So sorry, everybody, I didn’t get a chance to look at the news on January 6.
I was busy listening to Dallas Willard’s two absolutely magnificent lectures at the first Oikonomia Network faculty retreat in 2013, just before he died, in which he explained why a social order that defines human flourishing as getting what you want – “the satisfaction of our natural desires” – cannot ultimately value anything other than power, and is doomed inevitably to collapse into a bottomless pit of politically mobilized selfish resentments, and that the only escape from comprehensive social catastrophe is an authentic public discipleship to Jesus Christ that shows the world that real human flourishing is not the power to satisfy our natural desires, it’s the presence and provision of God as our shepherd.
Did I miss anything?
Believe it or not, Dallas actually said this, in 2013:
You heard it here first, folks.
If you want to understand the current crisis in the American experiment in religious freedom, human rights, constitutional democracy, equality and freedom under the rule of law, dignity for women and an entrepreneurial economy – which are not quite identical terms, but logic and experience both indicate they are a package deal, and will in general stand or fall together – there really is no better voice to hear than Dallas’ inimitable Missouri lilt in these two incisive lectures. Drawing upon and distilling centuries’ worth of wisdom from the Christian knowledge tradition as well as insightful contemporaries, Dallas explains why our national ship is sailing straight toward the waterfall, and how public discipleship to Christ can draw it back before it goes over.
Economic Wisdom and Human Flourishing, Part One:
Economic Wisdom and Human Flourishing, Part Two:
If you prefer a written version, Dallas and collaborator Gary Black adapted the lectures into an outstanding book, The Divine Conspiracy Continued, published posthumously.
The Bipartisan Triumph of Desire over Law
Of course, the bloodthirsty triumph of desire over law is not confined to the right wing. I live five miles from downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, and my community is going to take years to rebuild from the scars of last August. Now, one thing that became clear to me as I watched the events on the ground at the time was that the peaceful protesters marching in my city by day were multiracial and mostly local, while the unlawful violence carried out at night was performed by hands distinctly paler and mostly from out of town. (One enterprising group of violence tourists had actually chartered a bus here from their previous vacation destination in Portland; they were filling up canisters with gasoline at a gas station just off the highway when the FBI nicked the whole busload of them.) Moreover, the damage in Kenosha fell disproportionately on communities of color.
But the people who burned my city and the people who desecrated my national capitol are just eating two different flavors of the same demonic candy Dallas warned us about.
The American experiment is still just that, an experiment, which implies it can fail. I am far from thinking that it must fail. But we do not yet know how it is possible for it to succeed in the face of its inherent challenges, which Dallas diagnosed with such agonizing precision in 2013, and which now explode on our screens daily. (That we do not know how to make it succeed is also implied by the fact that it is an experiment; otherwise, it would no longer be experimental.)
Our law has failed us, for our law reflects our character. One especially disappointing turn of events here last August was when the Kenosha police were caught on video giving validation and encouragement to right-wing vigilantes who were spoiling for a fight with the left-wing violence tourists. In a culture where flourishing means getting what you want, the law is increasingly a sham.
In our hearts, we have not learned how to say “no” to our natural desires – or, as Dallas put it, “either ‘no’ or a firm ‘not yet.’” For with a merely natural definition of human flourishing – getting what you want, having the power to satisfy your desires – it is logically impossible to justify the subordination of your desires to a law that stands outside them. One desire (for a cupcake) can be subordinated to another desire (to lose weight), but law cannot transcend desire. In the long run, we worship power for its own sake.
As the law becomes more and more obviously a sham, people take the law into their own hands, which only makes everything worse. When people take the law into their own hands, they almost instantly become exactly what they hate, and turn viciously upon the people whose cause they have sworn to champion. Right-wingers in D.C.’s capitol building took the law into their own hands, chanting “Blue Lives Matter!”, and beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher. Left-wingers in Seattle’s autonomous zone took the law into their own hands, chanting “Black Lives Matter!”, and brutally murdered an unarmed black teenager.
There Are No Viable Solutions without Credible Leadership
Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. The lives of insurrectionists and rioters who murder them, some of whom carry badges, also matter. But to protect life and do justice, we need a real law – a law that is something other than a mere cover story for the assertion of rapacious desire by one faction or the other.
Who will save us from this body of death?
What America needs most, humanly speaking, is credible leadership. We have plenty of leaders whose authority is accepted within their own particular social faction or subgroup. But we have virtually none who have credibility that is broader than mere loyalty to the tribe.
The incompetent management of the pandemic, our inability to enact criminal justice reform despite bipartisan desire for it, our burning cities and our broken capitol – all our crises point to the same need.
We need individuals and institutions able to stand up and say, “the public good requires us to do X,” and be widely believed.
Which leads me to Conan the Barbarian.
If you have not yet seen it, please invest eight minutes of your life in this sobering personal testimony from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
No one will fail to be moved by Schwarzenegger’s account of the bitter aftermath of fascism in Austria, among the ordinary people who discovered, too late, that they lacked the character to refrain from collaborating. And he has obviously mastered the use of symbols that have powerful emotional resonances to inspire right sentiment in support of right reason. You ought not to snigger when he holds up Conan’s sword; crass as it is, if that’s what works to inspire the people who don’t already believe this message and need to hear it, we would be foolish to turn up our noses out of snobbery.
The World Cannot Provide Credible Leaders for Itself
But we need a sword sharper than Conan’s to cut our Gordian knot. Conan’s sword cannot escape its legacy. It is the sword whose owner’s most famous moment is his declaration that the apex of human flourishing is “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women” – the philosophy that stormed the seat of American government on January 6.
We need not a barbarian’s sword, but the sword of the Spirit – the spoken and incarnate Word of God.
And you can’t just snap your fingers and conjure up the Spirit when you need him.
Schwarzenegger invokes his upbringing in the Christian faith, pointing out that we desperately need political leaders who live up to its standard of “a servant’s heart.” Upon hearing that, I can’t have been the only viewer who instantly recalled how dramatically Schwarzenegger himself failed to live up to that standard when he was a political leader himself. For the entirety of his eight-year tenure as governor of California, Schwarzenegger continued to employ in the home he shared with his wife a housekeeper with whom he had fathered a child.
That does not disqualify Schwarzenegger from having something to contribute now. But the absence of even a token gesture toward admitting that he is not necessarily the ideal person to hold up this standard did make a deafening noise.
I don’t want to rub anyone’s nose in old failures. But we need leaders who have credibility to lead us out of the dead end that the American experiment currently finds itself in. They aren’t going to be able to do it merely with rhetoric about “a servant’s heart” – however well polished it is – just because we suddenly realize that’s what we need to pull our constitutional bacon out of the fire.
They need to actually have servant’s hearts.
The sword of the Spirit is forged not by blacksmiths but by the fire of the Lord. Tolkien called it “the secret fire,” and there’s something to that. But there’s also something to knowing a tree by its fruit.
A Really Higher Education: The Slow Things Are the Important Things
Let’s put it another way. We need swords to defend the innocent and uphold the law. But we need credible leaders to wield those swords. And credible leaders aren’t made by using swords.
From the moment you pick up a sword, you are spending your credibility, not accumulating it.
Credible leaders are made by using ploughshares.
As I said in my closing talk at Karam Forum 2017: The slow things are the important things. The crises that engulf advanced modern civilization seem to spring up overnight, and destroy the moral order of centuries in a day. But this is an illusion.
The church’s failure over the past few centuries to engage in the long, slow, patient work of plowing and pruning the Lord’s vineyard – cultivating authentic, self-sacrificial discipleship and a missional public life for the church – is the primary underlying cause of all our political, economic, social and cultural crises. There is a clear logic to the simultaneous decay of religious freedom, human rights, constitutional democracy, equality and freedom under the rule of law, dignity for women and an entrepreneurial economy. These all spring from a presumption of moral character, and that is a vineyard we have neglected to plow.
(Yes, yes, okay, that’s not actually a plow behind me on the Karam Forum stage, it’s a seeder – a tool for planting seeds in straight lines. You get the point.)
So, yes, as a matter of immediate policy, the United States does need to use its (very considerable) swords to defend the law – above all, its supreme law, the Constitution – from the lawless desires of both right and left, both rioters and insurrectionists, both abusive cops and destructive anarchists.
And, yes, for the reasons related so clearly and forcefully by Dallas in 2013, the people of God are responsible to be front and center defending the civil law against lawless desire.
Especially those who have accepted the calling to act as what Dallas calls “spokespersons for Christ.” This is not some separate activity for those who specialize in “social action.” This is core to what “the ministry of proclamation” is supposed to proclaim, at least if the gospel is something more than just an abstract set of propositions – if Jesus is not a theory but a living person who really acts and transforms lives within time-space history. The local church can be a detached and disinterested intellectual study group, or it can be the embassy of an invisible kingdom.
But all swordplay will be futile – is already becoming futile – without a long-term investment in ploughshares.
What Should We Do in the Face of This Crisis?
The most important thing we can do for our country now is redouble our efforts to raise up a new generation of leaders who are rooted in the soil of God’s Word, written and incarnate, and fruitful in good works for God’s world. Only such a generation will have the credibility to build and maintain a social order worth defending.
The time has not yet come for beating swords into ploughshares. That comes later. But the time has come, and long past time, for the long, slow, patient work of authentic discipleship – raising up credible leaders for God’s people and God’s world.
The slow things are the important things.
So to those in the Oikonomia Network who have asked me, “what should we do in the face of this crisis?”, I answer: Keep your hand on the plow, and keep trusting God for the fruit.
May the Lord bless the labor of our schools for the coming generation, and preserve our Constitution long enough for the coming generation to take up the American experiment and carry it on after us.
“And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward.” (II Kings 19:30)
Keep up the good work, ON. It’s an honor to labor alongside you.