De-Theologizing Harry (or, The Death of the Death of Death)

On Thursday night, I had the privilege of seeing the final Harry Potter movie in the city where the books were conceived and written, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how faithfully this last crucial film reflected the rich theology of J.K. Rowling’s creation.  I should mention that I was, until the very last book, something of a Potter skeptic, unconvinced that the books were anything more than a fun and overhyped story.  But in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was bowled over by the overt and profound Christological elements, which were so prominent that it seemed impossible that they could be integrated without overwhelming the story and turning it into a sermon.  That they did not do so is a remarkable tribute to Rowling’s literary prowess.  Following the logic of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the final book revealed that the magical world of wonder that Harry inhabited was not all there was–there was a deeper magic, which overturned all the calculations of the magical world. 

But the question was, could Hollywood grasp this deep magic?  It had failed abysmally in the recent Narnia adaptations, sucking all traces of theology out with startling efficiency.  The less overt theology of Lord of the Rigns had escaped somewhat more intact, though still crucially undermined at points.  Whether intentionally or simply out of blindness, Hollywood shows itself remarkably adept at de-theologizing stories, and converting them, so far as possible, into some kind of feel-good humanism.  I had a suspicion, especially after Deathly Hallows Part One, that this supremely theological tale would be no exception.  Alas, I guessed rightly. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

Now don’t get me wrong.  From a strictly cinematic standpoint, and indeed from the standpoint of fidelity to the book, this film was, to my mind, all that could be wished for through its first 100 minutes or so.  Even after that, I think it would be quite a decent film to anyone who hadn’t read the book.  But these last 20 minutes, encompassing the part after Harry dies and Rowling cranks up the theology into high gear, subtly but systematically removed four key elements of these final chapters, which I shall call “The Death of Death,” “The Life of the Age to Come,” “The Atonement,” “The Last Judgment.”  Note that not everything I sketch here is explicit in the book, and indeed, Rowling seeks to explain each of these phenomena in terms that make sense within the world of the book–this is literature, not a sermon, or even an allegory.  However, I am fairly sure that I am reading each of these out of the book, not into it.

 

The Death of Death

What is it that happens when Harry gives himself up to death, and why is he able to come back from the dead?  Well, in answer to the first question, we could certainly say that the Horcrux that is within Harry is destroyed; Voldemort is rendered vulnerable.  This alone is rich with theological significance.  Harry destroys the power of sin and death by bearing it within himself, and letting it die with him, just as Christ identifies himself with sin and fallenness, bearing it to the cross (does anyone think it’s a coincidence that Harry finds himself at “King’s Cross” at his death?) where it can be destroyed by dying with him.  But if that were all, there would be no reason why Harry would have to knowingly and willingly give himself up; as long as Voldemort killed Harry in battle, one way or another, the Horcrux destruction would be accomplished.  And yet great stress is laid in the book on the necessity that Harry voluntarily take this death upon himself.  He must give himself up to death.  Nor, if it were merely about destroying the Horcrux, would there be any reason he should come back from the dead, just as, from the standpoint of Christian theology, if redemption was merely the expiation of sin at the cross, it’s hard to see what significance the resurrection has.  

To fully grasp what’s going on at this point in the book, we have to think of the significance of the Deathly Hallows, which are after all what the book is all about.  The theme of the book is established many chapters earlier, at Godric’s Hollow, with the twin New Testament passages, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” and “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Harry wants to destroy the power of death, to become the master of death, but the way in which he does so is crucial.  It matters where his treasure is, what it is that he truly values.  If he wants to overcome death for himself, to set himself up as its master, then he will be little better than Voldemort.  This is the symbolism of the choice between Hallows and Horcruxes, which is built up throughout the earlier chapters of the book and comes to a razor-sharp point at Shell Cottage.  Harry recognizes that he must choose between pursuing the Hallows, overcoming the power of death by taking to himself more power than death, or by embracing the route of powerlessness, the long hard path of destroying the Horcruxes, which means eventually giving himself up to death on behalf of others.  (This fascinating dialectic is almost completely left out in the film The Deathly Hallows Part One, and so its resonances are absent at the crucial moment in Part Two, and the extensive conversation on this point between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross is omitted.)

Harry is to become the master of death, but master not by setting himself over it but by putting himself under it.  Death exhausts its force by being poured out on him, the one who willingly seeks it for himself to save others.  Love is stronger than death.  “But I should have died–I didn’t defend myself!  I meant to let him kill me!” Harry exclaims. “And that,” Dumbledore replies, “will, I think, have made all the difference.”  This enigmatic comment is left unexplained, but for the reader looking for an explanation within the existing logic of the books, Harry’s cheating of death is explained in terms of the power of Harry’s blood, itself clearly rich with theological overtones.  The power of love in his mother’s sacrifice is in his blood, and although Voldemort took Harry’s blood to weaken Harry and strengthen himself, in this blood is the power of life that makes it impossible for Voldemort to finally kill Harry. 

In short, in Harry’s death, we witness the death of death in his own death.  Like Christ, “death has no more dominion over him.”  What this means is more than just the destruction of another Horcrux; Harry has not just struck one more blow, but in fact the decisive blow.  But to bring this decisive blow to completion, Harry must be resurrected.  Death must be publicly exhibited as overthrown, its powerlessness before the power of love must be displayed and enacted, Harry must tread the powers of evil underfoot, must reverse the sentence of death that Voldemort has enacted on him by returning it upon Voldemort.  And this resurrection must be no mere “rescuscitation,” it must be the return to life of someone over whom death no longer has hold (more on this in the next section).

All of this, I think, is clear enough in the book, although generally hinted at rather than openly set forth.

In the film?  Nope.  In the film, the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry is abbreviated so as to omit any sustained reflection on the significance of what has happened, and Harry simply asks, more or less, “So, can I go back?”  To which Dumbledore replies, more or less, “Well, if you want to.”  Why should he be able to go back?  On what basis?  Can the story just conveniently break the rules of its own world whenever it wants to?  No, as in Narnia, what we have here is not the normal rules of magic, but a deeper magic at work.  Thus far, the departure in the film is primarily one of omission, not commission, but the ramifications are still significant.  The following features will show, I think, that I am not reading too much into this omission.  

 

The Life of the Age to Come

When Harry comes back to life, it is not merely a reversal, a resuscitation.  He comes back as one who has passed through death and come out on the other side.  Now, clearly Rowling does not make too much of this.  This is a story, not a sermon, and Harry is, for purposes of the story, just a regular old human being, not the God-man.  He will go on to live a normal life, and presumably to grow old and eventually die again.  Nonetheless, the sense that “death has no dominion over him” anymore is conveyed in several ways.  

After he comes back, Voldemort, thinking him dead, triumphs over his body by casting the Cruciatus Curse, which ought to inflict unspeakable pain on any living thing.  However, Harry is impervious, he feels no pain.  Voldemort’s magic can no longer affect him.  For this reason, Harry can now face Voldemort without fear.  It is not as if he has now merely nullified Voldemort’s advantage and now comes back to fight him on equal terms.  The terms are completely unequal.  Voldemort has no chance, and Harry knows it.  The game is up.  “You must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine,” says Voldemort.  Harry replies, “I believe both.”  Nor does Harry even have to cast a killing curse–Voldemort’s simply rebounds upon himself and he is destroyed. In the book, this is explained primarily in terms of the logic of the Elder Wand, and its change of allegiance.  The Elder Wand, the greatest of the Deathly Hallows, represents the power of mastery over death, the power that Harry has refused to try and seize.  And nonetheless, it has been granted him, in a roundabout fashion, ultimately because of Dumbledore’s self-sacrificial renunciation of it.  But in any case, the upshot is that Harry now, having given himself up to death, has been vindicated as the true master of death, against whom Voldemort has no power.  

Contrast this to the movie.  Here, there is no hint that we have anything but a rescuscitation, an unexplained but convenient mechanism for Harry to return to fight another day, so that Round Two can commence, and the special effects guys can go crazy for another battle scene.  The battle that commences is not one that, as in the book, is essentially futile from the start (for Voldemort), but one in which Voldemort still seems to have the upper hand.  Harry is running and dodging, the snake is striking at people (instead of being decapitated right at the beginning of the sequence), and nothing really seems to have changed.  Voldemort and Harry grapple together, and when their wands finally do meet, it takes some time before Harry can overpower and thus destroy Voldemort.  Instead, in short, of a narrative in which the decisive victory has already been achieved by the renunciation of force, Harry triumphs, it seems, by superior force in a final closely contested showdown.

It’s also worth noting one little sequence in the movie that runs quite counter to the theo-logic I’ve sketched here. Voldemort comes into the castle courtyard with Harry’s body, exulting over his triumph, and Neville steps forward to challenge him.  Neville tells Voldemort that Harry hasn’t really died, because he lives in each of them, in their hearts.  He is still with them in spirit, and so it really makes no difference.  They will still fight.  Now, to be sure, in the book, the defenders of the castle are still defiant, but they are utterly downcast.  They may not want to submit, but it is clear that Harry’s death does make a difference.  Harry being truly alive and Harry being “alive in their hearts” are not the same thing, just as, contra modern liberal Christianity, Christ being resurrected and him living on in the disciples’ hearts are not the same thing.  As Paul says in Corinthians, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”

 

The Atonement

One of the most beautiful parts in the book is the revelation that just as the death of Harry’s mother protected him, so Harry’s giving himself up to death on behalf of his friends means that they are covered by his death, they are, as it were, atoned for.  The sentence of death was on each of them, unless Harry went to die himself.  He does so, and the power of evil and death no longer has any hold on them either.

“‘You won’t be killing anyone else tonight,’ said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other’s eyes, green into red.  ‘You won’t be able to kill any of them, ever again.  Don’t you get it?  I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people. –‘ 

‘But you did not!’ 

‘–I meant to, and that’s what did it.  I’ve done what my mother did.  They’re protected from you.  Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding?  You can’t torture them.  You can’t touch them.'” 

This is one of the most overtly Christian ideas in the book, and is entirely omitted in the movie.  There is no sense that Voldemort no longer has power against Harry’s friends.  Quite the contrary–he is still a terrifying force, striking at will, with, it appears, a very real chance of triumphing.  

 

The Last Judgment

Finally, we come to the only change from the book that has been significantly remarked upon, because this one is too obvious to miss.  In the book, Harry faces down Voldemort in the Great Hall, in the presence of all.  Everyone falls silent and stops their fighting and watches the final encounter.  And instead of simply going for each other, Harry and Voldemort have a conversation.  Only at the end, when Harry has laid everything bare, does he engage and destroy Voldemort.  In the movie, the final showdown occurs alone, in a courtyard, with no one watching or listening, and only a minimum of conversation.  

Is there any significance to this?  I think there is.  

For what we have at the end is not so much a battle as a judgment.  As I have said, Harry has for all practical purposes already triumphed.  He has passed through death, he has overpowered death, he is the lord of the Elder Wand.  What remains is simply for him to exhibit this triumph.  All of this, I think, is theologically significant.  At the end of the age, Christ will not simply snap his fingers and wipe out evil, and everyone will live happily ever after.  No, he will be publicly vindicated, as will all his saints.  All evil deeds will be brought to light and laid bare, and the righteous will shine for all to see.  The lies of ages will be unravelled, and the truth will finally be spoken for all to hear.  The spell of deception which the Evil One has laid upon the world will be broken.  The wicked will be given one final chance to repent (or not, depending on your precise theology).  Christ will be publicly proclaimed as the true Lord of Ages, and he will name the Evil One for who he really is.  In short, just judgment will at last be given.  

All of this happens in that final showdown in the book.  It is crucial that Harry be publicly vindicated as the righteous one, the one who gave himself up to save the world, and that Voldemort be named for who he is–Tom Riddle, a coward.  The truth will finally be told about Dumbledore and about Severus Snape–the righteous will be vindicated, and Voldemort’s lies about them finally unraveled.  Harry will warn Voldemort of the terrible end that awaits him, and summon him to a last repentance, but in vain.  Voldemort’s claims to supremacy will be shown to be empty, and Harry revealed as the true lord of the Elder Wand. 

Although I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were doing when they altered this showdown, I think they were instinctively flinching from the intolerably eschatological nature of it all.  For the modern, the battle against evil, insomuch as there is one, is one that we each have to fight within ourselves, is one in which we are each alone and each victory is ours alone.  The idea of a final public confrontation, a judgment in which the nature of evil is laid bare for all to see, is foreign and unacceptable.  Nor can the modern handle the revelation of true lordship.  We saw this in Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies, in the watering down of the idea of kingship.  So it is here.  Harry’s supposed to be someone with whom we can all identify, and in the very last scene, he appears just a little too lordly.  Suddenly he is revealed as the guy who holds all the cards, so to speak, who suddenly has access to all kinds of truths that we as readers are still trying to figure out.  No doubt the filmmakers felt that audiences really wouldn’t be able to relate to such a transfigured Harry, and so the final confrontation must be no more than a last personal showdown between Harry and his nemesis.

 

As for the other changes, I can only speculate whether the filmmakers were intentionally de-theologizing or whether they really just didn’t get it.  Sadly, based upon the way in which reviewers have reacted to the film and endorsed the ending, I’m afraid it’s the latter.  Perhaps this is, if anything, more disturbing–to live in a society which is no longer reacting against or fleeing from God, but has just forgotten how to even recognize Him



Money, Greed, and Five Favorite Fallacies

As you may have noticed, my passion against Schneider has burned out a bit, since I finished reading him almost two weeks ago, though I will still do my best to blog through the rest of the book.  I read John Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market and it was a fantastic breath of fresh air–I reiterate the recommendation I made before I read it: everyone should go read it.  More about it in due course.  For now, though, I’m afraid I have another very unhappy review to share, Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God.  (I will admit up front that I did not finish this book.  I made it to the halfway point, and then determined that to continue, with no promise that I would ever be offered a coherent argument, was merely an act of self-flagellation.  I should also point out, lest I seem to be unfairly singling out really lame books to critique, like a scrawny third-grader beating up on kindergarteners in order to feel important, that the back cover of this book is bedecked with laurels like “the definitive case for capitalism,” bestowed by none other than George Gilder, and is rated very highly on both Amazon and Goodreads.  If this is the definitive case for capitalism, then I’m afraid capitalism had better give up and pack its bags.)

This book is laced with unflattering ironies.  The author repeatedly adopts the stance, so attractive to American audiences, as the champion of common-sense over against the obfuscations of intellectuals, who spin webs of fantasy and idealism out of touch with reality.  But he does this while remaining consistently at the realm of abstraction, hypotheticals, and straw men, never deigning to come down and engage economic realities.  Sometimes this equals blatant falsehood, like where Richards asserts that “government spending as a portion of GNP has grown exponentially in recent decades.”  The actual growth?  12% (from 18.4% to 20.6%) over fifty years, and actually a decline in the last twenty.  (You can see all the details here.)

On a larger scale, it means that Richards never actually touches down to earth and tells us what he is talking about.  What is “capitalism”?  Since he never tells us, he can simply duck and hide from opponents as needed–whenever their attacks hit home, he can conveniently claim that as “not-capitalism,” and whenever there is something good that the modern world has given us, he can claim it for capitalism.  This is common enough in books of this genre, as is the tendency to camp out in abstractions and hypotheticals.  We find here almost no real grappling with modern economic realities, but rather platitudes about how an ideal free market functions in principle, and how wealth need not be a zero-sum game.  

Throughout, though, he writes in homely and down-to-earth style, in order to strengthen the impression of common sense over against the distorting sophistications of the academics.  If he used such rhetoric as an aid to clear and cogent logic, it might work, but when it is used to mask the absence of logic, it just makes him look like a demagogue.  Here’s a case in point: “The Ten Commandments–a sort of summary of all God’s laws–take private property for granted.  For instance, the eighth commandment, the one against stealing, implies that we may have property.  Otherwise, there would be nothing to steal, and the commandment would make no more sense than an order not to fraternize with four-headed Jube Jube monsters.  (No, I don’t know what they are, either.  I just know they don’t exist.)”  As I’ve pointed out before, the eighth commandment taken alone merely implies the existence of fixed property relations of some kind–it says nothing about what form those should take–capitalist, distributist, communitarian, or even socialist!  Perhaps Richards hopes that his readers will be so distracted by Jube Jube monsters that they won’t notice the logical lacuna.  

The same complaint can be made against Richards’s extensive use, early on, of a first-person narrative.  He was once an idealistic socialist, he confides in us, back when he was a teenager and it was cool to be radical.  He used to be convinced of all this rubbish, but then when he started looking at real facts, he learned better, and grew to embrace capitalism.  This, presumably, is to help his case, by conveying to the reader that this is not some ideologue, but someone who knows the other side inside and out, and has rejected it for sound intellectual reasons.  However, given that he never deigns to share any of these sound intellectual reasons with us, but resorts to all kinds of straw men and logical loop-de-loops to make his case, this personal testimony just makes him look naive and impressionable.  

Despite the promises of the title and the back cover, Richards does not really attempt in this book to argue positively for capitalism, and certainly not to offer a theological argument for it (inasmuch as Scripture appears, it is generally only as something that Richards defends himself against).  All he really attempts to do is to show that capitalism “is not the problem,” by means of refuting eight “myths” about why capitalism is bad. Rather than deal with Richards’s responses to these as such, I wanted to respond by pointing out five fallacies that pervade his argument through the first few chapter.  The first three are primarily methodological, the latter two primarily substantial.  I will call them The Dystopia Fallacy, The Tweaking Fallacy, The Not-Necessarily Fallacy, The Coercion Fallacy, and The Theft Fallacy.  In a later post, I will discuss the issue of Private Property and Inequality (non-)Problem, which relates closely to the reasons I researched the book in the first place.

 

1) The Dystopia Fallacy

In this fallacy, Richards picks the worst possible example of an alternative to capitalism, and uses it as a bogeyman to scare people away from imagining that there could be alternatives.  The first chapter does this on a grand scale, and in the most fantastically cliched fashion: Look at the massive evils done by countries that were professedly Marxist!  Ergo, capitalism is better than all the alternatives.

For this argument to work, it would require at least these four assumptions:

1) Marxism is the only alternative to capitalism.

2) The countries in question practiced Marxism effectively.

3) The evils that these countries wrought were directly due to their Marxism.

4) Similar evils have not been wrought by countries trying to impose capitalism on unwilling populations.

In fact, I think, all four of these assumptions are invalid.  The first is so baseless that it bewilders me how otherwise intelligent people manage to persist in repeating it.  Richards’ book takes no account of phenomena like European democratic socialism, not to mention of course alternative economic visions like distributism.  The second is eminently disputable.  Leninism, Maoism, etc., have their roots in Marxism, but differ in profound ways from what Marx argued for and envisioned.  One massive and crucial difference is the fact, which Richards notes in passing but pays little attention to, that communism took root in agrarian and Third World countries, rather than in developed Western industrial nations, the context in which Marx developed his ideas.  Unsurprising, then, that it failed so abysmally.  The third fails also, for related reasons.  Again, Richards notes that “revolutions never sprang up in advanced industrial societies where there was a strong rule of law, but rather in poor agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots.”  So Cambodia to the United States should not be an apples-to-apples comparison in determining the relative merit of an economic system.  Many of these evils have been due to despotism in general, and communism is just the particular form it has taken for some countries in this century.  Brutal despotisms on a massive scale have been pretty common historically in places like Russia, China, and Cambodia.  The technology of the twentieth century has merely made it far easier for this brutality to occur efficiently on a massive scale.  This then relates to the fourth assumption.  It would be fair to ask whether, in “agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots,” capitalist regimes of some form or another have practiced terrible brutality and tyranny in the twentieth century.  The recent history of Latin America, unfortunately, answers that question in a resounding affirmative.  

 This sort of fallacy continues throughout the book so far as I have read, using, for instance, examples of a really poorly-conceived and poorly-executed government policy to “prove” that government intervention in the “free market” is always bad; or quoting out-of-context and poorly-worded complaints against capitalism to prove that all forms of opposition to capitalism result from fuzzy thinking.  Meanwhile, he routinely chalks up all the marvels of modern life to free-market capitalism without any argument. This is nothing but post hoc, ergo propter hoc–we had capitalism, now we have the microwave; clearly the latter must come only from the former.  

He is correct, in short, to claim that modern capitalism need not be perfect, only that it needs to be better than any viable alternatives.  But to demonstrate that it, at its best, is better than one particular alternative at its worst, doesn’t get him very far to proving it better than the alternatives.  To be fair, he either needs to compare really bad examples of anti-capitalism with really bad examples of capitalism, or really good examples of anti-capitalism with really good examples of capitalism.  Otherwise, it’s nothing but propaganda.

 

2) The Tweaking Fallacy

This is a common approach among free-marketeers.  What they do is they set up some idealized scenario of a well-functioning market, and then hypothesize one particular change in policy that is intended to make things work better.  Unsurprisingly, the change upsets the system, and ends up doing more harm than good.  But most intelligent people agitating for change don’t just want to make one little change in the system; they want to make a lot of changes, building on one another.  Or they want to change the assumptions inherent in the system.  

An example of Richards’ use of this fallacy (again, quite cliched) is with respect to minimum wage.  If you raise the minimum wage in a well-functioning market, argues Richards, you will increase unemployment, and thus make things worse off on the whole.  Fair enough.  But any responsible initiative to raise the minimum wage would gauge the possible impact of a wage hike on employment (which, depending on the current wage level, might not actually be much at all), and would take steps to avert ill effects.  Or a distributist might propose ways to remodel the entire system so as to both raise wages and employment levels (as quite persuasively argued by John Medaille in Toward a Truly Free Market).

The tweaking fallacy can be conveniently combined with the dystopian fallacy, as Richards illustrates with the minimum wage issue.  He imagines a scenario in which the minimum wage was raised to $1,000 an hour and shows us how bad the effects would be.  Presumably, then, we are to assume that the effects of a smaller raise would be bad too, in the same way, only to a lesser extent.  But logic does not support such an assumption, and the “argument” thus serves only the purpose of alarmist rhetoric.

 

3) The Not-Necessarily Fallacy

In this, another favorite tactic of Richards’s, the logic of the argument runs like this: Opponents of capitalism say that capitalism makes the rich richer at the poor’s expense.  This complaint assumes a zero-sum game–that wealth is never created, only transferred.  But this is not always the case.  Let me show you some examples of how free exchange can make both parties wealthier.  

Ergo, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, ergo, the rich do not get rich at the poor’s expense.  The problem here of course is that almost no critic of capitalism is so daft as to complain that it is always a zero-sum game.  Everyone recognizes that of course it is quite possible for business to actually add net value to everyone concerned, and that this happens all the time, and is much of the reason for the prosperity of the world today.  But do all resources work that way?  Well, no.  Some resources, like land, are fixed and cannot be created.  Some markets–many financial markets, for instance–are essentially zero-sum markets.  

Now, if some significant parts of the system are zero-sum, then it is quite possible, indeed likely, that many people do get wealthy at the expense of others.  It is not always win-win.  And in general, those already most powerful will succeed in entrenching their position at the expense of those less powerful.  The only way Richards could refute the zero-sum complaint would be by demonstrating that all transactions in a capitalist system end up benefiting both parties, and that is manifestly false.  Instead, he confines himself to showing that it is not necessarily true that someone gets rich at another’s expense, and therefore concludes that it is necessarily untrue, which is about as straightforward an inversion of logic as you can get. 

 

4) The Coercion Fallacy

I have written on this before at great length, so hopefully I can be brief.  Richards frequently makes his case by indulging in a sense of moral outrage at the coercion of government coercing people to do stuff, even for good ends, and of course he repeatedly defends the free market by insisting that it is, of course, free.  Whatever you don’t like about it, at least it doesn’t force people to do stuff, but lets everyone meet on an equal level, and exchange what they want less of for what they want more of.  Everything is completely voluntary.  

In a modern world that has exalted freedom as the highest virtue, this sort of argument is taken to settle the question–better for people to do bad things freely than good things under compulsion, seems to be the idea.  Of course, once closely examined, this popular moral presupposition breaks down, but we’ll leave that issue aside.  The more immediate objection is of course that it is not really accurate to speak of all government policies as “coercion” unless one presumes radical individualism.  There is a such thing as corporate decision-making, the public will, and all that.  Or there used to be, at any rate; perhaps there isn’t anymore in the United States.  A corporate decision is only coercive to the extent that the recalcitrant make it so.  But let’s even leave that issue aside.  

The most immediate objection, one that is so obvious that only the most propagandist ideology can ignore it, is that it is absurd to talk about perfectly “free” contracts and agreements in a marketplace constrained by inequality and scarcity.  In a contract between an employer who lives in a mansion with security guards, and is making a 20% profit margin, and 1,000 job applicants who are facing starvation if they can’t find some kind of employment, it would be absurd to speak of the two parties as being equally “free,” or even to speak of the job applicants as free at all in any meaningful sense of the word.

Rather than face up to such real-world realities, Richards insists on making his argument in terms of idealized test scenarios and hypotheses–like the “trading game” that his sixth-grade teacher made his class play once upon a time, swapping toys until everyone ended up with something better than they started with.  “An exchange that is free on both sides, in which no one is forced or tricked into participating, is a win-win game.  It’s a positive-sum game.” But this hypothetical marketplace is one without exploitation (preying on someone’s physical needs to get them to do something you want), manipulation (preying on someone’s emotional needs to get them to do something you want), or deception (ensuring that the other party does not know the relevant facts of the transaction), all of which are institutionalized in many modern capitalist markets.  

In short, I continue to insist that if the defenders of capitalism are to rest the vast majority of their case for the goodness of the market and the wickedness of state intervention on the “freedom” in the former and the “coercion” in the latter, they must provide some meaningful definition of these terms that actually fits the real world.  Otherwise, why should we listen to them?

 

5) The Theft Fallacy

Related to the “Coercion” fallacy is of course the “Theft” fallacy–the repeated rhetorical assertion that any redistribution or contro of private resources by the government is “confiscation” or “theft.”  I’m sure you know the sort of thing I am talking about, but here’s a sample quote:

“Every government has to collect taxes to fund services beneficial to all–to maintain courts, protect citizens from domestic and foreign predators, enforce traffic law and contracts, and so forth.  We have a right to protect ourselves from aggressors, for instance, so we can delegate that right to government. We don’t have the right to take the property of one person and give it to another.  Therefore, we can’t rightfully delegate that function to the state.  Delegated theft is still theft.”  

As I’ve argued before, this argument collapses on its own terms.  Almost any “legitimate” government function breaks down when pressed.  Some citizens have enough mobile capital that if an enemy should attack the US, they could easily pack up and move to London with few adverse consequences, so why is it worth their while to pay tax dollars to defend less affluent citizens.  Maybe they are staunchly pacifist or at least feel that America’s enemies have been stirred up by acts of aggression that such citizens have bitterly opposed.  They didn’t support the actions that created the enemies, so why should they have to pay for the cost of restraining those enemies.  Or what about those of us who live in inner cities and walk everywhere.  Why should we have to pay for the maintenance of the roads and traffic laws?  If societies cannot enact policies that benefit some people more directly than others, then they can’t enact any policies.  Such a reductio ad absurdum suggests that there is a fundamental philosophical flaw in the assumptions behind this “theft” accusation.  

 And sure enough, there is.  The assumption is that private property somehow exists in a vacuum–it is sacrosanct, unconditioned, absolute, timeless.  It pre-exists any society and therefore society has no claims on it.  This assumption turns out to be utterly incoherent once held up to the light of day (and Richards himself discards it in a later chapter when it suits his argument to articulate property differently).  On the contrary, property is, if not a product of society (which I would suggest it ultimately must be from an ethical standpoint), at the very least always conditioned by society.  To say that society has no claims on private property is about as coherent as saying that parents have no claims upon their children.  

Now one can argue that there are limits upon these claims–limits of justice and limits of prudence.  If there were no rules restraining society’s claims on private property, private property would be meaningless.  But conversely, if there were no rules at all regarding society’s claims on private property, then private property would be meaningless.  The relationship is a subtle and dynamic one, not one that is easily defined by throwing around terms like “theft” whenever it is rhetorically convenient.

 

And that last criticism could sum up my critique of the whole book.  Richards acts as if this is a debate between ignorant idealists and people who take economic realities seriously.  But in saying this, it feels like he is critiquing himself.  Economies are subtle and dynamic, and the real world that we operate in is quite different than the fantasy one that Richards has constructed for us with the aid of fuzzy logic and empty rhetoric.



Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.  



Living in God’s Two Kingdoms?

Alongside Schneider last week, I was reading another book, David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, a sort of theological and practical companion volume to the largely historical Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  Now, you may have thought, given my response to Schneider, and my even more vitriolic response to VanDrunen’s earlier work, that this would be a recipe for madness.  On the contrary, this VanDrunen volume has actually proven a welcome counterpoint to Schneider’s book, by turns amusing, bemusing, and confusing, but rarely maddening.  Curiously, whereas Schneider’s book seems to start from theological assumptions that I more or less agree with, and which I described as more or less synonymous with N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and then works toward appalling practical conclusions, VanDrunen’s starts from appalling theological assumptions, which one could describe as essentially the polar opposite of Surprised by Hope, and then works toward practical conclusions that it would be difficult to disagree with.

 

Agree with?  Me?  Well, it’s really quite curious.  The theological section reads almost like a reductio ad absurdum.  When in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, I constantly found myself saying, “How can you say that?  If you say that, you’d have to believe X, Y, and Z, but how could you?”, VanDrunen comes right out in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and says X, Y, and Z.  At times, so different were his basic theological assumptions that it felt like we were practitioners of two different religions, and certainly not both conservatives in the Reformed tradition.  The old classifications seem less and less helpful today for defining theological trajectories; reading the first chapters, I felt at times as if I had more in common with a liberal Roman Catholic than with VanDrunen.

However, the final chapter, where he cashes out what it all means for “Education, Vocation, and Politics,” all this gets turned upside down.  Reading the theological section, I constantly found myself saying, “How could you say that?  That would entail X, Y, and Z in terms of practical application.” And then when I got to the application, VanDrunen comes right out and says A, B, and C.  Or to cease dealing in abstractions, whereas VanDrunen’s theological paradigm seems calculated to prevent Christians from speaking and acting as Christians outside the four walls of the Church, to driving as sharp a wedge as possible between the life of the “spiritual kingdom” and the “common kingdom,” his conclusions seem rather commonsensical–indeed, downright Hookerian.  The gist of his counsel about education, vocation, and politics (with the occasional jarringly discordant statement mixed in) boils down to this: by all means bring Scripture to bear on every area of life, and seek to pursue Christian morality and Christian presuppositions in politics, education, etc., but recognize that because the Bible does not offer detailed guidance on the particulars of these complex and ever-changing fields, we must rely largely on discretion, and may come to differing conclusions about how best to live out our faith in these areas of life, so we must avoid being judgmental toward other Christians on such subjects.  

Really?  That’s it?  That’s all you were trying to say?  Well then why didn’t you just go tell everyone to read Hooker?  Part of my confusion may be due to a failure to accurately gauge VanDrunen’s main target in the work; in the final chapter, he seems to have in mind a lot of the careless, oversimplistic, and imperialistic rhetoric that characterizes that way many “transformationalists” in their application of Scripture to cultural and political issues, and so perhaps his project need not be read as an attack on more responsible approaches to Christianizing the public sphere.  However, if so, the confusion is VanDrunen’s own fault, since in the Introduction, as in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, he began by lumping together theonomists, Kuyperian neo-Calvinists, the emergent church, and N.T. Wright as all instantiations of the same problem, the one he is going to solve.  If your target is so lacking in coherent definition, then no wonder your alternative should be as well.  

However, even if much of VanDrunen’s two-kingdoms project could be read more charitably as a rebuttal to certain careless forms of American neo-Calvinist imperialism toward cultural, academic, and political life, the fact remains that his theological paradigm seems ill-fashioned to yield such a modest result.  I would suggest that, more consistently applied, VanDrunen’s theology cannot yield the relatively commonsensical practical conclusion that he wants to provide at the end, which is in fact fraught with irresolvable contradictions.  Further, I would suggest that a more authentically Protestant two-kingdoms paradigm–say, Hooker’s–would actually be able to much more consistently and coherently yield the desired result, a forthright but modest and provisional application of Scripture to public life.  Moreover, it would avoid some of the more disturbing undercurrents of VanDrunen’s paradigm. 

 

For let us not suppose that since most of the intended applications of this two-kingdoms paradigm in politics are relatively benign, the paradigm as a whole is.  By setting up the visible Church and the rest of Christian life in sharp dichotomy, and then arguing that the rest of Christian life is characterized by provisional application of our faith in changing circumstances, by a diversity of legitimate solutions, by an ambiguity of Scripture when it comes to legislating the details, and thus by an exercise of Christian liberty, VanDrunen implies that the visible Church is characterized by none of these things.  Within the four walls of the Church, Scripture does legislate for us all the details, the solutions are final, not provisional, there is only one legitimate approach, there is no Christian liberty.  And I think VanDrunen and many of his colleagues really do, more or less, think that (although he masks it by constantly equivocating on what he means by Christian liberty–a crucial ambiguity that lies at the heart of his project, as I identified in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms).  Equally seriously, while VanDrunen at times asserts a general application of Scriptural morality to public life, at other times he can’t help claiming a complete disconnect, suggesting, for instance, that only Christians are called upon to turn the other cheek, and (it would seem) even they are only supposed to do so in the spiritual kingdom, whatever on earth that means (only if another Christian hits them?). 

Throughout, VanDrunen’s method depends upon this same bewildering mixture of the obvious and the bizarre.  His general strategy is to draw attention to a very obvious truth of Christian existence (such as the fact that we live in an antithetical relation to unbelievers, even while sharing many aspects of our lives in common with them) or of Scriptural witness (such as the fact that Christ is the full and complete author of our redemption, which does not depend on our efforts), and then draws from them by implication an utterly idiosyncratic theological proposal, which he passes off as the obvious and only implication.  For instance : Christ is the new Adam, therefore we are in no sense to be new Adams.  Christ has fulfilled Adam’s God-given task, therefore, we are not called to do it as well.  This little syllogism, which is in fact the theological hinge upon which the whole book turns, cannot but lead to a crippling bifurcation between Christ and his people, which consistently applied, would seem to leave no basis for any Christian imitation of Christ, even within the so-called spiritual kingdom.  

 

All of these points I hope to develop at more length in further posts working my way through the book; however, as I am in the midst of a longish trip encompassing two conferences, it may turn out to be awhile.  But fear not, I’m confident this blog has not seen the last of VanDrunen. 



All Part of the Imagery

For my light reading lately, I’ve been enjoying a bit of vintage Noam Chomsky–What We Say Goes (a collection 2006 interviews).  In light of my recent post on Sarah Palin, I found this little nugget particularly intriguing:

“…about people here calling Bush names, that’s very constructive–for the radical right.  It is as if these people have been programmed by Karl Rove.  Rove wants to have the liberal critics ridicule Bush because he says ‘nucular’ and ‘misunderestimate’ and talks with a probably fake Texas accent.  In fact, my suspicion is he’s probably been trained to make grammatical errors–he didn’t talk like that at Yale–so he’ll be ridiculed by liberals, and then he can say, ‘See, those elite liberals who run the world and are sitting around drinking French wine and eating quiche don’t understand us ordinary guys.’  Regular guys like the guy working on the assembly line and George Bush, who is going back to his ranch to cut brush.  That’s all part of the imagery.”