The Makings of a Prince: Erasmus, Machiavelli, and Idealism vs. Pragmatism in Political Rule

prince

The following is an adapted version of a term paper I wrote for a graduate level class in 2013.  I hope that many of you will appreciate the juxtaposition of these two worldviews, especially in light of our current times.

Introduction

“You cannot be a prince, if you are not a philosopher; you will be a tyrant.” So declared Desiderius Erasmus in The Education of a Christian Prince, a lesser-known yet exemplary contribution to the mirror for princes genre.  His call to look to the ideal as guidance for political leadership was representative of his time and stands upon a long tradition of political thought dating back the Plato’s Republic.  Frequently citing both works of classical antiquity and medieval Christian scholarship throughout his work, Erasmus notes, “I do not mean by philosopher, one who is learned in the ways of dialectic or physics, but one who cast aside the false pseudo-realities and with open mind seeks and follows the truth.  To be a philosopher and to be a Christian is synonymous in fact.”

Erasmus’ mirror is written as a guide to attain his desired form of government. To achieve this end he summarizes the thoughts of others more than he attempts to promote new concepts of political theory.  The mirror for princes genre, “…usually depicts a stable and harmonious relationship between the ruler and the ruled,” according to Erasmus scholar Erika Rommel, and Erasmus’ suggestions for a prince, “are prescriptive, rather than analytical, and charged with a moral imperative.”  Erasmus wrote to further calls for a more virtuous rule as found throughout the western tradition.  He sought to keep this hope for an ideal governance alive at the tail end of the Renaissance, even while writing amidst the darker historical realities of war, schism, and rebellion of early sixteenth century Europe.

In contrast, as Erasmus penned his guidebook for princes, a freshly completed mirror of an entirely new perspective opened with the charge, “Let us leave to one side, then, all discussion of imaginary rulers and talk about practical realities.”  Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince broke from the long tradition of writing on an ideal form of governance and instead sought to offer a view of pragmatic guidelines based on common problems faced by rulers in his present age.

Machiavelli ”…therefore proclaims the need for clever management or brutal force to maintain the status quo.  In devising his policies – domestic or foreign – the Machiavellian prince is motivated by self-interest.”  The difference between these competing mirrors rests upon conflicting moral visions set forth for rulers of a state. Where Machiavelli promotes self-interest, Erasmus promotes the traditional expectation for rulers to seek after the common good, with an additional emphasis on a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice.

At first glance, the two mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli could not be more different in content and purpose. These two divergent paths highlight a vital question for the study and practice of politics that has plagued the field in recent centuries. Is it the business of politicians to primarily consider the ideal or the real?

A former undergraduate professor of mine opened his classes by observing a stark distinction between the pragmatic and the theoretical for the study of government.  As a self-proclaimed realist and lecturer on international affairs, he concluded that these two branches of political study had little impact on the other when it came to practical decision-making for a ruler of state.  This professor followed in the tradition often attributed to Machiavelli, one institutionalized whence the study of politics shifted from the mastering of an art to the calculations of a science.  He suggested that the world of policy and political action must operate within the harsh realities of the real world.

Representing a current trend in political study, my professor’s views suggested to his students that any discussions of the ideal in political thought, while an interesting mental exercise, have little impact on the actual business of governance.  This assertion raises the question, is a distinction between the real and the ideal a truism, or is it actually a false dichotomy?

Proponents for the relevance of political thought to the realm of political action contend that many situations demand use of both approaches and often utilize one view to support or justify the other. It is with this contemporary debate regarding the theoretical versus the practical in governance in mind that the divergent mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli are compared below.

Although Erasmus’ advice for a Christian prince is steeped in the idealism of classical Western political thought, his goals were grounded in a firm belief that this vision, at least in adapted form, could be made into a reality.  Machiavelli’s attempt to define political rule in terms of “practical realities”, on the other hand, lowered the responsibility of the prince to improve society through an absolute moral ethic, yet, at the very last, he relies on an emergence of his realist prince for national redemption.

Ultimately, both works attempt to solve the very real political ills of their era with aspirant hopes of a better, and potentially ideal, political future.  Underlying theoretical assumptions about the nature of man, the role of the state, and the theological implications of salvation, make both works simultaneous mirrors of the real and the ideal.  In these works pragmatism is prescribed for the sake of some form of perfection.  Even if that form of perfection is suggested with limitations, the belief is ever-present that an ideal can be reached through the activity of the real.

The Purpose of the Mirrors

Written in 1515 after Erasmus is named a counselor to future king and emperor, Charles V, and awarded an annual pension, The Education of a Christian Prince began with the stated goal, “I, a theologian, am acting the part of a teacher to a distinguished and pure hearted prince – one Christian to another.”  Presented in 1516 to the then sixteen-year-old prince, Erasmus clearly saw his work as an attempt to influence the political future of Europe.

One biographer noted of his writings in this period, “The goal of his work was to make of Christians Christians in reality and not in name only, and to show them the way to the great example, the great teacher.  Only in this way can the world again do justice to God’s intentions.”  The Holy Roman Empire, an ostensibly Christian regime, had a troubled and violent past that did little to strengthen the message of the church in the world.  Thus, Erasmus saw his mirror as one attempt of many to use his theological wisdom to correct the perversions of his society and purify Christendom from the top down.

In contrast, it is widely speculated among scholars that Machiavelli’s work was written in 1513 with the hope that he might obtain employment from a member of the powerful Florentine Medici family through private circulation of his thoughts.  The self-interested motives parallel the messages of self-preservation found throughout the work.  As a mid-level political appointee, Machiavelli claims the work was produced after he had, “long thought about and studied the question of what makes for greatness.”  He continues,

But my hope is to write a book that will be useful, at least to those who read it intelligently, and so I thought it sensible to go straight to a discussion of how things are in real life and not waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world…For anyone who wants to act the part of the good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good.  So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge.

The above passage sets the tone for the rest of the work and laid forth the foundational elements of Machiavelli’s legacy.  First, he implies that the tradition of mirror literature couldn’t be useful to a real life ruler, for these mirrors typically address fantasy worlds or mere thought experiments.  Second, he identifies the most unrealistic quality of the tradition as the expectation that rulers ought to be virtuous above all else.

Third, he states that the true goal of a ruler is to stay in power.  As it is impossible, through his logic, for a ruler to remain in power and always act virtuously, it is best for a ruler to be equipped to know how and when to be unrighteous.  The rest of the work aims to prepare the ruler accordingly.

Typical analysis holds that Machiavelli’s goals are more realistic given his upfront explanation of the ever-present corruption of political rule.  Yet Erasmus did not start with an unrealistic assessment of his contemporaries, for, in the words of Halkin, “His grievances were born out of a harsh analysis of the role of the Church in the Catholic world. The obstacles that he perceived in the way of the Gospel were scandalous and menacing realities: war, Machiavellianism, greed, immorality.”  While the use of Machiavellian here is retrospective (there is no indication that Erasmus read The Prince while writing his own mirror) the inclusion of these qualities as problems he sought to fix is vital.

At the outset of the work Erasmus was not naively blinded to the harsh realities Machiavelli desires to address.  Rather, the theologian offers his work as an attempted remedy to a society in turmoil.  It is meant as a means to prevent, not encourage, the continued proliferation of political abuses.  The ideal works, likes those of Erasmus, sought to hold the prince to a higher moral standard, while the realistic approach of Machiavelli seems to merely excuse a prince’s baser motives as a means to maintain or expand power.

Moreover, Machiavelli assumes that men cannot be good in the face of an evil and still succeed.  Erasmus, on the other hand, has faith that his message could change the entire empire – if heeded by those in power.  As European contemporaries, albeit in very different political roles and geo-political contexts, they both recognized with a bold-faced certainty the challenges that faced the rulers of their age.  The difference came in the reflections each desired their princes to see as they looked into their respective mirrors and learned how to become a king.

Competing Portraits of a Prince

Concerned primarily with the virtue of the ruler, Erasmus pronounces, “What is it that distinguishes a real king from the actor? It is the spirit befitting a prince.  I mean he must be like a father to the state.  It is on this basis that the people swore allegiance to him.” In similar fashion he later quipped, “For it is the character, not the title, that marks the king.”  His view on the intrinsic value of the prince’s own virtue led to his emphasis on the education and moral formation of a prince, starting in infancy with careful selection of nurses and, later, tutors.

Deeply influenced by Christian thought, Erasmus believed that it was not just in the virtues of antiquity that a prince ought to be trained, but also the specific commands of Christ.  The primacy of religious belief for the makings of a good prince formed the central pillar of Erasmus’ vision for ideal leadership in a Christian state.  He penned, “Before all else the story of Christ must be firmly rooted in the mind of the prince…He should be taught that the teachings of Christ apply to no one more than to the prince.”

Through a biblical model of self-sacrifice, the common good would be promoted and the prince made truly virtuous.  Erasmus concluded, “A man who is great because of his own good qualities, that is, his virtues, will be great even if his princely authority is stripped from him.”  Thus the prince who is Christian, philosophical, and true, should risk loosing his power rather than seek to keep it through baser means.

Machiavelli’s prince, however, has an altogether different appearance.  Encouraged to train for facing the worst in men, the prince “…should do what is right if he can; but he must be prepared to do wrong if necessary.”  Sebastian de Grazia, noted biographer of Machiavelli, suggests that instead of following the popularized paraphrase of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:30, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ Niccolo’s norm, lends itself to the notion of, “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” These two rules resemble each other in that they both are urging reciprocated conduct: the scriptural based upon desired treatment of the self, Niccolo’s on the anticipated fallenness of others.

Once again critiquing the traditional examples of political thought which, “…constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could,” Machiavelli insists that it is impossible for men to both attain virtue and rule well.  He continues, “…for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover that he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.”  The blatant self-preservation of the Machiavellian prince starkly contrasts with the self-sacrificial model presented by Erasmus.

Moreover, Machiavelli counters the inherent need for the Christian prince to attain virtue in more than name only with his assertion, “So a ruler need not have all the positive qualities I listed earlier, but he must seem to have them. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you have them and never make any exceptions, then you will suffer for it; while if you merely appear to have them, they will benefit you.”

Machiavelli asserts that the motive for the prince’s behavior ought to be based on an opportunistic assessment of what would keep the ruler in power rather than an adherence to absolute norms.  As he counseled, “So you should seem to be compassionate, trustworthy, sympathetic, honest, religious, and, indeed, be all these things; but at the same time you should be constantly prepared, so that, if these become liabilities, you are trained and ready to become their opposites.”

Erasmus, however, envisioned a different form of preparation for the Christian prince.  He claimed, “It is not enough just to hand out precepts to restrain the prince from vices or to incite him to a better course – they must be impressed, crammed in, inculcated, and in one way and another be kept before him, now by a suggestive thought, now by a fable, now by an analogy, now by a proverb.”

His is a deep and thorough formation of the entire character of the prince.  It is by constancy and devotion to moral absolutes that a prince’s legacy will be determined. “The prestige of a prince, his greatness, his majesty,” he elaborates, “must not be developed and preserved by fortune’s wild display, but by wisdom, solidarity, and good deeds.”

Machiavelli is not without a belief in human agency.  He bases the ability of the prince to maintain his power on a doctrine of self-preservation and individual initiative and, like Erasmus, dismisses views that belittle political changes as the sole realm of fate or political pre-destination. “God does not want to have to do the whole thing,” Machiavelli states, “for he likes to leave us our free will so we can lay claim to part of the glory by earning it.”

While out of character for most of The Prince, such lofty language found in Machiavelli’s final chapter suggests that even with the acknowledged constant brutal realities of the depravity of man, he still seeks hope in the ability of some men to lead their polity beyond a state of chaos or servitude.

The question remains, to what end ought princes apply their free will?

Self-Interest vs. the Common Good

A primary distinction between the more traditional mirror of Erasmus and the modern mirror of Machiavelli is the chief end for a prince to aspire.  Highlighted above, the idealist works trumpet the importance of serving for the common good, while the realist view of Machiavelli encourages princes to seek after their natural inclination for a self-interested preservation of power.

Erasmus viewed this element of his work as one intertwined with the chief ends of antiquity.  In referencing Plato’s Guardians, he cautioned, “Only those who govern the state not for themselves but for the good of the state itself, deserve the title ‘prince.’  His titles mean nothing in the case of one who rules to suit himself and measures everything to his own convenience: he is no prince, but a tyrant.”

Seeking synthesis in the two great philosophical traditions of antiquity, he continues with supportive summarization of Aristotle’s Politics.  Erasmus warns his readers,

A prince is vitally concerned with the needs of his subjects, even while engaged in personal matters.  On the other hand, if a tyrant ever chances to do something good for his subjects, he turns that to his own personal gain.  Those who look out for their people only in so far as it redounds to their personal advantage, hold their subjects in the same status as the average man considers his horse or ass.

Considered in light of Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice for rulers to change as needed in order to maintain their rule, as articulated in The Prince, Erasmus’ mirror begins to read as a harsh condemnation for all forms of political rule grounded in the self-interest of the rulers over the ruled.

One defense of Machiavelli on this score is his political context.  The relative political instability of the Italian principalities may warrant a reading that it was in the common good of those states for the ruler stay in power.  Still, this argument cannot overlook the classical emphasis on the character of the prince.  It is not enough, claims Erasmus time and again, for the action of rulers to have virtuous ends.  These ends must be achieved through virtuous means, carried forth by a ruler whose character is submitted to a higher standard, specifically for Erasmus, submitted to the Trinitarian God of Christian teachings.

To encourage his prince to follow in the way of Christ, Erasmus charged, “It is the duty of a good prince to consider the welfare of his people, even at the cost of his own life if need be.  But that prince does not really die who loses his life in such a cause.”  Erasmus’ awareness of the potential end for a virtuous prince to be one of death bespeaks not of an ideal polity but of a weary admission of the baseness of the world.  In fact, for Erasmus, the self-interested view of governance espoused by Machiavelli was the very heart of Christendom’s greatest ills:

Now, while everyone is looking out for his own interests, while popes and bishops are deeply concerned over power and wealth, while princes are driven headlong by ambition or anger, while all follow after them for the sake of their own gain, it is not surprising that we run straight into a whirlwind of affairs under the guidance of folly.

Considered in light of De Grazia’s Machivellian adage to ‘do unto others as they would do unto you,’ greater clarity emerges on the distinctions between Erasmus and Machiavelli.  The heart of their disagreement, it appears, is not over which one is more based in reality.  Rather, they differ on how a prince ought to handle the anticipated foibles of humanity: a question of both practicality and ideology.

Wickedness and Redemption

DeGrazia suggests that Machiavelli’s apparent rejection of the biblically based Golden Rule was stemmed from, “The doctrine of men’s evil disposition – reiterated several times in the qualities chapters of The Prince.”  In another popular translation of The Prince, Machiavelli concluded his observations on the ends justifying the means,  “For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar.”  When faced with vulgarity and meanness in others there is only one person for the ruler to trust: themselves.  “No method of defense is good, certain, and lasting,” Machiavelli insists, “that does not depend on your own decisions and your own strength [virtu].”

While a prince ought to aspire to some good, and he apparently has some freedom to achieve self-betterment and self-control, he also cannot loose touch with the inherent vulgarity of men, including his own.  “It may be difficult for men to resist their wicked tendencies and easy for them to flow into sin; doctrinally, at least, they still have the choice of resistance, of control, of good acts.”  The choice to be better, however, is not assured for even the prince, let alone his political competitors.  The only fact a prince can count on is that others will act through their vulgar nature, and he must prepare and respond in all things with this anticipation in mind.

Thus, not only must a prince be prepared to use baser methods if he anticipates a challenge to his authority, he is also free to lie or abuse his own people if the situation requires such action to secure power.  As he writes, “You will find people are so simple-minded and so preoccupied with their immediate concerns, that if you set out to deceive them, you will always find plenty of them who will let themselves be deceived.”  According to Machiavelli’s mirror, the certainty of vulgarity in all men both justifies and demands baser actions on the part of the ruler.

The shrewd approach recommended to Machiavelli’s prince is to maintain the appearance of moderation in all things, with an ever-watchful eye for the next attempt to steal, threaten, or undermine their power.  While a reaction to reality, the moral justification (or lack thereof) for less than virtuous leadership is based on a theoretical assumption regarding the nature of man.

Moreover, his supposedly pragmatic rejection of ideal regimes begins to form his own theoretical imperatives.  He leads princes to assume that the baseness of mankind is so great the only way to counter these forces is through equally base actions. Such is a basis of a new moral theory.

Machiaevelli’s mirror, supposedly offered as a practical guidebook for rulers’ reality, begins to read as a dystopian contrast to works like Thomas More’s 1515 Utopia (the namesake for the genre).  Machiavelli’s ethic and the picture the world he paints, given his absolute claims regarding human nature and the only proper response to human depravity, may be just as much a work of fantasy as very mirrors he set out to condemn.

On the question of sin, Erasmus looks to the baseness of mankind first through the cross of Christ.  To avoid abuses of power he argues the prince ought to learn how,

Nature created all men equal, and slavery was superimposed on nature, which fact the laws of even the pagans recognized.  Now stop and think how out of proportion it is for a Christian to usurp full power over other Christians, whom the laws did not deign to be slaves, and whom Christ redeemed from all slavery.

To Erasmus, all men are depraved but for those who call upon Christ there is also hope for redemption from their own depravity. This view, as articulated in his mirror, does not mean that Erasmus denied the political and cultural realities of his time.  Rather, he looks to the prince as a natural source for moral guidance and reformation in social matters.  He notes the tendency for corruption and “unruly” natures of magistrates and common people alike and thus concluded, “There is just one blessed stay in this tide of evils – the unsullied character of the prince.  If he, too, is overcome by foolish ideas and base desires, what last ray of hope is there for the state?”

The language in these passages emphasizes the difficulties facing the prince in light of the depravity of man.  He also cautions against attempts to corrupt princes, due to the power by example they hold for the people.  “Just as one who poisons the public fountain from which all drink deserves more than one punishment,” asserts Erasmus, “so he is the most harmful who infects the mind of the prince with base idea, which later produce the destruction of so many men.”

Instead of rejecting the possibility for social improvement through political leadership, Erasmus saw the potential for a prince to help correct these ills.  His ideal was a Christian society where the rulers looked to model their headship of the people after Christ’s headship of the Church.  For the prince, “All his plans, all his efforts, all his interests will be turned to the one aim of ruling over the province entrusted to him in such a manner that when Christ makes the final reckoning he will win approval and leave a very honorable memory of himself among all his fellow men.”

While not an enterprise that guarantees success, his vision is perhaps not so idealistic that it could not have been achieved.   To Erasmus, his words and counsel offered more than a mere dream, for he “…actually believed he was following the path of progress inherent in historical time.”  His vision for the Christian prince did not call for a perfect society free of corruption, sin, or danger.  For Erasmus, hope for societal redemption in Christendom could begin with the turning of a single man: the prince.  The goal of The Education of a Christian Prince was idealistic, but his means were fundamentally pragmatic.

Concluding Thoughts: Evaluating the Mission

Erasmus’ mirror sought to give “instruction on a subject that no theologian would dare to undertake.  In these years Erasmus was conscious of his strength and his boldness.  He had a mission to fulfill.”  Unfortunately, his mission to see a renewal of piety and peace in all sectors of a united Christendom appears to have been a losing battle from the very start.

Scholars note that Charles V, “was not a model of the Christian, peaceful prince” and “probably did not read” the copy of Erasmus’ Christian Prince, gifted in 1516.  Yet even in the face of rejection in his own time, Erasmus continued to believe that “…history would definitely bring improvement on all fronts – partly as the outcome of a natural process, but mainly because God would have it so and even used his detractors to this end.”

Erasmus was not alone in his ultimate appeal to God for the future success of his goals.  While hardly a religious work, Machiavelli’s concluding chapter mentions God at least half a dozen times. DeGrazio surmised, “The references to the divine in The Prince comprise significant metaphysical and theological statements, with political bearings just as significant.”  Bemoaning the sad state of Italian affairs as the oft conquered and vanquished, he cried out to his future prince, “Italy, so long enslaved, awaits her redeemer.”

To some degree his work was as much a failure in his own age as that of Erasmus.  Machiavelli never gained the employment with the Medici family he aspired to, nor did he live to see the redemption of Italy from internal conflict and external conquests.  Yet the final words of his practical rulebook are dedicated to a famous stanza by Christian Humanist Plutarch, which prophesies a restored future for the Italian people.  Trapped in a depraved world where the vulgarity of men must be countered at every turn, Machiavelli awaits the ideal of his country’s savior.

In an entirely different context, Erasmus quotes wisdom from Plutarch’s own mirror, Discourse to an Unlearned Prince: “When you who are a prince, a Christian prince, hear and read that you are the likeness of God and his vicar, do not swell with pride on this account, but rather take pains that you correspond to your wonderful archetype, whom it is hard, but not unseemly, to follow.”

Erasmus saw no need to appeal for the coming of a political savior for he saw the political realm in light of the salvation of Christ.  The Christian prince, while an important figure in God’s ordained social hierarchy of the time, was not the savior of Christendom.  In fact, it was only through imitating the real savior, Jesus Christ, that he could ever hope to become a true prince in both spirit and name.

One mirror, in the name of pragmatism, offers his people a vision of the future that may always search fruitlessly for a missing ideal. The other, through a hopeful vision for a social incarnation of an already realized ideal (that of the victory of Christ), suggests a pragmatic response to the corruption of his time.  Both works, composed during a watershed era of Western history, can serve as a reminder for students and practitioners of government that the ideal and the real, the theoretical and the practical, are often linked more closely than some professors and experts may lead us to believe.

Even the most hardened realist bases their assumptions on some form of philosophical principles and moral ethic. In turn, the loftiest ideals carry practical implications for the here and now.  To overlook the interconnected nature of the pragmatic and the theoretical risks misunderstanding our political history and thereby endangering the cogency of how we shape our political future.

In light of recent political events, these two mirrors also challenge us to ask and assess the following of our contemporary politicians: what are the ends they seek and by which means will they achieve them?

We cannot set aside questions of ethics, morality, and character as if they have no bearing on political leadership.  Erasmus understood the significance of a ruler’s virtue for the purpose of inculcating (or undermining) the virtue of the people.  Even the realism of Machiavelli had to wrestle with these notions, finding that pure pragmatism devoid of moral assumptions and ideal ends does not exist.  Christendom as a ruling political empire in the West may be a notion of the past, but as Christians we can still learn from the wisdom – and follies – of those who came before us.

Seen in a certain light, our times are very dark indeed.  Which path will we choose?  Which path will you advocate?  A power hungry and base self-preservation, searching after some form of national redemption and redeemer?  Or a self-sacrificing vision, not defined by titles or earthly victories, but rather built upon the eternal victory of Christ and a refusal to partake in poisoning the virtue of the public well against the witness of His image?

 

*I had trouble copying footnotes to WordPress for this post.  When I have more time I will update with appropriate citations.  In the meantime, let me know if any questions arise regarding my quotes, assertions, and sources.

Bibliography

Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Bejczy, Istvan. Erasmus and the Middle Ages: The Historical Consciousness of a Christian Humanist. Boston: Brill, 2001.

Benner, Erica. Machiavelli’s Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009.

De Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Halkin, Leon-e. Erasmus: A Critical Biography. Translated by John Tonkin. Cambridge , Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” In Selected Poltical Writings, by David Wooton. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.

Olin, John C. “Erasmus and Reform.” In Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings, by Desiderius Erasmus, 1-21. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1973.

Rummel, Erika. Erasmus. New York: Continuum Books, 2004.

 

Postures We Use: Colin Kaepernick, National Solidarity, and the Wounded in Worship

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Last Sunday I sat through the entire church service.  This might not sound that strange to you, but I attend an Anglican communion where constant change of posture is commonplace as part of our liturgical worship.  Yet at thirty-three weeks pregnant with our third child in three years, I wasn’t feeling quite up to full participation in the usual ways of standing, kneeling, and constantly changing positions throughout the service.

As I sat still while others moved, I marveled at the freedom of bodily expression in worship we enjoy as Anglicans, especially in the confines of a predetermined liturgy.  Sit or kneel.  Stand or sit.  Come forward or stay where you are.  Raise your arms in song or stand still.  Partake in communion or cross your arms for a blessing.

So many ways to be united in worship; so many ways to fellowship together.

Colin Kaepernick started a national controversy when he choose to sit for the playing of the national anthem at NFL games.  Some identify with his reasoning and have joined him in various acts of solidarity.  Others are appalled by his choice and his perceived message of disrespect and openly choose make their displeasure known.  I’d rather we first take a step back and question why we expect others to stand united in the first place, and what it means when people choose to act differently during public acts of solidarity.

Our bodies are vessels of human expression. If you have ever had the pleasure of traveling overseas, working within a community of non-English speakers, or interacting with children too young to speak, you likely know just how effective body language and expression can become as a tool for communication.  We can have entire conversations without speaking a single word.  Waves, smiles, frowns, pointing, jumping, dancing, hugging, tugging, kneeling – all these actions and so many more communicate something to the world around us.  Our bodies are vessels of human expression.

Posture can wound. Unfortunately, because our bodies are used as a form of speech, they can be used to hurt others.  Yes, through physical violence toward one anther but also – more simply – in our choice of gestures or posture.  Crossing our arms, literally turning our backs, walking away, giving the finger, these are all ways that people use their movements to communicate something negative, offensive, or obscene.

Likewise, we can use different postures to wound ourselves.  This often occurs through uses of our body which violate our conscience, undermine God’s intended good for us, or belittle our existence and self-worth. Consider the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and how they understood that to kneel before a false idol would both wound the honor of God and wound their own belief and testimony in Him.  Unlike that silly adage goes, words most certainly can hurt and so too can the ways we use our bodies to speak to the world around us.  Posture can wound.

Posture can heal.  The good news is that while we can use our posture to hurt others, we can also choose to use our bodies as vessels to help heal ourselves and those around us. Be it through physical touch, open arms, or a stirring sign of humility, surrender, or love, the ways we choose to move about this earth can touch hearts for the better.  Like many forms of healing, these physical expressions of positive communication don’t always come easy or without conflict.  As a reflection of divine love, sometimes the act that brings healing can first bring a healthy or necessary form of pain.

Perhaps there is no better expression of this form of healing love than the symbol of Christ’s posture on the cross.  Arms nailed open to the world, His pain (and the pain of our sin) became a crucial precursor to His victory.  Each time a follower of Christ finds themselves in prayer and worship reaching out their arms like those upon the cross – be they standing, sitting, or lying down prostrate – they both embody that pain and that victory at the same time.  Be it to address a need for a personal victory over sin or in contrition for relational or societal hurts, postures such as this touch hearts through both experience and witness.  Posture can heal.

Posture is powerful. Since posture can both wound and heal, it is a vital part of how we live together in a society.  Many of our postures we take for granted.  Yet even when we are not intentional about how we use our bodies, we still speak volumes in each moment of the day.  When we pass other people on the street or in an elevator do we look them in the eye and smile, or do we keep our heads down and eyes averted?  It is remarkable how just tiny adjustments in our our body language can impact those around us, or even our own hearts, for better or worse.

For example, when we choose to kneel in prayer it is an act of submission.  To do so communicates to our hearts that we are choosing to come before God with surrender and reverential fear, and it communicates to those around us that we are choosing to make ourselves lesser before the One who is greater, often uniting the body of Christ in a common act of humility.

The physical act of kneeling not only prepares us for our times of prayer or confession, but it can also be a crucial part of the prayer, or even a prayer in and of itself.  Moreover, when done in public, kneeling in prayer acts as a sign to remind the community of our place before God and to point us all back to the heart of His glory and grace.  Posture is powerful.

Posture demands authenticity.  Because of the very power entailed in how we use our bodies, it is important to use our bodies truthfully.  We can lie with our bodies just like we can lie with our tongues.  This means that when I fake a smile, a hug, or a salute, I lie.  It might be a small lie, we might classify many of these actions as white lies, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am still expressing an untruth.

There are certainly situations when we will choose to use our bodies in a way that doesn’t perfectly match how we feel, and this isn’t always the same thing as a lie.  In fact, some of the most powerful uses of our bodies come through disciplined acts, like the decision to kneel in prayer even when we feel rebellious, angry, confused, or full of doubt.  By intentionally and willfully choosing to be disciplined to a specific kind of service, act of worship, or to a reverential commitment, regardless of our shifting emotions, we are still true to that higher goal with our bodies even when our hearts are wary or rebellious. Marriage, I am learning, is full of such moments.

However, there are many more times when we do not intentionally honor a prior choice or commitment.  Rather, we just move in ways that are contrary to our authentic selves.  Perhaps it is out of routine, perhaps it is out of disappointment, or fear, or vanity, or manipulative motives, but when we tell lies with our bodies we wound.  It reminds me of an old Casting Crowns song:

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade

When we hide the truth of our hearts, when we use our bodies just to play a role or to convey a false image, we cut off the potential for healing to occur.  By doing untrue things with our body we choose to wound ourselves and our wider community with our lies.  Being “happy plastic people”, for example, can help to maintain a certain image or comfort level for the fellowship of a church as we all follow along and act exactly as everyone else does.  Sit together.  Stand together.  Shake hands together.  Smile on cue together.

There is an element of these programed movements that even appears on the surface to build solidarity and unity, but for the sake of what exactly? For the sake of a lie.  When there is no room for our communal traditions to be broken, for one or many individuals to question, to doubt, to cry out, or to act differently when in public, there is no room for healing to occur.  And where healing cannot occur, wounds will fester and painful divisions will take hold.  Posture demands authenticity.

Where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.  Church, where we go to commune with Christ and His children, is meant to be a safe place to express our innermost thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  It is meant to be a place where we can show great devotion and love, but also great doubt and sorrow.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in church and questioned.  Questioned God’s love, questioned my purpose and worth, questioned the nature of the church and the evil of mankind.  And because I have questioned, I have sometimes sat still while others stood.

I have wept while others sang out with joyful hope.  I have lain prostrate while others danced.  There have been entire seasons – weeks, months at a time – where I chose to not receive communion as an intentionally outward sign of my inner struggles.  When I do these actions, all crucial aspects of authenticity in posture, I do so to be vulnerable before God and within my community.  I do so with the heart of healing, even in the midst of my anguish.

When I or others display our weaknesses, doubts, or brokenness with our bodies it is not meant to invalidate the more joyful or reverential behavior of the rest of the community.  Rather, it is about finding ways to still be a part of our community even while we struggle.  It is about still trying to know God, even when we honestly question his very existence or goodness.

Crucially, my times of sitting out or using my body in ways that differ from others in worship aren’t – first and foremost – about the truth of my grievances.  They are about the truth of my heart.  God is good, all the time.  But more than once in my life I have not seen or felt His goodness.  When you wrestle with that question it can be over-powering.  Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow, and endless streams of questions pour forth.  How we choose to reveal our internal struggles with our bodies or our words won’t change the truth of who God is.  But the more authentic we are in our posture, the more likely we are – in time – to encounter His healing touch and come to know his genuine goodness.

If we hide from our grief and our doubt, choosing instead to go through the motions and not acknowledge our true thoughts and feelings, we risk never finding the answers we need most.  Moreover, we limit our opportunities to build stronger and more authentic relationships and communities.  Lament, while often deeply personal, can also be powerfully communal.

When I am honest about my heart, most visibly through my posture, it offers the chance for others to come along side me to help.  Perhaps they will grieve or question along with me.  Perhaps they will respectfully challenge me.  Perhaps they will encourage me.  Perhaps they will pray for and with me. But, when done with love and grace, a healthy community always welcomes our differences in action for they understand that these postures offer a starting place for all of us to heal and grow stronger.  Where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.

So if I am free to question God through how I use my body, why can’t Colin Kapernick – or anyone else for that matter – question our country through their choice of posture during a national moment of solidarity?  Surely the act of honoring God is far higher than honoring a country, no matter how much we may love our home.  If God does not demand a robotic allegiance to him through our posture then we should not demand it for the sake of our nation.

This is not to say it is wrong to choose en-mass to show respect and love for country and all that means to us through standing during songs or placing hands over our hearts during a pledge.  Just because one, or even millions, reveal their authentic doubt about the problems we face as a nation doesn’t mean that all people in that moment must stop do the same, or even feel the same toward the country that they love.

Neither does it mean that those who choose not to stand do so because they hate their country.  I may doubt God at times but I still love Him in my weakness.  To search for God, to be truthful regarding our questions about God, is to love Him.  Why should it be considered any different in how we choose to love our country?

Moreover, it matters how we reveal our true selves through the public display of our bodies.  I said that posture wounds, but do actions like Kaepernick’s actually wound our country, or more specifically our veterans?  I am not sure there is anything inherently offensive, aggressive, or hateful about choosing to sit while others stand.  Especially, perhaps, when it was originally done without fanfare or grandstanding, but instead quietly as a matter of personal conscience.    If anything is rightly wounded by his actions it is our sense of solidarity.

But where our societal unity is built on lies, it does not actually exist.  So when, say, a large group of Americans question if their country is a safe or equal place for them to dwell, yet they are told to hide those emotions in public so they won’t risk offending the majority, our country is made weak.  We are made weak because we are not truthful.  It doesn’t matter at the outset if you think their grievances are real or justified, what matters is that they do not believe that they belong.  What matters is that they are hurting.

If what we desire is to be stronger or more unified as a nation, we can achieve those ends exactly through authentic moments like Kaepernick’s choice to sit.  In so doing he chose to signify with his body the true state of our lack of solidarity as a nation.

And even if his posture was unquestionably offensive and meant to wound, like standing up with his middle finger extended toward the flag, how then should we respond?  Well, if someone did a similarly offensive act in the middle of a church service directed at the cross how would you respond? Would you glare with judgmental distaste and disapproval?  Would you demand said offender be removed from the sanctuary? For surely they, with their ingratitude and dishonor, should not be welcome in the house of the Lord.  Would you respond in kind and curse the offender with your body or your mouth?

Or, might you choose to turn your cheek, bless those who curse, and approach the offender to ask what is troubling them that day?  Would you offer to pray for them with a genuine concern for the state of their heart, soul, and mind?  Would you extend to them a place to be heard, a place to be truthful, and a place to encounter God? Would you choose to show them respect and love?

Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of this whole Colin Kaepernick debacle is the role played by Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player.  Not only did he respectfully open a dialogue with Kaepernick when this controversy first captured the attention of the county, but he actually met with him in person.  He spoke with him for over an hour and listened to the grievances and doubts of Colin Kaepernick’s heart.  And then, as part of their honest dialogue, he helped find an even better posture for Kaepernick (and now many others) to use when they wish to express the truth of their doubts and hurts in moments designed to engender national unity.

To take a knee has long been a sign of respect.  And if I understand football culture correctly, it is also commonly used as a sign of solidarity among players.  Is it the same as how the majority of Americans have chosen to respect the flag of this country over the years?  No, and it is not supposed to be.  Yet it is possible that in choosing an alternate sign of respect in our posture we can still love our country even while we question it.  Questioning and doubt, be it in our thoughts, or our words, or our posture, can still be a form of love.

To encourage Kaepernick to find this middle ground, a way to still express a form of respect through his body while remaining true to his internal struggles and doubts, is a beautiful picture of community.  Even more powerful is how Boyer then joined Kaepernick at the next game and stood by him during the national anthem, standing with hand over his heart, while his new friend took a knee.  Two different postures – two different experiences, emotions, and views – both united together.

Would that more of us will choose to be like Nate Boyer.  You don’t have to surrender your loves, your beliefs, or your traditions to take the time to listen and stand beside those who hurt, question, or doubt.  You don’t have to accept all that someone asserts in order to respect and love them.  You don’t have to believe someone is right, or intuitively understand their perspective, to care that they are struggling or in pain.

Our bodies are vessels of human expression.  Because that is true, our postures can wound, and our postures can heal.  Let us choose, even when it’s hard to understand, to use our own postures and bodies to heal.  When we do so we can change individual hearts and even whole communities, for posture is powerful.

Never forget that truth is required for healing, even when that truth is messy, painful, hard, or looks different than what others expect.  In order to be used for acts of healing, both personal and communal, posture demands authenticity.  So when we encounter neighbors, be they in football stadiums or in our churches, who convey the unexpected with their posture, instead of judging them, let us listen to them.  Let us reach out and stand beside them, even in their true pain, doubt, or confusion.  Let us leave room for the notion that we can find unity with one another, even as we express that unity in different ways and with different emotions.

All people struggle with loves, devotions, and beliefs throughout the course of their life.  Some of us choose to wear those internal battles more openly on our bodies than others.  When we encounter a person whose posture suggests that they are experiencing some form of pain, anger, doubt, or grief, let us bless and not curse.  Let us have the courage to not be offended for our own sake, but rather be concerned for sake of someone else’s heart. For, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 12:26, where just one is hurting, we all hurt with them.