Four Visions of the World: Constrained, Unconstrained, Stasist, Dynamist

About half a dozen years ago, I read two books in succession that I did not expect to have much to do with each other.  They both proposed intriguing dichotomies.  These dichotomies cut up the world differently, but I began to see interesting ways they could be layered on top of each other.

The books were The Future and Its Enemies, by Virginia Postrel, and A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell.

Both books are phenomenal and I highly recommend them.  Let me briefly describe the central dichotomy presented in each.

Stasists vs. Dynamists

Postrel defines two outlooks on human life and society, static and dynamic.

The stasist fears and resists change.  They wish to preserve things as they are, or possibly even return to an imagined glorious past.  Every change, whether social, technological, or environmental, is bemoaned as the harbinger of all manner of moral and civil decay.

It’s an obvious mindset to spot in many conservatives, exemplified in William F. Buckley’s mission statement for National Review, to “[S]tand athwart history, yelling Stop”, but it doesn’t just describe conservatives.  A great many modern liberals fall into this category as well.  Environmentalists who fear invasive species or believe any changes to any ecosystems are always bad, unionists who want to set work arrangements and productions methods in stone, or social justice advocates who wish to maintain certain ratios in material wealth between people.

The dynamist embraces change and does not fear it.  This includes fans of free markets, free speech, and economic growth, techno optimists and pioneers.  Dynamists are, by nature, less organized but also more prone to have a big impact on the world individually.  Again, it cuts through simplistic left/right political paradigms and includes some liberals who want mores to evolve and some conservatives who want industry to do the same.

Constrained vs. Unconstrained

Sowell has a different dichotomy.  It’s a bit more subtle, but like Postrel’s, it does not fit into left/right political rhetoric neatly.  He defines two visions of the world and humanity, constrained and unconstrained.

Those with a constrained vision see certain physical, moral, or spiritual realities as unchangeable.  Scarcity, self-interest, human fallibility, and evil.  This doesn’t make the constrained vision a pessimistic one, but simply, to quote the great economist Peter Boettke, “Puts parameters on utopias.”  You can improve the world only by first understanding the fundamental laws of both material and human nature.  You can’t achieve flight by wishing away gravity or achieve human harmony by wishing away greed.  The constrained visionary realizes these parameters and innovates in ways consistent with them.  Smith’s Invisible Hand and Hayek’s Spontaneous Order are fundamentally constrained concepts, as they accept human avarice and limits to knowledge and describe social orders that turn all that imperfection into progress.

Those with an unconstrained vision see everything as perfectible.  We can eliminate scarcity (this is very different than simply “have an abundance of stuff”, as it assumes time and choice can also be eliminated), we can remake man into a perfect version, we can stop playing by old stuffy rules and simply rebuild a society without greed.  If humans are flawed we can remake humans, instead of forming social orders that work around the flaws.  We don’t need institutions that channel bad desires to good outcomes, we simply need to remove bad desires.

Both conservatives and liberals alike throughout history have had both visions.  Individualists and collectivists are not neatly plotted into one or the other.  Jefferson had a more unconstrained vision, along with the French Revolutionaries and many early anarchist and socialist revolutionaries.  Modern anarcho-capitalists and Burkean conservatives alike share a constrained vision.

Let’s add them together and see what we get…

Yay, time for a 2×2 matrix!  Don’t take this too seriously.  It’s been a while since I read these books and I’m playing around with this ideas rather loosely and humbly, so don’t get caught up on specific verbiage.  Instead, see if you can gain anything from the intersection of these two dichotomies.

In each quadrant I include a single phrase that I think defines the dominant desire, then list a few ideologies, groups, and types of action and orientation that I think fit it.

Why now?

I got to thinking a lot about this recently when reading the phenomenal series, Breaking Smart, by Venkatesh Rao. (If you read nothing else this year, read this!)

Rao describes the implications of the fact that ‘software is eating the world’.  Part of the analysis involves the inevitable backlash against software-enabled progress and disruption.  Rao calls the resistors Pastoralists, and provides a very compelling look at the two apparently opposite ways pastoralism manifests.

One is a resistance to all change.  The other is driven by agents of change themselves who adopt a single vision of change and wish to force it on the rest.  You can see how the first might fit into Postrel’s stasist category, but the second doesn’t quite.  That’s where combining Postrel and Sowell becomes so powerful.

I think the three great threats to human freedom and flourishing today are constrained stasists (resist all change), unconstrained stasists (remake the world in the image of the imagined past), and unconstrained dynamists (force the right kind of progress on all these hapless idiots).

I think all the promise and joy comes from the outlook of constrained dynamism.  One that understands failings in human knowledge and virtue and the physical reality of scarcity and wishes to allow change to emerge and evolve organically within unplanned orders to address them in ways no one can imagine ahead of time.

See if you can map yourself or others on the matrix!

You can also check out other fun 2×2 matrices I’ve played around with on various topics:

Obedience-Entitlement Matrix

Rules-Intelligence Matrix

Work-Happiness Matrix

Taking a Walk as a Revolutionary Act

Here’s a really fun article TK Coleman and I wrote for a new publication called Design 4 Emergence.  Check out the beautiful layout on the original!

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Isaac’s Take: The Mind a Blender

It was cliché. I took a walk on the beach and my life changed forever.

I like to imagine ideas as tiny physical objects sloshing around in my skull. The heavier ones sink to the bottom and the rest separate based on weight and viscosity. They mostly find their resting place and stay put, or at least in the same stratum.

Yet in order to create, make personal progress, discover who we are, and do what makes us most alive we need ideas to bump into each other. We need more than prefabricated plans and processes. We need disparate concepts to pair in unlikely, unpredictable ways. We need ideas to not stay in their place.

The rhythmic jostling of a good walk is like a blender. All the layers of ideas begin to move and shake and mix and mash. Walking is like a stirring up of the brain and the soul. Just 20 minutes into a quiet walk and you’ll begin to notice weird things happening. Seemingly random thoughts and thoughts about thoughts will move up and down, side to side, from the back to the front of the mind.

Back to my story.

I was frustrated, restless, and in a rut. Even though it was inconvenient and disruptive to my busy day, I made myself drive 15 minutes to the beach and go for a walk. I needed that endless horizon. I had no specific goal for my walk, which is kind of the point.

Five minutes in and I looked up at the horizon and saw in my mind’s eye a word floating in all caps just above the water.

PRAXIS

The bouncing of my steps had shaken this word loose and on its way to the front of my mind it had bumped into a bunch of other ideas long dormant. My decade-long dissatisfaction with the higher education system. My personal knowledge of dozens of entrepreneurs who were hungry for young talent. Recognition of my own skillset and network. It was too perfect. How could I have failed to see this for so long?

Within minutes an entire business model came into view, crisp and clear. I ran to my car, drove home, sat at my laptop and typed for a few hours straight. What is now my business and my passion was born.

Looking back, it all makes sense. I disliked my own college experience and envisioned a radical new model some 12 years earlier. I didn’t know where to go next with my idea so I put it on the shelf and pursued other things. In the dozen years that followed, I mostly pursued whatever was interesting to me personally and professionally with no long term plans. I managed to accidentally accumulate a near perfect mix of knowledge, skill, experience, outlook, and a network to launch what eventually became the higher ed. alternative I once dreamed about.

But I didn’t know any of this stuff was in there. It was all hiding in its own layer. Some nestled deep in the subconscious. Some associated with entirely different aspects of myself. I could never have purposefully made the connections necessary to see what I was capable of building. It had to emerge.

I took a walk. It’s the best way I know of to create the space for emergence in your own life.

You live much of life on a conveyor belt. It’s a structure created by others beginning with school and following you even onto the Internet as your newsfeed is curated based on assumptions about what’s important to you. But you’re hatching ideas and ideas about ideas all the time, whether you know it or not. The trick is accessing them and giving them space to mingle.

All the networks and technology at our fingertips is amazing. But it cannot on its own bring about the great epiphanies and acts of creation.

You can’t deliberately plan emergence. But you can remove obstacles. You can create conditions conducive to it. For me, that’s the simple act of walking. An act as old as our species.

Let your steps stir up your soul.


T.K.’s Take: The Mind an Ocean

One of the concepts that radically changed my life is an idea called “noble boredom.”

According to Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man noble boredom means, “No anticipation of action. It means having the ability to be present without needing something to happen.”

You don’t need to live very long to discover that busyness is the bearer of many luxuries. Being busy makes you look important. It gives you a good excuse for avoiding unwanted commitments and helps you deal with guilt, inadequacy, and the belief that you’re not working hard enough. Busyness protects from messy confrontations with the thing you fear the most: boredom.

When you consider the primary form of expressing boredom (“I don’t have anything to do”), it’s no wonder that we seek salvation in the experience of perpetual preoccupation. We dread running up against the fact that we often have no idea where we’re going and why we’re traveling in relation to all the stuff we do. If we stop being busy we’ll be bored. And if we become bored, we’ll see how uninteresting and uncreative our lives really are.

But inactivity need not be boring. The stillness and solitude that we look at as evidence of us not being creative enough is the very source of creativity.

Our subconscious mind is like the ocean. Our everyday waking-state consciousness is like the surface of that ocean. The activities of the mind and the external events that demand our attention are like the wind and the waves. Go to the shore of an ocean on a windy day and what do you see? You see the waves on the surface but what lies beneath is invisible.

The ocean is teeming with life, filled with all sorts of exotic and interesting forms waiting to be discovered. But as long as the wind is blowing and the waves are doing their dance such things remain hidden to the observer.

What if you return to the ocean on a quiet and calm day? The ocean doesn’t change but your experience of the ocean would be profoundly different. When the surface waters are still you see into the depths. You encounter astonishing things. You can reach for things that you previously didn’t know were there.

This is a metaphor for the relationship we have to our own  interior depths. As much as we hail the marvelous powers of imagination, that power is often drowned out by all the external noise and busyness of day-to-day life. Our souls are not empty. They only seem to be because we haven’t learned how to look beyond the surface.

The simple act of taking a walk creates a bridge from busyness to stillness that allows us to penetrate the depths of our mind without completely disregarding our strongly conditioned need to “do something.” Some teachers of meditation describe walking as a mantra for the body. The purpose of a mantra is to get our reactive thinking and the incessant activities of the reptilian brain out of the way. It’s like giving a dog a bone. The dog ceases to make noise and it has something to do. This allows you to get on with your work.

Walking allows you to get into a rhythm or a groove that makes it easier for your reactive mind to settle down and open itself up to deeper insights and creative ideas. Many people try various forms of meditation only to find themselves uncomfortable, bored out of their minds, or quickly falling asleep. This is often the case because we’ve come to associate meditation with making the body still. The essence of meditating isn’t, however, about being in the lotus position or bragging about your ability to close your eyes and sit still for an hour. The true purpose of meditation is interior stillness.

You could say that walking is nature’s meditation hack. By involving your body in the act of meditation through casual walking you create a gentle transition to inner stillness. This kind of walking is different from the kind of walking you do when you’re trying to get somewhere. This is the walk of noble boredom. It’s a form of boredom because you’re not doing anything in the typical sense, yet it’s noble because this simple act of non-doing holds the promise of offering greater meaning, creativity, efficiency, and substance to all you do.

I’ve spent many years studying and practicing various forms of meditation. From Osho’s First & Last Freedom to Jean Houston’s The Possible Human, I’ve experimented with many different ways of exploring my own consciousness. All of the methods I’ve tried have been useful to some degree. As a student of philosophy, I love approaches to contemplation that emphasize the importance of taking a break from the world and sitting in silence. As an entrepreneur who enjoys the pressures and challenges of creative life, however, nothing has provided a better balance of satisfying both my need to relax and my impulse to be on the move than the fine art of walking.

When I played basketball in grade school my coach would often say “walk it off” in response to one of the players catching a leg cramp. That advice stills rings true. When I have a problem or puzzle I need to resolve, I walk it off. When my thinking is cramped, I walk it off. It’s never failed me yet.

The Economic Argument Against Immigration is Pretty Gross

The economic argument against immigration is especially disgusting.

You might think cultural arguments about keeping a country “pure” or safety arguments claiming all immigrants are criminals are more offensive.  But let’s examine what the economic argument against immigration really means.

The idea of forcibly preventing individuals from crossing a border in order to give an economic advantage to those on the other side of the line is barbaric when you ponder it.  Immigration restriction for the purpose of “protecting jobs” really means the violent prevention of people born in certain places from trying to earn a living.

Imagine you want a certain job.  So does your neighbor.  Would you slash his tires to keep him from getting to the interview?  Would you build a wall around his house preventing him from leaving because he might compete with you in the market?  Would you shoot him if he tried to scale it for the chance of landing the job?

If you knew a person living in horrible conditions, whose children may well die of an entirely preventable disease, and they just need a decent job to be able to afford better environs for their family, would you feel proud for sending armed thugs to follow that person around and ensure they never left their crappy neighborhood to apply for jobs elsewhere?  Even if it meant grinding poverty and possible sickness and death for the family?  Would you cheer and say, “Yeah!  I’m protecting my job opportunities!”

If you support immigration restrictions that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Economies are best served with open competition.  No one thinks forcibly shutting down competitors or collaborators is a good move or morally permissible…unless those competitors and collaborators happened to be born in certain places.

Can you think of more blatantly bigoted behavior?  The belief that certain individuals should be violently prevented from even trying to get certain jobs or live in certain places based purely on the piece of land on which they happened to be born is no less reprehensible than Jim Crow, Apartheid, or any of the other universally condemned forms of legal economic oppression.

Leave aside the fact that immigration restrictions are bad for the economy as a whole, and that far more people in the restrictive country are harmed by being unable to hire or buy from vast swaths of humanity.  Even if it were true that immigration restrictions made native born citizens better off they would be no less disturbing and morally bankrupt.

If I paid armed agents to keep every potential competitor for jobs or customers under house arrest you wouldn’t forgive me if I could prove that the practice helped me economically.  You’d call me a cold-hearted psychopath.  Even if border patrols gave you an edge by keeping some potential competition behind barbed wire it wouldn’t make your advocacy of them honorable.  “Hey look, I can get ahead by keeping this poor person from trying!” is not the cry of an honorable person.  “People who weren’t born where I was shouldn’t be allowed to apply for jobs!” isn’t a belief to boast about.

All arguments against the free and peaceful movement of people are bad.  Arguing it’s to protect your economic interests reveals a level of moral bankruptcy that is truly unsettling.

Above the Fray from Beneath

The infantry advanced,

The artillery it rumbled. 

A Great War was raging

Even stout hearts now they stumbled. 

Low on the battlefield

Beneath the trench and wire

Stood this tiny order

Surrounded by blasts and fire. 

Upon it emerged one

Too small to see at first glance,

Not possible to hear,

Calmly speak as bullets danced,

“You’re clearly dangerous,

Though that will not deter me.

I will carry on here,

Your fued does not concern me.”

So on that bloody day

But one maintained his honor.

To choose one evil side

The anthill did not bother.

And when the smoke had cleared

A sea of great things killed,

Just one thing was created,

What the ant did build.

The Discontent Optimist

I’m an optimist and a big believer in consciously adopting an optimistic outlook.  I’m also a huge fan of discontentment.  I see these attitudes as complimentary, not contradictory.

Optimism is a belief in the possibility for a better future.  It’s about seeing opportunity in every situation.  A chance to improve the present condition.  It’s an eye trained to see the way in which the most good can be extracted from everything.

Discontentment is a restlessness with the status quo.  It’s a refusal to leave well enough alone or make peace with, “that’s just the way things are.”  Ludwig von Mises describes discontentment with present circumstances as one of the three preconditions to any purposeful human action.

Discontentment coupled with pessimism can make you depressed.  Discontentment coupled with optimism leads you to create the world you want.

It’s not all roses.  Which means there is an amazing opportunity to plant some.

Should the Poor Be Forcibly Sterilized?

Do you think I could convince you that the US needs a forced sterilization program to prevent poor people from having children?

Before you react, please take a moment to consider my case…

What if I told you that people born into poor families have a higher statistical likelihood of committing some kind of crime during their lifetime?

What if I told you the children of the poor are more likely to have bad grammar and adopt fashions and habits out of the cultural norm?

What if I told you those born to poor parents might end up getting low-paying jobs, meaning they might be competing with the kids of the middle class for entry level work?  It might make it harder for your kid to get a job if all these poor kids are also trying to get jobs!

What if I told you that the children of the poor run a high risk of voting for policies that you don’t like?  They might cause a demographic shift that alters the outcome of the democratic process!

If the poor aren’t stopped by force from procreating, consider these ways in which the world may change in the next few decades!

Would you get on board with my plan?  Would you say yes, given the potential outcomes outlined above, it is imperative that we send armed agents to the homes of everyone in the bottom quintile of earnings so that they can be sterilized?  Would you accept that we must prevent their offspring from entering the world?

Never.

You’d tell me this plan is repugnant.  You’d liken it to eugenics and the greatest human rights violations in history.  It would strike you as deeply disturbing, inhumane, and tyrannical.

You’d tell me that the idea of a human life being forcibly prevented from entering the country simply because of someone’s belief about a statistical probability that the child might be or do things others don’t like is morally reprehensible.

Even if I told you there was a way some poor people were allowed to be born, if they got lawyers and costly licenses and permissions slips and only a limited number and only from certain neighborhoods, you wouldn’t feel better about it.  It would still feel just as icky.

Your moral intuition would be dead on.  You’d be right.

That’s why we should end immigration restrictions.

Capitalism is Peaceful

Part three in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.

Free markets are probably the greatest force for peace in history. There are three distinct ways in which capitalism promotes peace.

A negative system

The simplest way in which capitalism is peaceful is by its abstention from direct acts of violence. Free markets offer no positive prescription for what market participants must do. A genuine capitalist system is one of free trade and voluntary association. People are free to do, in the words of Leonard Read, “Anything that’s peaceful.” There are no “do’s,” and the only real “don’t” at bottom is, “don’t use force.” All else is permitted, but there is no guarantee the market will sustain or reward it.

Capitalism is not a master plan or a system created ahead of time by planners. It is really just the result of peaceful interactions. It is what emerges if force is only used in defense against force. The absence of violence results in secure property rights, contracts and all of the other institutional trappings that are commonly associated with capitalism.

Every other economic system requires a direct application of violence. Any regulation, fee, tax, trade barrier, licensing regime or mandate offered in any kind of “mixed” or corporatist or socialist or fascist regime is backed by the threat of violence.

Raising the cost of violence

Beyond the absence of force in individual actions, capitalism promotes a much broader peace between people groups from different regions and of different cultures and backgrounds. Self-interest begets trade; trade begets specialization; specialization begets cooperation. Ricardo’s law of association demonstrates how much more productive we are when we specialize and trade, which means that over time we come to rely on a vast network of trading partners for our own well-being. Some people find this state of affairs troubling and you hear things like, “What if X country decides to withhold good Y from us? We rely too heavily on imports!” There are plenty of natural and man-made things to fear in the world if you wish to worry, but the cutting off of trade in a truly free market ought not to be one of them. If a person genuinely wants to avoid all reliance on other people (not sure how this would work for a newborn), they are free to live as long as they can only eat what they can find or grow on their own. It’s not hard to see that that kind of “independence” is far more risky than being part of an interdependent trade network.

The more people rely on trade with others, the greater the cost to all parties of a conflict. If I grow apples and trade them to you for chickens, the last thing I want to do is tick you off and lose my chicken supply and vice versa. On the flip side, if you have a lot of chickens and I have none, and there is no trade between us, I will be tempted to try stealing some. Lack of trade builds enmity. There is a famous saying, attributed to Frederic Bastiat, “If goods don’t cross borders, armies will.”

In a free market, the cost of belligerence is very high. When governments come in and restrict trade or subsidize violence by building up large militaries, the cost of belligerence is lowered, and the benefits of peace are reduced. It is the state, not trade, which creates conflict.

Friends, not enemies

Pretend you live in a free-market economy. You are friends with your neighbor, who works at a small grocer in town. You find the selection to be limited and the prices high. A new supermarket chain is coming in to town, and you’re excited about it because the lower prices and better selection mean you’ll have better meals and money left over for leisure activities with your family. Your neighbor is unhappy about the new store because it may cost him his job. The store comes in. You shop there and save while also expressing your heartfelt empathy to your neighbor whose store may soon shut down. You maintain your friendship, even though in the economic sphere you cease to be trading partners.

Now pretend you live in a heavily regulated economic system much like ours today. You and your neighbor the grocer are still friends. This time the chain store is not free to sell in your town without a government permission slip. It goes up for a vote. Your neighbor actively campaigns to restrain the store from opening up, which will prevent you from buying better products for less money. He urges you to join his efforts and put a “No chain stores!” sign in your yard. You tell him that you won’t because you wouldn’t mind the chain store. It turns in to a bitter, possibly friendship-ending disagreement.

Politics makes enemies out of friends. In a market, you are free to express your varied preferences with your own actions and the expenditure of your own resources. If someone sells something you don’t like, you don’t have to buy. But the very anonymity and absence of compulsion in markets allows you to form community bonds quite separate from your trading choices. You can maintain friendships with all kinds of people whose goods and services you do not necessarily value. You can befriend an orchestral violinist without being a patron of the symphony. But when resources are allocated politically rather than in a free market, that friendship is hard to maintain when you would vote against a tax to fund the symphony hall, which she supports.

Capitalism allows our diverse tastes to be explored and expressed in a way that doesn’t restrict choices to zero-sum contests of your preferences over others. A cornucopia of choice exists in the market, and this not only means better products, but also the removal of artificially created conflict between choices A and B, such as those that inevitably spring from government management.

Three kinds of peace

Capitalism relies on voluntarism rather than violence in individual interactions. It also creates cooperative networks that dramatically increase the incentive to get along and raise the cost of conflict, while government intervention does just the opposite. Finally, capitalism allows us to live in harmony despite our different tastes and sometimes conflicting demands for limited resources, while political allocation always forces us to take sides and go to battle against each other. If you want a more peaceful world, promote capitalism.

Happy Easter

Whether or not you follow any of the various religions that celebrate Easter, or other celebrations of rebirth and new life this time of year, there is beauty and power in the symbols that accompany the season.  The emergence from winter’s death and dormancy; the wild, erratic, uneven surge of growth; the sights and sounds and smells are impossible to ignore.  Breath in the Spring air, let it fill your lungs, and contemplate the power of life, creativity and change over death, repression and stasis.

If you are so inclined, enjoy this post about the Christian tradition around this holiday, and what it has to remind about the life-giving power of freedom vs. the violence of political power.

But Who Would Bilk the Roads?

But who would create the long lines in which to wait to be told you have the wrong documents?  Who would build the bridges to nowhere?  Who would pay $300 for a toilet seat?  Who would lose your important items in the mail?  Who would force you to turn off your cell phone while taxiing on the runway?  Who would pay a horseshoer to not shoe horses?  Who would pay a farmer to not grow crops?

Who would encourage the poor to buy education and housing they can’t afford?  Who would encourage workers not to work?  Who would encourage the generous not to give?  Who would encourage the productive to stop producing?

Who would punish the innocent for doing what makes them happy?  Who would subsidize some chemicals and plants and ban others?  Who would perpetuate gang wars across the globe?  Who would encourage and prop up organized crime?  Who would jail sickly grandmothers for seeking natural pain-relief remedies?

Who would incentivise healers not to heal?  Who would force entrepreneurs to become legal experts rather than creators?  Who would create laws sufficient to make everyone a criminal?  Who would artificially raise the price of health care?  Who would artificially lower the price of waste?

Who would prevent people from seeking damages when another pollutes the water?  Who would fail to maintain the forests?  Who would squander the resources?

Who would help well-heeled businesses crush their competition with laws and regulations?  Who would steal half of the production and spend it on stifling the other half?  Who would pay thousands of agents to create thousand of rules to penalize millions of people for making a living and not properly filling out paperwork to classify and justify it all?

Who would force the children into factory schools?  Who would cram bad ideas into their heads?  Who would drive them to near madness with tedium and tyranny controlling their every waking minute?  Who would call it bullying or a disorder when they reacted?  Who would cram pills down their throats when they thought divergently?  Who would lie to them about the value of schooling?  Who would teach them to obey arbitrary authority instead of their own consciences?

Who would force the peaceful to pay for war?  Who would encourage the violent to aggress and call it honorable?  Who would give sanction to racist, hateful tendencies and call it security?  Who would attack the innocent?  Who would build the drones?  Who would man the concentration camps?

Indeed, who would carry out the genocide?  Who would massacre the millions?  Who would force famines?  Who would torture?

Rhetorical Martyrdom, or Self-Defense?

Let’s say someone aggresses against you. You’ve done no wrong and are morally justified in defending yourself with force. You are also morally justified in choosing not to resist, and possibly become a martyr for your non-aggression. Both responses are morally acceptable, but which is more effective at achieving your goals?

If your goal is self-preservation, it might seem defense is the obvious choice. Upon further reflection, the case isn’t so simple. If someone says, “Your wallet or your life”, non-resistance might actually improve your odds of walking away unharmed, even if a little poorer. Even when the aggressor wants your life rather than your money, it is possible a passive countenance might protect you better than defense. If you’re outmatched, firing a few shots in defense only makes your attackers bolder and more aggressive – now you’ve put them on the defensive and they can kill with clearer conscience. Non-resistance, on the other hand, puts the full weight of the action on their shoulders. They must decide to kill a peaceful human being. They may not be able to go through with it. Of course there is no guarantee that willingness to be a martyr will protect you better than self-defense: many times it may be the opposite. It requires reflection and it’s not an easy call.

If your goal is not self-preservation, but changing the world, the decision is no less difficult. Resistance movements and rebellions have played a major role in history. So has martyrdom. Consider the early Christians who peacefully succumbed to torture and death. Consider the peaceful activists in the Jim Crow South. Arguably, nothing did more to further the spread of their ideas than their refusal to defend themselves from physical force. When you are willing to suffer or die for your beliefs, rather than stoop to the level of physical violence, the world takes notice.

Let’s move away from the high stakes realm of life and death and into the world of words.

If you face an unjust rhetorical attack, how do you respond? Defending your ideas may be perfectly acceptable but not always effective. If you watch professional football you sometimes see a player get in a cheap shot after the whistle. If the other player responds with a cheap shot of his own, it is almost always the responder, not the initiator, who gets a penalty. If there is no response, the penalty may go unnoticed, but often the passivity of the victim provides a contrast that makes the perpetrator’s action stand in high relief. He is revealed for the immature thug that he is.

When someone launches an ad hominem against you, or unfairly attacks your ideas in words, you have a choice. Certainly a well-reasoned defense is in order at times, and it can be very effective and very powerful. But perhaps we undervalue the power of non-resistance and even rhetorical martyrdom. Refusing to respond can make the verbal aggressor look like a fool and undermine their credibility. It can make your ideas stand out all the more, and cause observers to wonder why you seem so unshaken; they may want to know more about your beliefs. It can also bring personal peace.

It’s worth considering martyrdom over self-defense from time to time.

The Worst Protection

You feel safe in your neighborhood, but worry about the small chance of a break-in or act of vandalism. To protect yourself from these risks, you pay a security company to look after your house. It costs a little more than you’d like, but you determine it’s worth it.

They put an unarmed guard in front of your house at night, just to keep an eye out. It seems a bit unnecessary, but you rest easier knowing he might deter would be thieves. The guards start coming earlier and staying longer. It seems silly to have them there before sundown, but you ignore it. Soon, they’ve got someone there almost around the clock. Then they send you a bill with a new higher rate for their services. You suggest going back to night only guards, but they assure you this is necessary to protect you, and also tell you the neighborhood is getting a bit more dangerous. You pay.

The next week, not only do they have a guard around the clock, but he’s armed. Then there’s two or three patrolling at a time. Rates go up again. You’ve been hearing more stories about how dangerous the neighborhood is, so you pay. Before long, they have a constant cadre of armed guards patrolling not just your sidewalk, but the whole neighborhood. They start randomly knocking on your neighbors’ doors and searching their houses for anything they might use against you. They set up permanent stations throughout the area, manned 24/7. Guards constantly patrol and conduct random searches, without permission, and occasionally they cage or kill someone. They assure you; there was reason to believe these neighbors had it in for you. It’s a jungle out there. They raise their rates.

Some of your neighbors object. Some devise ways to protect from being searched or bullied. All become suspicious of you, and a little angry. After all, the guards are invoking your name when they do this. The more the neighbors resist or lash out at the guards, the more the company explains just how unsafe you are unless you purchase the latest upgrade. You do. They deploy more street walkers. They pre-emptively kill and cage more neighbors. It seems a fight breaks out every day. Bands of neighbors form for the sole purpose of combatting you and your security team. Their children grow up afraid of you and they hate you, and your children, for it.

The company says more is needed; threats can come from anywhere. Now guards are groping your guests and your children each day before they enter or exit your house. They search your house on occasion, just to be sure your conspiring neighbors don’t have an inside man. They treat you like a suspect on your own property. You pay the new fee with the only credit card you haven’t yet maxed out.

Every day you wake up scared of your neighbors, suspicious of your guests, leery of your own children, and irritated by the guards who may or may not rummage through your belongings. You juggle money around just to keep the lights on, meanwhile the guards roll around in tanks, thanks to your borrowed money. You remind yourself that they’re here to protect you from an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. It’s worth it. Sure, they could cut some costs, but it’s a struggle to convince them of anything, and it’s a little intimidating to try. Besides, what’s a few dollars overspent compared to the imminent danger you’d face if they scaled back too far?

One day it hits you: you’re not safer. You’re paying a lot of money, not to insure you against unlikely violence, but to stir it up. You’re paying to create enemies, not defend against vandalism. You’re paying to be treated not like a customer, but a criminal in your own home. You’ve been ripped off. You have fewer options when it comes to social circles, since you’ve made a lot of enemies. You can’t travel down certain streets, because there your name has become a byword. You’ve learned to fear your neighbors and you’re not really sure why, or what threat they pose except to the guards that harass them.

You fire the company and begin the long task of putting your life back together.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy in the real world. You can’t fire those that provide supposed security. You have to pay, and you have to obey, or else. Don’t be mistaken: just because it’s done on a grander scale and wrapped in a lot of fuzzy feelings and national myths, doesn’t make it different from the neighborhood story above. States are supposed to provide protection; instead they poke people with sticks and incite them to violence.

The United States has enemies. I do not have enemies. There is no one in a far flung place in the world looking at a map and saying, “Here, on the Atlantic coast where the Cooper and Wando rivers come together. The people who have chosen to live on this bit of land are terrible. Let’s invade them. Let’s kill them.” Every international threat to me is a threat to me because I am associated, whether I like it or not, with the United States government.

Acts of terrorism and war are strategic acts. They are intended to pressure the state into changing its policies, or to make it pay for previous policies. Attackers know that the state ultimately responds to the views of its people and the interests that form around it. They attack civilians because they believe it creates impetus for the state to do what they want. We are the pawns in the game of states. We are at risk because we are seen as leverage with which to manipulate the political class.

The state is often defended as necessary to secure individuals against foreign aggression. Yet foreign aggression has no target if there is no state. The state does not make us safer, it makes us less safe. It kills in our name, with our money. It harasses us in our own country in the name of protecting us. It makes us suspicious of people we’d otherwise never know, or know only through Tweets or peaceful commercial interactions. It makes us hated.

The sooner we can forge an identity separate from the states that claim to protect us, the safer we will be. If the state is a kind of security provider, or insurance against international aggression, it’s the worst form of protection I can imagine. You wouldn’t stand for a company that marauded through the neighborhood in your name; you shouldn’t stand for a nation that does either.

The Things That Make for Peace

(Originally posted here.)

“I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” – Psalm 120:7

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” – Luke 19:41-42

“All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.” – Thomas a Kempis

I recently heard praise among churchgoers for the movie, “Act of Valor”, a movie about Navy SEAL’s funded in large part by the Navy itself. (And, judging by the previews, essentially a military recruitment film.)  There is even a Bible study that coincides with the movie and is based on the SEAL code of honor.  I was unexpectedly overcome with grief when it was excitedly mentioned during a church service I attended.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible contrast I had just experienced.  The sermon was on this verse from the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.  And yet here Christians had high praise for a code of conduct espoused by an outfit whose entire purpose is to kill ruthlessly and efficiently.  And not merely to kill, but specifically to kill whoever they are commanded to kill by the political powers in the United States without question.  The very first tenet in the SEAL code of conduct is “Loyalty to Country” which means, in practical terms, obeying the orders of your superiors who are supposed to represent “the country”, however ill-defined the term.

Not only does obedience to the first tenet render obedience to any of the rest impossible, it is unfathomable to me how a Christian could find this a suitable basis for a Bible study intended to make men into better Christians.  The first tenet of this code means, quite plainly, to forsake your own conscience, do not question the morality of your orders, do not seek to understand why you are supposed to be at war with whomever you are told to be at war with, do not investigate whether or not your targets are a genuine threat or deserving of death, but simply pull the trigger.

The Evangelical Church in America today looks very little like a body of Christ followers and more like a body of state and military followers.  American flags grace many a pulpit.  Veterans Day celebrations are common.  Prayers for the success of military ventures are not unheard of.  Calls by politicians and pundits for the use of violence in almost any country for almost any reason will almost always gain the unwavering support of the entire Evangelical community.  Anything – including torture, assassinations, and “collateral damage” – can be excused and even praised if it is done “for the country” and under the stars and stripes.

How did this happen?  Can you imagine Jesus, or Peter or John with Kevlar vests and M-16’s kicking in doors, screaming , and “double-tapping” people in the head before yelling, “All clear!”’ and high-fiving each other?  Can you imagine them dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?  Can you imagine Jesus instructing his followers to study a code of conduct that begins first and foremost with, “Be loyal to the Roman government”?

Not only did Christ and the giants of the Christian faith refuse to aggress against others, no matter how sinful or evil, they even refused to use violence in self-defense and instead chose martyrdom.  When Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword by cutting off the ear of a soldier, Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus did not instruct the disciples to go to the wilderness and train for a few months so they could plan a stealth nighttime assassination of the guards who crucified Him or any who opposed the Way.  He told them to forgive.  To Baptize.  To turn the other cheek.  To submit even to death for the sake of the gospel, rather than resort to violence.  That is a radical message and they lived it.

And yet the Church finds herself cheering for the military and honoring them without questioning what they are doing, who they are killing, why they are doing it, or if it’s right.  Worship of America and the myth of its righteousness have taken the place of any sense of individual moral responsibility on the part of soldiers or those who support them.

I left the church that morning with an immense weight on my soul.  I wept.  I wept because I knew exactly the sentiment expressed by most of the churchgoers that morning.  I used to share it.  I wept as I remembered my bloodlust after 9/11.  I wanted the United States military to kill people.  I wanted bombs to drop and guns to fire.  I wanted somebody to get it, good and hard.  I wanted death.  I wanted war.  I did not want peace.  I felt no love, only hate.

This impulse is perhaps the most human of all impulses.  It is also the very impulse Christ taught us to overcome and demonstrated how to do so by His own example.  Even when others hate, love.

I wept as I saw in my mind’s eye the blood on the hands of nearly every Christian in this country.  How many self-proclaimed followers of Christ have cheered on “the boys in uniform” during every conflict we’ve ever had, including wars of aggression, just because they’re “our countrymen” fighting for “our side”?

What are “the things that make for peace”?  The belief that right and wrong trump nationality and patriotism.  The belief that killing is only ever permissible as a last resort and in self-defense.  An understanding that Congressional or Presidential approval of an action does not make it moral.  That obeying orders is not a virtue unless the orders are virtuous, in which case they should be obeyed because they are right, not because they are orders.  That voluntarily agreeing to kill whomever you are told to kill is not honorable.  That love is better than vengeance.

Before you support any military action, conduct a brief mental experiment: imagine not the US Military, but you as an individual embarking on the mission in question.  In the end it is only individuals who can act and bear moral responsibility for their actions.  Imagine standing before God and saying, “I was only following orders”.

How many churches cheered for war against Iraq?  Yet can you imagine a pastor standing before his church and saying, “For the next six months we are all going to train in explosives and guns, and we are taking a church trip to Iraq to kill bad people and make the world a safer place.”  Who would support it?  In moral terms, it is no different to support taking money from taxpayers to pay soldiers to do the same.  In fact, the latter is in some ways more nefarious and less honest.

Most would argue that there is a difference between unjust violence and just violence – indeed there is.  Some argue there is a difference between just war and unjust war – perhaps there is.  But never in my years of observing church support for state military action have I witnessed a single discussion of whether the action was just or right.  There have been a few discussions of whether it was “Constitutional”, but never whether it was moral.  The morality of war is assumed by the mere fact that the war is waged by the United States Government.

Until the Church in America stops blindly supporting violence done in the name of patriotism, our hands are bloody and our witness is tainted.  We say we are for peace, but we want war.  We say we pray to the Prince of Peace, but we ask him to bless the violence committed by soldiers.  We say “the law is written on our hearts” yet we ignore our hearts and only follow the laws of governments and call what they call right “good”, and what they call wrong “bad”.

In our ignorance, we support violence.  We can cry out, “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.”  But after our eyes are opened and we begin to examine the morality of acts of violence, we will be held accountable for what we know.  I pray we will be willing to oppose violence, even when doing so makes us “unpatriotic” or “un-American”; even when doing so may lead to our own persecution.

“He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself” — C. S. Lewis.

Palm Sunday and Politics

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” Luke 19:41–42

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of, “Hosanna” and cloaks and palm branches thrown on the road before him, it seems it must have been a joyful experience. But instead of taking joy in the cheers of the people, Jesus wept over the city.

I’m no Biblical scholar or Jewish historian, but what little I’ve studied of the Bible and the history of the time suggests that the kind of savior the people expected was not the kind Jesus came to be. And for their misplaced hopes, he felt pain.

When Jesus came into the city that day the people gathered to see him and many began to think he may be the Messiah that had been promised the Jews for hundreds of years. They were under the control of the Roman Empire and its various local puppet governments. Understandably, when the Jews learned the promises of a savior and King in the line of their great king David, they expected a Messiah who would free them from Roman rule.

When Jesus entered the city they waved Palm Branches and shouted, “Hosanna.” History suggests these were significant, even dangerous political gestures. Hosanna was a Hebrew word that meant, “Save, now!” and had a very physical connotation. It was not at that time a cry of spiritual or abstract salvation, but a very real shout for physical salvation, which had specific meaning to a people under Roman rule. The Palm branch was a nationalistic symbol for the Jews, a symbol that had appeared on the last coins made when Israel was free. That is perhaps why the Pharisees told Jesus to “rebuke” his disciples – because to openly praise one they thought came to defy their rulers was politically dangerous.

As the crowd of people saw Jesus entering the city, they saw a political savior; one who might at last rise up and free them from the Romans, and they cheered His arrival. But He wept. He wept because they did not know, “The things which make for peace.” He had not come to free them from physical bondage.

Jesus did not intend to be a political figure. He seemed to largely ignore the Romans, and even saved His criticisms and rebukes not for the political leaders, but for the leaders of His own people; their spiritual leaders. When He taught righteousness it was never backed by force. When He told the rich man to give all he had to the poor the man walked away; Jesus did not force him to obey, but instead let him go. He refused to use earthly law to punish a prostitute by stoning; instead he told her, “Go and sin no more,” and left her free to decide. He did not come to spread his Kingdom with the tools of earthly kingdoms – force and coercion. He did not come to offer political freedom. He came to offer freedom from something much deeper.

To conflate the work of Christ with the work of worldly politics is to miss the meaning of His life, death, and resurrection. To claim that a Christian must vote for a specific policy or politician, that Christians must use government to enforce our morals – to prohibit bad behavior or to force good behavior – is to reduce the work of Christ to the work of a politician. He is not too weak or insignificant for political battles; political battles are too weak and insignificant for Him. The kind of freedom and righteousness He offers is far too great, too personal, to be advanced by physical force (which all politics boils down to); politics is beneath the spiritual life, not above it.

Physical freedom is a worthy goal. Defending oneself from violence and oppression is not immoral. But as a Christian, to use government to enforce the morality you believe in through law, backed up by the agents of the state, is to contradict Christ Himself.

It is that desire to look to Christ as a way to accomplish political goals that made Him weep as He entered Jerusalem. They looked for peace through a political savior; He knew the peace He brought was much deeper and could be had regardless of the physical conditions around them. Politics is force. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that day had been prophesied by Zechariah, who described Him as, “Gentle.”

Let us emulate Him when we attempt to alter the world around us. Let us never forget that the freedom He brings transcends this world, and His peace cannot be attained or spread by force.

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Read the follow-up to this post, Christianity and Freedom.