It occurs to me that my recent alarmist posts about national and global bankruptcy might give the wrong impression, for example, the impression that I am dead-set against Obama's deficit spending and bailout policies.
A very well-researched reader commented on my recent post to point out that, in percentage terms, our deficit was not yet unprecedented, and suggested that my concern was only warranted if I was against the idea of deficit spending, period. Many conservatives would be, but I am not necessarily, at least from a pragmatic standpoint. But before going into that, a brief remark to my well-researched reader. He raises an important point about the need to keep these numbers in perspective, and I am aware that our deficit spending in WWII was worse. The reason I see such cause for alarm is
1) That was a war, the largest war in history. Deficits were understandable, and ought to end as soon as the war did.. This isn't a war, and it's far from clear when the deficits might end.
2) The total national debt in WWII was much lower, so huge deficits were not quite as much cause for concern. Having several big leaks in an empty boat is not nearly as scary as having them in a boat already half-underwater.
3) As I posted last week, the official national debt is only a fraction of the real debt, which is pretty close to insurmountable. As a cynic who believes the American Empire is fast dooming itself to the kind of bankruptcy that all other empires have suffered, I tend to think that Obama's deficit spending is helping us drive off the brink.
All that said, though, I don't necessarily think Obama's doing the wrong thing, at least from a pragmatic standpoint. My general philosophy is that we're driving off the brink almost no matter what, not that Obama in particular is driving us off the brink. And so I actually want to speak up, maybe not quite in defense of his recent policies, but at least against loud detractors on the right. Many of these detractors, including most everyone I know, have a knee-jerk reaction against "more big government," "more wasteful bailouts," "fearmongering as an excuse for more government power," and so on. This, to me, is rather shortsighted and ignorant. To me, the claim that government intervention is always worse than a private-sector solution is only tenable on the basis of a priori philosophical/ethical commitments.
As a consistent Christian, I am very suspicious about government action on any front, but I am equally suspicious of the free market's actions. And so it is hard for me to see how a government solution is automatically stupid, incompetent, and certain to compound the problem. So what if the government is bureaucratic, inefficient, and wasteful? I'm sure it is. I'm sure it's a very clumsy tool for resolving economic problems. And so normally, the private sector will offer better solutions. If you've got a car in a ditch, then you want to call the tow truck that can get there quickly and get it out cheaply and safely. But if you've got an eighteen-wheeler in a deep ravine, you're going to need to call in the only tow truck that's got a massive crane, even if it's slow and expensive. If a problem is big enough, the government may simply be the only entity capable of resolving it, however inefficient the solution may be.
And so it is in this case. Conservatives who decry the bailouts also tend to downplay the problem. For example, Dr. Leithart said in a recent blog post,
"The Commerce Department tells us this morning that the GDP grew during 2008, though at the slowest pace since 2001. It shrank faster during the fourth quarter than at any time since 1982.
Funny, nobody in Congress is raising the spectre of 1982 to describe our economic woes. It’s always 1929. They must have long memories.
Or maybe they find some value in blowing up the scale of the crisis? Maybe they’ve found some uses for panic."
I don't mean to pick on Dr. Leithart particularly, for this is a sentiment you find everywhere in conservative circles. But this simply shows ignorance about what's going on. If anything, those in the government have been trying to downplay the crisis, because they know that if they can boost sentiment enough, the crisis will start improving. Those in the Bush administration spent all last year denying what all good economists knew--that we were royally screwed. And the Commerce Department's report that Dr. Leithart alluded to was its earlier report that GDP had shrunk by 3.8%, which anyone who'd been watching them revise numbers for the past year could've known was a sham. Sure enough, they just revised it to a 6.2% contraction. And of course that hasn't passed the 1982 numbers yet--we're still in the early stages of this collapse. Some numbers don't lie, such as the astounding 53% fall of the stock market, which really is unparalleled since 1929, and the staggering hundreds of billions of continuing losses at financial institutions that have been repeatedly rescued.
I agree with the general philosophy of doubt toward government bailouts and stimulus packages, but the fact is, we are in much deeper than it seems many people yet realize. So, while I might critique details of the policies with which our leaders are trying to save the situation, and I'm skeptical of the results of any plan, I'm willing to grant that there really is nothing else to do but attempt massive governmnent rescues. To continue to mock the whole idea of such rescues, as stupid, useless, or alarmist is simply to continue ignoring the kind of problem we have on our hands.
A recent commenter said that my review of Kirk was harsh, if true. I'm afraid this one is much harsher (and also much longer). I might soften it a bit if I were to rewrite it, but I stand by most of it. I apologize for the length, but I had a lot to get off my chest.
So far as I can tell, Thomas Sowell had three purposes in this book: 1) to show what dangerous ideologues liberals are and what terrible things they do; 2) to show the error in their foundational assumptions, versus those of conservatism; and 3) to demonstrate the connection between these two—that is, to show that their dishonest modus operandi is a logical result of their worldview. Unfortunately, the only one of these purposes that he comes close to succeeding at is the first, and this is the least useful, because the errors he points to are ones that most thinking people could discern without his help. To a blind and ignorant devotee of liberalism, this book might indeed serve as helpful illumination; to anyone else, it seems more likely to hurt the cause of conservatism than that of liberalism. A strong statement, I admit, and I’ll attempt to defend it thoroughly.
First, though, I want to briefly challenge a fundamental premise of the book. The very first lines of the book are “The views of political commentators or writers on social issues often range across a wide spectrum, but their positions on these issues are seldom random. If they are liberal, conservative, or radical on foreign policy, they are likely to be the same on crime, abortion, or education. There is usually a coherence to their beliefs, based on a particular set of underlying assumptions about the world—a certain vision of reality.” To say that those who are conservative on foreign policy will also be conservative on abortion is, unfortunately, not a very meaningful statement, since the word “conservative,” far from having a clear a priori meaning, has simply been designated as the term for a certain set of viewpoints that otherwise may have little in common. It is hard to see how a hawkish foreign policy stance really has much in common with an anti-abortion stance, save that both have traditionally been held by many conservatives, and thus have been designated as “conservative” positions. Seen this way, Sowell’s statement seems little more than a tautology—“so-called ‘conservatives’ are those who hold so-called ‘conservative views’.” Unfortunately, unlike most tautologies, it doesn’t even seem to have the virtue of being true. Many people, and many Christians, as Jim Wallis is quick to point out, might be “conservative” on abortion but “liberal” on foreign policy, “conservative” on education, but “liberal” on crime. To claim otherwise is simply to insist that the lines in the sand drawn by the current coalitions must be normative.
But, moving on, here’s the first problem with Sowell’s argument. While it is manifestly clear that liberalism is an ideology that systematically distorts evidence, demonizes its opponents, and is unable to be self-critical, and while Sowell documents this thoroughly, this point is only rhetorically effective if it contains a distinctive critique of liberalism as such. If liberalism is simply doing what all ideologies do, including conservatism, then what’s the big deal? Ideologies are dogmatic, blinding and self-justifying—we all knew that…now so what? If conservatism is guilty of the same charge, then Sowell’s first purpose, while valid, becomes singularly uninteresting, and his third point is unsustainable (because, if the two opposite viewpoints manifest the same sorts of blindness and foolishness—if the two trees are bearing similar fruits—then it’s impossible to demonstrate to blame the bad fruit on one bad tree). Here’s a few of the fruits they share:
--Sowell says that liberalism demonizes its opponents; it does not simply question their intelligence, but accuses them of being morally evil. He quotes the following statement: “Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, foolish, a dope. Disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, a sell-out, insensitive, possibly evil.” This seems like an apt summary, until you realize that it is unsustainable on every level. First of all, is it really that much better to write off your opponent as brainless than to write him off as selfish? Either way, you’re stereotyping him so that you can despise and ignore him. Second, it is not true that liberals don’t accuse conservatives of being stupid; indeed, it seems that this charge is at least as frequent as the charge of moral failure. Third, and most significantly, it is manifestly untrue that conservatives do not make moral accusations against their liberal opponents. Indeed, that’s exactly what Sowell is doing in this book, in many places—accusing liberals of all kinds of moral failings, preeminently self-righteousness. Moreover, in the recent election cycle, it was the conservatives, far more than the liberals, who stooped to demonizing the opposition—the range of slurs and sinister speculations thrown at Obama left no stone of invective unturned. For a while, it seemed that conservative Christians believed that Satan himself had taken on human flesh in order to run against McCain.
--Sowell says that liberalism distorts evidence and only shows off statistics that it likes. Doesn’t every ideology do this? How do I know that Sowell isn’t doing that to me? Sowell preaches “scientific objectivity,” which is of course a myth—every selection of evidence out of the general mass of possible statistics is a biased selection and a biased interpretation. More importantly, however guilty Sowell himself may or may not be, the conservative ideology is clearly thoroughly immersed in this kind of spin. The “evidence” that conservatives alleged in support of the claim that we were threatened by terrorists was highly selective (and often fabricated), as was the “evidence” of the threat in Iraq, and of our progress in Iraq. More recently, as the financial crisis has blown up, conservatives have scrambled to produce evidence first that everything in the economy was in fact fine, and then, when that wouldn’t hold up, that everything that was wrong with the economy was caused by liberal policies, not corporate greed. Books as big as Sowell’s could be written debunking any of these recent conservative deceptions.
--Sowell says that liberalism modifies vocabulary to suit its purposes. Who doesn’t? I ask! Anyone in the midst of a debate seeks to define the terms their way, to characterize their position in lofty-sounding terms and their opponent’s in foolish-sounding terms. Free-marketers do this all the time when trying to gloss over the greed and injustice that flourish in capitalism, and the Bush administration and its allies have accomplished dizzying feats of word-spinning in its “War on Terror.”
--Sowell says that liberalism tries to build up hysteria over impending crises that must be acted upon immediately to save us all from doom. Again, I have merely to point out that the Bush administration bested all previous benchmarks and accomplished a fear-mongering feat for the ages with the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror.
--Sowell complains that liberals dismiss their opponents’ approach as “simplistic” and warn that the situation is much more “complex”—conservatives do this all the time…indeed, as far as I could tell, that was a major tactic of Sowell’s throughout this book!
--Sowell complains that liberals “tend to see evils more localized in particular ‘oppressors’ of one sort or another, as expressed in ‘white racism,’ ‘male domination,’ or ‘capitalist exploitation’ for example.” If this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is. You can’t listen to conservative talk radio for more than five minutes without noticing how “the government” is automatically and always evil, while other institutions, especially corporations, are usually quite innocent.
--and of course, one could make this same point over and over with most of his categorical charges against liberalism.
Now of course it is possible that conservatism has changed radically since Sowell wrote 15 years ago, and has begun to ape the follies of liberalism much more thoroughly; indeed, I expect it has. But in any case, it is clear that there is nothing distinctively flawed about liberalism’s tactics, no fault that cannot easily surface in any other ideology.
The second problem, which goes much deeper, appears when Sowell comes to explaining the differences between the two worldviews, and attempting to justify his against that of the “anointed.” The problem is that both worldviews are quite self-evidently heretical and unsuitable for Christians. If the purpose of Sowell’s book was to convince Christians that they had to opt out of the left-right spectrum entirely, he couldn’t have done a much better job. First of all, we should note the general worldview of Sowell’s vision, which he states quite clearly. It is a “tragic vision,” a vision of “inescapable fate inherent in the nature of things, rather than unhappiness due simply to villainy or callousness.” Ours is to be a vision of hope and freedom, not of tragedy and fatalism. While certain features of Sowell’s vision are an apt portrait of the world post-fall, they certainly have limited value post-redemption. Man is still fallen, yes, but in the gospel he is liberated and given new dignity and new potential; death and sin no longer have the last word. Christ has come and shown that the impossible is possible, that hope triumphs over the inevitable. Let’s assess Sowell’s comparisons:
Human capability: “severely and inherently limited for all” (Tragic Vision); “vast for the anointed” (Anointed Vision). The Gospel counters, “severely and inherently limited for all who are under sin and death, but vast for those who are anointed by the Spirit.”
Social possibilities: “trade-offs that leave many ‘unmet needs’” (TV); “solutions to problems” (AV). The Gospel counters, “An unstoppable solution that meets every need in Christ and his Church.”
Social causation: “systemic” (TV); “deliberate” (AV). The Gospel says, “deliberate for all those who do not sacrifice their freedom in Christ to a system” (but this needs to be developed more, depending on context, and the point will be, I think, that the answer is some measure of both).
Freedom: “exemption from the power of others” (TV); “ability to achieve goals” (AV). The Gospel counters, “Unequivocally both. Liberation from the power of sin and empowerment to live for Christ.”
Justice: “process rules with just characteristics” (TV); “just (equalized) chances or results.” The Gospel counters, “Again, both, but with strong suspicion about the ability of any purely human process to be just.”
Knowledge: “consists largely of the unarticulated experiences of the many” (TV); “consists largely of the articulated intelligence of the more educated few” (AV). The Gospel counters, “consists of the revelation of God to his people.”
Specialization: “highly desirable” (TV); “highly questionable” (AV). The Gospel answers (inasmuch as this question is relevant), “Depends on context. Sometimes helpful, sometimes blinding.”
Motivations: “incentives” (TV); “dispositions” (AV). The Gospel answers, “The disposition of the heart to do God’s will, in which the only incentive is his pleasure and glory.”
Process costs: “crucial” (TV); “incidental” (AV). The Gospel says, “Depends on context, but incidental when it comes to the accomplishment of the Gospel’s central mission, for which no cost is too high, even the blood of the Son of God, and of myriads of martyrs.”
Decision-making mechanism preferred: “systemic processes that convey the experiences and revealed preferences of the many” (TV); “deliberate plans that utilize the special talents and more advanced views of the few” (AV). The Gospel counters: “deliberate plans, authorized by God, executed with the aid of the gifts of the many, under the leadership of those called to lead.”
Kinds of decisions preferred: “incremental” (TV); “categorical” (AV). The Gospel answers, “Depends on context, but categorical when it comes to the accomplishment of the Gospel’s central mission.”
You might say that I am confusing categories here—Sowell is applying these concepts economically and politically, and the Gospel principles are applied to totally different sorts of issues. But the Gospel principles unquestionably do apply economically and politically, and moreover, the point is that the Gospel supplies us with a fundamental vision of how God’s world works and how we are to work in it, a vision that will guide us in whatever problems we approach.
What becomes clear from this comparison is not merely that the tragic vision is far from the Gospel vision, or that the Gospel vision somehow splits the difference. Rather, shockingly enough, it appears as though the Vision of the Anointed ends up coming a good deal closer to the Gospel vision than does the tragic vision; unfortunately, though, because it leaves God out of the picture, it misses the whole point and falls short of any chance of success.
Let me conclude by offering a few quotes showing just how far Sowell’s tragic vision is from anything recognizably Christian.
“ ‘We cannot change the Nature of things and of men,’ Edmund Burke said, ‘but must act upon them the best we can.’ ”
“Holmes spoke disdainfully of ‘the vain attempt to love one’s neighbor as one’s self,’ of ‘our legislation to make other people better,’ and of attempts to ‘legislate bliss.’ ”
“Those with the tragic vision have emphasized process characteristics, often treating the dispositions, intentions, or goals of those operating within these processes as incidental and irrelevant.”
The tragic vision, it seems, wants to write off as impossible or unrealistic things that the Gospel considers not merely possible, but mandatory. The problem with the vision of the anointed is not so much what they want to accomplish, but that they think that they, not the Gospel, are to accomplish these things. But in saying that the Gospel is to accomplish these things, we should not mean that they are to accomplished on some spiritual, not earthly plane; nor that we need to “let go and let God” accomplish them (to say this might square nicely with parts of the tragic vision). No, God has commissioned his Church to make his Kingdom a way of life here on earth, and has promised that it can and will succeed, that men will be changed from a fleshly nature to a spiritual nature, that we can love our neighbors as ourselves and apply the law of the Gospel to improve mankind.
Does Sowell’s book, we must ask, really have anything to offer to a Christian or a Christian political vision?
So my earlier post about worldwide bankruptcy was apparently alarmist. Obama has just assured us that he plans to cut the budget deficit to only $550 billion by the end of his first term. Well, that's just lovely news.
Never mind that that number is still higher than any budget deficit until this year's, which should run around $2 trillion. Assuming an arithmetic rate of reduction, that means that Obama will only leave us about $4.5 trillion deeper in debt than when he started, by the end of his first term. Even Bush was only able to do about $1.1 trillion of damage in his first term.
We were required to read this book for Wilson's Politics class, and here is the review I offered.
The endeavour of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is to demonstrate that a stable tradition of principles called “conservatism” have maintained themselves among a long lineage of great thinkers for the past 175 years. Unfortunately, the only really stable fixture that he demonstrates in this tradition is the singular eloquence of all its adherents, a trait which he also manifests impressively, and which reveals just how deplorable the state of civil discourse is in society today.
Other than this, though, conservatism does not seem so much to be an intellectual tradition as a vague disposition. Among the thinkers surveyed in this book, some stand for Christian orthodoxy, others for a vague deism, others for outright atheism; some stand for big central government, others for small local government; some stand for urban and industrial interests, others (the majority) for agrarian interests; some stand for mercantilism, others for capitalism; some stand for imperialism, others for peace; some stand upon principle, others on the needs of expediency; some are optimists, others pessimists or even fatalists.
This book seems at times to effectively demonstrate the jibe that conservatism is merely the shadow that follows liberalism, that conservatives are as content as liberals to drive off a cliff, as long as we take the time to do it decently and in order. The one constant among all these “conservatives” that Kirk surveys is resistance to the spirit of the times, but what they cling to instead is a constantly shifting target; the central pillars of conservatism in 1880 would’ve appeared as the far frontiers of liberalism in 1830, and these pillars were out of sight in the rear-view mirror by 1930.
Inasmuch as we can identify a fixed ideology of conservatism in Kirk’s work, it must be named for what it is: a false religion. Conservatism has generally stood for a strong sense of morality, bolstered by a faith in a vague Providence, a submission to the order of the world which this Providence has decreed, a general cynicism about the sordidness of the world and the likelihood of its improvement, and a praise of the educated individual who has cultivated such a morality and submission to the realities of the world. As such, conservatism, especially in the form of some of its most chief representatives, like Burke, bears far more resemblance to ancient pagan Stoicism than it does to Christian orthodoxy. Inasmuch as it bears the distinctive stamp of Christian teaching, it is generally from the heresy of “Christianity,” in which general principles of the faith are abstracted from their true home in the Church, and applied selectively to politics in order to help bolster the status quo of society.
This is not to say that conservatism is antithetical to the Christian faith—certainly not. But where it is right, it is usually only ever half right. The gospel faith asserts the equal importance of adherence to the ancient landmarks and of bold creative transformation—of loyalty to the past and to the future. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith simultaneously upholds the importance of hierarchy and structure, as well as radical equality and concern for the lowest strata of society. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith affirms the need for property and also the need for all things to be held in common. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith demands loyalty both to local traditions and to worldwide agendas. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. The gospel faith preaches both the radical depravity of man and also his stunning capacity for improvement and glorification. Conservatism embraces the one half and shuns the other. By all means, let us plunder their camp of its riches, but let us not ourselves be trapped in their midst, on one side of a man-made chasm.
In any case, the most striking feature of the portrait of conservatism in Kirk’s book is the startling unrecognizability of today’s so-called conservatism, which seems to have quite apostatized from most early incarnations of the conservative mind. The two most prominent features of conservatism today—an almost blind faith in free-market capitalism and a hawkish stance in favor of empire, militarism, and “national security” are not only absent from Kirk’s portraits, but in general, contradict them. The issue of foreign policy plays a rather small role in Kirk’s survey, and indeed, some of the great conservatives were imperialists, such as Disraeli, but certainly on the issue of economics, the contrast is almost laughable. Most of Kirk’s conservatives discerned that the advocates of the free powers of the market, of the unrestrained pursuit of profit and prosperity by each individual, were among the host of the enemy, as the offspring of utilitarianism and the bedfellows of the progressives, with their materialistic dehumanization of society. Now the champions of “conservatism” clamor to have the Prometheus of the market unbound, so that he may continue to spread light and warmth to mankind, and that the titans of industry may pursue their sacred quest for wealth unshackled.
The conservative mind is certainly a chameleon, whatever else it may be.
...We're just hoping we can close our eyes and ignore it till it goes away.
A couple of shocking articles in the past couple days reveal the extent of the crisis.
For years, America's financial condition has been deteriorating far more rapidly than the official numbers would suggest, as bad as those official numbers are. See, the problem is that the US government does not report its assets and liabilities the way that every other entity in the US is required to. under normal accounting rules, we are now $60 trillion in the hole, as you can read here.
Here's an excerpt:
" 'In the seven years of GAAP reporting, we have seen an annual average deficit in excess of $4 trillion, which could not be possibly covered by any form of taxation,' Williams argued.
'Shy of the government severely slashing social welfare programs, federal deficits of this magnitude are beyond any hope of containment, government or otherwise,' he said.
'Put simply, there is no way the government can possibly pay for the level of social welfare benefits the federal government has promised unless the government simply prints cash and debases the currency, which the government will increasingly be doing this year.' "
In short, we're already bankrupt. Sorry, Obama, a stimulus package ain't gonna cut it.
As if that weren't scary enough, the Telegraph reports here that the shockingly rapid collapse of the over-leveraged Eastern European economies, propped up by Western European banks, spells almost certain insolvency for the Eurozone countries--and that sooner, rather than later.
"Whether it takes months, or just weeks, the world is going to discover that Europe's financial system is sunk, and that there is no EU Federal Reserve yet ready to act as a lender of last resort or to flood the markets with emergency stimulus....
The sums needed are beyond the limits of the IMF, which has already bailed out Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus, Iceland, and Pakistan – and Turkey next – and is fast exhausting its own $200bn (€155bn) reserve. We are nearing the point where the IMF may have to print money for the world, using arcane powers to issue Special Drawing Rights. "
Looks like we might finally solve the Third World Debt crisis...though the collapse of the entire worldwide credit system is certainly a steep price to pay.
Well, I know this blog has been dormant for many moons. Various reasons could be cited for that, but I'm not sure what any of them are. So I shall make no apology for that fact and simply forge ahead with the beginning of a long barrage of posts that are likely to continue for at least the next several weeks as I work through a continued back-and-forth discussion with Doug Wilson in the class he is teaching on Politics and the Christian Commonwealth, and also work on a massive paper on Romans 13 that I will be writing this term. There will probably be tidbits of Peter Martyr here too.
In short, it should be an absolute feast of sophomoric political theology, and I hope someone (or someones) will read and argue with me, because it's easy to think very highly of one's arguments when they are being eloquently delivered to a silent computer screen, but unless you get a bit of iron sharpening iron, you aren't likely to cut much.
Anyway, here is the first post, written in response to the first several of Wilson's recent blog posts on Violence and the Trinity.
In the current rage for Trinitarian thinking, it seems that some discussions of the proper Christian attitude toward violence sometimes get carried away into the lofty heights of Trinitarian theology and forget some of the fundamental anchors that are supposed to ground our theology. For example, Douglas Meeks, in his book God the Economist, tries to ground a Christian approach toward politics, violence, and economics in the nature of the triune God. In the process, he gives away way too much of the farm, insisting that Christian theology has been corrupted by an unhealthy Hellenistic authoritian unitarian conception of God, pretty much since the beginning. Meeks’s straw-man God is a rather incoherent hodge-podge of various errors…an autocratic dictator who imposes his arbitrary will after the model of…Aristotelian metaphysics? Eh? Various errors that Meeks is critiquing have indeed existed, but his genealogy of them is a rather patchwork job, and indiscriminately implicates the entirety of Christian theology in this supposed heresy. And, whatever the merits of Meeks’s idea of the Trinity, his doctrine has very little to stand on if we are really to suppose that 1950 years of Church history didn’t understand the Trinity until Meeks and his mentor Moltmann descended from on high to explain it to us.
The important features of Meeks’s Trinitarian doctrine are simply fundamental orthodoxy, and by pretending that he is saying something radical, he distorts the picture rather frequently. Against the supposed arbitrary autocrat God he must portray this Trinitarian God as a loving trio of hippies living together in relaxed harmony, with soft music playing inside the house and “World Peace” signs plastered over the outside. The triune God is a community of persons living in perfect harmony, equality, and mutual submission, seeking one another’s glory, giving honor to one another, never using force or claiming anything as their own, and therefore we should live thus with all men. Now, even granting that this picture of the Trinity is doctrinally accurate (and it is probably in need of some revision), this is obviously not the whole Biblical picture of God.
For the three Triune persons do not primarily reveal their character to us through how they act toward one another (which we can hardly see in any case, and which we only learn little hints about), but through how they act toward the world. And how the Triune God relates to the world is a much messier and more complicated picture, consisting of fiery displays of wrath and justice, and stunning acts of mercy and redemption, where God puts Himself on the line in place of unrighteous Israel and mankind. Meeks’s attempts to extend his picture of God to God’s actions toward the world are hopelessly vague and fluffy, as he speaks of a God who does not seek to rule and possess, but to suffer and sacrifice, to give rather than receive, who invites rather than condemns. While there is truth in all this, it is at best only part of the story. And so Meeks’s applications about how we, as God’s image-bearers, are to live and act in the world, are often unconvincing and dangerously ill-founded even when you want to agree with him.
Doug Wilson is thus right, in his series on Violence and the Trinity, to try to give us the other side of the picture. Our God is a great warrior, dividing and destroying, raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah and treading the nations in the winepress of His wrath. Whatever peace and harmony may exist between the Father and the Son, it certainly does not exist between the Father and Satan, or any of Satan’s followers. The problem with Wilson’s making this point is not the accuracy of his theology proper (that is, the picture he gives us of God), but is the application he draws from it: “therefore pacifists, who think we’re not to use violence, must be wrong.” The Bible shows us that God hates evil and uses violence against it, therefore, who are we to say that violence is wrong for us? We should let God define our standard of perfection for us, rather than imposing it on him, and if the perfect God is violent, then of course we cannot condemn violence, and indeed, we ought to condemn pacifists, who are trying to be more perfect than God. Even in the New Testament, he points out, God still shows wrath to the wicked, and as Revelation shows us and Hebrews warns us, he has no hesitation in destroying them. Therefore, even in the New Covenant era, we have no ground to condemn violence—violence is godly.
But there is obviously a huge hole in this argument, a huge, gaping omission of a key Biblical and theological anchor. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” is our Biblical anchor; our theological anchor is what Van Tillians like to call the Creator-creature distinction. God’s ways are not our ways. We are incapable of existing and conducting ourselves as he exists and conducts himself. Of course as his image-bearers we are commanded in many ways to imitate Him and become more like him, but quite clearly, that does not apply to everything. In very many ways, he remains God and we remain man, and we cannot presume to act as he acts and expect that everything’s hunky-dory. The authority on earth to forgive sins belongs only to God and those to whom he delegates it; we have no authority to condemn the unfaithful to hell, however much we might like to. If God wants to destroy ungodly Assyria, that’s great, but we’d sure better not try to, he warns through the prophets. The point is that both Meeks and Wilson have forgotten a very crucial point about how we as creatures relate to our Creator. Our Creator does violence, says Wilson, and therefore it’s OK for us. Meeks doesn’t want us to be able to do violence, and so he tries to crop and touch-up the Creator so that we can imitate a nice, fluffy God. In short, as nice as it is to be able to put a Trinitarian backing on everything, we need to be more hesitant about grounding our arguments about the righteousness and unrighteousness of violence in what we think the Trinity is like. Perhaps we are supposed to imitate the Trinity in such-and-such a respect, perhaps we are not. How are we to know? Are we left to wonder?
No, we must always ask, “Hath God said?” The serpent deceived Eve by trying to convince her to be more like the Trinity—“God is like this, don’t you think he’d like it if you were more like him and knew good from evil? Why not go ahead?” But the proper answer for her was clear: “I don’t care; God hath said, ‘You shall not eat’” Therefore, the only really important question for us in figuring out the rules for righteous and unrighteous violence is, “What hath God said?” Are we commanded to be violent or not?
And for this, the man Jesus Christ can be a great help. How are we to know what God hath said to us? “At many times and in diverse manners God hath spoken, but now he hath spoken to us through His Son.” Christ the Word is the most final and authentic word that God speaks to us to command us how we are to live. And in this case, we are legitimate, I think, in laying aside the Creator-creature distinction, because Jesus Christ, the Son took on our likeness that we might take on his likeness—he became a creature, and lived and served and was exalted as a creature, that he might become the firstborn among many brethren. We are commanded to follow in his footsteps, and this is not presumption.
But what do we find in his footsteps? This obviously needs to be answered with great care and at great length, but, in general, at least, the answer seems to be a renunciation of violence. In his life, in his death, and after his death, Christ taught and modeled a laying down of the sword, and faith in the Father’s power to vindicate those who patiently wait upon Him. Wilson points out that Jesus Christ is a fearful warrior, who rides out conquering and to conquer. This is true, Jesus Christ on earth was revealed as a conqueror, but one who conquers only by refusing the weapons of this world, not, as Wilson claims, by “superior firepower.”
Labels: political theology