12 April 2006

Order, chaos, and impeachment

The issue is not whether we like George W. Bush, or not; whether we agree with his policies in theory, or not; whether we are comfortable in his political party, or the subsection of his party that supports him, or not. The issue is whether his constituency—that is, the federation of communities known as the United States of America—will hold him accountable for his stewardship of the responsibilities for which he was appointed (2000) and elected (2004).

One news story: The alleged mobile bioweapons labs in Iraq didn't exist. Bush and his associates were told they didn't exist, but persisted in flogging the mobile labs story in the service of a policy leading to the deaths of tens of thousands.

Two readings:

Os Guinness, in Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil, says:
As modern, democratic people, we pride ourselves on our commitment to freedom. But a moment's thought shows us that our need for order is even more basic than our need for freedom—which is why human beings often submit to tyranny rather than feel the terror of their hands shaking in the face of chaos.
I had barely finished reading this when I came across a recent Paul Krugman essay (here in the New York Times $elect section). Discussing the speculation that our government was fine-tuning plans for an attack on Iran, he said:
"But he wouldn't do that." That sentiment is what made it possible for President Bush to stampede America into the Iraq war and to fend off hard questions about the reasons for that war until after the 2004 election. Many people just didn't want to believe that an American president would deliberately mislead the nation on matters of war and peace.
No, our need to see order around us, and especially in our so-called leadership, gives us quite an investment in passivity. We know, we sense, that the world is capable of dangerous chaos, and we want to believe that our government plans intelligently to increase world order in ways that reflect our own national values of fairness, freedom, and generosity.

What do we do when it appears that this chaos has infected our own nation, and our government? This is not just an issue of policy; it relates to unmistakable evidence of wickedness in high places. For better or for worse, we expect our presidents, defense secretaries, and other high officials to lie in our own best interests as a nation (or at least we're inclined to forgive them when the truth emerges); but when their lies subvert the very essence of governance, leading to the squandering of lives and a nearly unprecedented financial hemorrhage, doesn't the restoration of order mean challenging those officials?

In a constitutional democracy, when the officials surrender to chaos, order is not preserved by abject servility to those officials; it is preserved by going to the next line of defense: the constitution. The process is called impeachment. It is a measure of our servility that the advocacy of impeachment has been seen as a "fringe" movement, but with new revelations of corruption and mendacity each week, it is time to make accountability a matter of basic order, not an issue of likes, dislikes, and conventional wisdom.

The evangelical establishment flunks again. See the sadly hilarious story of the king of Israel and the prophet Micaiah. All the domesticated prophets were telling the two kings to attack Aram; Zedekiah, son of Kenaanah, backed war with a dramatic flourish that would do a modern televangelist proud. With biting irony, Micaiah stood up for the awkward truth: God was seducing the king into a self-destructive war by putting a lying spirit into the mouths of those other prophets. To avoid self-destruction, King Ahab would need not just to believe Micaiah instead of the others, but on a more basic level, as Kings and Chronicles make clear, to turn himself and his country back onto a path of righteousness. That's what true prophets require. Are our spiritual leaders in the line of Micaiah, or in the line of Zedekiah?

The same question occurred to me when reading about the evangelical establishment and immigration. Almost nothing is clearer in the Bible than the imperative of treating the "alien" with fairness and hospitality. Christianity Today has taken an editorial line basically supporting a progressive approach (see this article and this follow-up) but another article from earlier this year documents the apparent indifference in much of organized evangelicalism. I guess it's okay to go abroad to preach the gospel, but, goodness, don't let 'em come here.


Anonymous said...

Johan, maybe this is a case of half empty or half full, but I see it somewhat differently. The split among the evangelical leadership is not between anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant factions. It is between those who are silent and those who are active. To me it is notable that the politicians hoping to gain from a bash the immigrant approach are not getting any support at all from prominent religious leaders. The seemingly knee jerk right wing evangelicals have held back from supporting usual allies on this issue. Those who are active in the faith community on the issue are pretty much all in unity.

And the Roman Catholic community has been very active and bold on the issue. They have made it a priority. They have made it clear that they will continue to offer humanitarian assistance to immigrants regardless of documentation even if that makes them felons in the eyes of the law. They have not been afraid to be prophetic on this.

And we can see the tide turning. The House Republican leadership, who had thought the punitive measure they rammed through would provide political payoffs, is now backpedaling. They are saying now that the felony provisions were too much, and are indicating they may be willing to add a path for undocumented immigrants to become permanent residents. The polls show 63% for providing some way for regularizing the status of undocumented immigrants, and that this includes a majority of both major parties.

Now I certainly wish that the prominent evangelical leaders would find their voices and come out for the compassionate view of this. I think that would make a real difference for President Bush, whose natural instincts on this issue are good but who has felt a need to pander to his right wing base somewhat on the issue, leaving his position muddled and his voice largely quiet. There was a time in the past when he spoke boldly and passionately against those who would be punitive towards immigrants, notably his famous violation of the 11th Commandment in campaigning against a punitive referendum by another Republican Governor (Wilson in California). If his usual crowd of evangelical sycophants would speak out on the issue, that would be the easiest way to get him back in that mode. But we might be able to do it even without that, and then the right wing evangelical leaders will probably finally find their voice to support their friend.

Johan Maurer said...

I agree that I tend to see the glass half-empty, partly because I am concerned for the reputation of the Gospel in a cynical age. I don't know whether the silent leaders are pro-immigration or anti-immigration; I just know that human needs go under-attended in their silence. In biblical times, populations shifted to where there was food and work; why should now be so different?

The Catholic response has been a lot more biblical on this issue. And, yes, since that first Christianity Today article was published, political tides have been turning somewhat, as you pointed out.

Richard said...

One of the problems with evangelicals (personal opinion here) is that they are Biblical fundamentalists. They suffer from a hardening of the heart and mind when it comes to looking for direction outside of the Bible. This is not to say there are not any good evangelicals – there most assuredly are, just as there are good Catholics, and Buddhists, and Muslims, etc …

Has chaos infected your institutions? I don't think so. I think it is the natural outcome of those who pursue ideology or money or power over truth.

Besides which, humans are incredibly malleable, easily believing things that never happened or are untrue. I think it is a fundamental human need to belong and this manifests itself as a need to identify as belonging.

Penn and Teller did this interesting show on the Indian rope trip. They conjecture that the trick never happens. What does happen is the trick is done in bits and pieces, but never the whole show. News of the show is spread, but when people arrive, the show may be just ending, or there may be technical difficulties midway through. But, eventually, people begin to claim they saw the whole thing, and then others – not wanting to be left out - join in, adding their voices to those who claim to have seen the famous trick. In the end, you have a whole bunch of people who claim to have seen this rare and spectacular show, when in fact there was no show at all.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for your comments, Richard, and thanks for your interesting blog. We seem to share some musical tastes, as well as other concerns.

Just for the record, I'm an evangelical who's not a biblical fundamentalist. It doesn't bother me in the least that the Bible, a precious book to me, is not a magical artifact but the product both of inspired people AND of church politics.

Richard said...

Perhaps it is my understanding of the term evangelical.

Certainly in popular culture, and those whom I know who identify themselves as evangelical are bible fundamentalists.

Perhaps this is a misunderstanding of the word on my part, or its usage - perhaps like the word catholic (universal) and Catholic (Roman Catholic).

My main concern is and always has been truth.

Thanks for letting me know you dropped by my blog and at least spent some time reading.

Johan Maurer said...

Once upon a time, one of my friends was editor of a Quaker magazine. He thought the letters to the editor dept was a bit slow, so he wrote an editorial saying, in substance, "We're evangelicals—we're not fundamentalists." That cured the slow-letters problem, since several readers wrote in to disagree.

In any case, the distinction between "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" is pretty important to those of us who are one and not the other. Also, there's a difference between the way fundamentalists use the word, and the way it's used by many of their opponents. There's an intelligent, self-reflective Christian fundamentalism (represented at one time by J.I. Packer, among others) and there's a rigid, reactionary fundamentalism as well.

I don't identify with either group, but it never helps to treat people we disagree with as faceless monoliths. (This is not aimed at you or your blog, by the way. I enjoy my visits there.)


Richard said...

Ok, this is clearer now. I was using the term evangelical the way someone might use Roman Catholic or Baptist because as far as I see, the term has been co-opted by a particular brand of Christianity that stresses biblical literalism and extreme conservatism (I should point out that I am morally very conservative, yet theologically quite easy going - ha ha, no way I am going to trap myself with some prejudiced word).

There are always greater subtlties than a single word can capture, but, still we need to be able to paint a picture and identify the shapes. I defy stereotyping in so far as it represents the end of discourse.

In theory, all Christians are called upon to bear witness to the Word of God - which I guess means we are all called to be evagelists.