Under the Rule of Pirates?
I recently read a passage from St. Augustine that resonated with and challenged me to consider more deeply the steps I take as an individual to contribute to building a good and just world that will still be here several generations from now.
As a parent, I often find it difficult to balance the desire to do great good with the often minute-to-minute needs of my children. To some extent, I feel I have been able to live in the tension of this balance.
Whereas previously, I have shared my thoughts on how to raise socially conscious and empathetic children, the following is more focused on how I believe we, as a community of individuals, can take steps toward creating a world that reflects the values we often try to instill in our children.
As such, I may make points you disagree with, I may draw conclusions you do not like. If that is the case, I invite you to reach out to me through email or private message on our social media accounts. I do not respond to vulgarity or personal attacks other than to acknowledge that the opinion exists but short of that I am willing hear differing opinions and attempt to seek common ground.
That being said, I am (sincerely) always hesitant to share thoughts related to politics. In fact, I don’t much like politics. There is some irony here as my undergraduate degree is in Political Science.
I find political conversations are generally driven more by uninformed policy positions and manipulative propaganda techniques than by nuanced and thorough discussion and understanding. To me, politics as presented by the 24-hour news outlets is often fickle and more of mind with groupthink and the mob mentality.
For me, politics is less about a set of ever-changing stances on (mostly) social and (sometimes) economic issues, and more about the ways in which massive systems of power and authority actively engage decade after decade in disobedience of the law to which they hold private citizens and non-citizens accountable. These systems grow so large that their actions are considered acceptable not by moral or ethical standards but because there is no system that is larger that could possibly hold them accountable. Rather, they are free from accountability, too big to fail.
In truth, my ‘politics’ can be better viewed through the lens of my beliefs about wealth inequality and the subjective application of the rule of law than through the lens of a specific political party. I tend to be slightly conservative in that I prefer slow, sustainable change. But, I also firmly recognize that inequality and injustice does often require a swift and far-reaching response. I also believe there is a moral and ethical imperative for those in the minority to be protected from the potential tyranny of the majority (whether that majority be government institutions, corporate interests or a specific demographic of people.)
In the early 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a book called The City of God. This work touches on a variety of topics, one of which is the danger of unjust rule.
Augustine points out that without just rule, governments are little more than large-scale bands of pirates. [Bracketed words are my addition]
“The band itself is made up of men [legislative bodies]; it is ruled by the authority of a prince [head of the executive branch], it is knit together by the pact [the Constitution] of the confederacy; the booty [tax revenue] is divided by the law agreed on.”
“If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.”
To illustrate his point, Augustine shares a story that comes from the writings of Cicero, a Roman politician and orator, of an exchange between a pirate and Alexander the Great. The pirate was questioned by Alexander why he had terrorized the seas in such manner.
The pirate’s bold response:
“What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”
Augustine’s writing begs the question, have we ever been ruled by a just government or has it always been the band of pirates? Where in our global history can we look to a time when the rule was just?
Over the last few years, I have been drawn to the concept of restorative justice. I find it to be an encouraging theory and model, I agree with much of what I have learned about restorative justice. But, lately, the word restorative has challenged me as I cannot help but wonder to what are we hoping to restore ourselves to?
I understand the use of restoration on the individual level but when applied on a global-scale, to all of humanity, when was there ever a time in which all were treated with adequacy, equity and equality, not merely those who were fortunate to match the demographic characteristics of those who ruled?
I have often heard a lament that goes something like this: “If only things could be how they used to be, everything used to be so much better. People treated each other better, everyone worked hard and had enough.” Though I readily admit that those who lament in such a way are generally sincere in the interpretation of their experiences in years gone past, I fully reject that a return to the often oppressive and demeaning practices and attitudes of yesteryear is the solution.
At best, when viewing history through the criteria of adequacy, equity and equality for all, there have been pockets of just rule. Or at least, there has been good law that has attempted to provide the foundation of just law, though often the enforcement of said law has been lacking.
I am not as well-versed in the history of cultures outside of my own, but within the history of the faith community in which I belong, there can be found many commands that if applied well would result in a community that is justly ruled.
The jubilee year and the treatment of aliens as described in Leviticus and love one another as described in the Gospels are just three such examples.
It would seem the ideals of just rule have always been present, but we often choose to ignore them due to greed, selfishness, fear, and several other reasons all of which are found just as wanting as the ones I listed. So then, again, how do we restore our communities, our country, our world to a state that never existed in the first place?
There’s no easy or simple fix to this question. But, a first step is that our mindset must change. We must evolve in how we view our individual responsibility to those who are different from us, who do not live near us or who even seek to hurt us. Instead of the tribe of Republicans vs. the tribe of Democrats, the tribe of Christians vs. the tribe of all other faiths, the tribe of America vs. the tribe of any other country in the world; we must band together to be one tribe; the tribe of 7 billion plus humans. All of whom are unique and worthy of receiving the opportunity of living a good life that does not come at the harm of others.
There was a beginning to humans. Whether you believe in the creation stories of the faith community to which you belong, the scientific explanation of evolution, or something else altogether, there is a common ground in that once there were no humans, then at some point, humans came into being.
We would be well served to remember that my enemy across the aisle, my enemy across altar, my enemy across the ocean is also my cousin. They are family. And how do we treat family? How do we want our families to treat us? Shall we not aspire to be more than a band of pirates? Shall we not demand to be ruled justly, restored to the highest ideals of our past and future hopes?
I want a government (past, present and future) that rules justly rather than like a band of pirates who have after enough theft and treachery gained the ability to rule with impunity.
The framework for such a just society can be found scattered like ashes throughout the great civilizations of the past. When seeking an answer to perceived present-day immoral and unethical actions, perhaps, we should look to these ashes instead of nostalgia-heavy, childhood memories? And, then instead of lamenting that these past civilizations ultimately failed, we should try again.