Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memento Mori

Remember, you are mortal.

When the ancient Romans paraded a victorious general through the streets to herald a recent conquest, a slave was assigned to stand behind him with a garland and recite the phrase "memento mori." So great was the temptation for a leader to believe in his own success that it required a reminder—at the very moment of his greatest adulation—that before long he too would become worm food.

Caesar Obama

I don't expect American political parties to do the same for their just-crowned presidential nominees, but there's something to be said for one's friends providing a dose of reality. Over time the Romans neglected this practice, trading humility for empire. After just two Caesars,  their third declared himself a god, taking the title "Augustus".  

Pontifex Maximus

This was the coin handed to Jesus by the Pharisees, prompting him to famously ask: "Whose inscription is this? And whose image?" The obvious answer to both questions was "Caesar's", and we all know the Lord's reply: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." That's why Christians are careful to pay taxes levied by governments. But Jesus didn't stop there, despite having delivered one of the most famous phrases ever spoken. His next words are often treated as a codicil: like they're an afterthought belonging to a totally different discussion. But they're not.

Jesus is still talking about Caesar and money and taxes when he concludes his declaration: "...and unto God what is God's." Remember who accompanied the Pharisees to trap Jesus about paying the Imperial Tax? Herodians; political allies of the Roman Tetrarch Herod Antipas...the man who beheaded Jesus' own cousin. But these guys are still God-fearing Jews, right? So what is Jesus driving at? Two things...

One: Caesar is not God. This should have been an unremarkable statement to the powerful men surrounding Jesus that day. But note the Herodians' reaction to these words: "...they were amazed." Really? How come? Sure, Caesar had claimed on this coin to be God, but Jesus is talking to Jews inside the Hebrew Temple, days before Passover. They all knew Caesar wasn't God, didn't they? The Pharisees certainly should have known that; the Herodians...maybe not. They had aligned themselves with Rome through Herod, and were very close to abandoning the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.

Look, the Jews at this time were demoralized. It had been 400 years since God had sent them a prophet. In the absence of a clear word from heaven, they were tempted to think crazy thoughts: maybe Herod is the Messiah. Maybe what Moses and the prophets wrote isn't true. Maybe we ought to ally with the regime in power and stop trying to stand apart from everybody else. But Jesus' words were a smack upside the head to that kind of thinking. Snap out of it!

Two: if Caesar's image on a coin obliges you to pay him tribute, whose image is on you? Wait—what? The Jewish leaders were stunned by this breathtaking simile. Jesus' analogy instantly took them to the very first chapter of the very first book of their revered Torah "Let us make man in our image..." 

Man-made money is artificial—created by governments seeking honor and permanence (think of whose image is on your currency). It also allows them to secretly enrich state coffers without levying more taxes—an action which erodes the value of the coins in your pocket. If you are part of an economy using fiat money (ie: not gold), you owe the potentates whose faces are on that money a piece of their action. 

But people are God-made—they're real. My very personhood has been branded as property of the Almighty One. He has stamped his image on me and given very detailed instructions about what I owe in return. One day I will die, taking with me none of this world's goods. At that point I better have figured out what it means to lay up treasure in heaven.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Newer Principles vs First Principles

No free government, nor the blessings of liberty, can be preserved . . . but by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

That quote above is not from Obama, it's from Article 1 (Bill of Rights), Section 15 (Qualities necessary to preservation of free government) of the Constitution of the State of Virginia, whose drafters included Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison.

It should be obvious why, in a constitution, the idea of founding principle is so crucial. You're putting together a document that is literally the foundation of your endeavor. It defines who you are, why and how you're organizing, the manner in which you'll operate and what is permissible within your sphere of operations. I've helped write and amend both corporate and church constitutions and bylaws—very rudimentary examples of the species. These often contain a preamble or statement of purpose, which anchor all that follows to the main thing behind the decision to "found" an organization. Or a country.

For evangelical Christians this concept is vital. The words of ancient scripture carry much more weight than today's best-selling book by a popular pastor. The habits and practices of the first-century church are prized as exemplary and instructive. Both are used as a plumb-line to measure ourselves all these thousands of years later.

But there is a major chunk of Christianity that places less emphasis on the original, foundational writings (ie: the Bible), and more emphasis on later pronouncements. The Roman Catholic Church declares current church teaching and policy equal to the ancient text. I'm puzzled when Catholic conservatives make a big deal out of "original intent" in the U.S. Constitution...yet soft-pedal that point about the source documents of their religious faith.

Which brings us to the Islamic theory of abrogation. I had heard in passing about this principle, but with the visit to Nashville this week of Geert Wilders–member of the Netherlands Parliament—this principle of "newer is better" was highlighted for me. Wilders and his political party are dedicated to opposing Islam's spread into Western democracies. Consider these passages from the Koran:
Whatever of Our revelations We repeal or cause to be forgotten, We will replace them with something superior or comparable. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? Do you not know that Allah reigns sovereign over the heavens and earth...?

When we exchange one verse for another, and Allah knows best what He reveals, they say, "You are making this up." Most of them do not understand.
Nice gig for Muhammad: if anybody questions why he's suddenly war-like in Medina (where he's now conqueror and potentate), despite having been such a sweet peace-loving guy in Mecca (where he was just getting started and couldn't risk inflammatory words), the questioner is obviously stupid and/or is resisting Allah. Unfortunately for non-Muslims, the "peaceful" early writings of Muhammad have been abrogated by the "intolerant" later ones. When Muslim apologists claim this principle doesn't exist, we must remember that the Koran also instructs deception in dealing with us kafirs (unbelievers).

So Catholicism and Islam share an institutional trait: an official policy and formal mechanism allowing their leadership to contradict or overrule earlier doctrines. This kinda thing isn't surprising from Muhammad, but I urge my Catholic friends to consider John the Revelator's final words to the church: "If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book." Hard to be more explicit than that about the importance of first principles.

And then there are our fellow Americans on the left, who now prefer the label progressive. They have given us the idea of the constitution as a "living document", stretched its Commerce clause beyond recognition and generally sought to subvert the whole thing by judicial fiat whenever it prevents them from enacting some new innovation—rather than amending it as the founders prescribed. Their greatest frustration with President Obama is that he is not able to do all the hopey-changey progressive things he promised to do. Not for them musty old words on parchment.

Perhaps my previous mentions of conservatism's three-part credo, first articulated by Edmund Burke, have faded from your memory. I will repeat again here the tripod supporting the conservative mind: tradition, principle and prejudice. That last one doesn't refer to racism, but to deciding in advance what may and what may not be done...which is the reason for constitutions. And is our protection from those in power today who seek to exercise their will in ways that violate America's first principles.