Thomas Schirrmacher
Relevant ProMundis Blogposts

All People are Sinners, part 4

24. November 2014 von · Leave a Comment 

A foundation for democracy

In the last blog we saw that the statement “all people are sinners” has eminent socio-political and political significance. The statement that all people are sinners also constitutes a significant foundation for democracy and is among the reasons why almost all countries which formerly were Christian countries are today democracies (see my essay “Demokratie und christliche Ethik“  [Translation of the tile: “Democracy and Christian Ethics”] in Politik und Zeitgeschichte 14/2009 (March 30, 2009): 21-26).

Christianity by its very nature is self-critical (whether that has always been the case in reality is another story) as well as being mistrustful. This is due to the fact that everyone – beginning with him or herself – and not only on a rare occasion – allows oneself one blunder or another. Our everyday life is marked by this characteristic, acting as an egoist to do damage to ourselves and to others. And this stain on human nature shapes our understanding of politics and the dangers it presents.

In 1532 Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince as an instruction manual for power-hungry rulers. What is always decisive is the final result. His view was that the masses always support the winner and, with the benefit of hindsight, they revere all the means which brought him there.

It is as correct that the winner always writes history as it is morally objectionable when the powerful only rule in order to possess power and to benefit themselves. Addressing this problem, the German oath of office (Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Articles 56 and 64) for the Federal Government reads: “I swear that I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, promote their welfare, protect them from harm …  and do justice to all. So help me God.”

In order to prevent the abuse of power, a separation of powers has been anchored in the United States Constitution, known as “checks and balances,” as well as via other mechanisms, for instance the limitation on the term in office for the President to no more than two terms of four years each. These checks and balances refer to mutual controls (checks) on constitutional organs of a state in order to produce a system oriented toward the success of the whole through a partial balance of power. It is, above all, put into place in order to guard against dictatorship. It has less to do with a strict separation of powers and more to do with mutual avenues for intervention, control, and accountability, for which reason the interlacing of powers is a significant aspect of the separation of powers.

Democracy has a lot to do with the question of how potential dictators can be removed and how one can get rid of lousy politicians and politicians who misuse their power.

Sir Karl Popper formulated this appropriately in 1960:

“Who should rule? This question, which begs for an authoritarian answer, such as ‘the best’ or ‘the wisest,’ or ‘the people,’ or ‘the majority’. … It should be replaced by a completely different question, such as: ‘How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers (whom we should try not to get but whom we so easily might get all the same) cannot do too much damage?’” (“Erkenntnis ohne Autorität” [English translation: “Knowledge without Authority”], pp. 26-39 in Karl Popper. Lesebuch. Tübingen: Mohr, 2000, p. 32).

In 1989 in “Freiheit und intellektuelle Verantwortung” (English version: “Freedom and Intellectual Responsibility”), Popper discussed this in more detail (Karl P. Popper. Alles leben ist Problemlösen [English version: All Life is Problem Solving], pp. 239-254; additional articles on democracy pp. 207-238; a good excerpt is “Wer soll herrschen” [English title: “Who should rule?“], actually from Karl P. Popper. Alle Menschen sind Philosophen [English translation of the title: Everyone is a Philosopher] München: Piper, 2002, pp. 211-218; see also “Worauf es in der Demokratie ankommt,“ [English translation of the title: “What matters in Democracy,”] pp. 219-227). Popper understands democracy to be less “rule by the people” than it is “people’s court.” Democracy is not a way to find the best rulers, and it is also no guarantee of good decisions (“A dictatorship of the majority can be horrible for the minority”). Rather, it is the answer to the question “How can we so mold the constitution of the state so that the government can be disposed of without the shedding of blood?”

Initially, if not so completely clearly, Popper presented these thoughts in 1944 in his criticism of Plato in a section entitled “The Principle of Leadership” (Karl R. Popper. Der Zauber Platons. Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde, Vol. 1. Bern: Francke, 1957, pp. 169-174; [English Version: The Spell of Plato. The Open Society and Its Enemies]; first English version 1944; composed 1938-1943). According to Popper, the question is not who should rule. Rather, in addition to limiting power, the question which leads to democracy is how one can peacefully dispose of bad rulers (ibid., pp. 170-173).

 “…  then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government … it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? with the new question: How can we organize political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?“ (p. 170, German version). “I am inclined to think that rulers have rarely been above the average, either morally or intellectually, and often below it. And I think that it is reasonable to adopt, in politics, the principle of preparing as well as we can for the worst, though we should, of course, at the same time try to get the best“ (p. 172, German version).

“Thus, a paradox of democracy is the question of what one should do if the people want to elect a tyrant” (p. 173, German version).

The thought of democracy is thus inseparably linked with the thought that there can be bad rulers who plan and do evil. The experience of history teaches that democracy, better than any other form of government, can better prevent tyranny, human rights violations, and too great an abuse of power. Christians always assume the tendency of people to commit evil and for that reason consider it wise for no individual to achieve too great a concentration of power.

The separation of power in a democracy is a consequence of the Christian viewpoint that all people tend towards evil, and, for that reason, it is not a rare occasion when rulers and politicians use their power for evil. Rather, the probability is very great, indeed almost inevitable, when there are no limits and controls. This does not mean that one has to be a Christian in order to advocate a separation of power (otherwise, I would certainly not have cited Popper). However, viewed historically, this is simply the origin of the idea. And it is, for instance, one of the reasons why Islamic states, for the most part, have not established a democratic separation of power. This is the case even though a separation of power is just as simple to install in the constitution of a Muslim state as anywhere else. Yet Islam has a very optimistic view of humankind and sees evil only in unbelief and with non-believers and not in oneself. This is the case, even if in principle democracy is just as able to be practiced there; they lack the idea that politicians with good intentions might end up doing the opposite.

If humans were so good and noble, as many make them out to be, we would not need parliamentary controls, no constitutional courts to control the government, no investigating committees, and no critical press.

Again: It is not the case that only Christians are able to justify a separation of power or able to implement it. However, whoever believes only in the goodness of humankind does not actually require a separation of power. Democracy is the form of government which most soberly and naturally takes evil into account and does not want to give anyone so much power that his or her susceptibility to temptation and to evil planning and action could single-handedly drag many or even everyone into the abyss.

The financial markets show what happens when the inclination towards evil is not soberly taken into account and curbed by a separation of powers and control mechanisms. A single greedy chief executive officer can nowadays bring the world to the edge of the abyss. It is astonishing how few people make a connection to the question of evil in humankind, and even less with respect to themselves individually, in spite of all the terror it causes.

All people are sinners, part 3

20. November 2014 von · Leave a Comment 

A Basis for fighting social and structural evil

In my last two blog entries, I addressed the statement “all people are sinners.” This statement also has noteworthy sociopolitical and political significance.

The statement means that we, as Christians, do not see all sorts of social problems only as structural problems which can solely be combated with enlightenment, (re-) education, and political programs.

Behind torture, racism, hyper-capitalism, the oppression of women, and child sexual abuse – to name only a few social problems – lies the reality of sin, and as much as we might want to battle the consequences of sin locally, as much as we also want to address structural evil politically and from an overall societal standpoint, behind this is an eerie commonality which – even if it is in a suppressed form – forces its way into public view. Too many people intentionally do not use the possible ways whereby we could all do better. Rather, they attempt to obtain an advantage for themselves, even if they have to sometimes act as if they are concerned for the common good. (In Luke 22:25 Jesus said, “… and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.”)

Forms of evil such as envy, greed, hatred, and Schadenfreude (pleasure from the misfortune of others) repeatedly show their hideous face in greater and lesser matters. Without a view of the entire picture, every individual who champions sociopolitical causes remains unrealistic in his estimation of the opportunities. We have to soberly realize that the root of great social maladies is evil, i.e., sin – which dwells within many individuals as well as within social structures.

Without hatred, envy, pride, and lies, there is no racism. Without greed, addiction, and deceit, there is no exploitation. Without a lust for power and a lack of self-control, there is no abuse and sexual violence.

It is as Jesus said: It is not that which comes from without which makes us evil. Rather, it is that which comes from within us (Matthew 15:18–20, Mark 7:18–23). (Naturally, the evil which comes out of us is then malice for others that does come from outside. We are also affected by evil coming out from others individually or as structural, socially solidified sin from without.) It is not only people living after Sigmund Freud who know what sort of abyss can open up within themselves.

It is not only the claim that all people are made by God in his image that provides the foundation for public policies founded on the basis of a Christian idea of humankind. Rather, it also includes the idea that every individual can fall into temptation. Every person has to deal with the possibility that a person can surprisingly and suddenly fall from heights into severe depths. Exemplary politicians can suddenly be bribed, peaceful citizens can suddenly turn to violence, or they convert and become religious terrorists.

Christians should never say: “I would never have thought that was possible,” or “That could never have happened to me.” Indeed, everything is possible, and good politics takes this into account and makes provisions for it in order to prevent the worst. The church, using good New Testament judgment, knows that their own leaders can become a danger (e.g., Acts 20:30)! Everyone is capable of misusing power, priests with the power they hold over children, parents with the power they have over their sweet little ones, and anti-corruption agents with the power they have over their co-workers.

There are people who want to utilize radioactive materials against others. One does not have to wait until there is a reasonable concrete suspicion or discuss whether this or that individual will really strike. Rather, one has to plan now and make provisions. This is due to the fact that the evil which one can think and plan can also be carried out. Where the misjudgment led that thought Hitler would not act as evilly as he spoke and wrote is visible for all to see (comp. the introduction to my book Hitler’s _Kriegsreligion [English title translation of the title: Hitler’s War Religion]).

To be continued …

All people are sinners, part 2

16. November 2014 von · Leave a Comment 

Judeo-Christian anthropology (the study of humankind) lives with a peculiar tension. On the one hand, humanity is created in “the image of God” and endowed with unbelievable abilities and complexity. On the other hand, humankind has turned away from God as a “sinner” and is capable of staggeringly evil thoughts and deeds. On the one hand, evil in the world (coming from the state, for instance) can only be addressed through limitation, hindrance, and punishment. And on the other hand, it can only be addressed with forgiveness, grace, peacemaking, and reconciliation.

Let us choose our children as an example. They are viewed as images of God, and they need guidance and encouragement in order to develop the abilities given to them by God. This is the case whether these abilities are intellectual or artistic, literary or interpersonal. An independent personality subject to his or her Creator is the goal of child-rearing. Child-rearing is not an end in itself. Rather, it targets a time when the one to be brought up takes on complete responsibility for his or her life.

At the same time, children are seen as people who, owing to their sin, no longer live according to their original purpose. For that reason, they need to be educated away from evil. This includes admonition, limits, and punishment as well as the gracious attention, counsel, and encouragement to experience a fresh start.

All People are Sinners, part 1

14. November 2014 von · Leave a Comment 

Is this a claim of faith or of reason?

When Christians make divine revelation the point of departure for their thinking, this does not mean that they believe something nonsensical or that revelation is essentially divested of reasonable justification such that it cannot be discussed. It only means that God and, more specifically, revelation can make statements which cannot be grasped in their entirety, such that we first comprehend them after we have accepted them and understand what they mean through everyday life.

Let us choose an example: A biblical statement which Christian doctrine has integrated is that all people are sinners. That statement, for instance, can only be believed and not proved, for how can anyone conduct an investigation of all people? And who could be unbiased in evaluating every individual? Who knows all people, let alone knows them so well that such a judgment can be made about them? And who would want to make such a judgment about people of other cultures, about those who have died, or even those who are yet to be born in the future and to document this scientifically? Only the Creator has such knowledge – and the justice and righteousness – to make such an all-encompassing statement.

Does that mean, however, that the statement only rests upon blind faith and contradicts all reason? No. Though the essential statement is too broad for us, yet it is confirmed and, in that sense “proved” by reason day by day in us individually, in the people we know, and in humanity at large (in our coming to know them through media coverage, for instance). For that reason, the Bible incessantly sees substantiation of its basic statement that all people are sinners through specific individuals, examples, and sins. We all tangibly lie, hate specific people, let others sense our avarice, and live at the expense of others. Moreover, the only reason there is racism and people starving, to state it in concrete terms, is because there are people involved.

Since we have never met anyone about whom we could say that he is not a sinner, our statement, made on the basis of divine revelation, turns out to be correct and sensible. It is so because, to the extent that verification is possible, it corresponds to reality. No individual has ever known a person who was selfless, loving, and gallant from the time he or she was small, and who has never cheated or lied. Even Mother Teresa, who demonstrated selflessness on the whole, was not always simple in her daily dealings and, in addition to great, earth-shattering words, she also uttered many a peculiar political statement.

By making the statement that everyone is a sinner is far from saying in detail what sin is. But no matter how sin is defined in particular, as that which is wrong, or what is evil, you will not find an individual who is completely free of it.

It is mysterious to me how one can basically proceed on the assumption that the Bible and Christianity are wrong when they speak about all people’s tending towards that which is evil. Do people who dispute this deal with other people than the people I deal with? Do they read other newspapers than I do? And have they never heard of the philosophical insight: “Man is a wolf to man” (Latin: ‘homo homini lupus est’)?

No Church without Missions – No Missions without Freedom

7. November 2014 von · Leave a Comment 

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarifies the Relationship between Truth and Religious Freedom

A few days after the second encyclical was issued 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI on the hope of Christians, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented a subtly cautious “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization“ (2008), a very far-reaching and meaningful declaration. Even if it does not have the rank of an encyclical, only the Pope himself can endorse such a Doctrinal Note and ‘mandate its publication.’ Additionally, Pope Benedict was once the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor of the once feared top inquisition authorities, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is still the most important congregation of the Catholic Church, being responsible for doctrine and ethics. And after the choice of the Pope, the appointment of Cardinal William Levada as the Prefect of this Congregation was one of Pope Benedict’s first official acts.

The Doctrinal Note follows the example of the book on Jesus by the Pope and his second encyclical in which he – unlike what was common under John Paul II – formulates in a manner which is commonly Christian in many respects. Every act on the part of the Church has “a foundational evangelizing dimension,” which even applies to its social action. The “missionary command of the Lord” may not go “unheard and ineffective,” for the Church gives up itself and its essence if it stops proclaiming the gospel. This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) is seen as Christian truth par excellence, which no Christian can deny or subordinate in any situation. The striking parallels and demarcation to the Islamic profession of faith, that there is only one God and Mohammed is his Prophet appears to be deliberate, and the Doctrinal Note can even be understood as a welcome reaction to the letter from 138 Muslim scholars to the Pope and other church leaders.

Even where the indispensability of the Church with respect to missions is described, the formulation is such that a Protestant can also agree. This holds even if the view behind that surely goes unexpressed, i.e., that it is the Roman Catholic Church alone, organized in apostolic succession, which is truly able to fulfill this assignment. Only one of the five sections speaks on a topic entitled “Some ecumenical implications“ and contains formulations in only a few sentences which have led to sharp reactions by Protestant churches. The Congregation has namely defended the rights of Catholics to witness to the Catholic faith to other churches and Christians and the right of non-Catholics to join the Catholic Church. For non-Catholics, however, that is something which is a matter of course. They take umbrage at the fact that this conversion is interpreted as a working of the Holy Spirit, according to which “the fullness of the means of salvation“are offered which other churches apparently do not have. Since, however, every form of ’pressure’ is forbidden and apart from that the formulation is rather invested with common ground, these sections, however, go more into the category of friendly statements over recent years and in the direction of ecumenism.

However, what is truly serious is that the Doctrinal Note takes up the action of an ethical codex for missions without expressly calling it that, on which the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance are working together. The Doctrinal Note clearly and in detail repeatedly espouses religious freedom and issues a condemnation against any mixture of evangelization and political pressure, deception, and any range of advantages offered or other means which do not target conviction or persuasion of the heart. By the way, this also applies when a Christian is enticed away from his faith.

At the same time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes a very meaningful clarification for all churches, for it proclaims clearly and unambiguously that its right to evangelization comes from divine right. Likewise, however, it makes claims for religious freedom in the political arena. For all that, religious freedom only means to coexist peacefully and respectfully with adherents of other religions and for evangelization to renounce force, pressure, threats, and other unfair means. Religious freedom does not mean, however, that Christian revelation is put on the same level with other religions and does not presuppose religious ecumenism.

This should actually unite all churches: Evangelization and the proclamation of truth do not exclude the desire for peaceful and free co-existence with people who think differently. Rather, they are inclusive. One can have both: taking a stand for religious freedom and democracy, all the while clutching unswervingly to the truth of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Thomas Schirrmacher