Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Empire and Social Order

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

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