What Does It Profit?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36 KJV

I am a child of the sixties.  I was born in the early fifties, grew up in the sixties, and came of age in the seventies.  The fifties were a time of innocence for us baby boomers.   World War II was receding into the past and the Korean Conflict settled into an uneasy truce.  America was ascendant, and all was good.

Well, maybe not, but it certainly seemed that way. Televisions were becoming ubiquitous, and my neighbor even had color!  We had the Friday Night Fights, on Friday night of course, and Howdy Doody on Saturday morning.  The Honeymooners never failed to draw a laugh and a tear, and of course there was Ed Sullivan, Topo Gigo, and Elvis.

Sure, there were many things wrong.  There was the  Soviet Union and the air raid drills in case of nuclear attack.  There was Jim Crow and the backlash against the nascent civil rights movement.  President Eisenhower warned us of something called the military-industrial complex. But we were too young to really know or care about these things.  Things that in the end would define so much of our lives.

We started the Sixties with a young, vibrant, and idealistic president who asked us to give of ourselves: to our own, through Ameri-Corp, and to others through the Peace Corp.  He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  He told us we were going to the moon, he promised us Camelot, and he delivered.  His idealism was infectious, and we were certainly infected by it.   Then, reality came crashing down on us all one day in November, 1963.

John Kennedy’s assassination could have destroyed our idealism. We were in shock.  We wondered why, we cried, and we mourned; and though we may have lost our innocence, the one thing we did not lose was the idealism he had imparted to us.  This lived on, and if anything, it became stronger and more real then ever.  But why?

A big part of the answer to that question, I believe, is that something else happened right around that same time that would also have a tremendous impact on my generation.  That something was called The Beatles.

The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964.  They sang to us, and we loved them for it.  Their music and antics didn’t just entertain us though; they helped us to refocus our minds on what was important.  And what was important to us young boys and girls?  Why, young boys and girls, of course.

A simple song about holding hands, or asking someone to dance, reminded us that the important things in life were still there and could be had simply by choosing to have them.  But they didn’t stop there.  As we grew, they did too, and their music grew with them and us.  In their music they wove together, as if by some magic, the events of the day – the most fundamental experiences in life, and a spiritual journey.

Later, when the Beatles broke up, we were saddened by it, but we also soon realized that there were benefits to the break-up, as each Beatle was now free to pursue his own path.

John took a political one, certainly with a spiritual side, but distinctly political none the less.  Paul remained most true to the Beatles origins with his ballads and love songs.   And Ringo, well, despite his tremendous musical success, he was and is just Ringo, the “every-man,” and that is all he had to be.

But it was George, the spiritual one, seeking truth in meditation, music, and in the religious traditions of east and west, who may have had the most influence on me.  This may be because as I grew older, the world around me was changing drastically.  Our society was creating wealth at an unprecedented rate, and with it came materialism and the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Traditional, community-based religion was being abandoned and was being replaced either by a personal spirituality, accountable to no-one, not even G-d, or by a social-club religion which left the Judaeo-Christian G-d completely behind.  In either case,  for many, G-d, if He was even deemed to exist at all, became an impersonal force that required nothing from us – a Cosmic Sugar Daddy who could be tapped just by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.

Politics grew uglier every day, where in the West, defeating your opponent turned into destroying your opponent.  We were more civilized about it in the West than in the East, of course, where in places like the Soviet Union or Red China, political defeat often meant execution or lifelong imprisonment.  No, we destroyed lives by destroying reputations and demonizing our opponents.  This practice continues to this day.  Our political opponents are not just wrong, they are evil.

And what about traditional love and marriage?  There are still many that believe in these things, but they are certainly not the ones who predominate in our culture and society.  The hedonists of the sixties became the Me Generation of the seventies, who became the jaded post-modern cynics of today.

And then there was George:

“We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”
from Within You Without You by George Harrison

Even if he didn’t have the ultimate answers, he was asking the right questions, echoing the words of Jesus, spoken so many years ago.

I’ve been thinking more about George lately, and his spiritual quest.  A quest that so many of us took up.  What happened to it?  For me, it slowly transformed back into the Christian faith I was raised in.  But it is a more stable faith, a more informed faith, and a scripture based faith.

As mentioned previously, George drew on many faith traditions to inspire him and his music.  In my own journey, I have also traveled many paths.  This has led me to believe that there is no one, true religion, the practice of which will gain you salvation.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that some religions do not bring you closer to the truth than others, and in this sense, all religions are definitely not equal.  Also, I am not saying that religion has no value; the right religion has tremendous value in that it does bring you closer to the truth.  Now, if we must have a one, true religion, that is it.

It has also helped me to understand that “The Church” is not a particular group or religion or faith tradition; it is the living body of the Word, composed of all who believe in that Word and have put their faith in Him, regardless of the religion, if any, that they may practice.

I personify the Word here because scripture itself does.  The idea of the living Word goes back to the very beginnings of time.  Didn’t G-d, with his Word, bring all things into existence?  In Genesis 15:1 Abram has a vision of the Word and the Word speaks to him saying, “Do not be afraid Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  Abraham believed in the Word and became the progenitor of nations and kings.

In fact, there are numerous places in scripture where the Word is seen as a person, speaking, and coming and going.  This idea of the living Word is one of the subjects that Michael S. Heiser documents in great detail in his book, The Unseen Realm, for those who would like to know more.

So if the simple practice of religion can’t “get you into heaven,” what can?  According to Judeo-Christian scripture itself, salvation comes by the grace of G-d, through faith in G-d and in His Word.  This is what I mean, then, when I say that there is no “true” religion.  Religion has been defined as man attempting to gain G-d’s good graces through works and the observance of rites and rituals and traditions.  The way of faith, on the other hand, is about what G-d did and does for us, not what we do for Him.

Well, what about my idealism?  I started off talking about how I thought the Beatles helped to restore the idealism of my generation.  If you look around at the current state of affairs in the world, one might think that the baby boomers have completely lost it.

I can’t speak for my entire generation, but only for me.  That idealism is still there and is as strong as ever, but it is different than the idealism of my youth.  It has been tempered by my faith and my experience.  By my faith because I understand that G-d is sovereign, and as scripture says, if G-d does not build a house, then the builders labor in vain.  To put it differently, if what we do is not in accordance with G-d’s will and plan, and is simply our own undertaking, it will in the end come to nothing good.

It has been tempered by my experience because  I have learned that if you want to change the world, it has to start with your own heart and head, and this is only something G-d can do.  It then continues to your family, your home, and your own backyard; to your friends, your community and your job.  My point, I’m sure, is obvious: If you want to change the world, you have the best chance of doing that in the world immediately around you.

This reminds me of the lyrics to another Beatles song, Revolution:

“You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead.”

 

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The Era of Big Government

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  Genesis 11:4 NIV

Big Government is not a modern creation, at least according to the book of Genesis.  It first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago.  The first Big Government program, as related in Genesis, was the building of the Tower of Babel.  The project was undertaken as a means of uniting the people and preventing them from spreading out across the earth. Strength in numbers, I suppose.

The problem is, they had been specifically commanded by G-d to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  So it would seem that the first Big Government was formed, and the first Big Government program was undertaken, as an act of rebellion against G-d and in direct disobedience to His command.

G-d’s response was to confuse the language of the builders, which in turn led to the eventual dispersion of man across the earth (Genesis 11:7-8), as G-d had originally commanded. Interesting, how G-d’s will is always fulfilled, despite man’s best attempts to thwart it, but that  is the subject of another post.

Unfortunately, the era of Big Government was not over with the failure of it’s first major project. From the early empires of Egypt and the Middle East, to Alexander and the Caesars, from Charlemagne to the Caliphate, to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, history is littered with the ruins of failed Big Governments and their projects, along with the corpses of their countless millions of victims.

Big Government comes in many forms. In ancient Babylon, all one had to do was worship a golden statue of the king, or be thrown into a furnace.  In Rome under the Caesars, complete loyalty to the emperor was required, and any sign of disloyalty, such as being a Christian, would get you hung on a cross or made part of the days entertainment in the arena.

In more recent times, a lack of commitment to the International Proletariat in the Soviet state would earn you time in the Gulag, or worse, make you “disappear”.  And of course, in Germany under Hitler, not conforming to Aryan purity got you a trip to the “showers”.

Alternatively, here in the US, and elswhere, there are Big Government programs that provide for retirement, medical care, and food for the poor, among others.  These programs are generally looked upon favorably.

Whether they are viewed as good or evil, though, there are some common attributes of Big Government programs, and given these attributes, we need to ask what is their impact on individuals? Not necesarily the political or economic impact, but the spiritual impact?  Do these programs promote spiritual growth and maturity, or impede it, or are they neutral in this respect?

Let’s first take a look at some of the common elements of Big Government and its programs: 

1. Participation is mandatory.  Whether the goal is ruling the world, or feeding the poor, Big Government programs require full participation.  If you allow one person to dissent, the whole scheme eventually unravels.  This is problematic for those who disagree with the goal, or the methods of achieving it.  Punishment for non-participation, or worse, outright resistance, can range from social ostracism, to imprisonment,  to execution.  Even the most benign Big Governments resort to extreme measures to ensure compliance with its programs.

2. Fear is the primary unifying factor.  It is hard enough to get even small groups of people to agree to a particular course of action, let alone large, diverse nations.  In addition to penalties described above, cooperation with Big Government programs is achieved by identifying some threat, real or imagined, and then managing the resulting public response to the desired result.  The threat could be military, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply not being able to pay for health care, as in the Affordable Care Act, but Big Government programs require some fear generating mechanism to gain support.  The leaders of the Tower of Babel project used man’s individual vulnerability as its fear generating mechanism.

3. Individual responsibility and action is futile.  Big Governments play down the effectiveness of the individual and individual action, unless it is directed toward the stated goal of the group.  Providing for one’s own retirement, or medical care, cannot be done effectively, therefore Big Government must do it.  People cannot be expected to provide lunch for their children, therefore Big Government must do it.  Families should not be responsible for the care of their elderly, so of course Big Government is there to help out.

4.  Targeted problems are exacerbated rather than solved.    It is telling that the first Big Government project at Babel resulted in the very thing the people were trying to avoid, being scattered across the Earth.  This is typical of Big Government projects.  Programs to make education more affordable in the end drive up the cost of education, programs to make health care more affordable end up making it more costly, wars of conquest lead to the eventual destruction of the would be conqueror.  The list goes on and on.  Never does a Big Government program actually solve the problem it was created to solve.  This leads us directly to our next common element.

5.  Big Government programs are self-perpetuating.  There are several reasons for this.  As indicated above, these programs tend to make the problem worse, requiring new and improved Big Government programs to correct the problems caused or worsened by the previous “solutions”.  Also, Big Government programs require Big Government bureaucracies to administer them.  Certainly it is not in the interest of the bureaucracy to actually solve the problem, as this would make the bureaucracy obsolete.  Finally, and most importantly, the very existence of these programs creates a need for them, because of the dependency they create.

6. Freedom and liberty are always diminished.  Big Government programs always require some sacrifice of time or property by some for the “benefit” of all. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  Of course, Big Government determines what one’s abilities are, and hence one’s contributions, and also what one’s needs are, and hence one’s rewards.  However, this requires a form of tyranny, either “soft” or “hard”, to enforce.  Individuals cannot be trusted to voluntarily make these decisions for themdselves, because they may not conform to the common good, as defined by Big Government; and the free market, which is simply the combined decisions of millions, can be trusted even less than the individual.

7. All other possible solutions are precluded.  Big Government programs stifle innovation and creativity, because of their very nature. We can all point to programs that have done a lot of good, but at what price?   Have they done any harm as well? Is there a better way of doing it?  The problem is, we’ll never know, once a Big Government solution is implemented.  In fact, other possible solutions represent a threat that must be eliminated at all costs.  Proponents of other solutions are considered to be unreasonable and uncooperative, they are misguided, maybe even insane.  They require treatment, or re-education; and if that doesn’t work, well, see item 1 above.

Now that we have enumerated some of the characteristics of Big Government, it is useful to review several legends concerning the Tower of Babel project, because, along with the Genesis story, they illustrate many of these characteristics.  Both of these legends concern an individual named Nimrod.

Nimrod, in Genesis, is not associated with the Tower of Babel story.  However, he is mentioned in Genesis 10:8-12 as being a mighty warrior and a “mighty hunter before the Lord”.  He was also a king who founded the cities of Babylon (Babel), Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.  He then moved to Assyria and built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calneh and Resen.

The Nimrod legends, on the other hand, do associate Nimrod with the building of the tower, but in completely different ways. In the one legend, related by the Jewish historian  Josephus, Nimrod was the king of Babel and desired to consolidate his power over the people with the building of the tower. An interesting comment by Josephus, concerning this Nimrod is “He also gradually changed the government into tyranny-seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of G-d, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his own power” (Ant. I: iv: 2).  As an added incentive, he told the people that they would build the tower high enough that if G-d decided to flood the Earth again, they could escape the waters by climbing to the top of the tower. 

It is important to note that in this story, Nimrod wanted to turn the people’s dependence on G-d to a dependence on Nimrod!  Isn’t this what Big Government and its programs are ultimately all about; dependence, power, and control?  The fact that Josephus wrote this almost 2000 years ago is more evidence that the Era of Big Government, and awareness of its impact, has been around for a very long time.

In the second legend, as told by Ephrem the Syrian, Nimrod was actually a righteous individual who opposed the building of the tower, and a Jewish tradition further relates that Nimrod fled Babel to Assyria because of his opposition to the builders. This would seem to agree at least in part with the book of Genesis’ information on Nimrod, that he went to Assyria and founded cities there.

So what are we to make of these opposing stories?  And more importantly, can we learn anything about Big Government from them?  Most definitely, yes!

Let’s first take a look at the Genesis story of the tower.  As stated earlier, Nimrod is not mentioned at all.  In fact, Genesis does not provide any information about the leader(s), except that it appears they were a group, not an individual.  In the verse just prior to the one quoted at the top of this post, it says, “They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Genesis 11:3).  The “they” and “each other” being referenced here are the people who had “migrated from the east” (Genesis 11:2).  It seems that a group, and a fairly large one at that, led the people.  If there was a single ringleader, the Bible is silent about him.

Given the two opposing stories, what did actually happen in the land of Shinar, so many years ago?  We can’t really know for certain, beyond what scripture relates, but perhaps Nimrod was in fact a righteous man, and the primary leader, or king, of the group that initially founded Babel.  Further, perhaps there was a group of leaders (a city council?) that proposed the building of the tower, for the purpose of controlling the people and keeping them together, and dependent on them, instead of on G-d.  When people are in a large group, it is much easier to control them and create the illusion that they can live without G-d, than if they are living independently in small groups.

As a righteous man, Nimrod could not go along with this rebellion against G-d, and not being able to dissuade the people from their folly, he left Shinar for Assyria, and founded several cities there.  Sometime later, G-d confused the language of the builders, and spread them out across the globe anyway.

So how did the first story arise, that made Nimrod the primary culprit? Well, this leads to an eighth common element of Big Government, and that is that the architects of Big Government and their projects are never to blame when the project fails.  It is always someone else’s fault.  In this case, Nimrod, no longer around, was made responsibile for the undertaking, and therefore responsible for G-d’s displeasure, and the scattering of the people.

This is just one very speculative explanation of what may have happened, and I’m sure you could come up with your own.  What I believe we can safely conclude from scripture is that the building of the tower was a group action and a group decision.  Maybe Babel was the first democracy and the building of the tower the first example of “democratic” action?  There was no single leader, at least none is specified in the bible story, but perhaps a number of community organizers led the effort.  Seems like resonable conclusions given the Genesis account.

The greatest danger of Big Government and its various programs is the loss of liberty, independence, and individual identity that they foster in those that depend on them.  Even those that are initially forced against their will to participate are in great danger of succumbing to the illusion of peace, safety, and prosperity that they offer.  So what can an individual do?

The Babel story itself provides the answer. Man is a naturally dependent creature.  Even the smartest, strongest, and swiftest among us are woefully weak and helpless in the face of the forces, natural and otherwise, that are arrayed against us.  Our temptation is to band together in large groups, seek safety in numbers, and build great cities, nations and empires.  We think that by doing this, our numbers and our reputation, our “name”, will protect us.  This is a dangerous illusion, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.

We have a choice to make, a decision: be dependent on G-d, or be dependent on man.  If we choose dependence on man, it is clear we are choosing slavery.  If we choose dependence on G-d, we can participate in these programs, if we choose to, without becoming dependent on them.  That is the freedom that comes from being dependent on G-d.

Now when I say “if we choose to”, we must consider that these programs are mandatory.  If we choose not to participate, there are penalties, fines, imprisonment or worse.  So, unless these programs are so completely offensive to us that we believe we are committing a moral wrong, it is in our best interest to participate.  The point is, with dependence on G-d, we do have a choice; with dependence on man, we don’t.

So, we can choose dependence on man and slavery, or dependence on G-d and freedom.  It is a simple decision, really, clear cut and well-defined.  I know what mine is, what’s yours?