Wilderness Voices: The American Church In the Age of Trump

bedouin_in_wadi_rumWe are a generation that yearns to feel significant and successful.  A people who see themselves as destined for greatness. A nation that believes our unique qualities represent some special place in the gospel narrative.

Perhaps not all these notions are wrong in certain forms, but in recent years we often made an idol out of our own greatness on multiple levels: personally, institutionally, and nationally.  Such idolatry has contributed to the dire straights we find ourselves in today.

No, I am not referencing the impending coronation of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.  Although carrying with it weighty concerns for the future of believers, the church, and the county, this political development is not what mourns my heart most.  Instead, as I reflect on our present times, I grieve the extreme weakness of the public testimony currently offered up by the Christian church in America.

There is much deliberation in political circles about what comes next for the conservative political movement in this country and the future of the Republican Party.  These discussions are important, but not as significant as another question we should all be asking: What is the future of the American Church in post-2016 America?

I have a few ideas to add to the early stages of this discussion, and I hope you will join with me in engaging these thoughts and suggestions.  This series is meant to be the starting place for a conversation, not a presumption of offering final answers.  If we are serious as a church of maintaining a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this country, we need to ask these questions and be open to the idea that some of our long held assumptions regarding our public expression of faith must change.

First, we must acknowledge that our immediate future as a church is drifting toward the role of Jeremiahs, Isaiahs, and Ezekiels; not Davids, Daniels, and Esthers.  This shift in thought will not be easy, and I am sure not all will choose to agree.  Yet if we hope to get anywhere in shining the light of Christ in the darkness of our age we must first deal with the reality of the culture we live in and the role we are called to play in it, not a fantasy of the one we wish existed.

Second, I propose three steps we can take as a community to address the problems that have led us to this very dark place as a society.  We must repent, we must restore Biblical teaching and accountability, and – finally – we must dare to reimagine our political Christian witness.

Jeremiahs, Not Daniels

A common teaching I heard growing up in the church, repeated in a wide spectrum of denominations, is the notion that we are a Daniel Generation.  While the interpretations for practical application vary, most contexts where I encountered this notion charged that we have a fundamental responsibility to influence the powerful sectors of society for the cause of Christ.

While this can be wise advice in a general sense, it seems we have abused the notion, especially in how we form our Christian youth.  Many young Christians are advised and even trained to specifically seek out roles of influence so that they may in turn use the power of the world for the good of the gospel.

Perhaps it is still an ok goal for some, although we have clearly downplayed the temptations to abuse or covet this power once it is within our grasp.  However, I’d point out that in the cases of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, while they were differing models of empowered members from a captive nation in a hostile land, they also were chosen by God and put in their positions of influence through circumstances mostly beyond their control.

Instead of fantasizing about how we can scheme and manipulate our ways to the halls of power, the church of the future must be prepared to stand on the metaphorical street corners of our communities and do crazy counter-cultural things while faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord to an often ambivalent or even hostile world.

I get why this vocation isn’t all that appealing.  I mean, if I had a choice I’d rather be Daniel (lion den and all) sitting in the halls of the king as a radical vegetarian than a seemly crazed robeless and barefoot messenger wandering about the countryside unable to get the attention of my own people.  But I worry that we have so glorified the goal of being a Daniel that we have lost sight of what might actually be required of us in order to preserve the integrity of the message and testimony of the gospel.

For fellow Christians, particularly us Millennial Christians, the type of public sacrifices to this integrity exhibited by many of our leaders in the past year went far beyond what we will wish to imitate or support in the future.  Some might argue that “dirtying our hands” by defending or supporting undesirable candidates or policies is just the cost of working within a sinful culture, but I think that we have a responsibility to respond with integrity, love, and truth at all times no matter the apparent consequences.

The real sacrifices we are called to make are ones that will set us apart, not lead us to become further intwined with the powers and principalities of this world.  Remember that the ends never justify the means, and far too often unseemly means invariably also lead to unseemly ends – irrespective of initial intentions.

There will still be some modern examples following in the pattern of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther in the years ahead, hopefully even some Davids.  But the true cases will come about by the divine appointment of God, not by the willful scheming of man.  So instead of forcing our way to the king’s table, perhaps we need to take a step back and acknowledge that  – for most of us, at least – our calling is to humbly walk out a radically gospel centered life in the midst of a dominant and often hostile pagan culture.

To do so means embracing the pluralistic reality of our society, not in a way that lessens or damages our theological purity, but rather by amending our expectation that most everyone around us will live and think as we do.  It means risking being the genuine weirdo at the lunch table, in the work place, or with the other moms at the playground, who testifies of a wholistic way of life that runs counter to the driving force of culture.

It might mean choosing to surrender certain things we’ve allowed into our daily lives in order to strengthen our witness: our favorite t.v. shows, our favorite music, our favorite pastime, our love for material goods, our acceptance of worldly philosophy, or the platitudes and policy of our favorite political party.  It also might mean making choices that cost us: financially, professionally, and – on occasion – relationally.  We, as orthodox Bible believing Christians, aren’t a majority in America and it is time to stand out and stand apart because of it.

I know a lot of you have already seen, accepted, and done these things.  But I wonder how many churches preach to this reality of separateness rather than accommodation or prepotence.  I look at most church leaders and public figures today and I see a lot of hip and trendy messages with packaging and even fashion designed to sell or to dominate.

We have our Jesus smiles, our Christian music and our Christian bookstores, our Christian decor and our special Christian conferences, but how radically do the bulk of these messages, products, and events diverge from their secular cousins of community building, generic spirituality, and self-fulfillment?

Surveying the most successful within our ranks I often see the hard things overlooked, while the light and feel good messages of self-help, worldly success, and generic life purpose apart from eternity are raised up and promulgated.  While certain sins are addressed head-on, others are ignored or outright condoned.

Reaching out to where people are is all well and good, but denuding the hardness, mystery, and depth of the message of Christ in the process defeats the point.  Sometimes (perhaps most times) the gospel will be rejected, spat on, mocked, and despised but we still ought to lovingly preach that depth of truth anyway.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is this: if called to modern day versions of camel hair vests and brutally shaved heads like the prophets, or prisons and persecution like the early church, will you still follow Him?

God most certainly uses people and movements who broker power in and of this world for His good.  But lest we not forget, particularly in this advent season, He Himself came down to dwell and minister among us, to live as one of us.  Not as a king or a conquerer, but as the humble son of a carpenter who rejected calls for temporal revolution and political dominion to instead sacrifice his own earthly life for the eternal gain of all.

The Savior born in the line of David never once sat at a king’s table, lived in a palace, dressed in the finest clothes, amassed a great fortune, or wore a golden crown on his human head.  As we walk forward to herald his birth, let us remember and rejoice in both the humility of the stable and the humility of the cross.

Our callings on earth are often not very grand or marked with the power, wealth, and success of this world.  But as our Savior triumphed over the grave and now sits upon His true throne for all eternity, so shall we triumph when we look past the vestiges of this age and this place and instead work – with true humility and love – to reveal His glory in the lowly places, in surprising ways.

Stay tuned for further posts on repentance, restoration of Biblical teaching, and reimagining our Christian political witness in the next several weeks.  

We welcomed our third child last month, so finding time for writing is even more of challenge but I plan to keep it up.  Many thanks to all who have offered words of encouragement and support as I continue to grow in this writing venture.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in His sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

 

A Lament: Evangelical Leaders and the Defense of Donald Trump

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What can I say for you, to what compare you,
    O daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you,
    O virgin daughter of Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea;
    who can heal you?

 Your prophets have seen for you
    false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
    to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
    that are false and misleading.

Lamentations 2: 13-14

I am sick.  Weary.  Disheartened.

Our leaders are failing us.  They fuel the fires of partisan hatred and anger.  They instill a culture of fear and distrust.  They undercut the witness of the gospel.  They encourage false teachings and empower ungodly behavior.

They suggest we turn a blind eye to evil.  They suggest we overlook the wicked, to silence the wounded and oppressed for the cause of justice.  They claim we are not called to judge, just as they call out for God’s people to judge their own enemies.

Our leaders lie.  Our leaders prophesy falsely.  Our leaders hold court with the wicked and defend the unrighteous.  Our leaders encourage despair and offer little hope.

Lord have mercy.

They say:

“A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility…”

How can anyone believe that the dismissal of his words as mere “locker room talk” and “just words” should be construed as taking full responsibility or as an acknowledgment of sin?  Being embarrassed is not the same as being contrite.

Why is deflecting your own guilt on someone else’s sin condoned?  How is this behavior held up as an example of a true apology, as proof of taking personal responsibility, or seen as an appropriate sign of repentance?

As these words were published after allegations that he has actually done what he already confessed to, how can any leader can choose to ignore and not address these actions.

Have you, Rev. Franklin Graham, not heard the comments Trump is now making in reference to the women who claim grievances against him?  These are the words of today, not eleven years ago.  Are those “just words” too?  Must be.

Just like every hateful thing he has said in the course of this election toward more people and groups than I can count.  He hasn’t offered an apology for those words.  He has claimed he doesn’t need to.  Does that make a difference?  Would anything he might do – any sin, any crime – make a difference?

My heart mourns.

“…This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms…”

Why do we care about the Supreme Court in this land?  For the sake of justice.

But how can you defend the abuser and turn a blind eye to the vulnerable and the oppressed and then claim it is for the cause of justice?

“…My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.” – Franklin Graham

So that is your prayer.  That is all you have to offer?  That is your guidance to Christians in this dark and confusing time?  To turn off CNN?  My, what depths of wisdom you have to share.

Are there no words of hope, no eternal truths, no statement of reconciliation to reach across our divisions and to bind up our wounds that you wish to pray in this moment?

What do you have to say to the wounded?  To the victims?  What do you have to say to the abused?  Do they not matter?  Is their pain not important?

The message you send is that people can abuse power so long as they will advance a cause deemed by church leaders as one acceptable to God.  The message you send is that there are no consequences for sin so long as the sinner is promising to protect you and your causes.

Are the oppressed, the victims, and the hurt not supposed to speak out?  Are they now meant to be our sacrifices on the alter of the Supreme Court?

To silence the pain of others.  To turn a blind eye to evil.  To not address the pain and abuse and fear caused by sin.  This is to refuse to minister Christ in this world.

I have a daughter and two sons.  I have Muslim neighbors, whom I love.  I have friends whose families have been harmed and separated by strict immigration policies.  I have friends who have been sexually abused and demeened.

I understand the concern about the future of the Supreme Court.  But do these people, their stories, their past wounds, and their potential for future pain, really not matter to God in this election?  Is the character of the leaders we choose to empower truly insignificant in shaping our future generations?

What am I supposed to tell them?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24

The words of man shall perish, but the words of the Lord shall reign forever.

Another says:

“First, I do not condone nor defend Donald Trump’s terrible comments made 11 years ago. They are indefensible and awful. I’m sure there are other misdeeds in his past, although as Jesus said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’  I am, however, more concerned about America’s future than Donald Trump’s past. I wonder about how Bill Clinton’s language stands up in private?..”

Stone cast, Dr. Dobson. And the world sees.

“…However, my condemnation of the former president is on an entirely different level. To my knowledge, Donald Trump has never abused women physically or had oral sex in the Oval Office with a vulnerable intern…”

To the knowledge of the nation it now appears likely he has physically abused women for decades.  In fact, those terrible and awful comments were not just words but an admission of behavior.

All abuse of power and influence is a sin.  For someone not looking to cast a first stone, for someone condemning fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for “judging” the character and the past of a presidential candidate, it is clear that you believe yourself ordained to rank and evaluate the worthiness of one sin above another.  Will the hypocrisy never end?

“…Nor has he committed perjury by lying to Congress for many hours. Clinton, on the other hand, lost his license to practice law for that criminal act.  Trump hasn’t been impeached by Congress for his lies…”

I think what you mean to say is not yet.  Trump has not been impeached yet, for he has yet to be awarded power.

Why freely and willfully advocate to give such power to a man who has built his entire career, his entire campaign, on an intricate and never ending web of lies?  One man – who is not on the ballot – lied while serving in the Oval Office.  The other man is lying to get into the Oval Office.

But Trump’s lies are ok?  His lies we should accept while Clinton’s we rightfully condemn?  All because you believe the lies of one man will be in the service of your desired political ends?

“…Donald Trump hasn’t vetoed bills that would have outlawed the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. Bill Clinton alone is responsible for the brains being sucked out of unanesthetized babies during delivery. That nazi-esque procedure continued for years until the Supreme Court declared it illegal. Donald Trump is pro-life…”

How do you know that he is pro-life?  Why do you trust him?  Because he told you so five months ago?  Didn’t Donald Trump support this type of procedure while Bill Clinton was in office?  Didn’t he contribute to the campaigns and politicians who sought to protect partial-birth abortion?

By what evidence other than his word – from the same man who dismissed his own evil confession as “just words” and all his proposals as negotiable suggestions – do you believe that he means any of the things he says to you now?  As some have said, why do you believe that a man who has not been faithful to his own wives will be faithful to you?  What reason do you have to believe he will not turn his back on you and the unborn the minute it is no longer politically expedient?

Do you not understand that your reputation is being used in his service, in the service of evil?

To take a dishonest man at his word is the height of foolishness.

“…Clinton and his wife disrespect the Constitution of the United States, although Trump has promised to protect it, especially the First Amendment…”

If you were truthful about this election you should know that Donald Trump has consistently spoken against the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights.  He who would curtail the freedom of one religion would set the precedent to curtail the freedom of all.  He who would disparage and threaten the press does not care about the first amendment.  He who questions the right to due process and the right to an attorney does not value our rule of law or the justice it has to offer our society.  He who would torture for retribution and kill the innocent in vengeance does not respect the sanctity of life.

Who will you stone next?  When Donald Trump looses the election, when a liberal justice is appointed to the court, who then shall you blame?  Will it be me?  Will it be God?

These words of yours are nothing but an excuse.  They are the arguments of a desperate and desolate movement.  They are arguments that willfully choose to ignore fact.

They are lies.

“…Shall I go on?” —James Dobson, PhD

No.  Please stop.  Please, for the sake of the God you say you love.  For the sake of the ministry He built with your hands.  For the sake of furthering the gospel and spreading His word.  Just stop talking and make room for new leaders to arise.

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

Lamentations 3:37-39

God will rise up and lead His Church in this darkness.  God will give voice to the voiceless and a platform to those who will speak His truth.  The word of the Lord is forever, the word of the Lord shall not be cast aside.

Not for the sake of your fears, not for the sake of the Supreme Court, not for the sake of earthly greatness, shall the sin of men like Donald Trump go unpunished.

The punishment of this church and our leaders, the punishment of Donald J. Trump, the punishment of this nation, is just.

“My eyes will flow without ceasing,
    without respite,
until the Lord from heaven
    looks down and sees;
my eyes cause me grief
    at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

Lamentations 3: 49-51

This election may be about justice.  But justice against whom? Adjudicated in what way?

I grieve for all our daughters.  For the abused, the belittled, and the mocked.  I grieve for little white girls and little black girls and little hispanic girls and little asian girls.  I grieve for the daughters of Christians, the daughters of Muslims, the daughters of Jews, and the daughters of Atheists.

Woe to the men and women who would choose the power of the world over trusting in the sovereignty of God.

Woe to the leaders who would stand aside as the world hurts and yearns for the healing words of Jesus Christ – and not offer them.

This was for the sins of her prophets
    and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her
    the blood of the righteous.

They wandered, blind, through the streets;
    they were so defiled with blood
that no one was able to touch
    their garments.

“Away! Unclean!” people cried at them.
    “Away! Away! Do not touch!”
So they became fugitives and wanderers;
    people said among the nations,
    “They shall stay with us no longer.”

The Lord himself has scattered them;
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders.

Our eyes failed, ever watching
    vainly for help;
in our watching we watched
    for a nation which could not save.

Lamentations 4:13-17

It is God who saves.  It is God who defends.

He defends the unborn, He protects His church. It is the Lord God Almighty who created the heavens and the earth.  It is the Father of all who sent His son for He so loves the world that we might be saved.

It is Jesus Christ who stood before the pharisees and called them lawless hypocrites.  It is Jesus Christ who rejected calls and temptations to seize the powers of this world.  It is Jesus Christ who sacrificed His own life so that we may be forgiven and so that we can all be set free.

The Holy and Everlasting God reigns above.  To Him all kingdoms will bow.  No nation will save us but the ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven.  No court will save us but the mercy seat above.  No judge will save us but the One who is the maker of the laws.  No law will save us but the Word of our Lord.

May a new generation rise out of this wilderness.

Who will stand for all the broken, all the victims of sin, no matter the color of their skin, the religion of their birth, or the political party they represent?  Who will testify of the truth of God, no matter the political or earthly cost?  Who will risk losing the whole world, who will risk losing all the power of these principalities, in order to save their soul?

Let us repent, not for the sins of the world but for the sins of our church.  Let us mourn, not for the ways of the lost but for the iniquities of those who call upon the name of the Lord.  Let us cry out to God and rend our hearts, that He may hear our cry.

From this rubble, from these ashes, O Lord, rebuild your church.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
    why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!

Lamentations 5:19-21b

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

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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.