Monday, February 15, 2010

The Two Deadly Isms

In my previous post I said that good people engage in bad actions because they are sinners who need Jesus, no more and no less. While that is true, there is more to be said about it.

I’m currently in an exchange with Staks Rosch over global warming. Neither of us is a scientist, so as far as the issue itself goes, we’re pretty much parroting the lines of those we believe. And that’s the point I want to make if the exchange continues: the root issue isn’t global warming, it’s whom we trust and why. He apparently can find no one more trustworthy than the government, and so he wants to invest the government with even more power to deal with the problem of climate change.

Unfortunately, most Christians I know, even those who call themselves conservatives, are in the same boat. This post is prompted by a conversation I happened into at church yesterday, where a group of men were bandying the term conservative about, so I asked them, “What is a conservative?” I didn’t get an answer. That’s because conservatives are, like liberals, infected with the same two isms that are destroying our society.

The first is authoritarianism, the idea that some people have the right to make laws that they don’t have to obey but others do. An example is machismo: a macho man will claim that he has needs that women don’t have, so it’s OK for him to have a mistress, but it’s not OK for his wife to have a paramour. The second is institutionalism, the idea that an institution must continue to exist whether or not it is carrying out the function for which it was instituted. We all know of congregations that meet every Sunday but have no outreach to the community and so are dwindling as members die or move away. Ideas have consequences, and the consequences of the broad adherence to these ideas are doom for our society.

Government, of course, is authoritarianism and institutionalism personified. Regular people don’t tell their neighbors “Your money or your life,” but that’s the first thing any government does, though it’s euphemized as taxation. And that’s just the beginning. Regular people don’t kill others arbitrarily, but that’s what government wars always entail, whether offensive, preemptive, or defensive. Government agents always engage in activities forbidden the rest of us; government is by nature authoritarian. Yet people tend to like it that way. No matter how many of its stated goals a government fails to reach, it will never simply dissolve itself and go away, and the surest way I’ve found to turn a critic of any government into its ardent defender is to suggest that he would be better off without it.

The US government is no exception. Our last three presidents, unabashed authoritarians all, have put thousands of people in jail for drug-related activities they themselves participated in but never did jail time for. They, as well as most of their predecessors during my lifetime, have inflicted murderous wars on foreigners under conditions under which they would never justify foreign powers waging war here. Uncle Sam lies to suit his own purposes, as witness sting operations to catch drug dealers and the initial front-page false stories about Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, but he jails the likes of Martha Stewart for untruths only peripherally related to matters under investigation.

And yet those who protest this double standard are in the minority; our neighbors are infected with institutionalism. The US government was formed with the stated goal of protecting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; the Bill of Rights was written into the Constitution to convince the anti-Federalists that we would not be subject to censorship, summary confiscation, arbitrary searches, or torture; yet today we are, and most people, no matter how much they disagree with this or that policy, display their flags and consider efforts to get rid of these things treasonous. They simply cannot imagine life without the authoritarian institution that governs them. And, methinks, they think that they will eventually get their hands on the trigger and want to be sure it’s there for them.

So, to my friends at church I say, what is a conservative? What is a liberal? They are both institutionalist authoritarians. And as long as Christians are seen as just another band of institutionalist authoritarians, outsiders will justly hold us in contempt.

What is a Christian, after one who trusts Christ to wipe away his sins? He is one who regards all his neighbors as his equals (De 17:20), fellow children of Noah, who treats others as he would be treated, who regards justice and service, not domination, as the foundation of his relationships (Ps 89:14; Lk 22:25-26), and for whom institutions are disposable (Mt 9:17).

Uncle Sam served his purpose well (for white folks, anyway) long ago. Today he is a rabid donkey and elephant destroying everything and endangering everyone in his path. It is time for the church to remember whose bride she is, get off his bandwagon, and lead her neighbors by example into a time-and-space world of righteousness and justice.

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