Power and Obedience

So if every one is supposed to govern himself and his own affairs and not steal the power of others or cede his own power to someone else – what is obedience for? Christians particularly may wonder about this, given scriptural admonitions about obedience.

Obedience is not giving your power to someone else and it is certainly not allowing anyone else to take your power – the coherence of your soul, your will. Obedience is the only civilized way of wielding someone else’s power on their behalf, as their steward. This is the only sense in which wives are spoken of as being obedient – as a sort of glorified steward of their husband’s affairs, his power. Trusted with someone else’s resources and earnings, it is proper to do with them what that someone wishes. (This has a lot to do with domestic arrangements in ancient society.) In regard to their own persons and affairs wives have always been meant to be their own mistresses. Yet a husband and a wife are one another’s affairs in a special way so that in regard to intimacy, mutual obedience (not slavishness, but gentleness, generosity, and a willingness to unbend) are necessary.

Christianity envisions a society in which something of this willingness, this generosity, is extended to all. But the minute this kind of giving is enforceable, it is no longer Christian love. God loves a cheerful giver; love is free and only free hearts can love. This is why welfare and socialism are abominable – they remove nearly all opportunity to practice Christian love, replacing it with a badly organized, brutally enforced substitute.

6 thoughts on “Power and Obedience

  1. Totally agree with you re: socialism. Socialism steals the opportunity from the person because he cannot freely give but must be compelled to do so; the one on need is robbed of the opportunity support himself and to have his needs met from the proper agencies like churches and local charities. Socialism robs everyone.

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  2. Hi AR,

    I’ve been going through your blog for the past couple days. I am impressed by the depth of your insights and your way with words, and you’ve clarified a lot for the benefit of this sinner barely beginning to scratch the surface of his newfound faith. As someone who’s seen a lot of the fallout from the abuse of traditional husband-as-head-of-family power structures, both voluntary and involuntary, I see much peace to be found from this framing of Paul’s admonition.

    I’m wondering what you mean by that last sentence, though. By “welfare and socialism” do you mean:

    1. any state-organized wealth redistribution program that seeks to guarantee that no subject of the sovereign should be deprived of food, shelter, running water and electricity, however uncharitable the people around them may be at a given moment; or

    2. the narrower meaning of socialism found on Wikipedia: a social and economic system characterised by social [i.e. state] ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy [with “welfare” implying some kind of de jure or de facto state monopoly on social safety net programs]?

    Because if you mean the second, I see your point, but if you mean the first, I must disagree. The first creates (or exacerbates) a temptation not to be privately charitable, as it’s easier to believe that any given failure will not contribute to any dire consequences for the other person; but contrast that with people just wilfully blinding themselves by burying the thought of any actual dire consequences under any number of excuses (it’s none of my business; he’ll just spend it on drugs; I’ve heard panhandlers make hundreds of bucks a day; he probably made a bunch of bad decisions in his life and this is what he deserves; he should just get a job like the rest of us; what I can afford to give is too little to make a difference anyway) and I don’t think that additional temptation really means much in light of all that. The notion that an already-oppressed underclass should be required to suffer more so that others (and even then only the altruistic ones) may have more incentive to give has some seriously problematic implications – while I’m open to the possibility that repealing key social safety net programs might actually result, in an already Christianized society and over a long term measured in generations, in a renaissance of charitable amelioration of poverty, the short-term disaster of dismantling the existing systems and the moral hazard of having to turn a blind eye to immediate, known suffering for the sake of implementing a theory result, in my view, in a prohibitive cost.

    The safety net in the first also helps people take risks to develop enough capital* that they can be producers themselves, instead of having to work under one of a limited set of existing producers just to obtain food and shelter and water and electricity – which creates an imbalance of bargaining power that can enable at least as bad a sort of wresting from a man his ability to create things of value implicit in the second meaning of socialism above. Private enterprise capitalism can’t effectively compete against crony capitalism if the former starts in an environment where the latter has all the capital.

    (As a bit of background: I live, work and have grown up in an urban or suburban environment, in the warmest place in a country famous for its harsh winters. Where I’ve heard that the rural poor in many places in America have opportunities to live off the land and provide a local source of labour and pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, in an urban environment, in a city that both has obscene real estate prices and attracts all the country’s homeless who might die of exposure elsewhere, and is notorious for being full of people with very shallow roots in the city who politely and quietly distrust each other, all you’ve got is a) your own property, which can be seized by cops or robbers at any moment; b) someone else’s property you are trespassing upon, per a); or c) someone else’s garbage, usually made of materials that require special (unaffordable) tools to work with to create something of value to someone not in material desperation. The truth of the value of humility is supremely difficult to preach to someone who has no choice but to routinely humiliate himself to survive – a debased copy of humility that serves as a vaccine against the beauty of the real thing. The best, most Christian thing such poverty can do is remind us of how far we have fallen and test the resolve of the charitable against relentless odds, which can be said of any great evil.)

    Apologies if I ramble, though I voice these objections out of respect for your ideas and am unwilling to simply dismiss you as a political-ideological Other while at the same time valuing your theological insights.

    *Provided, of course, that the actual implementation does not defeat such an effect, such as those horrible systems where the take away your stipend to match each dollar you earn to drive home a message that your own work makes no difference. I think we can all agree that those are bad (absent some hypothetically possible good reason to keep certain people out of the workforce) and the only disagreement is how to get away from that – whether to abolish the system entirely, provide support only in kind and not cash, or give unconditionally.

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  3. Hi, Matt, thanks for stopping by. Well, I’m referring to socialism as a cluster of social programs and ideologies that justify taking money from some people by force, not just in emergencies, but permanently and systematically, in order to support other people. If you think it’s ludicrous for me to consider taxation as a form of force, consider my husband’s grandfather who refused on constitutional grounds to pay his income tax and was arrested and jailed, plunging his family into exactly the sort of poverty you complain of.

    That I think these programs and ideologies are abominable doesn’t mean that I want to immediately shut them down and passively wait for private charity to take over while cities burn and families starve. Nor do I believe that the only problem with them is that they deprive people of opportunities for charity. Their inherent and latent violence is what I chiefly object to.

    I lived in Detroit for a while so I know perfectly well what horrible lives are lived by the urban poor. Frankly the rural poor don’t have it that much better. I resent the welfare programs that these people live on because I think they deserve better – I think they deserve flexible creative care, assistance, and counseling from people who enjoy that sort of thing. They deserve to be told how to rebuild their lives and to have people building alongside them, and not to just be handed money to continue doing what isn’t working.

    I recall a woman who was living in a rotting abandoned house. Her case worker kept telling her that she could not get money for her rent because she didn’t have a valid lease. The woman kept sending money (not sure where she got it) to the landlady month after month, and asking for a lease. And the landlady kept promising to send a lease and then not sending it. Eventually the woman figured out that the house was abandoned and that the “landlady” did not own the house. I helped the woman figure this out; the case worker did not put any effort into the situation at all. So, the woman (a pregnant mother of three) stopped paying the rent and the “landlady” drove by with some shouting young men brandishing weapons, threatening her. Fortunately, someone on the woman’s side stood up for her and threatened them back. So she was free to live in her rotting abandoned house at no charge. Lovely, no?

    I am not the sort of Christian who sees any value in poverty or humiliation, sorry. Not my thing. Poverty of spirit is great when accompanied by spiritual openness to God, but real poverty is intolerable and damaging. Nor do I have the remotest patience for people who sneer at the poor on the basis that they are undeserving. I’m neurologically divergent enough myself to understand that life just doesn’t work for some people – especially modern life. I do think that the whole system of socialism contributes to those characteristics of modern life that make it difficult to live.

    So, to sum up: socialism does not simply increase the level of temptation to not give charitably. In fact, I’ve never looked a homeless person in the face and thought, “Hmm, I’m not going to give any food to this person because after all, they could just get food stamps if they want.” However, a couple of years ago I worked part-time and I had an lovely babysitter that my special-needs toddler really loved. But she was not state-certified so I could not claim the expense on my taxes. I did not feel right about sending my little boy to a strange daycare. I ended up owing a thousand dollars in taxes at the end of the year. The financial abyss that this plunged my family into certainly prevented me from taking part in several charitable opportunities. No donations to the IOCC that year!

    What I’m trying to say is that people only have so much to give. And that money can either get processed through voluntary organizations or through government agencies. There are so many reasons why the former is preferable to the latter, even if there’s no way to make an immediate change.

    To make sure I’m being clear, I believe that taxation is immoral. Also, while I thank you for your efforts at civility and kindness, I think it’s OK if you go ahead and see me as “other.” I’m pretty sure I am other, and if I weren’t other that would make me very uncomfortable. I can handle it, I promise. 🙂

    Cheers!

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