Like a Madman Who Throws Firebrands

Over the past few days, the good Lord decided to play a cruel trick on the GOP for the second straight election cycle, aiming a hurricane directly at New Orleans just as the Republican Party was rolling out the red carpet and striking up the fanfare for its National Convention, at which it would formally introduce to the world a candidate with whom we have long since become familiar to the point of contempt, and would rally its troops with battle cries, “Down with the socialist!” 

A major hurricane aiming for any stretch of the US coast threatens to upset the spirit of such an occasion, calling for unity when division and partisanship are at their highest pitch, calling for sobriety when self-congratulatory effusion is the order of the day.  But a hurricane headed for New Orleans, as Gustav was during the 2008 RNC and Isaac was this year, is the worst scenario imaginable, summoning up the haunting memories of those dark days in late August and early September 2005, when Katrina dealt the US its deadliest blow in more than 75 years and drowned one of its great cities.  In 2008, several key attendees at the Convention were forced to stay at home, some of the proceedings were abbreviated, and the tone was greatly sobered.  Thankfully, Gustav spared New Orleans—just—while dealing much of the rest of SE Louisiana a punishing blow. This year, the same scenario was being replayed, but made even worse by two additional factors.  First, some genius bigwig in the Republican Party, undeterred by the experience of Gustav, had the bright idea of scheduling this year’s convention in Tampa, FL, on the US Gulf Coast at the height of hurricane season.  Isaac duly made its lumbering way toward Tampa at first, frightening the organizers into canceling the first day’s events.  Then, having opted to spare Tampa, Isaac set his sights for New Orleans and timed his arrival to coincide exactly with the seventh anniversary of the Katrina catastrophe.  A distraction like this was almost worse than the Convention being cancelled.

Unlike Katrina, then, Isaac didn’t even have to make landfall yet before igniting a political firestorm, as both parties jostled to make whatever hay they could out of this sensational turn of events.  Understandably, the Republicans were in much the more difficult position, and so their fiercest champion strode forth, wielding the vorpal sword of his untamed tongue with a rare ferocity, and all but suggesting that the Democrats were steering Isaac via a remote control hidden deep in the dark fortress of Democratic Party headquarters.  I am speaking, of course, of Rush Limbaugh.  

 

Of course, he didn’t really say that about the remote control, so far as I’m aware, but his actual claims and insinuations were scarcely less ridiculous.  Indeed, so much so that may people will say that it’s a silly waste of time even engaging them, or that I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill because he was so clearly joking.  Jon Stewart, they say, makes outlandish, clearly false statements and no one bats an eye, because it’s a joke.  Let’s give Rush the same benefit of the doubt, they say.  Well, was he joking?  In some remarks perhaps; in others, it certainly seems not.  It is, at any rate, far from clear—unlike Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a laugh-track studio audience, and doesn’t burst into a silly grin at his own jokes (not that we can see, at any rate), to clue us in.  This lack of clarity means that he bears a greater responsibility for the reliability of his remarks, and how they might be taken, than a mere satirist (and even a satirist isn’t off the hook entirely, as we shall discuss below).  Moreover, for millions of Americans, Rush is their chief source of political news and opinion, their source for facts.  Limbaugh has been called “The Number One voice for conservatism in our Country,” and has received the William F. Buckley, Jr. Award for Media Excellence and a “Defender of the Constitution Award” from CPAC; in a 2009 Zogby poll, he was rated “the most trusted news personality in America,” garnering 12.5% of responses.  That being the case, he has to be taken seriously, whether we want to or not, and his remarks have a great capacity to do harm.

 

So what were these remarks?  Well, there were a great number, over several broadcasts. But among the most controversial were the following (see also here and here):

“The media is now out there saying that Hurricane Katrina is hanging like a pall over the Republican convention in Tampa. So this whole thing has been politicized, as the Democrats politicize everything, and that’s why we are talking about it. Now, I want to remind you: All last week… And, no, at no time here am I alleging a conspiracy. At no time. With none of this am I alleging conspiracy. All last week what was the target? Tampa. What was going on in Tampa this week? 

The Republican National Convention. A pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet. And I noticed that the hurricane center’s track is — and I’m not alleging conspiracies here. The hurricane center is the regime; the hurricane center is the Commerce Department.

It’s the government.

It’s Obama.

And I’m noticing that that track stayed zeroed in on Tampa day after day after day. And the Republicans reacted to it accordingly over the weekend, canceling the first day of the convention. What could be better for the Democrats than the Republicans to cancel a day of this?

And at eight p.m. Saturday night I see one of the biggest, one of the largest shifts in model forecast I have seen since 1997 when I moved down here and started caring about this stuff and started studying it….This was a beeline. This is gonna follow the coast of Cuba right up to New Orleans, in every model.  Again, I’m alleging no conspiracy. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m going somewhere with this. I’m just telling you what happened.

I’m sharing with you my thought process, ’cause I know full well that if you give these people the slightest chance and they’re gonna turn this into Katrina and they’re gonna scare the hell out of New Orleans and they’re gonna revive, “Bush doesn’t care about people” and revive all of it. They’re gonna politicize everything ’cause they do it. And now they had the model runs allowing them to do it.

Now they had these model runs allowing them to start scaring the hell out of people in New Orleans and make political connections to Bush.

It was all there.” 

There are a great many points to pick up on here, but let’s first deal with the obvious issue: his non-conspiracy theorist conspiracy allegation.  Repeatedly in the broadcast, he hints that there must be some conspiracy, for there is just so much coincidence that it’s “unbelievable,” but repeatedly states that he is alleging no conspiracy.  This is of course the oldest game in politics—”Hey, I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…”  He suggests that there’s something very fishy and unsavory going on, but makes sure he can protest innocence of having actually accused government officials of criminal breaches of the public trust—although in this particular quote, he comes very close to it.  I expect that Limbaugh is too smart to actually think that the NHC deliberately distorted the forecast.  To this extent, people who have defended him to me on the basis that he was deliberately making an outlandish claim just to enrage the liberal media are probably right.  But neither was it a mere joke, an isolated outlandish claim.  On the contrary, the entire broadcast was dedicated to a meticulous (though in fact highly distorted and inaccurate) point-by-point narrative of the timeline of various forecasts regarding the hurricane, suggesting various things that didn’t add up, that were too odd to be coincidence.   

Of course, his dark hints didn’t seem to add up with one another.  On the one hand, he notes that the computer models shifted the forecast track suddenly away from Tampa and toward New Orleans immediately after the Republicans decided to cancel the first day of the Convention, suggesting that the forecast toward Tampa was merely an attempt to disrupt the convention, and once that mission was accomplished, the convention could then be best further disrupted by forecasting a hit on New Orleans.  Both the original forecast toward Tampa and the later forecast towards New Orleans were, on this view, politically motivated.  But what about the fact that the hurricane did in fact make a bullseye hit on New Orleans, just as the later forecast called for?  Does that not vindicate the new forecast?  Did the NHC just get lucky?  On the other hand, Limbaugh elsewhere in the broadcast chides the NHC for not acting immediately on these new model runs (which they had apparently conjured for political ends), and staunchly maintaining its near-Tampa forecast well beyond when it was justified based on the computer models.  Clearly, these two sets of accusations don’t fit together.  If the NHC made up the model runs (which, in any case, is impossible, as they are generated by a whole slew of different agencies and research institutions around the world, many of which are not under US gov’t control) to cause a panic about New Orleans, then why would they hold off on actually updating their forecast track accordingly?  Or if the accusation is that the NHC was foolishly disregarding its reliable models, then what was the point of casting doubt on the trustworthiness of the models?  If the problem is that the forecast is all just politically motivated, then how was it so amazingly accurate in the end (once the NHC figured out that New Orleans was under the gun, it nailed the forecast track, missing by only 25 miles with its 48-hour forecast, compared to an average error of 80 miles over that time frame).  The fact that the various dark hints don’t even add up with one another, much less with the real world lends credence to the suggestion that a lot of this was just an act.  But to what end, we must ask? 

Some will say, “Just to make the liberals mad.  To make them freak out and actually believe that he meant it, and waste their energies attacking him.”  So his defenders will say.  Even if this is true, it is a weak defense indeed, since I’m not sure when saying something offensive just to make your opponents mad became a legitimate purpose of public speech.  (We will return to this later.)  But I think clearly there is a further motivation—which is to undermine public trust in the government, and encourage conservatives in a sense that everyone is out to get them, and perhaps in league against them.  These inchoate convictions rarely operate quite at the level of propositional logic, but are more like gut emotions.  Therefore, Limbaugh does not have to make actual hard and fast accusations; he merely has to create an atmosphere of suspicion, a sense of unease, a sense that there are dark dealings afoot, and that the one entity you can never trust is “the regime, the government.”  

This notion of Limbaugh’s that the National Hurricane Center is “the regime.  It’s the government.  It’s Obama” is sufficiently striking as to call for us to pause and comment.  Rarely has the right’s totalitarian pathology been more neatly showcased.  The right has in recent years forgotten entirely what “the government” is—namely, a widely-dispersed collection of agencies, bodies, and leaders, each with different defined spheres of authority, representing different sections of the body politic and serving it in a wide variety of ways.  We have this nifty thing called separation of powers in the US, and also a division of levels between federal, state, and local, so that there is no unitary abstraction that one can simply peg as “the government,” much less “the regime,” but really just a bunch of people doing their jobs, some badly, some well (and needless to say, they aren’t all under the direct control of Herr Obama).  For this good old American constitutional perspective, modern conservatism has substituted a baldly totalitarian conception, in which we find ourselves faced with a united Leviathan, subsuming all authorities and directed by a single baleful will, which it has pitted against the American people using all its resources.

Now, conservatives may respond that this is not what they want, but what the liberals have created.  The Constitutional separation of powers has broken down.  State and local functions have been devoured by the federal government.  Well yes, to some extent.  But not so completely as folks like Limbaugh pretend.  And the terrible thing is that with this sort of rhetoric, conservatives are accelerating the process.  We must not underestimate the power of the imagination when it comes to politics—this is one of the best lessons I learned from the work of William Cavanaugh.  Political realities can only proceed so far, unless empowered by the collective imagination.  If oppressive regimes capture the imaginations of the people, making them yield to fear, then they become as powerful as feared.  If the people see through the pretensions of the regime, and see themselves as free, then they become so.  If we make a Leviathan of the government in our imagination, then it becomes a Leviathan.  If we see it as just a collection of fallible representatives and often petty bureaucrats, then that is what it becomes.  If we see it as an enemy standing over against us and trying to quash our freedoms, we will find liberty and authority in inescapable conflict; but if we see it as a guardian of our liberties, or still better, as a representative apparatus through which we can exercise our corporate agency, then we may be surprised to find that freedom and authority begin to work in harmony.   All that is merely an aside, but an important one.  Limbaugh wants his listeners to see the National Hurricane Center, and every branch of government, as part of “the regime,” part of “Obama,” part of the enemy.  This, combined with his conspiratorial suggestions, has the clearly-intended effect of undermining public trust in the NHC.  

 

It is not hard to see why this is a big deal, but I will dwell on it, because it is a pet peeve of mine.  There are few agencies of the federal government that do finer work than the National Hurricane Center, few that more obviously fulfill the purpose of good government—identifying threats to its citizenry, and working to disseminate information to the citizenry to warn them of dangers, and to the authorities to help them coordinate a response.  The NHC is in fact one of the US gov’t agencies with a substantial altruistic component, as it supplies data to other governments in the Caribbean and Mexico to help them warn and prepare their citizens as well.  It is no exaggeration to say that many thousands, indeed tens of thousands of lives, have been saved in recent years by the NHC’s work.  In terms of its forecasting competence, the NHC far outstrips its international counterparts, such as the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, and it is always improving the accuracy of its forecasts.  It is admirably unflappable when beset both with bewildering storms that seem downright unforecastable (as Isaac seemed at times), and the political tempests in which it regularly finds itself.  For the NHC’s is a terribly thankless job.  For all its advances, the science is still far too poorly-understood for forecasts to be as precise as we would like.  The NHC must therefore always walk a fine line between excessive paranoia, with devastating economic consequences as unnecessary evacuations are ordered, and complacency, with devastating human consequences as people are not adequately warned, and death tolls mount.  In either case, it faces severe public backlash and pressure from public officials and the media.  Indeed, usually in any given major storm, it manages to receive both accusations simultaneously.  Such has been the case with Isaac, as some in SE Louisiana, like the President of Plaquemines parish, have chided the NHC for under-forecasting the danger from Isaac, and from classing it as a Category 1 when they think it clearly deserves a Category 2 or 3 designation, from the level of devastation.  As a matter of fact, the very serious storm surge risks posed by Isaac were clearly emphasized in every forecast the NHC put out for the last 48 hours before landfall—with a maximum surge of 12-15 feet predicted, which may have been just slightly surpassed in one or two communities that reported 16 feet.  Likewise, the NHC thoroughly evaluated all the evidence regarding intensity, and there was none to suggest that Isaac was in fact a Cat. 2, but the NHC did emphasize that because of Isaac’s size, Cat. 2 and 3-level effects would be felt.  On the other side, many, including Limbaugh, accused the NHC of over-hyping the danger.  “It’s just a Category 1, for goodness’ sake!”  The same accusation was leveled after Hurricane Irene last year (which became the fifth most damaging storm in history), and this is a dangerous accusation to be bandying about.  If the public gets it into its head that the NHC is over-hyping the danger, or has tended to over-hype the danger in the past, then the public is inclined not to take warnings so seriously, at present or in the future, and not to act on these warnings.  Evacuations that are ordered do not take place, lives that should have been saved are lost.

This is particularly difficult for the NHC because it relies so much on the media to get its message out that the public often identifies or confuses the two.  The NHC’s sober, carefully-worded forecast is mediated through breathless and hyperbolic reporters, and when they prove unreliable, the blame frequently falls upon the NHC.  The problem here, of course, is that the media, through which the message reaches the public, has a rather different agenda than the NHC, an ulterior motive.  And it is not, as Rush Limbaugh is convinced, that the media is hell-bent on undermining the Republican party.  If that were the case, why would they bother to report on the convention at all?  Why not just give it the silent treatment?  Conservative claims of a conspiracy in the “liberal media” are as old as the hills, and they aren’t getting one bit more convincing with age.  To the extent that we can speak of the media as a whole (and it’s worth pointing out that the reified abstraction “the media” is every bit as much an imaginary bogeyman as “the government”), its primary objective, far more important than any political preferences among newscasters, is to make money.  And they make money by increasing ratings.  And they increase ratings by generating hysteria or controversy.  This weekend gave them an immense opportunity for both.  If the media over-hyped the risk to the GOP convention (as I have little doubt they did), it was not because they were trying to sabotage it, but because they knew it would keep viewers glued to their screens.  (There is certainly no reason to blame the forecasters here—on the contrary, they were always very modest in the claims they made of the potential threat to Tampa.  Hurricane expert Jeff Masters, for instance, put out regular updates on the odds that the storm would force an evacuation in Tampa.  They never climbed above 2 or 3%.)  If they then over-hyped the risk to New Orleans (and, though I wasn’t watching them, I’m not sure that they did—for Isaac posed a very grave risk indeed), it was for the same reason: money.

 

This leads to consideration of another of Limbaugh’s startling claims in this broadcast—that there is no reason why an imminent deadly threat to New Orleans should affect the convention at all:

“Last night on NBC Nightly News, the anchor Lester Holt is speaking with the chief White House correspondent F. Chuck Todd about Tropical Storm Isaac and the Republican convention.  And Lester Holt said, ‘You have this storm churning offshore. It may not make a big deal in Tampa, but is there some concern about the tone of the convention if we are seeing communities along the Gulf Coast suffering some heavy damage?’  Now, why would that have anything to do with the Republican convention?  In the real world, why would a hurricane striking anywhere in the Gulf have anything to do with the Republican convention?  With the tone of the Republican convention?”  

Rush elaborates on this in follow-up broadcasts—how dare “the liberal media” act like the potential crisis in New Orleans should distract in any way from the important proceedings in Tampa?  This is not merely the Republican National Convention, he tells us. It’s “a pretty important one, too. Introducing the nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s only after the convention that Romney can actually start spending all of this money that he’s raised, so this convention is very important. It’s a chance to introduce Romney to a lot of people who don’t know him yet.”  Indeed.  That is the one tragedy of this election cycle, isn’t it?  That we’ve heard so little about Mr. Romney.  For the past 18 months, Americans have been desperately flipping channels, hoping to learn something about this person, but they’ve scarcely had the chance to see his face.  All kidding aside, Limbaugh displays here a frightfully distorted sense of what politics is about.  For him, politics is a war, a fight to the death which “we” (the conservatives) must win, and which “they” (the liberals) must lose.  But that’s not what politics is supposed to be about.  Politics is the business of serving and protecting the people of our country, caring about and pursuing their well-being.  If the Republicans are genuinely interested in that, then it should be deeply relevant to them that the lives of thousands are in danger.  It may not be feasible to call off the convention, but it must clearly affect its tone, and any responsible Republican should be more than happy for the convention’s proceedings to take a backseat to the unfolding crisis.  

Hurricanes and natural disasters are one of God’s chief ways of keeping us humble.  All of our plans and preparations can be suddenly brought to naught by immense powers beyond our control.  Political maneuvering that once seemed so important is suddenly put into perspective, and recognized for the relative pettiness it really is, while life-and-death decisions take center stage.  One mustn’t be hasty to read divine intentions into particular weather events, but ultimately, it was God—not the liberal media, not the National Hurricane Center, that was interfering with the Republican National Convention, taking it out of the limelight, humbling its pretensions.  Limbaugh’s bizarre accusations against everyone from Lester Holt to Obama to the National Hurricane Center to computer models run by the “European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts” the National Hurricane Center are the result of his refusal to accept this humbling.

  

Now, what about the “satire” defense—the idea that Limbaugh was so obviously making outlandishly exaggerated claims that he did not really intend anyone to believe them, and so they are to be excused?  As I have argued above, I find this a very unconvincing reading of the broadcasts in question.  Many of his claims he did intend to be believed, and others, while not necessarily intended to be taken at face value, were clearly intended to encourage in his hearers a deep-seated suspicion of authority—well, every authority but himself, at any rate.  Even if this were not the case, and he meant for such remarks to be taken in jest, this does not give him a free pass.  Even comedians can cross the line and say something so offensive as to merit condemnation, and even a comedian cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.  When there are lives on the line, as there certainly when someone questions the trustworthiness of the NHC during a dangerous hurricane, the standards are necessarily much higher.  And the “satire” defense can really only work when the speaker’s joking intention is manifestly obvious, as it clearly was not in this case.  When I asked one faithful Limbaugh listener for clarification, he told me, “You can’t listen to the man in sound bites to see from where he comes. You have to listen for three hours a day five days a week for about six weeks to begin to understand something of the man’s thought process.”  Unfortunately, many people are not willing to listen to Mr. Limbaugh for three hours a day five days a week six weeks in a row, and the nature of radio in today’s era is that it comes in sound bites.   If Limbaugh knew that his insiders, his faithful following, would have recognized that it was all just one big joke (which still seems implausible), he must surely have known that many others would hear his remarks and take them seriously—either (for the conspiratorially inclined) as a serious indictment of the NHC and Obama, or (for the rest of us) as serious evidence of his derangement.  In either case, Proverbs 26:18-19 is strikingly apropos: “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘I was only joking!'”

Limbaugh’s remarks, in short, are an excellent example of the danger to society that comes when “free speech” becomes a free-floating subjective right, a liberty whose exercise never needs any justification beyond the whims of the speaker, instead of being firmly anchored, as it once was, within a nexus of objective public duties that it was to serve.  Public speech comes with an obligation to contribute to the public good, an obligation to speak the truth, and a legal guarantee of free speech is intended as a bar to oppressive censorship that would prevent such healthy truth-telling in public debate.  Such a guarantee only works when the citizenry still understands that they are bound by a moral duty to use this freedom responsibly; otherwise, it becomes a mere license to abuse, offend, deceive, distort, incite, and enrage, a license whose effects often prove far more harmful than the evils of censorship.  When such speech proceeds to the point of insinuating to citizens that their leaders are willing to gamble away their lives for the sake of immediate political gain, it qualifies as what would have once been recognized and prosecuted as sedition.  If we continue to feel that it is safer to leave sedition unprosecuted than to give the government power over speech that it might abuse, then the burden that falls on us as citizens is correspondingly greater.  If the authorities are to remain passive in the face of madmen who throw firebrands, then we as citizens must be active, active in speaking out against liars and allowing them no place of influence, boycotting them and refusing to give them our advertising dollars.

 

Some will complain that it is unfair to single out Limbaugh—there are a host of talking heads on the right and the left that are just as bad.  That may be so, and to the extend that it is, this applies to them as well.  Rather than continuing to accept the proliferation of absurd and untrue speech on both sides of the political divide, Christians need to embrace their responsibility to be guardians of the truth and haters of falsehood wherever it may appear.  


That Strong and Forcible Word

In the wake of my reflections on Obamacare, ministerial authority, and Christian liberty, I have been involved in several conversations about the authority of preaching—does the minister speak the words of God from the pulpit, or the words of man about the Word of God?  This, it turns out (like almost every issue I find myself wrestling with, it seems), was one of the many matters debated between Hooker and the Elizabethan Puritans.  So highly did they exalt the Word preached, implying that the Word only became living and active in the mouth of the preacher thought Hooker, that they risked derogating from the authority of the written Scriptures and attributing divine authority to human instruments, much like the Roman Catholics.  Perhaps a fully-formed discussion of this topic will follow in due course—for now, a remarkably pithy statement on this matter from William Covell’s Just and Temperate Defence of the five books of ecclesiastical policy written by M. Richard Hooker:

Doctrines derived, exhortations deducted, interpretations agreeable are not the verie word of God, but that onely which is in the originall text, or truly translated, and yet we call those sermons, though improperly, the word of God. . . . The word that proceedeth from God (who is himself very truth and life) should be . . . lively and mighty in operation, sharper than any two edged sword. Now to make our sermons that strong and forcible word is to impart the most peculiar glory of the word of God unto that which is not his word. For touching our sermons, that which giveth them their very being is the will of man and therefore they oftentimes accordingly tast too much of that over corrupt fountaine from which they come. For even the best of our sermons (and in sermons there is an infinite difference) howsoever they oftentimes have a singular blessing and that the scripture, the pure word of God, is the text and ground of the speech, yet the rest of the discourse, which is sometimes two or three houres long (a time too long for most preachers to speake pertinently), is but the paraphrasticall inlarging of the same text, together with those fit exhortations and applications, which the learning of the preacher is able to furnish himselfe withal and his discretion shall thinke fit for that auditory to which he speaketh. And, therefore . . . to make even the best sermons equall to the scripture must be in apparant reason a great wrong to that which is immediately God’s own word, whereunto, though the best preach agreeably, yet the sermons of none, since the apostles’ time, are or ought to be esteemed of equal authority with the holy scripture.”


A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

In my recent post on Obamacare and subsequent discussions, one of my chief concerns has been one that, remarkably, I share with David VanDrunen—the concern that the spiritual and civil kingdoms are confused, and believers consciences are thereby bound in matters that fall properly within Christian liberty.  The minister must not confuse the words of God with his own opinions, and one surefire way to do so is to assert that the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture is at stake in some particular political policy.  

In seeking to elucidate his recent “Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho,” Doug Wilson appeared to cheerfully confirm that yes, this is exactly what he intended to do, in exactly the way that R2K theorists warn against.  Let’s take a closer look then at what VanDrunen is so afraid of, and what false assumptions force him to nonsensical conclusions about the relationship between the church and politics.  The same false assumptions, we shall see, appear to underlie Wilson’s recent attempt to justify his claim to have a speak directly for Jesus in this matter.

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argues that his doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, is necessary to safeguard Christian liberty: 

“The church has only the power to declare the laws and doctrines that already appear in Scripture.  In short, church officers can say and do only that which Scripture authorizes them to say and do.  At first this may sound constricting and burdensome for the church, but its effect and driving motivation is actually to protect the liberty of Christians.  If church officers cannot teach anything beyond what Scripture teaches, then they are unable to bind the consciences of Christians beyond how Scripture already binds it [sic].  Thus Christian liberty is maximized.  Christian consciences are bound to believe and to do as Scripture instructs, but Christians are free to exercise their own wisdom in deciding how to live and what to think about all matters that Scripture does not address (within the bounds of respecting other legitimate authority structures in society)” (p. 152).  A little later on he says, “If a church and its leaders take seriously their ministerial authority, then they will exhort Christians to do what Scripture instructs and leave them at liberty to make wise and responsible decisions about other things.  Church officers should teach Christians to submit to civil authorities, to discipline and educate their children, and to work diligently and honestly.  They should offer them pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.  But they should not command them what political strategies to follow, what child-rearing methods to utilize, or how to make their businesses run more efficiently” (155).

He discusses the particular case of abortion policy, and while granting that the church should support a pro-life position morally, this will not necessarily entail any particular political strategy, since there are many rival considerations that must be taken into judgment in determining whom to vote for, and the best political way to enact pro-life principles.  For this reason, “the church may not promote one side over the other nor may any Christian present his decision as the Christian view. . . . [It may be] an important and morally weighty decision, to be sure, but it is one of discretion and wisdom that the minister, bound to preach the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone, cannot determine from the pulpit” (202-3).  This call for restraint certainly makes sense, but it is when VanDrunen extrapolates from this principle the conclusion that the Church must simply avoid speaking about political matters at all (as he appears to think in NLTK 263-68, where he rebukes Thornwell for “incoherence” in thinking that there may be “a religious aspect to civil concerns”, something clearly appears to have gone awry.

Part of what has gone awry can be seen in his simple conflation of “ministers” and “the Church.”  If ministers can’t address a matter, then “the Church” can’t address a matter, he thinks; but the Church is the whole Christian people, so what about them?  In his paradigm, the voice of the minister is essentially identified with the voice of Christ, and Christ is understood as the great law-giver of the New Covenant.  When the minister speaks, therefore, he is taken to command law in the name of Christ, and thus he cannot envision ministers “speaking” or applying Scripture in any way except to “bind consciences.”  When ministers preach, he thinks, they are necessarily saying “Thus saith the Lord” at every point, and this leaves no room for attempting to venture into the somewhat muddy realm of politics.  VanDrunen actually makes a small qualification that points the way out of this dilemma, but he doesn’t seem to notice it—the line: “They should offer pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.”  What is pastoral counsel if not an attempt to faithfully apply Scripture and reason to particular circumstances demanding prudence and wisdom, and in which the pastor’s word cannot be anything but provisional and advisory, leaving the conscience of the believer quite free whether to accept it or not?  Apparently, however, VanDrunen sees a sharp disjunction between such private counsel, addressed to individuals, and “the pulpit”—the public sermon addressed to believers at large.  But this leaves out a whole realm of other forms of pastoral communication.  What about Sunday School teaching?  What about writing, speaking engagements, and blogging?  In all these settings, it seems to me, the minister can attempt to offer counsel regarding the proper application of Scripture to life, without necessarily insisting that he speaks directly for God.  Indeed, even though the pulpit is a unique platform that carries particular weight, I see no reason why the pastor cannot venture beyond what is strictly contained in his text to offer a provisional application to current circumstances.  However, the pastor must be clear that he recognizes that the further he moves from the express words of Scripture into particular political questions, the more provisional his statements must be; not all his interpretations may equally claim to carry the authority of Christ.

 

Now, Wilson’s sermon seemed to be a textbook example of the sort of thing VanDrunen was warning against.  In it, he certainly seemed to confuse adiaphora—particular political arrangements—with the express teachings of Scripture (what he called the “biblical concept of limited government” or the prohibition on human authorities claiming to be “as God”).  He offered a particular spiritual evaluation of the current political circumstances, and did not confine himself to description—he went on to offer prescriptions about how the Idaho authorities, at least, were obliged to act in this circumstance.  To be sure, the ordinary citizen did not receive direct prescriptive guidance, except insofar as he was being prescribed to share a particular evaluation of the situation; failure to share this evaluation, it was implied, could stem only from cowardice or sophistry.  And then, to cap it all off, Wilson did exactly what VanDrunen said ministers necessarily do, and said, “I have been declaring all these things in the name of Jesus.”  Obamacare is idolatry . . . Thus saith the Lord.  It certainly appeared to be an attempt to bind the conscience, a violation of Christian liberty. 

But perhaps this was an uncharitable reading of what Wilson was up to; so some contended.  Thankfully, Wilson added a post yesterday to explain exactly what he thought he was up to, entitled “Jesus and Conservatism.”  Unfortunately, the post appeared to rely on the very same categories that VanDrunen uses.  Where VanDrunen attempts to offer a reductio ad absurdum—”ministers can’t preach on particular policy decisions, because that would bind the conscience”—Wilson appears to swallow the reductio—“Sure they can, so too bad.”

The post appeared to be a response to the objection “Why is it OK for you to preach politics, if it’s not OK for N.T. Wright to preach politics, as you’ve often complained before?”  Ironically, the question thus posed perfectly highlighted why ministers should avoid claiming the authority of Jesus for particular policy prescriptions.  If two ministers do so, and their policy prescriptions are contradictory, clearly they can’t both be speaking for Jesus.  Yet Wilson says, “When differing with Wright on his economics, I do not fault him for speaking to the situation, and I do not fault him for doing so in the name of Christ. I would only fault him for the bad economic reasoning, and we could then engage in profitable debate — and the debate should occur on that level.” 

But if he recognizes that there’s touchy matters of economic reasoning going on, which require healthy debate (and are not directly addressed by Scripture) then shouldn’t this highlight the need for all prescriptions on such matters to be provisional?  Wilson, however, seems to think that there is no way to have an opinion without attempting to make it binding on others:

“‘I think I’ll have another helping of potatoes’ says absolutely nothing about what other people ought to be thinking. But ‘I think that two oranges and two more of them make four’ is a claim that I believe to be binding on others.

So when I claim, as I recently have, that belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government, I really am saying that everybody needs to get good with this. The Bible teaches it. So then, someone will say, ‘you are claiming that Jesus is a conservative’? Not really — given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach. But I am willing to say that He wants you to be one.”

In other words, Wilson says he really is doing what I worried about; he really does mean to say, “The particular political position I hold is Jesus’s position, and you need to get on board with it.”  He goes on:

“Now the dictum that ‘Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar’ requires that we go one way or the other, down into the details, and that we do so in His name. The only way to avoid that is to reject the claim that Jesus has something to say about how we govern ourselves. For as soon as you say that He does have opinions on it, then some bright fellow will ask, ‘Oh? What are they?’ And I will say that Jesus wants us to stop spending money we don’t have, and a Christian Keynesian will say the opposite. And somebody is wrong, not only about the economics, but also about what Jesus wants.

The only alternative to this is to say that Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does. But if He cares, then His people will be asked how He cares, and how His care cashes out. As a minister of Christ, I don’t have the option of saying nothing.”

This is essentially exactly the argument of VanDrunen, only in reverse.  Actually, the minister of Christ does have the option of saying nothing, on matters that are beyond his expertise.  If a quantum physicist asked Wilson what Jesus thinks about the Higgs-Boson particle, is Wilson bound to declare Christ’s mind on the matter, or can he say nothing?  But in any case, there is a false dilemma here, as we say with VanDrunen, between “saying nothing,” on the one hand, and going “down into the details” in the name of Christ.  Why can we not make the general declaration “Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar” in the name of Christ, and then caution that, when we are going down into the details, we are necessarily getting in somewhat over our heads, and whatever we say will be somewhat provisional?  That doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about it, as Wilson seems to imply (“But to say that Jesus led me into conservatism (for example) is to say that it would be better if others did that too. This is not ideological imperialism; rather, it is what it means to think something, at least something of this nature.”)  You can believe something, and believe it earnestly, and indeed believe that Jesus led you to believe it.  But because you realize that you are not Jesus, you don’t have to thereby say, “Believe such-and-such, in the name of Christ.”  Rather, you can say, “My understanding of what Jesus wants it that we should do such-and-such.  And I believe this on the basis of these Scripture passages, and this assessment of empirical realities.  But all I can tell you for sure that you must believe is those Scripture passages, not my assessment of empirical realities, and not the particular way I have applied those Scripture passages to empirical realities.”  This is by no means saying that “Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does”; it only means that you don’t claim to have a direct hotline to Jesus, some special privileged access into what he would say about every conceivable circumstance.

 

Perhaps I am still missing something, but I do not see how one can make such a claim—”This is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it” without implying that anyone who doesn’t get on board with it is thereby sinning; indeed, sinning in a fairly significant way.  And this is by definition to violate Christian liberty; it is in fact precisely the sort of thing that the Reformers were concerned about when they erected their protest against Rome on the foundation of this doctrine. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)


Headship and Authority in 1 Cor. 11

This past Sunday, our senior minister approached with some trepidation 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the passage which speaks of the subordination of women and their need to wear head coverings.  Also on the agenda was 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which states “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church”—although in the event, the sermon confined itself to the first passage.  These passages naturally can be quite a source of discomfort to churches committed, as ours basically is, to an “egalitarian” rather than “complementarian” position (though I hate those labels!) and to the legitimacy of women’s ordination.  But really, they will be a source of discomfort for almost any Christian today, however “complementarian.”  After all, Paul seems to go beyond a mere outward subordination to suggest that women are naturally inferior: women come from men, and are made to serve men.  Men stand in the same relation to women as Christ does to the Church.  Ouch.  Paul accordingly commands behaviors that only a few radical fringe groups of conservative Christians would actually observe—head coverings for women, silence of women in church.  

So I was genuinely interested in hearing what an egalitarian interpretation of these verses would look like. (The easiest route might to say that Paul was a product of his culture, and thus felt obliged to argue for something that was simply inconsistent with his teaching elsewhere; but I doubted our minister was going to take that route.)  The key argument hinged on the meaning of the word “head” (Gk. kephale) in v. 3, and suggested that of its three main meanings—”physical head,” “authority,” and “source”—it was the third, and not the second, which Paul was using here (in addition to the first, which is of course used in the following verses).  Man is not the boss of the woman, we were told, he is the source.   

However, this didn’t seem to me to be the anti-complementarian trump card that was desired.  What might it really imply to say that man is the “source” of woman?  I offer the following reflections with two major caveats: (1) I have not read any of what is no doubt the copious exegetical literature on this passage, so there will no doubt be a lot of re-inventing (and mis-inventing) the wheel here; (2) I am not trying to argue here for or against women’s ordination, or to provide a decisive solution to the dispute between “egalitarians” and “complementarians”—I am simply trying to trace out the logic of these concepts and of this passage, and see whether it might lead us to conclusions that could be attractive to both sides in certain respects.

 

So first, it’s worth noting that these three meanings of the word “head” are, after all, not three completely unrelated meanings, like the “bark” of a tree and the “bark” of a dog.  Clearly, they are closely related.  The physical head is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the body.  The head of an organization is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the organization.  The head of a river is the source of that river, that which sustains its existence, sends it on its way, establishes its direction.  Clearly, we have three closely interrelated and mutually-interpreting concepts here.  The concept of authority is deeply rooted in the concept of origin.  “It is the authority which has called the form of action into being.  The term ‘authority’ in this sense recalls the Greek word arche, which means at once both ‘beginning’ and ‘rule.'” (O’Donovan, RMO 122)  Obviously, kephale has a somewhat different field of meaning than arche, but I think the analogy with arche is significant.  It was not a coincidence that the Greeks associated rule with beginning.  

While the concept of authority is not exhausted by the concept of origin or initiation (for instance, the concept of “judgment” is generally a central part of what we understand by authority), this is clearly a central part of it.  If we want to know whether an action is authorized in any organization or entity, we will ask where it came from.  If we find out that some order just came from a coworker, then we can scoff at it.  It needs to be traceable back to the “head”—perhaps indirectly, by coming from someone authorized by the head to act in certain matters.  Of course, an individual within the organization may take action on her own accord as circumstances seem to dictate, but if the action is to be meaningful or constructive, it must fit into a shape conferred by the head.  One way or another, all intelligible action in an organization is traceable back to the “head” of the organization, who initiates and orients the actions that are to be taken.  For this reason, of course, the head is also the endpoint, the point where buck stops—the person finally responsible for actions that are taken.

So authority initiates, authority serves as an origin, rule implies beginning.  Is it the other way around though—does an origin always serve as an authority?  Does the “source” of something necessarily have an ongoing claim over it?  Does “beginning” imply rule?  Most societies seem to have thought so.  In early modern political debates, the question of origin was always paramount.  Did the society predate the king as a political entity, did it call the king into being?  Or did the king predate the society, and call the society into being as a political entity.  Who came first?  Who was the source of the other?  The answer to these questions largely determined one’s political theory, one’s judgment as to which was the highest authority, king or parliament.  Theologically, we root God’s authority over the world in the fact that he is the source of it.  He created it, therefore he is king over it.  Likewise, Christ’s headship, in the sense of authority, over the Church, seems inextricable from the fact that he is the source of the Church, that which has brought her into being and sustained her. 

Perhaps there is no reason that we should draw the inference that origination implies authority.  After all, in what sense does the source, the head, of a river have “authority” over that river?  Well, in the sense that it initiates it and directs it.  It gives shape to it.  The source determines which way the river will start flowing, and if the source dries up, the river will not continue flowing.  The river depends on its source, just as a subordinate depends on an authority.

So, if “head” in 1 Cor. 11:3 is not to imply authority in any sense, but only “source,” then what content are we to give to this attribution of source?  What does “source” mean?  The answer that our minister wished to give, it seemed in our conversation afterward, was “mere temporal priority.”  The man is the source of the woman in the sense that January 1st is the source of the new year.  The year does not depend on January 1st, January 1st exercises no directive power over the following year, but January 1st does happen to come first.  Now, the problem is that I am not at all sure, then, that we could meaningfully speak of January 1st as the “source of the year.”  I certainly don’t know anyone who has done so (though I was told that the ancient Hebrews did so).  As a concept, “source” simply has to imply more than mere temporal priority.  Perhaps more problematically, it is unclear how this line of argument could make any sense from the theistic evolutionist standpoint, which is of course the operative standpoint here.  For the theistic evolutionist, there can simply be no literal meaning in the assertion that man is the source of woman, unless perhaps we mean to say that the first hominid that God chose to designate a human being was in fact male, although there were of course a multitude of roughly equivalent female hominids, including his mother.  For the theistic evolutionist, it is hard to see how the narrative in Gen. 2:18-24 could be anything more than metaphorical.  And what then would the point of this metaphor be?  Well, probably something like what Paul seems to say about it—that woman is the glory of man, and woman was created for the man.  

 

Now, the point of all this is to say that it’s not immediately clear that substituting the meaning “source” really gets us away from the concept of “authority.”  But what it does do is to help suggest a new context for the concept of authority; no doubt part of the hostility to the use of that term stems from a misguided paradigm of what “authority” involves—an authority, we think, is someone who can command you to do something without good reasons, who can oblige you to obey whether or not you want to.  Authority, we think, is the opposite of freedom.  But O’Donovan, in his remarkable discussion of authority in Resurrection and Moral Order, invites us to see authority as “the objective correlate of freedom.”  What the heck does that mean?  Well, the concept of authority as initiator, which we have gestured at here, might help us out somewhat.  

At this point, we can finally turn to look again more closely at the passage itself.  We have a good clue that in fact the concept of “source” is central here, in v. 8, “For man is not from woman, but woman from man.”  Does this work with v. 2? “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”  Well, let’s work back from the last.  The Father is certainly not “the boss” of the Son, to use the contrastive term our pastor used.  But the Father clearly can be legitimately said to be the “source” of the Son.  He is the fons divinitatis—the Son is eternally begotten from Him.  But although the Son therefore has dependence on the Father, the Father does not for this reason stand over against the Son then as the one who commands him, for the two are perfectly united.  The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father.  If we look at the relationship of Christ and the Church, we have the same thing.  The point being made here is not that Christ has authority to command the Church, although that may be true in its own context.  The point is that Church has come out of Christ, it is the creature of the water and blood flowing from his side.  The Church has come out of the side of Christ, and therefore it depends on him, and he has defined its identity and its calling.  It exists in relation to Him. However, again, it is not separate from Him.  He is our King, but that is not the point here.  We are in him, and he in us.  Now clearly, these same points are being made about man and woman.  Woman was taken out of the side of man, just as the Church out of the side of Christ.  For this reason, woman depends on man, exists in relation to man, is oriented toward man.  However, likewise, as with the other two relations, the key point here is indwelling.  Eve was taken out of Adam in order then to be made one flesh with him.  

And this perhaps provides us with a helpful way forward.  For thus far, I expect, few egalitarians are going to be very satisfied with the implications of this concept of source and origin, with its inescapable connotations of dependency.  Woman is dependent on man?  Yuck.  Of course, one might reply, “Sorry, that’s what Paul says.  Deal with it.”  But I’d like to brainstorm some ways in which the egalitarian might take comfort from this passage.

 

First, one might point out that the language of priority is frequently subverted throughout Scripture.  The last shall be first, the elder shall serve the younger.  Throughout the Old Testament, the one who, by virtue of priority, has a claim to be “head,” turns out to be dependent on the one who comes after—Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul.  And of course, this repeated plot line turns out to be prophetic of the greatest reversal at all.  The Church comes out of Israel; Israel is the source, the head, of the Church, and yet the Church is greater than Israel.  The feminist could perhaps have a lot of fun with this plotline of reversal—sure, man may have come first, but now woman is in charge.  Naturally, this would be taking it a bit too far.  Indeed, if we look at the illustration of the Church and Israel, Paul cautions the Romans against just this sort of thinking (Rom. 11:16-18).  Yes, there has been something of a reversal, but neither should boast against the other.  Both have need of one another.  The reversal is one in which a relationship of dependency is transformed into one of interdependency.  If we look back at our 1 Cor. 11 passage, we see something very like this being expressed. “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (vs. 11-12).  In the beginning, woman came from man, but then, God made it so that every man has to come out of woman.  The initial dependency is transformed into interdependency.  Or, to put it in other terms, man does not command, and woman obey; man initiates, and woman responds, as an equal, in perfect mutuality.

If we look back at Paul’s analogies, we see this picture confirmed.  The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and yet (without wanting to peer too far into the mystery of inter-Trinitarian relations), their relation is one of perfect mutuality.  The Father initiates, the Son freely responds.  The Son is the equal of the Father.  The Church comes from Christ, and depends on him, and yet Christ is the firstborn of many brothers.  We are co-heirs with him.  By grace, he treats us as equals.  Christ initiates, and his Church freely responds, in a relationship characterized by mutuality.

Of course, these analogies are imperfect—they are not even strictly equivalent to one another, much less to the man/woman relationship.  And yet, perhaps they provide a clue that the concept of headship, although implying a certain kind of authority, does not imply the kind of authority that egalitarians hate.  We still have a certain kind of “complementarianism” here, but the kind that seems unavoidable.  Any river has to have a starting point.  Any organization has to have someone who’s responsible for getting things moving.  Any conversation has to be initiated by someone, or else everyone’s just going to stand there awkwardly looking at their feet.  Every dance has to have a partner who’s ready to take the first steps.  But for the Christian, this initiation serves the purpose of initiating a relationship of genuine mutuality and complementarity, in which both partners are equal participants, responding to one another.  

 

Of course, this does not begin to address the particulars of Paul’s commands to women, and how much they might still apply today.  Most of us are quite happy to say that the head-covering command was a culturally specific one, though “keeping silent in the churches” (14:34-35) is a bit more contentious.  The prohibition on women teaching (1 Tim. 2:12) has seemed to many to have a permanence that the earlier commands do not.  There are important arguments to be had here, to be sure, and I will not attempt to enter in to them.  It is simply worth noting that the answer to these questions is, I think, underdetermined by 1 Cor. 11:3.  It is not clear that the concept of man as kephale in the sense of “initiator,” as I have spelled it out, constitutes a blanket argument against women in the ministry.  Indeed, if we lay our emphasis on vs. 11-12, where the initial relationship of dependence is revealed to be one of of interdependence, one might say that v. 3 constitutes no bar to women’s ordination.  This, I think, would be overly hasty, but so would the conclusion that it constitutes a decisive bar.


Coercion and the Nature of Authority

In his incredible chapter on “Authority” in Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan offers this incisive summary of the relationship of coercion and moral authority as constituents of political authority, capturing much of what I sought to get at in my series on coercion a year and a half ago.  

“…political authority certainly owes something to two elements of natural authority, might and tradition (which are forms of strength and age respectively).  When law cannot be enforced, losing the authority conferred by might, it becomes a dead letter which people do not obey.  When law is changed too often and too drastically, losing the authority conferred by tradition, it forfeits public respect, so that people obey it cynically and without conviction.  From this some thinkers have thought it plausible to conclude that the authority of law derives exclusively from ‘power’, i.e. from an established structure of forceful domination.  But this is to overlook an important feature of the relation between authority and might.  Although it is true that the possession of might is an indispensable condition of political authority, so that one who cannot enforce cannot command, it is also the cause that an excessive dependence on might will destroy authority.  One who will only enforce, cannot command either.  Violent regimes lose authority, however much additional support they may claim from tradition.  For true political authority to flourish, there must be a stronger motive of obedience than is furnished by fear of sanction and habitual conformity.  People obey political authority because they think they ought.  It exercises a moral authority which can command a critically reflective obedience.” (127-28)