Today, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D-IA) announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president. Meanwhile, my eldest daughter, Molly White (12-Left), has said for 2 years that she plans to pursue a career in law & politics with an eye on eventually winning the White House. Well, I changed my mind repeatedly as a youth as to “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” and, as a pacifist Christian, I have reservations about my child wanting any office that requires swearing an oath or being Commander-in-Chief of military forces–both of which seem clearly to run counter to the Sermon on the Mount.
But Molly is already involved in the Kentucky Youth Assembly and will travel to Frankfort (capital of the Commonwealth of Kentucky) in December for a mock legislation where she will try to pass a bill. She is taking citizenship in a representative democracy (a republic) far more seriously than I did at her age. She has all 23 amendments to the U.S. Constitution memorized.
So, is this the face of a future president? Time will tell. She certainly couldn’t do worse than the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue–or most who have held that office in my lifetime.
(Alas! Neither of my children show interest in following their mother into the pulpit or studying philosophy and theology like their father!)
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
Pacifists like myself don’t usually quote Reinhold Niebuhr, who converted from a liberal form of pacifism to become one of the strongest anti-pacifist theologians of the 20th Century. But Reinie (as friends and even students called him) was a very complex and multi-layered person and there is much in his thought worth close attention even today. This quote is one of my favorites and makes a good thought of the day.
In the U. S. political scene, so-called conservatives make much of the need for “smaller government.” I argue that the actual size of the federal government is not, per se, the issue or shouldn’t be. The principle that needs reviving is the importance of limited government, that is, governments whose authority is limited (and spelled out) and whose power is limited by other concentrations of power, by what we in the states commonly refer to as a system of “checks and balances.”
Now, I want to contend that Christians have strong reason support limited government. Let me be clear: I am not making the anachronistic claim that anything like modern democratic republics are foreseen in the Scriptures. They clearly are not. But several strands of the biblical witness, it seems to me, do show a healthy suspicion of concentrated and autocratic power.
Early Israelite life had no central government: tribes and villages settled matters by elders who consulted together at the village gates. Wise women seem also to have made their contributions. When more coordinated action was necessary, God raised up a judge–usually a figure who was part-prophet and part military leader.
The system was certainly open to abuse. A pro-monarchy strand of Scripture reflected in the editing of Judges itself recalls the time of the judges primarily as one of lawlessness and views the monarchy as the cure. But 1 Samuel 8 challenges the nature of concentrated power in a monarchy in extremely realistic terms. And there is a strong anti-imperialist theme throughout much of the rest of Scripture, despite the idealizing of David and projecting of a royal Davidic figure as the future Messiah. (Many scholars believe that one reason Jesus was reluctant to use the term “messiah” about himself was the association of the term with royal military conquerer figures.)
So, even though some strands of Christianity have been very pro-royalist, supporting the supposed “divine right of kings to rule” or blindly supportive of whatever autocratic government is in power, other Christian groups and theologians, with strong biblical support, have rightly pushed for limited government with checks and balances on power. A seriousness about the nature of human sinfulness has guided such folk–no one can be trusted with too much unsupervised power.
The best modern political arrangements that have incorporated such checks have been forms of democratic republics. In parliamentary democracies an important check is separating the head of state (e.g., the British monarch and her represenatives–usually a Governer General–in Commonwealth nations, or the President of France, etc.) from the head of government (a prime minister who leads the majority party in parliament). Parliamentary systems also have the check of being able to have early elections if a prime minister fails a vote of no confidence.
The U.S. system lacks those checks, but our Framers deliberately limited each branch of government to powers carefully spelled out in the Constitution, and gave each branch of government checks against the others–checks eroded by the idea of a “unitary executive” posited by the Bush administration which believes it is answerable to no one. An independent judiciary with the power of judicial review of laws for their constitutionality is essential–a judiciary which, as far as possible, is shielded from political pressures (once appointed). Constitutions which include “bills of rights” for citizens are also important checks as are forms of federalism (although smaller nations will need less of this) which work to prevent over-centralization.
Advocates of “small government” are certainly right to worry about the growths of bureacracies and over-regulation. But one has to ask about the purposes of government and recognize that some problems cannot be solved at less than national or even international levels. Those problems will take a large central bureacracy for those problems (e.g., threats to the environment, global human rights, etc.) Too often, those using the rhetoric of “small government” are simply wanting low taxes (not asking the purpose of the tax in question or the fairness of taxation burdens) or deregulation of businesses to the detriment of the common good. Many, for instance, are remarkably unconcerned with bloated military bureacracies or with concentrations of power in an “imperial presidency”–as long as the executive in question is of their party.
We need to insist on the checks and balances of limited government. In the next part of this series, I will talk about the tradeoffs between government power, concentrated business powers, and citizen powers, as well as the principle of subsidiarity.
I went to the doctor today and, while I must still wear a wristlet on my right wrist, I am out of my sling! I can now type with both hands, again! Hooray!
Sherin Ebadi is an Iranian dissident opposed to the current hardliners in power in her country. Prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979, she was Iran’s first female judge. (After the revolution, women were restricted from this and many other roles.) A devout Muslim, though of a progressive form much at odds with the fundamentalism dominant in the governing circles of Iran, Ebadi still practices law and has made a name for herself in standing up for human rights, including especially women’s rights, and the rights Iran’s tiny Christian minority. She has escaped two assassination attempts and in 2003 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She sees the work for human rights to be a seamless whole: Speaking in India this week, Ebadi said, “Human rights is a package. . . a way of seeing the world, a culture, which cannot be imposed with cluster bombs, nor brought to countries in tanks.” Truer words were never spoken. Although Ebadi spoke to the Hindu-Muslim tensions in India itself and the tensions between India and Pakistan, she was also critical of Israel’s assault on Lebanon, both sides of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and the disastrous U.S. led invasion of Iraq.
Ebadi’s wisdom should be heeded.
Over at The Fire and the Rose (see link below), D.W. Congdon gives a passionate and very theologically well argued plea for the Church to condemn the upcoming execution of Saddam Hussein. I’ll be briefer: We worship One executed by a brutal tyranny on false charges. That One was executed along with two who were guilty of terrorist acts. Thus, Christians must oppose the death penalty at all times precisely as part of our defense of the value of human life. Every life, even one as brutal and guilty as Saddam Hussein’s. I made the same argument against executing Timothy McVeigh.
The world may operate with judicial revenge (although more and more nations are abolishing the death penalty)–a revenge that creates false martyrs and more imitators. We who follow the Crucified and Risen One are supposed to be free from this spiral of violence, this dance of death. We are free to choose life. We do not value life, as some pro-lifers say, because of innocence. Christ died, as Romans 8 reminds us, for the justification of the godless.
Hussein is not the type of person who would ever show mercy to us. That is all the more reason we who are Christians should show mercy to him. Let’s lift our voices.
The Fire and the Rose: A plea to the church: Denounce the execution of Saddam Hussein
Marty alerted me to this great series Doonesbury is doing on “chickenhawks,” those wonderful people who are gung-ho for war as long as THEY don’t have to fight it. I have great respect for principled pacifists and conscientious objectors. I also respect, though disagree with, those who believe war is sometimes the lesser of evils and so volunteer to put their lives on the line. I have ZERO respect for–or even tolerance of–those who advocate for war as long as it is others who do the killing and dying–who sacrifice nothing and pay no price for their violence-by-proxy. Yet these cartoons are not even exaggerations–I hear these lame rationalizations daily.
At least for awhile, this will be my last post on detective fiction. But after I wrote my recent post on Columbo, a friend asked me my thoughts on the large number of fictional sleuths who are clergy: priests, monks, nuns, ministers, at least 2 rabbis, and, although not strictly “clergy,” the elderly clerk of a Friends (Quaker) meeting near Boston. My thoughts on this subject are not profound, I’m afraid, but here they are for what they are worth.
- The first is rather obvious: Although clergy detectives abound in fiction, they seem rather rare in what we call the “real world.” I don’t know of a single priest, minister, etc. who has a reputation for solving crimes. If any have helped out the police with wisdom gained from their studies or calling, they have successfully kept this out of the media. Too bad, it might have made many clerics rather more interesting.
- Second, many of these characters are interesting and surprisingly well written. Some make for some of the best reading in detective fiction.
- The list is ecumenical and interfaith, but not evenly distributed. Perhaps because they are more distinctive, Catholic priests seem to outnumber all other clergy detectives in fiction. I have yet to find fictional Imam as a detective, nor any that were obviously conservative evangelical Protestants. I’m almost relieved by the absence of the latter because evangelicals who write fiction, as a general rule, preach too much; their attempts to use their fiction for apologetic or evangelistic purposes tend to overwhelm the stories as stories. Still, I’d like to see more ecumenical variety in the genre. Representatives of the Black Church or indigenous African churches are also notable by their absence.
- Creating a believable and sympathetic clergy sleuth as a protagonist seems to present some special challenges that authors have not always met. If the character is “too perfect,” she or he is not very believable and probably a little boring, which is my impression of Chesterton’s Father Brown. (Others disagree with my impression.) But if the character has some of the truly interesting flaws of some of the great fictional detectives, e.g., Sherlock Holmes’ heroine addiction, Nero Wolfe’s gluttony and love of money, Sam Spade’s womanizing (including adulterous affair with his partner’s wife!) and shady dealings, etc., then the writer seems to be disrespectful of the religion which the clergy sleuth represents. Perhaps it is an attempt to walk such a fine line which has led three recent female clergy sleuths, all Episcopal/Anglican priests, to be portrayed as attracted to married men and tempted (but so far not crossing the line) to adulterous affairs with them. As Betty Smart Carter writes in an otherwise good review of these “mystery women” in The Christian Century, the results are unsatisfying. We would demand a higher standard for male clergy sleuths.
- Some of the most interesting novels in this genre are also historical fiction, set in various parts of the Medieval world. Most famously in this area is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where a Franciscan monk (and former Inquisitor), Brother William of Baskerville, must solve a series of murders in a Dominican monastery. (It’s also very challenging reading–with many untranslated passages of Latin, Greek and other languages and a very difficult postmodern writing style.) But also worth mentioning in this regard are Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael (20 novels) and Peter Tremayne’s novels and short stories of Sister Fidelma. The latter are set in Ireland before Celtic Christianity was fully displaced by Roman Catholicism: Priests and nuns were allowed to marry; some monasteries were still mixed sex in population, and women like Sister Fidelma could become teachers and experts in the ancient laws of Ireland!
Among the many contemporary exemplars of this sub-genere of detective fiction, my favorites are the late Harry Kemalman’s (1908-1996) 11 novels of Rabbi David Small and Irene Allen’s ongoing series about Elizabeth Elliott , clerk of an unprogrammed Friends’ (Quaker) Meeting in Cambridge, MA. Rabbi Small solves mysteries by using logical processes honed from his rabbinical training. Elliott’s insights come from her Quaker dedication to the pursuit of Truth and deep knowledge of the ways that violence and deception are intertwined.
Among the entries to this genre which I have not yet read, I hope soon to sample, are Brad Reynolds’ Father Mark Townsend mysteries since the protagonist is a member of the Society of Jesus and my own encounters with Jesuit priests have left me deeply impressed with Jesuit education, spiritual discipline, and commitment to social justice.
I also want to sample Michelle Blake’s novels about Lilly Conner, an Episcopal priest in cowboy boots who is chaplain at a fictional counterpart to Tufts University.
I’d love to see a well-written example with a Mennonite pastor, a Black Baptist, a Latino Pentacostal or some other mold-breaking, stereotype-shattering, character, but the story would first have to work well as a mystery. I could do without any more Dan Brown-type conspiracy thrillers that the public takes as nonfiction, though. One Da Vinci Code nonsense a decade is surely enough.
I have so much to be thankful for this year. As always, my greatest blessing is having received the saving grace and boundless love of God through Jesus Christ. May God help me be a faithful disciple and a faithful and effective witness.
Second only to that matchless gift, I am thankful for my family: my father, my mother of blessed memory, my new step-ma, Kay, my brother and my sisters and their families, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law of blessed memory, my brothers-in-law and their families, and, of course, my bride of nearly 17 years of wedded bliss, Kate, and our two lovely daughters, Molly & Miriam. In a world of poverty, I am thankful that I have enough to eat, a place to sleep, warm clothes, remunerative work–and I ask God to show me what more I can do to ensure that others obtain these.
In a world of war and violence, I am thankful for relative security and ask God to show me new ways to work for peace.
I am thankful to the readers of this blog, both those who share many of my commitments and those who are my critics.
I hope you are all blessed this day. Get off the computer, now, and spend some time with friends, family, or the many less fortunate than you.
Over at The Fire and the Rose, D. W. Congdon, a fellow Barthian who is a seminary student at Princeton, is finishing up his series on “The Heresies of American Evangelicalism.” D. W., by his own admission, grew up in a fairly typical U.S. fundamentalist-to-conservative evangelical context and so encountered all these heresies first hand. They are evaluated not from the position of secular disbelief, but from the “Great Tradition” of historic orthodoxy and especially the broadly Reformed tradition as conveyed via Karl Barth. These are worth close reading and study, even if one challenges some points. An adult Sunday School class would do well to have such serious discussion over such a series.
Likewise, Byron from Sydney, Australia, over at Nothing New Under the Sun, has finished his wonderful series “Heaven: Not the End of the World.” He finishes with implications. Look at the bottom in small print for links to each post in this long series. I came late to this series, so I do not know if Byron affirms any intermediate state, but his main purpose is to affirm the orthodox truth that the Christian hope is for the resurrection of the body and the eschatological new/renewed heavens and earth, not a hope for a disembodied life of the soul in “heaven when we die.” This common heresy is apparently rampant in Australian evangelical circles as well as in the U.S. Byron’s series is an important correction. Like all his work, it is “illustrated” throughout with photos from around the world and Byron invites guesses as to what the photo shows and what city it’s from. It makes for fun amidst serious theological reflection.
Also, on that site, Andrewe Errington has posted 2 parts of a guest series on Why Christians Need Not Be Pacifists, trying to refute folk like Kim Fabricius, myself, and the giants on whose shoulders we stand (e.g., Yoder, Hauerwas, Menno Simons, St. Francis of Assissi, Paul, Jesus, etc.). I think Errington plans 3 major posts in that series. I have, of course, weighed in to suggest that this brother in Christ is, as most of the church since Constantine, quite mistaken.
On a different “level” (for lack of a better word), my dear friend and fellow church member, Dan Trabue, a layman married to a wonderful minister and social worker, has written a 2 part defense of pacifism from Scripture. Dan’s blog, A Paynehollow Visit, reflects his commitment to simple living for the sake of the planet, his commitment to justice for the poor, his nonviolence, Anabaptist faith, and, from time-to-time, his defence of sexual minorities against all the attacks on them in the name of Christian “love.” It was Dan, poet, musician, photographer, and friend, who got me to try blogging.
Of course, I think all the blogs I list are worthy of visiting, but I thought I’d highlight these as they finished (or nearly) important series. Good work, friends.