Political Perpetual Motion

24 June 2020

Suppose a group approaches your city government with a proposal for clean energy in your city. You go to the town hall meeting, and the proposal sounds good to start with. They’ve identified some real problems in your city, and they’ve been able to present the problems clearly. As they start to lay out their solution, they’re clear and compelling, and you’re really exited about it…until you realize that the core of the whole approach is a perpetual motion machine.

You can’t believe they would seriously propose that, so you ask outright: “So…am I hearing that the foundation of your new power plant is a perpetual motion machine?”

“Well, yeah,” they say, “but you have to understand that the other perpetual motion machines you’ve heard about didn’t implement the theory properly. This one’s gonna be different.”

How likely are you to keep listening?

Suppose they complain that you’re no longer listening; why won’t you hear them out? Well, for the same reason that the U.S. Patent Office stopped accepting patents on perpetual motion machines — because all of them contradict known realities about the way the world works. It’s a waste of time.

***

For those of us who pay attention to the real-world results of experiments in political philosophy, this is what it’s like when someone highlights real problems in our society, but then moves into analysis and policy prescriptions based in a Marxist view of the world.

Marx was wrong, period. He didn’t understand human motivation or the value of risk — major mistakes for an economist. He overestimated the ability of human planning to account for the complexities of the real world (to be fair to him, this was the intellectual fashion of his time, but we should certainly know better now). Every place his ideas have been put into practice at scale, the result has been bureaucratic nightmare and economic disaster. Safely sheltered from real-world consequences in the hothouse environment of the university, our academics have been cultivating new and virulent strains of Marxist theory. However good they may sound in a graduate seminar, they fail dramatically in the real world. They are (to borrow a phrase from Peter Hitchens) “a beautiful idea, and a terrible reality.”

The real-world failures of Marxist theories in turn cause a fundamental problem in the conversations we’re having about how to address the injustices found in our culture. We have real and outstanding injustices that must be addressed, but often the most popular proposals for addressing them rely on utterly false assumptions about how the world works, and this creates a serious problem in the conversation.

On the one hand, I love the people I’m talking to, and I owe it to them to hear them out. It won’t do to take real injustices lightly — which is what I’ll be doing if I dismiss the entire conversation out of hand. On the other hand, the policy prescriptions on the table are wicked, and too much damage has already been done by foolish people who take them seriously.

We can’t do more of that nonsense. It’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. Let’s do something that might work.


Three Critical Failures

17 June 2020

Critical Race Theory is much under discussion these days. My first exposure to critical theory was in literary criticism and classical studies a few decades ago. I’ve seen it applied in a host of other areas since, and to my eye, critical theory in general suffers from fatal flaws common to all its applications. It flatters us with a series of comforting lies: that our problem is smaller than it really is, that the solution is shallower than it really needs to be, that our human group identities are bigger and more important than the claims of Christ on us. In more detail:

  1. The lie that our problem is limited to oppression. Critical theory rests on an inadequate hamartiology in which the only sin of interest is oppression. Relatively few critical theorists would go so far as to claim that the oppressed can do no wrong or that oppression is the only sin, but in critical theory the sins of the oppressed are of no interest, and in practice, un-addressable. As against this, Scripture teaches us not to show partiality either against the poor (Ex. 23:6) or for the poor (Ex. 23:3) in judgment. Paul gives instructions to both masters (Eph. 6:9) and slaves (Eph. 6:5-8). In Scripture, everyone’s sins should be repented of, and there are no rules about just preaching to your own class (however defined). Paul didn’t tell Titus to “stay in his lane” because Cretan foibles are the product of a unique cultural situation, and he’d better let a Cretan preacher address it. No, he said “rebuke them sharply.”
  2. The lie that the solution is simply a matter of social engineering. Critical theory rests on an inadequate soteriology in which liberation from oppression will solve our social ills. It has this in common with the rest of Marx’s ideological offspring; it’s one of the basic errors that marks Marxism as a Christian heresy. It locates evil primarily in the social system, and posits that if we fix the system, the people will be ok. We know that the problem runs much deeper than that. Evil is located in the people and instantiated in the systems we build, which means that there is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good” (to borrow Eliot’s phrase). For us, an unjust system should be critiqued and reformed, but even a perfect system — could we build such a thing — will not solve the root problem. There is no way out but following Jesus. Jesus-followers in a less-just system will still seek (and find) ways to do justice; carnal men in a more-just system will still seek (and find) ways to weaponize the system to unjust advantage. This point doesn’t de-prioritize reforming an unjust system, but it does mean that a Christian’s priorities will be different from a critical theorist’s.
  3. The lie that our human group identities are the most important thing about us. Critical theory rests on an inadequate anthropology in which our various class memberships are given more practical importance than our common identity as created by God and redeemed into one family in Christ. The biblical answer to oppression is to emphasize creation and new creation at the expense of our other group memberships. “These are My mother and My brothers,” Jesus said, thereby subverting the power of clan membership. Paul did the same with Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. Paul exemplifies this approach again when he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother. (And set an example for us all by addressing this particular situation at his own expense).

All of the above doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from the insights of critical theorists about how oppression has played out between particular classes at particular times and places. All truth is God’s, and we should never be afraid to learn our history. I learned about the history of red-lining from a critical theorist — like they say, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. I am not saying that critical theorists have nothing to offer; whatever the flaws of their ideology, they are bringing neglected history to light. That’s a hard, good thing. We owe them a debt for doing that hard work.

At the same time, critical theory, as such, is a (post-)Christian heresy, and I don’t use that word lightly. It flatters us with a shallow appraisal of our sin and a weak prescription for redemption. As we are gleaning insights from critical theorists, we have to be sure to correct for ideological corruption as we go.


No Way Out But Jesus

6 June 2020

In my first post on the George Floyd killing, I focused on peaceful means of change after the fact. In my second, we looked at a scenario that involved intervening in the moment. Let’s talk a little more about that: What is our duty in the moment? Whatever led up to it, when a downed, restrained man, clearly no longer a threat, is being killed right in front of me, what is my duty? 

Shall I yell at the killer? Take a video with my phone? Is that it? Is it really enough to document the crime so somebody can maybe punish it after victim has already died? Or am I called to do something more effective to save his life?

If everybody involved is a civilian, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We need to remove him from the guy’s neck — now. Failure is not really an option, so the only question is how far we’ll have to go to put a stop to the situation. If yelling at him or shoving him works, then great. If it takes a knockout punch or a broken bone to prevent him from murdering the downed man…so be it. Seems pretty clear to me. Now maybe the attacker is much bigger and stronger than you. Maybe you don’t have much of a chance. Even then, isn’t a man’s life worth some effort? Don’t you wanna at least try?

But what if the attacker is wearing a badge? Historically, we virtually never permit resisting the officer, even if he’s plainly in the wrong. In the moment, the officer has an enormous amount of leeway to decide what’s appropriate. After the fact, of course, those decisions are theoretically subject to review. But honestly, review is often unlikely, and evil legal doctrines like qualified immunity are regularly used to prevent serious consequences even when the officer is found to be in the wrong. 

It’s a tough balance to strike. On one hand, we don’t want to live in a society where everybody on the street feels justified in assaulting the officer on the scene if they think he’s doing it wrong. That way lies madness. At the same time, we don’t want to live in a society where a badge confers the ability to murder someone in broad daylight, and no one will put a stop to it. In case you missed it, that’s what we have.

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed, and there is no way out of this apart from Jesus. We are past the point where we can loot Christianity for some guiding principles, secularize them, and then call them “human values” or “common sense.” The secularization process takes out something important, the the resulting mishmash of conflicting directives lacks moral authority. Again, in case you missed it, that’s what we have. How’s that working out for us? What we need instead is people at the scene who can hear the Holy Spirit and make Solomonic decisions on the fly. 

 So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) Nothing less than a real return to God will do. 

Let’s be about it.


We Will Deserve It

4 June 2020

Coming back to the George Floyd incident, here’s the scenario that’s keeping me up at night:

Suppose there had been three armed combat veterans in the crowd. Suppose they decide they didn’t fight terrorism overseas to let this nonsense happen at home, and they take it upon themselves to do something about it, right now? They spread out, draw their weapons, and demand that the officers get off him.

What next? With their own pistols in weapon-retention holsters, the officers don’t stand much of a chance, and they have to know it. Maybe it ends without bloodshed. Maybe somebody stupidly goes for a gun, prompting a very brief shootout. The veterans may well get shot by other officers, and are probably going to prison…but then, maybe not. What happens if the jury refuses to convict? 

If such men, even one such man, had been on the scene, Floyd would probably be alive today. We might have lost a few officers who were killing a man who was already down, cuffed, and clearly no longer a threat. We might have lost a heroic veteran who was willing to step in. But — tragic as all this would be — would it be an improvement over what actually happened? How many of us are just a little more likely to be the person who steps in today than we were a week ago?

We’ve had some limited instances of that kind already (think the Bundy ranch standoff back in 2014). The day an incident like that goes viral — and if we keep going like we have been, it will happen eventually — we will be crossing a wide line that there’s no easy way back from. After that, the police force becomes an occupying army; principled civilians become the resistance. People don’t call the police for fear of what predatory (or simply scared) officers will do to them. Police don’t respond to some calls because of what might be waiting in ambush. Criminals thrive, and prudent people on all sides become ready to shoot first for their own safety. I don’t want to live there. Do you?

When that kind of confusion grips a nation, it is a divine judgment (see Judges 7:22, 2 Chronicles 20:22-24.) If we come to that point, none of us will be able to say we do not deserve it. We are a government of the people. Every officer who puts on a badge, does so in the name of every person of voting age in that jurisdiction. Anything that officer does is done in our name, and we pay him to do it. They are not doing these things; we are doing these things.

 So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9)


Coddling Ourselves

29 May 2020

His name was George Floyd.

I wasn’t there. I’ve watched as much video as I can get my hands on, but that only goes so far. I’ve been present at scenes that would look very different if you started the video a few seconds sooner. I’m acutely conscious that I don’t know what I don’t know. At the same time, there’s no denying what we do know: a man was on the ground, cuffed, and a police officer knelt on his neck. Not by accident, in the middle of a fight, for a moment to get the cuffs on. Not to hold him down because he was a danger to himself or others. But long past any point where it might have been necessary or reasonable, long past the point where he lost consciousness, long past the point where the paramedics on scene asked him to move so they could check Floyd’s pulse, the officer was still kneeling on his neck. 

We must have effective police protection; we don’t want to live in a society where the criminals run the streets unmolested. At the same time, we also don’t want to live in a society where…

  • a police officer with no reason but a personal grudge puts an old man on a domestic terror watch list, and consequently ruins his reputation and his business (jurisdiction near me; I personally know the man)
  • a retirement-aged ex-con has his legitimate business destroyed by constant harassment from police officers determined to drive him out of town (one of the officers in question told me the story)
  • a pastor, pulled over in a routine traffic stop, has thousands of dollars–a cash gift donated to support his ministry to the poorest of the poor–stolen from him via civil forfeiture (the pastor is a friend of a friend)
  • police officers arrest a man at his place of business, beat and torture him for hours (jurisdiction near me; I personally know the man)
  • a young woman pulled over in a late-night traffic stop on a deserted road is cuffed to her steering wheel and raped by the officer (jurisdiction near me; the woman is a friend of a friend)
  • a young man, known to be unarmed and threatening no one, was attacked, beaten, cuffed, choked, repeatedly threatened, and died in custody (jurisdiction near me, I know a family member)
  • a young man, badly injured in a motor vehicle accident, lying on the pavement screaming in pain, was repeatedly kicked and told to shut up by responding officers. He was left lying in the roadway for nearly an hour before finally getting ambulance transport; he died of his wounds (two of my friends were involved in the accident and witnessed the incident)
  • a police officer, arresting a mouthy but compliant drunk man, stood him up next to the open back door of the cruiser, then (after looking around to be sure there were no witnesses) kneed him in the groin. As the man collapsed, retching, the officer shoved him into the back of the car for transport to the station (the officer’s partner was a teacher of mine and told me the story)

In all eight of the above cases, nothing bad happened to the officers in question. No investigation, no charges filed, not so much as a news story. To repeat, we don’t want to live in a society where criminals run the streets unmolested. Especially if the criminals in question are wearing badges. 

Remember, I’m not a reporter or Internal Affairs investigator; I don’t sit on a civilian review panel or work for Amnesty International. I don’t go looking for this stuff. I’m a middle-aged citizen; the cases I listed above are just incidents I’ve happened upon in the course of 25 years of ordinary adult life. The victims include white, black, Asian, Arab. While race is a factor, this is about power without accountability. The badge gives power over citizens of every race, particularly if they’re poor; that power can often be abused with impunity.

Consider Minneapolis as a case in point: before George Floyd, we had Philando Castile and Justine Damond. Is race a factor? Obviously; Castile’s killer was acquitted. It took the killing of Damond—a blonde, white, yoga instructor visiting from Australia—to get the first-ever conviction of an on-duty police officer in that jurisdiction. (And I suspect her identity as a foreign national was key to getting that conviction.) Is race the only factor? Clearly not, or Damond would still be alive.

The problem isn’t that most police officers are bad. The problem is that we aren’t weeding out the bad ones effectively. The wide discretion that comes with the job attracts a certain number of violent predators, and our system of checks and balances is failing. We’re using “Most officers are good people” as an excuse for failing to deal with the bad ones. How’s that working out?

Peaceful means of change are available and can work, but only if the majority gets involved. That needs to happen, because the alternatives are not attractive.

Effective action requires repentance in multiple dimensions. The uninvolved majority must repent of inaction and willful ignorance of the evil things that are being done in our name. We must also repent of our willful ignorance of the ugly realities that must be dealt with to keep the streets safe. For most of us, a police officer accused of misconduct could say, “Look, you just don’t understand what it’s like out there, what it takes to keep you safe!” — and he’d have a point, wouldn’t he? If we’re going to provide effective review, then we need to understand. It’s one thing to pay cops to arrest bad guys; that’s fine. But it’s morally bankrupt to pay cops so we don’t have to know. It’s past time to stop coddling ourselves. 

Meanwhile, many protesters need to repent of doing things that are cathartic, but not effective. If your point is that everybody, including police, should respect other people’s basic rights, looting a bunch of stores is not the best argument ever. One of the basic tenets of classical Christian just war theory is that the violence must be used toward a clear, attainable, and righteous end. Tackling the officer off George Floyd’s neck meets those criteria; walking out of a burning Target with a TV and a new pair of Nikes does not. It’s too much, too late, and aimed in the wrong direction.

We have to stop demanding that Someone In Authority swoop in and fix it. We are a government of the people. We are in authority, whether we want to be or not. So let’s do the thing. It’s time to clean house. Recall the elected officials in the relevant chain of command. Give their replacements 6 months to show some progress; recall anybody who isn’t helping. Make it clear that we don’t want an inquisition; the job is to attract good officers who want to work with other good officers, and weed out the rest. Lather, rinse, repeat until we get results. Having participated in recall efforts, I can tell you that this is going to be a lot more work than sitting on our collective butts at home and ignoring the problem. It’s going to be more work than setting cars on fire and looting the local Target, too. Thing is, it can work. Isn’t it time we did something effective?  

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed. So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) We have peaceful means of change in our hands. Let’s use it before it’s too late.


Shame

19 May 2020

Let’s talk about shame.

In today’s psychotherapeutic culture, we have a rich conceptual language and vocabulary for internal states. When I mentioned shame two sentences ago, you probably thought about an internal feeling of shame. Over the past few years, we have also begun to speak again about shame as an external experience, something that someone else can do to you. (Hence the discussions of fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and so on.)

Once upon a time, public shaming was how societies regulated themselves, to a degree unheard of today. Under that system, there was  no vindication except public vindication. The shame was public; the vindication had to be as well. When the psalmists called on God to defend them, they were asking God to definitively, publicly forcing their enemies to bow the knee and admit that they were wrong.

That was what it meant to be vindicated by God.

And conversely, if that didn’t happen, you were shamed. You could know you were innocent, but that did you no good; everyone else thought you were guilty and treated you as guilty. Avoiding this ugly fate is what “let me not be ashamed” (a common prayer in the psalms) means. No one sat serenely, calmly assured in himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong, even though every one else believed he had. No, they did what Job did: Cry out to God to show the world their righteousness!

Before the cross, this was just common sense. Jesus destroyed the entire system of public shame. By being convicted and shamed by the system, He definitively demonstrated the injustice of of the system. If it can convict God Himself, the system is irretrievably flawed.

What God did next introduced both a new form of vindication, and a new way to live. 

God vindicated Jesus in such a way that the chief offenders didn’t have their faces rubbed in it. It wasn’t in any way unclear — Jesus rose from the dead — but neither was it entirely public. It’s true that “these things were not done in a corner” as Peter said in his sermon, but at the same time, Jesus did not conquer His enemies and make them grovel before His feet. The twelve disciples did not ascend twelve thrones and rule Israel. The risen and victorious Jesus did not march into Caiaphas’ house and Pilate’s court and force them to admit that they had failed in their duties.

If you wanted to know whether God had vindicated Jesus, there was enough evidence that you could be sure. And if you didn’t want to know, you could pay off the guards, as the Jewish leaders did, and just go on with your life. You could kick against the goads, as young Saul of Tarsus did.

By this semi-visible approach to the resurrection, God the Father introduced a new kind of vindication in the world, where you can be definitively, decisively vindicated by God in the eyes of heaven, and you can be sure of it even now on earth…and yet no one will be forced to acknowledge it. This form of vindication forces the earthly powers to reveal whether they are seeking the truth or not. It makes them tip their hand, and that’s a beautiful thing. 

Our challenge is to live in the confidence that we have been vindicated by God, even if others refuse to acknowledge it — to ignore the social proof and trust God. This is the example Jesus sets for us, and Paul explains.

Trust that God will vindicate you visibly at last, but if Jesus can wait until the last day, then so can you. 


Bandana Morality

5 May 2020

I have been reluctant to add to the din around COVID. There’s too many people pooling their ignorance already, and even the experts are rapidly changing their minds about various key details like how it spreads, how fast, and the best ways to stop it.

Let’s begin by accepting that we actually know very little. Most of the expert recommendations at this point are based on theory — sound theory, sure, but theory, not actual clinical studies of this disease. The experts have a general idea of how diseases like this behave, and are making their best guesses (which, let’s face it, are likely to be better than my guesses, but they’re still guesses). It’s a new disease, and we have to study it.

This is one of the central insights that let to modern science in the first place: You can’t just sit in a chair and extrapolate from first principles; God made the world with an endless capacity to surprise us all, even the experts. The clinical studies to confirm/disconfirm the guesses will come, if someone cares to fund them, but good science is hard, and expensive, and takes quite a bit of time. Like experience, it tends to arrive shortly after you need it. 

Whether you should trust the experts, and which experts, and how far you should trust them, is a question for another post. (Likewise the question of whether you should trust giant media companies to select your experts for you.) The only thing I’ll say about that here is that you should do a quick idol check: if the paragraphs above bothered you because they implied that the experts might all be wrong, you need to look at that. The Tacoma Narrows bridge fell into the gorge; the Challenger fell out of the sky; thalidomide fell into disrepute. These things did not happen because of a change in fashions; the experts were catastrophically wrong about the way the real world behaves. If you look to experts for your security, you’re going to be disappointed.

You’re going to have to make decisions in the absence of complete information. You do that every day, but now you’re being forced to admit it. God is reminding us that the realities of James 4:13-17 are always with us:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”

The question of the day is, shall I wear a mask when I leave home? For some of you, your public health authorities are answering this question for you. Assuming you have a choice, here are seven things to think about:

  1. Remember that good ethical decisions are founded on facts, and a number of the salient facts are in question. Someone disagreeing with you on a point of fact (and therefore doing something different) doesn’t make them a bad person. “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” (Romans 14:4)
  2. Uncertainty does not justify selfishly ignoring others’ safety or carelessly ratifying the latest trend in public panic. If the primary driver of your decisions is your personal convenience or reputation–repent. God sees your heart; you can’t use the public uncertainty for cover with Him. Love your neighbor; esteem others better than yourself. Make your decision from that place.
  3. If you believe that leaving home without a mask is a foolish risk to your family, or recklessly exposes your neighbors to danger, then wear a mask. Don’t violate your conscience.
  4. If your neighbors are terrified and wearing a mask would make them less afraid, it is permissible to accommodate them by wearing a mask, even if you think it’s stupid. Think about it: if you were taking a meal to a shut-in with a pathological fear of blue shirts, would you wear a blue shirt? Of course not. If the need of the moment is to get the man some supper, then change into the green shirt, and deliver the food. Keep your priorities straight.
  5. It is not loving to coddle pathological fears forever. At some point, a therapist, a minister, or a good friend should show up at the shut-in’s door in a blue shirt, and help him work through it. How and when to do this is a matter for much wisdom and prayer. This is to say, there will come a day when you go out without a mask. Unless you’re the very last person in your city to take off the mask, someone is going to be uncomfortable with your decision. Let them be uncomfortable.
  6. If your primary reason for wearing a mask is that you can’t handle people looking askance at you, then take it off. Bowing to peer pressure and fear of public shame are unworthy of a follower of Jesus. Anything you do, in your whole life, needs a better reason than that.
  7. Listen to God about all of this. Make your decision prayerfully. And having made it, be bold! God has not given us a spirit of fear.

 

 


A Judgment, Not A Salvation

17 March 2020

Once upon a time, David led Israel into sin. In response, God judged Israel, but He offered David a choice of which judgment he would rather have. The story is in 2 Samuel 24:11-15.

Now when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and tell David,`Thus says the LORD: ‘I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.'” So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land? Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.”
And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”
So the LORD sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time. From Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men of the people died.

The 2016 presidential election was just such a choice. Either major candidate would have lost if they’d had to run against anybody else. Can you imagine Trump beating Obama, or Bill Clinton, or Al Gore, or heck, even Walter Mondale? Can you imagine Hillary beating Reagan, or Bush — either one — or even Bob Dole? I can’t. They only had a chance because they were running against each other, and the vast majority of the country would have preferred neither one of them.

God offered us a choice between Jezebel and Belshazzar. It’s not like there was a good option; we were getting the candidates we deserved. 2020 is shaping up to be more of the same.

David didn’t “betray his principles” by having a preference among the bad choices available to him. Neither will we, as long as we remember that every choice we’re being offered is a judgment, not a salvation.


A Branding Problem

28 January 2020

Alistair Roberts weighs in on the way the term “biblical” has been exploited as a brand. Well worth your time.

 


Little Books That Matter

21 January 2020

Here are four very small books about how we interact with the world in which we find ourselves. I recommend all four highly.

Metropolitan Manifesto by Rich Bledsoe

Christendom and the Nations by James Jordan

The Theopolitan Vision by Peter J. Leithart

Theopolitan Liturgy by Peter J. Leithart