Friday, February 12, 2010


In an irony unappreciated and probably unforeseen, Europe finds itself on the cusp of revolution as faith in its governments and financial institutions erodes. Bureaucratic officaldom, with its panoply of strangulating regulations, suffocation of entreprenuerial ambitions and onerous taxation has at last revealed the utter barreness of socialist philosophy and practice of the last century.

Europes' governments are ossified--dead skeletons devoid of the flesh which once enabled their animation. Socialism, once a chief driving force behind governmental change, has, once firmly established, killed Europe. The continent which fed the religious, philosophical and political thought that was to revolutionize the West, including the United States, now finds itself paralyzed and on the verge of societal breakdown.

Looking at the situation today, it is hard to recall that Europe had a long history of revolutions that were fought in order that more just and equal societies be formed; societies in which the governments paid heed to the people they ruled. When the governments failed to take notice of the governed, revolutions followed--uprisings of the people like the Revolution of 1848.

While we may be more familiar with the French Revolution of 1789, in which the ancien regime was repudiated by a enraged and disenfranchised populace, the Revolution of 1848 has an eerie resemblance to the current situation in Europe. It also holds lessons for the contemporary political scene in our own United States.

One observer of the political scene of 1848 was the great Alexis de Toqueville, who wrote he believed the major cause of the revolution of '48 was the hostility the working class felt toward the ruling bourgeoisie, who were seen as remote, uncaring and privileged as the aristocracy of France before 1789.

Though a constitutional monarchy had been put in place after the Napoleonic era, the class of people who replaced the old aristocracy were just as unconcerned as the ancien regime was concerning the fate of the people it represented. The people were not heard because they could not participate in political life. They were completely excluded. Once again, it was as if the people did not exist.

Tocqueville realized the government could not retain its legitimacy if society at large was not included in the government, for the public would see their rulers as "incapable and unworthy to rule them." He concluded, "Society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror."

The result? Because the public saw no peaceful way to make their voice heard or to change things, revolution followed.

Today in Europe, 1848 is about to be revisited, and dress rehearsals for revolution have already begun.

But perhaps even more importantly, conditions in our own country resemble those which presaged the European Revolution of 1848 and what in the future may be termed the European Revolution of 2010.

For our country, too, is presently governed by a dynastic, aristocratic government ruled by those who exclude by attitude, policy, directives and commands the very people they are supposed to represent.

Our government is no longer a republic. It is dynastic in character and behavior. The elevation of a ruling executive branch has been accompanied by mastasticizing cancers revealing themselves in endless, deadly and suffocating permutations such as countless agencies, departments, czars, executive orders, and special interest groups.

Our government has become the equivalent of a monstrous and bloated aristocracy.

Term limits have no particular meaning as career politicians are re-elected time and again, thanks to gerrymandering, pandering to special interest groups which pour in monies for re-election, and pork barrel projects which keep their various constitutencies placated.

Corruption is rampant as government officals help themselves to largess while the public, present and future, groans under excessive taxation which destroys personal initiative and dooms future generations to inherited burdens which vitiate the life of the country. Meanwhile, as our legislators contemplate legislation that garners yet more power over the public, they vote themselves privileges only an aristocratic few could dream of. To cite just two: Luxurious pensions guaranteeing full salaries until death and cadillac medical plans stand in stark contrast to the meager and rapidly disappearing social security and universal (and minimal) health care doled out to the unwashed masses.

Meanwhile, the president and congress agree to ever expanding debt to finance an ever expanding bureaucracy which parasitically feeds off the productivity of the very people it taxes, exploits and ignores.

As if the above were not outrageous enough, when the people petition and write letters, they are ignored.

When the people ask questions and get angry at evasiveness and downright refusal to answer, they are characterized as unruly, ignorant mobs.

When the people peacefully march on Washington by the hundreds of thousands, they are maliciously slandered.

When the people protest against unpopular legislation, they are ignored as a small elite decides in closed chambers what is best for the people.

In sum, the situation in the United States today is very like that of Europe before the Revolution of 1848. Our elected rulers are no longer representing the society they govern.

The United States has become what Tocqueville described: It is a society cut in two.

The result is that new conservative movements and organizations are sprining up all over the United States. The people want a government that hears and responds to them.

As in Europe as well as in the United States, a revolution is brewing. A shaking of national foundations is already happening.

Thus far, the peoples of Europe and America are seeking peaceful change through the ballot box and reformation of political parties.

But if history proves anything, it is this: If governments continue to be deaf, continue to refuse to respond, continue to remain brittle skeletons, it can be predictably be said that more violent eruptions of the public disaffection will transpire.

Let us hope and pray our leaders and those of Europe do not wait to act until blood is in the streets.

Part II: The Resistance

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Dividing Line: Part I

One of the most famous incidents in the life of Jesus Christ is found in the chronicle compiled by his disciple and friend Matthew.

Some Pharisees, accompanied by Herodians, conspired together--as they often did--to trap Jesus, seeking to put him by his own words in an untenable position with the people and the Roman government.

The Pharisees, it should be mentioned, were fiery nationalists who were adamantly opposed to Roman hegemony and who, though quiescent but seething under Roman rule during Jesus' day, had in past times fought wars against Hellenization and the influence of Rome. The Herodians, as their name indicates, supported the reigning house of Herod and their role in ruling for Rome.

Both parties saw Jesus as an enemy to their authority and wanted to discredit him in the eyes of the people, who were attracted to Jesus' message and healing powers, and who were sick of Herod and the Pharisees, both of whom burdened the populace with myriad rules and regulations as well as with onerous taxes.

The co-conspirators came up with a question they thought would be a perfect trap, one that would get rid of Jesus influence one way or another: "Tell us, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"

If Jesus said, "No, don't pay your taxes," the Herodians would report him to the Roman authorites and he would be crucified for treason. If he said, "Yes, pay your taxes," the nationalist Pharisees would denounce him as a traitor to the Jewish nation.

Matthew goes on to relate, "But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them,"Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's"

Matthew relates the "When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away."

The portrait on the denarius, one of the most common coins of that day, was that of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus, who like his predecessor Caesar Augustus, claimed to be a god. Tiberius' divine person represented the entirety of the Roman government. The coin and the taxes paid with it were a statement of absolute governmental authority over all of life.

As the story is often interpreted, Jesus was simply making a statement about citizens' obligation to pay taxes.

But there is a much deeper interpretation of the story, for the distinction Jesus made between what is owed the government and what is owed God strikes at the very heart of the absolutism represented by Tiberius and Rome as well as at the heart of any and every absolutist state, ancient or modern. To put it succinctly, Jesus put the Kingdom of God and the individual Christian conscience above earthly authority even as he gave earthly government legitimacy while limiting its authority.

It is difficult for us to apprehend the magnificence and profoundity of Jesus' words, but Lord Acton of Great Britain summarized the impact of Jesus' words in his great lecture The History of Freedom in Antiquity. He wrote:

"...when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to Liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome, before the knowledge of the Truth that makes us free."

As Lord Acton noted in his essay, never before in human history were there effectual means to limit governmental authority. Never before had the bounds of government been restrained or even defined except as rulers defined the bounds.

Even today, with many of the foundations of Western civilization weakened; even with the morally odious regimes of the twentieth century still fresh in our minds, it is difficult for us in the free countries of the West to comprehend the brutality and savagery of the absolutism of ancient Roman rulers. The metallic profile of Tiberius on the coin given Jesus didn't speak aloud of the emperor's horrible cruelties and odious, corrupt perversions. He had no moral restraints, as his contemporary chroniclers Suetonius and Tacitus noted. What transpired on the island of Capri, Tiberius' pleasure ground, still has the capacity to shock even the most jaded among us. But such are the prerogatives of a ruler who knows neither the restraint of conscience or the restraint of others.

Jesus, by the example of his life and work and by his response to both political and religious absolutism, and the reign of absolute and arbitrary prerogative of ruler "gods", put in place the chief restraint on governments and their rulers: the "New Law", a spiritual verity asserting the primacy of loyalty to individual conscience molded to faith in God. In each human heart, there is an inviolate space which earthly government may not control; a pristine tract of heart on which Government dare not trample without crushing the human longing for true freedom.

For the person who answers ultimately to his conscience before God alone, there is a dividing line no government or ruler can pass. Everything within such a person shouts, "You shall not pass!"

Where that dividing line lies, and who must be resisted if it is violated, free men and free women must decide in each and every age since Christ defined that line.

For there will always be those who out of desire for power and control; out of evil antagonism toward the good and beautiful; out of rage against those who will not at a command bend the knee, will seek to trangress, and even to eradicate that thin, but strong dividing line.

Let us hope and pray there also will always be strong men and women who will rise up to hold the line.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Good American: John Omar Stolzfus

It's a good thing my practical sister was with me when my car broke down on Rt. 896 somewhere near Oxford, as she was the one with the working cell phone. The rattling of the engine had turned to a groaning whine, and smoke was pouring out of the hood, so even I knew something was wrong. I pulled over to the side of the road.

Nina and I got out of the car and I called AAA, and a nice guy on the line told me a tow truck would come to rescue us in about a half hour.

A short time after I pulled over, a kind young man stopped and asked if we needed help. I told him AAA was on the way and thanked him. He drove off and returned shortly with an orange road cone, placing it behind the car.

"You know," he said with concern, "this road is really busy and you aren't quite far enough off the road, so this will help alert the cars coming by."

He waved goodbye and departed.

"My goodness, " I said to Nina with surprise written on my face, "what a nice thing to do."

I thought, why, in Philadelphia I could have been road kill and three thousand drivers would have rocketed by without so much as a glance.

"Yes, it was," said Nina. A few moments passed. "I need to use the bathroom, and I'm really getting cold!"

"So do I," I responded. "I wish there were someone at home in that house behind us so we could use the bathroom and get warm. But I don't see any lights on."

We both turned to watch for the promised tow truck, stamping our feet and rubbing our gloved hands together to keep warm. Suddenly we heard a voice behind us.

"Why don't you ladies come inside the house to get warm?"

We turned to see a kindly, smiling face and then looked at each other with astonishment and relief.

"'OK, " we chorused, rubbing our frozen hands together. "How nice of you."

The kindly face smiled again. "This way," he said. "I have a fire going in our new fireplace. It will warm you up in no time."

With only a slight hesitation in the back of our minds, a hesitation born of long years of city suspicions, we went in and sat by the fire and chatted. The nice man's name was John Omar Stolzfus. He had an American farmer's story to tell. He and his family had owned and farmed the land his house was sitting on for generations. Although he himself did not toil on the land, he sold seed and fertilizer.

"Farming is a good business to be in," he said. "It's feast or famine sometimes, but it's good to rely on sunshine and rain, good to see crops grow, to feed people."

He told us about his family. His two sons had chosen other careers. One was a pilot and the other was into computer programming. But his two nephews had continued the work on the farm. I could see he was glad the family tradition was being maintained.

I could see he was proud of his thick stone walled house, built by strong hands long ago. The worn, comfortable furniture also told me the wealth and pride of this family was in the land. They loved and cherished the land.

But most of all, I could see this kindly, gentle Mennonite was a good man. A good American. A God fearing American.

I thought to myself with inner rage and sorrow about the trashing our country's elite had given this man and others like him, characterizing them as clinging to "religion and guns," calling them "racist." I thought of the constant sneers directed toward faith, patriotism, loyalty to his wife and children. I thought of the arrogance and hubris of those who would tear down every vestige of faith if they could.

The tears came to my eyes.

Later, safely ensconced in Nina's car, which her husband Jim had driven out to pick us up, I said to them, "You know, I am so filled with anger at the likes of our president and his administration for the way they have spoken of people like John Stoltzfus. John Stoltzfus and others like him are the salt of the earth. They are good Americans."

I remembered when much more of the country was filled with people like John Stoltzfus. I guess it's called "flyover country" now by the elite of the East and West. But some of my sharpest memories come from flyover country.

I remembered when I was in Hull, Iowa. I lost my purse. I had everything in it. I thought I'd never see it again, but the next day it was returned to me by a big, tall guy wearing cowboy boots and hat.

"I heard you are Bill's sister-in-law visiting from out East, so I knew where you were and I wanted to return this to you." Of course, everything was still in it, down to the last penny.

I remembered when we walked down town, men tipped their hats and the women all smiled and said, "Hi, how you doing?"

I remembered the stronget expletive I heard was "Golly."

I remembered the biggest scandal in Hull centered around a beer can thrown in the middle of Main Street.

But most of all, I remembered Hull was filled with good, kindly country and small town people like John Stolzfus; people who cared about other people and took to heart the parable of the good Samaritan; people of deep faith; and, yes, people who sometimes carried guns and hunted.

And like John Stolzfus, when they did a kind deed, they expected no thanks, no money, no further thought about it.

They were just good Americans.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lessons from King Solomon for America

King Solomon's wisdom was legendary; so legendary that he attracted a visit from the Queen of Sheba, who had heard about his incredible wealth, fame and knowledge. To this day, Ethiopians claim their royal line descends from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There remains a lot of curiosity concerning Solomon and Sheba and their heir.

There has been considerably less curiosity about Solomon's method of governance and the rebellion which took place shortly after he died.

But Solomon's reign and that after him hold lessons for us today which are just as fascinating and perhpas consderably more important than the story of him and the Queen of Sheba.

The truth of the matter is that Solomon's profligacy, his tax and spend policies, and his dictatorial realignment of government led Israel into bankruptcy and to the eventual split of the kingdom.

Solomon, who like most Mesopotamian rulers, had a deep love of luxury and a yen for huge building projects which drained the treasury and squandered his country's wealth. His massive building program and out of control expenditures, both of which involved a symbolic and real extension of governmental control over the Israeli people, led to the abuse of the Israel citizenry and a complete reconstruction of the way things had formerly been governed.

In order to construct his vast building projects, Solomon resorted to conscripting forced labor. Som 150,000 conscripts worked on his projects. In order to procure the rarities he deemed necessary for his splendid temples and mansions, he went into debt to such countries as Phoencia. In order to pay his debts to the king of Phoenecia, he sent 30,000 Hebrews slave laborers into that country to pay off what Israel owed. Human capital was sold to build lavish palaces for himself and his vast retinue of courtiers and concubines. In some ways, he was the Hebrew equivalent of Louis XIV.

In order to pay for the cedars of Lebanon which were used for the beams of Solomon's palaces, he contracted to pay King Hiram 125,000 bushels of wheat and 1,200,000 gallons of oil per annum. When the tax he extracted from Israel's farmers proved too much for them to pay, he sold off some of Israels's real estate to foreign powers. Some 20 Israeli towns were given over to foreign dominion.

Worse, the tribal league which had served as Israel's chief means of governance was abolished. In its place twelve administrative districts were established. A centralized governmental bureaucracy replaced local governance.

Most Israelites did not complain too much about Solomon's rule, for he established a military machine and alliances which kept Israel at peace during his reign.

But when Solomon died, things fell apart, beginning with a fatal mistake by Solomon's heir Rehoboam. Rehoboam was a relatively young man who surrounded himself with other young blades who were impetuous and as full of themselves as Rehoboam. Raised in incredibly wealthy and isolated cirlces, they wound up listening to and engaging with only with one another.

Enter Jeroboam, Rehoboam's brother. Jeroboam had led a rebellion against his father Solomon and had fled to Egypt in order to escape his father's wrath. Once Solomon was dead, Jeroboam led a delgation of many thousands to Rehoboam's coronation celebration. They said to him: "Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you." (I Kings 12)

Rehoboam told his brother he'd think about it for three days, at the end of which Jeroboam was to return for an answer. Then Rehoboam conulted with Solomon's elder advisors, thoroughly seasoned statesmen, asking, "How would you advise me to answer these people?"

The elder statemen replied, "If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants."

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him. He asked them, "What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, 'Lighten the yoke your father put on us'?"

The young men who had grown up with him replied, "Tell these people who have said to you, 'Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter'--tell them, My little finger is thicker than my father's waist. My father laid a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.' "

King Rehoboam followed his friends' advice, telling it to the people word for word. The results were predictable.

When all Israel saw that King Rehoboam refused to listen to them, they answered the king:

"What share do we have with David, what part in Jesse's son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David.!"

"These people" shook the dust off their sandals, rejected Rehoboam's "leadership," and went home.

And when Rehoboam's lackey Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labor, went out to collect his slaves, the enraged Israelites stoned him to death and then went after Rehoboam, who leapt into his chariot and raced to the safety of Jerusalem. Israel, now in a state of total civil rebellion, made Jeroboam king; but he would be a king over a hopelessly divided and diminished nation which would gradually be absorbed by foreign empires.

The reader can deduce for him or herself the implications of the story of Solomon and his heirs for our present national predicament, but a few come to mind:

* National debt diminishes national power, putting a given nation in hock to other nations.

*The onerous, unpayable tax burdens lead to forced labor of citizens and the confiscation of their wealth and productivity.

*The nearly monarchical power of the present executive branch--in fact, it could be called a monarachy--and the demolition of local governing entities such as the states results in dictatorial behavior.

*Citizens under a monarchical executive branch are forced to pay for lavish expenditures of courtiers and government lackeys.

Other lessons to be noted:

*The bad policies of one administration were contined by the next, despite the realtively polite protest of the people.

*The new administration ("king") refused to listen to the people. In fact, the people are called "these people" as if they are not fellow citizens. They are despised and looked own on as interlopers.

*"These people" were initially perfectly willing to work with the powers that be as long as those powers were fair, but the reigning powers rejected them, determined to rule over them rather than to serve them.

* The elders' advice was completely ignored, regarded as a mere formality--much like the wisdom of American elders who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are ignored in favor of "new and progressive" ideas.

A final thought: The history of the Hebrews as recorded in the Old Testament continues to have immense value and deep wisdom for today's world, including wisdom on how to govern.

If only we would listen.