Sunday, March 16, 2014

Christianity And Power: A Sunday Rumination

I've written on several occasions about the evil of the politicized pulpit -- more specifically, the modern tendency clergymen have displayed toward promoting their own political views while sermonizing to a congregation. I think I've made my condemnation of that practice clear enough that I needn't expound upon it further. Moreover, I would exhort any self-nominated Christian who thinks a pastor may properly promote a political position, whether from the pulpit or at any other time, to re-examine the matter closely and very humbly. The usual reason for holding so is the desire to see some specific position promulgated thus, as implicit in Christ's teachings. But Christ made only one statement that touches in any way on affairs of State:

"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." [Matthew 22:21]

Note the absence of specifics: the Christian is left to determine for himself what "things that are Caesar's" he might have in his possession.

I've looked high and low -- even cleaned out the attic -- and to this day I've never found a "thing that is Caesar's" anywhere in my holdings. What "things that are Caesar's" do you possess, Gentle Reader?

This is the history of governments — one man does something which is to bind another. A man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking from afar at me ordains that a part of my labor shall go to this or that whimsical end — not as I, but as he happens to fancy. Behold the consequence. Of all debts men are least willing to pay the taxes. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The methods of governments are two and only two: coercion and predation. Men with guns enforce the State's compulsions, prohibitions, and expropriations upon subjects who lack effective means of resistance. These are not methods of enhancing understanding, but of compelling action contrary to it. They're not methods of supporting or strengthening the individual will, but of negating and suppressing it. Thus, government is the exact antithesis of conscience.

One of the reasons I wrote the Spooner Federation books was to create an environment in which, were Christian faith to germinate there, take root, and become widespread, it would be free of the worst of all the temptations that have ever bedeviled the Church: the temptation to marry Throne and Altar. For many centuries the Church in Europe succumbed to that temptation, not merely by allying itself with various governments but also by exercising temporal power directly: through priests and bishops who assumed the power to tax and levy temporal punishments, and by equipping the Holy See with an army of its own. Those were among the very worst years for Christianity. Under the threat of temporal authority as wielded by the clergy, no man could be perfectly sure that his Christian allegiance and obedience flowed purely from the dictates of his conscience. The era constitutes a black mark on the Church's record, a permanent (let us hope) reminder of the terrible error of putting Church and State in the same chariot.

If the conscience is what truly matters -- if, as I deem it to be, it's the "still, small voice" of God speaking to us, reminding us that we know what we must, may, and must not do -- then for the Church to possess even the smallest shred of political power, either directly or through its influence on those who rule, is an abomination, the worst imaginable affront to the sanctity of the human soul and to Him who created it. To make a man act against the dictates of his conscience is always wrong; to claim that temporal punishment has somehow freed an errant soul from the burden of his sins can never be right.

The implication for our evaluation of the political priest -- he who cannot or will not refrain from inserting his political positions and preferences into his sermons -- is inescapable.

Every actual State is corrupt. Good men must not obey the laws too well. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Actually, it's worse. The sincere Christian -- he who accepts Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind, and who accepts the Gospels as an essentially accurate record of the life and teachings of Christ -- cannot and must not subordinate his conscience to the State's decrees. To the extent that he accepts government at all, it must be as "a necessary evil:" an ugly device, unpleasant of aspect and dangerous to abide, yet one by which certain functions required by national defense and natural justice might be performed. He cannot permit the State to assert prerogatives of its own, as if it were an individual man, with a life and property of his own and the right to defend them. Yet that is what every government on Earth is doing today.

But what rationale for unbinding the State from all constraint predominates among the men in black robes? That of "compelling state interest:" that the government has "interests," as if it were an individual with a proper sphere of its own, in pursuit of which it can set aside the rights of private persons. Such "interests" have been extended all the way to the ultimate absurdity: forbidding subjects to emigrate, as if they were its property.

We have an unfortunate example before us at this time: the contretemps in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. Yes, Russian forces have taken de facto control over Crimea, effectively severing it from Ukraine. This is a stroke I cannot and will not defend; more, it casts an impenetrable cloud over the future of Crimea, Ukraine, and the other European states adjacent to Russia. But let's imagine that the invasion had not occurred, and that the people of Crimea were to hold a referendum about seceding politically from Ukraine. On what grounds could a sincere Christian defend the position, taken by the government of Ukraine and several others, that such a referendum is inherently illegal?

  • Does any government possess a right to rule over those it claims as its subjects?
  • If so, whence comes that right?
  • How extensive is it? That is, can a government arbitrarily legislate on any subject, and to any extent, and to any end, or is it bounded -- morally at least -- by laws that no legislature can repeal or modify?

I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal. -- Herbert Spencer

There is no middle ground. Either the State is bounded de jure by the very same laws that bind individuals, or it's inherently temporally omnipotent, and can only be obeyed, fled, or fought to the death. In the former case, a Christian can tolerate it, albeit warily and with abiding suspicion of those who seek to wield its powers. In the latter, the Christian's duty is above all to refuse to submit, and if possible and prudent to oppose it by whatever means avail him.

It is indisputable that all the States that have ever existed eventually became corrupt, overbearing, and therefore intolerable. If ours is not to be the very first counterexample in the history of the world, it becomes a Christian's part to stand firmly by his own conscience and to make ready for the day Thomas Jefferson foresaw:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

No, Jefferson was not a least, not an open one. But he had a clearer moral vision than many millions who've worn the appellation.

I should note here that mine is not an uncontested position among Christians. Indeed, in his book Triumph, Harry L. Crocker, Vice President and Executive Editor of Regnery Publishing, takes the exact opposite position. Consider these passages from the paperback edition, concerning Europe, and particularly France, in the early Nineteenth Century:

It is ironic that Napoleon -- viewed in his own time as a radical -- was in fact a monarchist who believed in one God, on Church, one pope, one emperor, and a subsidiarity of subordinate kings and princes....[H]e was too clear-eyed about "the people" to think in terms of republics or democracies..." [Pp. 350-351]

Intellectually, Catholicism fulfilled its role of affirming established authority. [Pg. 356]

The new Pope [Gregory XVI] had many good ideas -- banning trains, forbidding democracy, and opposing political activity in the Papal States... [Pg. 358]

[Lord Acton] was under the misapprehension that political liberty was a moral absolute handed down by God. [Pg. 369]

[Pope Pius X] was unyielding to theological or political liberals....The Church's role was "to restore all things in Christ," which was the motto he wanted as the keystone of his pontificate. Separation of Church and State on the liberal model was the denial of Christ's and the Church's primacy and was "a grave insult to God, the Creator of man and the Founder of human society." These words might shock modern ears, but they did not shock Catholics, whose imaginations held fast to royal crowns consecrated to the Church and to the memory of Christendom. [Pg. 383]

I'm not unsympathetic to the desire for a king, but mine is a quite different vision: a king as a guarantor of justice and peace, who has no power other than what others voluntarily and unanimously concede him. Such a king floats on an ocean of individual liberty; peaceable private persons have no need to fear his whims.

As in all such oppositions of concepts, you pays your money and you takes your choice. But in my estimation, Crocker is one of a certain kind: those who sincerely believe that temporal power can be made to serve the Right and the True and the Good if only "the right people are in charge" which he would mean the Church. Despite his undeniable Catholicism and devotion to the Church, he has missed the point -- a point missed by the devotees of despotism everywhere and everywhen. That point was most eloquently expressed by a non-Catholic of some notoriety who made his mark half a world away:

The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from the violence to which it owes its very existence. -- Mohandas K. Gandhi

May God bless and keep you all.


Anonymous said...

I have noticed, being married to a staunch Catholic, that those who are strict adherents raised in the church seem to look for someone else to take responsibility for far more elements of daily life than those of a more Protestant background.

It was something I first encountered during time living in Mexico - an entire population desiring for a great leader to save them from the predations of the last great leader. As I sit and listen to Mass every week, the underlying theme seems to be about giving up control, and with it responsibility, and praying that our leaders will see us through.

This, of course, seeps into the rest of life beyond politics, and I see this same dichotomy playing out among business associates (the Catholics almost have to be forced into making decisions, the Protestants have to be reigned in), in the home life, etc.

Bob Parish said...

Excellent work! I find your excavations into the mind and matter of the faithful illuminating and challenging. Continue to feed the coal into the furnace as Christ's Church will awaken from its miasma of social/political distractions and stand against the forces of this age.

I will check out your Spooner Federation books as I now see a glimpse of the substance behind the pages.

Anonymous said...

What belongs to Caesar?

Images, and not much more. The flag, the White House, the Podium and Teleprompter of the President of the United States, the Pen and Telephone, State of the Union (propaganda, lies, self-congratulation) all are part of the Office of President. Unfortunately, a Praetorian Guard has been added and expanded in recent years (nice work until it suddenly ends).

Everyone knows how useless the office and personage of the Vice President is, but most don't understand that the President is legally the weakest branch of US Federal gov't, less powerful than the Governor of the smallest State. It should be an excellent position for a part-time slacker who understands and reveres the US Constitution.