It could be his first-born son, but a first-born son was not actually born with any inheritance rights. In order to pass his estate on to his first-born son, the Roman gentleman would have to adopt his son as his heir. He could just as easily adopt a nephew or a brother-in-law or, more likely, an apprentice or assistant. It was his responsibility to choose an heir who could effectively maintain the estate he would inherit.

Obviously this system was open to abuse of its own. I’m pretty sure most of you are already thinking of Nero and Caligula, and after all, who is going to try to hold an Emperor accountable for living up to his social responsibility? The Emperors did hold their followers responsible, though, and there were dozens (hundreds?) of kings within the Roman empire who were compelled to choose fitting heirs, and bound to that decision by the process of Adoption.

Adoption, then, was not an act of mercy or compassion, but one of investiture. When a Roman adopted a son, he proclaimed to the world, “I approve of this one. He deserves to one day own all the wealth and power that I possess.”

And that is what God has done with us. That’s the entire point of this passage in Romans. God has Adopted us into his sovereignty — not just into the comfort of his home, but into the position of wielding his great might. We have been proclaimed worthy of becoming like God himself.

Here’s the important bit “we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

We have been made Sons of God. We have been given all the power Christ bore when he walked the earth, but more than that. We have been promised the full power of God. This is the confidence he has shown in us. This is his expectation of us. Because adoption is a responsibility as well. We must live like Princes, in training to someday assume the throne. That’s the “sharing in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” bit. And that’s an amazing position to be caught in.

And — this is what irks me — it’s a role that we are not taught! My dad taught me about Roman adoption, and what it means to be a son of God. Other than that, I heard not a word. Have any of you heard of this before, from anyone other than me? We’re taught that every one of us is a foot soldier in God’s army. We’re taught that we’re prey the lion is stalking. We’re taught to think like the Israelites, for whom God provides manna. We’re taught that we’re like the lillies, and God will clothe us in beauty, or that we’re like the birds of the air, and God will fill our needs.

But that’s not even the point of that passage. Jesus cries out, “how much more, then, will he do for you?” We are not just soldiers, we are not just cute little animals and pretty flowers. We’re not even like the trackless Israelites, but like Moses who led them, all radiant from the Glory of God. We’re Princes. We’re Kings and Queens, arrayed before our Emperor. Stand up! Be proud, ye heavenly powers. The armies of angels are our armies.

Remember the parable of the prodigal son? Remember how he went away and sinned, and because he had squandered his wealth, he lived among the pigs, and lived like a pig. That’s what we’re doing, and the whole point of the story was that it was never necessary. Stand up! Go back to the wealth and the power that is your due — not on your own merits, but because you have been adopted by the most powerful benefactor reality has ever known.

Live like it. That’s your responsibility.

Government and Greatness: The Contemplative Way, and the Active Way

This is an excerpt from King Jason’s War, that I enjoy. It is, here, entirely out of context, but I’m hopeful that it will still make some sense. It describes, I think, some of what’s going on between the radical Liberals and the radical Conservatives, in these days.

“It’s amazing, really.” Jason sighed. “They have their expectations of the world, of how it works, and the world just seems to shape itself around them.”

“That is generally the way of it, with noblemen.”

Jason growled, “It’s not just the people. Sure, you’d expect it to be that way with people. All the commoners know that the nobles are in charge, so they conform to the world as the nobles see it. But…I mean…everything. The Eskiem certainly don’t credit our Peers any authority, but look what has happened. The Peers want a war, and the events of the last few hours seem to guarantee one! Reality shaping itself around their expectations.”

“There is more to it than that, Jason—”

“But the worst part is,” Jason took a deep breath, eyebrows furrowing, “the worst of it is being me, living in this world of my own that doesn’t conform to their expectations, but watching their world move right along in spite of me. They see a war as right and necessary, and my little objections—”

“You have not been entirely sure of your objections, Jason.” Robert interrupted, softly, but Jason stopped speaking and listened closely. “Are you suddenly sure that you stand against this war?”

“Not…well, yes, but…. No, I see your point, but even so—”

“They believe, and stand by their beliefs. You doubt, you take time to consider, and your search for real understanding makes you hesitate, makes you wait for more information. Meanwhile, they act in their quick confidence, and the world has left you behind.”

“It’s not fair, Robert. It’s not right that recklessness should have the upper hand.”

Robert started to answer, but then stopped, thinking. Finally, he said, “It’s not necessarily recklessness, Jason. Their path, their whole worldview, is one of confidence and action. Yours is one of contemplation and philosophy. Yours requires patience, and care, and long years to attain its end.”

“But what do I do about this war? This decision must be made today, no matter my own patience.”

Robert looked over and met his friend’s eye. “Are you truly asking my advice? Do you want my answer to that question?” Without hesitation, Jason nodded. “Then here it is: your path has nothing to do with this war, or any one war. Your philosophy is not one that shapes decisions, but worldviews. If you stand against this war, the war will happen anyway. If you become king, you will have a lifetime to change the way this nation views the world around it. My advice, good and true, is to say your piece, and then let the Council make its decision in this matter. Then commit your reign to crafting a world where we will never have to face this decision again.”

Government: America is NOT a Democracy

HaHA! I have fooled you all. You expect me to spend a page and a half talking about how, technically, it’s a Republic. To that I say “Pshaw!”

America is a very polite, Practical Anarchy.

We are a nation so founded on hatred of tyranny that we established a non-government government. Our greatest political pride comes from our Bill of Rights — protecting the citizens of the country from any actual government — and our Checks and Balances — protecting our government from the terrible responsibility of actually being able to accomplish anything.

Seriously, consider your education in the nature of our government. How much focus was given to checks and balances? You know what “checks” are, in this sense? They’re things that stop forward motion. We have a system in place to prevent the government from going anywhere. We have “balances” to make sure that these checks are equally restrictive on all branches of our government.

We are the first nation (at least to my knowledge) to wholly gloat in the deliberate and successful construction of an impotent government.

We’ve done okay, though, haven’t we? I’m not denying that. When I claim that the U.S. is an Anarchy, I do so in the terminology of political philosophy, not popular media. We have constructed a system that politely tells the American government to stay out of the lives of the American people, and everything will be fine.

What amuses me most is that our Founding Fathers recognized Government as an inevitable aspect of human society so, instead of trying to establish a nation free from Government entirely, they quarantined it.

We provide our government with just enough power, just enough resources, and just enough attention to keep them concentrated on their nonsense, while we go about our lives. Our corporations act, our entrepreneurs act, our charitable organizations and special interest groups and legal teams and community organizations all act, while our government blusters and talks.

We don’t have a representative government at all — instead we have direct representation, in that we have built a society to enable the citizens to express themselves without the interference of a Government.

No, it’s not a perfect Anarchy, and I didn’t claim it was. I called it polite Anarchy, and then I went on to acknowledge that we do have an established government structure. My point is that, practically, the main political concern of most Americans is to keep the government out of their lives. We’re still the Colonialists, who built their own cities, who managed their own affairs, and who were willing to pay taxes to keep the king on the other side of the sea, but willing to fight a war when he actually tried to control their lives.

It’s worked, because of the massive amount of resources available to everyone in our society. When our poor are better off than most of the world’s middle class, we don’t need government in the way so many nations do. We have, in Practical Anarchy, what most nations need rigorous Socialism to achieve.

We have Corporations so wealthy they don’t need tarriffs. We have Charitable Organizations with sufficient volunteer funding to dwarf the public works projects of many developed countries. We have, in our individuals, what most societies only have through the organization and administration of a careful government.

In other words, we’re spoiled. Furthermore, as all spoiled children do, we’re squandering. Governments develop in order to help a society make the most of its resources. Governments organize and control independent elements so that the productivity of the whole can be greater than the sum of their parts. That’s what Governments do.

It’s also what we call tyranny. The importance of the individual must be placed below the importance of the society for the society to fully attain its potential. We as a nation dread that pragmatism, and so we designed a self-contained, cannibalistic system of Government, encased it in a fancy marble shell, and got on with our lives.

Listen to the outcry right now against the Federal government’s response to the Katrina disaster. It’s too slow, it’s unproductive. When it should be rushing in to save people’s lives, something has stopped its forward motion. When the Government should be acting, it is instead quibbling, attempting to assign blame to all of its balanced members.

Look: that’s the way the system was designed to work. That’s what we’re so proud of, in our civics classes. We chose to hamstring our Government and that’s why, right now, the volunteers and the aid organizations and the independent assitance groups have so much more to offer than the Federal response. It’s not a matter of resources, but of structure, and the philosophy that designed our nation in the first place.

God: Christian “Science”

I got this passage from someone else’s blog, which I clicked through to from a blog that makes me entirely furious, every time I glance at it. So, instead of following proper etiquette and linking you to the other blog, I’ll just paste the relevant bit here:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]”

— Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Genesi ad Litteram Libri Duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis), AD 401-415, translated by John Hammond Taylor
See? That’s a passage from some ancient dude. Credit goes to him, not the chick that brought him up in the first place. If you’d LIKE to read a bunch of people bash on Christians, though, here’s the link to the source blog: http://www.livejournal.com/users/ajhalluk/145379.html

I like the points this Augustine makes, though. I strongly agree with what he’s saying here. Then again, as a Social Constructionist, I’m more readily able to surrender discussions of the nature of reality than many Christians, because I’m basing my faith on something bigger, behind the scenes. Know what I mean?

God: The Lord’s Supper

Quick question, for every single one of you who might possibly have an answer: in what way is What We Do as Communion (and by “We,” there, I mean the group you belong to — Catholic, Methodist, whatever) anything close to the circumstance of the Last Supper?

Consider this very carefully before you completely disregard it: How would our version be any different, if after each of the prayers we injected a single molecule of carbon?

Honestly, I see no other deviation (although a greater degree, but none fundamentally DIFFERENT) from the Biblical account in that extreme than in our own practice.

What is the point? More importantly, why hold up as a fundamental rite something that we have so completely alienated from its origin and stripped of all meaning?

I know those who take comfort from knowing that Christians, everywhere, are doing the same thing at the same time (for a given value of “Christians” and, of course, “same”). I understand that — I understand the value of an inclusive ritual to the maintenance of a distinctive community — however, for that purpose a secret handshake would be exactly as effective.

I suppose a huge portion of what bothers me is…not the name, but implicit in the name. Communion. I ALWAYS thought, growing up, that the name referred to the Communion of the Saints (that inclusivity I just mentioned). It’s the thing that we, as a community, do together. Arguing the topic with friends in college, I discovered for the first time that a lot of people (most of ’em?) think of it as Communion with God. That makes a LOT more sense given our extremely antisocial, library-quiet performance of the rite. It reminds me of a thing we did at church camp one year, when I was younger. “Time Alone With God.” We had fifteen minutes set aside every couple of hours for precisely that purpose. There were no refreshments, though….

Y’see, here’s where it really gets to me. The origin of the ritual is a meal. A highly social meal, where a community forms its inclusive bonds, not through the simple fact of a shared ritual, but through the social experience created by the very acts of the ritual. We use the term “breaking of bread” today to refer to this proper, stylized event, but we get that very wording from a Greek phrase that was practically slang — a very casual phrase meaning, “to get together to eat.” The root of “breaking of bread” practically means “hanging out at Braums.”

I mean, to start, to see the way God operates in his establishing of ritual (at least this particular vein), look at the Passover. It was a family’s dinner. The ritual (that is, the maintenance of the experience beyond the first, actual event) was structured as a conversation the family would have over dinner. “Hey, papa, why are we eating unleavened bread and strangely-cooked lamb?” And his answer incorporated the whole history of the Passover, and God’s redemption of the Israelite slaves.

That exchange became very ritual. The exact wording became important (as far as I understand it), and the whole dinner became something of a script. That’s not a big surprise to me, given what we read in the New Testament of the legalization of the Israelite religion. What does surprise me is that, in our religion based significantly on Jesus’ negative response to that legalization, we have turned our version of the Passover into a more strictly stylized rite than even the Pharisees had done with theirs.

Here are my arguing points: the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a SUPPER. And I’m not focusing on the meal aspect necessarily (on the food, the nourishment), but on the social aspect of eating together. Think of the monthly (or semi-monthly or…occasional) fellowship meals at your church. Think of the socializing. Think of the sense of inclusivity THAT generates.

You’re right. It’s not as poignant as the practice of the rigorous ritual. That’s no surprise to me. That’s WHY we create legalistic rites. It’s to capture as much of the feel of the thing as we can, without having to do the long-term work. We don’t have to build RELATIONSHIPS with all these other Christians, we just have to know that we’re taking the same brand of crackers and the same thimbleful of grape juice at the same time and, boy howdy, we are ONE.

There’s another argument to it. You might point out that Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of what he did. He said, “This do in remembrance of me.” You KNOW that’s true, because it’s carved on our…whatever-you-call-it-that’s-not-exactly-an-altar-because-y’know-we’re-protestants. Jesus ESTABLISHED the Lord’s Supper as a ritual to remember him.

But even there…. First of all, in at least one version of that passage, his wording was, “As often as you do this,” which, again, strikes me as more a redirecting of the sentiment of the Passover meal than as the establishment of a new Thing. That aside, he WAS clearly drawing on the basis of the Passover meal (as they were actively participating in the Passover meal when he established his procedure), and the Passover meal was, in the manner of a meal, a memorial. In other words, the memorial was there, within the social experience. It is NOT a private experience, taken concurrently with the rest of a community. It wasn’t in Jewish practice, and there’s no reason to imagine Jesus intended it to be one in Christian practice. We as a COMMUNITY are supposed to share this ritual together, socially, as a reminder of Christ’s gift to us.

As a matter of fact, that’s the whole POINT. The Passover meal, taken in silence, would be nothing other than…gross food. The ritual, the meaning, the POWER of the Passover meal was in the conversation. God established it in that way. It’s the whole point.

Take note. I’ve been accused (and will be forever) of arguing theology toward my own comforts. Y’know, if I’m right about not having to go to church all the time then, hey, I can relax at home during those hours I would’ve had to spend in the grueling environs of a church building. I can’t tell you how much accusations like that offend me, but I don’t generally feel compelled to respond to them. I still won’t.

But look at this one. Reread everything I wrote. The entire point of the Communion, I hold, is to bring us together socially, to bind us in INTERACTION (not observance of the one or two appointed men who speaks a short statement and a prayer). Any one of you who knows me well enough to be reading this, knows how incredibly uncomfortable such a thing would make me.

I’m shuddering at the thought, even now.

But I’m almost certain that’s the whole point of the process. I’m not calling you all to make an ages-old religion more comfortable for me. I’m asking you to look at your Saltine and your Welches and tell me exactly how that process binds you to God. I’m asking you recognize the vast distance between the Communion as we practice it, and the Communion as Christ designed it, and dare to imagine what it COULD be.

Greatness: Change

It’s easier to initiate change on objects in motion than on those that are sitting still. Once change happens (for good or ill), you have a special opportunity to initiate a little change of your own.

It’s complicated, though. Sometimes you want to make a change in a particular directions, other times it’s toward a particular destination. Chaos is GREAT for initiating a change in direction. It’s too random to target a precise destination, though.

Every now and then, for precisely this reason, it’s good to spread a little chaos of your own. Mix things up (harmlessly, of course, if you can manage it), and then bend the world in the direction you want to go.

But the other aspect is the real point of this post. Sometimes the world changes violently, against your will. Lemons and lemonade, my friend. You can mope once things have settled down (you won’t REALLY know how bad the change was until it’s over ANYway). Meanwhile, spend your energy making what good you can.

That’s my advice, anyway. Also, live well.

Greatness: From Me to You

This is what I would have you know:
Life is big. Really big. It’s amazing. It’s…dynamic. We stop it from being so, every day, for our own comfort.

That’s okay. It’s nice to be comfortable most of the time. There’s a certain thrill to going camping, sleeping under the stars, eating fresh-caught fish pan-cooked over a little campfire. But…well, we don’t have to live like that. Camping is just a fun little bit of excitement we can sprinkle into otherwise comfortable lives.

What I want you to know, what I really want to get across to you, is that the comfort is something we’ve made, for our own sake. We haven’t changed anything underneath — it’s all still there. We CAN still go camping. You can go camping within an hour’s drive of Denver and it feels like the most remote wilderness in the world. Even with all the civilization that is Denver.

This is important. This is a big deal. You can step outside of your comfort, into excitement, into magic, into legend. It’s all there. Jason and the Argonauts, David creeping into Saul’s camp, fire from Heaven and so much for Baal. Not just that, though. Garden State. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. American Beauty (*sad sigh*).

Think of your favorite movie. Your life could be like that. It’s not, because it’s more comfortable to not live life like that. But you could wake up tomorrow and make your life like…whatever movie you’re thinking of. Life is that big, it’s that powerful.

I’m not asking you to. I’m certainly not suggesting. Hell, how often do I actually go camping? It’s nice to know it’s an option, though. Remember that, when you’re feeling trapped or bored or insignificant.