Things Not Seen is a place for writing and thinking about life, culture, and politics. I’ve given this place that name because it takes a good bit of imagination to believe that life in this world can be—and should be—better for everyone, and that we should do something about it.
Frédéric Bastiat, the great French economist and statesman, wrote an essay called “That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen,” which describes how conventional thinkers and avaricious politicians have a built-in advantage when trying to justify actions of the state that purport to improve things. It’s easy for them to point with pride at huge projects like highways and bridges, the public school system, and the “safety net” of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It’s not so easy to show that such projects do more harm than good, and that free people living and working in free markets can—and do—accomplish much more without the state, which must, by definition, destroy in order to create.
Looking at life as a Christian often presents the same challenge: to carry the drudgery and discouragement that life brings to me every single day, while also choosing to carry “weight of glory” that both the Apostle Paul and CS Lewis talk about.
I choose to “stagger onward rejoicing,” as WH Auden wrote, because I know that God created mankind in His own image, that He gave us the power to choose how we relate to Him, and that our world is imperfect because of our choices.
Original Sin is, for many, a problematic term for the predicament we’ve put ourselves in with those choices, but there’s no denying that there is something about each of us that causes us to hurt or neglect or dishonor other people. And we each know what it feels like to be hurt, or neglected, or dishonored—to be sinned against.
Each one of us knows—from our own subjective experience, and from an objective look at human history—that there are things to be put right. We Christians know that it is Jesus who is putting things right. He began reconciling man and creation to Himself with His death and resurrection, and promises that He will complete this work—in all of creation, and in each of us.
Why then do we Christians tend to act as though we have no part in effecting this reconciliation? Are we worried that something can undo those promises and that we have to struggle to just hold on until we’re delivered, by death or the Apocalypse, from a battle that can’t be won? Why do we think that—or at least act as if—Jesus’ Great Commission doesn’t actually matter that much for this world and every person in it?
It’s only recently sunk in for me that we simply do not have the option to think that way. When we accept Jesus, we need to realize that we are acknowledging that the Kingdom of God is within us here and now, and that we’ve been given the power and the duty to help put things right according to His will—starting here and now.
I’m not meant to retreat into the cocoon of holiness to wag my finger at a sinful world or a godless America while waiting for the Rapture. I’m not meant to live my life exactly how I feel like it, using cherry-picked Biblical platitudes to comfort myself. I’m not meant to simply become a consumer of Christian products that are bought and sold merely to perpetuate a subculture of Christian institutions that has almost no discernible effect on those who don’t belong to it.
I am meant to spend my life worshipping God, communing with the Holy Spirit, and living like Jesus.
Because I have experienced God’s grace and begun to understand it, I know God wants me to use love as my guide to action. When we each know too well exactly how the world works, it takes God inspiring and instructing us to even think about trying this approach. Paul did exactly that in his ministry, and He exhorts us to do the same in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18:
17 For our light affliction which is but for a moment, causeth unto us a far most excellent and an eternal weight of glory:
18 While we look not on the things which are seen, but on the things which are not seen for the things which are seen, are temporal: but the things which are not seen, are eternal.
We have the advantage of having the examples of Jesus himself and of the early church, which show us what happens when we take the risk to join God in the work He is already doing. God doesn’t need our help to accomplish His plans, but we need to help Him put things right, if only to prove to ourselves that He has put us right.
As we do more with God, we became more aware of just how pitifully beside-the-point is so much of what we concern ourselves with.
We Christians are quick to distrust many things about this world, in particular the power centers that seem to be most dismissive of Christian values – Hollywood, academia, the news media. Are we hostile to these things because they seem to be unaccountable and self-serving? Or do we fear that we can’t defend ourselves and our families against them, even with God’s help?
This is not only an insulting lack of faith in God, but foolish and dangerous. When we doubt God, we operate in fear, and when we do that, we’re an easy mark for someone who’ll offer to protect us. The church, particularly in modern America, has sought that protection from government. We have believed—and helped build—the myth of American exceptionalism, which preaches that the founding of the American nation-state was especially ordained by God, carried out by devout men who believed they were chosen to create a New Jerusalem, secured with divinely inspired, infallible documents, and perpetuated by disinterested statesmen, wise and godly judges, and a Christ-like military class who, after all, are willing to die for us just like Jesus.
The Bible actually has quite a bit to say about how a Christian should act in relation to the state, and it’s hard to find much in support of American exceptionalism, or indeed any other political ideology that claims the right to use power over men for some reason or another.
The church has failed so miserably at its responsibility to instruct believers about history and their place in it, that anyone with the temerity to offer any substantive opposition to or criticism of any the political ideologies that fill the headlines and history books with all sorts of misery and mayhem are routinely dismissed with instructions to remember his place and go read Romans 13.
Even without looking at Romans 13 in its historical and hermeneutical context, one can clearly see that Paul isn’t telling us that anything any particular government does is ordained by God and that our only recourse is to pray and obey. God does not—and cannot—delegate to anyone the authority to do that which is sinful. The Nuremberg defense will not be accepted on Judgement Day.
When you do take a closer look at what the Bible does say about the state and how the church should relate to it, it becomes clear that Christianity, more than any other religion in history, declares that certain things are not subject to the state. And when you take a closer look at the thing we call government—the modern nation-state in any of its forms—you begin to suspect that instead of promoting justice, government might in fact be the chief agent of its obstruction.
Is it a coincidence that the world that serves as Satan’s base of rebellion against God is divided up and fought over by bands of men claiming to be sovereign over everything that takes place within a particular territory they’ve claimed on a map?
We Christians love to point to alcohol and drug abuse, sexual immorality, and all other types of individual sins as being signs of a fallen world, but why isn’t the history of government, with its exhaustively documented record of murder, repression, and theft on a grand scale, held up as evidence of the depravity of man and the need for a Savior?
When we look to government as a means of promoting the faith and enforcing morality rather than as merely an agent to punish those who do evil to others as Paul says, we put ourselves where the Zealots were when Jesus arrived—disappointed that the solution God provides won’t put us in control of the situation and in judgement of others. Didn’t Samuel warn Israel—rightly and presciently, at God’s specific instruction—about giving power to a state rather than getting along by having respected judges on hand to settle disputes that can’t be worked out through custom and common sense?
“The State is the great fiction through which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else,” said Bastiat, in what might be the most trenchant one-sentence description of what the state is.
Instead of trusting God that He will help us transcend a world that runs on power and is ruled by death, we Christians are playing the game of trying to win enough political power to make other people bear the cost of our moral obligations to help others and to force those same people into empty obedience of the burdensome moral strictures from which Christ died to liberate us.
Is it any wonder that the world looks at us as not just another special interest group, but a particularly hypocritical, nasty, and petty one?
The political game is a multi-billion dollar news and entertainment industry sleight-of-hand trick designed to get us looking at the wrong things.
Every Republican who warns us that we’re squandering our country’s Godly heritage and that our duty is to give them money and power so they can overturn Roe v. Wade, put prayer back in the schools, and destroy ISIS (or Al Qaeda, or the Soviet Union, or whatever godless threat that’s most prominent at the time) is offering to sell us a smug sense of moral superiority disguised as patriotism.
Every Democrat who tries to lay a guilt trip on Christians—we worship a “Socialist Jew,” just like Bernie, after all—so we’ll vote to use the power of the state to feed the hungry, nationalize healthcare, and subsidize a system of education designed to turn our children into quiescent servants of a state whose only moral code comes from whichever of the three branches of government that asserts itself most strongly on a particular issue is offering us salvation in exchange for our willingness to sacrifice everyone else.
If there’s one thing Jesus tells us—through His words, His life, his death, and His resurrection—is that all virtuous action is individual voluntary action—and that’s still not enough to justify us in the eyes of God. Making war and building walls is, of course, wrong, for individuals, and for nations. But so is building a bigger table, if all it costs us is our vote and our submission to taxation that robs from everyone more or less equally.
Things Not Seen is a place to deconstruct the mythology of the modern nation-state as it’s promulgated by politics, the news media, the education establishment, and the popular culture. Let’s figure out together with words and thoughts about the Word and ideas about how to keep turning that Word into flesh.