Lectio: snuggling inside a phrase

3PictureIlluminatedRicePsalterI’ve been reading Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary at about a psalm-every-two-days clip, and I’ve had to balance my excitement of reading an accurate and startlingly fresh translation with my goal of getting back into lectio divina. When the new translation’s freshness or the commentary’s new information unexpectedly leads me into lectio, as it did this morning, my usual balance board acts more like a launch pad.

Today is the first day of Psalm 26. Here are Alter’s versions of verses 2 and 3:

2 Test me, O LORD, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
3 For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.

Here’s part of his commentary regarding verse 3:

This is a clear instance of what some biblical scholars call a breakup pattern. The phrase “kindness and truth” esed-weemet, meaning something like “steadfast kindness,” is split between the two versets, standing as bookends at the beginning and end of the line. (Kindle Locations 2526-2529)

The psalmist seems to sandwich verse 3 between the two concepts the phrase esed-weemet holds together. Verse 3, then, can be read as an examination of the phrase. He suggests from it, I think, that the Lord’s kindness he insists on keeping before him is the only means of walking in the Lord’s truth (or, as the Revised English Bible and the margin note to the New American Standard have it, his “faithfulness”).

But it’s a personal examination, too, a prayerful consideration of himself inside the phrase. His amplification inserts himself between the phrase’s two meanings like a kid who snuggles between her parents in their bed. It’s the “prayerful reading” that “is the first moment of lectio divina” (Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, 61). It shows a ready and imaginative heart, one willing to pry with prayer into a single phrase’s meaning, willing to section a phrase’s fruit and eat its sections one at a time with slow attention.

(The illustration is a detail from the Rice Psalter.)

A framework for political moderation

I had an epistrophe! Or Lincoln did, I guess, in his Gettysburg Address, but I amplified it.

I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. Such a government would be aware of how such legislation might fit into more strident political systems, but it would be confident enough in its own philosophical foundation to not be overly concerned about it. It would have enough self-knowledge – enough philosophical bottom, if you will – to distinguish itself from oligarchies, plutocracies, autocracies, and socialist states. It would have enough internal coherence to project a kind of moderation that seeks compromise but isn’t defined by it. It wouldn’t be easily caricatured as a worried peacemaker, a candidate for an Al-Anon program, brought up in a family of raging political alcoholics. Instead, this philosophy’s moderation would be as principled as the extremes’ philosophies, but its principles would be better.

My way of thinking about the elements of such a moderate philosophy of democracy is Lincoln’s famous epistrophe from the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I use these three different prepositions to outline the parameters of an American political philosophy of moderation.

Of the people,” I think, requires a philosophy that understands government as being part of the people, an expression of the people and proof of its ability to govern itself. The left-wing, anti-government creeds of the French Revolution and of Marxism, now unwittingly co-opted in part by much of the American Right, is a fantasy never realized by any Western nation. Both the French Revolution and Marxism envisaged a state in which government would become unnecessary. I think that’s heaven on earth – the state, as Madison might have put it, when men become angels. Even when a particular government is the enemy, as we claimed the English crown was in 1776, government itself is not inherently an enemy. The government, as Pogo might have put it, is us.

One can see the impulse to associate the people and the government most strongly in New England’s early approach to government. Colin Woodard in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America summarizes it here:

Yankees would come to have faith in government to a degree incomprehensible to people of the other American nations. Government, New Englanders believed from the beginning, could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interests. It could enforce morals through the prohibition or regulation of undesirable activities. It could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. (Kindle Locations 999-1004)

I assign “of the people” to an understanding of government as a positive, collective activity, as an authoritative expression of the community.

By the people” seems to accept a distinction between the government and the people not suggested by “of the people.” “By the people” requires a responsive government perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the antifederalists. Their concern about the size of the federal government, their insistence on a written bill of rights, and their desire for term limits reflect a belief in a personal government. The antifederalists of the 1780’s wanted to look at the federal government and see servants doing the people’s will. “By the people,” understood in this light, hates the inhuman and unresponsive bureaucracy associated with big government. It hates the idea of lobbyists and of any person or organization having purchased a special place in the government. It hates “crony capitalism,” for instance, a controversy that made the front page of today’s Washington Post. The antifederalists before them feared that the new Constitution “did not manage to secure the government against the danger of minority faction – tyranny by one man, or a few men, of enterprise, ambition, and wealth,” as Charles R. Kessler put it in his brilliant introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers. The Tea Party – a kind of small-government, populist movement – may come closest today to my version of “by the people.”


For the people” may, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed to my version of “by the people.” Instead of following “by the people”’s focus on a merely responsive government, “for the people” focuses foremost on a responsible government. This emphasis is perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the federalists of the 1780’s. Kessler first made this distinction between responsive and responsible government to sharpen an analysis of the federalist-antifederalist debate during the ratification years. He summarizes it in his introduction to the The Federalist Papers:

If republican government is to be responsible, it must be responsive to the people and answerable to their will. But if it is to be responsible in the more positive sense, it must go beyond mere responsiveness and be able to serve the people’s true interests or their reasonable will, even if this course of conduct is not immediately popular. (xxii)

The federalists believed that not every expression of the people’s will amounted to their reasonable will. Jefferson expresses it this way: “Independence can be trusted nowhere but in the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Jefferson’s “moral law” is synonymous with “natural law,” an egalitarian version of classical natural law that Locke more than anyone made accessible to the Framers. The qualification of the people’s will by “moral law” and “natural law” means that the parameters of the popular will was restricted by reason. Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, expresses it this way: “In egalitarian natural right, consent necessarily takes precedence. It is the task of constitutional government – and the rule of law – to insure that consent is not merely the expression of the people’s will but of their rationality” (xxiv). Of course, Martin Luther King’s appeal to these concepts of reason and natural law allowed him to justify his actions in Birmingham. He and his followers, he claimed, were justified in violating an unjust law.

The emphasis I find in “for the people” on a government’s responsibility therefore protects a minority from the majority’s tyranny, a chief concern of James Madison in drafting the Constitution. A government “for the people,” then, protects all of its people, even those who frustrate the majority’s will. It may pass legislation to protect the rights of certain minorities or to expand the participation by certain classes of people in the nation’s government and society.

There are certain overlaps.Of the people” and “by the people” both emphasize a popular government and eschew moneyed interests. “By the people” and “for the people” both emphasize individual rights. “For the people” and “of the people” both emphasize the natural authority of government.

A moderate philosophy of democracy would legitimize the three impulses I define with the Gettysburg Address’s epistrophe, and it would seek to balance each impulse with the other two. Because “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as I’ve amplified each, stand in some opposition to one another, no political party alone could champion the entire philosophy. But such a philosophy might permit us to talk to one another, and even to learn from one another, again.

I’ve found writings involving what might be considered building blocks for some principled, moderate, democratic philosophies, and I hope to blog about them sometime soon.

The decline-and-fall narrative

3PictureRomanConstantineMuseumA lot of Evangelical Christian prophecy concerning the United States runs like this: we had a godly start, we’ve sinned and have gotten away from it, and we’re going to be judged for it soon. Even ignoring challenges to the merits of these three claims, which I do throughout this post, the narrative is reprehensible.


First, the decline-and-fall narrative is an historicist prophecy that disarms man of his greatest God-given weapon on behalf of self-government – his reason. If the forces of history are stronger than a community’s ability to govern itself, then the resulting fatalism cedes the argument over the possibility of self-government that Hamilton and Lincoln said was the central drama of our republic.

This narrative is like Marxism’s central prophecy because it discourages the use of reason – indeed, it discourages the resort to any kind of action. Here’s Karl Popper’s description, found in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, of Marx’s central prophecy’s effect:

Although itself not a moral decision, since it is not based on any system of morality, it leads to the adoption of a certain system of morality. To sum up, my fundamental decision is not (as you suspected) the sentimental decision to help the oppressed, but the scientific and rational decision not to offer vain resistance to the developmental laws of society. (410)

In other words, the narrative itself is not immoral, but it leads to a decision not to act, which in a given case may be immoral.

Second, decline-and-fall narratives, at their core, are vehicles to return us to tribalism. Plato was the first to advance decline-and-fall narratives, one to characterize the fall of the Greek city-states in his own day and a second to characterize the decline and fall of the earlier Persian Empire. (We see a parallel here to today’s most popular current and past decline-and-fall narratives concerning, respectively, the United States and the Roman Empire.) Popper points out that Plato worked out his dualism in the political realm to contrast a perfect past (the unity and purity of tribalism) with the corrupted present (democracy):

Plato was longing for the lost unity of tribal life. A life of change, in the midst of a social revolution, appeared to him unreal. Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals. (75 – 76)

Plato’s narrative was, to Popper, “the beginning of a long series of Decline-and-Fall dramatizations of the histories of empires and civilizations” (53). This series has stretched beyond the publication of Popper’s World War II-era book.

Twentieth-century political theory was dominated by this desire to return to a pure and tribal past. In his book Terror and Liberalism – his explanation for the rise of fundamental Islam as a political force – Paul Berman finds the same myth and historical struggle behind the Bolsheviks, the Stalinists, Mussolini’s Fascists, Franco’s Phalange, and the Nazis:

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined. . . . The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and its abominations. (48 – 49)

While the decline-and-fall narratives don’t share these twentieth-century groups’ messianic claims for their nations or movements, they share their view of an idyllic and tribal past that contrasts with a corrupt present.

Third, the decline-and-fall narrative, as a practical matter, amounts to a pair of glasses with which to view and disparage any proposed change from the way things were in the idyllic past. Popper, like Berman, finds in Marx’s doctrine a dangerous historicism, but Popper approves of Marx’s ability to make Christians question their own reliance on historicism. (Popper finds “a wide gulf between Marx’s activism and his historicism” (408).) Popper summarizes Marx’s discussion about an influential eighteenth-century author:

A typical representative of this kind of Christianity was the High Church priest J. Townsend, author of A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. . . .‘Hunger’, Townsend begins his eulogy, ‘is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure but, as the most natural motive of industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.’ In Townsend’s ‘Christian’ world order, everything depends (as Marx observes) upon making hunger permanent among the working class; and Townsend believes that this is indeed the divine purpose of the principle of the growth of population; for he goes on: ‘It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, so that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate … are left at liberty without interruption to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.’ [Townsend] adds that the Poor Law, by helping the hungry, ‘tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order, of that system which God and nature have established in the world.’ (406)

Of course, people who believe in a decline-and-fall narrative disagree on what the idyllic past looks like. But while the application of the narrative in any given situation is debatable, the narrative’s specifics relative to any issue at hand usually rely on the same logical fallacy that Townsend employs – ad antiquitatem.

As I’ve said on this site elsewhere (applying my own logical fallacy, that of ad nauseam), Christianity’s influence on America’s founding goes beyond piety, charity, hypocrisy, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Its chief claim is the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause, a dynamic, universal truth worked out over two thousand years of Greek, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic thought. “All men are created equal” rejects any form of tribal ideal. The clause is dynamic because it represents not the past but an aspirational standard. Lincoln, after all, compared the Equality Clause to Jesus’ injunction to be “perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”: “let it be nearly reached as we can.” The cause is universal because, as Lincoln said, equality is an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” It is applicable not just to twenty-first-century Evangelical Christians.

In fact, the spirit behind the decline-and-fall narrative isn’t Christian at all, as Popper points out:

This kind of ‘Christianity’ which recommends the creation of myth as a substitute for Christian responsibility is a tribal Christianity. It is a Christianity that refuses to carry the cross of being human. Beware of these false prophets! What they are after, without being aware of it, is the lost unity of tribalism. (446)

To Popper, “the cross of being human” is the willingness to act, to make mistakes in acting, and to learn from those mistakes through the criticism of the greater community of mankind. The decline-and-fall narrative discourages the taking up of that cross.

It may be – it’s likely, in fact – that the United States is headed for a world of trouble. But if Christians confuse Platonism for prophecy, they’ll only contribute to the problem.