Even if There Were No Hell…

Early in the Institutes, Calvin offers some eloquent and luminous insights on the relation of love and fear, and the difference between the righteous man’s fear of God and the unrighteous’s—passages pregnant with significance for political theology as well, as we consider the way that citizens relate to authorities, their earthly lords and “fathers”:

“For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.  And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself; furthermore, the mind always exercises the utmost diligence and care not to wander astray, or rashly and boldly to go beyond his will.  It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.  Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him.  Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.  Because it acknowledges him as Lord and Father, the pious mind also deems it meet and right to observe his authority in all things, reverence his majesty, take care to advance his glory, and obey his commandments.  Because it sees him to be a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness, it ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger. And yet it is not so terrified by the awareness of his judgment as to wish to withdraw, even if some way of escape were open.  But it embraces him no less as punisher of the wicked than as benefactor of the pious.  For the pious mind realizes that the punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory.  Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and revers God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord.  Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law….” (I.iii.2)

“A second sin arises, that they [hypocrites] never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance.  And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them.  This, since they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing.  That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone.  Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow.  Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment.  But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread.  And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion.  Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy laws of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness.  Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restraining it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit.  

This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow.  From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, which is instilled in the breasts of believers only.  And yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee.  For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices.  Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor.  Nay, more, with greeter license they sluggishly lie in their own faith, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.” (I.iv.4)

(italics mine)


Two Cheers for Coercion

This week, the world of competitive swimming was engulfed by controversy as South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh admitted to using illegal “dolphin kicks” in his gold medal-winning and world record-breaking 100m breaststroke swim last week.  Of course, revelations of cheating at the Olympics are a dime-a-dozen these days, and van der Burgh’s infraction was trivial according to most.  What made it fascinating from an ethical standpoint was the purpose of the admission.  Van der Burgh was not, it appears, laboring under a guilty conscience and desperate to unburden himself of his dark secret.  He was quite casual about his admission, and made no great show of penitence nor showed any intention of relinquishing his medal.  Nor was he being hounded and threatened with investigation, of being stripped of his medal unwillingly, and so confessed to cut his losses.  On the contrary, he runs no risk of losing his medal, because only the on-the-spot umpires can enforce such violations, and although a few questions had been raised in the media, there was no great controversy or public scrutiny until after he made his remarks.  

Rather, van der Burgh voluntarily fessed up because he wanted to invite further scrutiny and controversy, he wanted the rules to be enforced more strictly.  The problem, he complained, was that FINA had made rules about what constituted illegal swimming techniques, but then had not taken the necessary steps to enforce such rules (making use of underwater footage), thus leaving athletes with the duty to be self-policing.  Van der Burgh suggested that this was an unfair burden to lay on the consciences of athletes.  He even went so far as to admit that what he had done was probably immoral, but what else could he do, since almost every other swimmer was cheating as well?  Cynics will have little difficulty in pooh-poohing this as mere spineless excuse-making, but remarkably, van der Burgh’s rivals Brenton Rickard and Brendan Hansen made no attempt to lash back (particularly remarkable in the case of Hansen, who insists that he is not among the large majority that break the rules in this way).  Hansen said,“I give him credit for actually having the guts to come out and say something and be honest because maybe that’s what it’s going to take for the organizations running swimming to use the technology at their disposal to enforce the rules.”

And while we can hardly admire him, perhaps van der Burgh does have a point.  Perhaps it really is too much to ask of athletes to be self-policing, and it’s not just the rotten ones who cheat.  If you’ve dedicated your life to a competitive sport, and what separates success and immortality from lasting mediocrity is a few tenths of a second that can be gained by one illegal maneuver, that’s a lot of temptation to bear.  And once there are a few who have already succumbed to the temptation, it becomes that much harder.  Van der Burgh clearly thinks of himself as a basically clean, right-minded athlete (and he has an impeccable record), but one who is not going to stand aside and let all his training go to waste because only those with the fewest scruples will have a chance to win.  He would much prefer not to be a cheat, and to have all temptation taken away from him by proper enforcement:  ‘‘I think only if you can bring in underwater footage that’s when everybody will stop doing it because that’s when you’ll have peace of mind to say, ‘All right I don’t need to do it because everybody else is doing it and it’s a fair playing field.’ . . . [At one competition where such footage was used] it was really awesome, because nobody attempted it [the dolphin kick].  Everybody came up clean and we all had peace of mind that nobody was going to try. . . . I’m really for it. If they can bring it, it will better the sport. But I’m not willing to lose to someone that is doing it.’’

 

If we can resist the urge to be cynical, and to ask whether competitive sport ought to be the object of such wholesale devotion, we can glean from this episode a valuable insight about the roles that law and law enforcement play in human life.  (Indeed, Victor Austin argued in an excellent paper last fall at the conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics—now published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics—that we can use sports as a paradigm for understanding the function of legal structures and various sorts of authorities in society.)   For we (and I speak here autobiographically) are often tempted to view law enforcement with a skeptical or scornful eye, as something oppressive and almost intrinsically violent, as “coercion”—which of course, it is, but what a negative connotation that word carries!  Law enforcement is perhaps a necessary evil, for the bad people out there who would otherwise murder and steal, but for most of the rest of us decent people, it’s an unwanted and unneeded imposition on our liberty.  

Increasingly, indeed, the whole concept of law is an unwelcome one, intrinsically at war with the highest value—liberty.  All the evil in the world, we are told, comes from people trying to force other people to conform, and everything would run so much more smoothly if everyone was allowed to pursue their own idea of the good.  This is like saying that the ideal sport is one without rules, and without umpires, in which each competitor follows his or her own sense of what the competition demands.  In economics, this libertarianism concludes either that all individual competitors will somehow conclude that it is not in their best self-interest to cheat, because then that would provoke others to cheat still further, or else that by everyone cheating out of their own pursuit of self-interest, a better sport for all would result (a 100m breaststroke in which the competitors now do nothing but dolphin-kick!).  Of  course, this libertarian mindset has a theological parallel in Anabaptism, which likes to think that laws and coercion should be needless, because everyone should just follow the law of love, and if we suffer from the evil people who don’t, we should count ourselves privileged.  

Or perhaps we grant that yes, laws are a good thing, because they define the good for us publicly, establishing a standard so that we all know how we ought to act and what we ought to aim at.  But the chief purpose of law is instructive, not coercive.  To be sure, coercion will be necessary because there are wicked people who will refuse to pursue the good to which the laws point, heedlessly harming others, and they must be restrained.  For the Christian, though, who recognizes all laws as specifications of the law of love, this coercion is needless.  The Christian is subject to the law, but not to the sting of the law, to the guidance, but not to the enforcement, because he doesn’t need it.  The ideal, from this standpoint, is to no longer need the heteronomy of law enforcement, because one has achieved the autonomy of a conscience wholly in conformity to the end of the law.  This is more or less the standpoint proposed in Johannes Heckel’s interpretation of Luther, Lex Charitatis.  And I have argued similarly at many points.  From this perspective, we should try to encourage people to become self-policing, as FINA was doing with competitive swimming; enforcing laws by penalties simply encourages people to do the right thing out of fear and compulsion, rather than genuine love of the good.

This is true, of course, as far as it goes.  But the flaw of Heckel’s interpretation of Luther is its forgetfulness of simul justus et peccator, and so we must beware of thinking that coercion is only for the wicked, for we are all wicked.  The self-directed conscience obedient to law out of love and in no need of outward policing is indeed a good ideal, but we mustn’t forget that it is for all of us in this life only an ideal.  For this reason, the invitation to self-policing is for many of us at many times not a free grant of liberty but an intolerable burden, as we are called to struggle against self-deceptive desires that constantly distort our concept of the good and sap our will to pursue it.  Particularly when we see others around us abusing their liberty, the pressure to abandon the struggle and join them becomes unbearable, and we long to be freed from the burden of such liberty.    When we as a society make laws and grant to others the authority to hold us to them, then, we are not merely trying to protect ourselves from evildoers without but from the evildoer within each of us, and asking the common authority to carry some of the weight of the burdensome task that otherwise falls entirely on our consciences.  From this perspective, law enforcement can actually be liberating, reducing the array of temptations that would otherwise paralyze us to a manageable number, empowering us rather than encumbering us in our pursuit of the good.


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)


Three Possible Objections (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 6)

When I considered possible objections or qualifications to my “A Christian Answer to Coercion,” I realized that these questions led quickly into a dense thicket of some the thorniest questions of Christian ethics.  Without trying to resolve these fully or offer answers to how we ought to act in every conceivable situation, I will try to address three particularly important objections, without being more laborious than necessary:

  1. Doesn’t this response amount to quietism, leaving coercive structures in power?
  2. Even if we shouldn’t fear for ourselves, isn’t it legitimate to act out of fear for others?
  3. Isn’t there such a thing as legitimate self-interest?  If so, doesn’t this mean that a certain amount of fear and a certain regard for my own well-being is part of an appropriate Christian response to would-be coercers?

 

So first, haven’t we left the coercion of kings and corporations unchallenged?  By saying, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to demand our tax money, we’ll give it to you freely!” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to threaten to fire me, I’ll work hard freely” don’t we simply leave the power structures in place, to continue demanding, oppressing, trampling on people?  Even if I myself am so holy that I don’t care how much I’m trodden on, don’t I thereby invite the powers to tread on my weaker neighbors and co-workers?  This is a powerful objection, as it appeals to love.  If I love my neighbor, I will resist the would-be coercer–not for myself, but for my neighbor’s sake.  To be a quietist who simply let coercive structures do their thing wouldn’t be Christlike–he challenged such structures in defense of the defenseless.

Two points may be made in response.  First, willing service is not mere quietism; it is not only morally right, but often the most effective way to resist the coercive powers that be.  “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  The simple act of fearlessly and voluntarily doing good to the oppressor, when they are desperately trying to intimidate you and elicit a fearful response, is a dramatic act of subversion, which knocks the sword out of the oppressor’s hands, unmasks the emptiness of his power, and may even bring him to repentance.  So fearlessness is in itself a powerful response to coercion.  

Second, when a further response is required, fearlessness is a necessary prerequisite for such a response.  We should love our enemies, but not to the point where this requires us to stop loving our neighbors; thus Jesus did not just yield to the Pharisees’ wishes, but openly opposed them and spoke out against them on behalf of the weak and despised.  However, this challenge was so effective because Jesus was not himself afraid of them; he had no fear on his own account.  So, while there will be times when certain government or corporate policies must be opposed for the sake of those who will suffer from them, our opposition will be far more effective if it is clear that we fight not for our own rights, or out of fear of our own suffering, but from love of neighbor.  Conservatives will argue that higher taxation will hurt everyone, including the weakest; the argument may or may not be sound, but if it is, it would be far more effective if anti-taxation rhetoric was not couched so often in terms of “leave me alone,” “I want my rights,” “It’s my money!”

 

With the discussion of love of neighbor, another challenge arises: shouldn’t I be moved by fear for those I love?.  Perhaps I cannot loose coercion’s hold on myself so easily as it seemed above.  Let’s return to the initial classification of motivations given in Part 2 of this series to see how this might be the case.  There we noted not all “fear” is selfish fear; fear for another’s well-being can be driven by love.  At the time, it seemed that we could easily enough say that, being subordinate to love, this kind of fear was simply an element of love.  But if fear can be present even in love, how can perfect love cast out fear?  If I love others, it seems that coercion does not disappear so easily; perhaps I don’t mind if the SS officer points the gun at my head, but what if he points the gun at my wife’s head?  

But I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything.  All fears are to be relativised by our fear and love of God; thus no one should be able to coerce me by fear for another’s well-being to do what is wrong; I will fear God more and still disobey.  Likewise, if they are trying to get me to do something that is not in itself wrong, my response should be motivated by desire to do what is right, and their attempted intimidation should be irrelevant.  Fear prompted by love of another is not in itself wrong, but if it leads us to act in a way contrary to the love of God, it is revealed as the product of distorted, wrongly ordered love.  

 

A third objection might appeal to the notion of “legitimate self-interest,” a popular theme not only of capitalism but indeed of centuries of the natural law tradition.  I am to love my neighbor as myself, not against myself–it is perfectly legitimate and morally upright to have a certain concern for my own survival and well-being, and thus to act in my own defense.  Because of legitimate self-interest, it is not always wrong for me to fear for my own safety, and to act to protect myself.  If someone tries to kill me, I am not required just to stand there and say, “Well, I’m not afraid of you, so go ahead and kill me”–I can legitimately try to run away, right?  After all, the apostles fled Jerusalem when they were being persecuted there.  On a more mundane level, if a thief comes into my house, can’t I defend my possessions?  And if so, if a government demands too much tax money, can’t I try to defend myself against it?  

This is a fair objection.  What I said above was, more or less, that Christian should respond to coercion by voluntarily giving the would-be coercer what he wants, as long as it wouldn’t be immoral to do so, and if it would be, then to refuse fearlessly.  But if a certain degree of self-interest is legitimate, then wouldn’t it be “immoral” to act carelessly against it?  E.g., Wouldn’t it be immoral not to preserve my life if possible, and not to preserve my possessions if possible?  

I confess that I am not altogether sure what to do with this objection, since I am not altogether sure how far I think “legitimate self-interest” extends.  Certainly I think that, if are to think in terms of rightly-ordered love, then self-interest cannot extend to the point of depriving another of what I am seeking to protect for myself.  Thus I cannot seek to kill another merely to protect my own life; but if I can protect my own life merely by escaping, without doing harm to another, then I ought to.  This would suggest that if I could protect my possessions merely by withholding them when they are illegitimately demanded, I ought to.  All of which would suggest, for instance, that I would be perfectly legitimate to oppose heavy taxation, and avoid paying if possible.   But this argument seems to have led us into direct contradiction of Romans 13, at least as I have read it.  It also seems to contradict, “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” (Mt. 5:40).  But that command seems absurd, especially in light of the examples of economic bullying we’ve looked at–does this really mean that, whenever someone tries to intimidate me into buying or selling something, I would have to respond “in love” by doing as they asked, and doing more than they ask?  This seems absurd.  

 

A closer look at the context of commands like “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” readily suggests an answer.  Self-abnegation is not a goal in itself, so I do not have to act against self-interest anytime anyone wants me to do something for them.  Rather, I think that the concern is to avoid and overcome conflict.  If someone demands something from me in a way that I cannot refuse without generating conflict, and if their demand has negative effects on myself alone, then I ought to willingly yield to their demand, and try to go above and beyond, to overcome their evil with good.  However, if someone wants something from me, but I can reasonably refuse without conflict, then I may take self-interest into account and refuse their demand.  This explains why it is that, if the government seeks to coerce me to to pay exorbitant taxes, I should willingly yield, but if a business uses one of the more subtle forms of coercion we explored above, to try to take advantage of me and get me to buy a product, there’s no reason I have to buy it.  (Of course, I still ought never to return evil for evil, e.g., by trying to rip off a store that I know is trying to rip me off.)  Thus, there does remain an important distinction in this regard between many forms of political coercion and certain forms of economic coercion, but, as we have seen earlier, it does not lie where many imagine it.

 

These answers do not provide a comprehensive account of how we ought to respond to all coercive situations.  Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely saying “‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so just love God and love very oppressor and there will be no reason to fear.”  We always have to take into account all kinds of questions about what is being demanded of me, why, what will happen if I acquiesce, what will happen if I refuse, etc.  

None of these complications, however, should change our fundamental posture when faced with intimidation and coercion.  We should seek to cultivate a faith that fears God above all else, and which thus cannot be easily swayed by worldly fears.  We should seek to cultivate a love of God, neighbor, and even enemy that strives to do good even to those who don’t deserve it, which thus heaps coals of fire on their heads, and renders their coercive sword powerless.  


Other Posts in This Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere

A Christian Answer to Coercion


A Christian Answer to Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 5)

(Sorry it’s taken so long to post this.  I was trying to anticipate certain objections and the responses to them became so complex that I’ve decided not to include them in this post, but to put up a sixth post, shortly, exploring various objections and qualifications)

My emphasis earlier on the subjective dimension of coercion leads me to a distinctively Christian take on all this.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  As Christians, we ought to have our desires so reshaped that we are motivated above all by love and become immune to fear–at least to any fear of man.  This is of course a point that we will never fully attain to, but it is our calling.  If this is true, then this suggests that Christians ought to be un-coerceable, and not merely in the sense that coercion fails to persuade them (e.g., I do not blaspheme when the gun is put to my head), but that, because this is necessarily the case, coercion never enters the picture.  If I am committed to love and obey my master as if I am obeying Christ, then the fact that my master could whip me if I disobeyed is simply not relevant to me–it does not have an effect on whether I obey him–in short, he does not coerce me.  If I am committed to pay taxes to my government even though I disagree with it because I love Christ and he commands me to love my enemies and pay my taxes, then the fact that I could be jailed for tax evasion is utterly irrelevant, and I am not coerced to pay my taxes–the hypothetical presence of coercion is, so long as I am following Christ, a contrafactual hypothetical. 

I am convinced that this is precisely what Romans 12-13 is up to: “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome with good.  Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities….For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain….For because of this you also should pay taxes….Render therefore to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, custom to whom custom is owed, fear to whom fear is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  Owe no one anything except to love one another.”  

(I opt for the reading on which “fear to whom fear is owed” does not mean that fear is owed to the authorities, but rather, in light of the earlier verses, we are to discern that it is not, and render it only to God.)

In other words, Paul is calling upon the Romans, who would have been paying their taxes out of fear (Roman tax-collectors were not nice guys), and calling upon them to voluntarily render payment to these authorities, recognizing that God had put them in their place.  As long as they are acting out of such a spirit of Christian love (which is, in context, what he means by “good works”), they will have no reason to fear the authorities–not, of course, because there is no chance the authorities will do anything bad to them (Paul is not so naive as that!)–but because “perfect love casts out fear.”  The “sword” of coercion only enters the picture when love leaves the picture, rebelliousness (what “doing evil” means in context) enters the picture, and so does fear.  Taxes therefore must be paid, but joyfully and willingly, as a debt of love, not out of fear.

So I suggest that Christians do nothing but condemn themselves when they rail against the coercive taxation of the government–as Christians, such coercion has no hold on us.  

 

The same principle clearly applies in the economic sphere as well, and is a common motif of Jesus’s teaching in the gospels.  Our faith in God should make us immune to worldly fears, which more often than not concern money.  Jesus addresses this head-on in one of the most powerful passages in Luke: “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on.  Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?… And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk. 12:22-24, 29-34)  If we are freed from the fear of not having enough money, power, and prestige, we will be set free to give to the poor, and economic coercion will have no power over us.  We will not buy simply because we are afraid of not having everything that our peers expect us to have; we will not sell or work out of fear of not making enough money–rather, we will buy, sell, and work out of love for God and neighbor, free from fear and coercion.  

 As Christians, then, we are called to be un-coerceable.  Either we serve willingly, as unto the Lord, and coercion is irrelevant, or else, when faithfulness requires, we refuse fearlessly, and coercion is irrelevant.

 

This answer, however, is clearly somewhat idealistic, and open to at least three challenges.  I will explore these and offer certain qualifications in the following post.

 

Other Posts in this Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere