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Posts from the ‘form-of-life’ Category

Pascal on other-wordly longing

A beautiful though long reading from one of my classes today.
From Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

246 [536-434]

The chief arguments of the sceptics- I pass over the lesser ones- are that we have no certainty of the truth of these principles apart from faith and revelation, except in so far as we naturally perceive them in ourselves. Now this natural intuition is not a convincing proof of their truth; since, having no certainty, apart from faith, whether man was created by a good God, or by a wicked demon, or by chance, it is doubtful whether these principles given to us are true, or false, or uncertain, according to our origin. Again, no person is certain, apart from faith, whether he is awake or sleeps, seeing that during sleep we believe that we are awake as firmly as we do when we are awake; we believe that we see space, figure, and motion; we are aware of the passage of time, we measure it; and in fact we act as if we were awake. So that half of our life being passed in sleep, we have on our own admission no idea of truth, whatever we may imagine. As all our intuitions are, then, illusions, who knows whether the other half of our life, in which we think we are awake, is not another sleep a little different from the former, from which we awake when we suppose ourselves asleep?

And who doubts that, if we dreamt in company, and the dreams chanced to agree, which is common enough, and if we were always alone when awake, we should believe that matters were reversed? In short, as we often dream that we dream, heaping dream upon dream, may it not be that this half of our life, wherein we think ourselves awake, is itself only a dream on which the others are grafted, from which we wake at death, during which we have as few principles of truth and good as during natural sleep, these different thoughts which disturb us being perhaps only illusions like the flight of time and the vain fancies of our dreams? These are the chief arguments on one side and the other.

I omit minor ones, such as the sceptical talk against the impressions of custom, education, manners, country and the like. Though these influence the majority of common folk, who dogmatise only on shallow foundations, they are upset by the least breath of the sceptics. We have only to see their books if we are not sufficiently convinced of this, and we shall very quickly become so, perhaps too much.

I notice the only strong point of the dogmatists, namely, that, speaking in good faith and sincerely, we cannot doubt natural principles. Against this the sceptics set up in one word the uncertainty of our origin, which includes that of our nature. The dogmatists have been trying to answer this objection ever since the world began.

So there is open war among men, in which each must take a part and side either with dogmatism or scepticism. For he who thinks to remain neutral is above all a sceptic. This neutrality is the essence of the sect; he who is not against them is essentially for them. In this appears their advantage. They are not for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent, in suspense as to all things, even themselves being no exception.

What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent. Shall he, then, say, on the contrary, that he certainly possesses truth- he who, when pressed ever so little, can show no title to it and is forced to let go his hold?

What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!

Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them. Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God. For in fact, if man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are, and more so than if there were no greatness in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and can not reach it. We perceive an image of truth and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we have thus been manifestly in a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.

It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. For what is more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than to damn eternally an infant incapable of will, for a sin wherein he seems to have so little a share that it was committed six thousand years before he was in existence? Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.

The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man. Whence it seems that God, willing to render the difficulty of our existence unintelligible to ourselves, has concealed the knot so high, or, better speaking, so low, that we are quite incapable of reaching it; so that it is not by the proud exertions of our reason, but by the simple submissions of reason, that we can truly know ourselves.

These foundations, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, make us know that there are two truths of faith equally certain: the one, that man, in the state of creation, or in that of grace, is raised above all nature, made like unto God and sharing in His divinity; the other, that in the state of corruption and sin, he is fallen from this state and made like unto the beasts. These two propositions are equally sound and certain.

Scripture manifestly declares this to us, when it says in some places: Deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum [ Prov. 8. 31. “And my delights were with the sons of men.”]. Effundam spiritum meum super omnem carnem [Joel 2. 28. “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.”]. Dii estis [ Ps. 82 .6. “Ye are gods.”], etc.; and in other places, Omnis caro faenum [Is. 40. 6. “All flesh is grass.”]. Homo assimilatus est jumentis insipientibus, et similis factus est illis [ Ps. 49. 12,13. “He is like the beasts that perish; this their way is their folly.]. Dixi in corde meo de filiis hominum [ Eccles. 3. 18. “I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men.”].

Whence it clearly seems that man by grace is made like unto God, and a partaker in His divinity, and that without grace he is like unto the brute beasts.

247 [853-438]

If man is not made for God, why is he happy only in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God?

Christ, the τέλος of the Law

Paul writes that Christ is the “end of the law” (NASB) [“τέλος γὰρ νόμου Χριστὸς” (GNT)] (Romans 10:4). This is not a very straightforward phrase, because “τέλος” could mean several different things.

Is Christ the end of the law, as in, the goal of the law? A similar usage to the Westminster confession’s first statement “the chief end of man” meaning the very purpose and direction in which something is supposed to act. In this interpretation the law convicts men of their sin, without providing the solution, because Christ is that solution.

Is Christ the end of the law, as in, the illustrative or thematic culmination of the law? This would be a covenantal, Biblical theology type answer where the various parts of the OT law were retrospectively indicative of various parts of Christ’s atonement. For example the “end” of the priestly class is Christ, the “end” of the ritual sacrifices is Christ, the “end” of ceremonial uncleanliness is Christ, etc.

Is Christ the end of the law, as in, he terminates the law? S Lewis Johnson interprets this to mean that “the old order, the legal age, is done away in Christ, even as a hypothetical means of salvation (no one could be saved by the Law, for all men are sinners, Christ excluded; cf. Gal. 3:10, 11, 12),” and claims that this is likely the force of the text.

If the third interpretation is correct (which it seems to me for those reasons and also from the context of verses 1-4), then doesn’t that directly contradict the other NT statements that the Law will never pass away, that Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and so on? I am thinking in particular of Matthew 5:17-20. Does Paul’s statement on the Law not oppose Christ’s, and if not, how do I understand both of them?


From study notes by S Lewis Johnson.

Repost: Augustine: What is Government without Justice?


[Repost from this link]

St. Augustine states that kingdoms without justice are mere robberies, and robberies are like small kingdoms; but large Empires are piracy writ large (5th C)


St. Augustine (354-430), in Book IV of The City of God, relates the story about the pirate who had been seized and brought before Alexander the Great. The cheeky pirate asks Alexander what is the real difference between a pirate and an emperor apart from the scale of action

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

  1. HOW LIKE KINGDOMS WITHOUT JUSTICE ARE TO ROBBERIES.Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”


    I shall not therefore stay to inquire what sort of men Romulus gathered together, seeing he deliberated much about them,—how, being assumed out of that life they led into the fellowship of his city, they might cease to think of the punishment they deserved, the fear of which had driven them to greater villainies; so that henceforth they might be made more peaceable members of society. But this I say, that the Roman empire, which by subduing many nations had already grown great and an object of universal dread, was itself greatly alarmed, and only with much difficulty avoided a disastrous overthrow, because a mere handful of gladiators in Campania, escaping from the games, had recruited a great army, appointed three generals, and most widely and cruelly devastated Italy. Let them say what god aided these men, so that from a small and contemptible band of robbers they attained to a kingdom, feared even by the Romans, who had such great forces and fortresses. Or will they deny that they were divinely aided because they did not last long? As if, indeed, the life of any man whatever lasted long. In that case, too, the gods aid no one to reign, since all individuals quickly die; nor is sovereign power to be reckoned a benefit, because in a little time in every man, and thus in all of them one by one, it vanishes like a vapor. For what does it matter to those who worshipped the gods under Romulus, and are long since dead, that after their death the Roman empire has grown so great, while they plead their causes before the powers beneath? Whether those causes are good or bad, it matters not to the question before us. And this is to be understood of all those who carry with them the heavy burden of their actions, having in the few days of their life swiftly and hurriedly passed over the stage of the imperial office, although the office itself has lasted through long spaces of time, being filled by a constant succession of dying men. If, however, even those benefits which last only for the shortest time are to be ascribed to the aid of the gods, these gladiators were not a little aided, who broke the bonds of their servile condition, fled, escaped, raised a great and most powerful army, obedient to the will and orders of their chiefs and much feared by the Roman majesty, and remaining unsubdued by several Roman generals, seized many places, and, having won very many victories, enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested, and, until at last they were conquered, which was done with the utmost difficulty, lived sublime and dominant. But let us come to greater matters.


    Justinus, who wrote Greek or rather foreign history in Latin, and briefly, like Trogus Pompeius whom he followed, begins his work thus: “In the beginning of the affairs of peoples and nations the government was in the hands of kings, who were raised to the height of this majesty not by courting the people, but by the knowledge good men had of their moderation. The people were held bound by no laws; the decisions of the princes were instead of laws. It was the custom to guard rather than to extend the boundaries of the empire; and kingdoms were kept within the bounds of each ruler’s native land. Ninus king of the Assyrians first of all, through new lust of empire, changed the old and, as it were, ancestral custom of nations. He first made war on his neighbors, and wholly subdued as far as to the frontiers of Libya the nations as yet untrained to resist.” And a little after he says: “Ninus established by constant possession the greatness of the authority he had gained. Having mastered his nearest neighbors, he went on to others, strengthened by the accession of forces, and by making each fresh victory the instrument of that which followed, subdued the nations of the whole East.” Now, with whatever fidelity to fact either he or Trogus may in general have written—for that they sometimes told lies is shown by other more trustworthy writers—yet it is agreed among other authors, that the kingdom of the Assyrians was extended far and wide by King Ninus. And it lasted so long, that the Roman empire has not yet attained the same age; for, as those write who have treated of chronological history, this kingdom endured for twelve hundred and forty years from the first year in which Ninus began to reign, until it was transferred to the Medes. But to make war on your neighbors, and thence to proceed to others, and through mere lust of dominion to crush and subdue people who do you no harm, what else is this to be called than great robbery

There is another king, one called Jesus

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. 

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd, But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. (Acts 17:1-9, NIV)


Paul and company have traveled about 100 miles in the first sentence of this chapter. He arrives in Thessalonica and “reasoned with” the Jews. This verb translates from the original language as dialegomai, the same word that English speakers today use as dialogue, the conversation between at least two people. Paul’s dialegomai with these Jews extended beyond greetings and small talk; he “explained and proved” the real concept of Messianism, not as a political savior but as a suffering savior.

The common view among first century Jews of the messianic hope was especially informed by the Roman occupation. During the intertestimental period, the Jews living in Palestine were subjected to various ruling empires, depending on the century. Persia, Greece, Egypt, at one point the Jews themselves again, and finally Rome. Also, the prophetic literature of the post-exilic Jews began to narrow down the concept of God’s redemption into messianism; God would redeem the descendants of Abraham through a single person who would restore political control to the throne of David.

What the Jewish people and especially teachers of the scriptures did not expect was that the messiah would return to overthrow the tyranny of sin, not the tyranny of Rome. No political solution would be given — give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. When Peter attacks the soldier arresting Jesus, his rebuke is simple: they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. If Jesus had come to fight a war, his disciples would be killed in that battle.

Instead, they would all die in a different way, many years later, some at the hands of the very same ruling elites. But not now, not yet. Jesus goes on trial before the Roman governor over Palestine and says that “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.”

So then, the messiah did not meet expectations. He acted outside of, parallel to the political system. He didn’t come to establish a kingdom on earth; he came to establish the kingdom of heaven.

Buried deep in this analysis lies the assumption that the kingdoms of heaven and earth are separate.

The Jewish people never expected the suffering Messiah whom Paul explains in verse 3. They never conceived of resurrection for the Messiah himself; of all people, he should be immutable, unchanging, representative in some way of God’s own character. Imagine the shock on their faces as they first hear teachers of Jesus of Nazareth — that treasonous villager whom someone mentioned years earlier, and whom they promptly forgot as another failed messiah.

Paul and his company then face a pre-trial for defying the decree of Caesar. Caesar had allowed any religion to exist, so long as among their various gods they included him. To polytheists this was not an issue; to the monotheists, the tension was between imminent government persecution and worshiping the one true God. Note that the Jews were totally comfortable undermining Paul’s public credibility by pointing this out, which clearly implies that the Jews themselves had been complying with the emperor worship in some way.

I think that the Jewish accusers accidentally misrepresent Paul more favorably than they intended. Paul, in making the point that Jesus is king, doesn’t discount that Caesar also is a king. Caesar being the emperor of Rome is just a fact. But Paul isn’t merely placing Jesus as a second parallel king; Jesus is a second, superior king. Though their domains are established adjacent, Jesus’s power extends far beyond and even within that of Caesar’s rule. This undermines the autonomous authority of the emperor.

There is indeed another king, one called Jesus. His citizens are not of this world, because his kingdom is not of this world. We hold dual citizenship and every day must tease out the boundary lines between our allegiance to Christ and our subjection to the earthly rulers. But whenever these priorities conflict, we know which to follow — and which is supremely greater.

Time and The Telephone

Five years ago I became involved in a Christian Facebook group called [redacted group name] focused on discernment of false doctrine, exposing those who teach it, and understanding the implications of end-time prophecy.

Every day, at least several times, Facebook notifies me of someone posting in the group, someone commenting on an existing post in the group, and such.

Every day. For five years.

I remember the day quite well that the group began as an outgrowth of comments on the Worldview Weekend page and some social networking that occurred between the most involved commenters. I was sitting in my living room, having just started 8th grade, wondering how my birthday party would go the following week, with each of the two cats (both alive at the time) lounging around. It was a lazy afternoon and I even remember the initial ping when Facebook notified me that I’d been added to [redacted group name].

Five years ago today also happens to mark Hurricane Irene’s destruction along the East Coast, which killed around fifty people if my memory holds true and caused several billion dollars in damage.

I’ve been reminded of Irene approximately zero times since 2011, though I still remember watching Channel One News in the eighth grade as journalists documented the absolute havoc it left.

The contrast between the beginning of [redacted group name] and Irene comes in how long ago they feel. In a strange sort of nostalgic skewing, I remember, despite its complete insignificance in my life and in the overall narrative of the human race, that first day in the Facebook group more recently than I remember Irene’s touchdown. Two memories can operate on independent time lines, where events that occurred the same time ago feel eons apart until we force ourselves to accept that they happened together.

What causes nostalgic skewing? I would speculate that increasing the number of iterations between then and now would decrease how long it feels internally.

In his essay The Telephone Anwar Accawi tells the dynamics of his childhood village and how they change when a villager purchases a telephone. Throughout his essay Accawi addresses the flow of time and how it “didn’t mean much to anybody, except maybe those who were dying.” His descriptions of village life focus on time as notional, one day bluring into the next much like shades of yellow blur into shades of blue and somewhere between existed green, but none could say when. Accawi writes that

“in those days, there was no real need for a calendar or a watch to keep track of the hours, days, months, and years. We knew what to do and when to do it, just as the Iraqi geese knew when to fly north, driven by the hot wind that blew in from the desert, and the ewes knew when to give birth to wet lambs that stood on long, shaky legs in the chilly March wind. The only timepiece we had need of then was the sun. It rose and set, and the seasons rolled by, and we sowed seed and harvested and ate and played… We lived and loved and toiled and died without ever needing to know what year it was, or even the time of day.”

This lifestyle comes into sharp relief against the American society which Accawi’s family would later enter. Americans hustle. We rush to work, to meetings within work, to complete projects by a deadline (deadline as in: if you miss this date, you are dead). The mentality of punctuality is predicated on everyone knowing the proper time. In all, we posses an increased awareness of and sensitivity to time.

We’ve been conditioned for this since first grade. Elementary school children live from bell to bell and have no concept of education without segmented and mutually exclusive subjects. This became so widespread that teachers in my school were met with incredible resistance for attempting to require one essay from science class, one science problem consulted in math class, one or more science-based books read in reading class, and such. Each course belongs where it belongs, when it belongs.

When we pack our days with activities, they feel shorter. When we pack our schedule with six AP classes and sports here and church activities there, they feel shorter. 24 hours still exist in the day. Around 16 hours still exist in the waking day. Yet time moves differently based on the degree to which the activities in it vary.

Time doesn’t necessarily fly when having fun; time flies when segmented.

I’ve experienced this contrast in moving to college. Rather than seven class periods of equal length and a very regimented daily routine, I have two hours of class at random times in the day, with the rest left for an amorphous glob of activities called “studying.” The days feel different. Time doesn’t escape me. Rather, I can barely escape it.

For a final example, Accawi’s village uses a system of tracking years (when they think to do so) using natural events to set the time. One woman was born “shortly after the big snow that caused the roof on the mayor’s house to cave in.”

When did the big snow come? It came “about the time we had the big earthquake that cracked the wall in the east room.”

Accawi remarks, “Well, that was enough for me. You couldn’t be more accurate than that, now, could you?”


A few years ago I ordered James Davison Hunter’s book To Change The World.

He offers some tidy categories to understand how Christians interact with the world, he analyzes each, and presents his solution. I read this as a high school sophomore and it was a few years out of my comfort zone; I spent nearly 50 hours on the 286 pages.

I won’t try to re-articulate Hunter’s thesis- I can’t do it- just buy the book- or listen to this– but one smaller idea from the book recurred to me yesterday.

So I decided to return to JDH’s book for further reading. I’m collecting quotes as support for a future argument, but I’m posting them here, along with some current events commentary, for the public good.

I scanned the index for “politicization” and found these quotes, given in full paragraphs for context.

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily though the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them. (103)

JDH has just asserted that modern American society defines almost everything relative to the State (and those things not included are quickly becoming included), rather than relative to some other category, or just in and of itself. How do we see this effect in society?

Politicization is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicization provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological politicization is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content. (103)

Politicization impacts not just system-level factors, but individuals and the way they generate solutions to public issues:

My purpose here is not to suggest that the outcome of any particular issue is good or bad but rather to observe the historical tendency, in recent decades, toward the politicization of everything. This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues. (106)

This narrow focus on politics as the solution to all public issues leads to coercion, or more often the threat of coercion.

The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of a common culture and, in turn, the competition among factions to dominate others on their own terms. Our times amply demonstrate that it is far easier to force one’s will on others through legal and political means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them. (107)

Later in the book JDH makes the argument (in many words) that democracy and the State, while related in many obvious ways, are fundamentally different. This has some implications: chiefly that the state is usually not subject to the popular will, but more interestingly that

there are no political solutions to the problems most people care about. Politics can provide a platform for dissent and procedures for establishing public order and, as just noted, the state can address administrative problems. This is what it is designed to accomplish, but this only happens through accommodation, compromise, and conciliation. The state can also address some of the legal and administrative aspects of these problems and in this way either help or hinder the resolution of value-based problems. Laws that prohibit discrimination against minorities are one important illustration of the constructive influence of the state. And while politics can only do so much, it is also true that bad politics can do truly horrific things. These are all good reasons to be involved in the work of creating and maintaining good government. The issue is really one of the appropriate expectations one should have of the state and its instruments. (171)

So after conceding that the State is itself amoral, he acknowledges its limitations:

What the state cannot do is provide fully satisfying solutions to the problems of values in our society. There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of “family values,” the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency or the spread of vulgarity. But because the state is a clumsy instrument and finally rooted in coercion, it will always fail to adequately or directly address the human elements of these problems; the elements that make them poignant in the first place. As a rule, when the state does become involved in such matters, its actions can often create more problems through unintended consequences, not fewer. (171)

At best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited. It is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it. It is true that laws are not neutral. They do reflect values. But laws cannot generate values, or instill values, or settle the conflict over values. The belief that the state could help us care more for the poor and the elderly, slow the disintegration of traditional values, generate respect among different groups, or create civic pride, is mostly illusory. It imputes far too much capacity to the state and the to the political process. (171)

The central problem underpinning all of the above limitations:

Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power- not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere.  It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics. The problem is that the impulse toward politicization extends to the politicization of values. This means that the autonomy of moral criteria on which a higher practice of politics depends is increasingly lost. Today, most of the ideals and values that are discussed in public have acquired political content and connotations. Fairness? Equity? Justice? Liberty? These have come to have little or no meaning outside of the realm of politics. The other ideals and values that are discussed in public have been largely reduced to instruments for one side or another in the quest for power. Decency, morality, hope, marriage, family, and children are important values but they have become political slogans. (172)

I don’t think that JDH’s book argues for decentralized government, although that isn’t always bad either. Instead, it argues (specifically to Christians) we ought to see the public sphere as more than just the political sphere, and find other ways outside of the coercive structure of the State to solve public problems.

The thought that prompted this delve back into To Change The World was that perhaps the problems of structural racism displayed by current events involving black civilians and white officers do have a structural origin, but the structure isn’t a political one. JDH contradicts this hypothesis with his concession that “Laws that prohibit discrimination against minorities are one important illustration of the constructive influence of the state,” so maybe political solutions do exist specifically in the category of racial tension and resolution.

But problems like gentrification, street gangs in all-minority neighborhoods, legacy college applications, entrenched subconscious perceptions of other races, and more are all problems that, while having a political solution, can mostly be solved only though social or moral campaigns, individualized incentives, private charity, or other apolitical means.

So I remain skeptical that the main solution to questions of race require political consideration at all. We all know that, in the coming months, pundits will try to politicize even further questions of race and policing (oh wait, they already have), and the solution to that is definitely not political.