Saturday, January 11, 2014


     Last month I went to a seminar in Austin, Texas led by Dr. Alan Wolfe, Director of the Bosi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College. The topic was his recent book, Political Evil: What It Is And How To Combat It. My blog readers know I have been asking questions about evil in God Of Our Silent Tears. Wolfe was looking more narrowly at political evils, ranging from corruption to genocide.

     I need to first explain something more about my interest in and commitments concerning this question of the religious perspective on public life: There is a small point on my resume that some Nevadans might easily have missed on my resume. I spent several years as an adjunct professor at Mercer University’s School of Law teaching an odd little course called Religion, Law, and Legal Practice. It ended in a spiritual/ moral exploration of how one’s faith might shape how one practices law and how one’s practice of law might inform one’s faith. I published an article on “Practicing Law and Christianity At The Same Time.” But the course began with what seemed to me to be the essential foundation: the theology of law. What is law for in God’s eyes? What, if anything, is God doing through law? What good is law? I don’t say this to claim any expertise about questions of theology and public life, just to say I have been wrestling with them for a long time.

     Wolfe looked at two opposite approaches to understanding and responding to evil in public life: Augustinian and Manichaean. I think he took the wrong tack on Augustine, but what he had to say about Manichaean approaches to politics is just crucial. Manichaeism was a philosophy popular in Augustine’s day, the 5th Century. In fact, Augustine was a Manichaean before he became a Christian. It was a dualistic philosophy, holding that the universe is a great battleground between the forces of goodness and light on the one side and the forces of darkness and evil on the other. Since Augustine was reacting against Mani, that makes Manichaeism a good foil, but the idea of a cosmic battle of good vs. evil is older. Zoroastrianism, dating back to the 7th Century BCE, is the apparent root of this moral dualism.

     After Zoroaster and before Mani, in Jesus day, Zoroastrian-Manichean style dualism was decidedly in vogue. The best documentation of first century dualism is the War Scroll of the Qumran Community at the Dead Sea at the time of Jesus. The Qumran Community saw themselves as Sons of Light whose mission was to unite with other Sons of Light in order to vanquish and annihilate the Sons of Darkness. The object of the game is a world of peace and harmony. The means is extermination of the bad guys. Major swaths of the Book of Revelation reflect that sort of dualism. (Revelation had a close call getting into the canon, and was probably included in spite of its dualism, not because of it.)

     Wolfe’s point in Political Evil is that American foreign policy in late modern times, especially since 9/11, has been based on a Manichaean word view. Remember the “axis of evil.” He relates that shortly after the second invasion of Iraq, the government of Iran acting through Swiss diplomats attempted to negotiate a new relationship with the United States, offering all sorts of concessions on nuclear weapons, recognition of Israel’s right to exist, withdrawal of support from Hezbollah, etc. – a much better deal than we could hope for today. But we would not negotiate with an “evil” power. That is just one example. Wolfe’s point is that our good vs. evil moralism has been so ineffective as to be immoral because it perpetuates war even when peace might be possible. Our approach to many genuine evils – terrorism, drugs, crime, etc. – has been “A War On (fill in the blank).” Identify the bad guys. Eliminate them. Problem solved. Except it isn’t. Wolfe documents the ineffectiveness of Manichaean policies, particularly in foreign affairs.

     Another example is our reliance on the criminal justice system to address social evils. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population. But we make up 25% of the world’s incarceration. The Soviet Union is in 2nd place. We spend $24,000 per inmate annually. Yet, crime persists. Often when we analyze our problems politically and sociologically, it is likely we will find that they are considerably more complicated than identifying and removing the bad guys. A drone takes out five terrorists, but how many more does it create? When American authorities learned that an Indian deputy consul was not paying her maid, an option might have been to call the Indian ambassador and tell him to tell this deputy consul to pay her maid. (That’s how my grocery storekeeper father used to get soldiers to pay their grocery bills. Call the CO.) Instead they responded with aggressive criminal prosecution. That did not get the maid paid. It got the victim taken into custody, her family forced into hiding, security withdrawn from American consulates in India, American diplomats expelled, American businesses attacked, etc. We proved how aggressively moral we are, but what good did we accomplish for anyone?  Undoubtedly the deputy consul was morally wrong. But did a publicly humiliating arrest followed by a body cavity search really make us moral? Were we really trying to help the maid or were we robotically acting out of our Manichaean narrative of self-righteousness?

     The world is a complex muddle. I do not understand it. Many of you know far more about politics and sociology than I do. My question is theological: What do Christians believe about the world, the evil in it, and how we are to deal with a world that is both good and evil at the same time?

     My starting point is Jesus. How did he respond to the dualism of his day? As I read the Gospels, he resoundingly rejected it. Take for example the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13: 24-30). The world is a mixed field of wheat and weeds. You can’t pull up the weeds without killing the wheat. You have to let them grow together and let God sort it out in the end. (We’ll see shortly that parable is crucial to how Augustine saw both the church and the state – both mixed fields of wheat and weeds). Remember the Sons of Light vs. the Sons of Darkness at Qumran. Well, check the Parable of the Unjust Steward Luke 16: 1-8. Jesus tells the story of an embezzler but the surprise is the embezzler winds up being commended, not condemned. And Jesus says, “The children of this world (darkness?) are wiser in this generation than the children of light.

     How many bad guys did Jesus destroy? How many did he forgive? How many disputes did he resolve by helping one side destroy the other? How many did he reconcile? Look at his choice of disciples. There were zealot revolutionaries and tax collector collaborators with Rome. There were harlots and Pharisees. There were Jews and Gentiles. Again and again, Jesus warned that a violent insurrection to throw out the Roman bad guys would only bring down death and destruction. His way was one of healing, reconciliation, and the subversive power of truth and love – all acting in the mixed field of wheat and weeds where the sons of this world are apt to be wiser than the goody two shoes religious folks. From the cross, he interceded for his very killers. Jesus had no agenda to pose as a Manichaean/ Zoroastrian/ Qumran Son of Light.

     Three sets of books from bygone days still shape my thinking here. The first set is about St. Augustine. Book One is Garry Wills’, The Confessions Of A Conservative (1979). Nowadays, we think of Wills as a historian of the church and religion. But in the 70s he was a political pundit, a free market laissez faire conservative protégé of James Burnham and William F. Buckley, Jr. writing for National Review. Wills’ experiences, however, kept driving him back out of his ideology to older models of conservative thought from the likes of G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and eventually St. Augustine.

     Wills’ Catholic Christianity did something that is a rare thing in our time. He changed his politics to fit his religion instead of the other way around. (Yes, it has been studied – as usual by Robert Putnam – and modern Americans routinely modify their religious convictions to match their more important values, the political ones; their politics routinely win, so they change their theology to fit. Hmmm. “Thou shalt have no other gods . . .. “ issue). He did not convert to liberalism, but to a classical conservatism that recognized we are all in this together, we need each other to get by, the world cannot be purified with any brand of political weed killer, it is getting along as best it can, and as it does, “we get to carry each other.” (U2) That is pure St. Augustine. Neo-cons sometimes think I’m a liberal. Liberals often find me uncomfortably conservative. But I make a lousy moderate. If I have to wear a label, I’m an Augustinian.

     Right now, I’m finishing a brilliant book by communitarian philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, Augustine And The Limits Of Politics. It’s a little heavy on philosophy-speak for most readers. Too much talk about “epistemic endeavors” etc. for me to recommend it lightly. But you might find it helpful to look at this lucid and accessible review from Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon.

     For those who dread the idea of any theology of public life, fearing that it will be dogmatic and exclusive, it helps to remember that our first such Christian theology of government was profoundly inclusive, a theology for a state that could be pluralistic, a theology that would absolutely refuse to insist on making the political field of wheat and weeds align with our churchly field of wheat and weeds. We don’t have it figured out well enough to impose anything on anybody but we nonetheless can and must act responsibly in the public square. Elshtain’s words here suggest how:

The clean and the unclean come together within the Church, within the boundaries of human communities . . .. Given that “a darkness attends the life of human society,” few should sit comfortably on “the judge’s bench . . .. “ But sit there the judge must, “for the claims of human society constrain him and draw him to this duty; and it is unthinkable that he should shirk it,” but he must needs sit uneasily . . .. Amidst the shadows that hover over, above, among, there are nonetheless two rules we can follow: “first, to do no harm to anyone, and secondly to help everyone whenever possible.” This is the ethic of the pilgrim: of the one who is tethered to this earth and its arrangements through bonds of affection and necessity but who recognizes at the same time that these arrangements are not final.

     The second major influence on my view of religion and public life was from the theological father of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker, specifically his 3-volume treatise The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Sounds dry but it reads like Shakespeare. Hooker’s goal was to defend the Anglican way of being church, including the Anglican relationship between secular and church institutions, as legitimate. The Roman Catholic challenge was that we had shifted too much authority to the laity and opened the doors of reason a bit too wide. We weren’t functioning in the mode of the Middle Ages, which our critics claimed was ordained by God.

     Hooker said that God had made us in such a way that we need each other. We can only live human lives, we can absolutely only live holy lives, in relationship with each other, and that relationship has to be ordered in some way. It requires some structure. True in church. True in state. But Hooker denied that God has prescribed any particular structure. Instead, Hooker insisted that God insists that we work it out ourselves. The process of working it out is essential to our process of sanctification. Put another way, sorting out our relationships with each other is how we become Christ-like. It is a collective spiritual exercise.

     Here’s what I draw from Hooker: God is not a Monarchist or a Revolutionary. God is not a Democrat or a Republican. God is not a Communist or Fascist. God is not a Capitalist or a Socialist. (The last 3 Popes have been quite emphatic about the spiritual and moral deficits in either of these economic models. Those who say Pope Francis’s critique of capitalism is “Marxist” apparently haven’t understood either Marx or Francis). What God does insist on is a political process in which we all have a voice and are active agents in and among ourselves. A godly political order cannot be imposed from above. God wants us all engaged in the process, sharing in the ordering of power. Whatever structure we come up with will be a mixed field of wheat and weeds. It will not be perfect. It may not even be very good. But what matters is that we work it out ourselves, hopefully guided by hearts yearning in a Godward direction. Augustine before Hooker insisted that absolutism blocks the process of friendship for which human society was created.

     Do you see how far Augustine and Hooker are from the Manichaean/ Zoroastrian/ Qumran battle of good guys against bad guys this is? It’s a world of conversation and compromise, recognition of each other’s interests, of trade-offs and good-enough solutions, of checks and balances, not fights to the death. It’s a world in which power does not consist in aggression or dominance but in relational influence based on trust formed through a track record of fair dealing.

     The third set of books, the one that really brings it all home, is Walter Wink’s trilogy (The Powers That Be, Unmasking The Powers, Engaging The Powers). Wink, a gentle man whom I knew from Jungian workshops at Epworth by the Sea) was enough of a devotee of depth psychology to take Augustine’s view of human nature seriously even though it is decidedly unacceptable to modern people. Augustine knew that we are each a mixed field of wheat and weeds – the wheat is our innate godliness, the Imago Dei, our Original Blessedness; the weeds would be the something broken in each of us, the twist that pulls us off course so that we are not who we were intended to be. Augustine called it “original sin.” Unfortunately that term gets caught up with some literalistic notion of inheriting the sin of Adam through biology. It’s a metaphor, people. (Augustine’s understanding of “evil” as privation of the good makes the popular misconception of original sin ludicrous. Evil is just love gone wrong.) Original sin means that the world is full of falsehood, greed, cruelty, and all manner of evils – and that each and every one of us has certain inclinations that are nothing to be proud of. We are each a mix of good and bad. In a delightful little book by the Jesuit brothers Linn, Good Goats, they point out that in the parable of the sheep and the goats, we are all, each and ever one of us, both sheep and goats. A priest once asked a group of 2nd graders if the good people were blue and the bad people were red, “what color would you be.” One insightful Augustinian 2nd grader answered, “I’d be stripy.”

     We are all stripy. That’s Augustine’s point. But not all of us are willing to acknowledge that stripiness. Being sinful isn’t half as big a problem as pretending that we are not. Part of our sinfulness is aggression. We have aggression pent up inside because social constraints rightly prevent us from acting it out. So what do we do with it? We project it on others. We see the others as evil, so that we are justified in doing the most horrible things to them. Because we are righteous and they are evil, it is moral for us to torture them, to kill them, even to kill a reasonable number of innocents as collateral damage because we are so good and they are so bad. Being convinced of one’s righteousness is a morally precarious state. At a minimum it invites folly; often, atrocious acts of evil.

     This is what Wink calls “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Wink’s myth is derived from the Enuma Elish, the Sumerian creation myth in which the world is formed from the dismembered remains of the first bad gods who were slain by the next generation of good gods. The plot is acted out over and over on stage and screen. Bad guys oppress innocents for two thirds of the film, until our righteous indignation is vicariously vindicated by the violently rampaging hero who takes the bad guys out. Pour some weed killer on the world. It will be just fine when the credits roll.

      Against that prevailing moral scenario, which Wink insists is the true religion of Western society – Christianity is not -- I wish to add my name to the line-up of realists like Augustine, Hooker, Wink, Elshtain, and Wills. I’m not that good, not that smart, not that spiritual. I am not a Son of Light so I have no right to judge the Sons of Darkness. I am a forgiven sinner doing my best and hoping the other forgiven sinners will bear with me as we stumble along the road together. 

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