Sunday, December 6, 2009


I used to believe that voting made a difference, that it was my duty to exercise my privilege to vote. The cry “No taxation without representation!” made sense. Today I would gladly give up my right to vote if I could be free of taxation, let alone the scads of other rules that govern, or threaten to, my private behavior.

Perhaps my first doubt about voting came after Enron collapsed, when I learned that Enron had made substantial contributions to candidates on both sides of more than one federal election. There’s no reason to believe that that is not common practice, and if it is, what good does voting do? Even if “my” candidate wins, he’s much more beholden to his big contributers than to me.

Another problem is sheer numbers: even if 99% of, say, Oregonians were to decide that abortion is murder and outlaw it, the Californians, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and Massachusettsites would overrule them at the federal level and force them to keep it legal. When a decision is made at the ward level, you only need to sell your idea to a few dozen people to get it enacted. If it’s made at the county level, you have to convince hundreds—if you’re in Malheur County; in Multnomah County, you’d have to convince hundreds of thousands. At the federal level, you have to convince dozens of millions. If, as Jesus promised us, our views will always be in the minority, we can pretty much guarantee that whatever is under federal jurisdiction will go against us.

On that basis, then, I have concluded that every vote for a losing candidate or referendum is a wasted vote. And if I can expect to be in the minority on almost every issue, voting itself is a waste.

The fundamental hurdle we Christians who love liberty face is theological. There are only two religions, Jesus and everything else, and those religions have two fundamentally different operating principles, grace and power, respectively. If this is so, then non-Christians are by definition power religionists. Government is always raw power; it cannot be gracious, though sometimes government officials operating ex officio can be.

People who believe in power look to control the most powerful entity they can so they can get their way; this is why they are always looking to expand federal jurisdiction and even trying to build a one-world government in their own image. And once in power, elected officials at all levels have every incentive to buy votes—always “for the common good,” of course: there is good evidence that all expansions of federal power, Democrat and Republican, have been enacted by elected officials who truly believed that they were doing what was right. If we are to reverse the erosion of our freedoms, part of our job is to show people that power politics is not the best way for them to get what they want out of life.

(I also need to say somewhere that our primary goal is not to free people from earthly bondage, whether to drugs, pornography, or tyranny. Rather, we are to be introducing them to Jesus. I like to think that showing them how grace and freedom work in everyday life would be a good way to till the soil for showing them their need for forgiveness from God and for his power to live life to the fullest, but God saves whom he will, and he has certainly saved many without tilling the soil my way.)

Unfortunately, too many Christians want to play the power politics game. For example, though government schools are power politics par excellance, Christians want to take control of them, specifically of the curriculum, rather than working to defund them completely. They want to sanitize Social Security, another product of power politics, by making it impossible for homosexuals and single people to designate the recipients of their benefits, rather than defunding it. As a result, we are seen as simply another bunch of baby birds, competitors for Artemis’ nipples, wanting to make others pay for our programs, instead of people who simply want to be left alone to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Ben Franklin, asked what kind of government he and his friends had established, replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Would he say we have kept it? If not, when would he say we lost it? If so, how is it that most of our fellow citizens think we’re “going the wrong way”? Either way, are we better off trying to gain control of a power structure that has run amok or declaring the whole thing illegitimate and working to get it out of our lives?

To declare our government legitimate because it is “a constitutional republic” or that it’s the best government the world has ever seen is to say that people are bound by contracts they did not sign: specifically, we are bound by a constitution that was signed before we were born, one that the politically powerful have the ability to violate at will.

And we should remember that the Declaration of Independence stated that the goal of the secession was that the colonies become “free and independent states,” not “a republic,” one nation, under God or otherwise. Franklin and his gang staged the most successful fraud in our history when they drafted the Constitution instead of revising the Articles of Confederation.

To declare it illegitimate is one step toward declaring lex rex: “the law is king,” and no one—no politician and no armed agent thereof—is above it; no one has the right to take the life, liberty, or property of another.

Not even by majority vote.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Want to see two of my least favorite verses?

Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2Ti 3:12)

No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (Jn 15:20)

Every time I read or hear about believers undergoing persectuion, I shudder. I’m a self-centered weenie, so my first thought is that if I were persecuted, it would hurt and I wouldn’t have the time or freedom to be able to do the things I want to do. I really wonder how long I would last even if I could get past the pain and inconvenience. Do I really love Jesus enough to endure weeks or months of hard labor, splinters under my fingernails, or inadequate food or sleep? For that matter, how long would I last in a 50-degree room wearing only a t-shirt before I said, “What do I have to do to get out?”

So I’m playing the armchair martyr as I pass on gleanings from a dissertation I’m currently freelance editing that is written by a fellow from northern Nigeria, someone who has seen firsthand the burned churches, razed homes, and bereaved survivors of persecution. I knew I was out of my league when I read this in his first chapter (quoted with permission):

Of concern to me in this project is not the persecutors and their instruments of persecution but the theological evolution that is taking place as a result of the social, economic, psychological, emotional, and physiological tow the experience has had and is having on the lives of believers. I have observed ongoing efforts at reinterpretation of certain biblical verses with no exegetical or hermeneutical justification to align with the mood of the time; I have seen and heard of calls to arms by pastors and church leaders that encourage their membership to rise and fight back [emphasis added].

You read right. He thinks it’s wrong to resist persecutors and would-be persecutors forcibly, even though he knows his wife or children could be the next ones shot, stabbed, or burned.

Then he backs up his theological argument with the biblical examples of Abel; Lot (!); Elijah; Micaiah; Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord”; Jeremiah and Uriah; Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel; John the Baptist; Jesus; Stephen; and Peter and Paul. None of these resisted persecution forcibly. His conclusion is that persecution is an integral part of the Christian life, and if we’re not being persecuted, we might not be living aright.

What must he think of us US Christians who, far from accepting persecution as inevitable, are willing to drop bombs on babies halfway around the world to avoid it? He can probably name people who would order and even carry out persecution of him and his loved ones, and he knows that his would-be persecutors have his Christian brethren outnumbered and outarmed, yet his dissertation shows no trace of fear or hatred of those persecutors. How unlike US Christians, who feel the need to send the most powerful armed force the world has ever known to chase down a few hundred dedicated “ragheads” at the cost of thousands dead and wounded, millions made homeless, and our grandchildren in debt to the Chinese to pay for it.

If Tertullian is right, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Yet the same US Christians who would nod their heads in agreement with Tertullian have wholeheartedly embraced the military-industrial-surveillance state to avoid martyrdom. At the same time, they have seen the church go from being influential in society to being something between irrelevant and a laughingstock. Could the two phenomena be related? It would seem that church growth is fine, provided it grows elsewhere, at least if it’s to grow through martyrdom.

If we are to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us, it would seem to me that a good place to start would be with al-Qaeda. Do they see the church as fools for Christ, unarmed servants of a dead Jewish carpenter trying our utmost to make friends with them for his sake and the sake of his kingdom? Or do they only know us as barbarians who drop half-ton bombs, depleted uranium, and white phosphorus on the women and children Jesus called us to preach the Gospel to?

I believe it was Mike Warnke who told of his conversion at the hands of a fellow soldier in the 1970s this way:

I told him, “If you mention Jesus one more time, after you go to sleep I’ll take my bayonet and carve you up like a Christmas turkey.”

And he said to me, “If you do, every piece will say, ‘I love you, Mike.’”

Would that work with al-Qaeda? Is it worth a try?

I say it’s time we get serious about church growth. You first.

Update: A correspondent reminded me that Mike Warnke has lost a certain amount of credibility lately and that therefore any reference to him might be suspect. I had heard the reports and so wondered if including the anecdote were appropriate. I went ahead only because I think most Christians in the readership would recognize the sentiments: when we really want people to know Christ, we're willing to suffer to share Christ with them. So yes, the story itself may be apocryphal, but I'm guessing it stands for many similar stories that are true.

A Whiff of Freedom

After work yesterday I was walking as fast as I could along Walnut Street in Center City Philly, hoping I wasn’t late for my train, when I started to wonder if that sweet fragrance was ...

It was. A portly, middle-aged black fellow in a wheelchair was down to his last toke as I walked by—less than a hundred yards downwind from a couple of Philadelphia’s finest. If I hadn’t been afraid of missing my train, I’d have gone back and said, “My friend, thank you for the whiff, and God bless you. May you enjoy many more.” As it was, I found myself thinking that stupidity is most exhilarating when it’s illegal.

Then again, pot’s analgesic properties, and if it were legal, it would put a big dent in Big Pharma’s. And my friend was in a wheelchair. Maybe he was wounded in one of Uncle Sam’s wars and dealing with chronic pain in one of the least unhealthy ways known to man. (And for which Uncle Sam would thank him by putting him in the slammer.) I’ll never know.

I don’t ever want to be in his shoes. Not in his chair, not toking on a joint. But it’s always a pleasure to see someone give Big Brother the finger.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ah, the South

Ginny got the folks at Wal-Mart to put in a new watch battery. After they installed it, they gave her the square-inch “box” and told her to pay for it up front. No one in Philadelphia would be naive enough to do that.

I’m virtual freelance editing on the second floor of the Enterprise Public Library and start downstairs for a break. An early-teenage black girl says, “Sir? Sir?” and asks me to point her to the shelf that has the book she’s looking for. I do my best and leave. When I come back up, I see her about to go downstairs and ask, “Did you find it?” With a tone of voice that lets me know the conversation has already gone on longer than she’d like, she says, “Yes, sir.” Not “Yeah.” “Sir.”

Ginny and I took a long walk around Nate and Courtney’s neighborhood. I went barefoot and wasn’t cold.

I could live down here.

On the Battlefield against Leviathan, Part 2: The Poison Bible

Before the business part of the meeting described in the last post began, Abington swore in three new police officers. The initiates had invited their parents, siblings, and friends to attend, and most of the people in the room, including many of the Libertarians, considered this the beginning of an era with tremendous potential for good.

After opening remarks by the president of the board of commissioners, a kindly-looking judge stepped to the lectern to administer the oath of office. He greeted everyone, called the new officers and their parents to the lectern, and pulled out a somewhat worn Bible.

“Who would like to hold the Bible?” he asked.

All nine of those standing with him took a step back. No one wanted to hold the Bible. The judge asked again, saying that even one of the guys being sworn in could hold it. No takers.

I couldn’t get my mind around it: these guys were going to swear an oath on a book they were obviously repulsed by. So why was the Bible there at all? Was the God of the Bible honored that it was there, being used as some sort of talisman?

After about a minute, someone from the audience volunteered to hold the Bible. And the three officers swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Abington Township.

Many of the Libertarian atheists there saw the irony of people swearing on a book they don’t believe or even like to uphold the very Constitution they have to disobey if they are to keep their jobs. What scares me is that so many Christians don’t.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Iraqi Freedom

One of my correspondents has said that from what she's heard, the Iraqis appreciate the freedom that the US military is "providing" them. If that's so, they have an interesting value system.

Let me put myself in the position that dozens, if not thousands, of Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakis are in today. Let's say my son and infant grandchildren have just become mangled corpses and my daughter-in-law a half-blind paraplegic because the Chinese have dropped a bomb on "suspected insurgents" in their efforts to liberate us from a government they feel threatens them. I find myself face-to-face with Commander Li, who, it turns out, is a Christian. With tears of gratitude in my eyes, I say, "Commander, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Even though our family has suffered horribly from this bomb, it's worth it to me because ___."

What could possibly go in that blank? How bad could things be beforehand, or what good thing could come as a result, that I would say it was worth losing my son and grandchildren to get it? Isn't it more likely that whatever benefits accrued from the status post facto would be a thin silver lining around a huge black cloud?

It's one thing for me to be willing to die for a cause. It's something else entirely for someone who has no choice in the matter to be killed. Yet this is the situation our government has forced on millions of people in three nations.

Or let's look at a parallel from a neutral country.

All radio stations in Papua New Guinea are owned by the government and are therefore tax supported. The station in the province we worked in played sex rock six-and-a-half days a week and gospel music on Sunday mornings. Now my Christian friends seemed to think that the gospel music (and news and other feature shows) justified the existence of the station: the sex rock was something of a blemish, but all in all the taxman was justified before God in taking the fruits of Christian taxpayers' labor to support it.

I thought that the tax support alone made the station's existence immoral, that the sex rock was proof of its immorality, and that the gospel music was therefore tainted. The cherry on my sundae was that I didn't know of any non-Christians who listened to the gospel music, let alone were converted by it; they were more likely to mock it or simply turn it off.

Now my parallel to the war: Does the gratitude of those who have benefited from the war outweigh and sanctify the suffering of those who oppose it? Or does the suffering of the innocent show the immorality of the war and taint the benefits enjoyed by its cheerleaders?

We shall soon have the opportunity to decide for ourselves, when Uncle Sam provides us the same freedom we have been providing the Iraqis: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Lk 6:38). We saw that freedom at work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when residents were forced out of their homes, had their weapons confiscated, were prohibited from leaving the city, and were imprisoned in the Superdome. And now the Army has announced that the first of what will likely be many units dedicated to providing us freedom in like situations in the future has been deployed in the US.

What goes around comes around.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On the Battlefield against Leviathan, Part 1: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

A few weeks ago an e-mail from some friends in the Libertarian Party informed me that the commissioners in the nearby township of Abington had voted to take a storefront belonging to an eighty-year-old woman through eminent domain. Since eminent domain is by definition the politically powerful doing as they please with the less powerful, I was duly concerned, even though this particular case was not one I would have chosen: the widow has more money than I’ll ever see, and the storefront is an eyesore. But, as H. L. Mencken said, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels,” and Moses said, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly,” so I decided to join the protest at the next commission meeting.

I figured I knew what to expect, having been to a meeting of the Lansdale Borough Council. That was a step up from business casual, so I wasn’t concerned when I arrived business informal and saw many of the protesters in jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. One was dressed like this fellow, complete with mask and sign. I thought some of the signs were over the top—”Commissioner X [who voted for the taking] stinks!” and “Thieves SUCK“ being my least favorites (I settled for “Eminent Domain Is Theft”)—but I was a johnny-come-lately, so I didn’t say anything.

After we’d stood outside for an hour showing our signs to the dozen or so people who walked past to go inside, we went into the meeting. That was where I first realized we were in trouble. This place was business formal: carpeted, padded chairs in the gallery, the commissioners and township staff in well-into-three-digits suits, and cameras and screens all around to record the proceedings and show exhibits. We looked out of place, to say the least, in our scruffies. Undaunted, however, as the attendance roll was called, we duly booed those commissioners who had voted for the taking and cheered those who hadn’t.

The business part of the meeting went by quite quickly. Every agendum was read out in a sentence or two by one of the commissioners, seconded immediately, and passed unanimously after the president asked if the commissioners, township staff, or audience had any comments, which usually no one did. Then I got my second lesson. One of the commissioners (who had voted against the taking) took time out to explain that the issues are discussed in detail in committee beforehand, implying that the actual vote is essentially a formality. So, it would seem, if we’re to change any minds on the issues, we need to get to the legislators at the discussion stage.

I had hoped before I went that I would not suffer the same transformation when I got into the meeting room that Charles Colson wrote about somewhere—when he was on President Nixon’s staff, he loved watching people who had come to read the president the riot act turn into pussycats when they actually walked into the Oval Office and were overwhelmed by the trappings of power that pervade the room—but that’s exactly what happened. One person who had not been with us gave an incoherent rant that I think was against the taking, and a couple of others got up and flailed. At that point, I just flat chickened out, and the meeting was over before I could compose myself.

But that’s probably just as well. A couple of people had gotten up during the proceedings and thanked the commissioners for their votes for the taking, specifically mentioning the jeers and hisses that we had subjected them to that evening. And after the meeting, none of the commissioners, not even those who had voted against the taking, greeted us. We changed no minds, unless some of those who voted against the taking were now wishing they’d voted for it.

The third lesson came after the meeting, when my ride home stopped off at a nearby bar to join the other Libertarians for consolation and encouragement. The first people I saw when I walked in were one of the guys who had chastised us at the meeting and a couple who had clapped enthusiastically when he had finished. As I was wondering if they’d be offended if I asked if I could join them and thinking it wouldn’t matter anyway because they were right in front of the DJ, who was doing his best to deafen everyone, the Libs got the bar staff to open a conference room so we could hear ourselves talk and invited the trio to join us. They did join, and the Libs kept their beer glasses full and plied them with onion rings and crab fries; we all had a truly enjoyable time. Our erstwhile chastiser was a nonstop talker, so the Libs sat around him and tossed him questions like a dolphin trainer tosses fish. I don’t know that we got him to see the evil of eminent domain, even after all the times he realized he’d talked himself into corners, but when we finally quit at 1 am, I don’t think he and his friends thought still thought we were unprincipled riffraff.

So, lesson three: we can make more friends for liberty with beer than by 1960s-style demonstrating.

It’s frustrating that well-educated people in nice clothes can commit atrocities and then firm up their support base by looking down their noses at those who violate protocol at their meetings, and it feels great to be able to express our disgust at those atrocities. And evil is still evil even if those who commit it are convinced that they are doing good. But such people are rarely convinced to change their ways when others accuse them of evil, no matter how faultlessly logical the argument, and if our goal is to get them to change their ways, we can’t just throw their evil in their faces and expect them to repent.

The way to a person’s brain is through the heart. (I know I have made my worst mistakes by choosing to believe a pack of lies that I wanted to be true.) I think the Abington commissioners, and thousands like them, love the system and therefore believe it to be good. Before we can get them to change their minds, we need to get them to love those who suffer because of that system. We can’t do that with signs and jeers.

Maybe conflict resolution √† la Matthew 18 (mutatis mutandis) can help us here: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” That is, we keep things on a private, personal level as much as possible; once it gets to the power politics stage, the battle is already lost.

All legislation in Abington, and I presume elsewhere, is “advertised” months in advance. That is the time to meet the legislators privately and try to reason with them. Even harder to do, but possibly more effective, would be to meet and befriend them before offensive legislation is even proposed. To put it crassly, we need to learn how to schmooze and lobby. It’s not as much fun as hurling insults, but it sounds more like how Jesus dealt with the tax collectors and prostitutes of his day.

If I’m anywhere close to the truth, we have a lot of crow to eat and a lot of work ahead of us.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Up for Assignment (Update)

This original post was tactless and hurt people who expected better from me, so I am taking it and the subsequent comments down.

I have been asked specifically to address three issues in this retraction and will do so in what follows.

Two things before I start:

I gave the false impression that my son’s possible assignment to Korea involved no work or risk. This is not true. While we don’t hear much in the media about the US military death rate in Korea, it is surprisingly high, and any time a military aircraft takes off, there’s reason to believe it will be shot at. My son was on his first deployment to Iraq when his first child was born and when she learned to walk, and he could have been shot at. I should have acknowledged this considerable sacrifice and risk.

More importantly, he does what he does because he loves his family and others. As one whose life has never been in danger for more than a couple of seconds, and that as often as not because of my own stupidity, I have to take my hat off to anyone, friend or foe, who willingly puts their lives at risk. My son fits that category. And while my post used him as an example, my quarrel is not ultimately with him but with the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world (Ep 6:12). And indeed, one of life’s cruelest ironies is that those who sincerely desire to fight those beasts often find out too late they are allied with them; I could be one of those people.

First is the issue of soldiers shooting their own family members on order from their superiors. Do I believe my own son would shoot me if ordered to? As I said at the top of the original article, when I had no intention of revealing who the subject of the post was, he is a man who loves his family. I am a member of that family, and he has said that he loves me. So far so good.

But one of the themes running through the exchange was that a belief in the justice of politics causes good people to do horrible things. Chuck Colson was once accused of saying that he would run over (or some similar verb) his grandmother to serve Richard Nixon. In one of his books he says that he doesn't remember saying that, but yes, that was a reasonable assessment of his attitude at the time. Totalitarian societies, which ours is becoming, have always enlisted children as snitches against their parents, who then become prisoners and often corpses. And even though I like to think I don't believe in politics, I've done horrible things myself. (For all I know, turning against the war in Iraq, which I initially somewhat supported, is one of those horrible things, and I certainly have no reason to be proud of the way I conducted this post.)

But again, my son is also his mother's son, and not only has she proven herself fiercely protective of me as a person, he has shown himself willing to forgive many shortcomings in my fathering. So, with a nod to the caveat in the previous paragraph that was heavy on my mind and heart when I wrote the original post, I would say that my son would not shoot me, and I was wrong to imply that he would.

I also gave the impression that I consider all military people robots. Such was not my intention. To make quite the opposite point I said, "Those guards at Auschwitz probably played piano, painted in oils, wrote their grandmothers, gave flowers to their girlfriends, and did many things that we could consider commendable. We know they had Bible studies at their Hitler Youth camps and that the SS gave money to Christian missions." That is, military people are just like the rest of us. That was why my next sentence was, "What went wrong?" I also said to a commenter, whom I know to be the wife, sister, and foster mother of soldiers, "I rage at those who have deceived your loved ones, not at those you love." Being deceived is not the same as being a robot, as I, who either was or am currently deceived on the question of the Iraq war, can attest.

This leads into the third issue I was asked to address: soldiers who have gone out of their way to help local people. The only specific examples I have at hand come from the Bible. One was the Roman centurion whose servant was sick; when the Jewish leaders came to Jesus, they said that he should heal the servant because the centurion "loves our nation and built our synagogue" (Lk 7:3-5). Cornelius, similarly, "and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly." In fact, it was because his "prayers and gifts to the poor had come up as a memorial offering before God" that Peter was sent to him (Ac 10:2-4).

These were an armed agent of an empire that Daniel described as an inhuman beast with "large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left" (Dn 7:7). The Jews hated the Romans so much that, I am told, Rome had more trouble with Judea than with any other province, and one rebellion was so troublesome that the Romans ran out of wood to make crosses on which to kill the insurgents.

Yet God's holy Word says that two commanding officers were noteworthy for their love for their subjects. In fact, it is about the anonymous centurion that Jesus spoke his highest praise: "I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (Lk 7:9).

Are US soldiers any different? Of course not. While it is true that you can look on YouTube at atrocious behavior by US soldiers (some posted by those proud of it), you can also find videos of US soldiers doing their best to help the locals. You can read newspaper and magazine accounts of people who have risked and even lost their lives sincerely trying to help Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis. I don't think these stories are made up. Which group of soldiers is more typical? I don't know and probably never will. But I apologize for lumping the two groups together and will do my best not to do so in the future.

To summarize, my intention was not to hold any individual up to ridicule. I am grieved beyond words at the world my children will spend their adulthood in and at my own contributions to the way things are. I am doing my best to acknowledge my own sinfulness and give credit to those who disagree with me where it is due, but this time I simply got it wrong.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Keeping It Local, Part 1: America the Divine

The bull session that inspired my post on stoning also brought up the issue of the nature of the community that would be involved in stoning. A later post will deal specifically with the social structure needed for such a biblical community, but this post will deal with what I take to be the misconception that prompts that question and, I hope, plough the soil for the idea of life based in small communities.

A recent e-mail critical of my view on stoning ended, “Long live the Republic.” Though a product of government schools, my correspondent is truly appalled by Uncle Sam’s intrusion into the lives of his fellow citizens and hankers to return to the days when the government served the people with justice in a way that matched somewhat the description in Romans 13. He freely admits that when many or even most of his neighbors fly Old Glory they mean by it support for things as they are (abominable as they may be), not things as he wishes they were; nonetheless, he considers Old Glory’s presence proper not only on his porch but in the church sanctuary. In short, he believes in the legitimacy of the nation.

I have problems with this view. The first is historical. It conflates the Declaration of Independence with the Pledge of Allegiance by way of the Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years” before Lincoln spoke, the fathers did not “[bring] forth on this continent a new nation.” They claimed, rather, “These united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states” like “the state of Great Britain.” A “free and independent state” is free to leave any federation of which it is a part, but those that chose to leave in 1861 found out that they were not free. So my friend’s “Republic” is one top-down imperialist nation, not the original federation of independent states it started out as. I should want such an entity to live long?

(As Lysander Spooner has pointed out, the Constitution was either designed to bring about what we see today or was unable to prevent it. The paradigm shift came during the war to prevent Southern secession: is it not ironic that those who seceded viewed themselves as shooting foreign invaders but those who fought to prevent secession thought of themselves as shooting fellow citizens? Remember that when Robocop comes to your neighborhood.)

The second is practical. With over 300 million people in this nation, how can any one person claim to have a voice in public policy? Take education, for example: If your school or school district consists of twenty families and you’re the only one who believes in, say, teaching young-earth intelligent design alongside old-earth naturalistic evolution, you only have to convince ten other families before your desires become policy. Every time you add a digit to the number of families in the policymaking pool, you multiply tenfold the difficulty of standing against the tide, something Christians should expect to have to do on a regular basis (Mt 7:13).

The third is theological. I find it significant that his salute was “long live the Republic” and not something like “for Christ and his kingdom.” The idea that Uncle Sam is somehow the special apple of God’s eye is presumptuous at best and otherwise blasphemous. For example, how can any Christian sing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” without blaspheming the God who said, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Is 42:8)?
Hurrah for the flag of the free!
May it wave as our standard forever,
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.
Only Christ’s kingdom will last forever. To claim that our nation was founded on the right and might of humans is to repeat Nebuchadnezzar’s boast (Da 4:30). Yet whenever the Marine Band plays this song, Christians and non-Christians alike rise (as in the presence of deity?) to sing it.

In short, my bull session friends assume that the need a national- or even province- (“state-”) level community. They don’t see that they have fallen not only for a bait and switch that strips them of the life, liberty, and property that a godly order would permit them but into rank idolatry. They are looking to an idol for what only the Lord can provide. Part 2 of this post will sketch out that provision.

A Reader Responds and I Respond Back

From my private e-mail account:

Couple comments on the post: Let's stick with normal everyday murderers and capital punishment, not cases where government abuse is obvious or suspect.

Secondly, have you read Bahnsen's Theonomy in Christian Ethics ? If not I suggest you get this. Take a look at chapter 19, The Civil Magistrate in the NT and see where he treats Rom 13. Also, there is a section on the civil magistrate in the WCF.

In a nutshell, he will say that Rom 13 does not give carte blanche to the civil authorities. He will take a Lex Rex position. And you know that us Reformed Americans like the doctrine of the lesser magistrate when the Lord and King gets too big for his britches.

As far as capital punishment, the description as "hired executioner" is colorful but a bit flamboyant and inaccurate. Since you and I can't wield the sword unless we are appointed we can't execute. A representative of the people is appointed for this. We are all saying to him, "throw a rock for me" whenever a jury (who also represents us) says someone has committed murder (with witnesses beyond a reasonable doubt).

For the sake of discussion, I want to turn Jesus' words around 180 degrees from the Sermon on the Hill when he says, about loving our enemies, that we need to be perfect as our father is in heaven. Let's suppose he is talking about God's wrath that included the death sentence for Noah's world minus 8, Sodom and G, the cleansing of Canaan, future destruction of the world of the living and an eternal state of death in hell. Suffice it to say that God is in favor of capital punishment, and I know you agree.

How can we in the 21st century "be perfect like our father in heaven" in this regard ? Don't we want a way to consistently administer death for murderers ? I assume we are agreed on that. Capital punishment is required for justice. It also serves as a deterrent. Are we agreed on this ? If so, what we need is a way to implement it. Stoning is one way. A bit crude.

Tell me why you insist on that method. Is it simply a way to make it a community event ? Although it was the most usual way of execution, there were other methods like a sword and either an arrow or spear. I mention this as it shows that someone can be appointed as an individual to execute.

My response:

Thanks for reading my rant and responding. We are agreed that justice must be administered consistently (that is, I think you mean that what is administered must consistently be just) and that capital punishment is a deterrent (though I agree with Lewis that its primary function is to administer justice to killers and keep them from killing again; executing innocent people “for murder” would be a deterrent, but it wouldn’t be just).

I read Theonomy in Christian Ethics in 1980 and donated it to a Christian college library when we left PNG. It’s been a while. If it’s on North’s site, I’ll download it and read the section on the civil magistrate if you think I’m really off the wall.

It’s the “lex rex” hermeneutic that makes Romans 13 so hard to take at face value. It’s like Jesus’ statement that we are to hate our parents and 1 John’s blanket black-and-white statements about who is saved and who isn’t. By the time you make explicit what Paul was implying, the result looks like those verses in the Koran that are half parentheses. Paul and Peter were writing to people who had no hope of ever influencing society. They was trying to keep their readers from being killed needlessly. They knew the people in power were murderers and were reminding their readers that God would work through the situation whether through life or death. A statement that state execution is morally preferable to community execution those passages aren’t.

I don’t know what a hired person is if not someone who takes money from A to do things for A. You’ve delegated the actual hiring process (i.e., the name on the time card and pay check) to a faceless system populated by people you don’t know and can’t install or remove, but your approval of that system tells me it’s essentially as voluntary as if you were saying “throw a rock for me” to the executioner’s face. Your use of “is appointed” is important here, as it leaves unspecified who is responsible for the appointment. Why on earth you would prefer to delegate your responsibility to an entity you can’t control is beyond me: usually freedom (i.e., control) and responsibility go together, but you seem to prefer responsibility without freedom. The only explanation I can come up with is that you don’t think your responsibility for evil done by the system you support will cost you anything: There’s no purgatory, and your pardon was purchased in full at Calvary, so what if innocent people die? Let God sort ’em out.

Stoning is “a bit crude”? Whose idea was it? If it was moral then, would it be immoral now? On what basis? It seems to me that Bahnsen’s whole point was that the giving of the law between Egypt and Canaan was God building a society from the bottom up: “If you want to know what God’s idea of an ideal society is, read the Torah.” (OK, I’m putting words in Bahnsen’s mouth, but it’s not that far off, given how many times he quotes Ps 19:7 and Mt 5:18 in that book.)

I’m not in favor of stoning because it would be a community event, but I find the community nature of stoning an attractive side effect of obedience, sort of like having a happy, cuddly wife if I don’t chase other women.

God doesn’t call (most of) us to be lone rangers (though there are the occasional Eljahs); he calls us into a body, where we are to be members one of another. Yet I’m sure you’ve heard Christians quote Acts 4:34-35 to support socialism: they don’t know the difference between Christian voluntary community and state coercion. I suggest that “throw a rock for me” is to godly justice what the welfare state is to Christian community.

The bitter fruit of the Industrial Revolution is that we live in neighborhoods, work at jobs, and go to church with strangers. Not only do we not know their names, we really don’t care what happens to them. I’m as guilty as anyone. But the godly ideal is community. Why is that so repulsive?

I have a hypothesis that the Industrial Revolution as we know it would have been impossible without the state. I know the state subsidized the railroads; there’s every reason to believe it also subsidized the steel mills and other entities that made the owners rich and put so many people in mind-numbing jobs. My evidence apart from the railroad subsidies is from John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education, where he quotes documents from the Robber Barons, where they use their influence on the state to bring about an education system that was designed to produce students who knew enough to work for the Man but weren’t creative enough to start competitive enterprises and who were comfortable standing in line, being regimented (literally, in 1917), and doing what they were told. The revolving door between taxpayer dollars, researchers who affirm the need for more state power to fight global warming, and the politicians who are thereby empowered and fund more of the same research is that same melody with different lyrics.

Whatever the state does in the name of X eventually ends up destroying X, whether it be building community, making us safe from foreign enemies, making health care affordable, or educating children. It’s usually no problem to get Christians to agree that this or that X has been destroyed by those “whose job it is [= who are appointed]” to make it right. But for almost 30 years, I’ve heard those who decry any or every possible X balk at what seems to me to be a logical conclusion: the problem is the state, by which I mean a system in which some people Y are allowed to do things that people Z aren’t at the expense of Z, a condition forbidden by Deuteronomy 17. You’ve delegated domestic public safety to the state: how willing are you to let a preteen granddaughter walk a mile to a friend’s house alone on a regular basis? So why are you so hostile to the alternative?

If you need a biblical example, I can only offer Israel from Samuel to Nebuchadnezzar. Every argument I’ve ever heard in favor of the state is there in 1 Samuel 8 and 12, and everything they set up the monarchy to achieve came tumbling down because of the evil of the kings.

On the Train Home

“Where are you headed?”

“Glenside. I’ve never been up this way, and I can’t see the station signs.”

“I know Glenside. I’ll let you know when we get there.”

“Is that where you get off?”

“No, I go to Lansdale, but I have gotten off there to meet clients.”

“What do you do?”

“I edit academic papers for international students. My first clients were Africans and Koreans at a seminary near Glenside. /// So are you from DC?”

“How did you know?”

“Your Howard University sweatshirt. What are you studying?”

“International business.”

“Whoa! So what does an international business major do after graduation?”

“I’ll probably get a job with the Department of State or Department of Commerce.”

“Sounds more like international politics than international business.”

“Yeah, and if Obama’s still in power, I may not be able to get into the system at all.”

“Why, are you a dissident?”

“What do you mean?”

“It sounds like you are not one of the ninety-something percent of blacks who voted for Obama.”

“I’m not. Actually, I’m not an American. I’m Venezuelan.”

“Really? My stepmother’s Venezuelan. I’ve spent two weeks in your beautiful country.”

“Around Caracas?”

“Mostly, though I went to Maracaibo—”

“They have great cheese in Maracaibo.”

“Hmm. When I was there, oil was the big deal. I also went to Mérida and Valencia. And Canaima.”

“I don’t know that.”

“It’s a tourist trap down by Angel Falls.”

“I’ve been to Puerto Ordáz.”

“I spent a few hours there on my way to Canaima. So you’re not a fan of Obama.”

“No, I’m not.”

“I was sitting next to a guy with an Obama hat yesterday, and it was all I could do not to ask him, ‘So what do you like best about Obama? The wars or the bailouts?’”


“I take it you’re also not a Chavista.”

“You’ll be surprised. I think Hugo Chávez is just what Venezuela needs.”

“How so?”

“When he took power, over 90% of Venezuelans lived in poverty. He has done a good job of spreading the wealth. So, I like Hugo Chávez, and I think the next president of the United States should be a Republican.”

“I’m actually less surprised than you think. In the name of helping the poor, Bush centralized power, bankrupted the economy, and enriched his friends, which I assume is what Chávez has done. So I see no contradiction there at all.”

“Um, is this Glenside?”


“Well, this has been … interesting.”

“Enjoy an arrepa for me.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Public Stonings and Hired Executioners

Someone else’s generosity made it possible for me to go on a retreat with some men from my church last weekend. After living I hate to think how long in a feminine atmosphere at home and a predominantly feminine atmosphere at work, it was good to be out in the woods with guys, playing table games, chowing down with abandon, taking a hike, and opening the Bible.

And, of course, before long yours truly was in a bull session, literally and figuratively across the table from four guys whose shoelaces he isn’t fit to untie, discussing what to do with miscreants, specifically murderers. It was a landslide victory for Leviathan: eighty percent said, “The state does not bear the sword in vain,” and only twenty percent said, “The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.” Finally, one of the victors asked, “What’s the difference between me joining the community in stoning a man to death and delegating the job to the state? The guy dies either way, and I’m still responsible.”

My first answer is that one needs to have an exegetical, systematic reason for annulling the explicit instructions given in the Torah. As my earlier posts and the comments thereto show, Romans 13:1-7 is so difficult to take at face value that it does not qualify as such.

The second is that we become blasé about murder when we delegate execution to the state. If we have rocks in our hands, we have to consider thoroughly whether the evidence convinces us that we are acting justly, but if the deed takes place out of sight, we have every reason to keep it out of mind as well. How many US Christians today care whom their government kills, for what, and how? Was the evidence against Gary Gilmore or Timothy McVeigh, let alone the Branch Davidians, Randy Weaver’s wife, or the drug runners the Peruvians thought they were shooting when they killed Veronica Bowers and her infant, really enough for those who took their lives to say that God would back them up? Would you have killed them out of obedience to God if you had had to do it yourself?

When our current president was at the peak of his popularity, most conservative Christians (I heard discuss him) considered him the most evil president we have ever had. Yet when he ordered bombs dropped on a country we were told was an ally and babies died as a result, I heard no conservatives say this was proof of his evil.

To play a variation on a tune by Barry Goldwater, a government that’s powerful enough to kill all your enemies is powerful enough to kill all your friends. When it comes to life-and-death situations, I want the ball in my court. If I’m going to be sorry to be responsible for someone’s death, I want to know it as soon as possible, before the guilt can compound, if possible before the convict dies, and best of all, before the murder is committed: “Joe, having to stone your son for murder would be the low point of my day. Teach him God’s ways before he does something we’ll all regret.”

Obviously, if everyone in the US had to deal with every murder case, we’d never get anything else done. This is why power needs to be as local as possible. But that’s a subject for another post.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cording the Moabites

[Text of a sermon delivered at the Meadowood retirement center, October 11, 2009]

David also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute. (2 Sa 8:2)

I don’t like this verse. It makes David sound like a despot who throws his weight around stealing from people and killing arbitrarily. If this is the “man after God’s own heart,” I certainly don’t want to worship that God. He can threaten me with eternal hellfire and get me to kowtow and grovel with the best of them to avoid it. But that’s not the kind of worship the God of the Bible wants. The worship God wants from me is for me to say from my heart that he is good. And when I read this verse, my first reaction is to say that whatever god led David to do what he did is not good. But I want to think of the Bible as the word of a good God. How can I do that?

The first watchword of biblical interpretation is context: be sure to read any passage in its context. Maybe I can get some help here. Well, the preceding verse says that David defeated the Philistines, but nothing about the Moabites. The preceding chapter describes God’s revelation to David that he would be king and David’s prayer of response. No help so far. In fact, the last time Moab is mentioned at all, we find the Moabites giving refuge to David’s father and mother (1 Sa 22:3-4). (Remember that David’s paternal grandmother, Ruth, was an immigrant from Moab.)

In the broader context, we find Balak, the king of Moab, opposing the Israelites after they had left Egypt on their way to the promised land. But I can understand his concern that this horde would take away all their food (Nu 22:4). I can also see why, after he had seen what they did to the Amorites and the people of Bashan, he would choose to have Balaam curse them and, when that didn’t work, lead them into sexual immorality. So, while I can sympathize with their instinct for self-preservation, we have here our first clue about the nature of the Moabites: they were sexually immoral. In fact, they were named after their forefather, whose name proclaimed that he was a child of incest (Gn 19:37).

Then we read this: “Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring” (2 Ki 13:20). While this was many years after this action by David, let’s assume that the Moabites had practiced banditry all along. After all, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, [and] theft” (Mt 15:19). We know Moab was a sexually immoral society. It’s not unreasonable to assume that they not only practiced theft and murder, they approved it. “Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Ro 1:32). If David was dealing only with the raiders themselves, and if the wages of all sin is death, then David was giving two-thirds of them no worse than they deserved.

However, it could also be that he actually went into Moab and laid out the women and children who had “support the troops” bumper stickers on their ox carts. In that case, and if God approved of his actions—and there not even a hint of disapproval here—we need to stop looking down our noses at David’s actions and start having concern for ourselves.

I don’t need to tell you that we live in a sexually immoral society. You know what you would see if you chose ten television channels by a roll of the dice and watched them for six minutes each. The humor in sitcoms is sexual. The advertisements are for things to make you sexy. You know who the hero and heroine of dramas are because they have extramarital sex. The most interesting news segments are sex scandals. Or you could stand in front of a magazine rack for ten minutes. Try to find a teaser that glorifies what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, or people who are patient, kind, interested in others’ welfare, humble, well mannered, self-effacing, forgiving, protective, trusting, hopeful, or perseverant. You might find some, but you’ll wade through a lot of slime before you do.

I must confess that this is the pot calling the kettle black here. I remember deciding when I was in sixth grade that I wasn’t going to be the kind of guy that asked girls out just to see what I could get off them. And as I went through the dating years, I thought I was living up to that decision. But now that I look back from forty years on, I have to admit that though what I was after was tame even by the standards of the day, that’s exactly what I was doing. And there’s more of that lusty youth walking around today than I care to talk about. So if God hates sexual immorality, I’m in trouble.

Moab was also a violent society, and so is ours. Just think of the word infanticide. There is no murder more heinous than infanticide. When the psalmist wanted to curse his Babylonia oppressors, he cited their infanticide: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8-9).

Our society has been proudly killing babies since at least the 1840s, when Uncle Sam marched the Cherokee from their homes in North Carolina to Oklahoma in the dead of winter and thousands of babies died. George Custer went to the Little Big Horn to kill civilians, including babies. The carpet bombings of Dresden and Tokyo targeted babies, and Uncle Sam is the only entity in the history of the world to target babies with atomic weapons.

Is the pot calling the kettle black here, too? Absolutely. I cheered when the cowboys killed the Indians on TV when I was a kid. The highlight of my week in sixth grade was Friday night, when they incorporated clips from the carpet bombings into the story lines of Twelve O’Clock High. During the first Gulf War, I was disappointed that I couldn’t watch the bombings on the evening news because we were overseas. If I had known at the time that Rush Limbaugh was playing “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iraq” (“Bomb Iraq / Get Kuwait back”) on his show, I would have sung along. When after that war Bill Clinton announced sanctions against Iraq to make life so miserable for the citizens that they would overthrow Saddam, I thought it was a great idea. (The overthrow never happened, but half a million women and children died from the sanctions. I didn’t know about it at the time, but if I had known, I wouldn’t have cared.) After 9-11, I was ready to nuke some Muslim city in retaliation, and if another attack had happened here, I would have been in favor of nuking every Muslim city from Morocco to the Philippines. When I found myself awake when Shock and Awe was scheduled to begin the invasion of Baghdad, I turned on the TV so I could (finally!) see some action. So I’ve not only dropped bombs on children, I’ve done so not from a position of vulnerability in the cockpit of an airplane but from the safety of my living room. I’m not only a murderer, I’m a coward. And I suspect I’m not the only one in this nation.

So if Jesus Christ, David’s greatest son, were to treat me as I deserve, he could well begin by laying me out on the ground along with the rest of this immoral and violent society. And if I were one of those two-thirds who were under the wrong cord, I would die—no worse than I deserve.

This passage is a picture of our salvation. Those of us who belong to Christ are no less deserving of death and hell than those who do not: all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death. Yet he chooses to have mercy on some people: he says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” He tells us of a man who was justified because he prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Yet I’m sure that there were those among the Moabites who begged for mercy to no avail, so I assume it is not the act of asking for mercy itself that somehow brings mercy forth. After all, how can anyone ask for mercy out of anything other than the same self-centeredness that causes one to sin in the first place?

Yet Jesus says that he will not cast out anyone who comes to him, and he commands us to live lives that get our neighbors’ attention so we can tell them the good news that he died so that the sins of his people could be forgiven. So I am here to tell you that we are a violent and immoral people. We deserve death and hell. Yet, according to the Bible, he has commanded me to tell you that if you call out for mercy and accept his gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, he will have mercy on you. He will save you not only from the consequences of your sin but from that sin itself. He will work in your heart through his Spirit, teaching you to hate it and giving you the desire and eventually the power to overcome it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize was just given to a guy who bombed babies in a neutral country within hours of becoming president, a guy who puts thousands of poor people in jail for an activity he admits to engaging in ("Of course I inhaled---that's the whole point") but never did jail time for, a guy who has taken money from the unborn and given to the richest people the world has ever seen.

(To the tune of Mahler's minor-key parody of "Frere Jacques": "He's a murderer! / He's a hypocrite! / He's a thief! / He's a thief!")

What's really scary is that the leaders of the anti-this guy crowd, two Evangelical Christians associated with the governorship of states at the beginning of the alphabet, also supported the bombings and the bailout and support the jailing. In this city on the hill, the people are home, but the lights are out.

I seem to remember an old coot with two short names saying that all these things were wrong. He even claims to be a Christian, but Jesus' people ignore him. What was his name again?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bad Guys

I’m a bad guy.

Telling you more than that would be too much information for you and for those who know my situation best, but if you knew, you would say, “E-e-e-w! How can you call yourself a Christian?” To which I reply that the Bible promises forgiveness for those who ask for it through Christ. My salvation is as only sure as those words. Otherwise, I will be spending eternity in well-earned torment. Or there’s no god and nothing ultimately matters.

I’m presently feeling most acutely my failure as a father. I was shown up yet again by, of all things, a baseball broadcast. A foul ball went straight back into the stands, where it was caught by the father of a girl about four years old. He gave the ball as a prize to his daughter, who promptly turned around and threw it back down onto the field. You could see for an instant that the father felt the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime souvenir, but he immediately gave his daughter a big smile and hug. That event has since been replayed as filler more often than any play made on the field all season and is destined to become a cliché for parental forgiveness. (Less known is that the thrown ball wrecked the laptop computer of a fan in the lower deck.)

When my son was that age, I bought a cheapo handheld cassette tape recorder to take to the village to record language data. He made some childish mistake and damaged it—I think it was still usable—soon after we arrived in the village. I can still remember him cowering on my bed while I stood over him and vented my fury. He may eventually have gotten an apology, but I don’t think he ever got a hug.

It is in that light that I share a recent conversation I had with a certain Army captain who has just graduated from a military intelligence school. When I asked him what he had found most interesting, he responded that the most interesting things were things he couldn’t tell me, but he had enjoyed learning how the Army identifies the “bad guys” and gets hold of their plans.

We know what he meant by “bad guys”: Iraqi insurgents. Now, my gratitude for our government is perfunctory at best (until I look around at the alternatives), but I would have a difficult time loving, say, the Chinese if they were to kill my wife or child “liberating” me from it. It is cowardice more than principle that would keep me from joining an insurgency against my purported liberators. So I don’t necessarily consider Iraqi insurgents bad guys.

Then came the real whammy: “What made the whole five months worthwhile was the final exercise, where we pretended we were Germans who had successfully invaded Britain in World War II. Our job was to put down the insurgency.”

Let me back up. There was a Saturday years ago when, instead of spending time making pleasant memories with my children, I joined a bunch of guys for a game of Diplomacy, where you play the role of ambassadors and politicians. After a couple of hours, it seemed obvious to me that the only way to win was to lie to and betray the other players and start wars of conquest. I’m such a pansy I couldn’t take it and had to leave.

So now my tax money pays for the US military to consider those who would defend Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy bad guys? What kind of person would enjoy playing the role of those charged with forcing the Final Solution on Britain? (Hey, it’s just a game, right?) Even if I agree with Pat Buchanan that World War II was unnecessary and that the Allies were every bit as imperialist, though arguably not as murderous, as the Axis powers, I have to wonder. Depraved as I am, I couldn’t hack two hours of doing it in a board game.

I know what kind of person enjoys playing that role: a Christian. Where the atheist Butler Shaffer says that “the state is inherently hostile to and at war with human life in all of its expressions,” the apostle Paul says that politicians, the Ahabs and Neros and Hitlers no less than anyone else, “hold no terror for those who do right…. He is God’s servant to do you good.…The authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”

Today the Brits, tomorrow you and me. Well, me anyway: I’m a bad guy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Simpleton, Fool, and Wise Man

(Script of a devotional given to the Food for the Heart dinner, Lansdale Presbyterian Church, September 27, 2009)

You’ve probably heard it said that a simpleton learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, and a fool doesn’t learn at all. I’d like to show how this plays out in a not-too-familiar Bible story and see if I can suggest useful ways we can apply it to our own lives.

Before we get to the story, we need some background. It actually begins in the days of King Ahab. He was two things. He was henpecked, dominated by his wife Jezebel; she even determined his religion, the worship of Baal, a god whose name, the Hebrew word ba`al, means “master.” He was also a coward: When one of his subjects refused to sell land to him, he let his wife arrange to have the guy murdered. He was content to take the guy’s land, but he didn’t have the courage to murder the guy himself. Later, when he went into battle for the last time, he knew his enemies were out to get him, so he disguised himself as a grunt and had one of his friends, the king of Judah, dress up as him.

But before these two things this happened, Ahab had a confrontation with a prophet named Elijah. You’ve probably heard the story.

Ahab employed professional prophets, probably at the behest of his wife, because they’re called prophets of Baal. Now the job of a professional court prophet was to prophesy good things about the king. If one of them were to prophesy evil things against him, he was likely to be executed. In fact, when a real prophet did tell him that he was going to die in the battle he actually did die in, he had that prophet jailed. So essentially Ahab was paying these guys to tell him what he wanted to hear.

Elijah told Ahab to take these prophets up Mt. Carmel for a showdown: whoever could get their god to send down fire on a sacrifice would win. These four hundred prophets called out for hours, “Answer us, O Baal.” When that didn’t work, they took knives and cut themselves so there was blood all over the place: “Answer us, O Baal!” No response. Then Elijah spoke one sentence: “O Lord, show these people that you are God and that I am your servant.” And fire came down and consumed the sacrifice.

But Ahab didn’t learn his lesson. It was after this confrontation that he killed the guy to steal his land and almost killed the prophet and his friend. He died a fool.

Now we get to our story. Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, became king. Though Ahaziah’s name means “possession of the Lord,” he also worshiped Baal. One law like the law of gravity is that you become like the god you worship, and just as Ahab had wanted to be a ba`al, a master, so did Ahaziah. But he soon became sick, and Elijah sent him the message that he was going to die. How did Ahaziah react? The typical way any king would have reacted in those days: he sent a captain with fifty troops out to bring Elijah in to be executed.

Now, here’s we see what it means to be a simpleton. If you join the military, you do the work of your commander. As my son the army captain says, “I don’t make the policies. I just do as I’m told.” That’s just the way it is. Now this captain knew about Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab’s prophets on Mt. Carmel. He knew that Ahaziah was a rebel against God, a worshiper of Baal. He knew that his job was to bring Elijah in for execution. But he was a patriotic guy, an obedient subject of God-ordained authority (duty, honor, country, and all that), and so he figured everything would work out fine. He was just following orders. So he went up to Elijah and said, “Man of God”—notice that he knew to whom he was speaking—“the king says”—and the king was the incarnation of Baal—“‘Come down.’” In other words, You may be a man of God, but you have to obey the king—the real power belongs to Baal.

What was Elijah’s response? Exactly what he had said on Mt. Carmel: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” And that’s what happened. Fifty-one men died. Fifty-one women became widows, and God knows how many kids became fatherless. That’s the fate of the simpleton: “A simpleton sees danger, keeps going, and suffers for it.”

But Ahaziah didn’t learn his lesson: he sent another captain with another fifty men. Now think about these men for a second. They not only knew about the confrontation on Mt. Carmel and about Ahaziah’s character, they knew what had happened to the first group. They have just been asked to do exactly the same thing the first group did. Why did they think their fate will be different? Because they were fools. “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” They wanted to please the king rather than to please God.

I can hear the captain now: “We’re not gonna let this raghead get the better of us. C’mon men, let’s roll!” They went and confronted Elijah, and poof! Fifty-one more widows and God knows how many fatherless children.

At this point Ahaziah still had the audacity of hope, so he sent another captain with fifty more men. But this time, he chose a wise man. This captain knew what had happened to the first two groups, and he knew that if he obeyed the king, the same thing would happen to him and his men. But he also knew that if he disobeyed, the king did not bear the sword for nothing and they would die. So he was in a real pickle.

But I think he remembered that years before, when God had told King David that David’s sin would result in punishment, David had responded that that it was better to fall into the hands of the Lord, who is merciful, than into the hands of man. So he went to Elijah, God’s representative, and begged for mercy. He didn’t pretend he had any motives higher than saving his own skin and that of his men. But his fear of the Lord showed that he was a wise man, because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

It was now Elijah who had a problem. He couldn’t cast fire on the men, but if he went to the king, he could be executed. At that point the Lord spoke to him and assured him that he would not die. So they all went to the king, Elijah told the king again that he was going to die, the king died, and that was that.

So what can we take away from this?

First, we need to realize that whether we’re at the top of the pile, like the king, or we’re practically slaves, like those soldiers, or we’re just people somewhere in the middle, like the captains, we have the choice of being simpletons, fools, or wise people.

Second, we need to realize we have three evil forces that push us away from wisdom and toward being simple or foolish.

One is our own fallen natures. We want what we want when we want it. We want to have fun. We want to be comfortable. We want to enjoy life. But our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, so we can fool ourselves into doing things that we know are wrong just so we can have what we want. And I can tell you the worst mistake I ever made came when I was in a position of influence and convinced myself that evil was good so I could get what I wanted.

Another evil commander is the world system. The simple and foolish captains were decent people like us. We just want to fit in with those around us. We don’t want to be oddballs. And so we go along with other people’s evil. We just follow orders. Everybody’s doing it.

And finally, there is the devil, God’s personal adversary. He dangles things we desire in front of us, knowing that we’ll convince ourselves that it’s OK to do evil things to get them. After all, everybody’s doing it.

So what can we do? The same thing the wise captain did: ask the man of God for mercy. Elijah isn’t here for us, but Jesus is. Jesus is the ultimate man of God because he is the Son of God. He says that he will not reject anyone who comes to him. And he promises to give us the Holy Spirit, God himself, to live in our hearts and guide us into wisdom. But how do we know when we’re listening to the Spirit and when we’re just listening to our own desires? He has given us the Bible, an objective standard that we can read to measure our desires against so we can know when we’re acting foolishly and when we’re obeying.

The choice is yours. Do you want to be a fool, a simpleton, or a wise person?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Following On

The irreverent humorist W. C. Fields, when asked why he was thumbing through a Bible, replied, “Looking for loopholes.” One of my readers has accused me of doing essentially the same thing: reading what I want to into the Scriptures to support my views. He could be right; I’m certainly not immune to benighted self-interest. Then again, people on the other side are made of dust, too, and I might not be alone.

The consensus of respondents public and private to my last post was basically that God has established all authority, even the most rapacious, though they acknowledged that there are times when “we must obey God rather than men.” I’m not sure whether my readers would allow me to decide from Scripture whether to resist or not in a given case or if I can only get God’s permission via “the interposition of the lesser magistrate,” but the option seems to be open somewhere. (Since my question was about hermeneutics, not about resistance, I gather I need to learn to ask questions more clearly!)

I’m reminded of a chapel message given by Kenneth Pike, a linguist who devoted his life to seeing the Bible translated into every language in the world. His subject was obedience to authority, and his point was that if we can’t obey earthly authorities with thankful hearts, we can’t obey God from the heart. This would parallel John’s words that we can’t love God whom we have not seen if we don’t love our brothers whom we have seen, Human authority is by nature arbitrary. It takes away from us things we would expect from Scripture to be allowed to have.

But so does God. For example, my wife’s brother-in-law was born with cerebral palsy. He will never walk. Yet Jesus commanded those he healed to get up and walk.

I once overheard a conversation on the train home where one guy was telling another that he’d seen that people with severe disabilities tended to have a more positive and grateful outlook on life than “healthy” people. Anyone who knows Jerry and me would say that’s true in our cases.

The topic of this blog is good neighborliness. I’m not sure US Christians are known as good neighbors in the Acts 5:13 sense. And I see no reason why the reverence for Uncle Sam cannot lead us to the same end suffered by our German brethren during the Third Reich: war on our soil, death, destruction, defeat—and repudiation by those who hear about us in the future. It’s ironic that my last post got on the subject of resistance to government, because I see less danger in being subject to tyranny than in being party to tyranny, and I see too many tyrant wannabes among my brethren.

Christian neighborliness says, “How can I serve you?” Government says, “Do it my way or I’ll kill you.” They look like polar opposites to me. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but I’d rather face God having been a neighbor to my enemies than to have been a governor wannabe to my friends.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jesus and John Galt

I’d like your input on a problem I’ve got. I suspect some high-profile theologian has written extensively on the subject, but I’m curious about how the folks in the trenches deal with it.

A little background: A co-worker referred to me yesterday as “a reincarnation of John Galt” because I suggested that the threatened closing of Philadelphia’s public libraries might be a good thing. (It would provide an opportunity for someone to provide a private system that would either meet the true need out there or go broke.) He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I took it as such. I mentioned that I’m a Christian, and he put “militant Christianity” in a pile with other aspects of a decadent society. So in the course of two e-mails I’ve put my two little toes in the waters of persecution, one for sounding like an atheist and the other for identifying with Jesus.

Yes, John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, her epic defense of atheism as a system that makes people good neighbors, would fulfill the first part of my description of a good neighbor: one who keeps his hands to himself and tells the truth. His version, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” gets to the same place by a different road: to violate my neighbor’s body or property, either directly or through deceit, is precisely to “ask another man to live for mine.” What his version misses, of course, is part two of my description, which is that a good neighbor lives sacrificially so that others may know God. But, while the book treats sacrifice as a dirty word, Galt’s Gulchers voluntarily endured hardships, perhaps considering them investments, and the result was benefit for their neighbors.

While Rand would certainly have issues with the laudatory view of government in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, since the word for almost all government and its hangers-on in Atlas Shrugged is “looters,” she would probably have no trouble with the Bible’s descriptions of what government actually does: wasteful public works (the Tower of Babel, the pyramids, Absalom’s tower), enslavement (Gn 47:21), selling expropriated goods to their former owners (Gn 41:34; 47:14), nepotism (Gn 47:12), murderous pillaging (Gn 14:1-11), and absolute control over the property, minds, and hearts of its subjects (Re 13:15–17). I can even imagine her saying that if there were a god and that god came to earth as a man, government would kill him.

Here’s my problem. I find myself agreeing with her and disagreeing with other Christians, almost all of whom take their view of government from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 rather than from what looks to me like the rest of Scripture.

As I understand it, Christian hermeneutics reads the Old Testament through the lens of the New and focuses it on the cross of Christ. How can one read the story of Naboth (1 Ki 21) that way? Ahab violated the Torah (Dt 17:16–20) and the prophets (Is 5:8), and Elijah called him a murderer (1 Ki 21:19). In what way did Ahab “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Rom 13:1–7)? Most specifically, how does Romans 13 take the Naboth story and focus it on the Son of God who said, “The kings of the gentiles lord it over their subjects, … but it is not to be that way among you” (Lk 22:24–26)?

Rand can draw a straight line from Naboth’s death to Jesus’ words and his death. I don’t see how Paul can. Further, if she believed in sin, she would class even well-intended government action that goes awry (surprise!)—I’m thinking here of the bailouts that has given my unborn grandchildren’s money to the super-rich in the name of an economic revival that hasn’t happened—as qualifying for damnation not only those directly responsible but those who supported it in any way: they need to repent if they are to avoid the hell they so richly deserve. But I infer from Paul’s open-ended approval of government that the worst he can say in such situations is “stuff happens.”

And the doctrine of predestination would make such actions risk free for Christians who engage in them. No wonder Christians support the unbiblical practice of imprisonment for activities the Bible nowhere calls crimes while not supporting restitution for activities for which the Bible prescribes it! If they’re wrong, they won’t find out until Glory, and “there’ll be no more crying there: we are going to see the King” (but see Am 5:18).

If we defend evil government actions on the basis of Romans 13, how will our neighbors see us as good neighbors, their own sin as odious, and the cross of Christ as the real “final solution”?

So, here’s where I’d like you to weigh in. How do you get from Naboth’s murder (or any similar government atrocity in the Old Testament) to the cross by way of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2? How do you get those passages to accord with the rest of scripture? The answer to these questions are part of the theological basis on which we can approach the work of being the city on the hill that will cause our neighbors to glorify our Father in heaven.

The comment button is just below. Thanks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Patriot Day

No one will celebrate the nationalistic fervor that erupted the day after the 9/11 attacks more than Christians. We were, almost to a man, shocked and angered by the attacks. We’re grateful to God for allowing us to live in a country where we take for granted freedoms that others have never known. But is the “my country, right or wrong” mentality that prevails today really Christian?

Well, who are the patriotic heroes of the Bible? Did Abraham, the father of the faithful, ever consider himself a citizen of Ur, Haran, Egypt, Gerar, or even Canaan? Or did he consider himself a citizen only of “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God…a better country—a heavenly one” (He 11:10, 16)? Look at the politicians we know he interacted with: nine of them were tin-pot despots ruling decadent societies and killing and plundering whoever could not resist them (Ge 14), and the other two thought nothing of abducting any woman they lusted after (Ge 12:10–20; 20). Small wonder Abraham never pledged allegiance to the flag of any of those nations, even if they could rightly claim to be “under God” (Ro 13).

The patriotism of Elijah, Elisha, and Obadiah in the days of Ahab nearly got them killed, as did that of Jeremiah, Ebed-Melech, and Baruch in Zedekiah’s. Same with Moses and the midwives in Egypt, Rahab in Jericho, Ezekiel in Babylon, and Mordecai in Persia.

If we want to show patriotism the way Isaiah did, we could do worse than lining up on the thoroughfares leading to every football stadium today and mooning those on the way to the game (Is 20:2–4). The omnipotent government of our day is no less an idol than that of Egypt and Cush in his, and our government will end no differently from theirs.

We know that Paul made use of his Roman citizenship to save his life (Ac 22:26–29), but can you see him with a Roman eagle window sticker or a “Support the troops” ribbon magnet? And, if tradition is correct, the empire to whose government he appealed eventually killed him, as Isaiah’s killed him.

Our ultimate example, of course, is Jesus. No one has ever drawn a greater distinction between “us” and “them” than Jesus did: Jews were people, non-Jews were animals (Mk 7:27). Did he wear a circumcision lapel pin? Or was he in a constant battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the [physical, mortal?] powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ep 6:12)?

To patriots today it makes sense for Israeli Christians to fire rocket bombs at Christian churches in Gaza and for a US Catholic priest to bless an atomic bomb to be dropped directly on the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki: national political leadership is established by God, and whatever they decree is right. Like Cubs fans who buy tickets and souvenirs no matter how poorly the team does, a patriot considers his country (and thus himself?) superior to others no matter how evil the policies of his government are.

The biblical distinction is different. It distinguishes only between those who are in Christ and those without him (Ep 2:12). The love an Israeli Christian is to have for his Palestinian brethren is to totally eclipse his love for the godless State of Israel (Mt 10:37), though he is to be passionate in his love for his unsaved fellow Israelis (Ro 9:3). Iranian Christian is to be closer kin to me than any US unbeliever; in fact, a US Christian whose politics I consider murder is to be closer to me than an unbeliever whom I would consider a better neighbor. I fail miserably there.

Further, we are to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Mt 19:19; Lk 10:30–37). God is the warrior (Ex 15:3); our job is to implore people to be reconciled to him (2 Co 5:20). Our enemies need reconciliation no more than we do, because nothing anyone can do to us is worse than our personal and collective offenses against God (Mt 18:23–35).

So by all means fly the flag today: the banner of the New Jerusalem and of God’s love.

Friday, September 11, 2009

An Incident at Krechetovka Station

With birthday money from my family I recently purchased a copy of Stories and Prose Poems, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent decades in the Soviet prison system in the years between the end of World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prose poem that prompted me to buy the book—I hadn’t seen it in years—is of a puppy taken off his leash line to enjoy a bone. He ignores the bone, though, and runs around the yard, checking out everything outside the range of his leash line. Solzhenitsyn’s point: freedom is more valuable than any benefits captors can deliver.

I also had time on Saturday to read one of the stories I’d totally forgotten, and I chose “The Incident at Krechetovka Station.” It is set during the German invasion of Russia and concerns a certain Lieutenant Zotov, an unattractive man who is nonetheless the object of sexual advances by women at work and in his boarding house; while he nearly yields to this temptation, he perseveres and remains faithful to his wife. As a true believer in the Communist revolution, he had longed to fight the Fascists in Spain and the Germans on the western front, but was not allowed to go. Instead, he blooms where he has been planted, taking pains to see that everything under his purview is done as well as possible.

The incident referred to in the title concerns Zotov’s treatment of Tveritinov, a “returnee”—or was he? we’re never sure—a Soviet soldier captured by the Germans and then retaken by Soviet forces. These soldiers, far from being rewarded for risking their lives to defend their homeland, once back with their countrymen were sent to detention camps.

Returnees on the trains were given scant rations, and before the story begins, the occupants of one train who had been particularly long without rations broke out of their cars and began looting a supply train headed for the front, cramming their mouths full of uncooked flour. One was shot, ending the uprising. Zotov’s sympathies lie clearly with the shooters: hunger or no hunger, order needs to be maintained to avoid chaos. Other incidents in the story, however, show that his desire for order as defined by the government is his way of fulfilling his true desire to help others: he makes special effort to provide for travelers in need, especially those headed for the front.

Zotov doesn’t know what to make of Tveritinov when the latter appears, but he genuinely likes the guy and wants to help him. The story turns, however, on a chance remark by Tveritinov that convinces Zotov that he is a spy, so he has him arrested. Days later Zotov has second thoughts, and he takes no assurance when told that Tveritinov has been taken care of according to regulations: “After that, Zotov was never able to forget the man for the rest of his life….” We are to infer that whatever atrocities Tveritinov suffered were nothing to be compared to those suffered by Zotov.

The system of omnipotent government we are headed for, and which US evangelicals have fervently supported for twenty of the last thirty years, devours the innocent, but it also destroys its friends. This is why Moses told us not to join the crowds in doing evil (Ex 23:2) and Jesus told us not to lord it over others (Lk 22:24–26. Power over others short-circuits our restraint over our own corruption and allows us to destroy others—and ourselves in the process. Far better to “be mistreated along with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin…the treasures of Egypt” (Heb 11:22–23).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does Jesus Still Free Captives?

Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming that his mission was “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and “to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). We know he was ultimately talking about freeing us from our bondage to sin, but was the reference to captivity and oppression simply a rhetorical touch, or was he promising earthly freedom as a type of heavenly freedom the way he physically did give “recovery of sight to the blind,” heal the sick, and rais the dead as proof that he had authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt 9:6)? If we are to heal the sick today, miraculously or not, are we also to release the oppressed and captives?

If so, I would like to suggest that our biggest enemy in that endeavor will be politicians. While the Bible gives us an enigmatic introduction to politicians in the person of Nimrod, our first clear picture of them comes in Genesis 14, where we see a band of suzerains engage in a campaign of murder and pillage against their rebellious vassals and the latter’s subjects. In the course of the battles, Abraham’s nephew Lot becomes the Bible’s first named captive—a prisoner of war, a political prisoner. When Abraham learns of this, he enacts the first type of Christ’s redemption of his people: working outside the political system, he leads those “born in his own house” in battle against that system and rescues Lot.

The next prisoner we meet is Joseph, imprisoned first by his brothers and then by an unjust political system. His cellmates are political prisoners; both are imprisoned and one of them is executed, arbitrarily and unjustly, at the whim of the local despot. Joseph eventually becomes a despot himself and uses his power to give his brothers a sip from a cup he had drunk to the dregs by imprisoning them for a few days. In turn, Joseph’s descendants, and those of his brothers, eventually become political prisoners at hard labor because the mightiest politician in the world at the time was afraid of them without cause.

This last captivity became the type of the sin Jesus came to deliver us from. We are sold as slaves to sin, and the offenses we commit against God to serve it are worse than any injustice anyone can ever commit against us (Matt 18:23–35). And we cannot escape it by ourselves any more than the Israelites could simply up and leave Egypt. When Jesus announced his mission, he referred once to blindness, but he referred twice to political injustice (Luke 4:18).

Captivity, prison, is never prescribed in Scripture as a lawful means of dealing with miscreants. The closest it gets is the Mosaic permission to marry females taken prisoner in battle (Deut 21:10–11; war, “politics by other means,” is the consummate political act). Otherwise, there’s Jesus’ warning that we are to settle with our adversaries before they make us subject to the political system (Luke 12:58); this is a corollary of Paul’s admonition that we not become “slaves [= prisoners] of men” (1 Cor 7:23). The general rule is that miscreants be either forced to make restitution to their victims or executed.

This being the case, how is it that the nation with arguably the world’s most visible presence of Bible-believing Christians also boasts the world’s largest prison system? Worse, how is it that most of those prisoners have been incarcerated for activities never called crimes in the Bible, specifically connected with plants God himself planted in the Garden of Eden? (Neither hemp, poppies, nor coca have thorns, which presumably did not exist in the Garden [Gen 3:18].) Why are Christians not leading the charge to free prisoners jailed for noncriminal activities and those who need to make restitution for their crimes? Why instead do they display that evil system’s flag in their churches and on their lapels and pray for its armed agents as though the latter are doing God’s will? Is the bombing and imprisonment of innocents simply a blemish on an otherwise good system, or is government munificence the candy used to lure children into the big black car?

I know atheists who call for restitution instead of prison for nonviolent criminals and oppose the jailing of those the Bible calls innocent of crimes, and I know Christians who defend the welfare-warfare-prison status quo even though they admit Scripture calls for restitution and that no substance is evil in and of itself. So if I don’t want to “walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1:1), which group should I hang with? And if we truly want to see people come to faith in Christ, isn’t opening people’s eyes to the evil of the prison system one way to “preach the gospel to the poor”?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good II: Education (Reprise)

An astute reader reminded me that my post didn't provide an alternative to the higher education system.

Like unto the situation with pollution, the problem with the education system is subsidies. Anyone involved in mercy ministry of any kind knows that the stated needs are endless and the resources available to meet them are limited: how does one decide who is truly needy and who gets what? Voluntary philanthropic organizations have few resources and thus are on the watch for fraud and inefficiency, but they still make mistakes. How much greater are the stated needs and temptation for fraud going to be when the "benefactor" can expropriate the resources it distributes! Where fewer resources are available, needy people look for alternatives, including making do with what they have.

So, as with pollution, I don't know what would happen if the government got entirely out of the education business. But it's reasonable to assume that there would be fewer teachers and students in the kinds of situations currently subsidized, i.e., brick-and-mortar schools, and more people learning in apprenticeships and, more importantly, ways I'd never think of. Again, eight billion people would be working on the problem and treating each other as equals in the process; a smaller number of politicians and tenured bureaucrats would not be using other people's money.

Most importantly, we would be free of the end-justifies-the-means morality that undergirds the present system.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good II: Education

Supporters of government-funded education—including but not limited to schools, loans for postsecondary education, and job-training programs—claim that it enables children from poorer families to get good jobs; without it, these kids would be stuck in dead-end, mind-numbing jobs that don’t pay enough for them to live decently, let alone build the capital necessary to learn more lucrative work or start their own businesses.

John Perkins, a black man with a lifetime of experience helping the poor, famously remarked that giving food subsidies in the form of welfare checks and food stamps to poor blacks did not help them escape poverty; instead, the money went straight into the pockets of the businessmen they patronized. The same holds true with subsidized education.

Let’s begin with student loans. I am less than objective about this subject because I have two daughters, aspiring professional musicians, who are up to their eyeballs in debt for college and grad school. Music jobs are scarce, and you have to beat dozens of competitors land one.

We can make some safe assumptions: most of those auditioning have taken on debt to acquire the training needed even to compete for the opening; those whose families could afford to send them to music camps and the best private teachers during pre-college years are more likely to win; those who don’t get the job will be doing something other than performing music to earn the money to pay off their loans; and those fallback jobs will be less rewarding than not only performing but also other activities the musician could have been trained for.

What can we conclude but that it is the education establishment and the loan companies, not the students, who benefit most from the loans? Remember: the purpose of the subsidy is to increase the number of students, whether or not there are openings for them to fill after they graduate: “Hey, the money’s there—go for it.” More students mean more money for the educators and the loan sharks. If the student is happy to study and pay off the loan, then the loan has achieved its goal. But while the few who do land jobs will be poster children for the program, for the many whose hopes were falsely raised, the result is time wasted in vain pursuit of the dream and time lost drudging to pay off the loan.

Music is an extreme example, but psychology, political science, and a host of other majors boast graduates working in call centers and other jobs that use only skills taught in middle school. And the clich√© about engineers selling hot dogs didn’t come from nowhere.

Furthermore, much time after middle school is spent in “you need this to graduate and it might come in handy someday” subjects. I got good grades in school, and I even successfully factored a polynomial in a housebuilding project a few years ago. But I am also making fewer inflation-adjusted dollars now as a computer geek than I did at seventeen as a bicycle mechanic (unless you count health insurance), while “dummies” and dropouts from my secondary school years are running their own sand and gravel or plumbing or auto repair businesses.

In short, many of the diplomas made possible by government subsidies are simply proof to prospective employers that the holder can spend a decade or two obeying commands to engage in fruitless activity—precisely what is needed for dead-end, mind-numbing jobs.