Some Thoughts On Governance

So today is election day, and quite possibly the most ugly election in modern American history is going to more or less come to an end.

I say more or less, because if Hillary Clinton wins as forecast, I suspect Donald J. Trump, billionaire (he owns a mansion and a yacht), will not go away. He will linger, and likely proclaim himself the aggrieved victim of some kind of fraud, and then launch into his next venture as the “President” of some kind of ersatz, make-believe “government” that will feature itself on Trump TV.

Or whatever it will be called.

He will play at governing for television, second guessing every decision the Clinton White House makes. Even if congressional Republicans don’t impeach Hillary Clinton, the country will rather quickly slide into ungovernability, Clinton unable to accomplish much (at least legislatively) and Trump able to play at being president without having any real responsibility for anything.

It won’t quite be the worst of all possible worlds. Trump won’t hold real power. But the sense of resentment, and entitlement, on the part of his core supporters is real, and it won’t go away. They want an America ordered differently, ordered in their favor, and they believe that the country will be lost if they don’t get that order. That’s a motivation for drastic action. It won’t simply be content to lose an election.

I’ve long believed that, as Americans, we have invested so much in politics, as part of our sense of justice, good order, and however we identify, that there will come a moment when one side will decide: There is too much at stake to lose.

If this is indeed the Flight 93 Election, then nothing is off the table, not even force and coercion and violence, if the fate of the nation is at stake.

I admitted earlier this year, there were things about Trump I kind of admired. His anti-elitism, especially given that elites across the liberal/social democratic West have so completely failed in the last two decades, resonates with me. And I still admire, kind of, his utter lack of respectability, and his inability to be shamed.

But Trump’s authoritarianism is the kind of thing that won’t save the nation. It will accelerate whatever rot we’re dealing with, from moral failure to elite failure. He is not Pinochet. Trump is too undisciplined to be a savior, and too capricious to lead effectively. In the end, he is all of the failure we suffer from, incarnate.

Hillar Clinton is not much better, for she too is embossed with failure. And she too will govern by decree as much as she is able. We are headed toward dictatorship of some kind (I won’t call it tyranny, since that word is largely empty of any content in the Anglo-American political tradition), the only question is whether we are on a local or an express train. Clinton gets us there just as surely as Trump, though the nature of the dictatorship will look different.

Most people won’t suffer under what’s coming. And that will be true whether Trump or Clinton presides.

I’ve seen some happy Christian posts on Twitter in the last few days reminding everyone that whatever happens today, Jesus is still King. And this is true as well.

But American Christians approach government as if it matters, as if somehow government somehow has to be a reflection of t5he God-given order, or an expression of how blessed the people of God are. There is some of that in scripture, with good leaders — like Josiah — able to temporarily avert the coming judgement of God.

But only temporarily. God’s judgement on God’s people was cast at Sinai, a consequence of their idolatry and their faithlessness.

For much of scripture, including the New Testament, the people of God are governed by conquerors and enemies. This is our condition. Not the Davidic Kingdom (which has been restored in Christ in any case), but Egypt and Philistia and Babylon and Rome. Despite its misuse as a prod to good and loyal citizenship, Romans 13 is a reminder that even conquerors and enemies are “legitimate” authority who can impose good order and even some modicum of justice in the world. When Jeremiah calls upon Israel to “seek the welfare of the city,” he is speaking to exiles far from home to build and love and have hope amidst the people who conquered and oppress them.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees to render unto Caesar, he speaks not of a co-equal sovereign to whom love and loyalty and bodies are owed, but a competitor, a conqueror, a pretender, a false god, and one who has enslaved God’s very own people.

And one who makes his own claims to bringing peace and salvation to the world.

This is not to say that all political orders are created the same. A Trump victory would likely lead us to places we have not been before, to an officially sanctioned lawlessness that would shred any sense of shared community and solidarity in ways the status quo won’t. A Clinton victory gives us more of the same, and there is a lot to hate about the neoliberal world order. But a Trump presidency would likely be a deluge which would drown all in its path.

It has the potential to be regime change in the worst of all possible ways. And we’ve seen how well that’s worked where it has been imposed.

But the political order doesn’t save us. The political order is capable of giving us only an approximation of justice. The political order can provide some safety and stability that allows individuals and communities to thrive. But it doesn’t always, and it won’t always. No matter how we are governed, or who governs us, we are called to love enemies and conquerors. We are called to be good neighbors to those who oppress us. We are called to have hope in redemption when it seems that suffering and death are the only things that are real. And we are called to do all of things knowing that we may never see that redemption, that we live for children and grandchildren and descendants we will never know.

I know, the spirit of the age, whether we quote Martin Luther King, Jr., or Frantz Fanon, or George W. Bush, or Donald J. Trump, is: “Now is the time, and we are the people.” Maybe.

But we are still only exiles, homeless, a people between creation and eschaton, who live in and with the consequences of choices we never made and hope for deliverance we may never see. Because we, the people of God, are the justice of God, right here and right now, in how we live, how we love, how we hope, and what we hope in.

Not kings and princes and presidential candidates, not greatness and glory or even safety and stability. But love. In the face of violence and uncertainty. And a God who loves, loves us utterly, loves us to the end, and has not left us or abandoned us in our exile, has promised us that even conquerors too will be held accountable. May even become part of the people of God.

Because God so loves the world. A world run and ordered brutally and violently and unjustly. We love. We hope. We live.

JUDGES Scraps Under the Table

I have decided my Monday Devotionals will take us through Judges just as they took us through Joshua. So, without further ado, a reading from the Book of Judges, the first chapter.

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” 2 The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” 3 And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. 4 Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek. 5 They found Adoni-bezek at Bezek and fought against him and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. 6 Adoni-bezek fled, but they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and his big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table. As I have done, so God has repaid me.” And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

8 And the men of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire. 9 And afterward the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland. 10 And Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba), and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai. (Judges 1:1-10 ESV)

So, Joshua is dead, and Israel is leaderless. There is no successor to Joshua. Not now. Not yet.

Instead, God picks the tribe of Judah, along with Simeon (because Simeon’s land is smack in the middle of Judah, and Simeon will disappear into Judah) to resume fighting, to continue to conquest.

But note here, even as God picks Judah and Simeon to lead the fighting (a collective leadership akin to the post-Stalin or post-Tito arrangements made in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively, and it will face a similar end), the Lord is still doing the real fighting, is still achieving the real victories here, still delivering the Canaanites into Israel’s hands. These are not Israel’s victories. They never were, and they never will be. Nothing fundamental has changed.

Not yet.

Long-time reads of this blog (assuming there are any) will know I am not a believer in what comes around goes around, so I find the fate of Adoni-Bezek — אֲדֹֽנִי־בֶזֶק The Lord of Bezeq — intriguing. At the hands of the Israelites, he suffers the same fate he used to inflict upon those he conquered. I’m not inclined to call this justice poetic or otherwise, but he does confess — “So God has repaid me.”

But I cannot read this without also thinking of Jesus’ encounter with the gentile woman in Mark 7 (where she is described as Syropheonician) and Matthew 15 (where she is described as a Canaanite). “Yes Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) He fed those he conquered with scraps, scraps they would have a hard time picking up because he deprived them of their thumbs. And now how is conquered, thumbless, trying to pick up scraps from under the table of Israel.

I’m not sure what this allusion — if Jesus is even drawing from this image of the conquered and humiliated foreigner (being a syrophoenician in Mark makes her an outsider; being a Canaanite in Matthew makes her a subject person) scrounging under Israel’s table — does. The story we have in both Mark and Matthew tell us that while Jesus sees his ministry entirely to the “Lost sheep of Israel,” and he basically calls the woman a “dog” in both passages, the story also gives us a Jesus surprised by her faith, and in both stories, her faith in Jesus heals the woman’s daughter.

By contrast, Adoni-Bezeq seems only to grasp that “God” (אֱלֹהִים, and not The Lord יְהוָ֖ה, which is how non-Israelites tend to meet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) has paid him back. In the form of Israel’s conquest. Even this is faith, understanding that God is the author of one’s misfortune and poetic vengeance.

Perhaps we should be surprised by his faith, and never has there been such faith in Israel, to understand that God has repaid one’s own evil and oppression for evil and oppression. (This is a self-realization, not a self-righteous third person accusation. Remember that.) To have been the doer of evil who, now thumbless and toeless, gets what has really just happened to him. Because sometimes that happens.

It will happen later in this story, as faithless Israel is itself conquered and carried into exile. Recompense for its own sin. Faith in the righteous judgment of God is still faith. Even when there is no escape past “today you will be with me in paradise.”

It’s also interesting that Judah and Simon bring this conquered king of the Negev to Jerusalem, which is still at this point a Canaanite city that Israel is still making war against. The men of Judah manage to sack and burn the city here, but they don’t secure it. It is still full of foreigners.

Why I Don’t Believe in Justice, Social or Otherwise

A good friend — no, better, a member of my “family of choice” for whom I would die and for whom I would seek vengeance and kill if needed — asked, after reading my last blog entry, “What about justice?”

I’ve written about justice before on this blog. Mostly long ago, though, and I’ve not stated succinctly anywhere (I don’t think) exactly my thoughts on the subject. At least not recently.

So, here goes.

I am not a social justice Christian. I am not a social justice person. Justice strikes me as an abstraction, and an unachievable one at that. Many of the oft-cited biblical calls for justice (such as Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”) seem to forget the context of God’s judgment upon God’s own people. (“You want justice?” God tells Amos. “Careful, you might get it … and it won’t be in your favor.”)

Justice, as I understand it, demands an exercise of power. It also demands a right ordering of the world. It seeks to keep the use of power accountable through that right use. I see little difference between secular demands for justice — particularly those grounded in a Marxist critique of power and order — and the demand for justice by most progressive Christians and even progressive secularists. (I do not use the term Marxist here to be incendiary.) I also find attempts to “redefine” social justice in a more power-friendly way (such as this) to be equally fraudulent.

I have three problems with the whole notion of justice and social justice.

First, I have no confidence in what God’s justice really looks like. For all the promises of redemption, reconciliation, full tables, and lions lying down with lambs, justice in scripture is also as much a function of God’s righteous and violent judgment of God’s people using things like plagues, snakes, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Roman legions to lay waste, plunder, murder, and destroy. I want a full table for all and to see the predator and the prey live peaceably together, forever and ever, amen. I don’t want the Babylonians coming and besieging my city. But that too is God’s justice, and I don’t necessarily get to choose.

Second, I am completely convinced modern Christians — particularly progressives, but this isn’t limited to them — have confused the promises of modernity (freedom, equality, progress) with the biblical promises of full tables, inclusion of gentiles, and lions lying down with lambs. In this vision, the kingdom of God seems to many to simply be some version of the social democratic welfare state. (Or the revolutionary welfare state.) This makes the kingdom merely a tawdry political accomplishment — a place where life is better and more equal, where there is no racism and the poor are lifted up. These may be fine goals, but what about the Christians in all those times and places who did not or do not live with the hope of rearranging their political and social lives in any meaningful way? What have they to hope for? (Conservatives have a similar problem when their kingdom is some version of America writ large — the people living without hope need the liberation only America can deliver.) No, the kingdom, and the justice it brings, are bigger than our hopes and dreams for a better world.

Finally, there’s a very selfish reason. Whatever justice is, or may be, I clearly don’t get any. Power doesn’t work in behalf, I’m not really allowed to ask it to (I’m not included in any existent justice movement, and none seek justice for me), and I’m a fool to expect it ever will.

What I do believe in is mercy. Mercy, to me, is the withdrawal of power, an acknowledgement that while power could act (in a just way!), power has decided not to. Perhaps this is too limited an understanding. Mercy is God telling Jonah that he will not overthrow Nineveh because it has heeded the warning of its prophet. Mercy is Elisha striking the Assyrian army blind, and leading it directly to the King of Israel, and then telling the king of Israel:

“You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” (2 Kings 6:22 ESV)

Mercy is God incarnate subjecting himself to our fear, our anger, our hatred, our violence, and dying. Willingly. Emptying himself out so that we may be redeemed. Instead of reducing the entire world to ash in his anger — righteous anger — and very just rage.

Mercy is a great deal more powerful than justice. The world also doesn’t understand mercy. Mercy is not popular. Mercy is weakness. It takes someone with real power — real, sovereign power — to hold back. This is why the King of Saudi Arabia can be far more promiscuous with pardons and grace than any American president or state governor. (This is also why democracy is a fundamentally merciless form of government.) There is always a constituency for justice — bloody, brutal, satisfying, final justice. (However it is shaped.) There is almost no constituency for mercy.

I may not have experienced much justice in my life — no one has decided the world or its rules need to be bent or reshaped to accommodate me, much less benefit me — but I have received a lot of mercy. And I’ve needed it.

I am, however, not entirely opposed to justice. But it does have to be concrete and relational, something I came to realize a few years when serving as the interim pastor at Uptown Lutheran Church in Chicago. If justice demanded I agitate for a new bus line for my parishioners, or a different way of policing that allowed the homeless I minister with to hold on to hard-won state ID cards, then I would do it. Because the relationship would demand this. Faithfulness to my calling, and to God, would demand it. As I develop relationships with the kids who are slowly becoming my congregation, I may need to work for justice for them. Whatever that might look like. And I accept that.

But I don’t believe in “justice” in the abstract. I’m generally sympathetic to progressives on matters of race, I just don’t think the problem of race in America can ever be fixed. Attempts to do so are merely rearranging deck chairs on a slowly sinking Titanic. I cannot think of a society where a ruling majority or plurality has ever given up power willingly, and progressives need to consider the likelihood that at least some — perhaps many — white Americans won’t surrender. I also don’t think a multi-ethnic society has even been ideologically constructed the way some want to remake America — mostly they’ve gone kablooey and been reduced to their constituent parts (see: Hapsburg Austria, Romanov Russia/USSR, Ottoman Empire). I won’t argue it can’t be done, only that it is as highly unlikely as the fully contractual and voluntary society some libertarians seek. If humans haven’t organized ourselves in a particular way before, chances are we cannot do it. At least not for very long.

Pluralism, and not multiculturalism, is how people really and most successfully live together. That, however, requires confident elites, majorities, and pluralities — something the world no longer has. The narrative of victimhood now dictates how even the powerful view themselves and their place in the world.

The same is true of the poor and inequality, and I suspect the world is reverting to type after an abnormal period in history in which the those in the middle — as opposed to the very rich — held effective social and economic power. The post-WWII history of broadly shared wealth in the West (and, to a lesser extent, some of the developing world), is an aberration rather than inevitable progress. As humans, we are not capable of sustaining it. Our individual and collective nature doesn’t allow it.

So, I don’t believe in justice largely because I am a deep and abiding pessimist about human nature and the human condition — things that don’t change merely because we seek what we believe to be right, good, and just. Because humans aren’t capable of exercising power without acting unjustly. Even in the pursuit of justice.

The Fundamental Injustice of the Cosmos

Is the universe just? Is God just? The Guardian today has a couple of pieces which examine these two separate — but interrelated — questions.

First, Oliver Burkeman considers the matter of a just world:

The world, obviously, is a manifestly unjust place: people are always meeting fates they didn’t deserve, or not receiving rewards they did deserve for hard work or virtuous behaviour. Yet several decades of research have established that our need to believe otherwise runs deep. Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can – but, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.

As we seek to explain the world, Burkeman writes, our desire to find meaning in things we cannot stop meets our desire to believe that things happen for a reason. Bad things happen to someone? Well, it must be their fault. This gives some order to the universe, Burkeman says, and helps us make sense of what is, at face value, senseless.

But it’s a lie that allows us to blame those who suffer. Continue reading