If we could just, at last, finally get the right government in! Then we’ll get things fixed. What kind of things? All kinds of things: so that they can be — it always seems to work this way — un-fixed by the next succession of leaders, with their own notions as to how things should work. Because, look, notions of governmental success are as varied as the voters who want them.
And what am I getting at? Aren’t we glad some big changes are in the offing once a new administration takes over in Washington? Considering certain, shall we say, defects in current leadership styles and governing philosophy, the answer is: Yes! Yes, we’re glad. But what then? Can we lock down the improvements, make sure that we don’t have to do this routine again — organizing, agitating, spending millions of dollars, dividing American against American? Evidence regarding that question isn’t encouraging.
The present season — once called Christmas, now semi-officially “the holidays” — affords scope for meditation on stuff quite a bit bigger than Electoral College voting, hacked emails, accusations of foreign interference, prospects for Cabinet and Supreme Court confirmations, that sort of thing.
The first Christmas came amidst distress over — just imagine! — government and governmental questions. The rule of the Romans and their Jewish allies would have been blown away by a good election. But of course there weren’t any elections back then, just notifications of who was the new emperor or king or prefect.
The perpetrators (from the imperial standpoint) of the first Christmas worked around the realities of power and force. These they did not seek to do away with. In their stead they erected something higher: the love of God.
The love of God reframed the human problem. Governments, strong and weak, endured. But government was no longer No. 1. It was an instrument, not an end in itself; a name for human devices of one kind or another, none of them permanent.
Life — the real life — was to be lived elsewhere than in the corridors of power, with their halberds and maces and rifles and bombs. The real life consisted in relationships supervised by the altogether greater power of God: in the practice, that was to say, of duties balanced by freedoms, according to the great plan of God made clear in the accommodation, whatever its form, that drew worshipers to the birthplace of God’s Son. The heart, under this dispensation, was a greater force for good than was the fist, or that which the fist held and wielded. Obedience was not a thing to be enforced; it was the consequence of a love no sword could compel.
The lesson was passed along in succeeding centuries: You could have your government, yes, but what counted was who you were. Were you merely ambitious, or did you have a care for the right things in life? Did you build up or tear down? Did you — for starters — honor things honorable in themselves, such as truth and justice? Or did you throw such stuff to the winds as you sought power and control over others? Did you model for others — most especially those of your own family — the habits of behavior long-dead generations had commended as the virtues: faith, hope, charity, fortitude, prudence and so on? Or did you model pride and greed and lust and sloth?
It mattered. The kind of government you enjoyed — or despised — was likely to reflect your, and your culture’s, appraisal of the human duties prescribed by what was once proudly known as Christian civilization: an entity far removed from debates over hacking and confirmation.
If men were angels, James Madison observed, who’d need government? But clearly they aren’t, and the disputes men — and women — carry on have little about them of angelic character. Which puts one in mind, or it should, of an angelic visitation more inspiring than any gathering of electors or summoning of committees-on-this-and-that. They sang something, did they not, about glory to God in the very, very, very highest: where we might do worse than fix our gaze with increasing attention. If, that is, we manage to raise our noses from the latest poll results, the newest congressional inquiry.
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