Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Führer Principle and the Rule of Christ

In recent months I've turned from my Jean Elshtain reading and writing to study the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a scholar close to Elshtain's mind and heart, and who has become, now, close to mine as well.

Not illegitimately, we tend to view Bonhoeffer's life and work through the crystallizing lens of his death as a martyr under the National Socialist government in Germany. For those less familiar with him, Bonhoeffer was a theologian, a pastor, a leader in the Confessing Church movement under National Socialism, active in the global ecumenical movement, and in the end, a double agent and conspirator against the Nazis. He was imprisoned and put to death at the age of 39, within the final weeks of Allied victory against the Nazis in World War II.

It's easy to paint him in the glossy brushstrokes of a hero. Heroes are also easier to appropriate for ourselves. Their stories are more clay-like in our hands than we admit, and simultaneously glittery and golden; we hope that some of the glitter rubs off on us. As one friend of mine rightly put it: "We love to love Bonhoeffer," and thus we must be careful how we "use" his life. We must be on guard for the neat terms of a heroic retelling, for falsifying shadows. But making sense of a life in the context of its messy present, even at a historical distance, can issue a witness to us. This phenomenon is true for Bonhoeffer's legacy as well.

Of course, Bonhoeffer did not live his life self-conscious of his being or becoming a kind of hero, although he lived and worked acutely aware of his responsibilities as a citizen and a Christian. No doubt his social class, education, and economic situation contributed mightily to that sense of responsibility. For as much as the strong undercurrent of condescension can accompany the noblesse oblige tradition, the concept at least retains some semblance of moral obligation and responsibility upon the powerful, wealthy, and privileged.

While Jesus himself reminds us that the poor will always be with us, the inverse is also true. There will always be powerful, wealthy, and privileged people. What matters is what we/they do with it. Or, let's put this in more accurate terms: to the degree that we, the living, the breathing, are privileged with life itself, we are reminded that we must do something with it; that judgment awaits.

Bonhoeffer seems to be not so consumed by his power, wealth, and privilege as he is of his sense of responsibility to others; Charles Marsh makes this important point in his biography of Bonhoeffer:
"Crisis had induced---at least in Bonhoeffer's case---a more generous vision of the righteous and the just. Still, there remained the practical question of who but 'the last gentlemen and gentlewomen of the era of Bismarck' would come to the defense of culture, humanity, justice, and reason. In this [Bonhoeffer] was appearing to a different German tradition and value system, one entirely familiar to his fellow conspirators and their elite families. His appeal was to a time-honored sense of noblesse oblige. In this turn from the phraseological to the real, Bonhoeffer was proposing less the sacrifice of privilege than its reorganization on a higher plane. The conspiracy could only be led by the aristocrats, not of blood but of responsibility" (315).
Bonhoeffer had to make sense of his moment in time -- the terms, the events, and the figures; the crises -- with all available light and wisdom. The same is true for us. We are born and bound in by history, and we struggle to make sense of the terms, the events, and the figures. We hand-wring, pray, give, and succumb to the frustrations of the crises. But in all of it, we either embrace the responsibility of our humanity, our moral debts to our fellow man (in the most robust, fulsome meaning of that word) or we lay it down. The late, great Elshtain once quoted Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and president, "The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility." And with Bonhoeffer in mind, perhaps we could say that those who truly embrace their responsibilities are those who have become truly human.

But then and now, we see through a glass, darkly (1 Cor 13:12), but that does not mean we can see nothing at all. The image of God is not so fallen; we are not so helpless. There are still some among us that have a dim awareness that we are responsible.

Two days after Hitler took office, a nearly 27-year old Dietrich Bonhoeffer took to the radio to give an address on a concept extant in German social thought called "The Führer Principle."

And here was must pause. Of course, now, the very word "Führer" is a byword for the evil figurehead of the Nazi regime, but it simply means "leader" in German. It is not now used in political contexts. Its simple on-its-face meaning cannot be washed of its historical significance; indeed, it should not be washed. The stain is indelible. And yet, in common parlance, one will hear the word used from time to time as part of compound nouns like a "tour guide" or a "travel guide" (e.g., Reiseführer; OK - actually, for me, Reiseführerin, but you get the idea). When I offer a tour of the Bonhoeffer Haus to visitors, I am leading them, guiding them, and acting in that capacity.

Bonhoeffer's message was an early--indeed one of the earliest--public criticisms of Hitler after his consolidation of power, and the incisive theory he offered was critical and remains so today. Knowing the term Führer as "leader" in German, and not as simply "Hitler" is critical to hearing better what Bonhoeffer says. He warns of a leader who allows himself to be made an idol of the people, or who cultivates worship for himself and for his office, the conjoining of the man and the office, becomes a "misleader" -- literally, someone who misleads, in the the way we understand con-artists, liars, Pied Pipers, and manipulators -- and in German that word is "Verführer." That person, enthroned as idol, mocks God.

The pattern is rather commonplace, and it is important to see how it plays out theoretically. Authority makes other authority possible, and good authority will point to and recognize, honor, and support the authority of others. A true leader sees that in the shade of their leadership, they support the authority of others. We may call them "lesser authorities," but they are truly endowed with authority. A true leader isn't consumed with their power, their own leadership. Rather, their leadership serves these other leaders, whether these are parents, teachers, judges, community leaders -- anyone shouldering responsible care and guidance to people.

But a misleader will be consumed with their own power, will find themselves perpetually threatened by lesser authorities, ever-thirsty for greater draughts of pure power. They seek consolidation of power. They are enthralled with their own narrative rather than a larger one involving communities and other authorities. The misleader demands ever greater forms of servitude to their power, to their aggrandizing narrative, ever more offerings of loyalty, ever more sacrificial assurances of other leaders' non-threat to their power. Anyone who commands attention that deviates from the misleader is seen as a threat; the spotlight must always return to him, the glory must finally rest on him.

Ironically, the misleader also eschews responsibility even as he slavishly hopes to accumulate more power. He pushes responsibility off onto others, so inert is he in his own idolatry; so enthralled with his own power that he cannot embrace its concomitant responsibilities. Read Pilate's words to the crowd in Matt 27; disoriented and drunk on his own power, Pilate washes his hands of Jesus's blood, declaring in utter self-delusion to the crowd, as he issues his verdict, "It is your responsibility!"

The misleader misleads because he is, fundamentally, the misled, the conned, the confused. It is too easy to simply heap blame upon the misleader, for the symbiosis, the spiritual co-dependency, between the misleader and misled is complete. Each have called forth the other into being. Both have a duty to one another: it is the leader's burden to push off the expectations of idol-making by a people, and it is the people's responsibility to refuse to make of him an idol, to hand him their worship. It is the leader's moral burden to point back to the myriad places where human authority, human responsibility, makes life good; it is the burden of the led to refuse worship if and when it is demanded. This boundary-keeping can be exhausting, but it is essential.

This misleader mocks God, as Bonhoeffer describes it, because, chiefly, he refuses to see that any power he has been permitted to hold for a blip of time is on loan from God. In his foolishness, to the deafening adoration of crowds of people, he has forgotten that he is a lesser authority, that being thus authorized he is the chief servant, responsible to many, and ultimately accountable to God. Jesus himself offers this warning to Pilate, witnessing to his own authority -- which leads him in service and love to the cross -- and to Pilate's own predicament about his temporal power (John 19:11): "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." That does not mean that Pilate is to be worshipped, as if his authorization was akin to divinity. It means that he is to be refused worship because he is a lesser authority; there is an authority greater still.

Romans 13 is often invoked to cudgel and corral Christians into refraining from criticizing a leader. It is a passage I am very glad Bonhoeffer understood rightly and fulfilled well, issuing as he did such a prophetic witness for his time, a witness that reverberates into our modern era. True authority will arrive in forms of service, a reluctance to power and its corruption, a refusal to accept and give false worship, a constant discipline against accruing for oneself what is only to be given to God.

Ultimately, we see what true authority looks like in Jesus, the only one who both in his person and in his office is due worship. The gospels depict Jesus as reluctant to be crowned, slipping away from crowds that sought to craft him in their image, to make of him an idol for their own uses. He maintained disciplines of prayer, solitude, and service that were inimical to the accrual of power, and thereby he depicted his true authority. He didn't set about to get mobs foaming at the mouth for him, and yet, he drew vast crowds by his teachings, his miracles, and his manifest authority which was unlike those wielded by other religious leaders and politicians. True authority recognizes others, endows them, and lifts them up. We who have been authorized by the King of Kings must embrace that authorization in the only way we are permitted to: in humility, in service, and in embracing our many responsibilities to be his kingdom agents, even if that involves suffering, ridicule, and death. In John's gospel, Jesus in his glory was Jesus on the cross. Our noblest obligation, our highest privilege, our only allegiance and obedience and adoration, is to him.

Bonhoeffer's 1933 radio address was cut off before he could finish it. No matter, he went on to publish and distribute it. This is the behavior of one authorized by Christ.

Friday, February 16, 2018

What Grounds Our Freedom

Another school shooting. These moments of violence and crystallized vulnerability leave us breathless, wordless, and acutely aware of our sense of powerlessness.

In this moment, we shall have to speak of idols, although very few of us believe in them nowadays. And to really get at what we mean by idols, we shall have to speak of worship, specifically the worship of false idols, and how harmful they are to human flourishing. And finally, we shall have to consider what grounds our freedom, how we secure ourselves, our families, our communities, and our nation, how we get and use power, how we secure and maintain our freedom. As the duo Harrod & Funck once sang, "Who's the holder of your devotion? Does it really set you free?"

Andy Crouch's Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power addresses the reality and functionality of idols masterfully. I'll attempt to summarize just a bit of what he says on this subject very briefly, but I'd urge you to read that important (and very readable) book for yourself.

In our supposedly disenchanted, post-Enlightenment universe, we smugly believe that idols are the precious objects of lesser peoples, with their funny totems and grotesque statues. We respect these artifacts with a condescending arrogance, in the way that we respect and honor a child's drawing, poorly done, praising it as art.

We are foolish to think that we do not tether ourselves to idols mindlessly also. Assuredly, we do. We do this because humans worship. This isn't a particularly religious insight, I'm not the first nor the last to make it, and some have argued this for a more secular hearing. One chief example which gained a wide hearing was by David Foster Wallace in his This is Water address. (Helpful overview with pertinent quotes here.)

That people worship -- that we orient around people and things and those people and things shape us as we orient around them -- is not altogether self-evident in the course of daily life and work. For instance, certain people cheer for a sports team. They orient their schedules around the games. They put out a lot of money to participate at greater levels in that community-forming attention. In the main, this is harmless and entertaining. They feel a sense of communal kinship with those who likewise orient to that sports team. They raise their hands in praise to cheer their team, and they feel dejected and lost when their team loses. This dynamic operates within every human heart, every human structure, every human institution.

And yet the best hearts, structures, and institutions provide meaningful checks on the life-choking weeds of life-robbing idolatry. When one is willing to make inordinate sacrifices for a love (like, for a sports team), or when one believes that a sports team literally keeps him sane and whole, then we must speak of idols.

What gives idols such significant power is that they aren't usually something like "serious and sincere love of a sports team." They tend to operate as background code to life itself. They are what we really believe promises us power, control, security, or some other good thing. The idols that actually function in our lives usually don't demand we install a wooden pole in our living rooms to which we offer incense, money, oranges, and regular singalongs of adulation and liturgical praise.

But they do demand things of us, and their demands will appear insignificant at the beginning of their reign and rule, when the idols are at their most effective in functionality -- they deliver, to a degree, on certain goods. Further into their rule and reign, idols demand even more from us and deliver even less.

An addictive pattern forms, with the idol capturing the participant worshiper early on with assurances of happiness, security, and freedom, but as the addiction grows, the participant becomes less and less free from turning away from the idol, and the idol delivers less and less on the happiness, security, and freedom, robbing its worshiper of anything it can.

I grew up in a gun-owning family, and I learned how to operate a fire-arm at a young age. But within my family, I also grew up with a marked culture of restraint and responsibility of the place and function of firearms. I was never taught that guns were anything other than tools -- very powerful tools. Because of their power, they had to be handled with a great deal of wisdom, skepticism, and responsibility. They were not to be handled cavalierly nor with awe. I understood without much lecturing and by means of more modeled behavior that fire-arms were serious objects, but that what was more serious was the wisdom of the fire-arm operator, tethered to a larger authoritative tradition of proper firearm usage. That kind of power should not be flaunted, mocked, or boasted about. It should be handled with restraint and real respect. So, to some degree, I can agree with the mantra that is often pulled out in these times of abhorrent crisis by the chief priests of the gun industry: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." To a degree, they are right.

But that mantra is used to blur wise thought about what a gun is, and what it is for. That line serves as a toxic fog to political conversation, putting many people into a thrall to the lie that firearms ground our political freedoms, that this artifact is a kind of guarantor of political rights. And therein lies the operation of the prevailing idol in American culture for many people. The gun has come to take on sacramental quality, the mere possession of a firearm as an essential guarantor of political rights. The second amendment for many is the very ground from which all other political freedoms grow. In the thrall of this idea, the firearm has become an artifact of awe, an object of worship which has come to represent much more than what it is.

Firearms have a real place in the narrative of our country's life. That they are significant artifacts, for good or for ill, is not in dispute. What I dispute -- what I call idolatrous -- is that American citizens owe their freedom to this particular artifact. That gets the narrative wrong. It hands worship -- prayerful, sacrificial attention and praise -- to an object that doesn't deserve it.

Furthermore, the security and safety that this idol claims to provide is increasingly showing its idolatrous nature. Guns aren't delivering on what their chief priests claim they guarantee: security and freedom. When children are literally hunted in their places of learning; when popular entertainers would rather stir up conspiracies about these events than face reality; when literally no event -- no matter how tragic or horrific -- can inform meaningful boundaries around this artifact, or around the diseased worship of it, then we must speak of it as an idol and call it out, cast it down, and restore it to its place, to the tool that it is.

Citizens, endowed with wisdom, capable of repentance and freedom, must reconsider what actually grounds our freedom, and re-orient.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"The dead are not raised by politics."

A significant figure in my life passed away earlier this week, a man I worked for in my early to mid-twenties at a Washington, D.C. think tank. Watching the many tributes to his life pour in from around the world, I am filled with grief for his passing at far too early an age, as well as gratitude for the faithful life that he lived. He was a good man, and deserving of the adulation he is receiving posthumously. He was cherished in his life as well.

The Washington Post's obituary quotes him: "The dead are not raised by politics." It's an unassailable truth, and one that manages to get other true things in their proper place: politics being one of them. Politics very often matters to questions of life and death. The most fundamental aspect of politics is whether it preserves life and its living. If politics fails to do that, then something is wrong. But politics as a means to something greater? No. And when the political order attempts great, tumultuous things, the living of life often pays for it. But politics cannot raise the dead, so keep it in its proper place. 

It's fair to say that Michael Cromartie, while not an academic name known in many households, was far more influential than a regular academic, and much of what made him so effective was his manifest love for people. He was a genuinely open, warm, kind, funny, and had a way of putting someone at ease that, well, many of us who knew him simply have not encountered in another human being.

He bridged chasms between journalists and people of faith. He himself identified as an evangelical Christian, in accordance to the old quadrilateral of being Christ-centered, recognizing the Bible as the inspired Word of God, maintaining a belief in personal conversion and a commitment to mission. It's a definition that has been lost, largely, in the slipshod use of the term by many in the media, and in the massive failure of American Christianity to make disciples.

But while some use journalists' ignorance of the finer points of theology or of a religious cultural community as a cudgel against them, Michael reached out with good-humor and a willingness to respectful offer some education. And I have to say, watching what these journalists are saying about him? You'd think he was their patron saint. They experienced in his life, and witnessed to in his suffering and death, something greater than him.

The dead are not raised by politics, which is a truth that should inform our politics. But the dead are still raised, which is also a truth that should inform our living, and our dying.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Allure of Patriarchalism

Yes, April flew by with nary a word from the Hausfrau. Today, she returns to her text, Jean Elshtain's Public Man, Private Woman, opening to chapter 3: "Politics Sanctified and Subdued: Patriarchalism and the Liberal Tradition." With Elshtain, she will tackle the first third of this chapter today, focusing on patriarchalism and our current moment.

Elshtain opens the chapter with a bird's eye summary of where she's led us, through the great historical movement of political thought, making sense of how key thinkers have imagined the fluctuating boundary lines of what is called "public" and what is deemed "private." So, from ancient to late medieval times and now to the beginnings of an early modern period, we walk along with Elshtain.

I do want to recall why this is worth doing. Why study political theory? Political thought is a vast conversation about reality across time and space. It is a landscape of discovery, debate, and decision. Part of what I love about that landscape is that, by listening and learning, I come to understand better my own small place in a wide, wide world. Thinkers, writers, and thought leaders act not only as surveyors of that landscape, but also as its developers. Knowing how the boundary lines shift, how reality is imagined and re-imagined, and then handed along for new development, is a valuable resource to making sense of the world today, even for an obscure Hausfrau.

So, it's valuable for all of us. That's why I keep returning to it. Political philosophy is not something reserved only for academic political philosophers at play in ivory towers. How we think, how we imagine, how we reason and learn to reason, is critically important, for Hausfrauen and all others (and even children -- yes; more on that another time).

But how one goes about making sense of that landscape, that expansive conversation, is also a tricky discipline. It involves a constant moving back and forth between subject and object, between the individual and the community, a holding together of things that are at all times moving apart.

Much of what drives our interest into the waters of political thought -- or, I'll speak for myself: what drives my interest in political theory -- are the spiritual, emotional, and historical questions that are fundamentally about me trying to make sense of myself, trying to crack open a little light on the dark mysteries of living. I bring my questions -- as well as my despair, disorientation, indignation and wounds, fear, privilege, and measure of power -- to that conversation too. I bring the way I imagine the world, myself, and others. My imagination and my own and my culture's questions of meaning and mystery are all bound up together. The same is true for political philosophers, because they are people, inhabiting time, space, culture, and startling genius and real finitude.

Even the most powerful people in the world experience life as vulnerability, and the very human attempt to avoid our human vulnerability can make us rapacious and evil. Willfully refusing to acknowledge our human vulnerability deforms us. Political ideas, if they lack a vision of human vulnerability and brokenness, of our basic needs and our capacity for great evil, advance lies. Ideally, political ideas will be grounded in thoughts, words, and deeds that constrain injustice and make proximate attempts at confounding what is evil; that affirm both the inherent value and mystery of human life with a steely eyed view of its tendency to devalue and destroy it, especially in our futile attempts at securing salvation from it.

There is a vulnerability in conversation too, including the wide and ranging conversation that makes up political philosophy. It takes practice and perseverance to gain and hone skill in conversations with living human beings, and the same is true for conversing with intellectual ancestors, no matter how misguided we may think they were. One must enter conversations with real courtesy, honesty, and courage, alongside a robust amount of self-knowledge and a vital sense of our vulnerability, expressed best in a willingness to listen and engage. We just might learn something.

Before Liberalism, There was Patriarchalism

The early modern period emerges from the late medieval; it develops in conversation and contradistinction to it. And it's in the early modern period that, I think, we begin to see ourselves in the mirror. In these very early writings, we begin to see the origins of how we think the way we do and organize ourselves the way we do. Where Plato and Aristotle sometimes seem distant and literary, the English political philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are less so. In them, we begin to see glimpses of ourselves -- i.e, "mom's nose," or "dad's eyes."

Patriarchal theories of political order are one generation removed from these early modern thinkers. Patriarchalism is the"old country," using a language that few speak, and clouded in a kind of dark nostalgia. It's a home we claim to recognize but that we all have fundamentally rejected. We instinctively want to keep a sharp critical distance from those ideas, but actually thinking about them is decidedly rare.

Remember: the value of the study of political thought today is not simply to unmask and debunk our intellectual ancestry. That is an easy, common, and lazy approach to study. Indeed, studying an old political theory may shed some light on our own contemporary experience. We are a small voice in a large and long conversation. More voices will join in. We don't study just for ourselves. We study also for those who come after us, who will read and study and judge our legacy too.

The patriarchal tradition is a theory of political order that is finds its clearest expression in the divine right of kings. Elshtain chooses Sir Roger Filmer whose Patriarcha (pub. posthumously in 1680) was critically engaged by John Locke, although in an extended footnote, she mentions that she could have just as well selected the French political philosopher Jean Bodin. Granted, the term "patriarchy" is tossed around rather casually these days, describing an idea of ideological oppression, a vague, omnipresent, yet still powerful operating system of the unjust rule of powerful men. The patriarchal theory of the state is not that; it's a specific tradition of thought, rooted in a larger story than mere power, unlike what many refer to as "patriarchy." That much bandied term "partriarchy" is the Disney character derived from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It reveals more about the movie-maker and his or her culture than about the original storyteller's culture.

Yes, Filmer's theory is a story, but one we too casually dismiss. He is an early modern person defending an old idea. Few thinkers today discuss Filmer's Patriarcha, at least not without John Locke close on his heals. The entire first treatise of Locke's Two Treatises of Government is a refutation of Patriarcha. (That also explains why you might hear people say, you know, at a nearby cafe, "I was just re-reading Locke's second treatise on government," but never, or rarely ever, that they were revisiting Locke's first treatise.) Then again, insofar as he was advancing an "old country" train of thought, Filmer equally wrestles with the tenets of early modern political thought, including the inherent freedom into which people are born, which his contemporaries were claiming at the time. Filmer didn't see it and didn't buy it. That's not how human life looked to him.

Filmer engages in a form of public reason that draws sincerely from the narrative, axiomatic authority of the Bible, directly appealing to Adam's lineage and grant of dominion in direct defense of English kingly rights. Fathers ruled families and children recognized their authority, having no agency to decide on their rule. Kings were the father figures of all, authorized by God to rule, and offering the only real freedom and protection extant in the world. (It's a world in which witches were still put on trial and severely punished, a subject Filmer touched on too (smirk).) It is a world we can only imagine, and we do imagine it, regularly:
"There is and always shall be continued to the end of the world a natural right of a supreme father over every multitude, although, by the secret will of God, many at first do most unjustly obtain the exercise of it. . . ."
". . . If we compare the natural rights of a father with those of a king, we find them all one, without any difference at all but only in the latitude or extent of them: as the father over one family, so the king, as father over many families, extends his care to preserve, feed, clothe, instruct, and defend the whole commonwealth. His war, his peace, his courts of justice, and all his acts of sovereignty, tend only to preserve and distribute to every subordinate and inferior father, and to their children, their rights and privileges, so that all the duties of a king are summed up in an universal fatherly care of his people."
Filmer's description and defense of patriarchal rule strikes some very primal chords, by which I mean, these are deeply familiar themes in the human experience, in the same way that the vast ocean connotes fearful, inhuman chaos. The world of patriarchal rule has a gleeming theoretical sky, and it is lacking a hermeneutical horizon. The strong and caring father rules. The noble lineage is unbroken, and everything has its place in a great chain of command. Human vulnerability finds safety and protection in the shadow of the father's wings.

The irony of Patriarcha's publication, as Elshtain notes, is that while it offered the most fullthroated defense of the divine right of kings, it was an idea already fully in "the beginning of its decline" (103). Filmer so pushes the internal logic of this natural law of rule over and against democratic rule that has almost nowhere to go but collapse in on itself. The private and the public are utterly fused in this collapse, says Elshtain: "Filmer so thoroughly politicizes the family and familializes the commonwealth that there is no room for individuals, whether male or female, to conceive of themselves as having a number of diverse roles to play" (103).

To emphasize this point (that is, the familializing of the commonwealth in the patriarchalist tradition) Elshtain draws on insights from Peter Laslett and Michael Walzer:
"... nobody ever 'leaves home.' Royal government by divine monarchs was intensely personal. The kingdom was also the king's private domain; his body and the body politic were separate, yet fused into the concept of an overarching, single will. 'I am the husband, and all the whole island is my lawful wife,' said King James." (104-5)

Continuing on:
". . . As Michael Walzer points out, the king was the 'only public person.' All history became a kind of domestic history, an unbroken chain of patriarchal-personalized rule." (105)
Filmer uses "all the hard coinage of the absolutist realm," Elshtain says, but Filmer argues that monarchical rule is true liberty, and his Patriarcha warns of the profound risk of rule by the people. Yes, of course, he knows "the vulgar opinion" that democratic rule was invoked to curb the tyranny of a monarchy. But the corrupting tyranny of the masses may be far worse (forgive the rapid-fire sampling below, but you need to hear a bit of Filmer for himself):
". . . And I verily believe never any democratical state showed itself at first fairly to the world by any elective entrance, but they all secretly crept in by the back-door of sedition and faction.  . . .

"If we will listen to the judgment of those who should best know the nature of popular government, we shall find no reason for good men to desire or choose it. . . . The Athenians sold justice as they did other merchandise, which made Plato call a popular estate a fair, where everything is to be sold.  . . ."

"If any man think these disorders in popular states were but casual, or such as might happen under any kind of government, he must know that such mischiefs are unavoidable and of necessity do follow all democratical regimens; and the reason is given, because the nature of all people is to desire liberty without restraint, which cannot be but where the wicked bear rule; and if the people should be so indiscreet as to advance virtuous men, they lose their power; for that good men would favour none but the good, which are always the fewer in number, and the wicked and vicious — which is still the greatest part of the people — should be excluded from all preferment, and in the end, by little and little, wise men should seize upon the state and take it from the people."

[Here, Filmer draws from the ancients] "There is nothing more uncertain than the people; their opinions are as variable and sudden as tempests; there is neither truth nor judgment in them; they are not led by wisdom to judge of anything, but by violence and rashness; nor put they any difference between things true and false. After the manner of cattle, they follow the herd that goes before; they have a custom always to favour the worst and the weakest; they are most prone to suspicions, and use to condemn men for guilty upon any false suggestion; they are apt to believe all news, especially if it be sorrowful; and, like Fame, they make it more in the believing; when there is no author, they fear those evils which themselves have feigned; they are most desirous of new stirs and changes, and are enemies to quiet and rest; whatsoever is giddy or headstrong, they account manlike and courageous; but whatsoever is modest or provident seems sluggish; each man hath a care of his particular, and thinks basely of the common good; they look upon approaching mischiefs as they do upon thunder, only every man wisheth it may not touch his own person; it is the nature of them, they must serve basely or domineer proudly; for they know no mean."
Did you read that above quote? Doesn't that just sound like a swirl of our current news cycle? Or, I don't know, what political discourse on Twitter seems like these days?
Yes, Elshtain notices "some strengths in Filmer's account" (107), and, again, these have surprising validity for our day. First, she says that Filmer understands, deeply, that "human beings are defined by relationship and traditions" that are irreducible. Individuals are rooted in families; fathers have a significant place in history and in families, even if the idolatrous worship of the father figure is a perilous one. Filmer understood the compelling imagery, the authoritative mythos, that being connected to a historical family carries. There is meaning and safety in the tribe.

Deep, violent changes to society inevitably mean breakage to those relationships and widespread suffering. Human vulnerability can only take so much tumult, which is why that "fatherly" approach -- albeit an absolutizing fatherliness -- accounted for and honored human vulnerability in ways that the liberal tradition has been less able to do. The liberal tradition, Elshtain argues (and I think rightly) fails "to treat the family in a full and coherent manner" (106), and it fails to address the living shape of the human life, with its frail beginnings and endings. It's a narrative stumbling block that persists today, whetted as we are to the liberal "set of assumptions which required the 'systematic setting to one side of the fundamental facts of birth, childhood, parenthood, old age, and death,'" quoting Robert Paul Wolff (107). These real moments of human vulnerability find very little honest accounting in the liberal tradition.

Other themes persist with striking relevance for today:

1) How does the sovereign understand him or herself in relationship to the office he or she occupies? to the body politic? What does the state (and specifically the people of the state) owe the sovereign, as a person, or the sovereign in his office? While this may sound like an arcane piece of debate, have a look at how a research associate at the Brookings Institution grappled with some medieval political theology with respect to Twitter use today. One also may ask, with startling relevancy, to whom or to what do inhabitants of the realm, citizens of the republic, owe fealty? Is the body politic the wife of the sovereign? Does she exist for his pleasure and profit, and he to her, in exchange, the promise of security, strength, and provision?

2) To whom does the sovereign submit? Elshtain in no ways endorses Filmer's account of reality, but she does acknowledge that he articulates the patriarchal theory in submission to a much higher authority, to a deeper narrative - one that many have called "God and his judgment." God's authorization and judgment were jettisoned in the liberal tradition, and as a people grow corrupt, a thirst grows for the clear water of truth and justice. But how do we dig a new well if its all brackish?

3) What primal chords captivate us today? I wonder if this patriarchal vision is cooing to us again, with its dark nostalgia, in the face of liberalism's democratic tumult. "Wouldn't it be lovely to find a bit of rest in strong arms of a father? Someone who can restore what we feel is lost?" That theme, with all its complications, is a powerful human refrain. The language persists even in our so-called demythologized modern realm. It is showing up, I think, in the world where ancient narratives are being revived, and father-figures of all kinds of hideous stripes are offering a kind of narrative and political salvation. The Disney-like term "partriarchy" thrown around in comfortable academic settings doesn't capture the half of it.

4) For Christians, what shapes your imagination about fathers and kingdoms? Being clear-minded about kingship matters to our theology and religious commitment. We speak of a coming Kingdom. Do we know the signs of the Kingdom? Who and what informs our signs of the Kingdom? We worship Jesus, who sired no children and advanced no biological lineage. Compare his Kingship, the claims of the Kingdom of God, of its nature and of his dominion, and let the King of kings be the Judge of all other sovereigns. Relatedly, importantly, what does the Bible say, the community of the saints say, about the nature of God's fatherly care towards us? These primal questions shared by nations and individuals across time and space matter deeply. They won't go away, but they will attempt to find answers in many people and in many places that will not finally satisfy them.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Wide and Narrowing World: Machiavelli's Imagination

For new readers, a recap to date: I'm an American living in Germany who thinks and writes about political theory and theology as a mother and citizen. This blog is a wrestling mat for my thoughts, where I make sense of and, at times, try to wring meaning from what I'm reading in the discipline.

Currently, I am reading through Jean Bethke Elshtain's Private Man, Public Woman. Today concludes my time in the section, "Early Christianity to Machiavelli," and I will spend time with Elshtain as she eyes Niccolo's mind.
"For it may be said of men in general, that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain; as long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours; they offer you their blood, their goods, their life, and their children, as I have before said, when the necessity is remote; but when it approaches, they revolt." - Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Oddly, the view that I learned growing up in an evangelical Christian home and church setting about the nature of people -- a largely biblical view -- had much in common with many modern political theorists. The way Machiavelli or Hobbes described the nature of people and the problems of the world felt like prelude to a fiery altar call: People are wicked! The world is fallen! Woe!

My encounters with other thinkers, like Freud, Nietzsche, or Foucault, often left me nodding my head in full agreement about their assessment of the world's predicament and its many sources of discontent. I very often thought: These guys get it! When the moderns finally arrived in my syllabus's reading schedule, after arduous foreign escapades among ancient political thinkers, they sounded coherent in their diagnoses. This was a world I knew; these were assumptions I shared. These men were describing a theory of humanity I already held with conviction. (Of course, looking back at the many people that I actually lived among were not plainly, actively wicked. But we all knew we were.)

In that early modern imagination, finally freed from having to pay an intellectual tithe to a ruling, corrupted, and coercive religious authority and narrative, the world was ready for a new imagination to map it, name it, and claim it. The authoritative border between heaven and earth got a gleaming new wall, high and thick. Over that wall, there may be a theoretical savior to this nasty, brutish life, but his claims on the territory of reality, on the choppy seas of political life, were irrelevant, fanciful, and foolish. He -- and let us call him by name before the modern moment fully eclipses it: Jesus -- and his teachings had been removed from the public, secular equation.

Yes, Machiavelli rushed to fill the void of a disintegrating Christendom. Elshtain writes that he offers "a theory of political action which continues to resonate--...with dire consequences--for public and private reality alike" (92). Of course, Machiavelli wrote for a particular moment in history; who doesn't? I am thinking and writing for my time too.

Machiavelli's world was one of political disorder; the old ship was not only grounded but splintered to bits. She would not be repaired. A new ship had to be built for the chaotic seas, now littered with the flotsam of Christendom and jetsam of the medieval world. With authority shaken to the foundations, Machiavelli focused on "the problem of political power itself: how to get it and how to keep it" (92). 

This move makes sense when the structures are shaking. What else, if we're honest, but pure power can achieve political order? What else constitutes political order but raw power? Debased, irrational, desire-driven human beings submit only to violence---like beasts; we, the sheep, gone astray. Or, at least, to the threat of violence.

Machiavelli redefined the ends of social and political life, which had been tethered to ideas about the good (justice, righteousness, divine judgment, etc.) and were now cut loose: "Machiavelli...placed force rather than legitimate authority at the heart of his political vision. Force permeated all political levels up to the pinnacle of an armed state of militant, mobilized citizens, geared towards defense..." (93). Good rulers can be very bad human beings, as long as they maintain order and provide a measure of prosperity by the means required to do so.

Machiavelli does not simply advise naked aggression to his Prince, but he does not exclude it. "The prince does what is required" (95), taking actions based on judgments with an eye to their consequence, not to a benign intention. That consequentialist toolkit has some very sharp implements within it, but a shrewd prince knows when to use them. But make no mistake about their centrality; in Machiavelli's imagination, "politics revolves around the terms power, force, and violence" (98).

This is a newly imagined world, or in the same instance, one that offers no pretense as the older one did. It is a world that has made the claims of the private (matters of faith and morality) irrelevant to public life (practical power). The public is now "imperative," and its claims trump the private or faithful. I cannot improve on Elshtain's description of what this means for society, both public and private:
"All social ties and relations suffer as the split between public and private widens into a gap and then a chasm. Within the domain of Realpolitik intractable terms like 'power, force, coercion, violence' structure political action and consciousness. On the other side of the chasm, softness, compassion, forgiveness, and emotionality are allowable insofar as they do not intervene with the public imperative. The private world is called upon to 'make up' for the cold (but necessary) inhumanity of the public. Yet it, too, suffers from the political amoral consequentialism, for the private sphere exists within a 'space' permeated by that politics and within a political consciousness that---to the extent that it accepts the theory that all men are wicked, that politics is power and the promotion of self-interest, and that this is the 'way things are'---will systematically vitiate transformative possibilities as these will be neither seen nor understood within its tough, hard world." (Elshtain 99)
So, in a way, Machiavelli has gained a world, at long last freed from its old constraints, but at the same time, narrowed and made cruel. He has not just lost an idea of the soul but rather set the soul up for constant trauma. The moral imagination may, still, light upon an idea; some ray of redeeming hope may still shine with a healing authority; some thought of good will might open up this narrow universe; there may be an in-breaking of a compelling force that does not originate in violence. But this newly mapped world has not left space for these possibilities in the public realm. Realpolitik redefines what is real and what is thought of as practical. That blasted cement wall, that high and thick border line, stops the narrative from going beyond its now narrowly redefined limits.

How we imagine the world matters to our world.

Friday, March 10, 2017

An Aside: Befriending Benedict

In 2014 I had the privilege of sharing some thoughts about St. Benedict and his Rule for a retreat center called Corhaven in the Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, along with the Rev. Bill Haley who led the retreat and leads the center. (I wrote up a brief description of the retreat as well, which involved far more--good food, times of quiet, bread-baking and outdoor manual labor--than just my talk.)

There's been some recent discussion about Benedict today because of a book derived from an article with the idea of "The Benedict Option." I have not read Rod Dreher's book, and St. Benedict came to my attention long before I became aware of Dreher's work on the matter. But since he is getting some attention -- that is, Benedict, via Dreher -- in certain circles, I thought I'd share my thoughts too.

(I've highlighted some thoughts that may be pertinent to prevailing discussions.)

"Rhythms and Vocation: An Experiential Introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict"

Welcome to the experiential introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict. Our time here serves as the “study” component of our Benedictine day, and it will necessarily have to be a very basic introduction. I am confident that God has drawn us, here, to this place to learn from one of his great servants in the faith and to do it together. My task here, as I see it, is – briefly to introduce you to the man, Benedict, and to his Rule, and then to provide some very brief reflection on how the Rule can be a sort of “spiritual check” and a source of strength to you in your life in Christ.

There may be many reasons that you were drawn to participate in today's retreat. Our retreat advertisement described what we all recognize as typical of modern life from which we often long for a reprieve: frenzied existences, disorientation, the mis-ordering of our lives, and disconnection from God and others. I will in no way suggest here that Benedict’s Rule gives us any neat or easy answers to our unique stations and situations in life. I don't think that if we would all simply “follow the Rule” we will achieve spiritual self-improvement or cultural renewal. That’s not the point of today.

The Rule, for fifteen centuries, has represented a serious alternative to the way the world operates. The communities who lived by it witnessed to the reality of God and his kingdom in all aspects of life. Far from being cloistered from the world, even if they were quite deliberately removed from the world’s rhythms, these communities were still actively engaged in it, offering hospitality to travelers on dangerous roads, tending farms, and even proving to be wells of cultural and intellectual preservation and renewal within medieval Europe, and continuing to this day. That historic fact might prompt us to consider reading this Rule with a mind for our own cultures that is, admittedly, showing serious signs of rot. But the “effectiveness of the Rule,” if we can call it that, is in its individual application that is supported by a community. The Rule offers much wisdom and points us in directions that can strengthen us personally and corporately for the tasks that we face in living faithful Christians lives today.

Before we turn to Benedict, let me tell you about how I became interested in learning more about Benedict and his Rule. For years, I have admired two writers who have both found the Rule to be an important source of Christian wisdom and formation for them. These are Kathleen Norris, an American poet and writer whose work I have long respected, and Esther de Waal, a British historian who is probably the most esteemed lay Protestant interpreter of the Benedictine Rule today. I wanted to meet this friend of theirs about which they both spoke so highly. My study of Benedict in the last few months has been an attempt to befriend him for myself and understand him a bit better than just by way of the second-hand knowledge I had gleaned from those two women. So I am a relative newcomer to the Rule of St. Benedict, and I still have much to learn and to put into practice.

One Benedictine monk, reflecting on the value of hearing from the Rule, said: “The whole impact of an ancient text such as the Rule of St. Benedict derives from the fact that it preserves a ‘memory’ of a way of seeing and doing things that is not governed by contemporary ideologies. … It has the effect of reminding us of the sheer relatively of many aspects of thought and conduct which we have come to think of as absolute. Too often we accept uncritically beliefs and values which contribute little to the unfolding of a vocation; it does us no harm sometimes to be reminded of an alternative system.”

Besides being an alternative way of life, the Rule is known for its spiritual wisdom and its gentle, realistic understanding of people who are in pursuit of Jesus and holy Christian community, yet who are still very much people. If our cultural context is quite changed from that of Benedict’s, the fundamental nature of the human person has not changed. Another Benedictine writer said that the Rule was written for a community “with an eye on the incapacities of its members” -- people like us, in relationships like ours. So, who was this man, Benedict, and what was his world like?

Benedict the Man
What we know of Benedict of Nursia comes from two sources, the Rule itself, which he wrote, and a book written by Pope Gregory the First (or Gregory the Great) called The Dialogues in 593 A.D. The Dialogues are a compilation of stories about saints’ lives, and in it, Gregory sought to collect and highlight miracles that took place in sixth-century Italy, many of which are strange and fantastical. Gregory was not trying to write a history book; he wrote the Dialogues as a way to encourage a church that was beset with debates over heresies within a socio-political setting that was experiencing great upheaval. It was a book intended to show that there were still people living faithful Christian lives and who had experienced the power of God through miracles.

What Gregory learned about Benedict – whom he never met -- he learned from some monks that had fled the last monastic community that Benedict founded before his death, when that community was overrun by the Lombards, one of the many warring Germanic tribes that had been picking apart and feuding over the late Roman Empire for over a century.

Benedict himself was born around the year 480 A.D., in the Italian town of Nursia, which is now called “Norcia,” in the region of Umbria – just north of Rome in what is the very center of the Italian boot.

He was probably born to a Christian family, and one scholar I read said that we could safely say his was a “fairly good family,” prosperous but not aristocratic; but clearly a family that cared enough about their son’s education and formation to send him to Rome for additional study. (Perhaps we could compare him to a wealthier Christian family in Northern Virginia, who then packs their kid off to an Ivy League school.) As Pope Gregory recounts, when Benedict arrived in Rome to begin his studies, he was horrified by its culture, which had grown indulgent, decadent, and cruel.

It’s important to remember here that Benedict was born into an already quite decayed Roman empire, both within and along its borders. The chasm between rich and poor was growing, the economy was slave-based, society was highly stratified, and classical Roman institutions that had “worked” for so long were breaking down, particularly the effectiveness of the once all-powerful Roman military. Rome was sacked numerous times, the first being 70 years before Benedict was born (410 by the Visigoths; in 455 by the Vandals) and in Benedict’s own lifetime, Rome was invaded and overtaken by the Ostrogoths. And if you need to be reminded what it means when someone “sacks Rome,” it meant being infiltrated by Germanic warriors who ran amok, pillaging, looting, and destroying things, with Rome unable to mount much of a defense. In other words, Roman culture was deteriorating. While some notable historians have blamed Christianity for contributing to Rome’s inconsequential defense and even its inward decay, it’s likely that Roman culture, much like our own, was slowly collapsing in on itself. It had run its course, had grown undisciplined and unmoored, even if it was technically “Christian.” Its powerful inhabitants were taking what they could get in the near term, and the rest were suffering.

So, Benedict arrives in Rome and realizes that the vocational way marked for him there would likely lead to his own spiritual bankruptcy. Pope Gregory wrote that when Benedict saw how his classmates and academic elders had “fallen into a dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, . . . lest entering too far in acquaintance with [that life], he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf.” Much to the shame of his family, Benedict becomes a drop-out and hits the road heading out of Rome.

He winds up and lives for two years at a monastic community outside of Rome where he found people that were not quite as debased as those in the city were, but then he decides to recede even further “into the wilderness” – much like those whom we call the Desert Fathers and Mothers did, the hermits of early Christianity. He heads just a few miles down the road to a town called Subiaco. On the way, he is befriended by a monk who, after talking with Benedict, encourages the young man to spend time in prayer and solitude. Benedict takes that advice, and lives in a cave nearby that monk’s community for three years. This one monk tends to his need for food, but otherwise, Benedict is left alone with God and himself. He spends his time in prayer, reading the Scriptures, and battling his temptations, a task that Pope Gregory describes with much flair.

Religious celebrity is nothing new: Benedict’s holy fame grew by virtue of his cave-dwelling hermitage. In time, he was approached by a group of monks who asked him to become their abbot, and apparently, Benedict’s more extreme tendencies in his earnest youth, honed after three years in solitude in a cave, and his attempts at implementing fairly ascetic spiritual disciplines within this community drove these monks crazy. In an effort to unseat him as their abbot, they try to poison Benedict, which we are told Benedict miraculously escapes, and he leaves to found other monasteries.

Benedict’s celebrity brings him no peace. In fact, his ever-increasing acclaim invites more resistance and jealousy, and when one local priest seemed determined to undermine Benedict and attempts at reconciling with this priest failed, Benedict packs up his Subiaco community in 529. They depart to a hilltop called Monte Cassino, just outside of the town of Cassino to the south of Rome. On this rocky hilltop stood a pagan Roman temple used to worship Apollo, the god of war, and the local inhabitants still worshipped there. Benedict and his monks destroy the temple, cut down the sacred groves, and build a new monastic community on the site of the pagan ruins. It was here, on this hilltop, that Benedict cultivated the community of monks – none of them priests, including Benedict himself -- that served as the incubator for his Rule, which he wrote probably within the last seven years of his life. He died, it is written, standing, in prayer, upheld by the monks with whom he lived and whose lives he tended as their abbot, sometime in the 540s.

The Rule
That is the bare bones biography of Benedict’s life, so let’s turn now to his Rule, which Pope Gregory said of Benedict that he wrote what he lived.

But before we do, let’s say something about this word “rule.” The word is regula in Latin. Many Benedictine interpreters suggest it should be conceived as more like “a guide,” or even “a railing,” something you grab on to along a path or while climbing a staircase; it’s something to hold onto in the dark to provide stability and to support you on the way.

Benedict’s Rule was not particularly original; that’s not what made it stand out among many monastic rules already in circulation at the time. Most modern scholars agree that Benedict drew heavily from several sources of monastic literature already in use during his time. He was well versed in that literature and drew especially from a very strict monastic document called “The Rule of the Master.” But interestingly, while Benedict follows a lot of that rule’s forms and literary devices, he modifies it in telling ways, and writes his own rule in a far gentler, encouraging, and fatherly tone. He had an eye for the kinds of virtues necessary within a community, especially one that drew from such a socially conscious and stratified society as Roman life was. He sought to form the monks, drawn from all socio-economic backgrounds, into a true community of believers, capable of operating with love in the world and within their community. He describes his Rule as a “school for the Lord’s service,” and Benedict writes as a loving teacher who invites pupils to learn and grow, even if the regimen will be difficult at first. Their needs will be met, and they will grow stronger as they participate in the rhythms of the community. These rhythms are prayer, study, and work, and the community was governed by a single abbot – the “father” – whom Christ in the end would judge by in how he tended the sheep within the fold.

The Rule is teeming with Scriptural quotes and allusions. Benedict was clearly a man whose mind was saturated in the Scriptures, especially the Psalms. In an age like ours that loves to explore spirituality but is very resistant to voices of authority like the Bible, this is a critical piece of information to hold onto as you encounter the Rule. Esther de Waal writes:

“It is very important to recognize [the] biblical underpinnings [of the Rule] and to emphasize it very strongly, for unless we do we shall never appreciate how Benedict’s teaching comes from careful reflection on the Word. Its purpose was simply to translate the biblical ideal into a practical way of life. The Rule . . . is foundational, and we should treat it as a seminal document to be shared by all, irrespective of denomination, since it is nothing less than gospel teaching. Benedict himself would probably have been shocked to find that some of those lay people who are turning to the Rule today like to describe themselves as followers of ‘Benedictine spirituality.’ He has one concern only, and that is to encourage us all to become followers of the Word, of Christ, the life-giving way.”

So think of the Rule as the railing, with Jesus, the Word made flesh, as both the path and the destination.

I could cherry-pick a handful of inspiring spiritual aphorisms from the Rule for you today, but that would commit two kinds of offenses against it. First, it would blur the Rule’s genre as a legislative document. The same could be said about the value of reading Leviticus; there’s a lot of nuts and bolts in the Rule, although far more in Leviticus. There are chapters that discuss in what order the Psalms should be prayed, or how the monks should sleep and how their beds should be arranged, what kinds of punishments are meted out for disobedience, the kinds of clothing that the monks are to be issued, and who should do kitchen duties and when. These are not insignificant matters. In fact, the way Benedict treats them in the Rule signifies how important he saw the mundane or quotidian elements of life. The food and the drink, the use and care of tools in the kitchen or in the fields, the wise ordering of a house, the keeping of silence, and even the value and execution of manual labor are all things that Benedict believed God cared about and had claim over.

The second offense to cherry-picking quotes is closely related to the first. It would overly spiritualize a text that is ruggedly grounded in those prosaic realities of life, which is exactly where our life in Christ is lived.

So, begging your forgiveness, I’d like to simply read to you several extended portions of the Prologue, which is offered as an invitation to us from Benedict. We are not often given the opportunity to listen to spiritual reading like this. This passage may require you to work a bit, mentally, but I hope you will give it a try. Perhaps a phrase or two will touch you; hang on them, if so: 
Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20). Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father's advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us, that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children, nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions, deliver us to everlasting punishment as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.
Let us arise, then, at last, for the Scripture stirs us up, saying, "Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep" (Rom. 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears 
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
"Today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Ps. 94[95]:8). And again, "Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7).
And what does He say? 
"Come, My children, listen to Me; 
I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Ps. 33[34]:12). "Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death overtake you" (John 12:35).
. . .
What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.
. . .
But let us ask the Lord, with the Prophet, "Lord, who shall dwell in Your tent, or who shall rest upon Your holy mountain" (Ps. 14[15]:1)?
After this question, brothers and sisters, let us listen to the Lord as He answers and shows us the way to that tent, saying, "The one Who walks without stain and practices justice; who speaks truth from his heart; who has not used his tongue for deceit; who has done no evil to his neighbor; who has given no place to slander against his neighbor."
This is the one who, under any temptation from the malicious devil, has brought him to naught (Ps. 14[15]:4) by casting him and his temptation from the sight of his heart; and who has laid hold of his thoughts while they were still young and dashed them against Christ (Ps. 14[15]:4; 136[137]:9).
. . .
Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible. And if we want to escape the pains of hell and attain life everlasting, then, while there is still time, while we are still in the body and are able to fulfill all these things by the light of this life, we must hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.
And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. 
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).
For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13)
and have a share also in His kingdom.

The three Benedictine vows are embedded within this Prologue: that of obedience, stability, and conversatio morum, or a continual conversion of life. Obedience is hearing and doing the will of God. Benedict beckons us to listen, and to be awake to and aware of what we are listening to. Stability is being devoted to a particular community in its particular place. We are tempted to think that if the people around us and our circumstances could somehow be better, or changed, that we would be happier or better people. But God is not elsewhere, and our responsibilities to him are embedded in the real fabric of our lives. Finally, conversatio morum, the continual conversion of life, is a godward and God-trusting pose, a refusal to drift and calcify, and a willingness to be changed and to be open to having our circumstances change for the Lord’s purposes. These three vows – obedience, stability, and continual conversion - grounded a monk in the way of the Rule and in the relationships of a particular community, with its duties and joys.

The monks’ days were organized around three occupations: the work of God (or observing set hours of prayer and scripture reading throughout the day); the work of the hands (all kinds of work in the keeping a community operating, and in the cultivation of vocations and gifts among its members), and spiritual reading or study (which was likely experienced much as we just did with the Prologue, hearing a passage read). This “Pray-Study-Work” rhythm addressed the monks’ spiritual, physical, and intellectual needs – a holistic way of life to develop a whole and holy person. The work of God, though, was preeminent, and animated the other two aspects of life. Prayer times interrupted the monks’ assigned work of the day; they were expected to come promptly to the oratory for the Divine Offices. The day was ordered to allow the word of God to penetrate all aspects of it.

The Rule Today
So, what does this mean for you and what you likely think of as “real life” at home? What does this mean or us together today? I've given you a lot of information thus far, which you may (or may not!) have found interesting, but getting historical knowledge, or learning some Benedictine time management theories, or trying to paste some rote practices from the Benedictine Rule onto our contemporary lives is not at all what Benedict himself would say is valuable, and I don’t think it is either. His Rule was designed to lovingly strengthen weak, frail, self-deceiving human beings to pursue Christ and to become his faithful disciples.

If there’s one thing that we can safely say is our vocation in life as Christians, it is to become like Christ, to be fully formed as a human beings who reflect the image of God in everything we do – at work, at home, in DC traffic, at the grocery store, and even in church. That is our vocation in life. Benedict rooted his community in the Bible, in praying together, in disciplining their speech, their minds, and their hearts, and in elevating the dignity and value of work. He sought to meet the monks’ physical and spiritual needs, and yet he also sought to grow them as individuals capable of more faithfully living out their vows and witnessing to a world that had very much lost its way.

So, rather than offer neat prescriptions, I’ll leave you with three questions that Benedict offers:

1. What is your Rule? What regulates you? What kind of railings do you grab onto throughout the day? 
By virtue of being made in God's image, we know we are designed to worship, and we also know, experientially, that as sin-bent and broken people, we invent all sorts of idols, known and sometimes unknown to us. There is nothing in that description of ourselves that is a surprise to God, who is always present to us, regardless of whether we are present to him. We each have rules, tendencies, and proclivities. We have temptations, some of which may be quite tolerated and even cultivated within our churches and communities. We might not be unbridled epicureans or debauched Romans, but we might be gossips, or envious and anxious, prone to despair, or to the hidden but ravaging sin of acedia – one of my personal besetting sins -- a lethargic deadening of the heart that increasingly refuses to care for one’s own life and to faithfully execute the vocations God has given to us. (This particular sin is something that monastics were well acquainted with – they called it the noonday demon, and Kathleen Norris has written about it recently.) Benedict’s Rule and his insights into human weakness can serve as a touch point by which we can repair our broken and misleading railings so they can actually give us strength to seek after God.

2. Do you allow the work of God to interrupt your work? What do you do throughout the day, or even the night, to stay alert to his voice?
In our Anglican tradition, which is derived from the Benedictines, we have prayer offices that include morning prayer, a time for prayer at noon, and a vespers or evening prayer office, as well as a Compline, a short form of prayer just before retiring to bed at night. What if, for one week, you and I set our cell phone’s alarm to sound off morning prayer, noon prayer, and evening prayer, much like a church bell in a European city square once chimed out the hours? What if we let God’s word and time given to him in prayer interrupt, and therefore, take priority to all other forms of work? The Rule describes the monks in Benedict’s community as dropping what they are doing – whether they were at work in the fields, in a scriptorium, or in the kitchen – to attend to the Daily Offices. If you allowed for that kind of interruption, even short times of listening and prayer, what might you discover about your own priorities, and how you order your day? How would it deepen your understanding of the claim that God has on your life and on that good work that he has given you to do? How might we view other interruptions that come our way?

3. Most simply, Benedict’s Rule asks of us a third question: Are you seeking God, and do you prefer nothing to the love of Christ?
This question is not one that gets answered and then filed away. We all know in the crooked recesses of our hearts that throughout a single day, our attentions will drift from the presence of God to all sorts of matters, even some very good ones. Our human capacities will be taxed by any number of challenges that a day or a week will throw at us, and these will come even from very good sources, like our spouses or our kids, or co-workers and neighbors. We will be tempted, regularly, to ground ourselves and our identities in all kinds of other lesser goods. Do I prefer nothing to the love of Christ? Not on your life! Jesus knows that above all, but he wants me to grow up and hone my desire for him. I know that the only yoke that my frail shoulders can bear is his gentle and humble one, and that even though I am tempted to turn to all other kinds of false shepherds, the Lord is the only one that will guide me safely home.

Monday, March 6, 2017

When Politics Is Handed over to the Devil

Martin Luther's influence on Western political thought is enormous, even though the real (and, at times, incredibly tormenting) passions of his life lay elsewhere. But his theological positions precipitated serious political effect, and it behooves us to see what Luther wrought to both the individual human being and to ideas about political authority itself.

(As regular readers know, we are discussing Jean Bethke Elshtain's Public Man, Private Woman; her discussion of Luther is found on pages 80-92.)

Luther thundered against prevailing authoritative institutions, which were in a state of profound flux. Feeling tossed by those foundational tremors, Luther's human being clings "to the anchor of the Self," for Luther identified the Kingdom of God as securely located within him. No matter how badly the Self is buffeted from the outside, no matter how repressive the Sovereign, the inner Kingdom within the Self, through faith, is secure. In a world in which a corrupt and powerful church held souls in fear and obedience, this was the gospel itself. Luther stands as a significantly modern figure in a dying, decaying medieval world, defying the powerful ruling classes in the church, democratizing access to the Bible, to salvation, to God, and ushering in freedoms available to any Christian, no matter what their public social position.

For a moment imagine Luther's world; set his thought in its place. Life was violent and difficult. The intellectual gains in the southern Europeans cities had not yet penetrated the north; the world was flat, disease was rampant, and life was a slog. Elshtain's language here is evocative, capturing in brisk and vibrant terms the setting that Luther's ideas inhabited: a "political jigsaw puzzle with grasping princes and last-gasp emperors," once authorized institutions shaken to their once indomitable stone foundations. The idea of "Germany" existed only in people's hearts and minds, and in their shared tongue. It's all a dark, unsettling picture.

Dark and unsettling too, Elshtain notes, that Luther so thoroughly severs this inwardly saved human from his or her public deeds: "If one took Luther at his word, the person who, say tortures his pets tells us nothing about himself in so doing: neither does the woman who spends a lifetime ministering to the untouchables and dying" (82). The righteous are saved by faith alone; and Luther means it. If there is anything we can draw about the public and the private from Luther, Elshtain notes, we can safely say that Luther's ideas represent "a retreat from public life with social forms and institutions as their moorings" (82).

History matters to political thought; humans are historical beings. For Elshtain, the Reformation "represents an ebb tide in the normative import of public institutions and the social locus they provided" (82). The public realm was a churning sea of coercion, violence, and possible destruction. Luther's vision of the Christian in that world was of a soul who obeyed the authorities publicly unless it came to matters of faith: "for order was a great good and anarchy a hideous evil" (83). Better to have tyranny than anarchy in the public realm if the eternal soul is free.

The freedom of the Christian in that private realm was radical. Luther locates both men and women within it, speaking of them both in markedly equal terms, at least for his day. Both are subject in the public realm, again, barring matters of faith. Both are freely bound to Christ in the private realm.

But Luther's Christian subject has no meaningful power to persuade or confront the political powers in the public realm. Those who rule are "God's hangmen," and their work is dirty. Without the hangman governing the political, public realm, life is brutal and randomly, fundamentally unjust. The hangman plays a vital role, but he and his foul work have nothing to do with the heavenly kingdom. As usual, the Hausfrau pays particular attention when Hobbes emerges in a text, and Elshtain invokes him here:
"In Luther's writings on secular power we get the first glimmerings of Hobbes' irresistible secular God, his awesome Leviathan. The hangman is a terrifying and bleak enough vision of what a public world is all about. For Luther, the public world could never serve as the locus of human identity and a place within which human beings could act communally towards worthy shared ends." (84)
So Luther hands the public world to the Devil, but in doing so, Elshtain says, he establishes some new ground for the private realm. He looks to the family as a social structure, a real locus, and therefore the family is enriched. Luther's views on women are, compared to the ideas of his contemporary milieu, "robust and remarkably enlightened for his time" (85), Elshtain argue, with some real qualifiers, and his vision of the family and home life are not at all constrained by an other-worldliness that had so characterized matters of faith.

Luther speaks openly about sexual desires and appetites--both men's and women's--and refuses to revile the human body (particularly the female human body) as was common among the culture-shaping classes. Luther affirms the natural goodness and earthiness of human bodily existence, showing him to be a person unashamed by embodiment. He also seems fully aware of how powerfully his earthy language broke taboo, and he reveled in his linguistic freedoms. (The truly curious can take a whorl on the Lutheran Insult Generator to unearth some real whoppers of insults, peppered with just this kind of vocabulary.)

"How the initially shocked faithful must have loved such blunt talk from one of their own" (86), Elshtain muses. Luther employs the vernacular, even the bawdy, to bring ordinary questions of life into view. Yet despite these taboo-breaking positions, the usual old double-standards emerge for men and women. Luther opens up the spiritual possibilities of a woman before God, and yet on earth she remains subject to her husband. The vernacular might be the language of women, but Luther's female figure is still quite muzzled.

As an organic institution, the family gains in authority in Luther's thought. Luther's view of marriage is one of remarkable conjugal equality, even if a women is not as free as her husband to speak. (Interestingly enough, Elshtain devotes a full page of discussion to Luther's ideas about women's sexual desires and to what length he goes to defend the rights women have, within marriage, to satisfaction.) The family is where children are taught respect for authority and obedience, all within the framework of love and compassion. For Luther, the family unit, governed by a father, was the natural origin of authority, not merely an analogy to political authority. "Luther went so far as to prophesy 'the end of the whole world' should the 'rule of parents' be lost" (89).

Those familiar with Luther's story will also recall his response to the German Peasants Revolt (1525), as Elshtain does. While Luther himself was willing to upend and disobey all kind of power structures, he denounced such freedom to others. Or, as Elshtain says: "The man who threw Western Christendom into tumult hated social dissension and saw it as the work of the Devil" (90).

Luther's handing over of politics to the Devil, as Elshtain describes it, reverberates today, even in our current moment. Elshtain must be quoted here at length. Writing this in the 1980s, it is not hard to hear how her insights into Luther's modern turn continue to nip at our contemporary political heals:

"When politics is given over to the Devil, as Luther gave it, one ought not be surprised that the Devil takes over politics. Without assemblies to curb, citizens to debate, a dense thicket of laws, precedents, and tradition to chasten, instruct, and defuse power, it may be unleashed on the very person or persons who themselves have a history of ambivalence towards it. Luther defied earthly and spiritual authority from his father Hans, to the Holy Roman Emperor, to the Pope himself and emerged triumphant. Rather than becoming, unambiguously, one of humankind's liberators he took on, as one aspect of his complicated and turbulent nature, the vocation of a jailer. He would tolerate no public rebellion, this former rebel. Luther's is an instance of a politics of displacement, that dynamic comes into play, connecting and interweaving public and private imperatives when, in this instance, a series of public events arouse a deeply felt, perhaps unconscious, private conviction. Such a politics is volatile and dangerous. It is more likely to occur when certain conditions prevail: (1) established public and private, secular and religious, institutions and rules are in flux and people have a sense that the center will not hold; (2) there are no clearly established public institutions to focus dissent and concern in an orderly way; (3) private values, exigencies, and identities come to take complete precedence over public involvement in the secular realm as a citizen. If these characteristics remind the reader of our epoch, the resemblance is quite intentional. Luther is a prototypical modern in many recognizable ways... ." (91-92, emphasis in the original)

I'll pull out three items to mull over:
1) "When politics is given over to the Devil, as Luther gave it, one ought not be surprised that the Devil takes over politics."  Our imaginations about the political realm matter and have real affect. If the Devil's ground is politics, then we'll instinctively play by the devil's rules. If Jesus is king over all, including the political realm, then the ground rules are not the devil's. If we hand over our political agency as citizens for the mealy gruel of realpolitik, trading in our actual authority for a cocaine shot of power, we are assuredly imagining a world where the Devil roams free and victorious. His defeat is the truth, and his claims at victory are lies. As I've said before and I'll say again, politics cannot usher in heaven -- heaven forbids it! -- but authorized citizens, with capacities for reason, prudence, wisdom, skill, and kenotic neighbor love can deny that limping enemy ground, can mitigate the ruin that hell would like to inflict on earth. This is a common grace of God, if we lay claim to it.

2) "Without assemblies to curb, citizens to debate, a dense thicket of laws, precedents, and tradition to chasten, instruct, and defuse power, it may be unleashed on the very person or persons who themselves have a history of ambivalence towards it." This quote speaks to a political culture that goes beyond mere, or base, legality. Elshtain here is describing the common loves of citizens, a willingness to be bound to one another, to reason together as citizens, to recognize that as much as our private concerns are important, there are larger, public concerns that we must address, gird and guard, and that will one day be handed along to future citizens. A soberly cultivated view of power -- respecting what it is and at all times wary of it and its corrupting, addictive elements -- will include a variety of tools, measures, and customs. Beware the one who casually dismisses assemblies where power submits to scrutiny; who disregards debate as a means of scrutiny; who stomps across precedent and tradition, even if legally free to do so; and who craves and hoards power.

3) "a politics of displacement, ... [which is] volatile and dangerous. It is more likely to occur when certain conditions prevail: (1) established public and private, secular and religious, institutions and rules are in flux and people have a sense that the center will not hold; (2) there are no clearly established public institutions to focus dissent and concern in an orderly way; (3) private values, exigencies, and identities come to take complete precedence over public involvement in the secular realm as a citizen." We will have to discuss Elshtain's idea about a politics of displacement at a later time, but does not this checklist sound very much like our current moment?

As always, thanks for reading.