Tag Archives: politics

Social Conflict, Original Sin, and the Libertarian Ideal

I’ve been in a reflective mood lately, quietly observing the commotion taking place around me as if I were a visitor from another planet moving unnoticed through the frenzied crowds. I’ve watched the news, read the morning newspaper, and lurked on social media as if I were sifting through ancient documents hoping to make sense of bygone era. The question that guides my search is this: What is the passion that animates contemporary society, the unexamined, deep-down belief shared by nearly all people? What is the ideal that gives meaning to modern social movements and counter-movements and drives people into the streets or into voting booths?

The Freedom Ideal

I’ve concluded that the bedrock belief that excites modern people into action is this: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. For modern people, herein lies true human dignity. Any restraint on this right and power limits freedom and hence slights dignity. And since we desire and act for our happiness, any restraint on our freedom also limits our happiness. I think analysis would reveal that this belief drives all modern social change and resistance to social change. As an ethical ideal, it goes almost unchallenged in our culture. Rhetorical appeals to freedom resonate powerfully in the modern soul. And any rhetoric that seems to restrict freedom will be rejected as reactionary and evil.

The Grand Arbiter

Of course, everyone realizes that civilization would be impossible without limits on freedom. One person’s desires and actions inevitably conflict with those of others. This conflict gives rise to another type of rhetoric, the rhetoric of civilization. The rhetoric of civilization calls for limits on freedom for the sake of freedom. Notice that even the rhetoric of civilization appeals to the modern ideal of freedom. So, I think I am correct to contend that for the modern person the ideal of freedom is basic and civilization is a means to that end.

Hence the major function of the modern state—supposedly a neutral and impersonal arbiter—is to harmonize the completing desires and actions of those who live within it. Each person, as a center of unlimited freedom, is by definition a competitor of every other person. Other people are limits or means to my freedom, dignity, and happiness. And everyone looks to the state to resolve conflict.

But of course the state is not a neutral and impersonal arbiter. It’s not a justice machine that always finds the perfect balance between freedom and freedom. The ideal of civilization is always embodied in a particular government and governments are staffed by politicians. And modern politicians get elected by promising to expand or protect freedom. That is to say, modern political rhetoric appeals either to the ideal of freedom or the ideal of civilization as means of persuasion. On the one hand, everyone wants maximum freedom for themselves and responds positively to promises of expanded liberty. But, when people come to think their freedom is being restricted by the actions of others, they respond appreciatively to the rhetoric of civilization.

Social Conflict

The conflicts we are experiencing today in society among various parties and interest groups are nothing but manifestations of the false and unworkable belief at the root of modern culture: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. Each party jockeys for the political influence necessary to draw the line between freedom and freedom favorably to their own desires. And each uses as occasion demands the rhetoric of freedom or the rhetoric of civilization to persuade public opinion. We can see clearly why it is unworkable. But why is it false and how did our civilization come to accept a false and unworkable ideal?

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin was one of the first orthodox Christian doctrines rejected by architects of the 17th century Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summarized the Enlightenment attitude when he proclaimed, “Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart….”(Emile or On Education, 1762). It’s not difficult to see why the Enlightenment had to reject the doctrine of original sin. It contradicted its understanding of freedom as the right and power to will and do as one pleases.

What, then, is the Christian doctrine of original sin? I cannot explain the whole story at this time but here is what it says about human capacity: Human beings are born into this world desiring, seeking, willing, and determined to pursue what they perceive as their private interest in ignorance and defiance of the truly good and right. You can see why the Christian doctrine of original sin offends modern sensibilities. It implies that even if human beings possessed the right and power to do as they please—which they do not—they still would not possess true freedom. According to the New Testament, you are not free in the truest sense unless you are free from the sinful impulse to will only your private interests. The doctrine of original sin asserts that our free will needs freeing from wrong desires and for the truly good and right. And we can acquire this freedom only as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now let me bring this essay to a sharply pointed conclusion. For 300 years our culture has been animated by a false definition of freedom taken as the highest ideal of human life. From a Christian point of view, the modern definition of freedom is false because it claims falsely to be the true and highest form of freedom. But Christianity asserts that there is a higher freedom, freedom from the innate impulse to pursue one’s selfish interests as the highest motive for action. And here is the sharpest point of the sword: judged by the Christian understanding of freedom, the modern ideal of freedom—the right and power to will and do as one pleases—comes very close to the definition of original sin! Ironically, in its denial of the doctrine of original sin, the Enlightenment made the fact of original sin its ideal and animating principle. As the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and many other theologians observed, sin is often punished with more sin.

 

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Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

It seems that everyone who’s anyone these days has attached themselves to some great cause. In introducing yourself to another person you give your name, where you work, and the cause that drives you into the streets. You’re nobody if you’ve not founded a nonprofit organization or haven’t been arrested for chaining yourself to the White House fence or at least have “Activist” printed on your business card. You’ve gotta fight for something—for social justice for the oppressed, for the homeless, for the poor, for the trees, for open spaces, for endangered species, for the climate, for gun rights, for gun control, for children’s rights, parents’ rights, for women’s rights…for somebody’s rights! It’s “Up with…” or “Down with…” or “Out with… or “In with….”

No one presents their cause as evil. No one protests, “Down with justice, up with injustice!” Have you ever seen anyone carrying a sign that says, “Tax the Poor!”? No group occupies the halls of state capitols chanting, “Trash the environment!” No. We adopt causes we think are good, noble, and great; or at least causes we can present as good, noble, and great. Perhaps it should not escape our notice that by adopting a good and just cause I demonstrate to myself and others that I am a good and just person. I present myself as a defender of the defenseless and a champion of the oppressed. I set myself in opposition to the oppressors and polluters, the privileged, the greedy, and the selfish. I manifest my love for the beneficiaries of my zeal for whom I sacrifice an evening a week and a weekend a month. And I am righteously outraged at the evil doers who exploit those I love so much, and I am disgusted by those who turn a blind eye to such injustice. If such a self-presentation were a prayer it would go like this:

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other people—greedy, racist, unpatriotic, or lazy! I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I drive a Prius. I stand for the National Anthem and pay my dues to the NRA” (See Luke 18:9-12).

Am I being judgmental? Then let me bring in a witness. What about the great-cause activists’ claim to love those for whom they fight? The letter we know as 1 John has much to say about loving others and loving God:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Many great-cause activists resonate with John’s critique of the religious hypocrite who claims to love God but doesn’t love other human beings. But the reverse principle is just as true. If you claim to love people but do not love God, you are a liar. If you claim to love some people but do not love all, you are a liar. If you claim to love some of the time but do not love always, you are a liar. 1 Corinthians 13 lists many great causes one could adopt and noble actions one could perform without loving God or human beings:

13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3; NASB).

Identifying with a great and good cause for which one is willing to give up everything is no sure sign that one loves, that one is a good and just person. In his profoundly insightful book, Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of something we should keep in mind always:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

In our relationship with other human beings, with God’s creation, and with ourselves, God is the “middle term,” that is, we must never try to love anything other than God directly. Nothing can be loved in the right way unless it is loved within the act of loving God and because we love God. If you think you are loving people by championing their rights and fighting against their oppressors but are not helping them to love God, you are self-deceived. You do not love them at all. Indeed you may be making them seven times worse off. If you think you can love yourself by asserting your rights and your dignity directly apart from loving God, you are dressing pride in clothing of justice. The greatest cause is learning to love God. The greatest act of love you can do for others is to help them love God, and the most loving thing anyone will ever do for you is to help you love God.

So, you are looking for a great cause? Be sure that your desire to serve a great cause is not secretly a desire to become great by associating with a great cause. We might begin by learning to pray the prayer of tax collector instead of that of the Pharisee:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13).

“Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord” – A Decision for All Times

In the previous post, I addressed the subject of truth and power and lamented the ascendency of the post-modern philosophy that asserts “politics is everything.” Today I want to address the subject of politics and religious truth. We should not be surprised that for states, with their kings, emperors, senators, and governors, “politics is everything.” States view religion and every other aspect of social life as subordinate to their ends of survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. There has never been and their never will be a state that is wholly subordinate to a religion and its end. But there have been many religions whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. All warrior, ethnic, and state religions either deify the state or make the king the voice of god on earth. Worship of the state gods looks to one end, the welfare of the state as understood by the state. From the state’s perspective, religious truth must be subordinated to political power.

Jesus Christ demanded that people direct their highest loyalty to God and subordinate all other ends to that end. He proclaimed God’s judgment on the powers and authorities that claimed divine status or in any way refused to submit themselves to God. And the “powers” and “rulers of this world” killed him for preaching such political heresy. Some theologians have argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary. This thesis is largely false because Jesus was not attempting to establish a worldly rival to Rome, but it contains an element of truth, that is, that Jesus challenged the religious foundation of any state’s claim to possess divine authority. Hence Christianity was born not as a warrior, ethnic, or state religion, and it is ill suited to serve these purposes. It refuses to serve the interests of any power other than God. It proclaims the same “truth” to any and all, no matter where or under what conditions. A “Christianity” that on principle or merely in fact serves the ends of state is a heresy.

Modern western states differ in many respects from ancient tribal and ethnic states and empires. Because of 2000 years of Christian influence they allow more individual freedom and are more humane in punishment for crimes than ancient nations were. But modern western states, the United States of American included, pursue ends that states have always pursued: survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. And Christianity can no more allow itself to be subservient to the ends of modern western states that it could to the ends of the Roman Empire. And modern western states are no more at peace with a defiant Christianity than ancient Rome was. Today I see two areas where the interests of the modern western state and the interests of true Christianity are at odds: (1) Christianity’s moral teachings, and (2) Christianity’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12) and that he is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

I have addressed many times on this blog society’s (and increasingly the state’s) demand that the church tone down and compromise its strict moral teachings. The state has concluded that it must tolerate—and even celebrate—behaviors that it once suppressed. Society, so the reasoning goes, has come to a consensus that attempting to suppress these behaviors would cause more social unrest than allowing them to be practiced. Hence when Christians continue to preach against these now accepted behaviors, they are viewed by society and the state as disturbers of the peace and sowers of division. The state wants a compliant religion to cooperate with its goals of unity, peace, and stability. And some denominations have changed their moral teachings so that they fall into line with the state’s ends. But we must ask them a hard question: Are you not as faithless as a church in the Roman Empire would have been had it replaced the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” with political creed “Caesar is Lord”?

A second way the state wants Christianity to conform to its ends concerns the need to maintain peace among different religious communities. States have always viewed religion as a powerful force that is potentially subversive, and that force has to be dealt with by cooptation, suppression, or neutralization.  Modern western societies find themselves in an increasingly global community in which nation states have become highly interdependent. In relating to states with majority Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and other religious populations, the historically majority Christian states of the west wish to play down religious differences. Hence they have developed a diplomatic language designed to highlight only common interests and values. Sometimes western diplomatic talk implies or explicitly states that all religions have at their core the same truth, that is, such humanistic values as peace, respect for human dignity, reverence for life, and freedom. By whatever name(s) they call God(s) and however they understand God(s) otherwise, God’s only relevant function is to support politically useful humanistic values. States don’t seek the truth about God or God’s will. They never have. They never will. All rhetoric about the wholly positive nature of the religions of other nations is crafted solely to serve the national interests of the state as it relates to those nations.

But pluralism is not merely a global phenomenon. Modern western states, mainly through immigration policies designed to promote their economic interests or foreign policy goals, have allowed themselves to become religiously diverse within their nations. These nations want these different religious communities within their borders to get along, not for religious reasons but for political ones. And they employ the same rhetoric at home that they use in international relations, that is, that all religions worship the same God and share the same humanistic values. Proselyting and debating adherents of other religions is discouraged and often condemned as hateful. The underlying assumption of calls to conversion and debate is that one religion might be true and others false, one good and the others bad, one a way to salvation and the others not. This assumption is criticized not so much for being false as for its “arrogance.” Christianity, as the traditional and majority religion in the United States and other western countries, has been for many decades under great pressure to withdraw, or at least suppress, its exclusivist claims. And the same denominations that changed their moral teachings to fall in line with the state’s goals also changed their confessional statements so that they renounce proselytism and the exclusive claims about Jesus Christ found in Scripture. In doing this, have they not allowed themselves to be coopted to serve the state rather than Jesus Christ? The church has always been and always will be faced with a choice between two confessions: “Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord.”

Ron Highfield

Amazon Author Page:

https://www.amazon.com/author/ron.highfield

Politics, Sports, Entertainment, and Other False Religions

In this fourth installment of our series on “Love not the World” (1 John 2:15-17), I want to ask what John means by “loving the world” as opposed to loving the Father. In an earlier post, we saw that the “world” is the order of things prioritized to satisfy our self-centered desire for physical pleasure, possessions, and honor. John urges, “Don’t love this order, this kosmos.” “Don’t order your loves in this way.” As we see clearly, the organizing principle of “the world” is unenlightened love of the self, shaped and moved by our immediately felt physical desires and our psychological need for social acceptance—all informed and directed by the dominant culture in which we live.

In worldly society everyone desires, sells, promotes, seeks, and admires, physical pleasure, possessions, and honor above all other things. This way of thinking dominated the society and culture of John’s day. And it dominates ours also. Indeed, the “world,” as an order determined by the three perverted loves, manifests itself in every actual social and political order, in every human institution.

Politics, my friends, concerns the order of this world, and it arranges things to promote the realization of some vision of the good life within this world. And given the values of most people, politics invariably concerns competing visions of how to secure money, safety, possessions, pleasure, and honor. Do not love politics. Don’t become angry, anxious, or obsessed with it. Do not love the world in any of its manifestations. Do not love your sports team or famous people. Love the Father.

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

John tells us not to “love” the world, either as a way of ordering our lives or as an actual social and political order. He uses the verb form of a Greek word familiar to many church-going people, agape. We should reserve our love for God. God loves us and sent his Son to save us from sin and death. The world does not love us. It cannot save us from sin and death, because the world itself is dominated by sin and death. We love God by returning our praise, thanks, and honor to him for what he has done for us. In loving God, we seek him as our highest good, treating all other goods as means to our ultimate goal of eternal life with God. God is the measure of all things. Nothing else really matters.

We love the world when we treat experiencing physical pleasure as the goal of our lives. Loving the world involves letting our desire for beautiful, convenient, and comfortable things eclipse our desire for God and the things of God. When we seek approval, praise, and honor from other people and do not strive to please God above all others, we have succumbed to the love of the world. Physical pleasure, cars, houses, and lands, and a good reputation are not evil in themselves. They can be means through which we can serve and praise God. The joy we experience in them can turn our hearts to God in thanksgiving. But if we seek them as if they could give us true joy apart from their function of pointing us to God, if we worship them, if we forsake the higher goods for the lower, then these things will turn to dust in our hands. There is only one God. Apart from God, there is only death.

It’s time for some self-examination. Do you love the world? Do I love the world? Let’s ask ourselves some questions:

 

How often do you think of God and pray?

 

When you pray, for what do you ask?

 

How much time do you spend trying to shape other people’s opinion of you? And how much does it bother you when you get less respect or recognition than you think you deserve?

 

How much of your attention is given to planning and experiencing pleasures of all kinds?

 

If you were responding to a survey that asked you rank the top five things you desired most, what would top your list? Second? Third?

 

How much effort do you give to exercising your spirit, in self-examination and confession?

 

What do you think about when you take a walk by yourself?

 

What are the highest priorities of your two best friends?

 

Would you prefer to look good or be good? Does your answer match the effort you put into each?

 

Whom do you most admire?

 

Is the “love of the Father” the organizing and animating force of your life?

In researching for a book I am writing, I’ve come upon some of Plato’s ethical thoughts. In the following quote from his dialogue Theaeteus, Plato sounds a lot like John in 1 John 2:15-17. Considering the high calling we receive from Jesus Christ, we ought at least to aim as high as Plato, who did not know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, bids us aim:

But it is not possible, Theodorus, that evil should be destroyed—for there must always be something opposed to the good; nor is it possible that it should have its seat in heaven. But it must inevitably haunt human life, and prowl about this earth. That is why a man should make all haste to escape from earth to heaven; and escape means becoming as like God as possible; and a man becomes like God when he becomes just and pure, with understanding. But it is not at all an easy matter, my good friend, to persuade men that it is not for the reasons commonly alleged that one should try to escape from wickedness and pursue virtue. It is not in order to avoid a bad reputation and obtain a good one that virtue should be practiced and not vice; that, it seems to me, is only what men call ‘old wives’ talk’. Let us try to put the truth in this way. In God there is no sort of wrong whatsoever; he is supremely just, and the thing most like him is the man who has become as just as it lies in human nature to be…

My friend, there are two patterns set up in reality. One is divine and supremely happy; the other has nothing of God in it, and is the pattern of the deepest unhappiness. This truth the evildoer does not see; blinded by folly and utter lack of understanding, he fails to perceive that the effect of his unjust practices is to make him grow more and more like the one, and less and less like the other. For this he pays the penalty of living the life that corresponds to the pattern he is coming to resemble (Plato, Theaeteus, trans. M. J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat in The Complete Works of Plato, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1997), p. 195).

The One Thing I’ve Never Seen on Facebook

We see lots of things on Facebook: pictures of families at holiday dinners, vacation selfies, and nature scenes. We see videos of pet adventures, talking heads, and wild animals. We receive birthday and anniversary notices. And we wade through lots of advertisements! But we also encounter lots of heated political, moral, and theological rhetoric. This rhetoric sometimes involves outrage, name calling, labeling, and hyperbole—all in the name of truth, reason, justice, Jesus, the kingdom of God, and all we hold dear. There is no need for me to give examples. You know.

But the one thing I’ve never seen is a reply to a FB post that reads like this:

“Before reading your argument I held strongly to an opposing view. But your cool, careful reasoning and your fair—even generous—representation of those with whom you differ has convinced me that I was mistaken and that the view you espouse is the correct one.”

I wonder…is there any place in our culture where cool, patient reason reigns? Where there is enough humility before the truth to let it speak while we all listen? Where we leave final judgment to God?

How can disciples of Jesus avoid becoming like those we despise? Perhaps the first question we ought to ask is where our spite comes from.

How can we speak with those with whom we disagree? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves first about the character of the force that drives our urge to speak.

What if we thought of persuasion this way: you listen to others until they hit upon the truth?

 

The Politics of Jesus

Did Jesus have political aims? Of a certain kind, yes. Let’s talk about it.

In his book Politics, Aristotle wrote:

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.” (Book 1.2.9).

Human beings are endowed with reason and speech, and these powers cannot be brought into full actuality apart from human community. Human nature is so rich that it cannot be realized fully by one individual, but when many people over centuries contribute their gifts, each individual can enjoy the work of all. The products of reason and speech become common property and enrich everyone. In the first paragraph of Politics, Aristotle made this significant claim: “If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims, and in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good” (1.1.1).

Aristotle grounds the state in human nature. A being that is stateless by nature is either a god or a beast. The political order encompasses all other communities within its sphere. Unlike subordinate communities, it aims “in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good.” A family, a guild or a school will aim at the welfare of its members, a partial good. The state aims at the welfare of everyone, so that everyone may enjoy to the fullest degree the full flowering of human nature.

Let’s compare and contrast Aristotle’s thinking about the political community with the New Testament’s teaching about the church. Surely Aristotle is right that the state is an outgrowth of human nature and that a being stateless by nature is not human in the ordinary sense. The church is a human community, and Aristotle would number it among those subordinate communities that aim in a less comprehensive way at the highest good. But Christianity understands this community to be composed of a “new humanity,” “born again,” a people endowed with the “Spirit of the living God” and having under gone “the transforming of their minds.” They are in Aristotle’s words “above humanity.” A divine power is at work in the church to raise it above normal human life.

Aristotle is also on target when he asserts that every community aims at a good that gives it purpose, unity and identity. However, Aristotle’s “highest good” is limited to this world, this life. Christianity asserts that human beings should aim at a goal higher than the common good of the whole community within this life. God created human beings in the image of God, and human nature, empowered by the grace of the Spirit, can participate in the divine nature and attain eternal life. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, the church’s aim is off target; it aims too high and it demands too much of mere mortals. It is bound to fail.

The New Testament presents the church as the community founded by Jesus Christ. It is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit and directed to God the Father. In analogy to Aristotle’s view of the state, the church is based on the nature of the new humanity and is necessary for the full flowering of this new human being. Christians are not “birds that fly alone,” but they really do fly. The Christian is not only a human being endowed with reason and speech but also someone united with Christ, who dwells in heaven and yet fills the universe. The Christian has received the life-giving Spirit and has been freed from the power of sin and death. Unlike Aristotle’s natural human being, the Christian lives by faith and not by sight.

The church is the community whose threefold purpose is (1) to enable the new powers and virtues that have been given to believing and baptized human beings to come into full use and benefit the whole church and through the church the whole world; (2) to embody as far as possible in the present the perfect community of heaven, the Father, Son and Spirit and the coming Kingdom of God, which is the union of human beings and God in the perfect divine/human fellowship; and (3) to call the whole world to rise up not only beyond the beastly nature of the stateless one, the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one.’ It also calls human beings beyond the best political order human beings can create. She serves the whole human race by calling it to its final destiny and revealing its true dignity.

Hence to normal human beings, Christians will always appear to have their heads in the clouds. Their values are a bit askew. They are always rejoicing but never take pleasure in evil. They are serious about everything but in despair over nothing. The Christian is as courageous as a lion but as gentle as a lamb; they have wills as hard as steel but hearts as soft as wax.

The church will never subordinate itself to the political community because the good it seeks is higher than the good sought by the state. The virtues she promotes—love, faith and hope—are better than those the state values. She seeks heaven while the state grasps at earth. The state is built on violence and coercion, and it seeks wealth, power and worldly security; the church is built on freedom and love and seeks treasure in heaven. The church is the temple of God, the city of God, the body of Christ. The state is human nature writ large, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

For Aristotle, human beings are “political animals” whose destiny is achieved, if at all, only in this life. For Christianity, human beings are more; they are ecclesiastical animals whose destiny lies in eternity, in the divine life.