Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More on The Gun

My friend Mort Chien left a comment on an earlier post, which I thought called for discussion too extensive for a comment thread. Mort's comment:
How about outlining another piece of the puzzle for me as I am slow of brain, and ill suited to libertarian lingo. Does your Christianity modify your Libertarianism or is the reverse true? Since Paul in Romans 13:1-7 says that the state can legitimately use "the gun" (or the sword in 1st century non-libertarian lingo) are you debating about what the proper use of the "the gun" is? Or is the issue whether that text is to be dismissed? "it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God" seems pretty clear that some force has divine sanction. What limits do you see on that and how does it (or should it) apply today in the almost anarchistic USA?
A few observations:

1. As it happens, I know Mort by his real-world name in the real-world context. I say this so that the reader will know that I speak from a factual basis in saying that he's anything but "slow of brain."

2. I don't really know how to talk about my libertarianism, because I'm unwilling to accept the category label -- for a couple of reasons that I find sufficient. One is that it puts you into the sort of disreputable company that operates the Libertarian Party today: Republicans in drag, pretty much. Another is that it implies acceptance of the idea that there exists a political-philosophical "system" -- a body of theory -- that can always produce the right answer to the problems endemic to groups of people living together. With an old-school libertarian, I can find a fair amount to agree about, but that doesn't mean I am one; I'm not.

A Christian, on the other hand, is something that I simply am. I didn't "become" one under my own power or my own initiative; and I don't think I can stop being one now, although I concede that I may be mistaken about that. This is a rambling way of saying that I don't think there's any question about any sort of political-philosophical-scientific "-ism" modifying my Christianity; we're talking about things that differ in kind, not degree.

3. Now, for Romans 13 and the post on which you commented (and, perhaps, the previous post, which was about more or less the same thing). Does Romans 13 say that "rulers" and "governing authorities" are authorized users of The Gun? The verses you cited, from the NASB:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
Certainly, this passage says that the state is authorized -- assigned, in fact -- the use of The Gun. (It says some other things about the government that is so authorized, too; more on that later.) I do not dispute this, nor did I dispute it in my posts. What I was saying is that The Gun underlies everything the state does: free school lunches just as much as "dynamic entry" drug raids by the state's black-clad thugs. I say this because it is true, and because it is a truth that I think we should keep always at the forefront of our thoughts. Our rulers do not always aim for our good; indeed, a strong argument can be made that our rulers are quite seldom motivated by our good.

Which brings me to what else this passage from scripture says about legitimately-armed government. It says that the person who does good need not fear this government -- that, on the contrary, he or she can expect praise from it. The government being talked about here is a minister of God's justice, visiting wrath upon evildoers. This government's proper authority -- not power, but authority -- is established by God. This government is a dedicated servant of God. Seen a government like that around here lately?

4. Your final question seems to me to assume something that is not in evidence. You describe the USA as "almost anarchistic." The dictionary defines "anarchism" thusly:
Main Entry: an·ar·chism
Pronunciation: 'a-n&r-"ki-z&m, -"när-
Function: noun
1 : a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups
2 : the advocacy or practice of anarchistic principles.
I don't recognize the land where I live in those words. Where I live, we're up to our necks in "governmental authority." I live in a land where, increasingly, anything not forbidden is compulsory. Now, that doesn't mean that life is pleasant and orderly, by any means. Life is, in many places in the United State, disorderly to the point of chaos. (And I don't mean to quibble about word choice here; I'm guessing that "chaotic" goes closer to what you were thinking of.) For at least half a century now, we've been getting more and more and more government, while the tendency toward social disorders and pathologies has multiplied.

How are we to understand this? I think the passage from Romans that we've been looking at suggests an explanation. If we were living under a bad government -- a 1 Samuel 8:10-18 sort of government -- a lawless government: well, I wonder if this isn't the kind of result we might expect. How, the reader asks, can I describe our government as "lawless," when it takes a strong man to lift the Federal Register for a single year, and you'd need a pretty solid mule to haul the volumes of the tax code? By "lawless," I mean this: the federal government is supposedly created, defined, and strictly limited by a document: the U.S. constitution. And that constitution is today nothing better than a bad joke; it is routinely ignored by our masters, who have long since realized that words on paper are a poor match for The Gun, whether the words in question are those of the constitution or the scriptures. In short, I think we are ruled by a tyranny, an end to which is to be hoped for.


Craig said...

What you are referring to is a flaw in the human relationship. There is tyranny from high-above i.e. - the government - because there is tyranny in our personal relationships.

Until we improve the husband/wife, lover, friendship, father/son etc. relationship we cannot hope to improve anything larger in size.

That's just how I see it. Change starts with the individual.

By the way, sort of off topic. But doesn anyone really give a rat's patoot about Mark Mellinger?

Just asking

Bartleby said...

Craig: I suppose one answer to your off-topic question is implicit in the fact that I had to resort to Google to find out who Mark Mellinger is. Turns out he's a local teevee info-worker. Is he currently newsworthy? (Google didn't seem to know it, if he is.)

Craig said...

Just a bad joke I guess.

There's a 1,500 word article on him at FWOb right now.

I mean no harm.

Bartleby said...

That sounds like a FWOb post, alrighty ...

Mort Chien said...

Hi Jim,
I appreciate the complement - I meant to refer to my limited knowledge of political matters of the "How to" variety or maybe it is "How should". That would explain my mislabeling you Libertarian. You kind of defy description, but labels are handy things, even if you’re not a Republican in drag. (What a nasty image that conjures up – Newt Gingrich in heels). But, it seemed like as close a description as I could come to and it seemed like a good lead in to the Big Question about The Gun.

I was wondering how you saw the context of Paul’s (or the Holy Spirit’s) “assignment” of the use of the gun. How did the governments that existed then compare with our varied systems today? Does that make Paul’s declaration broader (most, if not all governments) or narrower (only those that punish evil doers and reward good doers).

I guess I do see a fair amount of a “government being talked about here (that) is a minister of God's justice, visiting wrath upon evildoers.” Plenty of meddling in other areas, too, but I wonder how much one of man’s meddling is another man’s legitimate view of limiting another’s “evil” conduct.

Anarchy? Well, I accept the correction – chaos, disorder, moral anarchy is what I had in mind. A general distrust and antipathy toward all authorities, especially the Big Ones, God and the government, and the little one, males. The old Roman Catholic criticism of Protestants seems to be true in this case. Everyone is his/her own professor of ethics and religion. I wonder how much of our ideas of freedom and government are influenced by the times we live in and not by Scripture. Maybe our time is an aberration (like that optical word?) and more, not less, authority and power rightly used is required. Not sure how to evaluate that one.

Another question: would you give some examples of what you mean by “anything not forbidden is compulsory”. The thought appeals to my cynicism, but is it true? How about some contemporary examples? See, I really do have small brain in this area.


Bartleby said...

Mort: I just spent half an hour typing a reply to you, and glorious "Blogger in Beta" encountered a "server problem" that resulted in the loss of my work. I'm too annoyed right now to start all over again. Please give me another 24 hours to respond. Thanks!

Bartleby said...


I compose this comment offline, making it more difficult for Blogger to play the same scurvy trick on me now that it did so successfully last night. I'll try to remember to do so in the future, also.

How, indeed, do contemporary governments compare to their ancient counterparts? My knowledge of history is pathetically inadequate to the making of any real comment on the question you raise. In my ignorance, I can only conjecture that, given the constancy of man's nature, it is likely that the governments that he formed then were similar in their fundamental character to the ones he organizes now. It may be that governments can all be defined as claimants of monopolies on the legitimate use of violence -- which is the notion that I was expressing in the metaphor of the Gun. Now, I would take it more or less for granted that there has never been a government that has been a perfectly consistent rewarder of good deeds and punisher of evil ones; and I might tentatively conjecture that a balanced reading of the Romans 13 passage (as well as the very similar ones found in Titus 3, 1 Peter 2 and 3, and John 19) would say that skepticism about a particular human government should be inversely proportional to that government's degree of fidelity toward its role as "a minister of God" (Romans 13:4). I would also conjecture that there is some level of governmental infidelity to its ministry at which its overthrow and replacement are justified. The problem, it seems to me, is the confident identification of that critical level.

There is something within us -- I certainly find it within myself -- that counsels resistance and rebellion to authority of any sort, including legitimate authority. This is the tendency that animates the unruly child, sitting in the back row of the classroom, making faces at the teacher every time the teacher's back is turned. That tendency is to be mortified, and I think that is the thrust of Romans 13. On the other hand, we also have our "inner sheep," which craves to be told what to do, and to be protected from all threats, both real and imagined; this inner sheep is not especially discriminating about the identity or character of prospective shepherds, as long as they appear powerful and generous. I think that inner sheep is to be mortified, also.

I agree that our times, and the political and philosophical systems that prevail therein, form a filter through which we see things; and it is likely that the filtering is a net interference with a biblical view of those things. I have no basis for rejecting, a priori, the idea that more power might rightly be called for. I do not see likely candidates for the rightful wielding of such power, though. I think it is nearly self-evident that our current supervisory class already has far too much power, and shows little interest in the propriety of its use.

About the "anything not forbidden is compulsory:" I'm not suggesting that we're there yet, or even that we'll ever get there completely. I do think that current trends are in that direction. A few examples: (1) The permissible volumetric flush capacity of the porcelain throne in my bathroom is dictated by Washington. (2) "Click it or ticket." (3) Medications may not be prescribed or sold unless our masters are convinced of not only their harmlessness, but also their efficacy. (4) Auto manufacturers are required to comply with government-imposed fuel economy standards. (5) "Anti-discrimination" laws routinely nullify freedom of association -- and, in some cases, freedom of conscience. (6) Students at Ohio State were told, several years ago when G.W. Bush came to address them, that they would be arrested if they protested his appearance by turning their backs toward him. Of course, we still have some liberties. But as the "radius of action" of governments at various levels increases, the remaining areas necessarily shrink.