For [the governing authority] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is why you pay taxes for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” Romans 13:4-7.
Point by Point
- I once found myself caught up in a tiny dragnet which was sweeping a store for shoplifters
- Instead of apologies, I got sent packing after I was found innocent but my best friend admitted his guilt!
- He had stolen candy
- He had plenty of money with him to pay for the candy
- Although he would never talk about it, I think he was just seeing if he could get away with it
- That was the motive of Leopold and Loeb in 1921: a perfect crime
- There are people today who believe they are special, who believe they are above all law and convention
- They need to be nabbed; brought down to the earth
- There are special people today who are buying elections and closing down democracy
- We need to rediscover our heritage before the special people foreclose our future
How many of us have been struck at some time with a sudden desire to “liberate” some little thing from a store or a home in which we are guests? My most vivid memory of such a thing happened when I was with my best friend in high school. We had just left the campus and we had stopped at the local drug store as much to chat with others who were hanging out there as to buy anything. We had been wandering around the store for about ten minutes when Bill (not his real name) came up to me and said, “We better go or we’ll miss the next bus.”
“Right,” I said, as we headed for the door.
What happened next happened fast. Strong arms grabbed me and held me tight. “Stay right there!” a voice behind me ordered. “You’re not going anywhere!”
I remember my face flushed hot and I struggled just a bit at the indignity of being held fast. The hands on my arms assured me I was not getting free to go anywhere. Soon the police arrived and Bill and I were turned over to them by the pharmacists who had corralled us on suspicion of shoplifting.
Shoplifting! I was amazed. Not that I had never considered doing such a thing. There is a warm, nasty place in the back alley of my imagination where I have entertained shoplifting and any number of his slimy, pilfering friends at one time or another. But I am an introvert! To actually do such a thing? Imagining an evil act is much safer and less liable than actually doing an evil, thank you very much! Notice, I did not say, less sinful. Jesus cleared up that ambiguity. To entertain a nasty, damp thought in one’s imagination is not much less damaging to the soul than actually doing it, at least because doing a wrong thing is likely to get you caught and just thinking about it will never get you caught unless, like me today, you find yourself writing an accidental confession on a blog over forty years after the fact.
So, having only imagined such a behavior as shoplifting, I was (inappropriately) indignant at being nabbed by the pharmacists and the “Coppers” for something which had never actually proceeded from my soul (inside) to my strength (outside). I was a bit frightened and embarrassed by the whole incident but I knew with the certainty of youth, we would be found to be innocent men any minute and then pharmacological apologies would be in order, our reputations would be restored and we would proceed outside in the sight of all our peers, free men, our heads held high.
Of course, instead, the unthinkable happened. My friend confessed! Reluctantly, Bill pulled several candy bars from his pockets. I’m sure my shocked stare at Bill was a funny sight for anyone who observed the scene. I was likely mouth-open and capable of catching stray flies had it not been mid-winter.
You see, I respected Bill, admired him, even. He was the last person I would have ever pegged as a thief. He was witty and smart and full of energy and verve. He also came from well-to-do parents. He had a more than adequate upper middle class teenager’s allowance and as his pockets were searched by the constabulary, money was produced, more than enough to have purchased the stolen sweets.
I was released when I was found to be candy-less, but I remember no apology. In a daze I left Bill there; indeed, I was ordered out of the store. I made my bus. I went home, oddly feeling a bit ashamed, as though somehow my friend’s guilt had transferred to me, not gotten on my clothes but on my conscience, my inner resolve that since I was a Christian, I should act like one.
I tried only once to discuss the incident with Bill. He did not want to talk. He did his best bravado to paper it all over as a lark, but I gather he was detained until his mother came down from the far other side of town to retrieve him. Introvert that I am, I utilized Bill’s brush with the law as my brush and after that, I rarely ever entertained shoplifting anywhere in my imagination. Mine was one of those very good, almost storybook stories where in the end, someone else’s crime really does pay off as a lesson well learned. As I teach regularly in a federal prison, I know there are far less happy chapters in some other people’s stories.
I think the thing which separates Bill’s story from so many others is that his foray into the dark side was not the act of a desperate man, trying to feed himself or his family. He had the money in his pocket. He apparently just wanted to find out if he could get away with something.
In the third decade of the last century, two young men from Chicago decided they wanted to find out what it would be like to get away with a “perfect crime,” to murder someone and get away with it. Their names echo through the story of the last ninety years: Leopold and Loeb. Their crime was actually quite stupid, messy, random and far from perfect and they were soon apprehended. The thing the Chicago police could not understand was the complete lack of remorse and what to them seemed like a lack of a real motive: the desire to commit a perfect crime for its own sake.
Leopold and Loeb were two young men who had read about Nietzsche’s Superman and believed themselves to be accountable to none, superior to all and beyond the strictures which bound lesser men. They saw themselves as the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder, superior to other men in the same way men were superior to apes. Whatever they wanted, it was good to want by definition, because they were the “definers” of good and evil for an emerging new world. In their view, the laws of mere men could not bind the “übermensch” or supermen in any way. Leopold and Loeb found out otherwise in very short order.
On a sliding scale, my friend Bill was no Leopold and Loeb, but perhaps a streak of the thinking which leads to the superman theory and then on to libertarianism and even to anarchism ran through Bill, at least on that day in that candy aisle. There is, after all, in such a viewpoint, a well-developed sense of entitlement. Whatever the übermensch wants, should be his and the strictures of the old rules must not be allowed to bind him. Keeping anything from the supermen would be like binding the proto-humans of our evolutionary past and forcing them to remain apes!
Am I reading too much into Bill’s mindset on the day he decided the laws of the state of Illinois no-longer applied to him? Sure I am, and yet I do not think for a minute that Bill was unacquainted with Thus Spake Zarathustra or The Will to Power. He fancied himself an intellectual, and was known to quote Nietzsche as well as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
To be sure, most people have not read much nihilist philosophy. Yet, whether clearly articulated or not, there is a Nietzsche-esque attitude which many people hold today: the idea that some people, and certainly they themselves, are special but that most people are not. The unwritten creed of the special people:
- Others need to keep the laws and the rules: I do not.
- Others are common and ordinary: I am are special.
- Others need to clean up messes: I only make them.
- Others are bound by mores and convention: I am free to do what I feel.
- Others have to work for a living: I am entitled to whatever I have and can get.
- Others need to contribute to the common good: not me; I take.
- Others need to pay taxes and obey traffic laws: I am beyond all that.
- Others are the bit players in the drama: I am the star.
- Others serve the system; the system, to the extent it has value, exists to serve me.
- Anyone who crosses me, interferes with the elemental forces of the universe.
Sometimes you see this special entitlement attitude among those who have been given welfare checks for far too long and have not lifted a finger to take care of themselves in years, if ever. Sometimes you see it among those who have benefited from family trust funds all their lives. This “superman” and “superwoman” sense of entitlement on the inside, in the soul, leads to life choices which amount to thievery as a normal behavior because, and after all, the super-people are special and the world owes them everything.
Fortunately, those who hold this way of thinking and living constitutes a small minority in this big world. Unfortunately, some of these special people are very rich and very powerful. The poor übermensch are irritating because they make nuisances of themselves. The rich übermensch are quite dangerous because some of them see institutions like representative democracy, and government of, for and by the people, as merely human convention and as a damn nuisance which must be co-opted and subverted to suit their ends. Unfortunately, some of the rich übermensch have truly vast resources and they are happy to spend millions to buy judges and legislators and members of Congress and even Senators in order to get the laws changed to reduce their taxes down to nothing (let the middle-class suckers pay taxes), to reduce government services to nothing (let the sucker pay for things themselves) slash money for schools, roads, bridges and bike trails, in order to protect their growing billions.
Bill was, at least on that one occasion, nabbed. His superman-ish, above-the-law mindset was stopped cold by mere, human, drug store guys and proletarian, blue-collar cops at least that once. Not that the incident crushed his mindset. I remember one time during our college years a discussion about “Nominalism” and whether anything was really anything until he, the mover and doer, decided what it really was. (If you are unfamiliar with Nominalism, Christian friend, trust me and do not go there; there is nothing wholesome in that view, unless you are God: only God can be a Nominalist with impunity.) So perhaps Bill continued to see himself as a truly superior being; he was apparently never really “nabbed” in his heart of hearts; he remained a small, finite god.
And what of those wealthy persons in our country who would reshape our society until what we have held in common: libraries, police forces, fire departments, parks, schools, etc., has all been sold off and we pay fee-for-services for everything. In the vision of the special people about thirty-six families will control all the assets and resources, fifteen percent of us will fearfully serve them, constantly worried we will lose the last remaining good jobs, and eighty percent of us show up at the manpower office on our local street, praying that we be the one in six who gets a job that day. What are we to do about the special people who hold most of the cards today and are working hard to buy up all the rest? Will those of us who believe democracy is a gift from God worth fighting for wake up and push back before there is no way left, no laws left, with which to nab these very “special” thieves?
Democracy is at stake: fight back against the something for nothing crowd!
Lord Jesus, I know you never give up on anything you have made but it is very hard to be like you. Please hear the prayers of many American Christians. Our frustrations are building. We feel like much that made our nation great is being lost; that the legacy of our nation is draining away. We are not the so-called “Blame America First” crowd (if such a crowd exists) nor are we their opponents. We are concerned that what was once a generous spirit is being lost in smallness of mind and heart; that a proud nation of independent people are watching as the systems and structures that made us the first modern republican democracy are purchased by a precious few people who have money and power to burn, attack ad by attack ad. Please nab the thieves, we pray, dear Lord, before our common life and all its power-to-the-people political will and strength are lost, drowned in billions of dollars of campaign blitz that twist the truth and urge us to vote against our own self-interest. Help us to become a discerning people, Lord, a people who can smell jingoism and demagoguery a mile away; who can sort out true cogent criticism from smear tactic and who can find the voices which speak for justice/righteousness even when they must speak quickly and without four-color glossies because they lack the corporate millions in financing. Help us Lord, a people whose highest court has forgotten what “persons” are and has tipped the scales of influence and power away from people and toward the interests of the special, wealthy few. Before voting outcomes are regularly and always lost in shifty algorithms, before, as our founders feared, our nation, never conquered by outside forces, is bought off and lost due to avarice and greed from within, help us to rise up, to care, to be vigilant again, to retain and regain the precious gift of choosing our own leaders, accountable to us!
In Jesus’ name! Amen