Patriarchy, Republics, and our Present Travail

As I, like you, struggle with the constant torrent of chatter, lies, and consternation that fills our life these days, the words of Machiavelli (yes, Machiavelli!) rise out of the slumbers of my lifetime of reflection on public life: “To insure a long existence to religious sects or republics, it is necessary frequently to bring them back to their original principles.” Hannah Arendt, whose influence courses through my thought and work, cites this passage from his Discourses, Book 3, somewhere in her On Revolution, as she unpacks the meaning of the American Revolution and the founders’ subsequent creation of a constitution for a Novus Ordo Saeclorum — a new order for the ages.

 We are, it seems to me, once again at one of those points where attacks on our Constitutional order and the cultural foundations for our republic drive us back to our first principles in order to find a way ahead. I am not sure what you might see as the Original  Principles of our American constitutional order, but for many years I have gone back before the events of our founding to the principles forged in the controversies of the civil war in England in the seventeenth century. In particular, I return to John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690), which he wrote to refute the claims on behalf of patriarchal monarchy set forth by Robert Filmer in the 1630s and published posthumously in 1680 as Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings.

In Locke’s dispute with Filmer we find both the origins of much of our political thought but also its unfinished business. Filmer argued that rule by one man as the source of law, justice, and government is grounded in the unitary dominion granted to Adam in the creation. So much for elections, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary! He appealed not only to Scripture but to the creation of the natural order itself for his support of absolute monarchy, just as earlier in the century, James I of England had argued for the divine right of kings. Locke attacked both his scriptural claims and his appeals to “nature” and set out the lineaments of a theory of republican government based in the common agreement of the citizens. The republican order we know arose in a struggle against the claims of patriarchy and monarchy.

However, Locke did not dispute that men legitimately ruled in the home over women, children, and domestic slaves. He only argued, against Filmer and the monarchists, that this household model should not be a model for government. In a republic, men ought not to be ruled like children in a household but according to mutual covenants created among equals. The liberation of the enslaved and of women to participate in public life came only after enormous struggle and bloodshed in the next two centuries. Our present calamitous controversy recalls us both to the unfinished work of the Constitutional founders as well as the defense of the work they accomplished, in spite of its imperfection.

The model of patriarchal monarchy, in which even the law flows from the will of the monarch was, for Filmer, intrinsic to the God of Christians and Jews and to the creation flowing from this God. It is this image of a despotic patriarchal monarch that has been rehearsed in most Christian worship in this country to this day. Thus, many Christians in America support President Trump not in spite of his obvious ethical violations, but because he embodies the model of legitimate governance they have worshipped for the past two centuries. At the heart of most of my own work has been an effort to recast this fundamental theological model of power and authority, both in thought and worship, in a way appropriate to the principles of a democratic, federal republic. I am presently working on making available my earlier writings, such as God’s Federal Republic, as a kind of legacy doorjamb to keep the door to this effort open for an emerging generation. Stay tuned.

It has taken over two centuries for the model of government according to constitutional agreement, persuasion, and equality to slowly, very slowly, transform and expand our public life. Today, we are in a new phase of our struggle toward a “more perfect” republic. It is not surprising that resistance to opening up our public life to wider participation reappears in the regalia of patriarchy and despotic claims of monarchical power. The recrudescence of patriarchal appeals to biological identities and male dominion threaten to corrupt and maim our republican form itself. Locke and Filmer could return today and join the fray with only a momentary gasp at the technology around them. Both of them would also be amazed by the way the republican ideals of citizenship, equality, and mutual agreement have reshaped family, economy, and communal life.

Some of our present travail is pure farce. The would-be emperor has no clothes, and Toto will soon pull back the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. But much of it is also a tragic paralysis of our republic before the very real threats of rapid climate change, rapacious concentrations of economic power, and corrupted governments.

As we enter this new year, I hope we can have more chances to return to vigorous renewal of the republican principles of our founding as well as to the patient work of extending its democratic promise to ever-wider circles of citizenship based on promise and hope rather than biological necessity and patriarchal power. This is not merely a political task, for it re-engages us in unfinished challenges to our theology, worship, and patterns of sexual life. As always, I’m interested in where you’re dipping your own oars in these waters.

 

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas Hope 2018

Passage through the Advent and Christmas season is always jarring for me, with the mighty paeans of praise for a new-born King and stories of God/Fathers and dutiful pregnancies of young women. I groan a bah-humbug at the annual rehearsal of monarchical and patriarchal paradigms of power and look around for some little children eye-bright at lights and ornaments, running laughingly amid the legs of chatting grownups in the shopping aisles or after church. But this year, with real despots strutting through the corridors of power and seated in the places of privilege, the Christmas story has a keener edge. Children really are being killed by the thousands in Yemen and Syria, and fleeing from violence only to be turned away from safety in our own land before our very eyes. Pregnant women still are stumbling toward longed-for places of refuge, people are still selling their souls for money and prestige, greedy for the power they would keep from others. And the very earth is hotter every day in vengeance for our reckless pillage of the fuels beneath our water and our soil, while the wise still seek another way.

And so the Christmas story, not the gloss from Handel, Dickens, and Hallmark, keeps speaking amidst the tawdry tinsel, musak, tired carols, and culture wars. How fitting that we have to dig in stable muck to prise the message from the medium. Herods and would-be despots will always be among us, with their preening lies, self-serving corruption, and pernicious abandonment of the weak, the outcast, the suffering, and the laboring in factories, mines, offices, and birthing rooms. But out of the oppression by the mighty comes from time to time a child who takes on the suffering of the world, sees through the falsehood and the flashiness of fleeting power, and gathers up our longing for Life beyond the deaths that fill our lives.

As a little child evokes our love and awe, we learn again how precious is each life that enters in the darkness of our world. The light of hope within their eyes looks out beyond the heralds of our doom. The emperor is naked once again, and the walls of privilege and power are blown down. The armaments of war are melted by the power of a love that turns the bullets of fear into seeds of reconciliation. If we listen we can still hear the message: Fear Not, for the Creator of All is with you, leading you and us, together, toward peace.  If we get down in the stable’s muck, it’s still possible to find the pearl of genuine peace. It’s enough to make you glad that somewhere in the year, we’re invited to remember this ancient story. In a few days we’ll be asked to get off our knees and start anew on this Great Work. And, once again, a little child will lead us, if only we can hear and reach out our hands. Listen. Reach. Give thanks.

Posted in Restorative Justice, Worship and Spirituality | 2 Comments

On Imprisonment: A Note from Germany

In response to my post “Kairos Time in the Prison,” my old friend and colleague Gerd Decke, a Pastor now living in Berlin, has written me a lengthy reflection on Germany’s history of prison reform. I thought it might be very helpful for the rest of us to reflect on their experience in trying to move to restorative practices in criminal law. Here’s what he reports:

The Biblical, Christian approach should be restoration rather than retribution. In Germany this has been practiced in criminal law since Gustav Radbruch, a most important German juridical thinker, a professor in Heidelberg and also Minister of Justice in the Weimar Republic: I quote from the German Wikipedia on him:

The Design of a General German Penal Code from 1922 and the Juvenile Court Law of 1923 were pathbreaking steps. Radbruch wanted to abolish retributive punishment and replace it with reformative measures. He was against the death penalty and the penitentiary and in favor of a uniform term of imprisonment. Re-socialization took equal place with security as the primary goal of punishment. These steps were introduced in only a limited fashion in the Weimar Republic but they became meaningful in the later development of penal law in the German Federal Republic.

The Wikipedia article maintains that Radbruch was conceiving this key idea of resocialization out of a Christian spirit. Resocialization has subsequently been the focus in German criminal law. Therefore, we also have much lower punishments than in the United States. For instance, murder entails a sentence of 15 years if there are no serious reasons to think the perpetrator would be a danger to society after that time. Then he or she can receive a life-long sentence of security custody (Sicherheitsverwahrung). The German Basic Law also eliminated the death penalty. Extremely important after the war was the so-called Radbruch formula of 1946 that turned jurisprudence from the Nazi era’s blind obedience to laws and required judges to decide against the letter of the laws if the laws are unbearably unjust or when they deny the basic equality of all human beings.

Generally, I know that in German prisons there is the tendency to give the prisoners an environment and treatment that gives them a chance to readjust to society after their release by offering them libraries, free time activities like games, music, sports, and religious care in services and personal spiritual guidance.

For instance, I found that the maximum security prison in Münster stresses that the aim of leisure time/ free time for the prisoners should be to promote their personal development and initiative. This will make both for more security for prisoners and personnel as well as social attitudes furthering community. The prisons offer the possibility of work (in 12 of our 16 states this is required for the prisoners), and getting practice in trades of all kinds and even engaging in studies.

In an article on the maximum security prison in Oldenburg (which has nice new buildings with security glass, no bars except for the outside windows and a park-like outside) I found the following quote, reflecting Radburch’s legacy, which is a great positive vision: “There is no better means to awaken the good in human beings than to treat them as if they are already good —that is our image of humanity, that is our practice and our philosophy. We have noticed that when we talk with the prisoners, when we take them seriously, when we demonstrate respect, when we are examples, then we can transform even the imprisoned. We have done that for over 25 years. Even when dealing with prisoners from 39 countries, with prisoners who cannot speak German nor English and whose language we do not understand, we find that they understand this principle and they all love it.”

I hope this principle will begin to infuse the prison system in the US.

Rev. Gerd Decke, Berlin

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Kairos Time in the Prison

I recently set aside thirty minutes for prayer and meditation to connect me in a supportive way with the work of people in our local Kairos Ministry with prisoners in a nearby prison. One of my good friends is a retired Air Force chaplain who has spent some years in this work, which creates a space in prisoners’ lives to give voice to their painful past and nourish whatever hopes they have to turn their lives around, whether in prison or beyond. Their guide is “Listen, listen. Love, love.” My friend comes back with remarkable stories about lives in conversion, turning toward hope where they had despaired, turning toward relationships from an existence in alienation.

As I turned my mind to the possible faces of prisoners, guards, and volunteers, I thought once again of how deeply our society is committed to a retributive understanding of life. We live within a religious and civil tradition of laws and ethical obligations. This is what it largely means to be people of the Bible and the Qur’an. We then turn a calculus of right and wrong into a system of punishment that exacts an enormous cost on those who violate the laws, their families, and the whole society. In my room I was able to look out on plants and trees, enriched by the life around me. Their sight is confined to concrete and steel, harsh noises and a constantly menacing environment bent on their injury. With units of time, they are “paying” a debt to society for their sin. When the debt is “paid,” as the retributive theory holds, they are then released back into the world, but now burdened with a lifetime shackle of disgrace or infamy that usually limits their work, their residence, their vote, and their relationships.

The restorative perspective focuses on the harm that has been done, the way the perpetrator of that harm can help redress that harm in whatever way is possible, and on becoming equipped to participate in the society in a positive way. It is a perspective that is even pushing Congress to begin to turn around the extreme retributive model that has given us the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As long as we are captive to the calculations of retribution as the necessary consequence of law and justice we will never begin to walk a restorative path. I began to envision what would restore people who have wronged others, often in order to feed their addiction and mental disorders. What if a prison had gardens for every convict, even as Nelson Mandela tended his tomatoes at Pollsmoor Prison after his release from Robben Island? What if each prisoner had a fruit tree to care for? Some are now receiving dogs to rebuild their capacity for care and relationship. What about a horse? In short, what about an environment that helps them return to what is human—tending the earth and living in relationship, not only with animals, but eventually, once again, with people? In short, how can we turn from creating inhumane environments of retribution to humanizing environments of restoration? When will we turn from the calculus of retribution to the conversation of restored humanity?

As my friend listens encouragingly to people whose loss of liberty now threatens to debase their humanity, I wonder how we all might imagine anew a world that seeks to heal rather than punish, renew rather than consume, hope rather than fear. Maybe there’s a Kairos ministry near you or something like it. Maybe you might take an hour to lend them an ear, a prayer, a sign of hope, a donation. Maybe you might be one of those extraordinary listeners. Let me know what you think. I’m listening.

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