Monday, October 31, 2011
Constantine's Sword or A Humble Hand Up?
Lord Acton is often remembered for his observation that power tends to corrupt. He was speaking of men, but I feel his point is just as true of institutions. I have thought to myself several times of late that while desiring Christian Leaders can be reasonable and even admirable, desiring a Christian State is a dangerous desire. I have on reflection decided to cast my net even more broadly, and point out that the morals of a faith seldom survive being empowered by the state. It is easy for us to forget that even acting in the name of the Lord we are still flawed men, and subject to making flawed creations.
First one must consider the nature of religions, and the virtues they promote. For Christians, one common touchstone could be the seven virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance (Restraint), Fortitude (Courage), Faith, Hope, and Love (Charity). In contrast to this one must consider the personality traits which are rewarded and promoted by a given political system. Well, studies of those who have successful careers in a representative democracy show that the system rewards a lack of empathy, self focused pride, dishonesty, a lack of remorse, failure to accept responsibility for errors, irresponsibility, and unrealistic life goals, among other traits. I often think of government using the analogy of a toolbox. Whatever tools you put into that box (laws) are there to be used by the next guy, no matter how you meant for them to be used. If we know the next wave of workers are likely to be given to dishonesty, pride, and a lack of empathy, do we really want a toolbox arranged in the expectation of a prudent, just, loving craftsman?
I think that it is a powerful and wise move by a faithful people to establish their government in a manner which is more wary than that. To build a system which may be flawed, but can still be used to govern with some semblance of justice and liberty for all even when placed in the hands of self promoting liars seeking to gain personal power. Sure, I’m going to do my best to try and find good, honest folks who really want to serve others and not promote themselves, and at the local level I think that that may even succeed as often as not. That said, I do not want to rely on that success. I do not want those honest, devoted, humble labors to change the rules to allow them to do more good, because that would mean the next round of self promoting blowhards would be just as liberated to do more bad.
The last two paragraphs are very focused on representative democracy; because that is the system I live under. I do not think that this point is any less true of other forms of government, it just takes other forms. Consider the Christian Monarchies of post-Roman Europe. Attempting to instill a narrative of divine right into the machinations of political conquest and conflict, the relationship between church and state grew ever more baroque, the Roman Catholic Church becoming more political with each generation, even up to the anti-Pope crisis of succession to the See of Rome. In this we also see the other side of the threat. When a church is wedded to an expression of temporal political power, that power structure will infuse and alter the church, resulting in potentially drastic alterations to its theology. To try and avoid a total derailing, I will simply mention the Crusades and the French and Spanish Inquisitions and allow the reader to research their own specifics if none spring to mind.
Likewise my most recent reflections have been on the applicability of this truth to faiths other than Christianity. We can look to our own roots at the Jewish people and the lands of Israel and Judeah. Here we have a small ethnic peoples being given direct guidance and protection by God, and yet their government constantly drifts astray and adopts false practices and laws contrary to the will of God, often within a generation or two of a manifest miracle. It is only by the constant supply of Prophets to correct the folly of man that God’s kingdom is able to continue to enjoy his favor and live in proper harmony with faith, and modern Israel is no better, with the Jewish people fractured among several interpretations of their beliefs and no Temple to guide them.
We can also look at the Muslims. For centuries the Ottoman/Turkish Empire was led by followers of Mohammad, but ruled as a secular state with generous laws allowing the practice of other faiths and the exchange of ideas and culture between faiths. It was vibrant, rich, and produced amazing advances which underlie many modern sciences. Contrast this with the new generation of Islamic states, promoting a vision of a theocratic state under Sharia law. This fairly new emphasis on religious law being the highest law and also being a complete legal system, needing no secular additions, has promoted a sharp shift in the identity of the Muslim people and the public understanding of their faith. In reaction to European colonialism, a politically powerful and cultural unified brand of Islamic Fundamentalism has infused the politics of the Middle East since the late 1800’s. The infusion of the faith into the political power is feeding a cycle which promotes a reading of the sacred texts and an understanding of precedent which promotes the gaining of political power, which in turn discourages readings of the faith which promote tolerance and compassion. Now we see the rise of the Arab Spring as the people try and reclaim their faith and their politics from a tradition which has grown more and more distant from their lives.
We would like to think that our virtues are so good, so manifestly in harmony with God that if other people were just made to stop and look, they would have to realize how great they are. Sadly, this is never the way it works. I like to think about the film “Bruce Almighty” and the scene in which he is standing at the edge of his ex-girlfriends school holding forth his arms and using his Godly powers yelling “LOVE ME!” to no avail. With the point of a sword you can take someone’s heart, but all you end up with is a bloody mess and a dead body. With kindness, patience, and honest concern for your fellow man, you can inspire them to give their heart freely and end up with another dedicated worker trying to make the world better. We have to remember that it does not require a law to be kind. It does not require a tax to give to the needy. It does not require a vote to care for your neighbor. If you are waiting to be obligated by law to do good, are you really wanting to do good, or are you wanting to be able to say you have done all the good you need to do? Laws establish a quota that lets us claim we have done enough while there is still work to do. To make this nation or even this neighborhood better we don’t need Faith-based Laws, just Faithfull Hearts.