Means and Ends (Neither Kant nor Machiavelli)

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.” The ends justify the means.

Immanuel Kant argued in favor of the old Latin maxim, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.” The means justify the ends.

But I don’t believe we can, in good conscience, stand by either maxim. As moral beings, especially as people of faith, we have a responsibility for both our means and our ends. We must balance the rightness of our methods with the most likely outcomes.

It’s easy to brush off Machiavelli. “The ends justifies the means” sounds like something a movie villain would say.

Until national security is on the line.

Until George W. Bush is talking about “enhanced interrogation” and “indefinite detention” (without a trial, of course)

Until Barrack Obama is talking about (or rather, trying very hard not to talk about) using Predator drones to blow up civilians in nations we aren’t even at war with.

But as Christians, we can at least try to avoid that one. We can set our feet down and join Kant in defending the old saying, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

But what does that mean? Does that mean being so focused on “biblical” roles in marriage that you treat spousal abuse like it’s a matter of the wife’s submission, as John Piper does below (from his entire demeanor, he either has no concept of what an abusive relationship is really like, or he has no empathy. I think both may be true, given his view of God).

When we focus on what is “right” according to scripture, and then use that to justify hurting “sinners” (such as denying them their [secular] civil rights, advocating discredited and medically dangerous therapies, or advocating for harsh criminal penalties against them in African countries),  we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we let our idea of “biblical” gender roles blind us to abuse in marriages, in families, and in churches, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

Even if we are not blinded, if we ignore or minimize suffering (as John Piper is doing above), we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we use our interpretation of scripture (without the humility to question whether we might be wrong, reading the Bible in translation, 2000+ years later, in a totally different cultural context) as a weapon, or an anesthetic that prevents us from feeling the pain of others, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

But we’re not doing what’s right. Not really. And our means, no matter how righteous we may thing they are, are utterly and totally tainted by the pain we cause.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags to God. That’s not just a redundant restating of Romans 3:23. It isn’t a declaration of Calvin’s “total depravity.” It means that our rightness, our self-justifications, our focus on “doing the right thing” no matter what the cost to others … is just filthy.

And the world sees this. It’s not the gospel that’s offending them. It’s our warped Kantian-Calvinistic logic, our weaponized righteousness. And it should offend them.

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A Time to Mourn (a response to John Piper and those who quote him)

A time to weep a time to laugh a time to mourn a time to dance ecclesiasties 3:4

 

 

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  I’m writing this on the Monday after the most terrible primary school massacre in American history, after a mentally ill young man went to his mother’s school, killed her, several adults, and at least twenty young children.

This is a time to mourn.

Not a time to score Calvinism points by hammering away about God’s sovereignty.

Not a time to remind us that this massacre is nothing compared to the greatest crime, the crucifixion of Jesus (which was also God’s plan from before the foundation of the world).

Not the time to explain that every murder is primarily an assault against God, and God’s sovereignty. Not a time to learn “A Lesson for All from Newton” – the lesson being that we should think of this as a warning about our own depravity.

Not even a time to theorize on the question of evil.

But considering what Piper has said in the past about God’s unquestionable right to kill women and children, even commit genocide, maybe this would have been a time for him to take off his theologian hat and simply offer compassion and sympathy as a fellow Christian and human being.

The same could be said for every pastor who cribbed yesterday’s sermon from Piper’s blog posts. We don’t need a lesson. We don’t need deflection away from this event onto an oversimplified, self-contradictory view of the crucifixion. We don’t need the decaf version of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

What do we need? Compassion. Space. The humility to admit that there isn’t an easy answer to this, no matter what the  Reformed bloggers say.

We need what the author of Ecclesiastes offered:

A time to mourn.

 

An Old-Fashioned Kind of Love

Something to keep in mind when reading biblical passages about marriage, love, and sex:  for most of human history, consent was a foreign concept, and love was an afterthought.  Women were effectively their father’s property, and were “given away” to the husband upon marriage (often in exchange for a “bride-price” or to seal a treaty or agreement).

But it wasn’t all wine and roses for the groom, either: husbands-to-be often had as little choice in the matter as their brides.  The parents arranged the marriage, usually for monetary or political reasons, and the people getting married basically had to deal with it.  Of course there were exceptions (Ruth and Boaz, for example), and of course the practice varied over time, culture, and geography.  But the pattern was pervasive.

One thing the groom did have going for him was the definition of adultery. Adultery didn’t mean cheating on your spouse. It meant sleeping with another man’s wife. A married man could visit prostitutes or any other unmarried non-virgin he could bed, and it was a-okay, even in the first century. The legal double standard persisted into the reformation (King Henry the VIII of England killed two wives for adultery, but always kept a mistress on the side. Funny, that). The societal double standard exists to this day.

This only started to change in the last two or three hundred years.  We’ve all read Jane Austen (or at least seen the movies).  But Austen wasn’t writing safe, posh romances. She used the romance novel to criticize arranged marriage, hypocrisy, and materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain. She wasn’t the first or only person to speak out, but it took a long time to get from arranged exchanges of property to what we currently think of as marriage.

And eighteen hundred years earlier, when the Apostle Paul was writing?  Or twenty-five hundred years earlier, when Queen Esther would have been alive? Forget about it. The wife was the husband’s property.  So were the kids and the slaves.

Nobody cared whether the bride wanted to get married. Nobody cared whether the slave wanted to become the husband’s mistress.  Nobody cared whether the male slave wanted to become the husband’s ‘lover.’ And though they weren’t slaves, nobody cared whether the 12 year old boys in ancient Greece and Rome wanted to have adult ‘mentors’ with a side order of pederasty.

So why does that matter today? Because it affects how we interpret the Bible. If we see marriage in our modern, 21st century light, or even in an idealized 1950’s light (as the complementarian movement does), we don’t see the reality. Biblical marriage, biblical adultery, biblical homosexuality – these things are all fundamentally different than their 21st century counterparts.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to us today on these issues. It absolutely does. But if we ignorantly superimpose our own culture on the biblical text, we will fail to understand. We have ears, but if we cover them and sing 21st (or mid-20th) century love-songs, we will not hear. And as Christians, we must hear what the Bible says. We simply must.

Jiminy Cricket and The Long Black Coat (Wrestling the Human Conscience)

The Talking Cricket from Pinocchio

There are two trains of thought about the conscience among Christians, which I may call Jiminy Cricket and Long Black Coat.  Jiminy Cricket says “let your conscience be your guide.”  Bob Dylan’s song “The Man with the Long Black Coat” says quite the opposite:

Preacher was talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave/said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/you cannot depend on it to be your guide/when it’s you who must keep it satisfied.

 

The Talking Crickett says that, since we are made in God’s image [Genesis 1:26], our conscience can be a good guide to us.  Of course, we have to be grounded in scripture, prayer, and a Christian community so that we don’t become victims of our own self-justification.  But our consciences can form a significant part of what guides us.

This aligns, largely, with John Wesley’s four-legged stool approach to interpretation: Scripture, Reason, the Church Tradition and Community, and Personal Experience. There’s a good, brief, comparison between John Calvin and John Wesley’s views of sin, salvation, and human will available here.

People who hold to this train of thought tend to also believe that those who are outside the faith, who have no faith, or who have only vague religious beliefs with no commitment, or who are of a different faith, can follow their consciences to generally good effect.

With the caveat, of course, than nobody’s conscience is perfect and true, and even the most faithful believers need other sources to keep them on-track.

And deep inside, I know this is true.  I know my conscience and reason guide me.  I know that people of other faiths or no faith are not conscienceless sociopaths.  I know they feel it, too, when they do wrong, just like I do.  Deep inside, I know I have to follow my own integrity, if I am ever to follow God.

The Long Black Coat says that we are fallen, despicable creatures, that our righteousness is filthy rags [Isaiah 64:6].  Our consciences are, to quote Dylan, “vile and depraved.”  Not just flawed or imperfect.  Vile.  Disgusting.  Depraved.  Totally evil.  John Calvin called this “Total Depravity,” the inability to do anything except pure evil without God’s grace.

In this case, nobody’s conscience is worth listening to.  As God said to Job, “Would you discredit my justice?  Would you condemn me to justify myself?  Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?” [Job 40:8-9, NIV].  Who are we to contend with God?  What is our conscience, our limited, self-justifying sense of justice, compared to one who sees all, who knows all?

And deep inside, I know this is also true.  I know how easily I justify things, how easily my conscience can be calloused to my own weakness, my own laziness, my own wasteful, hurtful wants.  I know how easily my conscience can be seared to the suffering of others half a world away or just down the hall.  Out of sight is out of mind, and busy-ness is the true opiate of the people.  My conscience may be my best earthly guide, but that doesn’t make it ideal.  Far from it.

So where does that leave us?  The facile answer is “We listen to the Bible” (generally as interpreted by our denomination, and this is by no means exclusive to Calvinists).  But the Bible was written over the course of a thousand years, finishing up almost two thousand years ago.  It’s not an owner’s manual.  It is not, contrary to bumper sticker churchianity, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

The Bible is a narrative woven from a multitude of narratives, sermons, poems, genealogies, histories, prophesies, and laws (there’s even a census or two thrown in for good measure).  Don’t get me wrong: I believe 100% that the Bible was divinely inspired, but that doesn’t mean it’s self-evident.

We could submit our will and conscience, instead, to other humans.  This is as common among Protestants as among Catholics.  Though we have no Magesterium, celebrity pastors like Mark Driscoll lead their congregations with theological iron fists.  Even small-scale preachers find themselves leading congregations, sometimes blindly, because the people don’t want to struggle with the meaning of it all.

But I see no reason to prefer the conscience of a medieval power-structure or rock star megachurch preacher to my own.  Mine, at least, is in the hands of someone uncorrupted by wealth and power (I’d have to have wealth or power to be corrupted by it).

So where does that leave us?  It leaves us with no easy answers.  Job, Gideon, and Abraham had direct contact with God.  His face to face word overruled their objections.  If God or one of His angels ever appears to me, then the answer will be obvious: I’ll put my objections aside and follow, regardless.  But until then, I’m going with Jiminy Cricket … but I’ll be wearing my long black coat as I go.