Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.


Gender Identity and the Passions

I watched a twitter tiff unfold last week that was rooted in two people talking right past each other. Natasha Sistrunk Robinson (@sista_theology) tweeted something in defense of LGBT people after President Trump’s tweet about trans people no longer being welcome in the military. Sistrunk Robinson considers herself an evangelical (MA from Gordon Conwell) but many of here evangelical brothers and sisters aren’t so thrilled to have her in the evangelical fold because “she sees life differently,” as one of her defenders (Jemar Tisby, see below) commented.

In this case, the issue everyone thought was in question was “human rights.” But the conceptions of the extent of our essential humanity were so different that no communication was happening. Given the fact that everyone involved seemed to have theological degrees from reputable schools (Gordon Conwell, Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster) one would think the issue of presuppositions would be explored. It never was.

The church fathers were always busy exploring the nature of our humanity and among the things they considered fundamental realities were:

  • Our passions are expressions of our false selves. They are an expression of the heart which is “devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

  • We are becoming; our being has not yet matured to (or been revealed in) its final form. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet be revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). All sorts of things are being revealed. Our work will be revealed “with fire” (1 Cor. 3:13), and “the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” It is therefore false to assume that the things we assume define our humanity right now are the things that actually define our humanity. We are in flux and not yet revealed fully.

This problem of defining what it means to be human is exacerbated in Western cultures, where some form of capitalism has been the economic philosophy du jour for centuries. Jemar Tisby (Executive Director of the Reformed African American Network) said, “A lotta people say America’s original sin is racism. I disagree. America’s original sin is greed. … And without that driving principle of greed, slavery loses its foundation” (from a lecture at the RAAN national convention).

If we put Tisby’s insight into the context of the church fathers we can also say that America was founded, not with our virtues in mind (as an actual Christian nation might do) but rather with our vices. Civility, in a capitalist society, is brought about by playing my vices off of your vices. If the expression of my vice begins to impinge on your freedom to express your vice, then law steps in and adjudicates.

In this context where greed (and the other passions, to use the father’s term) are accepted as normal, there is a tendency to begin to think of the passions (which are, for the most part, quite pleasant to indulge in) as normative. In other words, we begin to think that we are our passions. We celebrate entrepreneurs as the drivers of our good lives and in the process fail to recognize the avarice and lack of social justice that drives entrepreneurial culture. The sexual harassment culture that is only now being admitted to in the high tech industry is just the latest example of the subtle assumption that our passions are who we are, and the role of government is mostly to keep a lid on competing passions.

It is therefore no surprise at all that when we begin to define our humanity in terms of our passions as currently expressed in a manner pleasant to us, that transgender identification seems to be normative and, by extension, a proper expression of the image of God in our humanity.

So, if this is the path you want to go down (and it is the necessary path to follow if you decide to espouse gender identity rights), at the very least recognize the roots of this sort of thinking. Just because the church fathers said what they said about the passions does not necessarily make it right. But the other side of the coin is also true. Just because our culture, which is rooted in the principle of greed and celebrates everything from gluttony to lust to envy, etc, has come to a general conclusion that these passions are not only good but what properly define us as humans, it doesn’t make it necessarily right.

Until the last century, Christian culture has been a culture of self-denial, not self-expression. This is one of the fundamental Christian presuppositions that was never even considered in the Twitter tiff between theologically trained Reformed evangelical Christians. As alarming as our President is, that is far more alarming to me, as a Christian, than a tweet by a President (who is seemingly consumed and controlled by his passions) about whether transgender people are welcome in the military.

What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.

Political Religion

I just read an extended review of Shadi Hamid’s new book Islamic Exceptionalism, and am intrigued. The book is now on my “to read” list. In his Washington Post review, Carlos Lozada focuses on the idea (from the book) that Islam is inherently political.

The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, preacher and warrior, but also builder of a new state. In Christianity’s origins, by contrast, governing was not the point; Jesus of Nazareth was a dissident against the political order. ‘Within the Christian tradition,’ Hamid emphasizes, ‘there was no equivalent of Islamic law – an accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance and the regulation of social and political affairs.

While it is true that classical Christianity had no “accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance,” over the centuries attempts at just such a corpus have been attempted. Originally there was “Christendom,” popularly attributed to Constantine, where the power of what would become the papacy and the power of the emperor were joined. But that system was specific to the rule of a monarch.

Social developments in northern Europe led to the rejection of both the divine right of monarchs and the pope. Protestantism became the norm and a new political philosophy of democracy, both in church and state developed. The result was the privatized Christianity and freedom of religion that we are familiar with today. Within Protestantism, while there is a highly developed theory of how Christians should relate to the state (Just Law theory, patriotism and conscientious objection, etc.) the idea of specific Christian governance, and the rules surrounding that, is not the norm.

History in England took a different turn than it did in northern Europe. England rejected the Pope without rejecting the Church/State relationship assumed in Catholicism. (The monarch remains the head of the Anglican Church to this day.) While not everyone in Britain was Anglican (the Scottish Kirk was Presbyterian, for instance), this close relationship between Church and State shaped theology as it did no where else in Europe. As a result the Westminster Standards (the confession, catechism, and a whole host of supporting theological writings) use the Old Testament Law as a model for our civil life.

This wholesale adoption of Old Testament law in a Christian context never took hold in England because England had a strong – and much older – tradition of common law that transcended Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the British monarchy.  And while English common law had a profound effect in the colonies, the marriage of Old Testament Law and Christian faith (sometimes called “Theonomy” – literally meaning “God’s Law”) had a great deal more influence in North America than in England.

So while Hamid is broadly correct that “within the Christian tradition there is no equivalent of Islamic Law,” in the American context there is a strain of Christian religion that does have the equivalent. Theonomy is technically a small offshoot of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. It was expressly embraced by splinter groups such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and later, by a large segment of the Presbyterian Church in America.

But Theonomy has a history of punching above its weight. Thus the primarily Baptist “Moral Majority” was deeply influenced by Theonomy, as were some Roman Catholics and their particular take on Natural Law and Legal Positivism in the United States.

The effect of all this is that the U.S. has had a series of groups that attempted to create Theocracies in the United States (starting with Plymouth Colony and the “Shining City on a Hill,” which was originally a specifically Theocratic idea). Many of these attempts have ended in tragedy (Posse Comitatis, Jonestown, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, etc.).

More significantly, because Theonomy tendencies run strong in American conservative Christianity, there is a certain respect for the idea of an Islamic state just as their is a respect for the idea of a Christian state. And furthermore, for Christians that are warm to the idea of a Christian state, there is typically an abhorrence of a competing state based on Islam.

Classical Liberalism privatized and individuated Christianity by making “freedom of religion” a basic human right. American conservatives (particularly those with Theonomist sympathies) promoted freedom of religion as long as the religion in question was Protestantism. Specifically, because there has always been a wishful idea that America was a Christian nation (in contrast to the Liberal Democratic Republic which was created in 1776), freedom of religion is more specifically understood as freedom of Protestant religion. (For instance, try to offer a prayer to Allah or Mary before a Texas high school football and wait to see what happens next!)

This riff on Theonomy does have a point. We Americans need to take seriously Shadi Hamid’s thesis that Islam is, in contrast to classic Christianity, inherently political. But hand in hand with that, we Americans need to take seriously that a very strong (but often ignored) strain of American Christianity is also inherently political.  For many, America vs. Islam is not so much political as it is inherently a religious war.

Donald Trump understands this and exploits it. I suspect that this is why a politician who in almost any other context would be considered in league with the Antichrist by conservative Christians has been embraced by conservative Christianity. This is not a political fight, it is a religious (dare I say it?) crusade that has led to a union of a blasphemous anti-christian demagogue with conservative Christians against the infidels.

I find the prospect frightening.

Is Cowardice Worthy of the Lake of Fire?

So here’s a weird bit of scripture:

He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death. (Rev 21:7f)

Who’s going to burn in the lake of fire? I understand the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, etc. But why put “the cowardly” at the top of the list?

I ran across this verse when doing some cross referencing with the word “fear.” (See previous post.) To be clear the Greek word for fear (phobos) is not used here (although the KJV does translate it “fear,” so it showed up in one of my searches). Rather it is the word deilois, an adjective meaning “cowardly” or “timid.”

Remember Martin Niemöller’s famous poem that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. … ? Pastor Niemöller was railing against apathy, but timidity can also lead to such inaction. And Niemöller’s contention was that those guilty of innaction are as guilty as those who did the evil deeds. As great a sound bite as that poem is, I always found Pastor Niemöller to be a bit over the top. I attributed it to survivor’s remorse. I argued that reality was a bit more complicated than that. There are, after all, extenuating circumstances. Ethics can always be black and white after the fact; doing the right thing is often gray and murkey in the midst of the crisis. For this reason I always preferred Bonhoeffer, who, in all his absoluteness, was far more nuanced than Niemöller. (That’s pretty funny, heh? Describing Bonhoeffer as “nuanced”?)

(And don’t call Bonhoeffer a martyr. He didn’t die for confessing Christ, he died because he was a spy and was caught in the midst of an act of treason. The cause for his actions was his Christian faith, but that was not the cause of his death. In his Letters from Prison he struggles with the issue of “disobeying Ceasar when we are commanded to respect our authorities.” This gets to the heart of why he is such a great hero of mine. Did he do it because he was a Christian or did he do it because he was a German? I’m not sure Bonhoeffer could fully distinguish the two. It’s this fundamental ambiguity that makes him so great in my mind. He’s a confused Christian and accidental saint. While I’m convinced that God will give him the white robe of martyrdom, it was political expediency that drove him to plot to overthrow and/or murder Hitler.)

But in the end, it may be Niemöller who had the clearer vision of truth: “But as for the cowardly … their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Caveat. I’m not preaching this as gospel truth. I’m just trying to make sense of a really weird verse of scripture.

Nehemiah, Netanyahu, and the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

The Old Testament Daily Common Lectionary reading for Sat, Oct 31 comes from Nehemiah. I suspect it’s a text that will make most modern people uneasy. Nehemiah is leading the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. The local people, what we might call the native Palestinians, are not happy. This is their land. They were born here and have lived here for generations. Now the Persian king just gives away their land to a group of people who have lived in Persia for generations. The Persian King is essentially forcing them off their land into a sort of local exile so these outsiders can come in and take over.

In Nehemiah 4:7-9, the local reaction is recorded as follows:

But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and the gaps were beginning to be closed, they were very angry, and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.

The arc of the book is that God is bringing the faithful remnant back to the Promised Land. Nehemiah and his band of settlers have both a divine right and royal authority to seize the city of Jerusalem and, from what the story implies, create settlements all around the city throughout Palestinian land.

On the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and with him the seeming death of the peace process in Israel, this text is powerful evidence (for those who want to read it this way) that Rabin was wrong while hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu is right in allowing ongoing Jewish settlement of Palestinian lands.

It leads to that uncomfortable question of how we (either Christian or Jew) deal with the hard texts of scripture. One way is to do as the Daily Common Lectionary committee has done. Rather than deal with the hard text at all, they offer up an alternative Old Testament reading (Lamentations 5) and give the reader the option of ignoring the problem.

A second alternative — the “What Would Jesus Do?” alternative — is to apply the text directly to modern situation and do the same thing. This might be called the Benjamin Netayahu or Likud Party solution.This alternative saves the person from any nuanced thinking about the ethics of the issue.

I myself would argue for a third option. That option, in a nutshell, is that while God’s ultimate truth does not change, the world has changed a great deal. As a result our perception of the truth has developed and changed over time. Heb. 1:1 says, “In many and various ways God spoke to our fathers …” Revelation wasn’t just a one shot deal dropped out of heaven. Given what they knew in the world that they lived, Nehemiah figured that this was a pretty good option. As the faithful Jewish scribes wrote the incident down they recognized God’s hand in events.

But some of us see things differently now. Running people out of their homes and villages for the sole purpose of creating an ethnically pure place where I can now live instead of them runs counter to the themes that Jesus taught, such as “love your neighbor as yourself” (in the context of “who is your neighbor?”), “turn the other cheek,” etc.

What do we then do with a text like Nehemiah 4? The Fathers believed that these texts were most wisely interpreted in an allegorical manner, just as Paul did with Hagar and Sarah in Romans. Humans are notoriously mixed up. There are certain sentiments that are holy and just, but they live side by side with sentiments and actions that are quite evil. Allegory allows us to harvest the good and cull the bad, like wheat and chaff, and in that manner use the lives of our forebears as examples to spur us on to holiness.

At the outset of the following anecdote let me make it clear that I don’t believe Bibi Netanyahu had anything to do with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. This anecdote is simply part of the sitz im leben that have led to the various conspiracy theories surrounding his death. But in the seconds after Rabin’s death in 1995, the crowd began to chant, “Bibi, Bibi.” When you hear the audio you can’t help but believe that the crowd thought Netanyahu was responsible. My take away from this incident is that the Israelis, even the hardliners who make up the core support of the Likud Party recognize the inherent violence of the cause. If they are willing to displace Palestinians, stealing their homes and means of living … well, assassination is not that far away.

There is a great deal of violence in the Old Testament. As we read and study these texts, do we assume that we too should be violent in the same way? Maybe set up a Christian Caliphate of our own? Or do we believe that the violence we are called upon to do is a violence against sinful self as we seek to overcome sin and death in our own lives (what peaceful Muslims call “spiritual Jihad”). On the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death, and with it, the demise of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and on the day when the predecessor story of building settlements in Palestinian land is the Old Testament text in the lectionary, it’s worth struggling with these issues in our own hearts.

This post raised some questions. I seem to conflate conservatives and liberals. I fail to recognize the differences between the Republican and Democratic political parties in the U.S. (Yeah, I also noticed that they were statements rather than questions.)

In answer I will quote John Médaille. I’ve lost the source of this quote. Sorry. He’s talking about the success of William F. Buckley’s National Review.

But it was a success that came at a price, and the price was fusionism. The “conservatism” of Buckley’s journal was an odd combination of traditionalists, Austrian libertarians, and the liberal anti-communists (who would later become the “neo-cons”). These three factions were united by their anti-communism, but by little else. The traditionalists aimed at virtue, while the Austrians and the “neo-cons” aimed at “liberty,” but a liberty that was merely formal; it did not aim at the good or at anything in particular, but was mostly expressed as a lack of restraint, particularly government restraint. As Mark Popowski points out, if freedom is foremost, then no superior principle [such as virtue] could ever be invoked. This tension is at the root of all of the problems of what we today call “conservatism.”

In other words, in the 60s the glue that held the new Republican factions together was not political ideology, it was anti-communism. Once the communist threat dissipated, the stark differences between these groups became obvious. Unfortunately (if one is a conservative, that is), it was the neo-cons who now held the reins of the Republican Party. The two American political parties (Republican and Democrat) were now in control, on the one hand, of Democrats who were formerly perceived as soft on communism and, on the other, of ex-Democrats who were anti-communists. Now that communism had become an anachronism, it left Democrats and ex-Democrats in control of the whole American political process. The fall of communism was the end of the two party system for the moment. Hopefully we can regain two distinct perspectives in American politics in the near future.

What’s a Recovering Libertarian?

At a recent family reunion, sitting over pizza at a Pizza Ranch – one of the great Iowa institutions where politicians come to meet Iowans before the Presidential Caucuses to explain their political views and aspirations – my niece asked me to explain my political leanings. (1) What is Communitarianism? (2) How does it differ from Libertarianism? and (3) Why do you call yourself a “recovering Libertarian”? (That’s in my Facebook profile). Those are difficult questions because both movements are rather amorphous and the simple definitions don’t explain anything.

  • Libertarians, for instance, include people primarily interested in small government (my thing, if you’re curious) as well as people primarily interested in the decriminalization of drugs or a whole variety of other activities. It’s an extremely big tent.
  • Communitarianism, similarly, covers a lot of ground. It’s primarily a Roman Catholic movement promoted by groups such as the Chesterton Society; but it also includes back-to-nature localists, grown up hippies who want to live off the land, and anti-urbanists.

How does one succinctly compare and contrast two such disparate movements? (Especially when distracted by “Cactus Bread”!)

A while ago another relative handed me a CD with a set of lectures by (Notre Dame professor) Thomas F. X. Noble, on the history of the papacy. I’m Orthodox, so (he thought) I would obviously be interested in these lectures. Well, not so much, but one ought to be polite, so I listened anyway. Actually, they turned out to be pretty darn good.

It’s too bad I hadn’t listened to the lecture about John Paul II before sitting down to pizza with my niece. That lecture cut to the heart of why I consider myself a recovering Libertarian (and a practicing Communitarian, even though I’m not Roman Catholic).

I am a small government sort of guy because I think that local institutions are better suited to doing many of the tasks that the U.S. Federal government has co-oped for itself. That was my attraction to Libertarianism. What I came to realize is that Libertarians were radically individualistic and in that sense were not the inheritors of Jeffersonian classical liberalism. In spite of the rhetoric, they were far more interested in the absence of government than its structure. More Nietzschean than Lockean, the Libertarians were committed to a personal autonomy that is not very compatible with Christianity.

With this background I turn to the lectures by Thomas Noble:

John Paul II castigated aggressive individualism and acquisitiveness. He wasn’t opposed to wealth or capitalism per se, … What he was really critiquing was the modern secular tendency to place the isolated individual on a pedestal; to take that individual out of all social connection and all social responsibility. ‘It’s all about me, isn’t it?’ ‘Well,’ John Paul said, ‘no it’s not actually,’

I became Libertarian because I thought that the Libertarian Party and Libertarianism in general was about reining in American federal messianism, the government gone mad with power, under the control of the two major political parties bent on growing the influence of government at home and abroad. What I discovered is that what Libertarians were actually about was placing “the isolated individual on a pedestal,” as well as the “removing of all social connection and responsibility.”

Communitarianism, on the other hand, recognized that the local community, with all of its rootedness in place and people, was the foundation of political culture. Liberty is not an attribute of an individual (unless you equate liberty with solipsism), it is an attribute rooted in a community. Liberty does not define me, it defines my relation to those around me.

With that distinction in mind, let me continue the quote from Thomas Noble;

[John Paul II] was seeking a more authentic kind of community. Not the kind of community that’s forced by Soviet collectivization, but the kind of community that is formed by people thinking in the right kind of way joining together for the right reasons.

Following the line of Leo XIII and Pius XI in defending property and defending a living wage, he is harkening back to the notion that the rich have moral obligations to share with the poor.

Talking to the American youth at one of the youth rallies, John Paul II said,

The great gift Americans have is freedom, and freedom is the opportunity to do what is right, which confers on [us] the obligation to do what is right. Freedom gives us, not the liberty to do whatever we want but the obligation to do what is right.

I have always liked John Paul II. But in the past I’ve always focused on his critique of the “culture of death,” which I believe was one of his greatest gifts to the Western world. Until listening to Thomas Noble I had not realized JPII was such a staunch defender of subsidiarity specifically and Communitarianism in general.

I suspect I’ve had a sense for many years, which I’ve not been able to put into words, that Communitarianism was the correct political posture. It insists that governance (whether church or state) be carried out by the most local authority possible, thus shrinking and limiting national bureaucracy. At the same time it insists that institutions and community bonds are not bad, but are actually necessary to our well being because we were not created autonomous individuals. (That sense of autonomy is a result of the fracturing of sin. Read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, to see a great picture of autonomy gone horribly wrong.)

But being (1) an American and (2) a Protestant with that one-two punch of autonomy and private responsibility that they both celebrate, I had no framework in which to formulate a political philosophy that reflected my sensibilities. Not surprisingly, the church, with it’s long history of struggling for the truth against all manner of cultures and societies, had a long established political philosophy that was actually far more Christian than culture-bound.

That being said, I’m still an American and that Protestant mindset runs deep in my being, in spite of the fact that I left Protestantism behind almost two decades ago. That’s why I self-identify as a “Recovering Libertarian.”

Chuck Hagel, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People

Concerning Chuck Hagel and the accusations that he’s anti-semitic simply because he’s not a big supporter of the State of Israel:

Huffington Post contributor Howard Feinman (a Jew, by the way, who knows Hagel personally and says he doesn’t believe he’s anti-semitic) had this to say on the subject, when Tony Kornheiser was talking to him on the Tuesday 1/9/2013 edition of the radio show:

A lot of the politics of modern U.S./Israeli relations have nothing to do with the Jews; it’s about the Evangelical Christians, who for better or worse, and for their own theological reasons have adopted Israel as kind of their little brother that they’re going to protect in the name of the Lord. Now complications will come at the End of Days but that’s a theological question not a political one.

That’s both wonderfully astute and entertainingly snarky.

The Tricky Problem of “Rights Language” continued

In the previous essay I argued that opposing abortion using arguments based on “personal responsibility” rather than “personal rights” will not win the debate because the argument still functions within the very unchristian framework of personal autonomy. Ultimately we can never win the abortion argument by asserting the priority of responsibilities of the mother’s rights because it’s simply the wrong framework.

When I was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and scholar gave a lecture on the abortion debate. In Jewish tradition (according to this rabbi) life is in the ruach (which can be variously translated as wind, air, breath, spirit). It’s not until the baby takes in ruach – that is, breathes its first breath – that it is truly alive. Prior to that its life is simply (and note, I say “simply,” not “merely”) an extension of its mother’s life: the fetus and mother are one.

Assuming the world-view of personal autonomy, one could easily argue that abortion, and even late stage abortion is perfectly okay within the Orthodox Jewish context. But the Rabbi went on to say that the rightness or wrongness of abortion is not a scientific question because the scientific question doesn’t address the false world view of personal autonomy vs the true world view of community in God. In fact, when viewed from a biblical perspective, no matter when the fetus is considered as an entity separate from its mother … at conception (the Christian Evangelicals) or at birth (the Orthodox Jews) … abortion remains a great evil that will bring about great evil on any nation or tribe that practices it.

The heart of the issue is not some arcane and arbitrary decision as to precisely when the mother and the fertilized egg or blastocyst or embryo, etc. are distinct. The real issue is whether the “stranger” or “new one” or “least among you” is welcomed into the community. Old Testament rules for welcoming the stranger are extensive, detailed, and strict. Whenever Israel became xenophobic, God ultimately acted against Israel. (This, by the way, is not a simple or obvious assertion. There is a difference between rejecting and displacing deeply corrupt and evil nations and turning out other nationals simply because of their race. But this exegetical question goes way beyond this little essay.)

According to the Jewish Rabbi, aborting the fetus is an ultimate (ultimate in the sense that involves not just turning away but ending a life or potential life, however the scientists choose to phrase it this week) rejection of the hospitality and welcoming rules and will lead to certain judgment from God.

But the very nature of the hospitality or welcoming argument is that it only makes sense from within the covenant community. So the Rabbi, using a decidedly Christian metaphor (he was at an Evangelical seminary, after all), went on to say that trying to win the abortion debate by direct argument from scripture or even from science understood from within the Covenant Community, will always be a losing proposition because it involves throwing pearls before swine. The arguments require a mindset foreign to the world apart from God’s illumination, and thus the arguments will be trampled beneath their feet.

Does this mean we are to do nothing? By no means! The greatest weapon we have in the abortion debate is not our brilliant intellectual defenders of the faith or political strategists … both are a fool’s game. The greatest weapon we have is our welcoming communities: “See how they love each other” (Tertullian). We can never win the abortion debate intellectually because in America the intellectual framework is stacked against the Christians (as explained in the previous essay). What we can do is change hearts first and in that way, change minds.

Over the years I have frequently heard that such quietist approaches are totally unrealistic. And that is true. But in the New Testament we discover that force doesn’t win the day. Losing is winning. Death is life. Trying to win the abortion debate with our intellectual prowess has all the Christian grace of inviting the Valkyries to slay our enemies. In contrast, welcoming our enemies, our babies, and other strangers, is the strange way of Christianity.

This is not to say that we should not enter into the public debate; this framework rather maps our strategy in the public debate. The Christian’s strength will never be (at least it should never be) in the public debate. The gospel is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, as the Apostle said. Our strength is in our community, our relationships and the way we live our life. Our true weakness is in the intellectual and political prowess of those who defend Christian truth in the public square.

This doesn’t mean we should keep silent, but as we speak, we need to be aware that because we are starting from a radically different starting point, our logical arguments and political agendas will seem foolish. Thus, when we lose the debate (and we will lose the debate), we should never rail against our opponents and mock them because they are dense and stubborn. We enter the debate knowing we will lose the intellectual battle. At the same time we live faithful and authentic Christian lives loving our neighbors and welcoming the strangers among us (let’s see, that would include abortion doctors, pro-choice strategists, confused young women wondering what to do, and lost young men who are fathers but have been excluded from any rights of fatherhood because our culture has so marginalized them) and doing the right thing no matter the consequences.

In this way, over time, even though we can’t win the intellectual debate, given the presuppositions of our society, we can win the hearts of the weak, the questioning, the hurting, the downtrodden, the distressed … that is, all the people who are ripe for God’s message of self-sacrificing love in the first place.

I wasn’t there, so this is only a guess, but my guess is those “intellectuals” who we now consider the great defenders and shapers of the faith (Justin Martyr, the Cappadocian fathers, etc.) didn’t necessarily seem so logical and bright while they were making their arguments. Justin is a perfect example. He wanted to be known as a great orator and intellectual, and in fact he was a great orator and intellectual, but we remember him not for that, but for his martyrdom; his ideas were so dumb, so out of the mainstream, they got him killed. (Martyr wasn’t Justin’s last name, it is an appellation for his greatest gift to the Christ and his Church.) It’s only in retrospect, after the love of the Christian community had finally won the day across the Roman Empire, that the intellectual prowess of these theologians became apparent.

It’s no different today. So, when we lose the next debate over abortion rights, we should not get angry, but only bemused, knowing the inevitability of that result, and continue to cultivate the true Christian virtues of love, welcome, and humility rather than the false “virtues” of intellectual prowess and political expertise.