Thursday, January 30, 2014

Maybe I’m Not Really a Christian

I’m not going to attend my church this Sunday because they will be holding a special ceremony to bless a church member who is being deployed to Afghanistan.

If you ask the pastor or the session whether the church should take political stands, they’ll tell you no, the church must stand separate from politics. Praying for the troops and asking for a special blessing on one as he goes—or decrying legalized abortion and gay marriage, for that matter—isn’t political? And if it’s political, shouldn’t the moral aspects at least be discussed and objections entertained? We have had no public discussion of the matter, so the answer must be no.

So I was thinking of going instead to a church that I thoroughly enjoyed visiting two weeks ago, but I rememberd that today they are commissioning a man as an Air Force chaplain. This is a church based on the idea that “only the gospel unites us, and only the gospel should divide.” That sounds great, but where is putting on a uniform called for by the gospel?

I’m reminded of words written during the Vietnam war, lyrics to a song about a military chaplain by a group known for its raunchiness:

He blesses the boys as they stand in line

The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine

He’s there to help them all that he can

To make them feel wanted he’s a good holy man

He smiles at the young soldiers

Tells them its all right

He knows of their fear in the forthcoming fight

Soon there’ll be blood and many will die

Mothers and fathers back home they will cry


He mumbles a prayer and it ends with a smile

The order is given

They move down the line

But he’s still behind and he’ll meditate

But it won’t stop the bleeding or ease the hate


As the young men move out into the battle zone

He feels good, with God you’re never alone

He feels tired and he lays on his bed

Hopes the men will find courage in the words that he said

You’re soldiers of God, you must understand

The fate of your country is in your young hands

May God give you strength

Do your job real well

If it all was worth it

Only time it will tell

In the morning they return

With tears in their eyes

The stench of death drifts up to the skies

A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot

Remembers the words

"Thou shalt not kill"

Sky pilot, sky pilot

How high can you fly?

You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

The “soldiers of God” in Vietnam went there at the command of a government that told them (and us who stayed home) that unless they won that war our freedoms were in danger. Well, they didn’t win that war, and we’ve been losing freedom ever since, but just as Muhammad Ali could rightly say “No North Vietnamese ever called me a nigger,” no North Vietnamese or Viet Cong has taken away our freedoms. No, our freedoms have been taken by the liars, hypocrites, thieves, and murderers who sent those “soldiers of God” to Vietnam.

All sorts of honors are bestowed on those who fought in Vietnam. Why? They lost the war. Or at least they didn’t win it. Yet the world didn’t end. So why did they go? What honor is there in having gone? They obeyed the commands of cowards, liars, hypocrites, thieves, and murderers. If they did so knowingly, what honor do they deserve? If they were fooled like the rest of us, shouldn’t they be at least chagrined? What is there to be proud of?

Why are no honors bestowed on Daniel Ellsburg, the Berrigan brothers, and others who said long before the evacuation of Saigon—and were persecuted for doing so—that the nation was in no danger and that the war was wrong? The raunch peddlers were right then; the respectable, including most US Christians, were wrong.

What judgment, I wonder, awaits the sky pilots of those days?

Is it too much to ask why there has been no national-level repentance on the part of Christians for the needless death of a million Vietnamese who had no intention of harming us? Why is the assumption beyond discussion that Christians should once again obey a government headed by a hypocritical, lying, thieving murderer by joining what amounts to his personal military, and go off to war?

What judgment awaits the sky pilots of these days?

I know few Christians who would disagree with the following from a conservative Christian Web site:

Our problem today is that we don’t even want deliverance. We don’t even know that we need deliverance. We live with a State that is corrupt and wicked to the core, we send our children to be educated in its system, we pay taxes at levels way beyond what Caesar ever demanded and then we blithely say, “render unto Caesar”. This is not what Jesus was advocating.

Am I the only one who notices that we also fly Caesar’s flag in our houses of worship, and we encourage our children to put on his uniform and kill innocents on his behalf?

Let’s ask a few questions about today’s Caesar.

Isn’t someone who would put people in cages for doing what he himself did yet never went to jail for a hypocrite?

Isn’t someone who says things like “The troops will be home by July; you can take it to the bank” and “You will be able to keep your current physician and insurance” and then doesn’t deliver a liar?

Isn’t someone who takes people’s money at gunpoint a thief?

Isn’t someone who kills innocent people a murderer?

If that is the character of the leader elected by a sizable majority of a society, should we not conclude that not only the government he heads but the society that elected it is “corrupt and wicked to the core”? Far from trusting our government when it says our freedoms—which, of course, it is stripping from us by the day—are in danger, shouldn’t we assume that it is lying to us to preserve its hold on power? Far from encouraging our youth to put on its uniform, shouldn’t we be doing all we can to guide them into the service of the true king of the universe?

Or when Peter warns us about those who “despise authority” (2 Pet 2:10) is he saying we should simply go along with those in power no matter what they say or do, some variation of “slaves obey your masters; man’s slave is Christ’s free man”? Does God encourage us to become amoral agents, puppets on the strings of people like the murderous presidents of the last hundred (or two hundred or more) years? Or when he says “if you get a chance to be free, take it” (1 Cor 7:21) does he mean he expects us to think for ourselves as much as we can, informed by Scripture, and to act at all times as moral agents who will give an account of everything we do (Eccl 12:14)?

Or does my thinking such thoughts make me apostate?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Entrepreneurial State: The End Justifies the Means

Without the massive amount of public investment behind the computer and Internet revolutions, such attributes might have led only to the invention of a new toy – not to cutting-edge revolutionary products like the iPad and iPhone which have changed the way that people work and communicate. … The genius and 'foolishness' of Steve Jobs led to massive profits and success, largely because Apple was able to ride the wave of massive state investments in the 'revolutionary' technologies that underpinned the iPhone and iPad: the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays and communication technologies. Without these publicly funded technologies, there would have been no wave to foolishly surf. (Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths)

I will not attempt to review The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths by Mariana Mazzucato; I have not read it. I have read only enough to be confident that I understand the main thesis: entrepreneurship by the State (the word is capitalized throughout the excerpts I have read) is morally legitimate because many if not all of the innovations that make life possible, from the green revolution to the iPad, though attributed by most people to private enterprise, were actually the work of the State. This is an updated version of an argument passed on to me in 1974 by my conservative college roommate to the effect that NASA was a good deal because it gave us Tang and microwave ovens.

Nor, tempted though I am, will I accuse her of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. For her to claim that there would be no Internet today had there been no ARPA in the 1960s seems strange to me: one of the first things I ever wanted to do with my first computer was to get it to talk directly to another computer, and the Internet seems like the result of many people smarter and more knowledgeable than I fulfilling that same desire; they may in fact have been government employees, but it seems to me that they would eventually have done the same thing had they been hobbyists or businessmen. But I could be wrong.

Nor will I make much of the fact that the green revolution and the Internet have been mixed blessings at best. The pesticides and fertilizers that have increased the production of commercial crops have been accompanied by environmental degradation, displacement of lower-income farmers, and mass starvation on scales unknown before it. The Internet has increased our ability to communicate with the masses, but it has also increased the social isolation of the people who use it.

I would simply like to point out that her thesis is based on the presupposition that the end justifies the means: in this case, such things as the green revolution and the Internet are good, they were brought about by State entrepreneurship, and this is evidence that State entrepreneurship is good.

Without questioning her evidence, let’s see where this leads us. The State she propounds as a proper entrepreneur—indeed society’s most important entrepreneur—is one group of people who achieve their goals by expropriating their neighbors: that is, whether a social anarchy, a monarchy, an oligarchy, a plutocracy, a republic, a democracy, or something else, the State depends on taxation for its very existence. In this sense “private citizens” who, for example, win a school levy election are also part of the state, entitled by right of conquest (i.e., electoral majority) to the tax money of those who lost the election, who are ipso facto their subjects.

It follows from Mazzucato’s thesis that expropriation of their neighbors is not only the privilege but the moral duty of the conquerors. Perhaps the book places limits on State expropriation, but if the end justifies the means, it would seem that the morality of any means can be judged only after the end has been achieved; therefore, any means can be justified if the stated end is noble enough, and if the stated end is not achieved, or if the end is achieved but “getting what ya want doesn’t get ya where ya wanna go,” the fault lies either with those who set the wrong end or with those who failed to achieve the end despite the means being implemented. That is, the means and those who enact them can never be faulted.

In the case of public education, then, the expropriation that pays for public schools can never be faulted. If the schools teach well, then school taxes are moral because the schools are good and they could not exist without taxation. If they teach poorly or not at all, the fault lies with the teachers or the administrators, but the taxation that makes even a bad system possible is legitimate because it would have been legitimized by the good schools had the system been good.

Put another way, if we concede that the end justifies the means, then we must also concede that the stated end also justifies the means. If the goal stated by those in power differs from their real goal, then they alone are at fault if the means are morally questionable; those who carry out the means sincerely believing in the stated goal are blameless. Again: the means, and thus those who carry them out, can never be faulted.

I said a moment ago that in an end-justifies-the-means moral system any means can be justified if the stated end is noble enough. Let’s put the Holocaust through that grid: if the end indeed can ever justify the means, some conceivable end that would justify the killing of six million beings created in God’s image must exist. My inability to conceive of such an end does not preclude its existence; therefore, we cannot say that the Holocaust itself was evil; at best we can only say that those who perpetrated it were evil because they did not set a noble enough end to be achieved by killing those people. Had they achieved a noble enough goal, the killing would have been justified; if the goal had not been attained, the fault would have lain with those who were in charge of attaining the goal after the Jews were all dead; and if attaining the goal had had an unanticipated and overall negative result, the fault would have been lack of imagination on the part of those who set the goal to begin with. In no case could those who actually did the killing be accused of immorality: the killing was not per se immoral.

This of course opens another line of questions: if some but not every end can justify a given means, how can we know that a given end does in fact justify a given means?

Given the stated goals of restoring prosperity to people who had known literal starvation, liberating the arguably oppressed German speakers in Poland and Czechoslovakia, fighting a Communism that had killed dozens of millions of innocent people less than a day’s airplane flight to the east, acquiring Lebensraum, and completing the mission of Christianity, would killing only six hundred thousand, or six thousand, or six innocent people have been OK?

I don’t know how a postmodern would answer that question, but I do know how a strict, exclusive reading of these Bible passages does: any end stated by the State is for our benefit and therefore justifies whatever means the State enacts to bring that end about.

The King is mighty, he [not sometimes, not usually, but apparently always] loves justice. (Ps 99:4)

By [wisdom] kings reign and rulers make laws that are [not sometimes, not usually, but apparently always] just. (Prov 8:15)

Kings [not sometimes, not usually, but apparently always] detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness. Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value a man who speaks the truth. (Prov 16:12–13)

He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend. (Prov 22:11)

As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable. (Prov 25:3)

Obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow. For the authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong. So do what they say, and you will get along well. The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. So you must obey the government for two reasons: to keep from being punished and to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid so they can keep on doing the work God intended them to do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and import duties, and give respect and honor to all to whom it is due. (Rom 13:1–7)

For the Lord's sake, accept all authority—the king as head of state, and the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish all who do wrong and to honor those who do right. (1 Pet 2:13–14)

I see no refutation in those passages of end-justifies-the-means morality. Every State I know of was established by some form of might makes right (excepting the kingdom of Saul son of Kish; pace David and Solomon; see 2 Sam 2 and 1 Kgs 2:13–25, respectively), so I can only infer that we know whom God has chosen to rule after the battle is over, at which point we can know that God chose the winner (Rom 13:1). Because God endows rulers with wisdom, the ends they set will be just (Prov 8:15), and the means they establish to meet those ends will be just also.

(This puts quislings in an interesting position. The Third Reich conquers Belgium, so a Christian cites Rom 13 and takes a job with the Reich harassing Belgians and sending Jews to their deaths. The Allies come, and the Christian cites Rom 13 and fights against the Allies. The Allies win, and where does that leave the quisling?)

I can square might-makes-right morality with contemporary US conservatism, but I’m not sure how to square it with the Great Commission. Conservatives, even confessing Christians, happily vote my money away indirectly for the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, public transportation, and you name it, and directly for public school levies, and consider me somewhere between curmudgeonly and apostate for calling them immoral for doing so. Their argument can rest only on the presupposition that what the State ordains is right because God has allowed those in power to attain that power, and their stated ends are God’s true ends.

The War on Terror involves only God knows how much “collateral damage,” the killing of innocent people, but what might otherwise be classed as murder is somehow OK now because the stated end is to kill off all the terrorists. Because this stated end is so noble, not only the taxation but also the killing is legitimate. Best of all, from the Christian conservative’s point of view, we don’t have to worry that the killing might alienate people from the gospel message or that the money we give in taxes might better have gone to supporting missionaries: ours is only to submit and obey.

Similarly, the War on Drugs puts what we grow in our gardens and trade with our neighbors, to say nothing of what we put in our bodies, within the purview of those who have won the struggle for power, giving them the right not only to tax us but to spy on us, lie to us in sting operations, break into our houses, sell or give weapons to murderous gangs in other countries, put us in cages, and even kill us, all because of the stated goal of keeping some substances out of circulation. Again, because we are to consider those who rule us as God’s vicars, to ask how effective their actions are at achieving the stated goal or in bringing people to Jesus, or even how their actions accord with biblical ethics, is to impugn the holiness of God.

Mariana Mazzucato is no conservative, but The Entrepreneurial State accords very well with contemporary conservative might-makes-right, end-justifies-the-means ethics. And so if they are all correct, Christians need to learn the lessons to be drawn from her work:

There are at least three lessons vital for effective institutionalization of innovation that stem from Mariana Mazzucato’s analysis. There is a need to strengthen the funding source of public R&D; a need to increase public commitment to ‘green’ technology innovation and direction setting; and a need to update the Keynesian responses to modern economic crises. (From the forward by Carlota Perez)

In short, we need to give more of our resources to the State so it can do more for us. Christians can then trust that God will fulfill the Great Commission through the State he has ordained, and out of gratitude we need to fly the State’s flag literally and figuratively.

The alternative is to begin with the Bible, which states that we will be judged on the basis of all our works, which in turn will be judged on their own merits.

 For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in our bodies. (2 Cor 5:10)

Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows. (Isa 1:17)

Seeking justice and helping the oppressed by definition involve opposing the State, since injustice and oppression are by definition State malfeasance: even a common assault or theft in an isolated area of a state is evidence that the State is not doing its job adequately and will usually be followed by calls for the State to change a putative deficient policy. If God through Isaiah calls his people to question State actions, it follows that injustice and oppression are what they are irrespective of the stated ends of the unjust and the oppressors, and not least those who act as their agents: Christians cannot use State policy to defend their own unjust actions.

If we really want to take the Great Commission seriously, we need to get beyond the supposed difference between liberals and conservatives and make the kingdom of God, not some mythological America of yore, the object of our labors. Justice is just, not because it will “restore America” or bring prosperity, but because it is just. It is God’s nature, and we are to partake of it as deeply as we can; whether we end up with iPads or even an improved food supply is secondary. We can expect, however, that if the process is what God calls just, the result will be what he calls good—and his is the only opinion that really matters.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Review of Two Movies

I’d like to give the story lines of two movies being shown at my local theater. And yours. And everyone else’s on the planet. I’ll give away a bit of the plot, but guessing the titles of these movies will be up to you.  I’d like to know which you think you’d like better.
The first begins with literally everything being blown away from what would be a single point in the middle of nowhere except that there is literally no where for it to be in the middle of. But soon the infinitely small particles that are everything begin forming bonds, some strong enough to eliminate practically all space between them, others setting some particles in orbit around other particles. Soon the smaller glomerations conglomerate, and so on, until there are glomerations so large that the viewer’s mind can comprehend neither the number of such glomerations nor their sizes.
For nine billion years, there is literally no life anywhere in this vast existence. Things change—the distances between the largest glomerations expand, and the structures of the smallest glomerations change, but because literally nothing that exists thinks, these changes are not thought of as progress. Nothing cares what happens: what happens, happens, and that’s that. For nine billion years this goes on.
After the nine billion years, on one glomeration that orbits another, larger glomeration that is one of incomprehensibly many such larger glomerations in one incomprehensibly super-glomeration that is one of an incomprehensibly large number of such super-glomerations, some small glomerations suddenly do something different. The camera doesn’t catch what they do, but they begin to combine in new, complex ways, and within a billion years these new agglomerations engage in processes totally unlike any previously seen anywhere in the universe: beginning as a small, extremely complex cluster of glomeration, each increases in size and complexity until some part of the complexity breaks down for any of a number of reasons, at which point the component glomerations return to simpler structures. That is, life appears: organisms begin life and die.
Before long some of these organisms consume other organisms, breaking them down into components that enable the consuming organisms to increase in complexity, and as time goes on, some consumers arise that not only grow more complex by consuming other organisms, they are able to maintain their current complexity only by consuming others. For billions of years organisms maintain their complexity by consuming—eating—others. Those that are successful in avoiding being eaten while eating others become more complex and numerous, having added such characteristics as the habit of reproducing themselves, the practice of transmitting abstract ideas like food and danger from one to another, and the ability to hide from predators. Those unable to avoid being eaten or killed for other reasons disappear.
For the first three billion years in which there is life on earth, the rule is simple: the stronger kill and often eat the weaker. But at some point—again, this event happens off camera—some members of this species—some humans—develop a unique means of self-preservation by inventing what they call morality and getting at least some of the strong to believe that even though they are able to kill the weak and would benefit from doing so, it is wrong for them to do so. Then to the degree the idea catches on, weaker humans are able to survive in human society by wielding morality the same way skunks, weaker as they are than the bobcat, can walk fearlessly through bobcat territory once bobcats understand the power of the stink gland.
In time, as human life depends less on physical labor, the idea of morality enables physically weak people to contribute to not only their own welfare but also to the welfare of humans stronger than they. And so it is that the idea of right and wrong, and the disregard of the might-makes-right ethos that had governed the entire history of life in the universe to that point, a survival strategy differing from those of other species only in that it applies exclusively to relationships between humans, makes it possible for humans to dominate the entire planet.
But the might-makes-right ethos never entirely disappears, and more powerful humans are still able to engage in zero-sum relationships with each other: wars to the death, enslavement of losers in wars, taxation of losers of elections, and pollution and government debt passed on to future generations. Wars and pollution eventually raise the planet’s level of toxicity to the point that the humans then living, who are also saddled with the debts incurred by the previous generations, which have also depleted the planet’s natural resources, do not have the wherewithal to return the planet to human habitability. Humans die off, beginning with the weak, but as the accumulated poisons destroy their genes, the stronger first mutate into a transitional species, which itself soon becomes unviable and dies off.
After the death of the last humans and their domesticated animals, all memory of them disappears, and, no other species having developed morality, the earlier zero-sum, might-makes-right ethos alone rules the planet for the next untold billions of years until its sun becomes a supernova and consumes it, ending all life. After billions or trillions or quadrillions of years—it’s hard to tell—the gravitational attraction of the galaxies overcomes the momentum of the initial explosion and they begin to come together. Eventually all particles in the universe converge on one spot, and the movie ends leaving the viewer wondering if the entire process will be repeated.
So we have a universe unaware of its own existence, no aspect of which is aware of its own existence, with the exception of a few complex agglomerations of otherwise insentient matter whose history spans an imperceptible fraction of that of the otherwise dead universe. These organisms die off to the regret of no one, and death reigns until all matter is completely destroyed. Maybe.
The second movie, unlike the first, has a protagonist, but he never comes on camera. In fact, though the viewer knows that he exists, the story line consists of what happens to the characters as they try to decide whether or not he does and act out that decision.
God, the protagonist, creates the universe because he is by nature community and he wants to enjoy the company of beings unlike himself in that they are not God, but like him in being good, generous, and loving. However, he also desires to show himself to be forgiving and self-sacrificial, and this provides the basis for the conflict: he creates an incomprehensibly wide variety of beings, the weaker with mass and volume, the more powerful without, but these creatures, fully aware that he is good and that rebellion against him is inexcusably evil, rebel against him.
This rebellion becomes the central point of the story, as the creatures do everything they can to avoid the death that is the creator’s recompense for rebels, while refusing his offer to forgive those who repent of their rebellion. The guiding principle of the societies built by the rebels is that might makes right. On a personal level this plays out in murder and other forms of assault, theft and vandalism, adultery and fraud, and perjury and slander. On a larger level it is seen in war, slavery, taxation, eminent domain, and other forms of oppression.
The story’s turning point is where God himself intervenes by sending the being he loves most, his son (yes, you read that right), to show his goodness, generosity, love, forgiveness, and willingness to sacrifice himself by living among the species he created in his own image and allowing those people to kill his son. He then makes his son come alive, and promises to forgive the unforgivable and give eternal life to those who make his son their master.
The son’s slaves begin as a small community, but they eventually conquer the world through deeds of love and mercy. Some of them are killed for their obedience to the son, some disobey the son in horrible ways, not everyone joins them, and sometimes whole areas that were in at least some semblance of submission to the son turn away from him, but eventually the whole earth in some sense acknowledges the mastery of the Son and so is characterized by justice and peace.
Later God gathers his son’s slaves together and graciously allows them, undeserving as they are, to live with him forever in a new, resplendent universe, and to give those who have rejected his son the eternal punishment they deserve.
So we have two stories that could not be more different. One begins with lifeless disorder, proceeds into order and eventually life in which might almost without exception makes right, swallows that life up in death, and ends when the lifeless order again descends into nothingness. The other begins with life, passes through a brief period in which death first thrives and then is conquered, and ends with a look forward to eternal life.
I know which one I would like to see. How about you?