The Seat of the Pharisees

From within the American tradition, perhaps the strangest of Jesus’ teachings is found in passing in the final discourse recorded in the Gospel of Matthew before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. (Matthew 23:2,3a ESV)

This text is remarkable because the Pharisees are known best to us from the gospels as the hypocritical opponents of Jesus.  Even here Matthew’s record immediately passes back to further warnings against the Pharisees – “but [do] not [do] the works they do.” (Matt. 23:3b)  The rest of the chapter is taken up with various warnings against those works, and condemnation of the Pharisees for corrupting the Law of Moses.

This is surprising as well because Jesus had often invoked His superior authority as the Christ to correct Pharisaic teaching or justify His deviation from their illegitimate standards.  Further, this instruction is recorded as happening shortly before the Resurrection and Ascension, briefly after which the Church would be declared free of the Mosaic regulations.  Still, that could be explained: Jesus reminding His disciples to maintain deference to a legitimate authority until its rule passed away.  We are, after all, not ourselves the Christ.

I still find it difficult to face, because Christ here commands obedience to authorities who immediately are identified as evil.  Duty to authorities is hardly an uncommon theme in Scripture.  But the difficulties are not always framed so starkly.  Where David respects the kingship of Saul, he is still a fugitive and we know from long familiarity David’s story ends, as we judge these things, happily.  Christ and the Apostles teach respect for all authority, but usually somewhat separated from condemnations of that authority or even warnings of suffering inflicted by evil rulers.  Here we have the immediate contrast, which leaves no doubt about the Christian principle of submission to authority.

There is one clearly Scriptural remedy against rulers who abuse their authority: flight.  From the Exodus to David’s adventures mentioned above to Elijah’s sojurn in Phoenicia to Mary and Joseph’s flight back to Egypt, and then in Jesus’ instructions to flee the seige of Jerusalem, Peter’s supernaturally-aided escape from prison, and various escapades of Paul, running away from evil is always seen as legitimate.  (Almost always: Jeremiah records a prophetic warning not to flee from – or fight – the conquering Babylonians but rather surrender.)

In contrast, the favored American arguments, of throwing up law and legitimacy against usurping acts of the authorities, stands Scripturally on shakier ground.  In Biblical terms, the authority of a position seems to be personal and to come from having been put in a position of authority.  The odd rebellion is instigated at divine command, but the framing is that God is judging the ruler.  Allowing for a nation to have formally endorsed a rule “by the people”, it would seem that their representatives would still retain even abused authority until removed.

However, it is also the case that what the Reformed often call lesser magistrates are not bound to enforce unjust or unlawful commands from superiors.  Jonathan defended David against Saul; Ahab’s minister Obadiah protected the prophets; Agrippa would have freed Paul except for Paul’s own appeal to Caesar’s court itself.  In more modern terms, we might recognize this as the principle which has declared “just following orders” an insufficient excuse for immoral conduct.

In many areas there is growing concern about abuse of authority, and thus how we are to respond.  We may find ourselves faced with a necessity to refuse unjust requirements – and then to flee or accept unjust retribution, which is persecution for righteousness’ sake that Christ says is a sign of promised blessing.  But the elements outlined above suggest active resistance – in contrast to this non-violent witness – is not the role of the private citizen acting on his own.  It is of course possible for subordinate authorities to fail to act; it is possible for subordinate authorities to resist improperly what are in fact just commands.  But I conclude that to identify legitimate resistance to tyranny, the Christian should look for movements being led by or at the very least cooperating with those other authorities which are given for our good in this world.

Police, Anecdotally

With regard to the recent killings of Americans by American police, and subsequent protests, two rhetorical positions are being taken which are essentially incoherent.  There is one attitude which talks of revolution and issues often obscene threats against the police – and then assumes that in every physically violent confrontation between protestors and police, the police are at fault.  The idea of a hostile mob which can be restrained to only react to its targets is laughable.

But at least that stance has a certain thoughtless consistency.  More baffling is the assumption of those who purport to care about law and order, but are unwilling to entertain the idea that the police are ever at fault.  In the American civil tradition, built originally on a distrust of the powerful, this is baffling in a way it might not be if rulers and administrators were assumed to stand outside or above the law.  An unshakeable assumption of police – or other official – innocence is in fact to slide back towards that frame of mind, where the appearance of stability is valued over justice.

An acquaintance suggested the other day that it would be possible to identify which jurisdictions still police properly and which have fallen into a security mentality by noting where the bright blue associated with the police is still worn, and where departments have adopted other or darker colors.  The idea appears plausible: good police should want their role to be clear, and that is a positive role: as Chesterton, while well aware of abuses, noted, the linguistic roots of “police” and “polite” are the same.  I have of course no idea how one could substantiate this supposal, and would further assume that a study would find many exceptions even should it prove a general rule.

What I do have ideas about are things that have happened to me.  Outside the city – and often inside – I suspect the majority of public encounters with police have to do with traffic; especially as it’s rather rare (and I have been told in some jurisdictions intentionally avoided or even proscribed) for police officers to be out on the public streets without a report of crime.  Apart from the occasional time I’ve been in the vicinity of other police activity, this has certainly been true for me.  I’ve picked up my share of speeding tickets, properly given all but in passing and duly paid, but the following are all experiences I have had:

  • I was pulled over for running a red light.  The officer said, likely because I had no other record, that if I reported to pay the fine on the indicated day, he would rewrite the ticket for a lesser offence with a lower fine and no record.  This happened.
  • I received a ticket, well away from home, for speeding on a highway.  Several months later, I received a refund, with the code used for tickets issued in error.  The ticket had not been either an error or unfair; there did, however, appear to be a sherrif up for re-election in the county the ticket was issued in.
  • A significant time after I had moved into an apartment, residents began receiving tickets for parking on a nearby bridge, which had not been posted as a no parking zone.  According to city ordinances, that bridge was in fact in a class which was not supposed to be free for parking: but after a couple months, I assume their were complaints – I myself noted the inconsistency and lack of a sign when I paid the fine – and tickets were no longer issued and people began parking on the bridge again.
  • A left hand turn lane was blocked by police apparently assisting at an accident: I needed to turn left and following other traffic turned left from the next lane over.  The second car of the two at the first incident pulled me over.  The officer asked if I had been drinking, which I had earlier, and naturally the officer performed a few sobriety tests, including eventually asking me to blow through a breathalyzer.  At this point he implied I would be arrested if I refused, and refused to tell me what would happen, either way, after the test.  I passed, and he again implied he would have preferred to arrest me but was now constrained by the result.  I did receive a warning for the left turn – which noted my race as Hispanic, which by my appearance seems an unusual assumption which even the dim lighting of the fast food restaurant parking lot doesn’t quite seem to justify.
  • I received a ticket for parking in a bus lane, which I had done.  The amount of the ticket was significantly higher than prescribed by city ordinance.  On consulting with more knowledgeable persons including a local police officer I knew, I was told if I contested the ticket what was most likely was that I would end up paying the ticket, that it was unlikely to be reduced and even if it was I would still pay the (relatively nominal) court costs in addition; or, if the issuing officer happened to be unavailable, it would be thrown out completely because it would be too much of a hassle to sort it out at another date.  In the end I paid the ticket as given.

There’s a theme that runs through these incidents: control, especially of information.  I value information, and I’m relatively good at finding it: in most cases I was able to look up the relevant statutes fairly easily.  But of course that doesn’t apply in the moment, and we see that even if we set the use of force aside, ignorance is a weakness against even a claim of information.

I’m willing to look at any single incident and find excuses that could provide re-interpretation of events.  A cop trying to give a kid a break; a new guy on the job trying to do the job; and so forth.  But I suspect there are a lot of people with similar stories, if they were told.  It’s not like I’ve been particularly inconvenienced by any of the results.  I’m unlikely to be considered a threat, by normal stereotypes, so at any of these times the money really was the only likely cost.   And the money from fines I probably would have spent on books or games or other recreation – and I already have the money to spend on more books than I have shelves for.  But put these same incidents in the lives of a class liable to be considered a risk, or for whom fines represent more than a couple hours’ work, and we are talking about very different conseqences.

After one of the previous police killings in recent years, during following protesting, my pastor at the time – for those to whom it’s significant, a black pastor of a multiracial congregation – made a point of saying in church on Sunday that there were undoubtedly corrupt policmen, flawed practices, and irresponsible departments, but respect was still demanded: that the police did still go out and stand in the way of actual trouble-makers, and that if all the police were to simply quit or refuse to do their jobs, the eruption of violence and trouble would remind us right away why we have police to begin with.  And that’s merely omission of a current good: really clearing away the institutions we have would be far worse.

Revolution is a far messier business than protestors mostly remember to begin with.  However, while I doubt that Jefferson’s description of the formation of governments in the opening of the Declaration of Independence should be taken as prescriptive, but historically it certainly seems descriptive.  Eventually, abuses not corrected lead to revolution: the task is to correct them.

Some Thoughts about Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire is perhaps the best film which has been made about an athletic feat.  It twines together – with extensive substitution of the dramatic scene for already remarkable fact – the stories of Eric Liddell’s and Harold Abrahams’ preparation for the Paris Olympic games of 1924.  The Olympics merely provide the stage.  The true subjects of the film are faith and inclusion.  Liddell famously refused for conscience’ sake to run his best event due to a heat scheduled on a Sunday; Abrahams saw himself – here the film may understate the matter – as bound to show he could be fully both Jewish and a loyal Englishman.

I first saw the film as a child and have rewatched it several times over the years: it remains a favorite.  As a child, it was easy enough to understand the themes and classify the characters.  Liddell and Abrahams are clearly the protagonists of the story.  Their friends and teammates play roles of positive support.

However, the films strikingly different moral themes provokes asymmetric sympathies in quantity and type.  The British and Olympic bureaucracy are, if not quite villains, at least antagonists for Liddell.  The supremacy of the conscience in morality I had been taught already.  I would suppose I would not yet have known the formal phrasing of the Reformed dictum, “Christ alone is Lord of the conscience,” but the principle was already fixed, as well as the fact that Christ had warned us quite clearly that those who follow Him will face opposition which should be counted as an honor.  Liddell’s heroism was therefore clear and his vindication obvious and justified.

In contrast, the masters of Caius appear to wish to repress Abrahams but take no overt action: on a surface viewing Abrahams has no clear opposition beyond his own frustrations.  He was therefore a much less compelling character to my younger mind.  I had not yet been led to consider the question of inclusion as unsettled.  In fact I doubt the racial animosities Abrahams faces would have been portrayed in the same way had the issue appeared as unsettled politically as it does today.  Abrahams’ friend makes a thoughtless joke based on a stereotype and remains a friend; an unknowing order of pork (on a first date, as we would say today) is treated as a colossal joke; the masters of Caius may attribute Abrahams’ intransigence to his Jewish race but the legitimacy of their positions is not called into question as a result.  Abrahams desires to prove his loyalty despite being mistreated; the legitimacy, even the requirement, of that loyalty is not up for discussion.

On a more mature viewing, subtleties emerge.  The friend and the girl make the mistakes, but they realize them immediately.  The masters of Caius make their assumptions in oblivious self-righteousness and not to Abrahams’ face.  Worse, after attempting to force Abrahams away from his chosen methods, they comfortably assume the glory of his medal, assuring themselves that they foresaw the victory.  On a naive viewing, this seemed a kind of victory for Abrahams; to a more experienced eye, the hypocrisy stands out.  It is all too easy to imagine their reactions had Abrahams failed at the Olympics.  Worse, Abrahams’ Arab-Italian coach is found excluded from the Olympic stands, apparently even as a spectator: again the naive viewing can see this as a result of the professionalism question, but the mature eye is forced to consider the possibility of racism when Mussabini’s ancestry was so pointedly highlighted earlier.

Chariots of Fire opens and closes not with Liddell or in balance but in reflection on Abrahams.  The film’s creator David Puttnam – who produced this film which had a sort of direction by committee of its stars – had a Jewish mother himself and it is not hard to see his sympathies lying more particularly with Harold Abrahams.  In fact it seems almost miraculous that the difficulties of Liddell’s conscientiousness towards his ministry and strict keeping of the Lord’s Day are portrayed as well as they are – or then again, perhaps not, as one understood difficulty of loyalties might easily inform one’s understanding of another, per Terence’s declaration of human unity.

But a hint of a question remains about Abrahams.  He desires to prove he belongs by succeeding.  He succeeded, and found a kind of belonging.  But there is a reading of subtext, I think, which suggests that to Puttnam his understanding was, if not wrong, incomplete.  Mussabini follows the same logic, but it buys him no acceptance.  The masters of Caius follow the same logic, but they are not shown to be trustworthy.  Sibyl appeals to a form of the argument, but markedly does not fully accept or understand it.  Her truer appreciation of Abrahams’ own worth is shown by her comprehension and advocacy for the love of a good thing.  There is no real virtue in accepting only that which has already proved the benefits to one’s own self or society.  It is quite clear to the audience that Abrahams would in every sense be a true Englishman and credit to his country had he failed even to make the Olympic team: it is sincerely to be doubted whether we have all learned that lesson as comprehensively as we should have.