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Mystery solved?

There has been much outrage and bewilderment in the media these past few days about how on earth a Yemeni terrorist managed to sneak explosives through security, while flying on a one-way ticket without luggage, without a passport, and without a credit card, especially when the CIA had been warned repeatedly about this particular individual. How could all of our elaborate security apparatus fail so monumentally when crunch time came?

Of course, the most logical resolution to the mystery is the one that no one in the media will ever consider...maybe the security apparatus wanted to let him through....

After all, things have been a little too peaceful for too long, and complacent people don't make good imperialists.

Edit: To avoid confusion, I should point out what I thought was obvious--namely, that I am far from asserting this as the solution to the mystery...I only raise it as an intriguing, and probably unanswerable, question.

Whoops...I never posted the second half.

Finally, let me explain part of why I am so concerned about the typical evangelical response to this issue (though this criticism is not aimed at you).
You alluded to 2 Timothy 3, from which I shall now quote,
“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” You quoted some commentator who glossed “avoid such people” as “have no fellowship with them, depart from their communion, withdraw from them, and come out from among them: this passage sufficiently justifies the reformed churches in their separation from the church of Rome.” If this is so, then surely we are of all men most to be pitied! For who is not a lover of self, or a lover of money? Who is not proud, or ungrateful? Who does not love pleasure rather than God? Obviously, we cannot avoid every sinner, so presumably this applies to those who obstinately cling to their sin and spurn calls to repentance. What we see with homosexuality is a serious ethical confusion--an acceptance of activities which, though our culture tolerates them, are clearly immoral. But is homosexuality the only phenomenon where we see this in the church today? No, and abortion is not the only other one. At least since World War II, a great number of conservative Christians have embraced the world’s approach to war, an unrestricted, utilitarian, “you gotta do what you gotta do” approach. Christians have even endorsed nuclear weapons, carpet bombing, and more. If this isn’t a great ethical confusion, what is? Conservative Christians have also happily endorsed economic practices and uses of money that earlier generations would have considered terrible examples of greed, luxury, and exploitation. American Christianity is rife with this kind of mammonolatry, as Doug Jones has pointed out over the past couple years; and indeed, as he has also pointed out, economic sins are more harshly condemned in Scripture than are sexual sins (e.g., notice that the chief criticism of Sodom in the Bible--Ezek. 16:48-50--is not for her sodomy, but for luxury and neglect of the poor).
If we are going to take a hard line on homosexuality--refuse to associate with them, excommunicate them, call down judgment upon them--what are we going to say about these ethical confusions of ours? “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Mt. 7:2) If we’re really serious about righteousness in the Church, we need to be just as hard on our own sins as others, and that means that we need to be careful about using serious sin as a reason to divide a church, because there’s enough serious sin around to keep the Church dividing until judgment day.
Conservative Christians rarely seem to notice that after Paul’s harsh condemnation of homosexuality and idolatry in Romans 1, he turns to us and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man--you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself--that you will escape the judgment of God?” (2:1-4)
Yikes. Clearly Paul does not mean that the Jews he is addressing practiced exactly the same sorts of things, but theat they were guilty of sins just as serious. Are we evangelicals guilty of sins as serious as confusion about homosexuality? Maybe, maybe not. After seeing American conservative Christianity through the eyes that our brothers in Britain can see us, I really do wonder whether we’re not worse sometimes. And yet conservative condemnation of homosexuality and abortion has given us a convenient way to hide our guilt. We focus so obsessively on the sins of liberal Christianity, filling ourselves to the gills with righteous indignation, that we manage to avoid ever turning the sword of the Word on ourselves, to divide our own flesh and spirit, discerning the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. Until we can learn to be just as honest about the seriousness of our failures to understand and apply Jesus’s standard of godliness as we are about those of brothers in more liberal churches, we had better tone down the rhetoric of judgment and division, of shunning and schism, lest God judge us with the measure by which we judge, and come and strike the land with a curse. Here is the beginning of my post.

After the presentation of the nine (or eight) theses given in the previous post, I received an email from one of the participants, which voiced concern about sacrificing righteousness for the sake of unity. This gave me the opportunity to clarify my thoughts in a lengthy response, which I shall post here in two segments. Here's the first, much longer section:

First of all, then, I think you are mischaracterizing my position when you speak of it as a willingness to sacrifice righteousness for the sake of unity. In fact, I think it is deeply problematic to articulate the problem in these terms. I do not think we should set up two poles, righteousness and unity, and play them off against each other in a kind of zero-sum game. Properly understood, neither is possible without the other. Our unity in Christ through one table, one Spirit, one baptism, is the only possible basis for righteousness--a house divided against itself cannot stand. Only as we are nourished by the common life of the body of Christ are we enabled to pursue righteousness and purity, to grow up into maturity, into the fullness of Christ. A purity of individuals or sects that holds aloof from the common table of the Body is no true purity. Likewise, unity that is not founded upon Christ’s gift of justification and sanctification to his people, which does not unite us in a common commitment to and pursuit of holiness, is not Christian unity; at best it is cooperation and compromise, which, while occasionally valuable in their proper place, cannot be the foundation of the Christian Church.

But of course, things are more complicated than this, because both unity and purity exist in the tension of the already/not yet. We certainly know this to be the case with purity. We have all been washed, we have all been sanctified, the whole Church bears Christ’s name and is robed in His righteousness. And yet, we wear the robe badly, and our own soiled garments underneath often peek through, so we must constantly strive to cleanse ourselves and one another. As we seek to grow in purity, however, we must remember that what counts above all is the commitment to strive; we are all riddled with sin in our various ways, and so the presence of actual sin in our midst, while it must never go unconfronted, is an inevitable feature of our pilgrimage. Likewise, we are not called upon to create unity--we already are one in Christ--all who have been baptized in his name, who listen to his word and eat around His table. Unity is a starting point, not a destination. And yet, of course, we cannot rest secure in this; just as we are simul justus et peccator, we are simul unus et divisus. We must patiently strive to overcome these divisions in love, and sometimes, when they are severe enough, they may be beyond our ability to overcome, but never God’s. When our efforts fail, we await God’s action to restore the alienated party to oneness of mind or else, perhaps to cut it off and kill it for the life of the body. But we must remember that this latter, fearful act of judgment is ultimately God’s, not ours; even when excommunication is pronounced, it is not so much a putting of someone outside the fellowship of the body, as a recognition that they have already put themselves outside and must therefore be called to repentance.

Probably you agree with all this, but my point is simply to say that I do not want us to act as if we find ourselves standing on some neutral ground and weighing before us two alternatives--righteousness and unity. Rather, we find ourselves already in unity, and called to maintain it and pursue it, while also growing in righteousness, a task that requires naming and rebuking the sins in our midst--something that is part of the task of unity, rather than opposed to it. Ephesians 4 and 5 seem to me to be a wonderful statement of this simultaneous reality of and call toward unity and purity in the Church. Paul demands both, and the key for achieving this is love (4:2, 16).

So my concern is to discern what forms this pursuit of righteousness takes within a body that is inescapably unified.

Before going on, I should flesh out what seems to me an implication of us being “inescapably unified”:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26)
That is to say, at one level, we do not have a choice as to whether to be “contaminated” by a particular sin in the Body--we already are. If certain branches of the Church are practicing or condoning serious sin, then the whole Church suffers, and the whole Church, in a sense, bears responsibility. This notion of corporate responsibility is clear in the Bible, as in your example of Israel in the wilderness, where the whole is often held responsible for the sins of the many. We can learn from the example of great Old Testament leaders like Nehemiah and Daniel, who both pray to God confessing the sins of Israel--sins which are not theirs (see Neh. 1, Dan. 9). They recognized that the whole people of God bore responsibility for the sins of the people, even those who had not personally taken part. So, I think it is first of all important that conservative Christians acknowledge our “participation” in the sins of more liberal churches, a participation that exists whether or not we remain in outward fellowship with them. This is of course not to say that “Oh, we’re all tainted already, we might as well sin boldly now.” Obviously, we can always fall more deeply into sin, and a concern to avoid being led astray may require an attenuated fellowship with serious sinners; but we should be under no illusions that we can purify ourselves of all stain by picking and choosing our brothers in Christ.

Mere fellowship with a sinner, then, does not constitute sin. Dishonest fellowship--fellowship which tries to ignore sin--does constitute sin. If I believe a fellow Christian is in serious sin, then I must (prudently, patiently, and charitably, to be sure, but firmly) let him know that I think so, but then I can, and indeed must, continue to fellowship with him as long as he is willing to let me. If he is hardened in his sin and wants nothing of my advice, our communion will likely be severed, despite my continuing attempts to reach out to him. But if he is willing to listen to me, even though he may disagree and is convinced that his actions are defensible, then I should remain in fellowship with him, and indeed, attempt to discern whether I cannot learn something from him, while still maintaining an uncompromising opposition to what I see to be sinful.

With the current chaos about homosexuality in the Church, I certainly do not want to call on Christians to put their hands over their mouths, look the other way, and pretend like nothing is wrong. That would be sacrificing righteousness for the sake of unity. By all means, we must maintain a faithful and fearless witness to the truth (though, I would add, whenever possible we must do this in charity and patience, with particular concern for the well-intentioned weaker brother, rather than unnecessarily alienating and dividing by fire-and-brimstone rhetoric). But this action, this standing up for righteousness, is not an action against unity, but is rather a call to unity in Christ in the midst of a house divided. Why then should this stand be an act of division? “Divisions will come, but woe to the one through whom they come,” as O’Donovan says. If an individual, or a church, or even a denomination, makes a stand for righteousness, then, no matter how charitably they do it, divisions will come. But let the unrighteous be the ones who break fellowship, not the righteous. Why not say, “This is Christ’s Church, and we are worshipping Christ, so by golly, we’re not going anywhere unless you throw us out!” This, it seems to me, is the general pattern of how the faithful in Israel resisted the widespread unfaithfulness of the people of God in the Old Covenant, and in the New Covenant, we are summoned to even greater charity, patience, and faith that God will defend his Church.

Now, though I feel strongly about this, perhaps there are cases where a separation is necessary. But is homosexuality really that point? I do not want to minimize the sin, but certainly, there are worse ones--blasphemy and idolatrous worship being near the top of the list.

When talking about the practice and condoning of homosexuality, it seems to me that we have to be careful about discerning two different phenomena. One is the product of a deep-seated rejection of the Bible’s authority and rebellion against God, which may manifest itself in a high-handed contempt for God’s word or else in a hypocrisy hidden underneath a veneer of piety and faith. This kind of sin is utterly destructive, and must be resisted fiercely (though still with the aim of bringing the erring brother or leader to repentance). This, I take it, is the sort of sin that Paul warns against in 2 Tim. 3 and Ephesians 5 (Titus 3, the other passage you cited, seems to be a warning not so much against the impure, as the divisive, and so would support my concerns more than yours, though, as I have been arguing, the two cannot be separated). If a Church leader has a person like this in his flock, he must discipline him; if a leader himself is like this, the leaders to whom he is accountable have the responsibility to remove him. If proper disciplinary action is not being taken, then fellow-believers may need to shun the sinner, even while still holding the promise of fellowship if repentance occurs.

Then there is the Christian who practices or condones homosexuality while genuinely desiring to serve God and build up the Church. These exist--I have met them. And it should be no surprise to us that they exist, because within our own circles, there are well-intentioned Christian leaders with huge moral blind spots (e.g., I would suggest about war and greed--more on that below). Now, with folks like this, more patience is necessary--a willingness to work toward common understanding while refusing to compromise on allegiance to Christ and His Word. If this “well-intentioned” sinner is a fellow layman, then patient instruction, dialogue, and occasionally rebuke is in order. If he is a church leader, then for one’s own sake or one’s family’s, it may be prudent to find a different church home, but the leader and his congregation should not be shunned. If you are a leader, in the position to discipline a layman or clergyman sinning in this way, then formal disciplinary action may prove necessary, but should not be your first resort. If we cannot learn to distinguish this latter kind of sinner from the former, and to address him in patience and love, with a willingness to learn and repent of our own errors, then we are not being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ep. 4:3)

It occurred to me after reading your email that perhaps there is a problem with our readiness to invoke Paul’s exhortations to shunning and excommunication in the current context. There’s two reasons. First of all, my main concern has not been to say, “How should church leaders address the sins, homosexual or otherwise, of those under their authority?” Obviously they should address them, by instructing, rebuking, and if necessary, formal discipline. This is what I would call the vertical dimension. My main concern has been to address the horizontal, and perhaps what we might call the “reverse-vertical” dimensions--that is to say, how does the believer who is not in authority over an erring brother (or the church which is not in authority over an erring sister-church) engage him (horizontal dimension), and how does he engage an erring leader (reverse-vertical dimension)? So, of course the Bishop of Edinburgh ought to do his job and refuse to ordain the homosexual curate; but, given that he didn’t do his job, what’s my job? Do I take it upon myself to “un-ordain” him? Do I still accept that he is a leader in the Church? If not, do I still accept that he is a brother in the Church? How should other churches treat him, and treat the Bishop who ordained him? How should other denominations? These are the questions that are vexing me. This is not a matter of tolerating unrighteousness for the sake of unity, but simply a matter of discerning the appropriate and lawful means to resist unrighteousness. I can strongly believe that a thief should be imprisoned, but that does not mean that I have the right to seize him, convict him, and lock him up in my basement for ten years.

Now, I do not deny that there is a time and a place for “horizontal” or “reverse-vertical” judgment, in which a believer or a congregation must withdraw the right hand of fellowship from those in gross sin, but even in such cases, should we not act with great fear and trembling, and praying that such a break of fellowship may be a very temporary meausure?

Second, however, it seems that even for those leaders responsible to exercise discipline, like Rowan Williams in the Anglican Communion, Paul’s exhortations cannot always be carried over so easily in our setting. For leaders of small house-churches, or even men like Titus or Timothy, who seem to have been responsible for overseeing quite a few churches, discipline is a personal, relational, face-to-face action. Practiced this way, excommunication can be quite effective. However, to lop off a whole branch of the Church, containing thousands of churches and millions of members, both faithful and unfaithful (the sort of action many conservatives are clamoring for today), does not work the same way. Obviously, the sheep must be cared for and protected from wolves, but turning the whole flock loose is not the way to do it. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what exactly is the way to do it, but clearly, it is complicated, and requires great discernment and patience. For this reason, I want us to be less hasty to condemn leaders who are struggling to address the problem.

Travelling, groomsmaning, catching up with folks in Moscow, etc., have all gotten in the way of blogging in the past week. But lots of great ideas have still been flying around, especially about (what else?) homosexuality and catholicity. (I'm beginning to feel like that's all I talk about...yikes!) A friend of mine arranged a kind of reunion of old friends to chat theology, and I proposed this question for discussion: How are we to reconcile the demand for catholicity, church unity, patience amist disagreement with the widespread practice and condonement of homosexuality in the Church today? To prompt discussion, I submitted nine theses (of which one proved to be redundant, and so is omitted here):

1. Homosexual activity is a serious sin.
2. Homosexual sensibility and desire is not in itself sinful, though it is disordered.
3. Homosexual activity, like most other sins, can be practiced in well-intentioned ignorance.
4. Homosexuality can be wrongly, but well-intentionedly defended by Christians.
5. We do not contract the “infection” of a homosexual’s sin by fellowshipping with that person, or with an individual or a church who supports them.
6. We do not contract the “infection” of a homosexual’s sin by worshipping at a church supporting them, or even at which they are ministering.
7. The proper way to address homosexuality in the church is patient but firm church discipline, which may require excommunication of those practicing it or, possibly, those condoning it.
8. If the authorized leadership does not practice the discipline that they are obliged to practice, other believers do not receive the right to take disciplinary action into their own hands and unilaterally secede/declare other churches to be non-churches. They are required to rebuke in love, and pray and work for unity of mind and, if necessary, God’s judgment.

The discussion that ensued was excellent and edifying, and most present seemed willing to go most of the way in agreeing with these points. I did, however, receive an email afterward from one participant, registering some strong objections. I will probably post parts of my response to that email over the next couple days.

Imperial Bewilderment

This book is bizarre. It’s a sort of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde book. On the one hand, it’s extremely well-written, and tells a very complex historical narrative in a lucid and compelling manner, something that is quite difficult to do. It is also very honest and up-front about the greed, oppression, and exploitation upon which the British Empire was founded, and by which it was more often than not sustained. And yet...

...the introduction and conclusion feel like they were written for another book entirely. A book that was not honest about the greed, oppression, and exploitation of the British Empire, or perhaps a book by Dick Cheney.

After telling a tale that leaves you disgusted with the evils of the British Empire (even though, to be sure, there was much good and much repentance as well), and himself admitting that these things were evil and oppressive (and indeed, trying to construct a weak defense: “Well, didn’t we gain absolution by sacrificing our empire in fighting the Japanese and Germans?”....only problem is that Britain was not trying to sacrifice her empire in fighting them, she was hoping to hold on to it.), Ferguson concludes by telling us that the Empire was on the whole a good thing, and indeed, so much so, that we’d be screwed without it, and the US needs to imitate it. Hang on a minute...what??

I’ve tried to reconstruct the logic of the conclusion, and it just doesn’t work.
See, in order to prove that the Empire was on balance a good thing for the world, Ferguson would need to show either that the countries dominated by the Empire were better off with it than they would’ve been without it, or that, though they were worse off, the dominators gained so much at their expense that, by a sort of aggregate-happiness meaure, it was worth it. The latter is of course morally reprehensible, so Ferguson doesn’t attempt it. The former, however, is extremely difficult to show, because it relies on we really know how these nations would’ve been governed if the Empire had not taken them over? No. Then we do not know how well off they might have been without it. So Ferguson has set himself a hard task, and the only evidence he offers is a smattering of fairly selective economic statistics. These fail on three counts: 1) as just mentioned, they cannot in fact prove that what in fact happened was better than what would otherwise have happened, since we don’t know what that might have been, 2) they are selective enough that we cannot be persuaded that nearly all of the colonized countries profited, only some, and even if all did, we do not know if that was due to a few people getting really rich at the expense of everyone else, or not, 3) economic well-being is only one measure of well-being. Ferguson has such an annoyingly modern econidolatrous mind that he fails to even consider that demonstrating increased GDP does not ipso facto demonstrate a better world.

Now, even if Ferguson did demonstrate that the Empire was on balance a good thing for the world, that is no argument that it was a morally good thing, or something that should be repeated, unless you’re a utilitarian. After all, as Ferguson admits, some pretty rough stuff had to be done in order to bring about this better world of free trade and globalization. Oh, but maybe that was just because they were rough folks--we could do Empire better now, without all the brutality and oppression, right? Well, Ferguson is too smart to take that route. He admits that the better world order of globalization that we now have could not have come through peaceful means--it required the sword, it required the hard iron edge of empire.

But apparently Ferguson is a blatant utilitarian. Near the very end, he cites a speech by Tony Blair shortly after 9/11, talking about the need to bring security to a conflict-ridden world and spread freedom and democracy and all that rot. And then Ferguson very shrewdly points out that what Blair is really saying, in somewhat glossed-over language, is Victorian imperialist rhetoric: “we need to go in by force and replace bad governments with ones we like better so that we can open nations up to trade with our economies.” At this point I’m cheering Ferguson on, right? Yeah, Ferguson, way to read between the lines! Way to debunk all the fancy rhetoric! Way to show Blair and Bush for the imperialist jerks they really are!

But then Ferguson is like, “Yeah, Blair has the right idea. Only problem is that he’s naive about how much military muscle it will take to do all this, military muscle only the US has. And the problem with the US is that they’re too afraid to use it.”

Or, to quote him precisely, “The weak still need the strong, and the strong still need an orderly world, a world in which the efficient and well-governed export stability and liberty, and which is open for investment and growth. All of this sounds eminently desirable.” The US “lacks the drive to export its capital, its people, and its culture to those backward regions which need them most urgently, and which, if they are neglected, will breed the greatest threats to its security.”

So, according to Ferguson, bring on “Anglobalization” 2.0! I can only hope the American people do not warm to the imperial project as readily as their British predecessors did, and as readily as this Oxford don seems still to do.

For rather a change of pace, I'm going to post up not my own thoughts, but 450-year-old thoughts from Philip Melanchthon. In my research, I came across an essay "Whether It Be a Sin to Transgress Civil Laws, Which Be the Commandments of Civil Magistrates," published in English in the 1550s, and never since, so far as I can tell. It was extremely difficult to read on the old pages and archaic font and spelling, so I decided to transcribe it so I could study and evaluate it properly. Here is the result (sometimes I left the older spellings, sometimes I didn't; I wasn't very consistent. In a couple places, the transcription is quite uncertain). I'm not going to put any of my own thoughts up now, except to say that there seem to be some glaring problems in it, in the (probably vain) hope of seeing whether anyone else will read it through and spot the same problems.

So here it is--a blast from the past:

Moral virtue requireth not only to refrain outwardly the hands, and to rule external actions, but also it requireth in the mind a deliberation and an intent of counsel. It also requireth a mind inured to hold in all ?braydes?, and to use a certain moderation to deliberate. These two things are truly required to virtues, and youth must be trained up, to understand the force and nature of either of them. Deliberation or advisement, must seek out and understand the causes and reasons of all actions, which (as it were with a bridle) draw back the furious mind into the right way, and show what is to be done.

But moral is called that facility of the mind, or equability, moderation, and stay wherewith it can refrain itself, until that it be well advised of the matter, to do that which is most right, with a certain pleasure.

Seeing then it is needful to understand the causes of honest actions, it is not enough to know the laws, but it is most necessary to the performance of moral virtue, to know what the authority of the laws be, how far it is needful to obey them. The mind being with this doctrine established, shall both think more honorably of the laws, and also understand how far forth it must obey. This judgment of the authority of laws pertaineth to moral virtue.

First I answer, that to break civil laws, or the precepts of civil magistrates is mortal sin, though there be no matter of offence; for Paul saith plainly that we must needs obey, not for fear of vengeance only, but also because of conscience, that is, that we not only fear civil punishment, but also know that our conscience is made guilty, if we do not obey. Now it is the part of a good mind to consider, how great this band of obedience and common quietness is, which God also requireth, that we obey laws and magistrates.

And if we obey not, he saith that he will revenge it. And God truly punisheth both in this life, and also after this life, as the fourth precept speaketh of punishments in this life, “if thou wilt live long upon earth, etc.,” (Ex. 20) for that precept giveth charge of obedience, that we obey not only our parents, but also all them to whom our parents do give their authority, to wit, the magistrates. And therefore many other sentences in the Scripture speake of the punishments that shall be suffered in this life. “Fear God and the king, and have no fellowship with the seditious, for their destruction that come suddenly.” (Prov. 24) And Christ saith, He which taketh the sword in hand, shall perish with the sword”; for to take a sword in hand, signifieth to take up the sword forbidden by the laws and the magistrates, that is, to be seditious, and to disobey the present magistrates. And the examples set out in the Scripture, do not only show this, but also the histories of all ages, that murderers, thieves, perjured persons, unjust judges, seditious and tyrants, are for the most part punished by God in this life. This I say unto this end, that we may know how that God requireth this discipline, to keep men in awe with fear of punishment.

This fear increaseth reverence toward the laws, and causeth some morality in our minds, when as it bridleth as it were our lusts, and inureth them to obedience. And there is no doubt, but that many grievous chances are punishments of this barbarous liberty, which many take upon them, and will not be ruled by the authority of the superiors. For the law of God erreth not, which saith, “Honor thy father and mother, if thou wilt live long upon earth.” Besides that, there is more reverence in our minds, when as we believe, that the breach of the laws is punished with eternal torments after this life, except we do repent. This sentence touching the precepts of magistrates must wisely be understand, namely, of those precepts, which bid us not to do againstt the commandments of God. We must also consider, whether it be wantonness in them which disobey, or whether some causes happen, which have some excuse. The difference whcih Gerson useth, liketh me, who discerneth laws, saying, “That some are made for necessity, such as serve for common quietness, as of theft, murder, marriages, dividing of inheritances, tributes, warfare, judgments, and such like. Some are not made so much for necessity, as for comeliness, as it is provided, that a woman marry not, before she have left mourning for her former husband.

This difference liketh me, not only because reason breedeth sundry bonds, but rather, because the mind of the magistrate is evident, which in the former matters simply requireth obedience; in other lighter matters it doth not so enact it. The mind of the lawmaker must be considered, how far he will bind, and yet in these lighter things there may be no wantonness and contempt of authority, for it is an evil example. But it is profitable as well for discipline, as the quietness of the common wealth, so to accustom our minds, that even in trifles they may regard the authority of the laws. And this we must know, that we live not to our selves, but to the common wealth. We must therefore take heed, that our examples be no public hurt. The same doth Plato most graciously write in his fifth book of laws, that he is the best and most worthy citizen, which accounteth not triumphes or any victories to be the chiefest renown in the city, but to excel others in diligent obeying of the laws.

But here the question is asked, whether the like judgment be of ecclesiastical ceremonies, which by the authority of man are ordained. I answer, that herein this rule must be observed, that in case of offence it is sin to break them, but no offense being given, they may be broken without mortal sin. For it is needful to keep this doctrine, that such ceremonies are things indifferent, and not necessary for righteousness before God, as it is indifferent to wear a gown or a cloak, etc. this rule of Paul is profitabl both to common peace and the quietness of our consciences, for it concerneth public rites, and biddth to beware of offenses, common tumults, and public disturbing of orders. Again it delivereth the conscience from many superstitious opinions, and horrible cruelty; for if good minds do thing that the observance of such orders is necessary (no cause of offense being) it will be a hard bondage.

In so great a number of rites, how oft shall our consciences fall, sometimes in fastings, in rehearsing of prayers, in keeping of holy days, of such like; many things happen to them, especisally which have business, why they cannot always observe their orders. Therefore this rule containeth a profitable moderation, which forbiddeth public offences, preserveth customs profitable for quietness, and privately delivereth the consciences from danger.

When the causes of these laws and traditions are understood, good natures will the more embrace them, then is it fit that these things be known, namely that these ordinances are appointed by the Church for good and public order’s sake, and that the Church will not privately entangel any man’s conscience. And most moral is it to love common quietness and order, good men therefore will greatly embrace these ordinances, seeing that to quietness and order they are available, and in that they are delivered from superstious opinions, and know that without danger these ceremonies may be left, no offense being given. (middle of 9)

But here it is asked, whether ecclesiastical ordinances, and the civil laws of magistrates do diversely bind. I answer, the bond is unlike; and although reasons may be asked, yet the plainest way is to judge these things by the evident and clear testimonies of Scripture. First therefore I will rehearse them, then will I add the reasons and interpretation, lest any absurdity may be taken by our opinion.
Touching obedience due to the civil laws, Paul says, we must obey, not only for fear of vengeance, but also for conscience sake. This commandment bindeth us even without matter of offence; for we must obey the authority of God, though no offence be given. But touching ecclesiastical ceremonies, Paul says, “Let no man condemn you for meat or drink, or a piece of an holy day.” And again, “Stand fast in the liberty, wherewith Christ hath made us free, and wrap not yourselves again in the yoke of bondage.” And Christ says, “That which enters into the mouth defiles not the man,” and the apostle excuses them, which break traditions.

Because it is needful that this doctrine be in the Church, that those traditions touching meat and such like are no worshipping or righteousness, but things indifferent; therefore the gospel teaches, that our consciences may not be burdened with the opinion of necessity. Notwithstanding, because this life cannot lack ordinances and ceremonies, this moderation is needful, to have them so observed, lest the doctrine of true worshipping and of the benefit of Christ should be darkened. Again, lest our consciences should be burdened with infinite vexations, which might cause shipwreck of faith; therefore, the Gospel will have us understand that these rites may be left out, without matter of offence be given, but for good order, and for avoiding of offenses, they ought to be kept. This liberty being limited by the authority of the Gospel, cannot be taken away by man’s authority.

I have showed by the testimonies of Scripture, that the binding is unlike. This is the plainest answer unto this question, but we will show the reason.

The first is taken of the efficient causes, or the right of power, and this Gerson followeth. The civil magistrate by God’s authority, hath right to make honest and profitable laws, in those matters which pertain to the defence of this corporal life and civil society, as of judgments, the penalties of offences, contracts, successions, and such like, as Solomon says, “By me kings do reign, and appoint just things.”

But ecclesiastical power is limited, so as it hath a commandment what it ought to teach, and that it invent no new worshipping, neither burden the consciences with traditions of ceremonies. For Peter says, “Why tempt you God, laying on a yoke, etc.?” And Paul, “Why make you decrees, touch not, handle not, etc.?” Seeing then that the right of either power is unlike, the laws also diversely do bind.

Second reason, of the final causes of laws. Civil laws, are the bands of common society, therefore in breaking them, charity is always hurt, for because every one ought to use his obedience, as a seal, to the defence of common quietness, also the common tributes and all his travail must thereto be applied; when this they do not, they deceive the rest, and enjoy other men’s offices, employing nothing of their own unto it, even as he which to a common banquet giveth not his money, beguileth the guests.

The example also in breaking it doth hurt, and troubleth common quietness; therefore in civil laws, respect of charity and offence is always of force. But most part of ceremonies are private, and domestical observations, the breach whereof hurteth not others. Then seeing in them is no hazard of charity, nor offence’s chance, the authority of these laws is unlike, for of these also we have spoken, that then they are necessary, neither can they be broken without sin, when as the breach breedeth offences, that is, hurteth other men’s faith and manners, or rashly troubleth the quietness of others. And although it be profitable to consider these reasons and causes, and to understand the degrees of laws; yet is it more sure plainly to give judgment out of these sentences of Scripture before recited, for the reasons have many doubts, and do not sufficietnly establish the consciene. And wise men may seek and invent many dark matters on both sides, if that we shall judge only through reasons, and not out of the Scriptures. But here young men are to be warned, that although it be needful to know, that these indifferent things are no worshipping of God; yet they must learn, that the case of offence is large, and with diligenet care they must beware of it; for in the breach of traditions two things are hazarded, discipline and tranquility, or the agreement of the common wealth. It is fit for us to understand chiefly the greatness and force of either of these, being occupied in the studies of ?leavening? and virtues.

First for discipline’s sake, there need certain ordinances, for unskillful persons, who must be accustomed to ceremonies and rites, to holy days, to certain readings, to private and public exercises, and for that cause Paul calls the law a schoolmaster; for these ceremonies are certain institutions; necessary for young years. And although the Gospel doth bring a higher doctrine, yet it will not have discipline and institution to be abolished, but it commands that men be restrained, ruled, and taught with such instructions. What profti this discipline hath, I have showed elsewhere, for God is effectual in the which are tractable to be taught and resist not his word. Wherefore the example hurteth in the breach of traditions, for the common people, which naturally hate the bands of laws, willingly follow these examples, and thereof take contempt of the whole discipline, and of all the laws. These ordinances being abolished, there can be no discipline, neither can youth and the unlearned people be taught.

Then of necessity must follow exceeding barbarousness, and destruction, whether youth and the common people cannot be instructed. How great a wickedness and murder is it, to give such examples, whereby this desolation may arise; and in the other part of offence, how much evil is it, that the quietness of the Church and commonwealth is troubled.

In this corporal life we have need of ceremonies for orders’s sake, or for decency, which for man is most seemly. For if this order be disannulled, infinite confusion doth follow. For where there is no authority of teachers, no certain times to teach, no certain teachers, no certain form of doctrine; in such confusion, neither can the Gospel be presented, neither the Church instructed. Finally, as order and content of public ordinances do join men in fellowship together; so confusion of order does separate men’s minds, breedeth horrible tumults, and endless war.

Let us then think, that in breach of traditions, the example commonly and easily spreadeth abroad amongst others. Let us consider, what evil is in an example. Wherefore lest we burden our consciences with danger, lest we hurt others, let us observe with greater care the public ordinances whatsoever. It is tyrannical to regard more what delights ourselves, than what may do good to others; for we are not born unto ourselves, but our life pertaineth unto others, especially unto the Church, that is, to the glory of Christ, to the conservation of the ministry, and the retaining of discipline for the people. These two things which are the greatest, the Church desires chiefly to defend. Herein let us show our obedience, our diligence and endeavor, for the common quietness and health of us all. Plato says, we must love our country more than our mother, because our country is a certain heavenly thing. But the Church ought to be our true country, and this truly is heavenly; for it is the Temple of God, and the congregation of the members of Christ. Wherefore this we must love, and willingly obey it, and yield much unot the profit and tranquility thereof. Paul calls traditions “beggarly elements,” which although they be beggarly, that is, small things, transitory, not eternal, they are no worshipping, they are no righteousness, yet they are elements, that is, ordinances, which this corporal life cannot want, because of discipline and good order’s sake. Wherefore those ordinances are not to be disannulled, but Paul’s counsel must be considered, who although he call them beggarly, yet he calls them elements, and so takes away the praise of righteousness, showing still that there be ordinances, which have their profit. Great is the form of discipline, there is no sweeter harmony, than good order in a commonwealth. Therefore these are called elements, that is, ordinances, which preserve that harmony.

Waiting for the Spring

From Nate Wilson's Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl:
"Every soul waits in the wings. Every life taken in age, tired and ready, taken in youth, in shock and sorrow, taken in pain or taken in peace, every needle now hidden in shadow waits in eager silence. I see my cousin. My nephew. Many faces, forgotten by those who followed behind, known always by the author who needs no stone reminders. He is the best of all possible audiences, the only Audience to see every scene, the Author who became a character and heaped every shadow on himself...

"The last pages approaches, reached only through trials and triumphs, tears and laughter. The ending comes. But God is too big for endings, too big to work with a single narrative arc. This will be the end of Death, the end of a story that began in a garden and has played out in gardens ever since. Let us bury Death in a garden, and seal the hole with a cross. For him there will be no Spring. There is a rustling of impatience. Anticipation. Creation creaks and groans, tired of shadow, tired of Winter. The sun comes. The corn will see the morning.

"Through the long cold, I wait for the Spring. I watch for it, but I never see the moment of its arrival. The sun warms me, reminds me. Be grateful, it says. I have broken the Winter. On the south side of my house, the crocuses are up in bunches. They are the most greedy for spring, the first to notice and explode. Daffodils will follow soon.
After them will come the sailors."

Darwinian Schizophrenia

Weeks and weeks ago, I promised to write this post, in response to a provocative comment by my friend Tim Enloe. So I finally got around to making some kind of stab at it.

Darwinism is a fine example of the ambiguous foundations of modern science. On the one hand, it is generally agreed that the rise of nominalism and voluntarism, which drove a wedge between knowledge of the world and knowledge of God, helped liberate science from theology, and thus enabled the rise of natural science as we now know it. On the other hand, science had to maintain a faith in the meaningful fixed regularities of created nature, something which realism had guaranteed, but which, in a nominalist and voluntarist universe, was by no means certain. Thus science found itself in the uncomfortable position of biting the hand that fed it. So it is that we find an odd tension within modern science, which has grown as science has become increasingly secularized: on the one hand, science insists upon the law-like regularity of the natural world, and yet must also insist that things need not be as they are, could easily have turned out differently, and may yet turn out differently.

Darwinism, and the Christian accomodation to it, manifests this tension perfectly. On the one hand, Darwinism starts from the presupposition of regular processes of nature, ostensibly eschewing the voluntarist God who simply creates at a whim (deceptively too--with the appearance of age), and intervenes from time to time. Theologians who embraced Darwinism often took this oddly realist tack (as the lecturers at the book release emphasized), arguing, “Which God is greater? A God who creates a world according to fixed inherent laws and principles, or one who creates everything by fiat, via random interventions?”

And yet, Darwinism argues that all takes place by chance, and thus, while certain base chemical laws may be fixed, traditionally understood biological natures are not fixed--there is nothing intrinsically human about human beings, or canine about dogs--they just happen to be the way they are, and could very well be something else entirely. And Darwinian theology, as I mentioned in an earlier post, happily jumps on this nominalist bandwagon, asserting that the special status of human beings has nothing to do with any inherent nature, but only of an apparently arbitrary decision by God at some point in history; nor does the particular form of creation at any given time reveal God’s purposes, which must instead come only through special revelation.

So we find these hopeless theologians simultaneously arguing that we need a God who operates by fixed principles, rather than arbitrary interventions, and that our relationship with this God and knowledge of him has nothing to do with any fixed principles, but only with his arbitrary interventions. And to think that these folks hold the chairs of theology at most of our top seminaries and universities...

Pity Obama's Speechwriter...

...he had to write a speech explaining why we should continue to escalate the war in Afghanistan just a few days ago; now he's got to write Obama's Peace Prize acceptance speech for next Thursday.

Sounds like a bit above his pay scale...

Shock and Awe, Old School

One of the most helpful features of Niall Ferguson's narrative is how it gives one a new and clearer perspective on modern American imperial policies by seeing them through the lens of another empire's actions more than a century ago. Kinda like Nathan telling David the story of the rich man stealing the poor man's beloved sheep--you find yourself thinking, "Wow, that's horrible...oh wait...that's us."

For instance, Ferguson tells of how popular the Empire was in pop culture--in young adult fiction (e.g., G.A. Henty), in advertising, in newspapers and magazines--in particular, how much the public loved to read about smashing imperial victories over half-clad natives half a globe away. All of which, when you think about it, is rather pathetic...I mean, how could any self-respecting Brit feel a swelling sense of national pride and triumph by reading about British troops with machine guns obliterating hordes of Africans with spears who are trying to defend their homeland? How's there any glory in that? I mean, c'mon, pick on someone your own size.

Perhaps the most appalling example of this was the Battle of Omdurman, 1898.
Here Lord Kitchener's 25,000 British and Egyptian troops, with several batteries of Maxim machine guns, engaged a force of 52,000 Dervishes, armed with swords or primitive rifles. In a five-hour long massacre, Kitchener lost only 400 dead or wounded; the Dervishes suffered, by some reports, 95% casualties. The battle was considered a glorious triumph for British arms, a sensation in the press. And you ask yourself, "Why? Didn't they feel just a little bit awkward about fighting with such an unfair advantage?"

Until you remember the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How many Americans (including myself) were glued to the TV to watch with glee, triumph, and national pride as the largest air force in the world dropped thousands of tons of explosives on a country that had essentially zero air force, in a intentionally theatrical "Shock and Awe" campaign? Weren't we so proud of our good ol' boys for crushing a bunch of poorly armed foot soldiers in the desert? The memory made me feel a bit sick when I recalled it after listening to Ferguson's account of the Battle of Omdurman.

In fact, the parallels go much deeper. Omdurman was the culmination of an invasion that aimed to take care of unfinished business from 13 years before, when a British force sent to relieve George Gordon had never properly "revenged" his death, unseated the Arab dictator in power, or taken control of the country. Hence the national excitement after the victory. Sound familiar? (The 1st Gulf War began in 1990; the 2nd in 2003.)

A lot of valuable lessons to be learned here, though unfortunately Ferguson fails abysmally to draw them (a later post to come on this).

On October 9th, 2009, President Barack Obama was announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently acknowledging that he had not yet done anything to deserve it, he said, "Throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action.”

On December 1st, 2009, President Barack Obama answered this call to action, announcing plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan.

As incongruous as this may seem, it fits the Bismarck-esque model of American foreign policy--the mailed fist is the surest path to peace. What better way to bring peace than with the superior firepower of 30,000 more troops?

Unfortunately, history fails to bear out this hopeful hypothesis. It wasn’t so long ago that a president named Lyndon B. Johnson ordered more US troops into Asia to counter an insurgency, promising quick withdrawal. Moreover, the war in Afghanistan is now eight years old, just one year short of eclipsing Russia’s nine-year-long futile occupation of Afghanistan. Of course, in the Russians’ defense, the US was funding the opposition, which made their job considerably more difficult. (Hey, there’s an idea for the Pentagon spin-machine--maybe the Russians are funding the Taliban!)

Turns out that a leading Southern Baptist ethicist shares my anxiety about this decision, but for him, it was because Obama wasn't sending enough troops to "defend our freedom in a difficult and dangerous world." Oh please. The way this guy talks, you'd think he was George Bush's Press Secretary. Why is it, why, why, why, I ask, that the more "born-again" you are, the more pro-war you are? And we wonder why we're losing the "culture war."

The Tower of Babel

A few years ago, when I first read about the absurd prodigies being undertaken in Dubai--huge man-made islands, towers reaching into the clouds, an indoor ski resort, a seven-star hotel shaped like a sail, etc., etc., my thoughts went instantly to the story of the Tower of Babel, and I blogged to that effect at the time. I do not claim any remarkable prescience, now that the whole thing is turning out to be the most astoundingly lofty house of cards conceived by man; anyone with sense could've seen that it would end this way. No doubt the $60 billion in bad debt that has rocked the financial world for the last week is just the start of it all.

So everyone knew that such absurd development could not continue. What many may still not know is how the whole thing was a sham all along--a glittering upper crust of crude and unrestrained hedonism built on top of teeming masses of desperately poor near-slave labor. More than six months ago, an article in the Independent painted a ghastly picture of the appalling exploitation undergirding all the glitzy shopping malls and European revelers, a picture in which Dubai appears as a shocking and extreme symbol of the entire Western capitalist consumerist order, an edifice of hedonism built on the backs of Third World drudgery. A chilling portrait to say the least.

Even more chilling is the blindness that the captains of capitalism continue to show toward the true nature of Dubai's "free market," a market that this article from BusinessWeek wants to hold up as a model for the rest of the world.

In section 2 of The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt offers a fascinating analysis of the difference between labor, which produces the basic necessities of life, and work, which produces tools, durable goods, artifacts. Even in 1958, though, she saw that this distinction, so basic to the human condition, was being destroyed, as all work was being turned into labor--more and more of the products of work were being treated as necessities of life to be consumed like food, rather than tools to be used. This process began in the quest for economic abundance--since possible consumption is in principle infinite, then the only way to increase wealth infinitely is to turn everything into an object of consumption. But to do this is to destroy the fabric of truly human society and reduce us again to an animal state.
But I will let her say it all in her own words, which are breathtaking as always:

"Since mankind as a whole is still very far from having reached the limit of abundance, the mode in which society may overcome this natural limitation of its own fertility can be perceived only tentatively and on a national scale. There, the solution seems to be simple enough. It consists in treating all use objects as though they were consumer goods, so that a chair or a table is now consumed as rapidly as a dress and a dress used up almost as quickly as food. This mode of intercourse with the things of the world is perfectly adequate to the way they are produced. The industrial revolution has replaced all workmanship with labor, and the result has been that the things of the modern world have become labor products whose natural fate is to be consumed, instead of work products which are there to be used."

"The endlessness of the laboring process is guaranteed by the ever-recurring needs of consumption, or if, to put it in another way, the rate of use is so tremendously accelerated that the objective difference between use and consumption, between the relative durability of use objects and the swift coming and going of consumer goods, dwindles to insignificance. In our need for more and more rapid replacement of the worldly things around us, we can no longer afford to use them, to respect and preserve their inherent durability; we must consume, devour, as it were, our houses and furniture and cars as though they were the 'good things' of nature which spoil uselessly if they are to be drawn swiftly into the never-ending cycle of man's metabolism with nature, the biological process which goes on in its very midst as well as the natural cyclical processes which surround it, delivering and abandoning to them the always threatened stability of a human world.
The ideals of homo faber, the fabricator of the world, which are permanence, stability, and durability, have been sacrificed to abundance, the ideal of the animal laborans."

"One of the obvious danger signs that we may be on our way to bring into existence the ideal of the animal laborans is the extent to which our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end. But if the ideal were already in existence and we were truly nothing but members of a consumers' society, we would no longer live in a world at all but simply be driven by a process in whose ever-recurring cycles things appear and disappear, manifest themselves and vanish, never to last long enough to surround the life process in their midst.
....Without taking things out of nature's hands and consuming them, and without defending himself against the natural processes of growth and decay, the animal laborans could never survive. But without being at home in the midst of things whose durability makes them fit for use and for erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct contrast to life, this life would never be human."

(Typed up for class discussion on the book titled above, edited by Rowan Williams)

The work of Sergii Bulgakov provides us with a powerful and sympathetic conclusion to the course. In Bulgakov we find what has perhaps been lacking in the work of many of the writers that we have read--the pathos of someone deeply involved in a mighty historical struggle. Bulgakov is no dry theorist or comfortable idealist, but a man fighting for freedom and for God in the midst of one of history’s great upheavals--the slowly fermenting and increasingly radical Russian Revolution that culminated in 1917. With Bulgakov too we find the sympathetic figure of a man with a complex personal history--training for the priesthood, then apostate, atheist, Marxist, then a post-Marxist academic and politician, gradually stumbling back to the Orthodox faith, and finally an ordained theologian in exile.

Unsurprisingly, then, we find a refreshing balance and realism in his work--a true understanding of both the values and victories of modern liberal civilization and also its great dangers and failures, of both the need for wealth and economic progress, and the need for restraint and self-denial.

In his first essay, “The Economic Ideal,” we find echoes of Ruskin, along with many of the ideas that we have been considering throughout this term. Distinguishing between science (a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake) and technique (a pursuit of knowledge in service to some practical end, Bulgakov identifies political economy as primarily a technique. But the question then is to what end is it oriented? To two ends, says Bulgakov--the economic good of wealth-generation, and the social good of wealth-distribution. Political economy has become obsessed with the first good, Bulgakov says, and has sacrificed all other ethical considerations to the priority of wealth creation. Indeed, it has been presupposed that wealth creation is a good, without any serious ethical consideration. Bulgakov attempts to offer such consideration, by discussing the two poles in Western thought on the issue: asceticism and hedonism. Hedonism, he sees, has become the ideal of the modern age--ever-increasing demand for material goods has been seen as as an uncontested good, a process that should continue, until our physical appetites should complete trump the higher impulses of spirit. Asceticism, however, offers nothing but a complete rejection of bodily pleasures and temporal happiness, in favor of an altogether spiritual realm. This is of course thoroughly un-Christian.

In opposition to both, we must find a way to speak of wealth and material life as “not ends in themselves but only means for the service of a higher and absolute end.” This higher and absolute end would seem to be God, though Bulgakov is not yet explicit about this at this quasi-religious phase in his life. In any case, this higher good is found in the moral life of the spirit which physical goods should serve, not rule. In opposition to asceticism, though, Bulgkov understands that a moral life requires freedom, and this includes external freedom. A man that is a slave to hunger and poverty is scarcely capable of realizing his true human calling. Therefore technology, which enables us to make matter our servant to help free man from necessity and privation is, in principle, a good thing. Bulgakov speaks of technology as the conversion of matter into spirit. The expansion of wealth is the means by which humans are freed from a bondage to nature and an ability to flourish spiritually and culturally. And for the increase of wealth, an increase of need, of demand, is needed: “The expansion of neeed is a law not only for material existence but also for the spirit; indeed the development of spirit consists precisely in the expansion of its demands, in the fact that it perceives problems and tasks which it has not perceived before.”

So, Bulgakov gives a stamp of approval to the economic ideal, but only as a means to an end, the end of human flourishing. For this end, we need a careful balance between hedonism and asceticisim--the strengths of hedonism insofar as they drive us to increase material prosperity for those who are slaves to privation; the strengths of asceticism insofar as they help us to resist the domination of our spirits by the seduction of wealth. Above all, we must resist luxury, which we have “once the cult of gratification, aesthetic or non-aesthetic, has become a guiding principle.” Luxury will destroy culture as readily as poverty. Wealth is thus a two-edged sword: “Wealth does no more than build the walls of civilization; within those walls it is equally possible to construct a radiant temple for the spirit and to open a brothel.” Wealth then must be controlled by the moral discipline of virtue, which political economy has too often left outside of its consideration.

Discussion: This all seems fairly obvious and middle-of-the-road--let’s steer clear of asceticism, and steer clear of hedonism as well. What does Bulgakov really offer here for us to take away?
I’d say three things: 1. Reminds us that wealth creation is a good thing, and that capitalism, to some extent, can be good at accomplishing that. It’s easy to lose sight of this when we get riled up in our anti-capitalism. 2. Reminds the free marketeers that wealth creation cannot be an end itself...nor can it be indifferent about ends. It has the clear specific goal of enabling human freedom and flourishing. 3. He drives home the extent to which modern society is hedonistic and based on luxury, something perhaps we already knew, but don’t give enough weight to. If this was true in fin-de-siecle Russia, how much more in the 21st-century US and UK!
What do you take away from this essay?

His second essay, "Heroism and the Spiritual Struggle" is much less explicitly economic. Rather, it is a reflection on the cultural and political ethos of the leftist revolutionary movement in early 20th-century Russia, and thus on the whole cultural and political ethos of late modernity. This, he sees, is fundamentally based on the hubris of the Enlightenment, which made man, and more specifically, rational, “enlightened” man, the arbiters of the world’s fate. In response, he offers an alternative politics based on the Christian virtue of humility. Much of his account seems to be relevant only to the extreme phenomena of early revolutionary Russian political and intellectual life. How much of it applies to us today?

The dangerous optimism that he critiques--of human ability to create a better world, especially through politics, has largely evaporated in the course of the 20th centuries devastating conflicts. In general, our political figures no longer have the mystique that they may once have had. We know that they are either boring bureaucratics or hopelessly unrealistic idealists. If I were to be cynical, I could point out the similarities between Bulgakov’s self-anointed messianic intelligentsia politician that is sure to leave the people disillusioned and our own recent leftist messiah, Obama. But I won’t.

But even if we no longer have the same sort of atheistic revolutionaries that Bulgakov was dealing with, his critique is still important, because neither have we espoused the Christian virtues of humility and the long hard road of faithfulness. The humility of our politics today is the humility of the underachiever--we know that society is screwed up and that we’re all screw-ups, so we won’t expect too much or try too hard. Christian faithfulness and humility seeks great things, but knows that man will not achieve them alone, and so must work hard at small things, trusting God for the rest.

Bulgakov’s portrayal of anti-revolutionary Christian humility and faithfulness offers us, I think, a wonderful conclusion to this course. We have learned much about the evils and problems of modern economics--we know the sins and the heresies, the injustices and oppression. We know also the ideals, what the world ought to look like. But our mindset is all too likely to be that of the over-educated student revolutionary that Bulgakov criticizes--high on ideals, but short on humility, we may want to try and change the world overnight, and do more harm than good in the process. Rather, our task is to follow God’s calling in our own little spheres, working tirelessly and faithfully to change the world with His help, one little piece at a time, and trust Him to take care of the rest.

The Evil Empire

Niall Ferguson's Empire continues to baffle and dismay. It's almost as if he wrote his introduction before he set out to work on his book, and then never went back to revise it. Supposedly, his goal was to vindicate the British Empire against its harsher critics, to show that it was "on balance a good thing."

And yet the tale he has told has been one of almost unremitting greed, oppression, exploitation, deception, and murder. Perhaps "unremitting" is strong...after all, it obviously wasn't Genghis Khan's empire; it obviously exercised restraint and chivalry, but so do most bands of brigands, it turns out. As the story of British expansion in Africa dragged mournfully on, I found myself, at the outbreak of the Boer War, enthusiastically cheering on the Boers, and wishing them success against the evil empire. Of course, I knew it was vain, but I didn't know just how appalling the outcome was to be.

After a costly and difficult defeat of the vastly outnumberd Boer forces, the British occupied their capital of Bloemfontein, only to find that the Boers were not ready to surrender, but would continue fighting on in the countryside. The solution? Burn down all their homes and farms, and herd their wives and children into concentration camps, camps where nearly a third of them would die in the next two years. Meanwhile, the British officers dined and danced in Bloemfontein, waiting for the Boers to give up. Ferguson provides this nauseating vignette:

"Meanwhile, at the Bloemfontein residency, the band played on. Eventually, after several months of the Gay Gordons and Strip the Willow, the ballroom floor began to wear thin. To avoid any mishaps befalling officers' wives, the old floorboards obviously had to be replaced, and so they were. Happily for the accounts of the officers' mess, a use was found for the old ones. They were sold to Boer women to make coffins for their children, at the cost of 1 pound 6 shillings a plank."

By the end of this narrative, I found myself eagerly wishing the British to get their comeuppance in the First World War.

Apparently sensing that his reader may be feeling this way, Ferguson interrupts his narrative to defend the empire shortly before beginning his narration of World War I. The important thing, he insists, is that, for all its faults, the British Empire was considerably more benign than the other empires at this time--the French, Germans, and French were far more brutal in their treatment of their African colonies, and the Russians and Japanese had horrible track records in Asia. Indeed, it was by expending its strength in nobly and self-sacrificially resisting these much more evil empires, rather than by being rebelled against by angry subjects, that the British Empire collapsed. The first claim holds, I think, little water. I should scarcely justify my personal sins by pointing out that at least I am not quite as wicked as my neighbor next door. And I do not think that, as Christian, we can successfully argue (as Ferguson tries to do) that an evil and oppressive institution should be supported and and defended if it serves the important purpose of restraining even more evil and oppressive institutions. This seems to be the Neuhaus defense of the American Empire: Sure we may be wicked and exploitative, but if we weren't monopolizing the exploitation business, other, much more sinister people would be doing it instead. We can thank God in his providence for allowing the lesser rather than the greater evil to hold sway for a time, but we can scarcely join a marching band and start cheering on the lesser evil, or assist in a PR campaign trying to prove that it's not so bad, after all.

As far as the second claim--Britain's noble self-sacrifice in the struggle against the more evil empires--that may be so. Certainly, there was more self-interest than self-sacrifice in Britain's conduct of foreign policy from 1914-1950...the sacrifices were more necessary than voluntary. But perhaps it is so that Britain did, in some measure, atone for her previous imperial sins in these years by the staggering sacrifice she bore in the struggle against a considerably more amoral Germany (twice) and Japan. And for that, whatever our reservations about the justness of the wars, we may offer her some somber appreciation and respect.

The "Deserving Poor"?

In my ongoing research on OT economic laws, I came across a book called Theonomy: An Informed Response in the basement of the New College Library. A blast from the past, if ever there was one. Theonomy was all the rage in my little circles during my first years of theological awareness (2002, perhaps?), though my little circles were rather late to the party, and theonomy was certainly already on its way out. It has since disappeared with scarcely a trace, another victim to the changing tides of theological fads. Its leading adherents have scattered to the four winds, and, except for a few die-hards laboring on in obscurity, have shoved their old theonomic garments into the dark recesses of their theological closets and have emerged well-clad and well-shaven, trying their best to look respectable.

One such former theonomite was the now Right Reverend Ray Sutton, and it was his article in the book, dealing as it did with issues of poverty and economics, that caught my eye. Turns out that it was a response to objections that theonomy didn't have much concern for the poor, indeed, was downright callous about the problems of relieving poverty. I was intrigued. After all, from my study of OT economic law thus far, I would think that if anyone was concerned about the poor, sensitive to their plight,a and aggressive about helping them, it would be those who wanted to return fully to the laws of the Torah. After all, there has been scarcely any law code in history which did so much to try to help the economically disadvantaged. How could theonomists be accused of such things? Surely Sutton would vindicate their cause!

Well, not really. In fact, he quoted George Grant more than he quoted the Torah, and although he repeatedly insisted that theonomists cared very much about helping poor, he repeatedly spoke of the need to give aid only with conditions attached, and to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Only the deserving, it seems, should be the objects of our charity. Now where do you get this in the Bible? I agree with Sutton that modern state welfare systems are broken; that they make problems worse instead of better, because they give handouts instead of real help. Charity does need to involve responsibility and accountability. But Sutton's way of talking about this is certainly not Scripture's. Where do we see the language of "charity with conditions" or of "the deserving poor" in Christ's ministry? The whole point of Christ, as I understood, was the unconditionality of his love and the undeservingness of our condition. But, admittedly, theonomists want to follow the OT law, not gospel law. But where does the OT law share our conservative obsession with helping only the deserving poor, and doing so only with conditions attached to make sure they don't abuse our help? Does the Sabbath legislation say, "And in the seventh year, you shall forgive all debts, but only upon the condition that the forgiven debtor proves himself responsible and godly in his use of money. If you think he might use the debt-forgiveness as an excuse to squander and gamble, then by all means, refuse to forgive it"?? Or does the gleaning provision say, "Leave the corners of your field for the poor, but observe the poor as they come along and only allow the deserving and godly poor to come glean"??

The most striking feature of Biblical principles of charity is how indiscriminate, unconditional, and seemingly careless they are. How could anyone possibly spin them into a confirmation of conservative parsimony?

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immoral, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

O Almighty God, Who sent Thy Son into our darkness that we might come into Thy light, give us the eyes of faith, that we might see clearly in the twilight of this present age, until the Sun of Righteousness returns in glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and with the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

A Christmas Lament

You can already see this in the upper right of this blog, but in case you hadn't, I want to draw your attention to the excellent little piece on First Things, "The End of Advent."

Joseph Bottum eloquently summarizes the disgust that many of us feel at the absurd bloatation and consumerization of the Christmas season, which has now devoured all of Advent and a couple weeks of pre-Advent, and in the process, has devoured much of the joy and magic which once belonged to Christmas.

I confess that my angst over this phenomenon has not been so strong this year, as I found myself yearning for Christmas as soon as November doubt a combination of homesickness and of the earlier shortening of the days. Plus, Edinburgh has the most amazing Christmas festival, which started on Thursday, and which my wife and I visited just today...a truly magical (if overcrowded) German Christmas Market. So this year, it was perhaps not the expansion of the length of Christmas that has bothered me so much, as the consumerization of it--turning it into the greatest engine the world has yet seen for tricking people into spending way more money than they have any business spending on all manner of stuff that no one ever needs.

In any case, Bottum has the right idea for how to combat this capitalist cultural malaise--liturgy. If we can get back to a true observance of Advent-not-Christmas in our churches up until Christmas Eve, then we in the Christian community can make gradual headway toward restoring Christmas to its rightful place

Livingstone's Ambiguous Legacy

I posted earlier about the ambiguous history of evangelicalism's relationship with imperialism, as sketched in Niall Ferguson's Empire. I'm afraid that the story hasn't gotten much better, and that an old hero of mine, David Livingstone, has been a casualty of the new revelations. Not of course that Livingstone turned out to be wicked or anything like that...just ambiguous. Turns out that he wasn't really a very successful missionary; in fact, it was the stubborn failure of Africans to convert that led him to turn explorer. This decision signaled a a crucial shift in philosophy that was to have great influence on British colonial policy--no converts without commerce. Livingstone decided that the spiritual and moral improvement of Africa could not be accomplished without a prior economic improvement that was to take the form of British colonization and commerce into the heart of Africa. Thus did evangelicalism hitch its wagon to the horse of capitalism long before such atrocities as Jon Schneider reared their ugly heads. Now, how much of this was a bad thing is hard to say. Undoubtedly, the influx of British commerce did much to raise African peoples out of their darkness; but we all know about its terrible exploitation as well.

While Livingstone failed at this mission in his life, his follower, Henry Morton Stanley, did not. But, though also an evangelical Christian, Stanley's methods were not Livingstone's. Stanley preferred guns and gunboats to Bibles and medicine. Among other evils, he was infamous for helping the king of Belgium establish the brutal slave-colony of Belgian Congo. Defending himself against charges of violence and brutality, he said, "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision."

Learning all this dispelled the halo of idealized sanctity that earlier influences in my life had bestowed on Livingstone and Stanley, and it also offered more evidence in refutation of James Jordan's careless charge against the Anglo-Catholic movement--that it helped fuel the imperial exploitation of the Victorian age. (Jordan argues that this was a natural consequence of Anglo-Catholicism's use of images in worship!) Not only does this charge fail because the imperial exploitation had been going on for long before the Oxford Movement, and was, in fact, ameliorated in many ways during the latter half of the century, but it fails more decisively because, if anyone was complicit in the evils of imperialism, it was the evangelicals, far more than the Anglo-Catholics.

Of course, it's best not to indulge in historical finger-pointing among Christian groups. We are all guilty in our own ways. But, I did think it worth offering yet another rebuttal against Jordan's odd accusations.

Death Penalty--Old and New

In Ancient Israel's Criminal Law, Anthony Phillips argues that the death penalty in ancient Israel functioned neither for the purpose of strict retribution nor for deterrence, the standard grounds upon which it has been defended by Christians and still is in many circles. Rather, when a capital crime was committed, the covenant with Yahweh had been radically severed, and the whole community was liable to suffer God's wrath. The criminal therefore had to be executed to appease God's wrath and restore the covenant relationship. In other words, though Phillips does not quite use this terminology, the death penalty had almost a more cultic than judicial function; it was conceptually quite close to the sacrificial system.

If this is true, it offers a rather straightforward route for denying the death penalty's continuing relevance in the New Covenant. Christ has satisfied Yahweh's wrath once and for all and guarantees that the covenant will never be broken, that God's mercy will never depart from his people. No crime, then, can damage that relationship so as to invite God's wrath requiring the death of the offender. This argument does not, of course, demonstrate that the death penalty is necessarily wrong and wicked, only that there is no Christian basis for supporting it.

A Very Contrary Berry

A sparkling gem of a quotation mined from Wendell Berry's fantastic The Unsettling America, which offers innumerable other nuggets of brilliance to be mined (or perhaps, to choose a metaphor more to his liking, kernels of brilliance to be gleaned):

"The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists--people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character, workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility....

"The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals--or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at a cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.

"The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people's. He wishes he had been born sooner, or later. he does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties."

My friend and erstwhile pastor Toby Sumpter just posted some excellent thoughts about why Republicans aren't prolife--"Muslim school kids aren’t as cute as American babies," why Obama's not much to worry about--"I don’t trust Obama, but I didn’t trust any of his predecessors either," and not much to get excited about either--"Obama was elected primarily for his smooth words and good looks," and why Sarah Palin might actually be better than the alternatives--"It would be a human in office and not a machine. It would be a person for a change."

I took issue with him on the last point, but it's definitely worth checking out.

Evangelical Imperialism

In listening to Niall Ferguson’s Empire (on audiobook) lately, I’ve encountered some rather depressing anecdotes about evangelicalism, which show that its recent complicity with injustice is nothing new.

Consider this: We all know about John Newton, right? Author of “Amazing Grace” and other hymns, great evangelical preacher, former slave trader who converted and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement. Great story, right? Well, except for one little detail. Newton’s evangelical conversion took place before he became the captain of a slave ship. It was only after several years as a slave trader that it occurred to him that his Christian duties might conflict with his occupation. Modern evangelical blindness on the Third World Debt problem seems to have plenty of historical precedent.

In another depressing episode, Ferguson tells the story of the great Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857, which was largely a response to the missionary movement; the Indians felt that their religion was threatened, and so they rose in rebellion against the British. Now, I have no problem with the missionaries making the Indians feel threatened about their religion, but it is the response to the rebellion that is deeply troubling. The missionary societies and the evangelicals were the loudest voices calling for vengeance without mercy against the rebels. “In churches all over the country, the theme of the Sunday sermon shifted from redemption to revenge,” Ferguson says. He offers an extended quote from a sermon at the time by none other than Charles Spurgon, which he characterizes as a “call to holy war: “The Hindus’ worship necessitates all that is evil, and morality must put it down. The sword must be taken out of its sheath, to cut off our fellow subjects by their thousands.”

It was all chillingly reminiscent of the evangelical response to 9/11, in which the part of the US population that most fervently claimed to be washed by the blood of Jesus became the most bloodthirsty part.

The Property Paradox

It has become fashionable recently in Christian capitalist circles to define capitalism along the lines of “an economic system based on respect for private property.” If this is what capitalism is, then of course we should defend it, right?

The chief objection to this is that it’s completely arbitrary and unhistorical. To define capitalism this way is to define it strictly in opposition to socialism and communism. But the problem is that socialism and communism arose as reactions to capitalism, not vice versa. Capitalism pre-dated the major challenges to the notion of private property, so how could capitalism’s essence be “a respect for private property” given that it arose in a setting where private property was taken for granted? Obviously the essence of capitalism is not a respect for private property, even if that may be a part of it.

But it turns out, that’s not even a part of it. Capitalism is the rejection, the destruction, of private property, at least for most of the population. So Hannah Arendt fascinatingly points out in The Human Condition. See, Arendt points out that property and wealth are simply not the same thing, as we tend to take for granted that we are. We’re obsessed with private wealth in the modern world, but private property is increasingly non-existent. “It is easy to forget,” she says, “that wealth and property, far from being the same, are of an entirely different nature. The present emergence everywhere of actually or potentially very wealthy societies which at the same time are essentially propertyless, because the wealth of any signle individual consists of his share in the annual income of society as a whole, clearly shows how little these two thigns are connected.”

Property, you see, is not simply any worldly good of value, but is one’s personal share of the productive capacity of the world, it is, in its most basic for, land, and historically speaking, was fairly fixed and inalienable. One was born into and died on one’s property; one did not constantly exchange it for other pieces of property. Wealth is something quite different; wealth is transient, consumable, and in itself unproductive. To have property was the basis for freedom, to lack it was to be a slave, even if one had a fair bit of wealth, as many slaves did.

Capitalism, as a simple historical fact, Arendt observes, has never been particularly interested in the value of private property, but in fact originated in the widespread expropriation of it, and is much more interested in the amassing of private wealth: “The enormous and still proceeding accumulation of wealth in modern society, which was started by expropriation--the expropriation of the peasant classes which in turn was the almost accidental consequence of the expropriation of Church and monastic property after the Reformation--has never shown much consideration for private property but has sacrificed it whenever it came into conflict with the accumulation of wealth.” Moreover, the central value of private property--its permanence--which made it the basis of freedom and security, is undermined within modern capitalism, which has seen “the progressing transformation of immobile into mobile property until eventually the distinction between property and wealth, between the fungibiles and the consumptibiles of Roman law, loses all significance because every tangible, “fungible” thing has become an object of “consumption”; it lost its private use value which was determined by its location and acquired an exclusively social value determined through its ever-changing exchangeability whose fluctuation could itself be fixed only temporarily by relating it to the common denominator of money.”

This account resonates with Hilaire Belloc’s thesis in The Servile State, which is that capitalism arose via the expropriation of the widely-distributed private property from small landholders into the hands of large landowners. By the beginning of the industrial revolution, there was already a small minority property-owning class and a large majority property-less class. Naturally, then, the course that industrial capitalism took was one in which industry was not cooperative, but was owned by a small capitalist class, which oversaw and increasingly exploited a large working class. (Arendt points out that the whole existence of the “working class” is a modern invention, and was unknown in antiquity and the Middle Ages, where the free man was not a mere laborer, but a property-owner who lived off the produce of his own capital.)

All this of course sheds tremendous light on the meaning of the Old Testament economic laws, which are usually thoroughly misunderstood when we try to read into them modern capitalist/socialist dichotomies of property ownership. On the one hand, capitalist Christians, convinced that what capitalism stands for is “private property,” look at the Torah and assume that the whole point of the laws is to insist upon private ownership of property, but then they don’t know what to do with all the redistribution, which seems kinda socialist. Liberals see all the redistribution, and assume that there’s a more communal understanding of property, but then they don’t know what to do with the emphasis that each family receives and holds his patrimony.

In light of Arendt and Belloc’s analysis, though, it becomes crystal clear. The Torah t is deeply concerned with protecting private property, but not private wealth per se. It understands that private property is necessary for freedom, but precisely for that reason, it resists the private right to the continual acquisition of property (which is what capitalism means by private property rights). Private property is so important that it must be safeguarded by redistribution; if a family is deprived of their property, their fixed piece of land, given by God for them to use for their own and the community’s benefit, then that property must be restored to them via the regular resetting processes of the sabbath year and Jubilee. This puts a tight lid on the process of wealth accumulation that tends to devour the stability of property, and the process of expropriation of property by the strong from the weak. In other words, private property is a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause of economic freedom and justice; careful regulation of the use and acquisition of that property is also necessary, lest one person’s property become a means of destroying another’s.

But Thanks Be to God

Today I passed David Hume's grave in the old Edinburgh Graveyard. It was adorned with a dramatic memorial, which had, prominently inscribed upon it, the words "But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." This was initially puzzling, as Hume didn't really believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or in any such victory.

But then it occurred to me that Hume himself had not inscribed this, but the townspeople, after his death. Perhaps this exclamation was their way of expressing their sentiments at the termination of Professor Hume's life.

A Couple Thoughts on Yoder

Here's some informal thoughts on Yoder's The Christian Witness to the State that I typed up for our class discussion.

I’ve always been a fan of Yoder, but I was particularly impressed and surprised by this book, which defied the typical portrayal of Yoder, Hauerwas, et. al. as being sectarian, isolated, disengaged, unable to engage the state constructively at all, etc. In this book, Yoder argues that, while the consistent Christian will not be able to participate in many of the state’s activities, and must always protest against the state’s violence as wrong, this does not mean that the Christian cannot offer constructive advice to the state about how to be, if not more virtuous, at least less vicious.

At first glance, Yoder seems to be inappropriately compromising the unalterable principles of Christian ethics. If Christian ethics really says, “Do not kill” then shouldn’t we maintain that staunchly and absolutely, and never dilute it to “Ok, well, don’t kill in certain particularly egregious ways and circumstances”? And yet, upon further consideration, we have to do this sort of thing all the time, unless we give up entirely the idea of giving ethical counsel to unbelievers. Indeed, some Christians tend to go to this extreme: true virtue is possible only in Christ, therefore all we should do is convert unbelievers; no point in trying to get them to do anything good otherwise. Perhaps if the only concern were their own souls, this would be a valid point--if it is true that good ethics apart from Christ will not save them, then let’s not waste time on works-salvation. But it’s not. Their actions affect others, and thus it is important that we exhort them to do actions that are less evil, less harmful--if not for their own justification before God, then at least for the aid of those who might otherwise suffer from their actions.

So, I think Yoder is absolutely justified in saying, “Even if we believe that all war is wrong; we can nevertheless appeal to the State to engage in just war, war that may well do more good than harm.”

But I have a couple questions about Yoder’s approach. Is it coherent to claim that a certain kind of action is necessary and yet sinful? I have serious trouble getting my head around this idea. Yoder claims at several points that the function of the civil magistrate, although it is ultimately wrong for a Christian, is nonetheless necessary in our fallen world to restrain evil. I don’t see how we can maintain that certain actions need to be done by someone in society and yet still condemn those actions as unethical...this kind of approach can lead to a dangerous kind of relativism of the sort that justifies torture, etc., the justificaiton that says that even if it’s evil, it’s necessary and so it must be done-- “well, someone’s gotta get their hands dirty.” Or is Yoder saying it’s not unethical, so long as it’s done by unbelievers? It would be wrong for Christians to do, but is right for unbelievers? If so, this kind of claim creates even more problems.

Second, I have some concerns about how Yoder intends the idea of “middle axioms.” On the one hand, Christians are supposed to appeal to non-Christians in terms of ideas and principles that will make sense to the latter, yet on the other hand, they are not supposed to relinquish their core Christian commitments and pretend to a secular neutrality. Yoder seems to try to emphasize both of these. But I’m a little unsure about where he comes down. Are Christians supposed to check their Christian beliefs in at the door in order to appeal to politicians in terms of general ethical principles, or do we appeal to them always as Christians, reminding them that our concern over the particular ethical issue under debate is just the tip of the iceberg?

Finally, is the state, the civil authority, always and unchangeably characterized as bearer of the sword. The striking thing about the Old Testament prophets’s vision of the redeemed world is that, while they insist that there will be no more war, and swords will be beaten into ploughshares, yet the imagery that characterizes this New Creation is thoroughly political. Must all political rule pass away, or can we imagine a transfiguration of politics so that we still have princes and magistrates, but ones who order society without violence? Maybe not, but it’s at least worth a thought experiment.

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