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When Civil Servants Aren’t 

In the western world, Wikipedia suggest that the term “Civil Service” goes back to 1829 and the expansion of the British Empire — namely that the British government needed people with administrative and managerial skills to manage the resources, the production, and the commerce that took place in their various colonies. The basic principle behind such management, of course, is much older and we see ample examples of this through history. One very early example of this is the work of Joseph while he was serving in Pharaoh’s court. 

The word “Civil” goes back to the Latin word, civilis, which refers to a citizen in a given region or city. In turn, behavior that was considered “civil” was understood to reflect that kind of behavior that promoted good will amongst those people who happened to be living in said community. The notion that those who govern are servants, of course, is also a Biblical one, finding its roots in Romans 13:4. When you put these ideas together, you get the notion that a civil servant is someone, ordained by God, whose role is to serve or otherwise benefit the people of a given region or city, promoting the well-being of all who live in said place. They were to be both civil in their behavior and to have the mindset of a servant, seeking the good of the whole, not their own personal agendas.

While the impetus for this essay was originally the shameful behavior of Representative Brian Sims, namely in his bullying of pro-life protesters in his district, the problem is more widespread than that. Sims, himself, is a predator who accosts women and youth, mocking and harassing them in the hopes of driving them off — seeking to use intimidation to rob them of their Constitutional right to peaceful protest. He is an embarrassment to the legislature of our Commonwealth and has made himself a laughing-stock to pundits nationwide. The only thing that surprises me is that he has not been slapped with a harassment lawsuit, but perhaps he already has.

I expect that it is safe to say that most of us expect better from those in political office. The problem is that while there are numerous men and women who do seek to govern with civility and integrity, it is the noisy, ignorant minority, modeled by Representative Sims, that stand out and give a bad name to all. Rhetoric and false information seems to drive much of our modern political process rather than reasoned dialogue and debate (no dear friends, mud-slinging and sophistry is not legitimate debate; legitimate debate is the reasoned exchange of ideas in the hopes of reaching a conclusion that is logically and morally best!). Again, Representative Sims is not representative of the many civil servants that I have had the privilege of knowing over the years, though sadly he is drawing attention away from that which is good given his antics.

So, where am I going with this? First of all, shame on all of our elected officials whose work revolves around their personal agendas. A leader puts their personal preferences to the side for what is best for the whole community. A leader seeks what is true and faithful to those standards that are established for the good of the community. In other words, if you are a Federal official, the Constitution of the United States is your measure and standard. For Representative Sims and others who lead the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is the Pennsylvania Constitution. For local officials, it is the local ordinances. For leaders in church, it is the Bible and the Constitution of the Church or Denomination.

Second of all, Civil Servants should be just that. What does that mean? In Biblical language, that means they have a lot of repenting to do. In more pragmatic, political language, we, the citizens, need to take our elections seriously and vote these self-centered, hate-mongers out of office. Folks like Sims are doing little more than wasting tax-payer money and undermining, rather than promoting, the good of the Commonwealth.

And, so what is the end in all of this? Friends, get involved in the political process. Vote and actively support candidates that not only support Christian values but also who understand the role of a “Civil Servant.” And, as you do so, make sure that you behave with civility. Back when Mitt Romney and Barak Obama were debating, each running for president, my son, then about 11 years old, took an interest in politics for the first time. So, we allowed him to stay up past his bedtime to watch the debates and then to discuss them. Even at 11 years old, he kept saying to me, “Dad, he didn’t answer the question he was asked.” Yes, and it was true of both candidates. If an eleven-year-old can notice sophistry like that, why do we tolerate it? How good it would be if political debates consisted of people actually concerned about solving the problems that face our society in a civil way and not in a way centered on personal or political gain.

Men without Ears

In 1943, C.S. Lewis published his short, apologetic work, The Abolition of Man, in which he tackles “The Green Book,” a new text being used in the British educational system, one that elevates observational science over the arts and moral norms. Lewis’ premise is ultimately that the educational system was producing “men without chests” — people who used reason and their passions without the constraints of moral virtue.

The Abolition of Man was written 75 years ago and time has been the judge of Lewis’ fears and predictions. And while the point of this reflection is not to go on a long diatribe about the state of the American educational system, if the violence present in the schools today is any indication of the moral standards of student bodies, then it is a pretty clear indication of Lewis’ insights into the consequences of a bad educational model. And, by violence, I am not simply referring to school shootings and stabbings, though that is a heinous crime, I am also talking about the violence in the hallways — bullying, verbal abuse of other students and teachers, and a general lack of respect for authority amongst the student body.

My concern this morning is to suggest that we have entered a stage beyond Lewis’ prediction of men without chests. We have also created heads without ears. Many people complain that in our world today the art of debate has been abandoned. Well-crafted argumentation has been replaced simply by arguments, most of which seem to be built on an ad hominem approach.

Truly, this is not a new thing. Ad hominem and the use of other logical fallacies are techniques that Arthur Schopenhauer suggested, for example, in his work entitled, The Art of Controversy. Further, it was the method of the Sophists in the 5th century B.C. Of course, it is arguments like these to which great thinkers like Socrates and Plato objected. Yet, today, thoughtless gibes seem to be the approach that people commonly take — a brief survey of recent presidential debates is a good indication of that reality. And, I am not convinced that audiences of these supposed debates really desire to hear competing ideas weighed out, I think that most only desire to have what they already believe echoed back to them in clever and novel ways: arguments rather than carefully discussed reasons.

And that brings me to ears. Ears are the organ by which we hear things. And, in principle, it is that which we hear in a conversation that ought to cause our minds to reason and understand the position of the other person. If you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y,” that is merely an opinion. But, if you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y, because of A, B, and C,” then that is a different matter altogether. Then we can carefully evaluate reasons “A, B, and C” to confirm that they are legitimate and pertinent to the question at hand. In addition, when I respond, “No, we need to do Y, because of reasons J, K, and L” then we have data and principles to discuss. As Sherlock Holmes often quipped to John Watson, “I cannot make bricks without straw!”

The problem is that it takes time and energy to come up with reasons for your position and to be able to defend those reasons in a thoughtful way. It also requires that we sincerely listen to one another, rather than using the time when the other person is talking to come up with our next attack.

Interestingly, Jesus teaches in parables precisely because people “hear but do not understand” and “see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14). Such is seen as a judgment of God upon the unbeliever that they will remain blind and deaf to matters of spiritual truth. Yet, have we created a society that elevates this spiritual blindness and deafness? Have we created a society where we no longer can even hear the ideas of others in a meaningful way. We use our mouths then to spout off our thoughts, but without reasoned dialogue and an exchange if ideas, every man does what is right in his own eyes and we are left with chaos.

And, if a culture ceases to value its chests (moral virtue) and its ears (the exchange and deliberation of other ideas than our own), that what is it that is left? Anarchy? There is no question, if you have spent much time around this blog, that I have strong opinions. And, as a Christian pastor, there are certain presuppositions that I have that are fundamental to the way I think and evaluate ideas. At the same time, I have most enjoyed those rare, deep conversations with those from whom I differ, that have been held in respectful ways, carefully evaluating reasons for positions and not seeking to attack the person for holding said opinions. Given that said conversations do still happen in rare circumstances, I wonder (and pray) that the art of debate may one day be revived in our land.

Can I Grumble About It?

“Do all this without grumbling or debate,”

(Philippians 2:14)

Oh my. This is where we so often get ourselves in trouble. We know what the right thing is, we know we ought to do it, we don’t want to do it, but since it is the right thing we do it anyway — grumbling the whole time (at least to ourselves!). And here we go, we have the Apostle Paul telling us that we need to count one another’s needs as greater than our own and that we are to be obedient to Christ’s commands in all ways…but also that we are to do so without griping about it. Oh my. For some, I think that griping is a favorite hobby even, but no, not in the life of the Christian.

God’s interest is not just in our right actions. Were that the case, he would never have rebuked the wayward Israelites regarding their sacrifices…even to the point of saying that he hated and detested them. Why? Because their hearts weren’t in the right place. They believed that if they just performed the ritual in the proper way, then God would be pleased with them. God was not. And Paul echoes to us as well, in the Christian church, that God likewise will not be pleased by our service or by our offering of praise if our heart is in the right place.

Note that this also means that Christians don’t have carte blanche in their worship even if their heart is in the right place. for the Christian, the spirit of obedience must be joined with actions of obedience. Both go rightly together and cannot be separated in a life of faith.

And just in case you are wondering, the words that Paul uses here carry exactly the same connotations in English as they do in Greek. The word goggusmo/ß (gongusmos) means to talk about things in a low voice behind people’s backs or behind the scenes, typically in a way that voices a complaint. The word dialogismo/ß (dialogismos) means to debate or dispute someone’s reasoning…to argue about the conclusions of others. As fond of grumbling about our obedience as we might be, this too needs to be put to death in our lives.

True obedience follows a heart that is committed to Christ in all things and no matter the cost. That kind of heart does not typically develop overnight, but happens through training and conscious decisions to honor Christ in all things. It is a reflection of our love to God and his Son, Jesus. And a heart like this is equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Loved ones, embrace it…oh, and embrace it without grumbling or arguing about it…