The People of God is NOT Us

Hobby Lobby has a cute little God-n-Country advert, something it has apparently taken out in newspapers across the country since 1997, extolling the virtues of a patriotic faith. Which they are, of course, free and entitled to do.

Regular readers here — assuming there are any — will know that I am not a fan of “God and Country” Christianity, since it tends to put country first (with God somewhere behind in a supporting role). Or, worse, it confuses the two, not knowing quite where God (or the Church, the people God) stops and country starts. This isn’t so much Christianity as it is a civil religion, a mishmash of Enlightenment nationalism and the popular protestantism of America’s founding, a swirling concoction of Scottish and English Calvinism, the rigors of Methodism, and the fervor of the Baptists. I will leave the genealogy for another day, however.

The Hobby Lobby advert begins with a quote from Pslams:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD. (Psalm 33:12)

This isn’t the whole verse, which is actually:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage! (33:12, ESV)

Which is Hebrew, reads thusly:

אַשְׁרֵ֣י הַ֭גּוֹי אֲשֶׁר ־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֑יו הָעָ֓ם בָּחַ֖ר לְנַחֲלָ֣ה לֽוֹ

The word here translated as “nation” is גוי goy,  which is almost always rendered as εθνος ethnos in Greek (when Jesus or Paul or any of the other NT speakers or writers refer to “the nations”), and in the Hebrew Bible it tends to mean those people who are not Israel. But not always. God promises Abraham in Genesis 12:2 that “I will make you a great nation” (וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל) a goy gidol. In Exodus 19:6, God speaks to Israel through Moses, telling the Israelites that “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ) a goy qodesh. So Israel, the People of God (usually refered to as an עם, which tends to mean a people related by kinship and a shared patrimony), can be a goy too.

Psalm 33 is a psalm of thanksgiving and praise, marking God as just (vv. 4-5), creator (vv. 6-9), then finally the redeemer of Israel (vv.10-19), finishing with a proclamation that because the LORD is good, we who are the people saved and redeemed by the LORD, will wait with patience, gladness and hope (vv. 20-22).

An interesting aside, the passage praising God for being Israel’s redeemer contains very a scriptural condemnation of sophisticated and powerful armies, and that true salvation always lies with the LORD:

The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. (vv. 16-17)

I think Hobby Lobby in quoting the first part of v. 12, is trying to make a fairly simple statement — that America is blessed because The LORD is our God. Or at least the God of real, faithful, proper Americans.

The problem with this is the second part of the verse: the people for whom he has chosen as his heritage. This is a very specific reference, a reference to Israel, the people — עם and/or גוי — that God called into being with the promises of land, children and “being a blessing” to Abraham as he wandered. The people that God redeemed from slavery in Egypt, gave the teaching to at Sinai, rescued from oppression again and again during the time of Judges, promised a final redemption from exile in the lineage of David the King. God has chosen a people, it is Israel and the Church, the εκκλησια, the assembled people God brought together through baptism and calling in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is not the United States of America. I know many American Christians wish to believe that, at some point in our history, God inked a covenant with America, but I’ve seen nothing resembling proof that such covenant exists. Just mere assertions, and none of them hold the weight of scripture or revelation. The owners of Hobby Lobby may believe in such a covenant, the Americans are the people of God merely by being Americans (or they should be), and they are welcome to that faith. But that is not a Christian faith. Americans as Americans are not the people of God — they are a גוי or an εθνος in the negative sense. A people who are other, who are not.

Americans, of course, can be part of the people of God. But their inclusion is the result of baptism or some other kind of calling, and not because they were born as Americans, had the right parents, came from the right kind of community, or believe the right things. American citizenship does not contain in it the promise of eternal life, or the Kingdom of God.

And the owners of Hobby Lobby may, if pushed, actually admit to that. But the advert, as it stands, it a testament to an idolatrous civic faith that tries to turn the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into the God of Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan, a God who always sides with state and blesses it unconditionally regardless of what it does.

Well, except when it legalizes abortion, allows homosexuals to get legally married, and demands companies provide birth control for their employees.

The Dream of Equality

I have been reading (yes, we are back to commenting on books!) Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (yes, Grecian is a word — you cannot fault George W. Bush for that), the version  translated by John Dryden, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough and published as part of the series Great Books of the Western World by the fine folks at the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1954. It’s one of the many books I was able to clean — with official approval — from the weeding of the JKM Library over the last couple of years. My set is mostly complete — I’m missing one volume of Shakespeare (I already have the complete Shakespeare anyway) and another volume. I forget which one, and they aren’t in front of me right now.

I think it’s Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Volume 44 of the 1954 set.

At any rate, I am reading Plutarch. I had the Penguin classics of Plutarch, but their editions ripped Plutarch’s lives from their parallel context — Romulus and Thesius, for example, were separated, and placed in volumes entitled “Founders of Rome” or “Founders of Greece” or some such. And not as Plutarch, as Greek historian and author living during the time of the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the Flavians and the early Antonines, for the most part intended.

I like reading books of ancient history written by the ancients themselves. There is a different approach to truth, the presenting of multiple stories without attempting to find which story is “factually correct.” It’s more about story and myth, about poetry and meaning, rather than fact. Facts rarely tell their own story. They must be chosen and discarded, and then carefully edited and woven into something that tells us who we are. Or wish to be.

What interests me today is Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, the creator of Spartan law and organization. He is set side-by-side with Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius. Lycurgus is credited, in Plutarch’s telling, with creating a tightly organized society in which there was no gold and silver money (just bars of iron tempered in vinegar to make them difficult to alter), women were effectively the common property of all men, children we the property of the state, encouraged sexual relations between young men and older ones, and the society devoted itself to war and war making. The goal, Plutarch states, is social equality and leisure, so that the citizens of Sparta could pursue “higher things” than commerce. He writes:

It need not be be said that upon the prohibition of gold and silver, all lawsuits immediately ceased, for there was now neither avarice nor poverty amongst them, but equality, where everyone’s wants were supplied, and independence, because those wants were so small. All their time, except when they were in the field [at war], was taken up by the choral dances and festivals, in hunting, and in attendance on the exercise-grounds and places of public conversation. (p. 45)

Life was strict for Spartans, but that austerity had a purpose, allowing Spartans to spend “their leisure rationally in conversation” and “passing judgment on some action worth considering; extolling the good, and censuring those who were otherwise, and that in a light and sportive manner, conveying, without too much gravity, lessons of advice and improvement.” (p. 45)

Lyrcurgus was not without a sense of humor, and he did encourage laughter during the communal meals Spartans shared “as a sort of sweetmeat to accompany their strict and hard life.” But the purpose of Spartan life was clear:

[Lyrcurgus] bred up his citizens in such a way that they neither would or could live by themselves; they were to make themselves one with the public good, and, clustering like bees around their commander, be by their zeal and public spirit carried all but out of themselves, and devoted wholly to their country. (p. 45)

What struck me most about Plutarch’s description of Spartan society in the first quote above is just how similar it is to some very early conceptions of what true communism would look like. (They may have even been Marx’s conceptions.) A society in which all men labor and leisure. Minus the slavery of the Helots, of course, whose actual labor probably allowed for Spartan society to even function. (Plutarch doesn’t describe the situation of the Helots in his life of Lycurgus.)

This is an old dream, of a world in which there is no avarice, no clamor for lucre or wealth, in which human beings are equal and there is meaningful work for all and leisure for all. It was, I think, the dream of most communists — when they spoke of the end result of liberation, of ending man’s exploitation of man, this was the liberation they spoke of. Every man a farmer or factory worker in the morning, an artist in the afternoon, and a philosopher at night. It’s not so much articulated politically anymore — mostly folks yearning for a better society are aiming much lower, at a kinder and more-equal polity and society, and not one in which all ills are cured, all wounds healed and all brokenness made whole.

I’m not sure anyone really believes politics can do all these things anymore. But people once did. They believed fervently. They fought and bled and suffered and died for an imagined better world.

But I have a greater concern about this dream of equality. In the case of Sparta, it is welded to the purposes of the Spartan state. No individual human being is free to find their own purpose or meaning — not Helot, not Lacedæmonian — but their purpose is determined entirely by state and society. You are what the people around say you are. You live and die for what the people around say you will live and die for. You mean what the people around say you mean. And nothing more.

Yes, notions of individualism that we have in modernity are very foreign to antiquity (though probably not so foreign as we think). But often, the dreams of recreating Lycurgus’ Sparta — a world where there is no want and no avarice, in which people are freed to lead better lives for the collective or communal good — are bound to creating the kind of society and state in which individual human lives don’t matter so much. And individual human beings have little or no role in sorting out the meaning of lives, what they will and die for. Mass industrial society, and the wreckage of that society we now live in, was a society in which all were to become “one with the public good.” In which we were to become bees around our commander (whoever that might be). Individual human life has no meaning and no value save for its place in the “public good” — a “public good” arrived at solely by the assertions of the powerful in the community.

This is why I fear collective politics. I have, in the last couple of years, backed away from a positive libertarianism, mostly because human beings can only rarely choose the conditions of their existence. And efforts to choose neighbors becomes an exercise in choosing who I or we will not care about.

All the same, I still fear the destructive power of the state — and the corporation, especially as it works closely with the state (as all have since the 1870s) — to attempt to create that well-ordered world of, if not equality and leisure, then at least one in which I am just one more cog in a great machine that is society, to be used until broken and discarded when no longer convenient. (Or to be bent and abused until I am deemed useful.) I’m not so afraid of that power as I once was, mostly because we don’t live in the world of 1914. State power, while ominous and looming, is constrained in ways it was not a century ago.

But the dream inspired by Plutarch’s description of Spartan society is an old one. Somewhere it captivates. And no doubt it will captivate again. And it will devastate and destroy again too.

What Happens to Obsolete Military Alliances

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the early 1950s in response to the consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and the “dropping” of Iron Curtain across the continent. It was designed to fight exactly one war — World War Three, the grand clash between the United States and the Soviet Union fought primarily in Europe and the North Atlantic (hence, I bet, the alliance’s name).

There were several different “scenarios” for such a war, and by the 1970s, it became institutionalized as beginning in the Fulda Gap, a place that was once between the Germanies* where Soviet motorized rifle divisions would first drive into Western Europe. But it would have been a global endeavor.

In any event, the USSR and its attached military “alliance,” the Warsaw Pact, went out of business in 1991. Kaput without any real kablooey. At that point, it would have been perfect for NATO, its one and only trained for war now an utter impossibility, to have had a great victory big party, invite the losers in a show of magnanimity and shower them with food, beer and wine, woken up the next morning and in the blurry headache of the hangover, gone right out of business. American troops should have permanently left Europe with a promise that, if needed, we’ll come back. And in order to prove that, we’ll practice coming back every now and again.

Instead, NATO did not go out of business. It found new things to do, focusing on stuff like international trade, climate change and the drugs trade. (I wonder how many good conservative American militarists know that U.S. money for NATO funds action on global climate change?)

And since that one-and-only war became an impossibility, NATO has waged four wars — in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya. NATO remains engaged in all of these places, with troops on the ground still maintaining peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, troops on the ground maintaining not much of anything in Afghanistan, and planes buzzing Libya bombing stuff with no sign the bombing is accomplishing much or that it will ever come to an end.

So this is what happens to obsolete military alliances — they just wage war until they are finally beaten (or exhausted, same thing) and only then can they truly go out of business. At some point, some people may begin to wonder: what was the point of winning the Cold War, anyway? Because I’m not sure I know.


*That just looks so strange, referring to Germany in the plural.

The Narrowing Legitimacy of the State

I have wanted to write this essay for a long, long time, and tried twice to do so for Lew Rockwell, but was never happy with where it went. Some of my “big think” pieces were never as well written as I’d like. But since many of these ideas are central to what I blog elsewhere (on Libya, for example, or my theology of the state), it’s about time I set out and write these down.

I’ve long believed that the legitimacy of the state — that is, the state as seen and judged by those it governs — has been declining. But I’ve come to conclude that decline is not the right word, as we are not heading to an anti-state moment. Rather, the ability of the state to act and justify its actions is getting narrower. People are demanding as much of the state but becoming much harsher in their judgement of the state. And the state can no longer assume that because it acts, it can justify its actions merely because it’s the state. (“It’s the right thing to do because we say so. Nyaaah!”)

Allow me to try and explain.

The modern state — the state birthed in the Protestant Enlightenment — possesses two very important monopolies. The first is on the moral and lawful use of violence and coercion. The state alone can compel human action and punish human beings for actions against the law or for failing to act. This is “moral” because many (perhaps most) human beings through time have viewed state violence (violence done by those who have been appointed agents of the state) as having a moral legitimacy that mere individual violence does not have. And this is a trait of the state for as long as human beings have lived together. This is not new, and it will not go away. This monopoly on lawful and moral violence is what makes the state the state.

The other monopoly the state possesses is that of meaning. The state alone, especially from early 19th century through to about the middle of the 20th, took to itself the sole or primary right to construct the narrative through which human life within (and often outside) the state would be valued and given purpose. The state would author the story and create the ideas that would determine the purpose and meaning of individual and collective human life, what human beings would live for, contribute for, sacrifice for and die for. The state would accept no alternative narratives, no different meanings — all were considered threats to the creation of a state-centered society (society being that community contiguous with the nation-state). The state was the sole creator and sustainer of human purpose, and would accept absolutely no dissent.

This is why even liberal states were, 100 years ago, incredibly intolerant, persecuting and prosecuting those holding alternative narratives.

In the West, this is largely an artifact of the Protestant Reformation, in which the church was effectively made subsidiary to the state while at the same time made contiguous with the state. Protestants, especially Germans and Scandinavians (but also the English to an extent), tend to confuse church, society and state because they all historically had the same boundaries.

All of this, particularly the monopoly on meaning, was necessary for the creation of mass societies, in which there were only individuals standing alone but also collectively as a mass of citizens before the state. The only subsidiary institutions and identities the state could allow in mass society were those that accepted the state as the center of society. Liberal Christianity, fraternal and professional organizations, trade unions, nationalistic and patriotic groups, all accepted not just the moral legitimacy of the state but also if its narrative, and its central place in human organization. They accepted the monopoly. There were degrees of liberal tolerance for non-conformity, but such tolerance was based on the state’s ability to be magnanimous about the “threat” non-conformity posed (or didn’t) to the state.

It was a time when the state could act, claim its justification for acting as “there is a state interest,” and make that claim stick.

But nothing can last forever. The high water mark of this monopoly on meaning was the First World War, in which states — liberal and those less-than-liberal — were able to thoroughly organize societies and mobilize resources to fight the war. In doing so, states had to make promises about why the war was being fought, as mass war requires mass participation (if nowhere else, in the minds of the state’s citizens, which really is the most important real estate a state controls), and had to create narratives in which the state fighting was ever-virtuous and the states being fought were utter evil. There is no way the sacrifice demanded of Europe’s “citizens” (and also of Americans for the two years the United States was mobilized) could ever be justified given what the outcome of the war was to be — death, suffering, destruction and utter defeat for someone.

In a way, Europeans slowly (but only slowly) began to recoil against the reality of state-centered society and state-imposed meaning. Yes, the nation may be united in purpose, but if that purpose could only be realized in mass death and mass destruction and mass suffering, what was the point of it? Where was the promise of a better world? But I say only slowly, as Fascism and Communism sought to give meaning to the suffering, to find a noble a virtuous purpose in the suffering and destruction. A new world out of the old for the masses of humanity.

The Second World War came without the cheering crowds that greeting declarations of war in July and August of 1914. It was the necessary sequel to the first, because the first hadn’t really settled anything. And even though the state was able to mobilize, it did so without the utter brutality and totality the state mobilized for the First World War (save for the Soviet Union). And although the planners in the West had hoped to create a mass global community in and through the UN, the people of the world had other ideas.

Slowly in the West (and eventually elsewhere), people become consumers. This is much derided, mostly on the Left in the United States, who lament the loss of proper politics. After all, a consumer is nothing but a passive actor, taking in what is easily at hand. But consider it this way for a moment — a citizen can be conscripted, mobilized, propagandized, made demands of, forced to sacrifice, so on. But consumers really cannot be. Consumption is a one-way deal — you provide, I consume. My consumption is necessary to your survival, but you live and prosper not by making demands of me or compelling me to sacrifice but by providing me with what I want or what you have convinced me I want. This may have been an accident, the result of post-WWII American industry seeking markets for products, but people became consumers not just of goods and services but also of government. With the same expectation that the state would be a provider of services, and not the active organizer of humanity.

This was a slow change. It did not happen immediately. But the excesses of the state, particularly the monopoly of meaning, were taken to heart by many (though not all) liberals in the West. The total state had never set well with the liberal mindset, always seeming something of a betrayal of liberal ideals of individual freedom and autonomy. This isn’t to say liberalism always wins — it didn’t in the Gettysburg Address, and it didn’t with Woodrow Wilson — but the ideas of liberalism are powerful and compelling.

In the West, in particular, the state began to surrender, slowly, its claims to a monopoly of meaning. And this gave room for new, non-state meanings to arise. Let me be clear what happened and is happening here. People are not opting for new meanings that reject or sideline the state, nor are they creating alternate structures of governance. Rather, they are saying to the state:

The good life, the meaningful life, is not a life of sacrifice for the state, it is not building grand and great monuments for the state, it is not marching together to a bright new future planned and promised by the state, it is having families and loving children and doing satisfying work and worshiping God (or not) in a community of people who have come to care about each other, a community which on some level includes the nation. We will sacrifice for the defense of our homes if we have to, and at times come to the aid of others, but our lives have value outside what someone in a uniform or who leads a political party or who manages a state program tells us they have. And that value we ourselves give our lives comes first.

In Europe, the state became a provider of services to consumers. Monopoly provision of services, yes, but a long way from Bismark’s notion that the state provides welfare as part of its deal in which citizens sacrifice for the state. The state in the West, and increasingly all over the world, can no longer justify its actions by saying “we are the state.” Not in a world of consumerism, liberalism and human rights. The state has to work much harder to do less than it could 100 years ago. At times and in places it is still very illiberal, especially the United States, where the powers the President is accumulating lie more potential than kinetic (mostly at home; it’s plenty kinetic for denizens of non-American nations) but would still make a Caesar blush. But the state is morally accountable to people in ways no one could have imagined in the midst of the First World War. And states, increasingly, cannot hide from that accountability. No matter how hard they try.

The state, in this, is still expected to protect people, and it is still expected that the state will educate, provide health care and a basic level of economic security for the society’s most vulnerable people. The welfare state is the ideal for much of the world. But it is a consumer welfare state, not a citizen welfare state. Welfare exists in order to allow people to define their own lives most successfully, rather than orienting their lives in service to and sacrifice for the state. (Whether this works is another matter.) The state is expected to provide its goods and services professionally, efficiently and at a cost people can afford. Meaning is less and less one of those services.

The Arab revolt of the last few months has been, I think, an interesting example of this. Most Arab states were formed in anti-colonial movements, and were expressions of national unity and greatness as a way of resisting outside domination. Long ago, however, these states failed to be able to deliver any meaningful services to the people they governed, and the meaning they created became anachronistic. The idea of the liberal consumer welfare state (that’s a mouthful) is powerful, and along with dignity and government accountability it was what was being fought for on the streets of Tunis and the streets of Cairo. And possibly even in Tripoli and Banghazi. It is what the Shia of Bahrain are fighting for. That value we ourselves give our lives comes first.

But these revolts also offer a preview of the crisis to come in government in the Western world too. Liberal governance promises accountability, but this is often a difficult promise to keep — what does it mean for government to be accountable? And accountable to consumers? Because you cannot dictate to consumers the terms under which they consume. We no longer live in the world of Phillip Dru: Administrator. The European Union and the United States will face the fact that the elites who rule are not properly accountable to much of anyone, and certainly not in elections. The same ideas that government exists to empower people which were used to topple Hosni Mubarak are also the same ideas animating the Tea Party and the protestors who occupied the Wisconsin state capitol. There is less coherence in the United States, is part because the Left and the Right have constructed ideas of citizenship and consumerism that are utterly at odds with each other. But also because America is a country held together by a confession of credal documents that founded and empower government — without the state, you don’t have a United States of America. (You would still have France without a French state, or Egypt without an Egyptian state.) We don’t share enough culture to be held together by anything other than our ideas of government. And when we don’t share those, we share nothing. You don’t have a United States without the United States government.

However, I’m going to leave this discussion for another time.

We don’t live in a libertarian moment. Or even an anti-state moment. People are protesting to make the state work better, to work for them. But it is an interesting moment, and one that is generally positive for liberty. Consider: no state could fight the First World War today. People would not accept it. Even in the last two states to mass mobilize, Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, such a war would be impossible. I do not believe Iranians and Iraqis would countenance mass mobilization. But the downside is states no longer need to mass mobilize for war or even ensure the loyalty of all citizens. Professional armies and mercenaries (from Qaddafiy’s West Africans to Xe) are significantly more loyal to the state than masses could be at this point. The state still retains that monopoly on force, the willingness to use it, and the ability to justify it.

But we do live in a time in which the state’s authority is growing narrower. It is easier, thanks to technology, for those of us who question the moral legitimacy of the state to speak and be heard. There are more ways for people to listen. There is no longer one overarching narrative of power and meaning in most of the world’s nation-states. States and governments are no longer believed to so embody the ideals they claim to represent. They are now more accountable to those ideals — including freedom — than ever before. And when they fall short, people will challenge them. It will not always be good or easy. And elites who rule will frequently continue to do so with little regard for the people they rule. All of these things are true, always have been and always will be. But it is a good day to believe in freedom.

And it is a good day to say “no” to the state.

The Reach and Limit of the Law in Antiquity

I have sporadically (when I’ve not been writing and singing songs, leading worship, or watching al-Jazeera on the latest events in Libya) been reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It’s a fascinating and challenging read. Leithart so far has not so much “defended” the arrangement between the Church and the Roman state that Constantine made as he has explained what it really was. Which is helpful.

He also takes as a basis for his narrative the fact that Constantine really was a Christian. The question then, for Leithart, is what kind of Christian Constantine was.

The Roman state, by the time of Diocletian, had long been a religious state. Pagan sacrifice was the core of the empire’s regular devotional practice. There are some passages about sacrifice which I meant to blog on earlier, and will get to later. Because this is a posting about the law.

In 324, Constantine (according to Eusebius) issued a degree that was “intended to restrain the idolatrous abominations which in time past had been practiced in every city and country; and it provided that no one should erect images, or practice divination and other false and foolish arts, or offer sacrifice in any way” (p. 127, quoting Eusebius’ Life of Constantine). He ended the practice of state officials offering regular sacrifices, and was himself militantly opposed to sacrifice. Not long after Constantine died, his son Constans reinforced this with a decree making sacrifice a punishable offense. According to Leithart, this is the point where Christianity could be seen to be the official, established religion of the state, at least in the eastern part of the empire. (Again, Leithart is citing Eusebius here.)

However, Constantine also allowed broad “freedom of conscience” within the empire. Leithart asks how can these two ideas — the ban on sacrifice and freedom of conscience for pagan worship — be reconciled? Because of the nature of the law in antiquity. Leithart writes:

Imperial edicts always depended on enforcement by provincial or local officials, who might be too lazy or busy to carry out the emperor’s business. A provincial governor surrounded by convinced pagans would be hesitant to bear down. More important, emperors “never expected or intended that their anti-pagan legislation be enforced.” [Quotation from Scott Bardbury’s “Julian’s Pagan Revival and the Decline of Blood Sacrifice,” p. 134.] Leafing through the codices, one gets the impression that the decrees of the early Christian emperors were concise and legally framed legislation, but when we examine the full of text of certain decrees in Eusebius, we find that the legislative portion is fairly minor and often concludes a prolix moral lecture. The Codex Theodosianus consists of excerpts from Constantine and his immediate successors, but excerpting changes the genre and tone. In its original setting, much imperial legislation functioned more as mere moral appeal than as law [italics mine] in our modern sense of the term. Given the nature of the “law” in Constantine’s empire, there was no necessary contradiction between his “We wholly forbid the existence of gladiators” and his permission to an Umbrian town to honor the emperor with combats. Nor was there any necessary contradiction between a decree suppressing sacrifice and continued toleration of sacrifice. 

Constantine cannot keep himself from preaching. He did it in court, and when he issued decrees in his official capacity he was still the mission-minded preacher. Eschewing sacrifice entirely was the best way to go, so he prohibited sacrifice; yet everyone should be free to follow conscience, so he did not enforce prohibition. He was a politician-preacher … [and h]is legislation created an “atmosphere” in which sacrifice gradually faded way. (p. 128-129)

The law as moral appeal rather than legislation. This is interesting. It appears to understand the limits of both law and state, something modernity does not appear to grasp (because it wants the law omnipotent and omnipresent, much like modernity wants the state). To an extent, the people of antiquity appear to grasp — at least in this example (and assuming Leithart and his sources, whose conclusions he draws from, are correct) — the limits of power and ability. It may even be that the law’s primary use is as moral exhortation rather than enforced limit on human activity.

This is not to say law or decree were not taken seriously in antiquity, were not viewed as having real power, or were not expected to be obeyed. Otherwise, no one would take seriously the decree of Augustus that becomes the reason in Luke’s Gospel for Mary and Joseph to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to fulfill prophesy. (In Matthew, the move is the other way around, from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and then only because the wrong people rule Judea.) Nor would the Tanakh conclude with the two books of Chronicles, the final of words of which are the decree from King Cyrus of Persia to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem. Powerful words that move people to act, and change the world.

But it seems to me as well part of the power is in their proclamation. If Constantine saw himself as a preacher, then he was exhorting people to act rather than compelling them. Perhaps the distinction is blurry in antiquity between exhortation and compulsion, but it may be there is less an element of raw power (and the modern state, especially the state in the 20th century, seems to be grounded much more on the exercise of raw power) in the state of antiquity because while the people who did rule were conscious of the extent of their power over others, they may also have been much conscious of the limits of their power.

It would be like — to use a bad but probably appropriate example — the United Nations. Sometimes, the Security Council (the UN’s executive) is truly seized of its power, such as its response to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990. Mostly, however, the UN Security Council engages in moral hectoring more than legislating or enforcing (however edifying or annoying that may be). Which may explain why many UN Security Council resolutions read the way they do.

However, we moderns expect the law to be enforced, to be impartial, and to be fair. We have come to believe the law is almost (or should be) mechanical. Perhaps because the law has always held out that promise. But it can’t be, and never will be, for the reason Leithart states. It is a human act, and perhaps it is better to consciously live with the tension that the law is better as moral appeal than code of behavior, knowing that it will always be enforced capriciously regardless.

Yeah, But Not *TOO* Broke

House Speaker John Boehner apparently said this recently to CNN’s Kathleen Parker:

“Well, if you really want to talk about what the ‘Sputnik moment’ is,” he replied, “it’s the fact that we’re broke. And American people know we’re broke.”

Too broke to fight two wars, ya think? Or dominate the world? No, probably not THAT broke. I’m guessing NEVER that broke.

Some writers over at The American Conservative think the moment will come when, having to choose between sending soldiers to fight in foreign countries and pay for grandma’s health care, conservatives will choose grandma. But I don’t think so. I think for many Republicans (possibly even most), grandma is expendable. National greatness is not.

UPDATE: I should add, at this point, I think more than a few Democrats will vote to throw grandma under the tank too.