Thursday, October 19, 2006

is government necessary?

I was reading today about Thoreau's treatise "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," where he suggested using civil disobedience in order to protest unjust laws, and that if anyone is a truly honest person they will withdraw their support from any government whose laws and practices are promoting something that is against their conscience. So far so good--I agree completely with Mr. Henry David.

But he also talks about his opinion that the best government is the one that governs the least, or that doesn't govern at all. So I was pondering this idea--would we really need government in an ideal world? Or do we just utilize it because it's better than the alternative, an anarchy of individuals who won't live nicely together unless they have some accountability?

I find it interesting--perhaps even ironic--that Quakers, who attempt to have as minimal of a church government as possible, are perhaps one of the most politically active denominations in our country. We have our own fairly well known and respected lobbying group for perhaps one of the smallest American denominations, Friends Committee on National Legislation. We have the American Friends Service Committee which involves itself in worldwide issues relating to how governments are treating people and working on issues that directly affect our government, like conscientious objection. Probably a majority of Quakers...I suppose I'll get into trouble with this one...are democrats or independents or of a party other than republican. Why is this? I think it's because we want the government to continue or begin giving support to those who need it, in the form of social services and schools, etc. We want a government that supports its people in just and equitable ways. (Disclaimer: this is not to say that the republican standpoint could never support people in just and equitable ways, but that the way it is being used currently does not lend itself to such things, in my own humble opinion.)

So it seems that Quakers have kind of a love-hate relationship with government. We don't want it in our religious communities, but we like it in our civil situation.

This brings me back to the question, is government necessary? Perhaps Quakers are trying to live out the ideal world in our communities of faith, where government is not necessary because we're all equal and we all try to live in ways that are loving toward each other. Even so, we have some level of government just to stay organized, although power is shared somewhat more equally than it is in the civil government, and hopefully everyone truly has a voice to say where they think God is directing in Quaker business process.

I guess we "give in" to realism when we support our civil government, because we know that people can't be trusted to live together peacefully and fairly without laws to encourage them to do so, and punishment for crimes. We also realize that some people are given from birth situations in which to live that are unfair, and so we want our government to do something to compensate for that. These are good things, I think, although it would probably be better if people could get their act together and just live together in peace and help each other out when they need it on their own without coercion. But that probably won't happen anytime soon, so I guess having governments is our best option.

One other thing that stood out to me about Thoreau's ideas was that he says that in a government that imprisons people unjustly, the only place where a just person should be is in prison, because otherwise s/he is supporting the ways of that government by living in its society and not protesting. Obviously it is probably possible to live in a society and protest and perhaps not be thrown in jail, but still, this is quite a statement! What are we all doing sitting comfortably at home, when we live under a government that very obviously imprisons people unjustly?


Swallowtail said...

Hi Cherice,

Congrats on the boy inside!

Government... I haven't really thought in depth about this before but I've gradually been appreciating the anarchist point of view more over the years. However, I do believe in government.

The way I look at it is that the world will continually become more complex and this complexity continually requires more organization. Government basically is, or should be, thought of as organization. Don’t think of government in terms of what the current American administration would have you think is government. Think of it as a group of people who decide that they will give up individual control over every single detail of their lives. In turn each person can concentrate on whatever area of specialization they want to while other people handle different details. Organizations are much more efficient this way. I believe in progress for humankind and progress requires efficiency.

This organization of people requires things like justice. Not everyone is going to play fair so we need a system of justice to protect values we agree on. Now agreeing on which values we want is the hard part. I believe in reaching consensus in small groups but majority rule (democracy) is required in the bigger picture.

Unfortunately there is much injustice in this nation of ours and much less democracy than people are led to believe. Thoreau had good ideas for the time he lived in but the world is more complex now. I don’t believe that being in jail will necessarily help anything. On the other hand, most people are content to just sit at home, go about their business, and look the other way anytime the news of the day intrudes on their personal lives. People need to realize that if they keep contributing money to the powers that be (taxes) and keep voting for the status quo, we will lose more and more control over our lives until we will essentially be in a jail of our own making.

I don’t believe that Quakers are promoting our government by taking part in the process. The best way to change a system is from the inside, in a gradual process, without resorting to revolution. The AFSC does a lot of good in the world. Dropping out of government would be like becoming a hermit… and I chose long ago to embrace humankind instead of becoming a hermit.

The Republican Party is no longer the party of minimal government. It is now the party that values money over people and the environment, corporations over people and the environment, war over peace, personal wealth over equity, the rights of a few over justice for all. All that Quakers value are not things that the Republican Party values and this is why most Quakers are not Republicans. But this doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party is the party of good. It just means that in our highly-flawed two-party system, the Democrats are the lesser evil so we need to work within this party to change it and our system of government.

Now that that’s out of my system, I really need to get back to my studies! Thanks for the insight you’ve been providing… yours is the only blog I’ve kept up with in grad school.

Kurt :)

Edward Pearce said...

Hi Cherice,
I don't have time for a well thought out reply now, but will say this much: I think most Quakers would agree with the Anabaptist view that if we all exibited the fruits of the Spirit in our daily lives, there would be no need for governments, but sadly that is not the case. Governments are necessary because most people do not live Spirit led lives. For most people, even a bad government is better than no government at all. We have the responsibility to live in such a way that we do not need governing by outside forces, and hope that what we do and say will set an example for others. However, to resist government because we feel we do not need it is irresponsible. There maybe specific practices of government that we can effect change on by resistance, but the general contempt for government without working for something better to replace it is not productive.

Thanks for all your thought provoking blogs.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Cherice!

I think you are accurately describing the feelings of a lot of modern liberal Quakers when you say that they "don't want (government) in (their) religious communities, but ... like it in (their) civil situation."

Modern libertarian Quakers would say that they don't want government in either sphere.

And modern socially-conservative Quakers, in FUM/EFI/Holiness pastoral communities, would say they approve of government in both places.

In this case, the socially-conservative Quakers are the ones closest to the original Quaker position. A large number of the early Quaker leaders were graduates of Cromwell's New Model Army, which sought to establish God's Kingdom on Earth in England, and most Friends in the 1650s hoped strongly for the success of that endeavor. Fox and other early Quaker leaders lobbied Cromwell, Parliament, and (later) the King, seeking their agreement to follow through on various of the original social and religious goals of the Puritan Revolution. Some of the political essays and appeals to government that they wrote make deeply affecting reading today.

But all this was not inconsistent with the early Friends' view of how Quakerism itself should be organized. They believed in a strong church government as well -- one with strong social-welfare policies! Unlike modern liberal Quakers who believe that meeting decisions should be made by "consensus" of the members, they believed that the purpose of a meeting for business is to discover the will of God in a matter and then hasten to obey it. So they believed in a type of government which would be rightly described as "pneumocracy" -- government by the living Spirit of Christ -- and they believed it should be strictly obeyed in all its rulings.

The early Quaker meeting for business, conceived in such a way, was the court of the King of Heaven and Earth, and all the Friends present were the King's courtiers. Courtiers in a worldly court "wait upon" the will of their king, leaping to do whatever the king commands as soon as he expresses his will, hoping thereby to gain his favor and advancement. Early Friends sought to do much the same with God. Thus Friends described their worship, not as "silent worship", but as waiting worship. The central point of their worship was not contemplation or peaceful stillness, but being owned and rightly led by the Lord of Healing and Righteousness!

(This term, by the way, "waiting worship", still survives among conservative Friends today. And I wrote about this kind of worship at somewhat greater length in my essay "To a friend visiting a Friends meeting for the first time", which you're welcome to read if you're curious.)

Even a generation ago, this view of Quakerism was still strong. One of the two volumes of London Yearly Meeting's book of discipline, clear up into the 1990s, was titled simply, Church government. Now I guess the liberal end of Quakerism has forgotten it. But it doesn't deserve to be forgotten. Obedience to the government of Christ actually makes for a much happier life than "decisions by consensus" do.

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Zach Alexander said...

I think it's definitely ironic, if not contradictory, that Quakers (at least Hicksites) are so internally anarchistic and yet so unreflectively gung-ho about civil government. Which is the main reason why I see anarchism as the political philosophy that fits most naturally with Quakerism. (Probably more pragmatic/evolutionary varieties of anarchism though... Friends have always been "moderate radicals.") Or maybe left-libertarianism.

Anyway, I think Kurt got Republicans about right, though I don't at all see how it follows that "in our highly-flawed two-party system, the Democrats are the lesser evil so we need to work within this party to change it and our system of government."

I can confirm what you say about Friends and civil government – I was just reading some Richard Hubberthorne, and was surprised by just how much he kept hammering on the need for the government to prosecute "drunkards."

As for Meeting for Business, I'm not sure what liberal Quaker circles you've spent time in, but in the ones I've spent the past several years, Meeting for Business as a search for the truth about Something that transcends mere human consensus – and can sometimes overrule it when a Friend won't stand aside – is alive and well. It's something we struggle to always remember and practice, but it's quite another thing to claim that liberal Friends have "forgotten" this conception of MfB, and "believe[s] that meeting decisions should be made by 'consensus' of the members."

Anonymous said...

Hi, Zach!

Your final paragraph suggests that you misunderstood what I was saying here.

I was not saying that liberal Friends have forgotten that corporate decisions are supposed to be made by something more than consensus.

What I was saying, rather, is that liberal Friends have forgotten that our Society is designed to be centered on a genuine government -- a government by the Spirit of Christ as discerned by the corporate body -- to which we individual members owe a concrete obedience.

And since this idea has been forgotten, in any important case where the will of Christ, as discerned by the meeting, does not accord with some individual member's own wishes, the individual doesn't obey.

This has been particularly observable in recent years in the cases of corporate decisions regarding same-sex marriage and gay ministry. When a decision is made, the losing minority faction, on whichever side the losing minority turns out to be, routinely either disregards the larger group's discernment, or else secedes from the larger group.

The phrase "church government" doesn't truthfully describe such a situation.

Liz Opp said...

Hmm. Here's an interesting coincidence, regarding Friends and being imprisoned for one's beliefs and for bearing witness to God's Truth.

I was typing up the lyrics to the song "George Fox," and I saw there is a line that I have often heard sung as

For the Light is forever and the Light it is free/
and I'll walk in the glory of the Light, said he.

But that line is the alternate version of what was apparently the original verse to the song:

You can lock me in prison but the Light will be free/
and I'll walk in the glory of the Light, said he.

It made me realize that many modern Friends, myself included, have defined "bearing witness to the Truth" in ways that don't incovenience us as much as early Friends were "inconvenienced."

Just a thought.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective; thanks for sharing your ideas.
Might I add: the truth needs no disclaimers, regardless of potential hurt feelings.

Unknown said...

Thanks for all the insights! In my own yearly meeting (Northwest) we have a system of government but it's supposed to be fairly minimal, and meetings for worship for business are supposed to be based on consensus of what all those present feel to be the calling of the Spirit on that topic. But our government is pretty loose. I like it this way to some degree--I'm glad we don't vote!!! And I'm glad our meetings for business at yearly meeting sessions are open to all, not just representatives,e tc. Sometimes it feels too relaxed, because it's hard to get anything done, and sometimes it feels to bureaucratic because certain people/groups have more power than others and it's not always power of the Spirit...


The "alternate" version that you talk about is the way we've always sung it! It's really funny trying to sing that song in groups of "mixed Friends" because everyone has a different melody and variant words. I'd never heard your version before, though.