Thursday, November 20, 2014

Orwell’s Pigs Come to the Homeland

[King Saul of Israel] took two oxen and cut them into pieces and sent the messengers to carry them throughout Israel with this message: “This is what will happen to the oxen of anyone who refuses to follow Saul and Samuel into battle!” And the LORD made the people afraid of Saul’s anger, and all of them came out together as one. (1 Sam 11:7)
King Saul was the answer to apostate Israel’s prayers for a king who “will govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:20). Whatever his faults later in life, and they were legion, here he starts out well. He sacrifices (in the secular sense) his own oxen to symbolize his own dedication to the cause and announces that he will lead—not follow, not send, but lead—his people into battle. He demonstrates true leadership. In fact, he was in this sense a leader all his life. He led his men in pursuit of David, and he was still, at the age of seventy, leading his men in battle on Mount Gilboa when he was killed.
Subsequent kings both good and bad followed Saul’s example of leadership: Evil King Ahab and not-so-evil King Jehoshaphat led their men on a fool’s errand to Ramoth, for which Ahab paid with his life (1 Kg 22). Righteous King Josiah also led his men on a fool’s errand, this one against Pharaoh Neco and paid with his life (1 Chr 35:20-24). Fool’s errands though those were, the kings who led their men led their men.
We last saw the same leadership in this country when President GeorgeWashington led an army—not against foreign invaders, but against his own subjects—to end the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Since then, American presidents have followed the example of Saul’s successor, a man after God’s own heart, who after becoming king preferred at least once to take his ease at home while his underlings fought and died (1 Sam 11).
The transition of government from servant to master seems to be inevitable. In 1776 people formed a government supposedly based on the notion that “all men are created equal … endowed by their creator with … unalienable rights” and that people had the right to alter or abolish governments that trampled on those rights. By 1794 the same man who had famously signed the Declaration led a detachment to prevent people from altering a government they felt violated their rights.
So is government servant or master? Specifically, what about the people we today call “public servants”?
In the aftermath of the shooting of a state trooper and the subsequent manhunt, which was orders of magnitude greater than what would have followed the murder of a mundane, I read the following, written by a patriotic conservative:
Let’s face it—if one of us “ordinary” citizens gets murdered, it’s not as significant to society as a whole, as the murder of an authority figure like a policeman or a politician.
Who is the master and who is the servant here? Would the parallel on the plantation be “if the master gets murdered, it’s not as significant for the plantation as the murder of a slave,” or would it be “if a slave gets murdered, it’s not as significant for the plantation as the murder of the master”?
You can’t have it both ways, folks. Either politicians and policemen are servants, in which case their demise is comparable to that of the slave, or they are masters, and to call them servants is dishonest at best.
If you’re still not convinced that those who “protect and serve” consider themselves our masters, consider this tidbit from an article about how our “servants” are being trained these days. I think the mundanes described here can be forgiven for thinking that they were being “served” by Snowball and Napoleon, the pigs from Orwell’s Animal Farm:
A 2007 study found that 49 percent of police departments surveyed used active-duty military personnel, including special-forces troops, to train their SWAT teams. One of the teams competing in Urban Shield was from the US Marine Corps. When the training event kicked off Saturday morning, I sat in an Amtrak train in Oakland as they came through in combat gear shouting at the pretend civilians to “put your fucking hands up! Anyone who puts their hands down will get fucking shot! Don’t fucking move!” Even though they were just shooting little plastic bullets, my heart was pounding. Afterward, I asked a Marine why they trained in exercises designed for police. “To learn different tactics,” he said. “You have some of the best guys out there, and they give their input and we take that back with us and teach our Marines.”
So the most powerful military in the world is taking cues from cops? “It’s interesting that we’ve had a lot of conversations on the militarization of the police, but you could make the same argument for the police-ization of the military,” said Nelson, the Urban Shield spokesman. The modern military is in the business of occupation, he said, of getting governments up and running. When the military fights insurgents, it is “almost acting like a police force.”
If, dear reader, the words spoken on the train were those of someone serving God by serving “society as a whole,” I’m not interested in knowing, let alone serving, that god. And if that’s the only god there is, there’s no good god, and anything we do to keep from getting on the bad side of whatever god is there, far from being virtue, is a survival tactic comparable to a skunk’s scent. Notice that these are not “a few bad apples at the bottom.” This is how our “servants” are being trained to treat us. They are agents of occupation who (rightly) regard us as potential rebels. They are in fact, self-conscious “authority figures,” not servants.
I’d also like to pick up on the idea that it is “society as a whole” that is “served” by our increasingly unified police-and-military armada. This is akin to the idea that “a state has the right to protect itself.” Here we have the collectivist idea that “society” has rights that transcend individual rights. That is, an abstraction—something that lacks mass, volume, and texture—has rights that tangible, sentient beings made in the image of God do not have. This was the idea that Orwell was parodying, guided as he was by common grace to see that evil people hide their true motives behind warm and fuzzy abstractions.
The state is the deadliest warm and fuzzy abstraction known to man. In the name of making a better life for “society as a whole,” it has made life miserable for billions of flesh-and-blood people. Meanwhile, politicians are immune from prosecution for the harm caused by their policies, and police are immune from prosecution when they fail to protect. Both groups are certainly immune from prosecution for acting like masters and treating us as slaves.
As a thumbnail view of politics, I’ll take 1 Samuel 8 over Romans 13 any day.
If indeed the life of a politician or policeman is more precious than that of a mundane, then Snowball and Napoleon were right and Jefferson was wrong: “All men are created equal,” but some people are more equal than others. On the other hand, if all men are created in the image of God, all murders are equally evil.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Empire and Social Order

I usually find myself offering answers to questions no one is asking, so I was pleasantly surprised, at a wedding reception no less, to receive the following question in writing:
In God’s restraining the sinfulness of man and to keep him from totally destroying himself, does he raise up nations and or empires to restrain men and to keep order in the world? In other words, does he raise up nations such as Rome, England, and the US etc., to be world cops?
This question requires (and probably has received) a book-length answer, but the best I can do here is a short summary of what such a book would say.
The presuppositions I see behind this question are that man is sinful, that God restrains that sinfulness “to keep [man] from totally destroying himself,” that he raises up nations and empires, that we can know in at least some general sense why he raises them up, and that empires keep order. I agree with the first three at least enough not to contest them here. The last two are not so clearly cut.
Why God does things are not necessarily for us to know. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Ro 11:34). Did that parking space near the entrance open up so you could park in it, or so you could leave it for someone who needed it more? I see no way of answering questions about such minor things definititively, so I cannot say for sure why God raises up and then abases empires. But how God raises up empires is beyond dispute: he makes them victorious in battle over societies in which “the sinfulness of man” may or may not be more evident (“Should you be silent while the wicked destroy people who are more righteous than they?” [Hab 1:13]). And given that the victors get to write the history books, in which they always and understandably defend their moral right to victory, I would have to say that from a human standpoint, empires are always the product of might makes right.
Which brings us to the presupposition that empires keep order. The truth of that statement depends crucially on the definition of order. Mao’s and Stalin’s empires, and ISIS today, all have had order of a sort, but I’m sure that sort of order is not what my interlocutor had in mind. He’s a conservative, so I don’t know how he defines order (and suspect I would disagree somewhat if I did), so I’ll use my definition here: a society has order to the degree that people’s bodies, property, trust, and reputations are safe from violence (Ex 20:13-16).
By that definition, some empires are worse than others. But because all empires—all governments, for that matter—are established by armed conflict (the ultimate violation of people and their property, usually involving some form of deceit) and maintained by taxation (systematic violation of property), I have a hard time saying that any are good, or even saying that some are better than others. But some are clearly worse than others.
So the question I was asked essentially boils down to this: Does God give some less-bad people power to keep the more-bad people from doing worse things? As I said, God’s ways are inscrutable, so I won’t speak to his purposes, but I will at least hypothesize that yes, when less-bad people are in power, things are (Surprise!) less bad than they are when more-bad people are in power. So less-bad empires are not as bad a more-bad empires. But beyond that tautology I cannot go.
My interlocutor is probably an exception, but the question when most Americans ask it is not an information question but a rhetorical question, in effect a statement that empires are needed to keep order, the US empire is not as bad as the enemy empire du jour is, and therefore to question the wisdom of American wars, let alone the legitimacy of the empire itself, is sheer foolishness.
I would reply that since all empires begin and maintain their existence through at least the threat of violence, and since everyone is convinced both that his own morals are better than his neighbors’ and that violence for the cause of a “good” empire is justified, the moral tenor of any empire is probably more apparent to that empire’s enemies than to its friends. Empires, like politicians in general, are being most truthful when pointing out their opponents’ sins. So we need to temper our enthusiasm for Uncle Sam’s empire, even if we reap tangible benefits from it; those benefits may be stolen goods.
Conservatives and liberals all believe that order can come about and be maintained only if some people, government, are allowed to violate it. That is, while nationhood and empire are not sufficient for order to exist—some nations and empires are chaotic—they are necessary. The American empire, so both sides say, is the best there has ever been; we are “the indispensible nation.” So American imperialism is needed to bring order to the world, and without America, the world will be hell from pole to pole. Again, let me suggest that it is for God first, those who suffer the ill effects of American government policy second, and American beneficiaries last to weigh our government’s policies and render a moral judgment.
I agree that unless man’s sinfulness is restrained, he will destroy himself. I also agree that God has designed structures that effectively restrain that sinfulness. But I think I know better ways to restrain sin than nations and empires, with their politicians, hearings, commissioners, lawyers, judges, and, most importantly, their uniforms, guns, and bombs, and essentially carte blanche to use them.
The first sin-restraining structure is self-interest. God has built into the world the amazing mechanism of self-sacrifice. Athletes, musicians, artists, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs are the first examples that come to mind of people who have to sacrifice their short-term interests for their long-term interests. The ultimate example of this, of course, is Jesus, who was himself the ultimate sacrifice: “He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God's throne in heaven” (Heb 12:2).
The second sin-restraining structure is the family. To see how the family restrains sin, let’s take the common sin of male lust. Everyone knows a man can easily become attracted to women other than his wife. Adultery is a sin. How does the family act to restrain this sin? The most common way is through incentives: if you want your home to be a pleasant place to be in, you make sure your wife has no fear of other women, whether live, on paper, or online.
The family also acts to restrain anger, another sin: if you want your home to be pleasant, you need to treat your family with respect. You can choose either serving your family and living happily or sinning against them and reaping reciprocated disrespect (violent or otherwise), disdain, or even abandonment. The same dynamics operate to some degree for wives and children, and the rules seem to be the same for both Christian believers and for nonbelievers. So the family offers incentives for people out of their own self-interest to restrain their own sins, and when that doesn’t work, verbal and even physical restraint might enter the picture.
The third sin-restraining structure is the church, the other covenantal institution, which is supposed to be the ultimate extended family. It is the church that is supposed to care for those in need, provide avenues of service for those in abundance, and shape the values we take home and into the neighborhood. Again, while a good church makes provision for imperfections and even for sins, either you play by the rules or you’re out. Like the family, the church will provide incentives for self-restraint.
The fourth sin-restraining structure is what I call the neighborhood. (Others might call it the market or civil society.) Unlike the family and church, the neighborhood requires no covenant. It is here that we interact with our neighbors, no matter who they may be. Some of them we will only see in passing, with others we will exchange money for goods and services, and with others we will converse and perhaps share meals or enter into closer relationships. It is in the neighborhood that we find the firepower needed to resist the violence that conservatives and liberals think of when they think of restraining sin.
While the statist view is that some people have to be free to violate others’ property through taxation and violate their freedom through whatever laws they make with the intention of the common good. An empire says, “Do as I say or I’ll kill you.” I would suggest that to expect someone who violates your property and threatens your body (again, often on the basis of false claims) to protect your body, property, reputation, and trust is counterintuitive at best. There is nothing about you that appeals to the empire’s self-interest except your ability to contribute taxes and cannon fodder. The more protection an empire actually offers you, or the more recalcitrant you are about contributing, the more of a burden you are.
By contrast, , a neighborhood-based society would offer protection for a price, and simply not protect those who choose to go it alone, purchase their protection from others, or not obey the rules. A neighbor—whether a commercial operation or a prospective mate—says, “Let’s make a deal.” It’s in his self-interest to see the deal go through and to keep your business away from the competition through good service for as long as possible.
To have the opportunity to choose from protection plans from Walmart, Target, State Farm, Winn-Dixie, Toyota, Nestlé, Chick-fil-A, the local mosque, and God knows who else—plans that could cover life, auto, theft, fire, stupidity, illness, travel, transportation, unemployment, retirement, invasion by ISIS, and dozens of things I wouldn’t think of, either comprehensively or piecemeal—sounds to me like a much better situation than to be forced into a one-size-fits-all program offered by a state that considers itself the paragon of virtue because it allows me to vote every year or two or four or six for the people who will supposedly set, administer, and adjudicate the programs. Obviously, I wouldn’t qualify for some such programs, and others would be out of my price range, but somebody somewhere would be trying to put his kids through college by telling people like me, “If you’ll pay your bills and obey the rules, here’s what we can do for you.” In other words, “If you’ll restrain your sin, we’ll see that you live well.”
They would be wooing people who would tell them in return, “If you don’t deliver on your promises, I’ll go elsewhere.” Again: it’s in your self-interest to restrain your sin.
It was the vision of that kind of society, a society whose prosperity comes from mutual service, not from the power that flows from the barrel of a gun, that first got me really excited about being a Christian—and that was nine years after I had first committed my life to Jesus. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that people can fully live in a society like that, and I would think that showing people how the Bible calls people to develop the kind of character that succeeds in such a society (and promises the help of the Holy Spirit in that development) would be a much more effective means of evangelism than, for example, fighting to keep certain kinds of sex education out of schools paid for by people who want their kids to go through those programs, or fighting to keep Social Security payments from going to the homosexual partners or plural wives of people forced to pay into it.
If in time and on earth “the time will come when all the earth will be filled, as the waters fill the sea, with an awareness of the glory of the LORD” (Hab 2:14), my guess is that it will look more like the neighborhood I just described than any society held together by politicians, police, and military.
Since then I’ve tried to share that vision with anyone who will listen and get them to join me in a project that will take years, if not centuries, to complete. I’m not sure why, but I’ve found very few Christians who are interested.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gilboa or Ziklag?

Now the Philistines attacked Israel, forcing the Israelites to flee. Many were slaughtered on the slopes of Mount Gilboa.  The Philistines closed in on Saul and his sons, and they killed three of his sons—Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malkishua. (1 Sam 31:1-2)
If the Darwin Award had been awarded in the year 1010 bc, the grand prize would have had to go to Saul’s soldiers who died on Mount Gilboa, with Jonathan, son of King Saul of Israel, as the poster boy. We’re taught in Sunday school that Jonathan was a great man of faith—unlike his father Saul, who was obviously a son of Satan—and for much of his life that seems to be true. But I award him a Darwin for being, when it was most important, in the last place his spiritual acumen should have taken him.
Put another way, if his desire was to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33), and if the godly people of the land were his true heroes (Ps 16:3), he should not have followed Saul to Mount Gilboa.
Maybe he was there because he looked up to his father. Saul’s first act as king had been to be the leader in battle that Israel had called for. As leader he sacrificed his own property before asking anyone else to sacrifice theirs, and he led the charge against the Ammonites and so rescued the town of Jabesh (1 Sam 11:7-11). So far, he was the kind of father Jonathan could look up to. But not for long.
We first meet Jonathan when he leads a successful revolt against Philistine rule over his tribe’s allotted land (1 Sam 13:3). The good is soon undone, however, when the Philistines mount a response: Saul panics and offers a burnt sacrifice in direct violation of the Torah and the instructions of Samuel, God’s chosen leader (1 Sam 13:6-14). It is at this point that God first announces that Saul’s dynasty will end (13:13-14). If Jonathan did not hear Samuel speak with his own ears, without doubt someone else told him what Samuel had said. He certainly knew by the time he told David, “You are going to be the king of Israel, and I will be next to you” (1 Sam 23:17).
Soon after Samuel’s announcement, Jonathan raids another Philistine garrison, which triggers another battle in which Israel wins a Pyrrhic victory: Saul places a curse on anyone who eats anything before Saul the egomaniac is satisfied with the results of the battle. When the Lord shows Israel that they cannot continue to fight the Philistines because someone has sinned, Saul specifically names Jonathan as included under the curse: “I vow by the name of the LORD who rescued Israel that the sinner will surely die, even if it is my own son Jonathan!” (1 Sam 14:39). I suppose Jonathan could still have been looking up to his father even after that—Saul was treating people equally there, if nothing else—but I have to wonder why he stuck around.
We should notice here the parallel between this incident and the confrontation between Jacob and Laban at Mizpah, where Jacob pronounces a deadly curse on anyone who would have stolen Laban’s household idol. As it turned out, the culprit was Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and she did indeed die soon thereafter (Gen 31:32; 35:19). God made the curse come true. If Jonathan connected Rachel’s situation to his own, he shows no evidence of it: as already noted, later in the story he seems to assume he will live to see David become king (1 Sam 23:17).
Jonathan no doubt heard Samuel later tell Saul that God had already chosen Saul’s successor to the throne (1 Sam 15:28), and he acted on that knowledge by giving David his accoutrements as crown prince (18:4).
Yet no matter how murderous and ungodly Saul became, Jonathan refused to leave his side. He stayed after he learned that not only David’s but his own life was in danger from Saul (20:33). He watched his father slaughter the innocent priests of Nob (22:19) and no doubt heard that David had twice spared his father’s life when he could have easily killed him (24:11; 26:15). Even so, Saul was still single-mindedly pursuing David to the death.
Finally, he no doubt knew that his father went to visit the witch at En Dor before the battle on Mount Gilboa (28:7-25). He would have known of the hypocrisy of a man who had purged Israel of mediums, presumably by killing at least some of them (28:9), himself visiting a medium. He would have known that “the LORD [was refusing] to answer [Saul], either by dreams or by sacred lots or by the prophets” (28:6)—in short, the Lord was no longer with Saul. And he would have heard that at the séance the Lord through Samuel had promised to kill not only Saul but him as well the next day.
Yet that next day he goes out and fights the Philistines beside his father and is killed.
If indeed his first priority in life was to be second to David in David’s kingdom (23:17), why did he never join David in exile? Life was rough in that exile, of course: while Jonathan was being killed, David and his band were still recovering from the Amalek destruction of their homes in Ziklag. Before that they had wandered from Philistia to Moab and back again (21:10; 22:3-4; 27:2), always in fear of their lives. So things were rough for David, but Jonathan knew that God was with David and not with Saul. So why did he stay with Saul?
As I can come up with no good reason, I present the Darwin Award to Jonathan and Saul’s other soldiers.
The men who had taken Saul’s banner down from the castles of their hearts and were following David—or most of them, it seems—lived to tell about it. Those who—in obedience to some Old Testament version of Romans 13?—went to battle singing “his banner over me is Saul’s” didn’t. What’s really scary is that in suit-and-tie Sunday school terms Jonathan was a much better man than David’s general Joab, yet it was Joab who was out living in the cave with David.
If “wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it” (Lk 7:35), who was wise, and who was otherwise?
My vast readership knows that I’m going to try to apply the folly of Jonathan and his men to US evangelicalism’s undying devotion to Uncle Sam, and I won’t disappoint you. “But Jonathan had supernatural revelation from Samuel,” I hear you say. “We don’t, so we can’t know for sure that Uncle Sam is evil, so we have to stick by him.”
OK, fair enough. My question is this: What means apart from special, supernatural revelation might God use to tell his people to withdraw their support from ungodly authority, ordained of God though it be? Today
Look at the plain brown wrapper evidence Jonathan had to work with: Saul was disobedient to God, lethally selfish in battle, guilty of shedding innocent blood, and lethally hypocritical. He was a moral and ethical failure. David was imperfect, but he was good enough that Jonathan could see through his own self-interest and acknowledge David as worthy of being king.
How obedient is Uncle Sam to God? God is not welcome in Uncle Sam’s education system, he’s becoming less welcome in the military, he’s a laughingstock in popular culture, and that list goes on. The leveling of Fallujah and the blithe acceptance of “collateral damage” shows his bloodthirstiness to be no better than Saul’s. His War on Drugs, run by at least three presidents and God knows how many legislators who (and whose children) have used illegal substances but not gone to jail for it, is proof of his hypocrisy. Finally, I would also consider Uncle Sam’s defeats—none of the original military objectives are currently in effect—in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as evidence that the Lord isn’t in Uncle Sam’s war efforts. (And no, I don’t necessarily believe he always has been heretofore.)
So you, my conservative evangelical brethren, are welcome to continue to trudge up Mount Gilboa with Uncle Sam. Go ahead and vote for Pinocchio, whether the long-eared or the long-nosed variety, and defend him against people like me.
US Bipartisanship
(Carlo Collodi, RIP. Photo credit)
As for me and my house, the Amelekites may burn our shacks in Ziklag to the ground, but I think I’m better off in exile with David’s greater Son, even if it means working alongside the Joabs—atheists, non-evagelical Christians, and people of no particular religious commitment—who are leading the revolt against Uncle Sam’s godlessness, while the evangelical Jonathans proudly send their taxes and children to aid and abet it.
Moses “thought it was better to suffer for the sake of the Messiah than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the great reward that God would give him.” May God grant me the grace (and you the desire) to do likewise.