A Man Under Authority

“I tell you the truth; I have not seen such faith even in Israel!”

An awful lot has been said about this incident between the Roman centurion and the Son of Man. People have interpreted the centurion’s comments about being “a man under authority” in all sorts of ways. Some of them are definitely weird – like claiming that this teaches that the Kingdom of God is a hierarchy like the Roman Army – but others seem to make some sort of sense.

It’s a puzzling statement, though, and I thought we might take a look at it.

The situation is that one of the local Roman occupying troops’ commanders has a servant who is seriously ill.

In a time before antibiotics, the understanding of germ theory or modern medicine, the likelihood was that if you got sick you would probably die. And even if you survived, you might be seriously weakened or blinded or something like that. This isn’t a mild case of a 24-hour stomach bug or something. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the man’s servant was near death.

But the man is a Roman, an oppressor. A member of the army of occupation tasked with keeping the people of God down. If this was the American Revolution, he’d be a commander of the Redcoats. If this was World War 2, he’d be in the Gestapo.

But this man isn’t like your regular run-of-the-mill oppressor. He seems to be what was known as a “God-fearer”; that is, someone who respected and worshipped Israel’s God, but who had not taken the step of getting circumcised as a full Jew.

Some respected members of the local community come to Jesus and ask Him to do something about the situation. Apparently the centurion had heard about Jesus and put them up to it, but whether because he thought they’d stand a better chance of persuading Him, or as a tactful way of approaching someone who might be the Messiah without looking like he was coming to arrest Him, we are not told.

Asking the One who might well be your long-awaited Messiah-King to do something nice for someone in your oppressors’ army is potentially an impolitic thing to do, but the community elders have an answer for that.

“This man deserves to have You do this for him because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue!” He may be a Roman, but he’s demonstrated that he loves our nation and our God as surely as Rahab hiding the spies or Jael taking a tent peg to Sisera. You can do this without compromising Your Messiah-hood.

There may be an element of works mentality here on the part of at least the elders who come to Jesus asking Him to do this. I’ve heard it said that this shows that they thought that it was the man’s works of building the synagogue and loving Israel that made him merit Jesus’ help. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. And in either case, it is evident from what follows that the centurion himself was under no illusions in this regard. All the giving to build the synagogue that the Bible records that he had done was done out of pure love for God, not to try and make God love him. God loves him anyway, whatever he does or doesn’t do. This is what “unmerited favour” means.

Jesus agrees to go to him, but while he’s still some way from the house, the centurion sends a messenger, with the message that has prompted so many thoughts and interpretations.

“Lord, I don’t deserve to have You come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one ‘go’ and he goes. I tell that one ‘come’ and he comes. I tell my servant ‘do this’ and it is done.”

I know I’ve done nothing that should merit Your special favour. I didn’t build the synagogue just to earn points with You. But if You want to do this, just say the word, and I know it will be done.

I know that no mere man has the authority You do to heal diseases and cast out demons. That authority is God’s, and He exercises it in You. And the reason I know this is that my authority isn’t my own, either; it comes from above. That’s the reason I can just issue a command to my men and have them do it. They are being commanded by the Roman Army, not just me. If it was just me in my own self I’d have to stand over them to make sure it was done, but it isn’t. To my men, I embody the Army. It’s the Army issuing the commands. Just say the word, because I know that it’s the same as God saying the word. You embody Him; He acts through You.

It really is an extraordinary demonstration of faith, not just that Jesus could heal at a distance but in Who Jesus is.

Somehow this Roman had stumbled into faith that Jesus is God before even the Twelve had got there. No wonder even Jesus is amazed!

The Prodigal Father

I related to American depictions of the father/child relationship a lot more as a child than I do as a dad.

Americans, it seems, are obsessed with this relationship. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Ariel and King Triton. Gru and his girls. The dad in The LEGO Movie. And it’s all the same story.

The father is aloof and cold. Or actively cruel and heartless. Or overbearing. Or a fool. Or simply overprotective. Or not there at all. Vader is actively evil. Gru is cold. Triton is overbearing and overprotective. Green Lantern is absent. Even the parents in Frozen lock their daughter up “for her own good”.

This can’t be how American dads actually behave; I know too many good ones. Surely they can’t all be exceptions; if they are, it makes America seem downright scary. Where are the fathers who are actively involved in their kids’ lives? Who encourage their kids to explore and be creative? Who are actually competent? Who, get this, act like real Dads?

British media don’t obsess about the father/child relationship in the same way. You might see a dad who’s a fool, but the focus is usually on the dysfunction between him and his wife, not between him and his children. Being a sap with his kids is incidental.

No, it’s just American media that obsess about the relationship.

The PBS Kids show Sid the Science Kid seems to be a lone exception to this. Sid’s Dad is competent on his own ground (he’s a construction worker, not an intellectual), present in the family, loves his wife and kids, is actively involved in their lives, is not afraid to defer to his wife’s expertise in areas of her competency, and encourages his children to explore. But Sid’s dad seems an almost solitary light in the paternal darkness of US film and TV. Gru in Despicable Me 2 is pretty good, but he acts more like a playmate than a father, and we had to see him become Good Dad in the first movie.

And a whole lot of everything else is dysfunction.

More, it’s all the dad’s fault. Always. Vader must be brought to the light side. Gru’s heart must be changed. Triton must let his daughter swim and be free. The dad in the LEGO Movie must awaken to his son’s creativity and stop being so controlling. The child may be rebellious, a runaway, a disgrace, but it was their father who drove them to it. They were just trying to express Who They Really Are. As a dad, it’s… uncomfortable.

We can see that it’s the dad’s fault, because itVs the dad that has to repent. The child may have to make some sort of surface “apology” for running away or “letting you down” or whatever, but it’s the father who has to truly repent. Show me a scenario in American media where it’s the child who has to grow up, repent and change. No; this is for the Dad to do.

As a child with a not-entirely-working relationship with my own dad, this was great news! I didn’t need to do anything; it was his fault!

As a man, I’ve come to realise that my dad was right a lot more than I cared to admit back then. Characterising it as All His Fault isn’t fair. I contributed to the mess.

I’ve become a dad now. I know a lot of dads. They aren’t like this media picture. I don’t think I’m like this.

If this isn’t a real reflection of the real state of American families, and I don’t believe it is, what is going on here?

Personally I blame the American War of Independence.

Yeah, it’s easy for me to come in as a Brit and blame everything on the piece of American history that I still can’t quite get my heart around. But put the Thirteen Colonies in the role of the child and Britain in the role of the father and the two are one and the same. Britain may be a motherland, when we think of her at all that way, but here, we are the Father. The Authority, with a capital “A”.

In this context, the child has to be right because the child is America. The father has to be demonstrably cruel and overbearing, because that justifies the child’s actions. The child isn’t being an uncontrollable rebellious brat in dire need of loving discipline in order to become who they can be, they’re just expressing Who They Really Are Right Now. They need to be Understood and Accepted, and everything will magically become OK.

I don’t know if this is really what’s going on, but it explains a lot. This is the story in most American writers’ hearts because America itself feels like their “dad” Britain Just Doesn’t Get It.

But it leaves me with questions. If this is really the case, what do you want from us, America? The Revolutionary War wasn’t entirely the fairy tale you envisage. The “evil British tyrants” weren’t doing things just to be cruel, any more than the American colonists were rebelling because they were ungrateful scoundrels who thought that everything revolved around them.

America is a grown-up nation however that happened. We don’t (seriously) hold the Revolutionary War against you. I have a hard time around the Fourth not because I’m carrying a grudge but because I have a secret fear that you still might be: Paul Revere still rides through a dozen newspaper comins. Hollywood still treats an English accent as evidence of villainy. Even your national anthem subtly paints us as the bad guy shooting rockets at the heroic American defenders of liberty.

The job of a father is to raise their child to become an independent adult. America is an independent adult nation. Maybe this year I can celebrate that fact without unleashing my “but you still think we’re villains!” fear.

Maybe this year I can find a way to love the USA even on the Fourth of July that doesn’t make me feel like I’m expected to believe that I am a tyrant and the son of tyrants.

Maybe I can stand blinking in the dawn’s surly light and truly celebrate the independence of a free nation under God.

I’ll keep trying.

Bring Me The Head Of The Cat In The Hat

This post may turn out to be a bit of a rant. You may have already surmised this from the title, but I just mention it to bring it out in the open.

The Cat in the Hat is to American children’s literature what Sherlock Holmes is to detective fiction. The Cat is ubiquitous, highly regarded, used as a standard for learning to read, almost if not actually one of the definitive works of American children’s literature.

And I can’t stand it.

Dr. Seuss’ books are a lot less common in the UK, so I wasn’t subjected to an endless diet of the stuff, but I do remember reading The Cat in the Hat once as a child. In a doctor’s waiting room, if I recall correctly.

As I remember, it scared me deeply and I never wanted to read another one, or anything else by this strange Dr Seuss.

Now all Americans are looking at me as if I’ve just announced that the Emperor has no clothes. How can The Cat in the Hat possibly be considered scary??

Bear with me; today’s topic is an exploration of how.

Looked at through one set of eyes, in his day Dr. Seuss’ achievement is difficult to overstate. For perhaps the first time, here was a book made up entirely of short, easy words of the sort beginner readers can easily sound out. It was something a new reader could read by themselves, and the neverending print run of the things suggests that it was something kids of that sort of age wanted to read by themselves.

And yet I found it scary.

Chief among the things that distressed me was the Cat’s confident and sinister whisper of “your mother will not mind at all if you do”.

Even as a small child I knew that any stranger making this sort of blithe assertion about what my mother “would not mind at all” in her absence was to be feared and run away from. We drum it into our kids not to accept sweets from strangers, not to go up to a stranger’s car, not to trust strangers. And then we read them The Cat in the Hat?

Worse, the Cat marched into their home as if he owned it, and wouldn’t leave until he’d done what he came for. This is scary stuff. An Englishman’s home is his castle; you do not get to come into my house as if you own it and stay as long as you please.

Particularly not if you’re bringing the sort of chaos that the Cat has trailing in his wake. Ridiculous balancing acts involving live goldfish, the dreadful and unnatural Things 1 and 2, unicycles, umbrellas and I forget what else. Really, this is scary clown stuff. And Americans read this to their kids?

Some other things are personal nuances that probably don’t affect other people. Like the way Dr. Seuss’ drawings of quadrupeds move, both feet on one side of the body coming forward together. This is unnatural and makes me cringe every time I see it. Literally cringe. I almost cannot bear to look at it.

It’s a strong enough reaction as to be almost phobic in nature, and I’ll freely admit that I don’t expect anyone else to share it. There it is. I’m phobic about Dr. Seuss drawings.

It’s not just Dr. Seuss, either. My kids watch a TV show called Marvin the Tap-Dancing Horse which has the same unnatural motion, and I cannot stand to be in the same room as the TV when it’s on.

I suppose it could be that my near-phobic reaction to Seussian art coloured my perception of the book, but as I recall, all the characters in The Cat in the Hat stand on two feet, not four. Even Fish, with no legs at all, acts like he’s standing on the two “feet” of his tail.

Fish, to my young mind, was The Voice of Conscience, telling those two kids what they should do, what their parents would want. And Cassandra-like, he’s doomed to be ignored. When I first read the book, it was Fish I related to. All sorts of scary chaos was happening. I could see it happening. And I was powerless to stop it. It’s little wonder the book scared me! From Fish’s point of view it’s terrifying!

I kept on thinking about how much trouble those fool kids were going to be in when their mother finally got home and that sinister Cat finally got his comeuppance. The Cat cleaning everything up and restoring everything in the space of a single page at the end was almost a disappointment.

What? I thought. He gets to cause all that chaos and mess and trouble and then just magic everything back to normal and walk away scot-free? No! Give me justice! The Cat must answer for his crimes!

Even as a kid I knew that it wasn’t as easy as the Cat had it. Messes of that nature don’t clean up that easily, and to me, the fact that he didn’t stay around to meet the kids’ mother coming home was further proof that this Cat in the Hat was a Very Bad Person. If he’s a good guy, if he’s actually right that “their mother will not mind at all”, why does he skedaddle like the proverbial bat out of hell as soon as the mother’s footfalls are drawing near? Good people don’t behave like that. But the Cat does.

So it baffles me that parents treat this monstrous home invasion by a sinister clown as fit reading material for their young children. More, it baffles me that American kids apparently seem to love this anarchic spree, and happily read it without being in the least bit scared by it all. Bewildering.

I have to admit that we do have some Dr. Seuss books in the house. It’s virtually impossible to have kids in America and entirely avoid the literary empire of Seussdom. And I don’t find the current TV incarnation to be quite so objectionable. Annoying, yes, but not scary. But while I’ll tolerate Green Eggs and Ham, I will not have that Cat in my house.

We’re past that point now, I think, but I mention it because one of my daughters has been reading Pippi Longstocking. Not having any experience of this character, I read some of her book (“Pippi in the South Seas”). And it looks like exactly the same unleashing of anarchy and chaos on a slightly older-child level. Pippi is irritatingly garrulous, smug in her ignorance, and a teller of king-size whoppers. She appears to hate and oppose any and all adult authority, refuses to go to school or do anything she ought, and is apparently unstoppable due to her superhuman strength. More, the stories make no sense. Again, chaos is happening, and we are powerless to prevent it because we’re up against a girl who can lift a horse with one hand.

The anarchy of the Cat, it seems, casts a long shadow in my world.

Left Right

In response to my post “And To The Republic”, a friend posted this link on my Facebook page.

Presumably it’s intended as a sort of explanation of why America really is “a Republic not a Democracy”.

It was interesting viewing.

On the one hand, it does answer my question about how anyone could possibly have the idea that the USA is “not a democracy”. By their understanding, there’s a real difference between the two.

On the other hand, however, it reads like Tea Party propaganda. A lot. Also, it just brings me back to it being a semantic difference, because I think their interpretation of the political Left and Right scale is wrong.

They have it structured as a scale of governmental control, with dictatorship (they use the word “monarchy”) on the left-hand extreme representing a government that controls everything, and anarchy on the right-hand extreme representing no government at all.

This is a valid scale, but it’s not the one traditionally viewed as Left and Right.

As a centrist, I tend to use a four-point scale charting government control in two directions – economically (the “east-west” axis) and socially (the “north-south” axis), with communism and hyper-capitalism as the eastern and western cardinal points, and hyper-liberalism and fascism being the northern and southern points. Thus, a political group may favour strong social control by government with very little economic control (most conservatives), strong economic control with very little social control (most liberals) or any other combination.

I think this is a more helpful scale than the monochrome scale that this YouTube video attempts to portray, but it isn’t really the traditional Left-Right scale either.

Traditionally, communism and fascism do constitute the extremes of Left and Right, as they do in the very system they claim is wrong because it “does not define terms”. Interesting claim, but not truthful. You have just decided to reinterpret the traditional terms in a way that suits your own political agenda, masking this fact by continuing to use the same terminology everyone is familiar with but meaning something different by it. This isn’t exactly a fair tactic, and I’m calling you on it.

As I am familiar with the traditional terms, the left end of the scale is the Communist/socialist end, characterised by increasingly strong governmental control of the economy and focus on the international class struggle of workers. Liberalism becomes Social Democracy becomes Socialism becomes Communism, the further left you go. The right end of the scale is the conservative/nationalist end, characterised by increasingly strong focus on the traditional social systems of the nation or its main ethnic group and a comparatively loose governmental control of the economy. Conservatism bleeds into Nationalism which becomes outright Fascism at the extreme right end.

By this traditional scale, you really do have Fascism on the far right, not on the far left where they want to put it. This reinterpretation of what political Left and Right mean potentially opens the door to a kind of US neofascism that just doesn’t call itself fascist, and that ought to worry us. We fought wars against that sort of thing. Now fascism is recast as a Left-wing ideology, both allowing us to demonise our political opponents by the use of the label and allowing us to feel like we aren’t becoming dangerously close to Fascism ourselves.

The scale has other problems as well, most notably their characterisation of “democracy” as only meaning “majority rule” and “republic” as only meaning “rule of law”. It becomes evident that this is overly simplistic when we realise that, using only these definitions, either the UK is a republic or the US is an oligarchy.

They strongly imply that modern Britain is an oligarchy by including Churchill’s picture in their display of oligarchies. (At least, it looks like Churchill to me). Though they never actually go ahead and say so out loud, I find this subtle equation of my home country with juntas like Myanmar and Soviet Russia to be deeply offensive.

Hoever, if modern Britain is to be cast as an oligarchy because it is ruled by a government constituted by the majority party, then arguably the US is as well, and always has been. The American situation is a little more complex, but its government is still effectively constituted by whichever party has the majority.

The other alternative is that Britain is defined as a republic, a situation so strange as to be actually humourous. Quite what the Royal Family would make of that I have no idea. Britain is not a republic. We’re a constitutional monarchy, and quite proud of it, thank you.

Rule of law is not something exclusively found in republican (note the small “r”) states, but is an important principle underpinning the idea of democracy. At its root, Magna Carta was one of the first triumphs of the rule of law through its contention that not even sovereign monarchs were above the law.

“Democracy” doesn’t just mean “majority rule”. It can be used to mean majority rule, but its usual functional definition includes, as I said initially, the idea of the people having a say in their government via representation or through direct means. Their lynch-mob example is not democracy, because true democracy requires the rule of law in order to be enacted. You might call it Populism, but this is a different animal. Unreasonably narrowing your definitions in this way amounts to redefining terms to slant the entire picture towards yourself. Even going back to the Greek roots of the word won’t change the fact that this is what you’re doing. Butterflies have nothing to do with flying butter.

Their observation that the word “democracy” appears nowhere in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution is rather reminiscent of the observation that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. The word might not be there, but the concept certainly is. Plato’s ancient term might have been the one chosen as best fitting the ideals of the Founding Fathers, but it would still seem to me to be unreasonable hair-splitting, not to mention putting words in their mouths, to say that they meant to set the ideas of Democracy and Republic against one another.

All in all, I’m still not seeing enough of a difference to warrant making Republic and Democracy an opposed pair. The two are broader, overlapping categories, partially nested inside one another, distinct but having a lot in common. At least, they are the way I understand and use the terms, and I still think I’m normal in this regard.

The overlapping nature of the terms may be part of the problem. Americans don’t seem to do well with broad lingustic categories or overlapping meanings; witness the (American) distinction between “glider” and “sailplane”. In Britain they’re all gliders, and the term “sailplane” is a meaningless neologism. But to my American father-in-law, “no, no, it’s a sailplane, not a glider, because a glider is just designed to come down, but a sailplane is designed to be able to soar”. Whatever. It’s an unpowered aircraft with wings, therefore it’s a glider. It’s very American to view this sort of semantic quibble as a major point of difference, so maybe I ought to expect the same in politics.

But the right-leaning slant of it all does make me wonder whether these reworked definitions are also used by the political Left. I suspect not, but I’ve been surprised before.

And To The Republic

I’ve heard many Americans tell me that “America is a Republic not a Democracy”.

I still don’t understand this, in truth. It seems like semantics and playing with words more than any kind of real useful distinction. Like someone saying “cheese is a dairy product not a foodstuff”, it seems a completely absurd thing to say.

I’m sure I’m missing something. Maybe – no, probably – we’re not defining our terms in the same way. But I honestly don’t see how America can be a republic in any meaningful sense without being a democracy, or indeed, how the USA can possibly be defined as “not a democracy” by any right-thinking individual.

Of course the USA is a democracy. The people have a say in how their nation is governed and run. The will of the people is the ultimate sovereign. How can it not be a democracy?

It’s in many ways a purer democracy than Britain is. You Americans vote on your Head of State as well as your Head of Government (they’re the same position to you, after all), you elect your judges and city administrators and school boards and some of your law enforcement officers. You have fixed term lengths ensuring that no one President can serve longer than 8 years consecutively. Your whole system of governance is organised around the principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

This is, to my mind, pretty much the essence of what democracy is. The people having a real say in what their government does.

America is a Republic, too, I’ll readily agree. But “Republic” covers a vast amount of ground. On the one hand, the USA and France are republics. Germany is a Federal Republic. Taiwan is the Republic of China. But on the other hand, mainland China is a republic, too, the People’s Republic of China. North Korea is a Republic, and the USSR was a union or federation of republics.

And America is apparently one of these and not a democracy.

All “republic” really means to me in practical terms is “not a monarchy”. It usually means having an elected Head of State like a President or Chancellor, though in the case of North Korea and some other parts of the world these “elections” can be a sham designed to confer legitimacy on what is closer to being rule by naked power lust than anything else. But North Korea is a republic at least in that their leader isn’t a titled monarch.

America is a republic in that it has an elected Head of State rather than a titled monarch. And it’s a democracy in that the elections actually mean something. It’s both, not one or the other.

What I think Americans mean when they say that the USA is “not a democracy” is “not a direct democracy”. Laws are not passed by national plebiscite or referendum, but by debate and voting by a body chosen as representatives of the people. What I would call “representative democracy”. But according to the “America is a republic not a democracy” folks, representative democracy does not constitute democracy.

By this measure, there are no democratic nations anywhere in the world, and all our rhetoric about “spreading democracy around the world” is a pack of lies, or at least wishful thinking.

I’m sure this would be news to France, Germany and the UK. Americans don’t consider us to be democracies. Apparently they don’t consider themselves one, either. What about Parliament? What about the free and fair elections in every one of these nations? What about our efforts to encourage more free and fair elections in parts of the world where such are not guaranteed? This is democracy as we try and encourage it across the world.

A direct democracy is one form of democracy; one that no nation is currently attempting as a governmental form. A representative democracy such as we see in the democratic nations of the world is the other main one. Both are democracies, and similarly, there are representative democracies that are republican, like the USA and France and Germany, and there are representative democracies that are constitutionally monarchical, like the UK and the Netherlands and Sweden.

So tell me why the USA is “not a democracy”?

As I said, it’s either semantics or I’m missing the point.