March 6, 2010
In my recent post on law and morality, Donny had asked on what basis I claimed that modern societies are more coercive than pre-modern ones. It turns out that O’Donovan and I had discussed that very point a bit, and I’ll share here what we came up with, before veering off down an exciting rabbit-trail that the discussion opened up in my mind.
It is as law becomes more arbitrary that it becomes more coercive, and in modern societies, law is seen as more arbitrary. As the complexity of modern life grows, and law-making authorities become increasingly centralized and removed from the sphere of everyday life and from our knowledge and any accountability to us, we find ourselves faced with an ever-increasing number of rules that, so far as we can tell, someone in an office somewhere just cooked up according to their own good pleasure.“Why,” we ask, “should I drive on the right side of the road rather than the left?” “Why, indeed, can I only drive 55 mph here and not 65?” “Why do the steps in my new house have to be no more than such-and-such a slant?” Gone is the feeling that the law exists for a very good reason and with very good sense, and so we should all go along with it willingly. And, once this faith has been lost, as it is sure to be the more alienated we are from our law-making authorities, then we begin to think of all law as oppressive and arbitrary, even laws that, if we were to stop and think about them, are eminently sensible and necessary.
And so, what happens? Well, we stop being self-policing. And we stop being our brother’s keeper--informal social and community structures stop enforcing obedience to society’s norms by non-coercive or less coercive means. If there’s a problem, we let the police deal with it. It doesn’t help, of course, that we live such individualist lives that people are no longer sufficiently embedded in communities for those communities to successfully inculcate and enforce societal norms. And so, where once upon a time not so long ago, if someone were behaving in an inappropriate or threatening way in a public place, several grown men in the vicinity would come over and give the fellow a talking to and escort him away, now everyone just looks awkwardly at one another and calls the police. We come to increasingly think that we’re only obeying the law because we’ll be in trouble if we don’t, and so we don’t see why we should help uphold the law--let the law take care of itself. And so the law does take care of itself, the only way it still can--force.
Both of these factors fascinate me--the decline in the role of non-civil social bodies in enforcing societal norms, and, what I want to think a bit more about in this post, the decline in our willingness to obey the law. Most of us do still obey the law, but often not very willingly. And this gets me to thinking--is it not possible that, precisely by our opposition to government power, our resolute anti-government stance, our passive rebellion and grudging obedience that we pride ourselves on so much, we are actually increasing the government’s power? If I act in a lawful manner because I freely choose to, deeming it of my own accord a good thing to do, then in this lawful behavior, I am, in a sense, not under the law, not subject to the power of the government. If enough people are like this, the government will increasingly conclude that its enforcement role is superfluous, and it will begin to scale back. But, if I say, “Stupid government, and stupid law” and only obey because I’m afraid there’s a policeman watching, then don’t I, paradoxically, increase the government’s power over me? Don’t I make its coercive power a reality where it might otherwise not exist? (This is part of what William Cavanaugh is getting at with his pregnant phrase, “the imagination of the nation-state”) When a large portion of the citizenry begins to see things this way and act in this way, the state concludes that increased coercive and surveillance activities are necessary, and the state becomes increasingly totalitarian. This, perhaps, is why things like the Tea Party movement and the constant angry griping and passive rebellion among Christian conservatives troubles me so much. Is it not actually giving power and reality to the very thing it wants to get rid of?
And when I pursue this line of thought, I find that it seems to be a very New Testament line of thought. Indeed, conservative commentators have argued something similar, it seems to me, with respect to the New Testament’s attitude toward slavery. Liberals look at passages that say, “Slaves, submit to your masters as to the Lord” and the like and say, “Servile! Appalling! Paul couldn’t have written it! Paul was against slavery, and this is as pro-slavery as it gets!” Well no, actually. These commands are very consistent with being against slavery. They recognize that the master’s coercive authority over the slave depends largely on the slave’s concession of that coercive authority, his grudging obedience that only obeys because the master has coercive authority. If the slave starts obeying willingly, freely, because he wants to obey God, then all of a sudden, his master has lost, in a sense, his mastery. The slave is accountable to God, not to him; the slave has rendered his coercive authority irrelevant. And once this happens, it is not long before slavery is on its way out as an institution.
The same thing, I became convinced in my detailed study of Romans 13 last year, is going on with the New Testament’s teaching regarding the state. Is the Roman state a bad thing (leaving aside for now whether any state is a bad thing)? Yes. Is it to be overcome? Yes. Are Christians free of the obligation to obey it? Well, yes. But they should obey it, insofar as the commands of Christ allow. Why? Because if they disobey, they give a reality to its authority over them, that otherwise is dissolved when they obey willingly, freely, obeying the Lord. If they must disobey it, because the commands of Christ require, they strike a fatal blow against it, because the violence of this world rebounds upon itself when it tries to overcome Christ; but if they disobey or grumble in things that the law rightly commands, or things indifferent, they actually empower the state and give substance to its shadowy claims of authority.
“Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”