Feb 7, 2015

Mouw: Can a City with Nice Roads be a Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth?

There We Sat Down and Wept When We Remembered Zion
Here, the great Richard Mouw relates his realization that governments do not arise from the Fall. Along the way, perhaps choosing the wrong foe, he raises a Kuyperian cudgel against William Stringfellow:
During the 1970s, I [Mouw] attended a gathering that focused on “radical discipleship,” and one of the speakers kept describing the United States as given over to “the way of death.” His primary example, of course, was the war being waged in Vietnam—this group was critical of that military operation. He formulated his case theologically by citing William Stringfellow’s argument, quite popular at the time, that the United States was the present-day manifestation of the biblical portrayal of fallen Babylon.
Maybe Stringfellow says this somewhere, but my sense is that Stringfellow never meant to argue that the likeness of a modern nation to Babylon was the result of a specific set of policies (e.g., not being pacifistic or collaterally killing too many civilians in war) but of any policies arising from various national idolatries endemic to modern nation states. A national healthcare system or sewer system could be as Babylonian as militarism if it was an expression of a state's self-deification, an encouragement to the people to believe that the state was the proper object of faith.

As I understand it, Stringfellow's motivation was that, especially with respect to institutions in well functioning societies, we tend to underestimate the Fall. After the Fall, he thought, all human institutions, like individual human persons, are under the power of death. No less than individuals, social institutions are under the rule of death, even if they are doing things that are "life" giving, like feeding themselves and keeping themselves physically safe.

The fact that one individual is "more ethical" than another, in the Pharisaical sense, does not show he is free from the rule of death. A confident reliance on one's own ethical superiority, in the place of faith in God, is in fact a dangerous spiritual condition.

Similarly, the fact that one nation is larger, richer, safer, stronger or more populous than another does not show that it is not Babylonian. Indeed, since those richer, bigger, better functioning nations tend to encourage their subjects to regard the State rather than God as the source of peace and grace, they are very likely to be given over to the root sin of idolatry and, hence, its proximate consequence, death.

Can You Spot the Traffic Lights in Las Vegas?
Anyway, Mouw says he realized the U.S. was not Babylon because of traffic signals, stop signs, speed limits, crossing guards:
As I listened, I was struck by the gap between this un-nuanced rhetorical depiction of the American political system as given over to death dealing and my own experience that week of accompanying our son on his way to school. ... I was especially aware, as a parent concerned for the safety of our son, of the places where there were traffic lights and stop signs. ... I passed another school where a uniformed crossing guard was taking children by the hand to lead them across the street. These things that I had taken special notice of as a concerned parent—traffic signals, stop signs, speed limits, crossing guards—struck me as life-promoting services provided by the government. ... In the light of those services, the passionate denunciation of “the American system” as given over to “a way of death” was evidence of a theological myopia. 
For those too readily convinced by this argument, here's a link to a website selling pamphlets of Nazi-era crossing guards and traffic signals. To conclude that Nazi Germany was not given over to death because of traffic guards and signals seems a stretch. As you can see above, Babylon had good roads but this doesn't mean it wasn't Babylonian. Mussolini had the trains running on time, but he was still a totalitarian. This kind of thinking reminds me of humanistic arguments that men cannot be comprehensively fallen, totally depraved, because they do so many good deeds, produce such great science, make such pretty pictures.

Of course, Mouw is not guilty of such a coarse error. He concludes:
My uneasiness with that kind of [Stringfellowian] perspective was grounded in what I am presenting here as a basic Kuyperian impulse: there is something about government, when it is functioning properly, that fits nicely into God’s basic creating design for human life.
So Mouw doesn't end by concluding that traffic signals show that America is not Babylonian, though I think his rhetoric shades that way. Properly, he concludes only that God's pre-Fall design for government is proportionate (i.e. "fits nicely") with "something" in governments when they are "functioning properly."

The problem with taking this argument too far is plain. "Something" in each thing currently in existence "fits nicely" with God's prelapsarian design, otherwise God would not have brought it into being and sustained it. But we are not thereby entitled to identify certain functions of contemporary governments as free from sin, atavistic leftovers unspoiled from Eden. This would be like our saying that because Adam and Eve ate, drank and were naked before the Fall, therefore, contemporary eating, drinking and nudity is free from sin.

On Mouw's account, Kuyper's account of government as grounded in prelapsarian life was properly cautiously expressed:
Kuyper was not content, however, to restrict the role of government in God’s plan simply to a post-fall function. He insisted that what we experience as political authority under fallen conditions is a manifestation of something already implicit in the original creation design. Kuyper argued in his Stone Lecture on politics that even if the fall had not occurred there would have developed a need for government. Political authority in an unfilled world would not have taken the form of coercive nation-states; rather there would have emerged “one organic world-empire, with God as its King; exactly what is prophesied for the future which awaits us, when all sin shall have disappeared.” Here government is not fundamentally a remedial response to human perversity, but a natural provision for regulating—“ordering”—the complexity of created cultural life.
On Mouw's account, Kuyper only concludes that pre-Fall and post-Fall governments share one function: ordering and regulating life. Even if there had been no Fall, someone would have had to decide which side of the road to drive on. But this does not mean that prelapsarian government and postlapsarian governments are the same, even when they perform the same function: ordering. The critical difference, which Kuyper notes, is that we are governed by "coercive nation-states" whereas without the Fall, there would have been "one organic world-empire, with God as its King."

The difference between God providing order and regulation and any man doing so is as deep and wide as can be. The problem is related to Stringfellow's concern. God has proper political authority. It is right for Him to rule. Man lacks natural, inherent political authority and when any man claims natural priority over his brothers, he tends to idolize himself. Here's how Milton's angel Michael relates the rise of Nimrod, first king of Babylon, in Paradise Lost, 12.25 ff.:
                                         ... one shall rise
Of proud ambitious heart, who not content
With fair equality, fraternal state,
Will arrogate dominion undeserved
Over his brethren, and quite dispossess
Concord and law of nature from the earth;
Hunting (and men not beast shall be his game)
With war and hostile snare such as refuse
Subjection to his empire tyrannous:
A mighty hunter thence he shall be styled
Before the Lord: that is, in despite of heaven
 Adam replies, 12.63 ff.:
Oh execrable son so to aspire
Above his brethren, to himself assuming
Authority usurped, from God not given:
He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but man over men
He made not lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free.
But this usurper his encroachment proud
Stays not on man; to God his tower intends
Siege and defiance: wretched man!...
If by natural law, in the older sense of the Roman jurists, no man has political right over man, then even if the ordering functions of prelapsarian and postlapsarian governments are the same, the action of political rule is essentially different. When God orders man, it is an action of right. When man orders man, even if he does so in exactly the way God would have, it is an action violating natural law because man has no fundamental right of dominion over man.

Focusing on the issue of man ruling over man in the place of God, Milton has Michael conclude that government arises from God's postlapsarian judgment on man, 12.78 ff.:
Since thy original lapse, true liberty
is lost, which always with right reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the government
From reason and to servitude reduce
Man till then free. Therefore since he permits
Within himself unworthy powers to reign
Over free reason, God in judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthral
His outward freedom: tyranny must be,
Though to the tyrant thereby no excuse.
I think reading Milton with Mouw improves both.

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