Politics and the Peril of Truth

In chapter 17 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza remarks: “Those who administer a state or hold power inevitably try to lend any wrong they do the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that they acted honourably.” Seemingly trite and obvious perhaps, at first, but on reflection, a shrewd observation about the deep roots of corruption that seem almost inescapable in the business of politics. The perpetual peril of the truth and the seeming inevitability of corruption in politics are the theme (or one of the themes) of the remarkable recent film, The Ides of March (don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers).

The uncomfortable insight of this movie is that political corruption does not come about simply because all politicians are self-interested bastards (though they are often that), but is, on the contrary, something into which many find themselves sliding almost by accident, despite the best intentions. The truth, it turns out, is too dangerous a thing for the business of politics, and to succeed, you must learn to hide it. As Spinoza realized, it is fatal for any leader, no matter how good a leader he may otherwise be, no matter how wise his policies, to show signs of moral weakness. Image is everything, and character is essential to image. The masses, and nowadays, the media, are hungrily waiting for any misstep, any chink in the armor of apparent virtue, and they will pounce without mercy. When this happens, penitence is no use, it is too late. The people do not want to see in a leader a man like them, someone with many faults, but sincerely regretful for them–they want to see a pillar of virtue. So the only choice for a politician who wishes to succeed is to conceal any faults, to lend to any wrong the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that he has always acted honourably. This, at any rate, is the common wisdom, and this is the tragic dilemma that The Ides of March explores. Read More

Some Numbers to Ponder

Over the past weekend, $52,400,000,000 was spent by 223 million shoppers in the orgy of consumerism that now stains the four days of the calendar bookended by Thanksgiving and Advent Sunday.

For just 40% that amount, a supply of clean, safe water could be provided for the nearly one billion humans who currently live without it.  



I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’ . . .  (I will spare you the sort of rant I made last year at this time). 



An Advent Prayer

(composed for Advent Sunday 2011 at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Lord Jesus, for whose coming Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all the faithful of Israel waited with longing two millenia ago, hear the prayers of your hungry people today.  We mourn in exile from your presence, conscious of the sins that separate us from you, conscious of our faithlessness in the task you have given us to be the lights of the world.  Lord, we are a barren people–our faith is weak, our hearts are cold, our churches are empty.  Lord Jesus, Hope of Israel, who once did condescend to born of a virgin in a stable, be born among us again today, and give us the eyes to see you in your humility.  Be born among us in the preaching each Sunday that we hear and the sacrament we share.  Be born among us in small groups where we fellowship and hear you speaking to us through one another.  Be born among us in our ministries to the lost and to the needy, in the Alpha Course as we display your truth, in our ministries with Bethany as we display your love, in our singing and worship as we display your beauty.  Renew this church, and all your churches, with the power of your presence, with the terror and comfort of your word, with the courage to follow you on the path of love without pretense, love without measure.


O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave. 

Christ, Creator, by whose all-powerful word was all brought into being, re-Creator, by whose powerless death was all made new, redeem us again from the pit.  Only-begotten from all eternity, you were born, like each of us, to die, but death did not hold you, and now it has lost its hold on us.  And yet, Lord, the power of death, the stain of sin, remains every day with us–in the violence of the murderer and the rapist, in the despair of a mother who cannot feed her children, in the insatiable greed that defrauds and bankrupts the vulnerable; but also in the angry word that springs so readily to our lips, in the self-absorption that passes heedlessly by someone in need, in the restless discontentment that  drives the wheels of commerce.  Forgive each of us for these sins that are our own, and for the sins of others that we do nothing to oppose and to heal.  Remind us that you have forgiven us, and give us the confidence to forgive others in our turn.  Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer, rescue us again by your power and love, show mercy to the downtrodden and strengthen us to do the same.  


O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace. 

King of Israel, you are also Lord of the nations, before whom every knee shall bow, and whom every tongue shall confess.  And yet our rulers neither confess your name nor bow before you; instead we find the god of Mammon everywhere enthroned, and war a favorite tool to serve agendas of greed and power.  Prejudice and xenophobia divide us from one another, suspicion rather than sympathy is our default.  Lord, we pray for Britain, that you would humble its pride and restrain its greed.  Give us just leaders who protect the poor and the voiceless, rather than the powerful and influential, and who welcome the stranger, rather than turning them away.  Lord, we pray also for America, still infatuated with her power and intoxicated with her wealth, concerned only with maintaining her own position.  Give her leaders who will bow the knee to your kingship.  We pray for leaders in the Arab world and in Israel who maintain their position by violence, make them submit to the Prince of peace.  We pray for young nations that are leaderless and directionless–provide for them order and justice.  We pray for leaders in India and China, nations that will direct the destiny of our world in decades to come; fill those nations with the light of your word today, that they may advance your kingdom tomorrow.  


O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Light of the World, we see your light dawning already in every corner of our globe.  You have come, in answer to the longings of the ages, and the world is still echoing with the wonder of that great event.  In nearly every nation and tribe are faithful disciples who call on your name; even among those who have tried so hard to forget you, you haunt their imaginations.  Your kingdom has left its mark on our language, our music, our laws, our buildings.  Lord, fill us with hope and joy this advent, recognizing amidst these short days and long nights that the darkness is breaking, remembering during the cold and the frost that the winter is ending, that you both have come and are coming again.  Lord, let this exhilarating realization animate our every thought and deed.  When we are frightened, let us take comfort in the thought.  When we are tired, let it energize us.  When we are heedless and turned inward on ourselves, let it call us to attention.  When we are in despair, let it give us hope.  When we are angry, let it make us ashamed.  Lord, let each of our lives and each of our churches reflect the glorious proclamation that our King reigns and our King is coming.


Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.  Amen.

C.S. Lewis, Just War, and the Locus of Authority

In a 1939 letter to the journal Theology, C.S. Lewis raises a very important, and too little discussed, question of just war theory: who is responsible to decide whether a war is just?  Too often, just war debates focus on the six traditional just war criteria, whether they are sufficient, and whether they have been fulfilled in a particular case.  But Lewis objects, “It is plain that equally sincere people can differ to any extent and argue for ever as to whether a proposed war fulfils these conditions or not.  The practical question, therefore, which faces us is one of authority.  Who has the duty of deciding when the conditions are fulfilled and the right of enforcing his decision?”  To this, Lewis offers a very interesting and uncomfortable answer.  To be sure, he grants from the start, no subject must obey a decision that he knows to be wrong and unjust; indeed, he must not obey.  But just how responsible is he to determine whether it is wrong or unjust?  Lewis is inclined to think that the ordinary citizen has, in fact, relatively little responsibility on this front.

He uses the analogy of a hangman.  Assuming that a Christian may legitimately be a hangman, we will of course say that

“he must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent.  But will anyone interpret this to mean that the hangman has the same duty of investigating the prisoner’s guilt which the judge has?  If so, no executive can work and no Christian state is possible; which is absurd.  I conclude that the hangman has done his duty if he has done his share of the general duty, resting upon all citizens alike, to ensure, so far as in him lies, that we have an honest judicial system; if, in spite of this, and unknowingly, he hangs an innocent man, then a sin has been committed, but not by him.  This analogy suggests to me that it must be absurd to give to the private citizen the same right and duty of deciding the justice of a given war which rests on governments; and I submit that the rules for determine what wars are just were originally rules for the guidance of pinces, not subjects.  This does not mean that private persons must obey governments commanding them to do what they know is sin but perhaps it does mean (I write it with some reluctance) that the ultimate decision as to what the situation at a given moment is in the highly complex field of international affiars is one which must be delegated.” 

One can certainly feel the force of Lewis’s argument here.  To generalize it, surely we must acknowledge that the subject’s duty of determining the justice of laws to obey is not as thorough and comprehensive as the lawmaker’s duty of determining the justice of laws to enact.  Otherwise, every citizen would be his own lawmaker and there would be no authority.  And of course, this objection is not simply to protect authority, but to protect the subject from the awful, paralyzing weight of responsibility that he should have if he must thoroughly sift every judgment made by his leaders before going along with it.  If I should be guilty of sin every time I obey a law that should not, on the whole, have been made, then this would be a heavy burden indeed on every conscience, and an intolerable demand on each citizen’s time, since he must be forever researching the pros and cons of every decision.  

What Lewis draws our attention to here is perhaps the crucial, but often-neglected, dimension of authority–epistemological authority.  Although, within a suitably circumscribed sphere, authorities can make right what might otherwise be wrong, or make wrong what might otherwise be right, more importantly their job is to help decide for us what is right, in a situation where this determination is complex and very difficult to come by.  Submission to authority means, therefore, a willingness to suspend judgment, to defer to another’s conclusion, even if one cannot see all the reasons for it, even if, indeed, it may seem thoroughly unpersuasive at first glance.  Otherwise, again, we put unbearable burdens on each conscience, and reneder impossible any kind of collective action.  

 This much I think we must grant, despite our hesitation; to be sure, we must leave room for conscientious objection, for open debate questioning the law and the authorities, and yet these must be the exception, rather than the rule–most citizens, most of the time, will be justified in obeying political authorities without investigating all the ins and the outs.  But I expect we are likely to be far more hesitant about this principle when it comes to war, especially in a generation scarred by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  


But can we offer a rational defence of this hesitance, without demanding that every hangman be a judge?  Well, yes, I think.  There are a couple routes.  First of all, while adopting as a general principle that ordinary citizens do not have the same responsibility to determine the justice of political decisions as authorities do, we might well want to say that their responsibility is raised as the stakes are raised.  In ordinary mundane decisions, we can generally assume that the authorities are making reasonable calls and that we needn’t second-guess these decisions.  In life-or-death decisions, such as capital punishment, then, although we needn’t put ourselves in the position of the judge and the jury, we may want to prick up our ears and be especially attentive to make sure that justice is being done, and be ready to speak out if there are anomalies that suggest it is not.  In decisions involving the life and death of tens of thousands of people, and of whole nations, then we should be far more attentive, far more questioning.  As a people, we do incur a certain degree of guilt if so much blood is shed wrongly, and so we ought to be diligent in demanding a clear explanation of a just rationale for war.  We don’t demand to know every detail, but we can and should ask for a coherent account, and if one is lacking, we should suspect that something rotten is afoot.  

But there is perhaps a more basic problem with the hangman example.  For the closest analogue of the hangman in a time of war is not the ordinary citizen, but the soldier.  Like the hangman, the soldier has signed up for the job of doing the dirty work.  He has in a very special way submitted his own judgment to that of his commanders; the justice system cannot work if the executioner is forever demanding to see all the evidence, and the military system cannot work if the soldiers are forever cross-examining every deployment order.  I would suggest that, although they have a serious responsibility to determine the justice of the system they choose to serve before they sign on the job, once they have so signed on, the hangman and the soldier have in fact less responsibility to determine the justice of orders than ordinary citizens.  In a controversial court case involving the death penalty, I would suggest, ordinary citizens have more duty to be protesting what they see as an unjust decision than does the hangman.  So, when a war is undertaken, soldiers may have to stay silent when those on the home front raise foreceful objections.  I would suggest that we have to give a more complex account of vocation, then, than Lewis’s simple citizen/leader dichotomy.  Lewis asks, for instance, 

“What is the alternative?  That individuals ignorant of history and strategy should decide for themselves whether condition 6 (‘a considerable probability of winning’) is, or is not, fulfilled? — or that every citizen, neglecting his own vocation and not weighing his capacity, is to become an expert on all the relevant, and often technical, problems?”  

Well no, that’s not the only alternative.  We are to weigh our vocations.  And some private citizens have a particular vocation to ask questions of those in power, to investigate the truth of their claims, to weigh the consistency of their rhetoric and to sift expert opinions?  Journalists, for instance, ought to have a crucial vocation within a modern society to inform the citizenry and to ask questions of those in power.  So when it comes to the possibility of war, the stakes are high enough that we should ask questions, and some will have the vocation to do a lot of cross-examination.  Perhaps Lewis is right and our default, if we live in a generally just society, should be to trust our leaders, but if this cross-examination uncovers evidence that contradicts what our leaders have told us, then we should not.


If we cannot be discerning and critical at this point, before the shots have been fired, before loved ones have been killed and we’ve been hardened by the ubiquity of death, before the fog of war has engulfed us, then when will be critical.  Lewis, like Paul Ramsey, operates under the assumption that ius in bello should be much easier to discern, and much easier for Christians to witness consistently to, than ius ad bellum: 

“a clear Christian witness might be attained in a different way. If all Christians consented to bear arms at the command of the magistrate, and if all, after that, refused to obey anti-Christian orders, should we not get a clear issue?  A man is much more certain that he ought not to murder prisoners or bomb civilians than he ever can be about the justice of a war.  It is perhaps here that ‘conscientious objection’ ought to begin.”


The problem is that history, above all the six years of history that followed Lewis’s writing of this letter, simply does not bear out this rosy optimism.  On the contrary, it seems generally to have been much easier for governments to convince their people that a war is being fought justly than that a war is being entered into justly.  Civilian deaths can always be covered up, or else dismissed as accidents.  Or perhaps a people, sufficiently hardened by war, can be brought to the point where they just don’t seem to care, as was the case by 1945, when the US and UK engaged in airborne atrocities on a scale that almost defies imagination.  If we are to be vigilant witnesses against the injustice of war, we must start by doing so when a war is first proposed, not after it is well underway.  Otherwise, if we start by simply trusting that the authorities know what they’re doing, then it’s almost certain that once we’re in the heat of conflict, when the alternative can be portrayed as treason, we will continue so trusting them, no matter what they command us to do.  

Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  

Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.