Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Duty Of Active Citizenship

Here is another blatantly spiritual post.  But hey, it's Sunday (and I will be in church shortly), so I will indulge myself.

Lately I have been thinking rather much about the wide range of responses among the American public to the Trump presidency.  One response that has been somewhat troubling has come from certain seemingly well-meaning elements of the American church community - both home-grown and immigrant.  That response can be best summarized in the following statement: "We recognize that it is God who removes kings and sets up kings.  Therefore, we must recognize that it is God who has given Trump the presidency.  This means that we must not speak against the president whom God has given us."  Some carry this thinking even further, and say, "Just as God worked through flawed human beings in history to accomplish a greater purpose (as was the case with  Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus), even so God has raised up Trump to accomplish a greater purpose."  (See this also.)  The implication then becomes that the flaws and sins of Trump are no longer a legitimate point of criticism, since he is "the vessel whom God has chosen."  Some among this crowd even go as far as blatant appeals to Calvinist doctrine to teach that, since God is Sovereign, and since nothing happens apart from His sovereignty, we who have been the historical targets of oppression should not complain about the oppression which has been dished out to us, nor protest against the ascendancy of people who in the present day want to dish out extra helpings of the same oppression.

I say that such thinking is both flawed and dangerous, as it presents only a partial picture of the story.  One of the biggest missing pieces of that story is that God has given free will to both men and societies.  Another huge missing piece is the fact that God gives and allows things in response to the freewill choices of His creatures.  So when people fall under the grip of an oppressor, it may be that the appropriate response of the oppressed is not to absolve themselves of responsibility, nor to throw up their hands and say, "God is bringing us through trial as He did with Job, and we must not try to figure out the root causes of our suffering.  Perfecta es Tu voluntad para mi..."  Maybe what we should do instead is to ask ourselves how and where we dropped the ball and allowed this to happen.

So how then should believers look at life under oppressive political regimes? That is a huge question and it requires a huge answer.  And I don't have time to even begin to scratch the surface of that answer today, nor do I believe that I have the wisdom to provide a definitive answer all by myself.  However, I'll present a few of the thoughts that have come to me from thinking about this question over the last three months.

First, I believe that God has created us to fulfill a particular purpose, and that this purpose involves the full development of the humanity of every human being, as I wrote in a previous post.  The fulfillment of that purpose and calling involves the struggle of nonviolent conflict, because of the presence of oppressors and would-be oppressors who seek to make themselves rich by dehumanizing the rest of us.  How should we respond when the oppressors become the rulers of the land?  One clue to the answer to that question can be found in 1 Peter 2:13: "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution..."  The word translated "institution" is the Greek word κτίσις (ktisis), and it literally means, "creation (my emphasis), creature, institution..."  This is important.  For it means that we are called to submit to every created institution, not only to the institutions created by our oppressors, but to the institutions which the oppressed create in order to fulfill their ontogeny in spite of their oppressors.  For our submission to the institutions of our oppressors should extend only as far as we can obey without violating our duty to our higher calling.  Where the institutions - the creations - of our oppressors seek to violate that calling, we are responsible for creating new creations - new arrangements and parallel institutions - by which we may facilitate the fulfillment of our calling.  This is why anarchy is not a right response to oppression, for according to the Scriptures, "God is not a God of confusion but of peace."  When the oppressed create by themselves the creations - the arrangements and institutions - by which they may fulfill their calling in spite of their oppressors, this is an example of "active citizenship" as defined by Asef Bayat in his book, Life as Politics.

So then, why are "bad kings" given?  Why is it that peoples fall under the rule of oppressors?  For I have stated that the Bible teaches that God gives and allows things in response to the freewill choices of His creatures.  And it is true that God removes kings and sets up kings.  (See Daniel 2:21).  So what choices do oppressed people make that cause them to remain in victimhood to oppressors?  I submit that the answer is that the oppressed far too frequently become and stay oppressed through a failure of active citizenship.  I am thinking particularly of a quote from a book I recently got, Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, edited by Dr. Maciej Bartkowski.  On page 18 of the first chapter, Dr. Bartkowski quotes Syrian activist Abd al Rahman al-Kawakibi: "...people 'themselves are the cause of what has been inflicted upon them, and that they should blame neither foreigners nor fate (my emphasis) but rather ignorance (al-jahl), lack of endeavor (faqd al-humam), and apathy (al-taw kul), all of which prevail over society.'"  He also cites Polish philosopher Josef Szujski in his assertion that "...the guilt of falling into the predatory hands of foreign powers lay in the oppressed society and, thus, the solution and liberation need to come from that society transformed through its work, education, and civility. Victims and the seemingly disempowered are thus their own liberators as long as they pursue self-organization, self-attainment, and development of their communities."

This shows us where many societies, including the present United States, have gone wrong.  First, we fell victim to convenience - that is, in the words of Jack Duvall, we allowed ourselves to be rented by people who promised to relieve us of the duties of active citizenship in exchange for our support of the political aspirations of these people.  Their message was, "Let us do the dirty work of creating a healthy society.  After all, we are the experts and you are not.  (As our covfefe-in-chief once said, "I'm a genius!")  All you have to do is lend us your support by sending money to our political campaign and vote for us."  The flip side of that convenience is that we allowed ourselves to become addicted to convenience - that is, to a lifestyle which required no hard work, no thinking, no sacrifice for a larger good - but only the immediate gratification of our cravings and appetites.  In short, we became a society whose members aspired to be Ferris Bueller or a character from Happy Days when we grew up.  How fitting that Ferris Bueller's Day Off became a box office hit during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  How perceptive also is Dr. Maciej Bartkowski's comment that the Ukraine fell back under the sway of corrupt dictatorship after the Orange Revolution because after that revolution, Ukrainians abandoned active citizenship and went back to watching TV.  

This also shows us where many "nonviolent resisters" in the United States are still going wrong.  They believe that the power of rulers over a society is a fixed, durable monolith, and they direct their efforts to arguing with the current owners of the monolith for control of the monolith, as Gene Sharp explained in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Power and Struggle.  This is why their repertoire of strategy and tactics includes very little more than protest and persuasion (which might be termed a series of variations on the common tactic of loud complaining).  But movements which focus solely on complaining show a lack of confidence in their ability to take their affairs into their own hands.  These would-be resisters would do much better to stop arguing over control of an oppressive and unjust system and to devote themselves the much more effective work of active citizenship (starting with self-rule, self-control, and freeing oneself of degrading addictions), of building the parallel arrangements and institutions of a just society within the shadow of the wreckage of their present corrupt society.  Effective nonviolent resistance, whether in the United States or Russia or anywhere else, must be modeled on the spread of active citizenship and must not therefore rely on the presence of a charismatic leader who rents the support of the society by promising them that he will meet all their needs if only they will give him their support.

But I am sure that there are those who, after reading this, still think that Trump is a mysterious gift from an inscrutable Calvinist god, and not the fault and consequence of a nation guilty of wrong thinking.  Maybe among these people are those who will freeze to death this winter because even though they had money in the bank, they neglected to pay their heating bill.  Maybe their last dying sentence will be, "Perfecta es Tu voluntad para mi..."  But when they stand before the Judgment seat, they may hear, "You doofus!  Why didn't you pay your bills?" 


Aimee said...

I cannot tell you how much i appreciate your learned and lucid writing. Thank you. Although Christianity is only one of the lenses through which I approach understanding, it is the lens through which I engage with many others, including most of those who are also active in trying to create a better, more just and peaceful world. I am sending this post on to my pastor and to some friends of mine who will appreciate it. Some of the ideas here might be seen as a bit "problematic" to some in my circle, in that they might be interpreted as "victim blaming," but that is not how I see it. To me, the idea that we have (in some ways) willingly relinquished our power over our own destinies, in exchange for release from the burden of being active, responsible moral agents , reminds me of the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir, as she wrote them down in the book the Second Sex. She suggested that women, historically, had made a similar trade, and in doing so had resigned themselves to the position of "other" in their own lives. That work was seminal for me and I am excited to read your suggestions here to see how others have elaborated them.

TH in SoC said...

Hello Aimee,
Thanks very much for your comment. I do want to avoid victim blaming, as it's not a victim's fault that an oppressor chooses to oppress. However, the key for the victim to escape victimhood lies in the choice of the victim, and that is the lesson that many theorists and practitioners of civil resistance seek to drive home in order to activate oppressed populations to resist. Lately, I have been talking a lot about the Biblical view of civil resistance, because I think the mainstream white American evangelical church has sold most of us a false bill of goods on this subject. I also want to show victims that they do have the choice to resist, and that there are specific, entirely moral acts of resistance that they can take.