The Scaffolding or the Scaffold: A Moment and Our Destiny
I recently received a question from a young woman asking if I found obedience and submission to authority easy? My first response was to smile. Then the wheels began to turn. So I penned some thoughts.
I find it fascinating how the things we mock in life in the end mock us. We mock laws of goodness. Those violated laws come back to prove themselves right. The skeptic mocks the Scriptures. The Scriptures prove themselves to be right repeatedly. No chapters in the Bible are more ridiculed than the first three chapters of Genesis. Yet, we live those very scenes out every day. “Did God really say?” we ask with a skeptic
al grin. Evidently, most political leaders don’t think He did. So we change God’s laws that make true freedom possible into our own dictates for everyone. We think right and left and forget there are an up and a down. America has changed beliefs that have existed for five millennia on virtually every matter of essence. Humanity is redefined, sexuality is redefined, the family is redefined, truth is redefined, absolutes are jettisoned, our chromosomal constitution is redefined. What’s more, we live under the delusion that any rebellion against a transcendent moral order is a personal matter with merely personal implications, because we know better now. We call that progress. Yes, that word is right out of the lexicon of humanism, now made into an ideology of political theory as “progressive.”
It would be fine if such thinking indeed merely affected the one making the choice. But in the end, with moral choices, there is no such thing as isolation. The impact of moral choices is catastrophic, like an earthquake that radically changes existing structures.
When the Prime Minister of Japan committed suicide after the brutal Second World War, he wrote his epitaph: “As terrible as it was what I did to others, nothing was as terrible as what I did to myself.” The fact is that what he did to others was a sequel to what he had done to himself. No man or woman is an island. We draw others into our world of choices. I attended the funeral of a man who had taken his own life. He did not just kill himself. He broke the heart of his widow and trampled underfoot the hearts of his children. His daughter said she felt betrayed because often times in her teens she had wanted to take her own life but had held back because of the pain it would have caused her family. Her obedience to a justifiable fear had spared her family. Selfishness in an adult crushed the heart of his family and many others.
America seems to be on a path to a death wish. Why? We are determined in the academy, in the arts, in politics, and in journalism to go it without God. We simply do not wish to have a moral law over and above us. We’re watching the world skidding out of control. There’s almost a lunacy afloat and it seems to begin with arrogant leadership. The world scene is more complex than ever, with no easy solutions.
We railed against intervention in one country because it bred slaughter. So we did not intervene in another country and the result is an even greater slaughter. It goes to show that the complexities and contexts are not as simple as we make them to be. And just like the garden of old, each blames the other. Whichever position we take, we see the weapons of hatred pile up as our moral resources shrink. We are on the stormy seas of history without chart or compass.
Race relations are brewing to the point of a looming conflagration. How sad to see this. We are supposed to be “one nation under God.” We are now many groups against God. It is heartbreaking. We have forgotten that we are all created in God’s image. We are now scarred with a self-inflicted wound. Our streets see someone’s blood spilled every day.
One person in the State Department told me that in four decades of service she has never seen such a toxic time in government as she now sees. How fearsome is that? We have lost respectful speech. I mourn that loss. We don’t care for our leaders to tell us the truth anymore. How catastrophic is that?
Our methods of reaching the masses are greater than ever. Our ability to touch the hearts of people is less than ever. We spend billions electing a leader all the while decrying riches, while millions starve for want of food or a home.
Where are we headed? I don’t know. But if the present so-called postmodern autonomy continues, each one a law unto himself or herself, we will soon be in total anarchy. Progress must have a defining destination, must it not? That destination should have a measurement from a recognized starting point, should it not? Interestingly, the word autonomy—meaning self-law and anarchy, meaning no ruler—by extension has a similar sound to no beginning. The words are close. Archos means ruler and archay means beginning.
“In the beginning”: in the Greek translation, en arkhay. Anarchy has come to spell “no beginning” for us and hence we have denied the ultimate Rule Giver and his moral order. Making our own rules for living we’re now into a lawless land, “making progress” at the mercy of whoever appoints the judges and makes the laws.
So I write this. This election may determine the next two generations almost irreversibly. What kinds of judges do we want? Those who will go back to the beginning or those who will judge autonomously? Rebellion is in the air. The first temptation was “Did God really say?” The second was an open defiance to what God had decreed: “You will not surely die.” By denying the first we are burying the future and still think we will live because some can wear a plastic smile before the lights of the camera and say, “We’re winning,” the very lights which blind us to a greater context and puts truth in the dark.
I recall a Russian saying to me, “All these years my hope for the world was that America would bring us hope and freedom. I don’t believe that anymore. They don’t think rightly anymore,” he said. Amazing that a man in a communist country under the heel of demagogues, wishing for moral reasoning, now sees the light flickering in America and the darkness looming ahead.
This election, as I see it, is the most defining one for the future of our world. I have no doubt I will receive a lot of negative responses to my even saying these things. I’m in the seventh decade of my life; criticism and personal attacks is the least of my concerns. The love for my family, my offspring and theirs, and the land that I love, eclipses egotistical seductions.
So I must speak my heart. It will all come down to the place and meaning of law, life at its essence, and moral worth. We must vote. Vote if not for the now, at least for the future. I hear many saying, “How strange that we are in a situation where neither candidate represents my values.” I agree. So with what philosophers would call “Hobson's Choice,” I ask three questions.
First, which of the two candidates is more likely to surround the highest office with those with a hint at moral reasoning? That may at least give a glimmer of hope.
Second, who is more likely to appoint as keepers of the law those who go back to our roots in order to secure the future? That will at least recognize a beginning.
Third, who stands on a platform of values that guards my essence and my existence? That may at least guide our destiny.
One may triumphantly say, “But that is not foolproof.” True! But what is? The only one who is foolproof is God. And even of Him, the Scriptures tell us that fool will deny his existence.
While the primary personalities may seem divisive, the voices in the wings and their moral roots may keep the branches—and our story—alive to give shade to a parched world. In her book The Roads to Modernity, Gertrude Himmelfarb makes an incredibly powerful statement. She says that the difference between the European Enlightenment and the English and American Enlightenments was really one word. For the French philosophes, reasoning was supreme. For the English and the Americans, moral reasoning was supreme. A world of difference, and diverse paths to the present.
I remember having dinner in a European country with a small group of very successful people, one the head of a renowned school of business, supposedly one of the best in Europe. During the conversation he very proudly stated that a class on ethics was not part of their curriculum. As the topic of conversation moved from curriculum to impact, several moments later he said that in the last national election three of the candidates were graduates of their school. “What happened,” I asked? “One lost because he was a womanizer, the second lost because he was an alcoholic, and the third, because he was corrupt” was his answer. My wife whispered in my ear, “Maybe it’s time they started teaching ethics.”
Dare I suggest that our choices are equally fearsome, with one difference. It may well come down to the laws that will be made and that will be interpreted for generations to come. The judges appointed in the next term will ultimately judge us. If we mock the laws, they will mock us. Our silence now will mean their silence on our deepest values when we need them to speak.
The words of the great American James Russell Lowell uttered years ago come to mind:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Religious liberty, guaranteed in the scaffolding of the law, may well be heading to the scaffold because it represents a law above our laws. Moral reasoning may be suffocated and so-called “humanistic reason” will then choke the transcendent. We had better speak and make a choice before the torso of our fulfilled death wish is swinging in the wind as the mascot of an autonomous culture that will breed anarchy.
I pray that God will guide this nation. May it be for a better future because we were wise in looking ahead, and not a destructive future because we were foolish and looking only at the now.