December 22, 2003

Christian Politics

It's hard to tell where to start with regard to Mark Kleinman's flawed analysis of christianity and politics.

He goes wrong in the very first sentence in that christianity is not an ethnicity. There are many ethnicities that take pride in their christianity but no ethnicity, that I am aware of, that kicks you out of the group if you are not one. From this unpromising start much foolish and ignorant opining follows.

To love your enemy does not require you to not imprison him, depose him, or even kill him. What it does do is require you to take action against your enemy in a spirit of love that, if/when he repents, you will not descend into mindless revenge but take your sincere new ally and get beyond the conflict that has tried your strength to that point. Mr. Kleiman may believe in vendetta unto the end of time but it is neither practical nor christian to do so. Perhaps he didn't recognize enlightened self-interest wrapped in 1st century mediterranean philosophy. I can only hope.

But not only is he completely missing the point of loving your enemy but also the point of I Corinthians 1:18. The christian is playing a different game than the atheist. It is the same game that the jew and the muslim are playing (though they believe that there are different rules). The game is uniting with God in eternal Paradise. The goals are different, success metrics are different, and successful tactics are different because it fundamentally is a different game. That's the point of the passage. If you're not playing the game, you will perish or, more accurately, your soul will lie in eternal Hell. Different games are being played on the same playing field and this confuses many, evidently including Mr. Kleinman. This is strange because the very next paragraph he lays the monotheist game of souls out fairly well. He just doesn't connect it to the text properly.

Mr. Kleinman finds it hard to reconcile the idea of a good God with a punishing God. Did his father never send him to his room, give him a stern lecture, or a warm bottom? Punishment is an inescapable part of good parenting. Children will make mistakes and test limits. It is their nature. Without punishment, there is a significantly lower chance of learning and correction of bad behavior. As many indulgent parents have learned, the kids don't thank you for it later either.

In the Eastern Catholicism that I practice, there is no distinctive purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory is merely a portion of hell that you can get out of. And while it is a distinctly minority position, some of the church fathers did hold that it was remarkably presumptuous to limit God's forgiveness even on the question of the Devil himself. Who God forgives is His business. No doubt he would want Hell to be empty (as Mr. Kleinman speculates) and even the fallen angels returned to his good graces but there's that whole free will thing that takes matters out of his hands. He granted free will freely and knew the price of that gift.

Mr. Kleinman really goes off the rails when he states "Christians are the professed adherents of a foreign dominion, serving a King whose authority is not recognized by the Constitution of the United States. It's not even obvious that people with such divided loyalties ought even to be allowed to vote, let alone have their voices heard in public discourse." This is profoundly unfaithful to american history, tradition, and common good sense. The Declaration of Independence formally started the revolution that ended with the Constitution, firmly placed God at the top of the authority chain, endowing humanity with inalienable rights which governments (including the US government) respect. When human governments do not respect those God given rights, government becomes illegitimate and rebellion licit.

The truth is that a free society, whether under a constitutional monarchy, a democratic republic, or some other system, calls on the christian to play a different role in civic life than a tyranny. Render unto Caeser, meant pay the tax in Jesus' time because that's all that Caeser rightfully required. But a free society requires more from all its citizens. It requires their judgment, their moral sense, and their active consent.

Christians are called to evangelize and be a light unto the nations. This is something that is both done through preaching and through daily action. Living your life well, helping others, contributing to society is a basic duty and there is no conflict between voting, participating in public counsels, even governing, and being a good christian.

Then we get to the case of Cardinal Martino. Part of what makes loving your enemy hard to implement is that you love his victims too. Cardinal Martino's error was not in feeling compassion for Saddam. It was in feeling insufficient compassion for his victims, the entire nation of Iraq. The millions who lived in fear, even then, of Saddam's eventual return were in a sort of anticipatory hell. In love for them, how should Saddam's capture be handled? How do you balance things?

Saddam could have, should have, been captured secretly and nobody should have been told if things were counted in military/intelligence terms only. Who knows who would have shown up with how many more incriminating documents if they thought Saddam was still free? Who knows how many people narrowly escaped capture because they were warned and fled ahead of the search and capture teams? How many people will die because of those uncaptured Baathists?

But Saddam's capture was handled in a fairly sophisticated manner. Secrecy until confirmation and then video footage that would highlight that the nightmare was over and that people no longer had to fear Saddam's return or that the Coalition had the wrong man was what we got. If we didn't minimize future net deaths, my estimate is that we got pretty close. And for the price of a bit of grooming and swabbing, millions slept that night in peace and joy. Most of them were in Iraq but I can say with assurance that the Iraqi diaspora had their hearts eased as well. Whether the balance of compassion was set up correctly is a grand topic that theologians might debate for the next hundred years but to show selective compassion only for your enemy is not Christian and undeniably unjust.

In his update things do not notably improve. His attempt to define ethnic christianity fails. The jewish parallel does not hold. If you are an atheist you can still be a jew. You cannot be an atheist christian.

The idea of Christianity as being the sum total of what is in the Gospels is the protestant doctrine of "only scripture" or "sola scriptura". It is not a majority opinion, by any means. To take it as normative without a bucket of caveats is misleading at best. It is even worse in the case of Prof. Bainbridge who appears (according to Mr. Kleinman) to be a Roman Catholic.

But if Christianity means a set of beliefs, then it's perfectly possible for an outsider to say whether someone's remarks indicate that he holds those beliefs. It should be no more offensive to say that "X is not a Christian" in that sense when he rejects the love of enemies than it is to say "X is not a Kantian" after X argues for a consequentialist ethic.

The particular doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is not only that the Bible is the Word of God but that the miracle of Pentacost that created the Church established a chain of bishops that had the power to decide which texts would go into the Bible and never lost the power to modify, tweak, and add to the equally valid Tradition that is complementary to Holy Scripture.

Thus, Prof. Bainbridge (if he is an RC, I didn't independently check) can only be judged as faithful by this larger body of work, of which the Bible is a relatively small part. You have to toss in the ecumenical councils as well at a minimum and probably the canons as well. Drawing a jewish parallel, it would be like judging the Torah without the rabbinical commentaries. For muslims, it would be like into account the Koran without taking into account the hadiths. But here I myself may be treading in unfamiliar waters. Suffice it to say that Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition for a Catholic are equal in validity and to pick and choose between them in evaluating a Catholic's fidelity is profoundly misguided.

Mr. Kleinman can stack himself against two millenia of monks, bishops, theologians, and canon lawyers and claim that he has discovered that, as an outsider, as someone who has not gone through all the relevant documents, christians should be out of politics and arguably should be stripped of the vote. Christians, faithful christians cannot wield coercive power according to Mr. Kleinman. Perhaps when he's actually read enough to know what he's talking about, he will have the decency to recognize how wrong he is.

There are a billion Catholics that he owes an apology to. There are hundreds of millions of Orthodox who have the right to an equal amount of outrage. There is a chance that there is a storefront church down the street from his favorite Starbucks that might vaguely resemble his indictment of the entire, varied, body of christianity but I wouldn't count on it.

HT: to Chuck Karczag for bringing the original post to my attention in email. If my cousin would only tell me where he's blogging these days, I'd give him a link.

Posted by TMLutas at December 22, 2003 09:54 PM