Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Tyranny of the Righteous: Part One

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Phil 2:3-8)

“There’s nothing more dangerous in all the world than a Presbyterian fresh off his knees!” The remark is most often attributed to King Charles I (1600-1649) of England. Although there is no scholarly evidence that he ever said it, the quote well encapsulates His Majesty’s well-known frustration with the Moral Majority of his day. Another seventeenth-century wag did write that he would rather meet coming against him “a whole regiment with drawn swords than one Calvinist convinced he is doing the will of God.”

Charles was an intensely high-principled but ham-fisted monarch who found himself constantly at odds with his Scottish homeland, controlled by Presbyterians, and an equally inflexible English Parliament, packed with Puritans. Talk about being a lion in a den of Daniels! What the King found so galling and frustrating about these religious zealots was not only that they were always refusing to let him have his way, but also that they were convinced they were always right and that God was on their side. “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good,” writes the apostle Paul (Gal 4:18). Yet unalloyed with humility, religious zeal can be as deadly a force as anarchy.

Unfortunately, being “right” in one’s religious doctrine does not necessarily make one a pleasant person, nor does it automatically make one right about everything else. There is something about religious pride that stinks to everyone but the stinker. There was a time when Christianity demanded humility and sacrificial service. It was our Lord himself who announced, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” and “Whoever wants to be great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all“ (Lk 9:23; Mk 10:43-44).

One wonders if abortion, same-sex marriage, lack of prayer in schools, or any of the other deadly sins on the evangelical hit list these days will prove to be quite so poisonous to our society in the long run as our own pride and arrogance as Christians. Humility was once held to be a hallmark Christian virtue. Yet in the case of those who strive to unite spiritual and temporal power, it is often in short supply. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prv 16:18).

Examining the surge of fundamentalism as a phenomenon in other world religions, as well as our own, we quickly see certain commonalities. (I speak of fundamentalism as a dynamic force, rather than a body of doctrine.) Fundamentalism convinces itself that it is always right and that therefore God must be on its side. It seeks to dominate or squelch all dissent or diversity and to exclude rather than to include others. We would do well to spurn these unholy tendencies if we wish to avoid the mistakes of the past. (Of course, as the philosopher Hegel wrote, the one thing we learn from history is that we do not learn anything from history.)

Fundamentalism, however, does not limit itself to places of worship, but eventually seeks to exercise control in the political sphere as well. Note the difference between Christians who wish to influence politics and those who try to dominate or control it.

In his book Our Endangered Values, former President Jimmy Carter warns that

During the last quarter century there has been a parallel right-wing movement within American politics, often directly tied to the attributes of like-minded Christian groups. The revolutionary new political principles involve special favors for the powerful at the expense of others, abandonment of social justice, denigration of those who differ, failure to protect the environment, attempts to exclude those who refuse to conform, a tendency toward unilateral diplomatic action and away from international agreements, an excessive inclination toward conflict, and reliance on fear as a means of persuasion.[i]

A wise man once opined, “I would rather be humble than right.” When you are humble, you at least know that you don’t know everything and you seek God for what is right. But being right without humility can lead to pride, inflexibility, intolerance, bigotry, and a host of other demons. (Yes, of course, it is best to be both humble and right.)

The English Puritans dreamed of building a perfect commonwealth where godliness reigned. The trouble was, once they had power, they could not cooperate among themselves long enough to do much nation building. The greatest source of their conflict was the interpretation of the very thing that should have united them: the Bible. They could not move forward, for they could not agree on what it said. They did manage to issue a ban on Christmas celebrations (too popish, they said), and of course the king’s head was removed from his body (an operation which severely impeded his ability to govern wisely). Politicians rarely agree with one another, but add to this a layer of religious zeal and you have an intoxicating brew sure to produce either anarchy or gridlock in its most violent form.

There was one “mad” seventeenth-century English faction (called Levellers) who envisioned a nation built upon a constitution, which would guarantee certain natural rights, such as freedom of worship, due process, and no taxation without consent of the governed. They resisted religious language in their manifestos since they claimed the Bible gave no clear model for civil government. The Puritan Parliament, whose sympathies were staunchly with the moneyed interests, had no patience with such radicalism. Those Levellers who were not shot were quickly neutralized.

With few exceptions, history shows that Christians have been little better, if not worse, in governing than their secular counterparts. Obtaining power (if that is what you seek) does nothing to check pride, ambition, arrogance, greed, ignorance, bigotry, and stupidity. On the contrary, it seems to give these forces an open outlet.

“I would rather have a smart Turk as my king than a dumb Christian” is a quote long misattributed to Martin Luther. Dr. Luther probably would never have made such a statement, especially with the Ottomans breathing on the gates of Vienna, but the reformer did strongly believe in a separation of powers, or two kingdoms. For him it was not the business of civil government to enforce conformity to Christianity or to enter into matters of the soul. As an Augustinian, Luther embraced St. Augustine’s theology of the two cities (the City of God and the City of Man).

In Geneva John Calvin, too, passionately opposed the fusion of church and empire. Both reformers were reacting to two extremes. The first was the Pope’s claim to be the inheritor of the imperium of the old Roman empire in the West, an assertion based on a spurious medieval document purporting to be Constantine’s conferring of such power on Pope Sylvester I in the fourth century. The second was the teaching of certain radical Anabaptist groups who regarded all temporal authority as evil and thus irrelevant for Christians. Both Luther and Calvin attempted to find some rational middle ground, whereby Christians could be in the world but not of it.

As theologian N.T Wright notes, in stating that his “kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36), Christ refers to the nature of his tactics, not to some “pie in the sky.”[ii] His kingship and power are of God and therefore work in a way opposite to the prevailing world system: it is through his emptying himself, his humbly taking up the role of servant, and ultimately, the foolishnesss of his death on a cross, that he will triumph. As such his words are a sharp rebuke of the Sadducees’ and Pilate’s worldly exercise of force.

Little wonder that the great heroes and heroines of the faith were men and women of little account, poor, oppressed, and meek. The reward they sought was not in this life, and the kingdom they looked for was in another place. Does that mean Christians should not seek to influence their culture or politics? On the contrary.

St. Francis of Assisi sought no political power; he had no worldly agenda. He never served in office or claimed any titles, other than Il Poverello (the Poor Little Fellow). Yet, by simply selling all his possessions and devoting his life to the poorest of the poor, he sparked a spiritual revolution that revived the church throughout Europe, as well as reforming society and government. Kings and cardinals bowed before him and later coveted his bones. He just had the unmitigated temerity to take Jesus at his word and to follow the example of the Master. Some nerve.

Pope Innocent III was Francis’ contemporary and his reluctant patron. One cannot imagine a more striking contrast. Born into one of Italy’s brutal, power-brokering families, Innocent envisioned a papacy that united both spiritual and temporal power. He dreamed of being both Caesar and Pope. There was not a throne or royal marriage bed in Christendom over which he did not try to establish his jurisdiction; there was not a state that he did not wish to reduce to a papal fief. When he died unexpectedly in Perugia at age fifty-five, his body lay in state temporarily in that city’s Duomo, until thieves broke in during the night, stripped His Holiness’ corpse of vestments, regalia, jewels, everything, and left it on the floor naked and stinking. As one bishop, an eyewitness, later sermonized understatedly, “…I entered the church and understood, through the eyes of faith, how brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world!”[iii]

Ironically, today, St. Francis, who sought neither titles nor power, is venerated by millions, his mortal remains surrounded by a majestic Gothic basilica built in his honor, while Innocent’s lie over the entrance to the Lateran Basilica souvenir shop, whose patrons rarely look up as they pass beneath with their postcards and snowglobes of the Vatican. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Try as they might, the Puritans in Parliament and in Cromwell’s New Model Army had one liability that proved a veritable hoodoo: they never secured the love of the common people, who did not like them and never would. Cancelling Christmas certainly did not help. In lieu of their current political agenda, conservative Christians would do well to follow our Lord’s example and seek to influence government and society more through unceasing prayer, sacrificial acts of charity, moral example, and fighting against poverty and injustice than through political power-grabbing. The latter only makes us hated.

The great American orator and agnostic Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) once noted prophetically,

Churches are becoming political organizations… It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave. All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe, and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition. All laws defining and punishing blasphemy…were passed by impudent bigots, and should be at once repealed by honest men. An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself, without going in partnership with State Legislatures.[iv]

During the English Revolution, the Puritan poet John Milton (1608-74), used his vast literary and linguistic gifts in the republican cause. In numerous polemical pamphlets he supported not only the revolution but also the execution of the King. For the poet, the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth was a frustrating and heart-breaking conclusion to decades of hard work.

At the end of his epic poem Paradise Lost (1674), published, not coincidentally, after the Parliament had rejected the Good Old Cause and restored the monarchy, Adam surveys a devastated Creation, brought about by his sin:

Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,

And love with feare the onely God, to walk

As in his presence, ever to observe

His providence, and on him sole depend,

Merciful over all his works, with good

Still overcoming evil, and by small

Accomplishing great things, by things deemd weake

Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise

By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake

Is fortitude to highest victorie,

And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;

Taught this by his example whom I now

Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest. (XII.561-573)

Milton wrote part of his poem while on the lam from agents of the restored monarchy. One can see in this final epiphany the disillusioned but unrepentant poet, painfully scanning the wreckage of the republic, while also summoning hope that, for humble people of faith, great things can still be accomplished, even without holding the reins of worldly power.


[i] Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 43-44.

[ii] N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the State,” Themelios, 16:1 (1990), 13.

[iii] Baron Jules de Saint-Genois, Sur des Lettres Inédites de Jacques de Vitry, Évêque de Saint-Jean-d’Acre, Cardinal et Légat du Pape, Écrites en 1216, (Académie Royale de Belgique, 1847), 30.

[iv] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Some Mistakes of Moses” (1879), in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, (New York: Dresden Publishing, 1915), vol 2, 33.


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