Tribalism Comes Naturally

Damon Linker explains why Marx and Plato were wrong:

Politics in all times and places involves a bounded community defining itself, and its citizens ruling themselves, in contradistinction to other bounded communities. The community can be a village, tribe, or city-state; a nation-state; or an empire. Certain forms of government are better suited to certain sizes than others. (A small community can work as a pure democracy, for example, but a vast empire never could.) But regardless of the community’s size, it always has limits (a border), and it always draws a distinction between those who are permitted to join the community and those who are not; between who is and who is not a citizen; and between who does and who does not get to enjoy the privileges that come with citizenship, including a say in making such determinations in the future. This may in fact be the most elemental political act of all, the basis of everything else the political community does. To declare that this act is prima facie illegitimate is to declare a foundational political act to be illegitimate. It is to treat politics itself as in some sense morally compromised. . . .

But then again, neither is it possible to justify in universal-rational terms the right to private property or, really, any form of inherited (unearned) wealth or privilege. The more you think about it, politics (very much including liberal politics) is an activity shot through with norms, practices, and beliefs that can be rather easily exposed as “fictions” once subjected to universal-rational scrutiny.

That’s why philosophers as otherwise so profoundly different as Plato and Karl Marx have concluded that the rule of reason and justice demands communism (the abolition of private property). Indeed, Plato went even further than Marx, to suggest that in a perfectly rational and just political system, property communism would need to be combined with communism of families, with children taken from their parents at birth and raised by the community as a whole. After all, isn’t deference to a mother’s love for her own child based on the fiction that she is always automatically best suited by nature to raise him or her?

The most that might be said for our neoliberal almost-open-border advocates is that they think Plato should have gone even farther in subjecting politics to universal-rational scrutiny and advocated a completely communist state that is also boundless in extent, encompassing all people everywhere, without distinction.

In other words, Plato should have advocated the universal, homogenous state — which is precisely what many on the center-left seem to not-so-secretly believe morality demands.

That such a state is neither possible nor desirable (recall what I said about the largest political communities and their incompatibility with democracy) should be obvious. But then what do our universalist liberals hope to accomplish, not by raising perfectly reasonable objections to specific immigration restrictions, but by denying the legitimacy of having any immigration restrictions at all? There are many, many intellectually coherent answers to the two key questions of immigration policy (Who can come here? And how many of them?) — but many on the left seem to think there is only one legitimate answer to each question (Everyone. And all of them). This is ludicrous.

Linker could have added evangelicals and Roman Catholics who think that the parable of the Good Samaritan should inform how American Christians respond to outsiders:

So, as governments oversee matters of security, we will care for the hurting, calling Christians to embrace refugees through their denomination, congregation, or other nonprofits by providing for immediate and long-term needs, such as housing, food, clothing, employment, English-language classes, and schooling for children.

We distinguish that the refugees fleeing this violence are not our enemies; they are victims. We call for Christians to support ministries showing the love of Jesus to the most vulnerable, those in desperate need, and the hurting. This is what Jesus did; he came to the hurting and brought peace to those in despair.

Critical moments like these are opportunities for us to be like Jesus, showing and sharing his love to the hurting and the vulnerable in the midst of this global crisis. Thus we declare that we care, we are responding because our allegiance is to Jesus, and we seek to be more like him, emulating his compassionate care for the most vulnerable.

Granted, aid to refugees is not immigration policy. Nor is Emma Lazarus‘ poem.

But borders matter and Christians who want to assist those who have fled their homelands do so not as residents of planet earth but as citizens whose nations make laws that govern who comes and goes. Just try traveling somewhere outside the U.S. to minister the gospel or provide diaconal assistance without a passport.

A Common Complaint from W-wers

Carlton Wynne objects to natural law and its influence among Reformed Protestants:

I believe this aspect of the Natural Law theory in view–that people can reason their way to actionable truths apart from God’s special revelation–is too optimistic about the powers of unaided reason after the fall. The general revelation of God in nature and beneath conscience must be “carefully distinguished from the reaction that sinful man makes to this revelation” (Van Til). The apostle Paul says that unbelievers “suppress the truth” that they know (including the truth of their moral obligation to God), that they are, at root, “hostile to God” (Rom 8:7); that they have become “futile in their thinking” (Rom 1:21). They are, Paul says elsewhere, “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18).

These are hard words, no doubt. But they point to one side of what has been called the “antithesis” between belief and unbelief, a moral and spiritual conflict of basic commitments that touch all that Christians and non-Christians think about and discuss. According to this Scriptural principle, fallen man is slavishly committed to his own moral autonomy, while Christians are to view all things under the Lordship of Christ and the light of His Word. This means that, at the deepest level, there is no mutually acknowledged common ground between Christian and non-Christian. And this, it seems to me, leaves NL proponents calling for peace when there is no peace.

Fine.

If true, do you then only go to Christian physicians?

And if true, why would you ever let non-Christians into positions of political authority? If you assert the antithesis you wind up theonomic.

Will “common grace” really explain why you, a person who believes in the anti-thesis, choose a non-Christian physician or politician over Christian ones?

Why the Personal is not Political

President Obama explained why policy is such a poor instrument for addressing something as personal as race relations:

But this is always one of the challenges of politics: It can never capture all the complexity and contradictions in life. So you end up having to try to be true in a way that can be consumed for a mass audience, but you’re always missing some elements of it. You’re always leaving some things out.

And that’s part of the reason why race is such a difficult thing to deal with in politics, because the evolution of racial identity, racial relationships, institutional racism, is never similar. The trajectory, I believe, has been positive. But anything you say on the topic of race, there’s a counterargument, there’s an exception, there’s a nuance. There’s a, Wait, hold on a minute, how about that? And that’s part of the reason why, I think, it creates frustration. It’s also why it’s easy to demagogue. It’s also why situations that look ambiguous can lead to people dividing into camps very quickly.

Justice is one thing. Politeness is another.

In the Larger Scheme of Things

Should the church engage in politics? John Allen answers, that’s a no-brainer:

And that ministry inevitably has a political edge. Yes, Jesus Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s,” which is a charter for church/state separation. However, Christ also said we will be judged for how we treat the least among us, which is a standard with a clearly political dimension.

Popes represent a tradition rooted in prophetic denunciations of injustice and abuses of power, and a Lord who chose to be born into a poor family in an occupied corner of the world’s leading empire of its day.

To insist, therefore, that popes remain apolitical would be to demand that they betray their office.

As if politics were all about finger-wagging. Lobbyists make lousy politicians.

J. Peter Nixon worries what happens when the church’s ministry becomes too oriented to this world:

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass. “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.

The answers to that question are complex and manifold. . . . I know enough men and women religious to realize the dangers of sentimentalizing their lives. Those without property can often become proprietary about their roles and responsibilities and unhealthy power dynamics can afflict any community of human beings. The spiritual risks of celibacy are well known, even if they are sometimes exaggerated.

The lives of ordinary believers and the lives of those called to practice the counsels should complement one another, embodying the tension between a Kingdom that is already present and yet still to come. In the past, the balance may have tipped too far in the direction of the latter, leading to the suggestion that the married state was somehow inferior to religious life. Over the last half century, however, we have tipped far in the other direction. Somehow, we must find balance.

The balance may not involve the monastic life, but it could include something like recognizing that this world, and even its attempts to right social wrongs, is not all there is:

So while politics is important business, there are strict limits to what we can achieve by political means. There are no limits at all, on the other hand, to what we can achieve by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; for that we have the Lord’s promise! We can revive our own faith, awaken the strength of our neighbors, and thereby accomplish what not even a presidential candidate dares to suggest.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” So wrote the most acute of all observers of our political scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. Perhaps the most appropriate “political” task for Lent would be to embark on our own private campaigns to make America good again, beginning with ourselves.

Of course, Protestants don’t believe we make ourselves good. But confessional Protestants do understand, in ways that challenge followers of the papacy, an institution fraught with power and political intrigue, that ministering the gospel does more good in the long run than making policy or running for office.

Of Secular Novels, Governments, and Drinks

Amy Julia Becker recommends secular novels to Christians. Among the reasons she gives are these:

The earnest and bleak atheist world-view provided by Camus in The Plague challenges any trite answers we might want to offer to the problem of suffering. The searing portrait of pain and loss that makes up much of the southern and African-American literary canon challenges the role the church has played in passively supporting the evils of slavery and segregation. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom all come to mind as books I have read and reread in my struggle to understand the persistent divide between black and white within this nation.)

It’s hard to know which contemporary novels will rise to the top of the literary landscape. Who are the Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds among us? The Chopins and Whartons and Cathers? Whoever they are, many of them are not Christians, and yet these are the perspectives that can teach us about who we are as a culture and how we as Christians can engage our culture through a lens of love.

Good novels—whatever world-view they profess—challenge us to love others better. They disrupt comfortable assumptions about reality. And, to the degree that these books state something true about the world around us, even if that truth is about God’s apparent absence, they also invite us to know God better by loving our neighbor all the more.

If secular novels help us to be human (at least in this period between the advents of Christ, since being a glorified human being will truly be transformational), can’t we say the same thing about secular governments? Don’t secular magistrates, even un-Christian ones, also make us ask big questions about what we share in common with unbelievers, what is government for, and the nature of community in a fallen setting? If governments were only Christian, wouldn’t we wind up with the Puritan’s Massachusetts Bay? The exclusion of non-Puritans from Puritan Boston may foreshadow the sort of separation between the wheat and tares coming at the last day. But it hardly does justice to life in a post-ascension era when the Holy Land is no longer holy and God’s people are strangers and aliens.

And then there are the humanizing effects of secular (read alcoholic) beverages. Of course, in excess they can dehumanize. But in the right proportion they make the heart “glad,” right? And yet, D. L. Mayfield thinks that some Christians may need to give up alcohol out of respect for their neighbors:

We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.

And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don’t touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.

I certainly respect and admire Mayfield’s determination to live among the urban poor. But I would also say that by giving up alcohol — even for social as opposed to moral reasons — she has chosen a less human way to live, like not reading secular novels because the members of your congregation can’t handle them. Reading books by non-Christians, paying honor to secular rulers, and drinking and eating in moderation are activities that Christians share with non-Christians. In other words, being spiritual (as some Christians understand it) is as noted before not a way to be fully human but one that reduces our creatureliness to cardboard cutout proportions. I still don’t see how the transformationalists of whatever variety are comfortable with the goodness of creation if culture (literature, politics, and food) needs to be redeemed before Christians can properly appreciate or engage it.

All About My Hyphenated Self

Since we have multiple callings that require us to juggle our various identities — I relate to my wife differently when wearing my hat as elder compared to when wearing my pajamas as husband — I was glad to see that I am also conflicted when it comes to politics. Time has a personality quiz that yielded the following results:

Liberal Qualities

You like cats more than dogs
You prefer documentaries over action movies
You use a modern browser
You prefer the Met to Times Square
You’re not completely proud of your country’s history

Conservative Qualities

You think kids should respect authority
You like a neat desk
You think self-control trumps self-expression
You’re not wild about fusion cuisine
You think the government should treat the lives of its citizens as much more valuable than those of other countries
You don’t think your partner should be looking at porn alone
You think the world benefits from nations and borders

That makes me 79 percent conservative and 21 percent liberal. And to think that some so-called conservative Protestants think 2kers are not only liberal but radical. Whom are you going to believe?

Pia Desideria

That title, the famous expression of Jacob Spener, the so-called father of pietism, came to mind when I read Richard Doster’s article at ByFaith, “Politics: Why Christians Must Be Involved.” (Thanks to Neoz for the link.) The reminder owes not so much to the contents of Spener’s book (though the connections between pietism and neo-Calvinism are striking — Christianity must make a visible difference on daily life). Instead, title itself, which has something to do with pious desires (or wishful thinking), is indicative of the tone of Doster’s article:

Christians, when rightly informed and motivated, change the character of political debate. They bring the moral standards of God’s kingdom into the civic realm and thereby become agents of His common grace — of His provision for those who believe as well as those who don’t.

“Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the gospel,” says theologian Wayne Grudem. “That’s the only way people’s hearts are truly transformed.” But that’s the opening of a fuller gospel story. The whole gospel, Grudem believes, includes a transformation. God’s grace changes people, and as a result they change everything around them. Families are renewed. Schools are rejuvenated. Businesses reorient their mission and purpose. What’s more, the gospel of Christ, because it changes hearts, changes the course of civil government.

When and where has this ever happened?

I don’t like to pull the expertise card, but I do know a little bit about the history of Protestantism and the record is never as stellar as the whoopers claim. Some good things happened here and there. But some good things happen in my home from time to time. Does that mean that Christianity has the wonder-working powers that Doster claims? And what about the times after the good times? What about America after Witherspoon, England after Wilberforce, Scotland after Chalmers, the Netherlands after Kuyper (not to mention Ephesus after Paul)?

At some point, dreamy accounts like this are going to need to show their homework. Until then, critics of the transformationalists will counter with articles like, “Knowledge: Why Christians Must be Informed.”