The Golden Rule Still Applies

Well … THIS wasn’t supposed to happen.

And yet it did.

I confess, I thought the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States nigh near impossible. I didn’t believe Americans — particularly so many white Midwesterners — would make that choice. Turns out, I was wrong.

There will be many things to say over the next few years, about race and class and elite failure, but I’m not going to worry about any of them today, except to note a tweet from a Trump fan who follows me:

Turns out that “you’re a racist/sexist/bigot” STILL isn’t an argument.

No, it isn’t. Progressive talk on race and gender not only failed to convince, it angered and alienated what is, right now, a majority.

I don’t know how Americans who stand on different sides of this talk to each other — frankly, I doubt we will, and the slow-motion civil war we’ve been living through gets a little faster and a little warmer. The time of talking is likely done.

I won’t expect much from a Trump regime, being as it will be staffed with the most amazing collection of third- and fourth-rate intellects the modern world has seen, save for a kind-of official or legal lawlessness, a desire to expand power and use it as capriciously as possible and as viciously as what decency remains will allow. But the GOP (such as it is) controls Congress, the presidency, and soon the Supreme Court. They will get their way. According to our rules, they have earned it.

Neoliberalism has failed us. Utterly and completely. And with it, much of liberalism — the governing creed of the mass, democratic, industrial West — stands discredited. Liberalism has discredited itself. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.

My reasons for thinking this belong to another day.

To the matter at hand. At some point in any seminary class on ethical actions, particularly the effectiveness and morality of violence, the discussion will usually get around to someone asking, “But what about Hitler?” Because it can be assumed that no amount of linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome” will defeat the Wehrmacht. And no doubt, if life in Trumpestan becomes as bad as many fear, that question will come to be asked about our world as well.

“What if love is not enough?”

Assumed in the question, “What about Hitler?” is the idea that while Jesus spoke nice words, he didn’t have to face modern evil. Mechanized, industrialized, mass evil justified by ideology. This is nonsense, of course, and his death proves otherwise. The Romans knew how to kill, and how to dominate, and how to enslave, and they knew how to justify it all too. They were good at it. They conquered the Mediterranean and maintained their dominance for more than four centuries that way.

But it also ignores where the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Great Transformation (I think), speaks of The Axial Age, that five century period from 800 BC to roughly 300 BC when nearly all of antiquity’s major civilizations discovered some form of the Golden Rule — love as you want to be loved.

If I remember correctly, Armstrong points out that the Golden Rule became the preferred response to violence, unrest, instability, and uncertainty in by people who were at risk, suffering, and facing death. It was not the response of a comfortable people who felt safe and secure. And it was one of that age’s great discernments.

Israel is given the command to love God and love neighbor in Sinai, when it is a scattered collection of people still lead and fed by God as it wanders aimlessly through the wilderness. Israel is told to find a home in exile and work and pray for the welfare of the place and people they have been hauled off to. Jesus reiterates this invitation — this command — to a conquered people who live under occupation, an occupation that for Israel will not end (and, in fact, will only be intensified following two failed revolts).

We are not commanded to love because it feels good, or because life is easy and comfortable, but because love is the right response — God’s response — to our violence. It may convince oppressors and win them over, one soul at a time, but that is a secondary (and only potential) benefit. The real reason we love is because we are called to. Because God loves even as he surrenders to our violence.

Because the violence of the world is not all there is, and is not all there will be.

Conservative Christians have opted to conquer. They have opted for violence. They have opted for Satan’s bundle of temptations in the wilderness. Despite this, they will find themselves unfed, powerless, and unprotected. The rest of us have to love in the face of what will likely be many difficulties. It will not be easy or pleasant. There is much at risk, lives and wellbeing at stake. And often, love will not seem to be anywhere near enough.

We are still called to love.

8 thoughts on “The Golden Rule Still Applies

  1. This post of yours is true and profound – in part. Not-yet-articulated intuitions or incomplete syllogisms in the back of my mind are protesting that “something is missing here”. It also has to do with your previous entry regarding post-Christendom and all that.

    I often think about the critical moment in the Reformation, when Calvin authorized resistance to persecution. Up to that point, he had advised patience and martyrdom. But the French monarchy was so ferocious and cruel in its oppression, church leaders appealed to Calvin, fearing that the Reformed community would either be forced to recant and so dissolve as a community, or that there would be spontaneous reprisals and insurrection by Protestants against the government. Ultimately, Calvin found a loophole in his principles. If an insurrection were led by a magistrate having valid legal authority, he could legitimately defend Christians against any person attempting to compel them to violate their faith and conscience. That was a turning point in the history of the West. It led directly (in spite of the ultimate failure of the Protestant movement in France) to the English Civil War and the Scottish Kirk, both movements which held that the power of monarchy was subordinate to the church in some sense – to the authority of church elders collectively in the case of the Presbyterians, and to the prophetic witness of individual Christians in the case of the English non-conformists, as effected by the triumph of John Bunyan in the English-speaking world after his 12 years in jail as a prisoner of conscience. And so on to the distinct culture of colonial America and the American revolution. It is this hard-won civic respect for the prophetic witness of individual conscience which is worth defending, not some overall theocratic power.

    Liberalism, in its quasi-Renaissance secular-humanist Enlightenment version, has attempted to establish the individual as sovereign while ignoring the prophetic aspect and its origin in the will of God. It is that liberalism which has failed, along with the Religious Right, which in spirit is just a secular as the descendants of the Puritans became in both new and old England. That’s why so many of them could overlook Trump’s utterly un-Christian behavior. The mere fact that he builds casinos should have ruled him out.

    There is a precedent for the prophetic liberalism of the Reformation in the Anglosphere. Though my knowledge here is still pretty sparse, I would point to Augustine’s City of God as a crucial development – a radical separation of church and state in the face of existential crisis. There is a City of God which stands in counterbalance to the City of Man, and which will ultimately stand alone. This is the ingredient which distinguishes Latin Christendom (for better or worse) from the various churches of the East. I don’t know if there is any non-Western equivalent to the repentance (however insincere and brief) by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in the snow at Canossa in the 11th century. It was a hugely significant event, even though it was followed by continued civil wars and corruption and hubris in Rome, and ultimately by Luther roughly four centuries later.

    Sometimes the kind of love we are called upon to show is the love which Jonah had for the Assyrians. That is, reluctant, indignant, contemptuous, fearful and hostile love. And Jonah was only able to express even that much because he was transmitting the love of God. Here the love of God and the fear of God merge. Jonah is the reluctant voice of God, who did all he could, to the point of death, to avoid his prophetic responsibility. And he continued to despise the Assyrians even after they repented, and was furious with God for sparing them and making a lie of Jonah’s prophecy of doom.

    I (without any prophetic warrant) forecast doom for America, but I hope it will repent and be spared the catastrophes which loom in the near future. And I will celebrate this Thanksgiving, believing that the history it memorializes was about much more than genocidal invasion. (Catastrophic migrations are one of the recurring universals of human history, and one often causes another like falling dominoes.) And I will fight (figuratively) to inculcate and promote respect for the virtual sanctuary which surrounds the community of the called-out and the Word of God. Figuratively by necessity, since I have never owned any weapon more dangerous than a scout knife (well, also a scout hunting knife and hatchet), and I wouldn’t trust my senile brain with one now. Any physical “fight” I might put up would probably, to a casual impartial observer, look more like tripping over my own feet and falling in front of a bus.

    And nobody better mess with my dog, either, when I take her out for walks.* I will put myself between her and harm — a more serious threat before I lost 30 lbs last year. She’ll bite, too, if she thinks she’s being attacked. And at 30 lbs, she’s two-thirds of a wildcat.

    Aint’ nobody better mess with my wife neither — all four-feet-ten-and-a-half-inches of her. She’s half Irish and half Jewish, so she’s never lost an argument, or at least never admitted to it, and she used to beat boys at arm-wrestling.

    *There are dog thieves around here who take them for ransom (i.e. rewards no questions asked) or sale, sometimes to laboratories, it is said. I saw one at work once when I was sitting parked outside a pharmacy. A woman tied her dog’s leash to a table before going in. I saw a young guy (it’s a student-apartment neighborhood) in a hoodie come directly down a hill straight at the dog. When he got to the table, he stood around until there was no one else outside, except me sitting in my car. Then the owner came back out. The guy gave me a dirty look and then quickly walked away.

    • “Sometimes the kind of love we are called upon to show is the love which Jonah had for the Assyrians. That is, reluctant, indignant, contemptuous, fearful and hostile love.”

      Yeah, I actually agree with you. But as church, we need to decouple this understanding of love from the wielding of anything but prophetic power (in anticipation of divine acts), for this kind of love when yoked to social and state power, this kind of “love” is anything but. Mostly, it’s a justification for callousness, cruelty, and violence. (Biblical prohibitions against sodomy, for example, as an excuse for bullying.)

  2. To make explicit a too-subtle point above: Puritan migration to America in the 17th century and Hispanic migration to America in the 21st century — you can’t defend one and condemn the other.

  3. I completely agree that Jonah-love must not be coupled with state or social power. Jonah is utterly powerless through the whole story.

    There is something else in almost the same category, though. I learned this from reflecting on the significance of the character Farmer Maggot in LOTR. He is, at first view anyway, unpleasant and wary to the point of hostility. He has to be, since he lives at the edge of the Shire, and can’t afford the carefree ignorance of those in the midst the safe and familiar.

    Just as, in Paul’s reluctant concession, it is better to marry than to carry a burden of secret lust, it is also better to be a curmudgeon openly and frankly than to carry a burden of secret anger. But both conceded states require a foundation in the Spirit. Just as our relation to a mate is founded on mutual love, so (maybe paradoxically) is our relation to hard-bitten and crusty but ultimately helpful elders.

    • Peter Leithart did write that the Christians of Alexandria could afford to be pacifists, since they lived safe lives well away from threats. But Christians on the frontiers — Dacia, for example — were more accepting of military service because they had to be. It was closer to them, and protected them from threats. And the church did, mostly, grow up in the Empire and was nurtured by the Empire. There were other churches elsewhere in the world, but in Parthia — for example — to be Christian was to incline to Rome, and that was seen as betrayal. So, church and empire are more tightly linked than we’d like to believe.

  4. On the other side, though —

    I do confess to ‘siding with’ the Huguenots and the Calvinist Scots and some of the radicals in Cromwell’s new-model-army [safely done long after the fact]. Not because they were justified and innocent. Often they were anything but, and often didn’t like each other much either. But, just as not everyone can be a monk, not everyone can be a martyr; and apparently God sometimes uses our violent response to persecution or injustice to work larger hidden purposes. We can’t count on that, and we are sinners in the process. If God worked directly through empire, we would all be Byzantines.

    Bunyan could write books in jail because the government judged him to be harmless in comparison with the round-head extremists who came before. Ironically, he was ultimately far more effective.

    Likewise with the Union’s war against secession and slavery. It’s not that we can look back and give it a passing grade as justified. It was horrific beyond all expectation, and the mixed outcome only barely outweighed the cost. It’s not that it was the right thing to do. Hardly any of the actors knew what they were doing, what the concrete consequences would be. It was a collision decades in the making and nothing anyone did, as individuals, was going to prevent it. Some may have spoken prophetically — not necessarily the ones who thought they were. But there were no saints in the mix.

    That’s how it is with all historical convulsions. No one plans them, not successfully. No one is innocent. But some are more guilty than others. Just observations on how things happen and how people are drawn into the mess.

    Nothing of what I have said here is intended as any part of an ethical principle or guide or recommendation. I am grateful for some of the outcomes of conflict. But the gratitude is owed to God, not to the bewildered and blood-stained participants.

    • I think I asked here once, “what if Jesus really did tell Constantine, ‘Conquer in this sign!'” God uses tools at hand, including empire.

      • If we *were* all Byzantines and all spoke Greek, at least there would be fewer disputes about how to translate the NT. A chalice half-full point of view.

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