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Democracy and Depravity

November 25, 2014

Two things have happened in American politics within the last few weeks that all involve depravity. The first of these is mid-term elections. The second of these is a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown.

Just in case these events are not firmly on your radar let me review them. America (by which I mean the United States of America, a country which likes to believe it is all of the Americas there are) is a democratic republic. In 1775 the American colonies of the British Empire revolted and were (rather amazingly) successful in forming a new country. Also amazingly they managed to do this on the first try without falling back into anarchy multiple times as is the habit of new countries. The American colonists decided to break with their old system of governance and rejected monarchy for a convoluted system of elected representatives. America continues to have elections and had one recently. I’m sure this is all news to everyone.

In August 9th 2014 an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. This sparked mass outrage, huge protests, and widespread allegations of police misconduct in the town where the shooting occurred. Late in the evening of November 24th a grand jury decided that there was not enough evidence to indict Darren Wilson for this shooting. This is in some ways surprising – grand juries almost always indict people and let a normal jury sort out guilt or innocence. However, police officers are almost never indicted[1]. Indeed, some people think that police officers are generally let off the hook for things that ordinary people would not be.

The theological link behind these incidents is depravity, a topic I’ve written about before. Let’s start with American governance.

The reason I highlighted American rejection of monarchy in my unnecessary historical recap is that the rejection of monarchy is an issue of depravity. Monarchy would actually work better and faster than democracy or a republic if monarchs were perfect people (one reason that God’s monarchy is not more of an issue for people who dislike human monarchies). However, monarchs are never perfect people and there isn’t a good way to get rid of them or curb their excesses. The brilliance of the American system (in its broad strokes that are now found in many countries) is a balance of powers. This balance accepts that people are depraved and rather than asking voters to find the magically non-depraved people to elect it pits the depravity of various branches of government against one another. The entire electoral system is a way to bend depravity towards a good cause – if a politician doesn’t do what the people wants (i.e., if they act like a depraved monarch) they will easily lose their position to someone who promises to do better. The only way to keep power is not to abuse it (too much or too publicly). The Founding Fathers of the United States realized that it was basically impossible to ensure that politicians would be good people. Instead of building a system that trusted people in power they constructed a system that distrusts everyone and is much more resilient against evil people than monarchical or oligarchical systems.

On to Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. One easy comment about depravity would be to simply claim that Darren Wilson is guilty of a crime and should have been indicted. However, I’m not the grand jury and I didn’t see the evidence. My own personal suspicion is that Darren Wilson did a bad, careless, and racist job[2]. Because he is a police officer and engages in violent conflicts with criminals and because he carries a gun his conduct eventually led him to a place where he killed a black teenager. If he was a pizza delivery man the same conduct might have led him to deliver a pizza late. Because he is a police officer the same level of mistakes led him to shoot someone to death. This is where the real depravity issue comes in – police officers are given a high degree of public trust, a lot of powers that no one else has, and are very rarely actually convicted of misusing those powers. There are a number of reasons why this may be (and I’m not talking about a low rate of accusations but a low rate of convictions) but it does seem that perhaps we don’t believe in depravity quite right.

There are two issues at work. One is that we misunderstand depravity. If my Senator is depraved will he do nothing but constant evil to the greatest extent of his abilities? No – he’ll do the evil that is easy, convenient, and doesn’t cost him more than it’s worth. He won’t build a death ray and threaten to destroy Canada because that’s a lot of work for no clear reward. But if we make it easy to accept large campaign donations in exchange for subtle political favors he probably will do that. Similarly, police are unlikely to start systematically abusing everyone. This is America and if the police start to remind us of the Gestapo a lot of police chiefs will end up out of work. However, it’s quite believable that a police officer who sees that you have an out-of-state license plate and probably won’t want to come back to contest a speeding ticket will slap you with a heavier fine than you actually deserve.

The second issue is trust: I would like to trust my government and my police officers (although I generally don’t trust my elected officials and make my decisions about police officers on a more case-by-case basis). If I believe that everyone in power is twisted by depravity will I be able to trust anyone? In short no, but in longer form yes. The central issue here is that one of the people I can’t trust is myself. Wherever I have power I will also be subject to the temptations that face all of humanity. What I should really learn from failures “out there” is that there are the same failure points in myself. Can I trust myself? Not really, but I’ve learned to deal with it. Can I trust anyone else? Not really, but I could learn to deal with it.

When bad things happen and people abuse power one of the first things we often decide is that this is because we picked the wrong people for that position. This is often true in some sense: someone out there is a moral paragon who wouldn’t have abused their power. In another sense, though, we just picked normal people and watched what happens to normal people who are subject to a lot of temptation and little restraint. If this is true it is true of us also. If everyone needs to be watched we need to be watched also.

A message of eternal moral vigilance isn’t pleasant. Everyone likes projects that can be solved and left solved more than ones that can only be solved for a short while before they need to be revisited. However, if we as Christians believe that people are depraved and that evil is active in the world then assuming that there are permanent solutions to evil makes no sense. The permanent solution to evil is Christ’s victory over evil and death and their final abolition. Until then evil will be a perennial crop.

This is the message I draw from the failings of the world “out there”. When I think about the failings of kings I ask myself, “If I had the power to do whatever I wanted, take whatever money I wanted, send whoever I didn’t like to the chopping block, take wives and mistresses without limits, have anything I asked for built or bought for me, would I abuse those powers?” The answer is “yes, probably – and especially if I had been brought up thinking all of this was what was due to me”. At best I might make a good king – a king who tried not to abuse people but was still, as king, totally divorced from what real people needed and whose actions would still be deeply flawed by the assumption of entitlement and a lack of understanding of the human cost of my privilege. When I think about the failings of police officers I ask myself, “If I had to deal with angry, unpleasant criminals every day and I knew I could get away with getting back at them in technically illegal ways would I?” The answer is almost certainly yes. The question then is “Since I would be a bad person with more power than I have now how am I abusing the power that I have?” It’s always easy to look at someone else’s failings and condemn them. I believe that as Christians we should look at the failings of others and see a warning about what we ourselves are likely doing. After all, depravity touches us all.

[1] See this article for the statistics.

[2] Some of the evidence has now been released. This does actually change my earlier view about Wilson (I think it’s less possible for him to be in the middle – he’s either better or worse than my earlier assessment) but rather than go into that I’ll leave my historical guess as is. That guess was based on a number of other incidents in which police were eventually have found to have arrested the wrong people. The issue at hand was normally carelessness and taking shortcuts – you think you have the right person so you lean on the witnesses a bit so you can wrap this all up and go on to the next case. The main point, that people trusted with great power can make more damaging mistakes, still stands.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2014 1:06 am

    Of what I’ve read so far, this is the sanest take that, I think, might also speak to people who are 100% convinced justice has been served in Ferguson.

    I think you’re right–one of my main frustrations with that viewpoint is it assumes the meaning of this incident hinges on whether or not the victim was a criminal. If he was, then the police officer’s decisions, the way the justice system handles cases like this, and the pattern of violence this incident came to represent are all unquestionably moral. (Same with the viewpoint that George Zimmerman was innocent–the final moments of the conflict sanctify whatever choices led to its escalation.)

    These aren’t inconsequential details, but they’re also not the easy answers that make the messy questions go away.

    “When bad things happen and people abuse power one of the first things we often decide is that this is because we picked the wrong people for that position.”

    There seems to be a very clear “good guy/bad guy” mentality which suggests people are either fundamentally good or bad.

    It’s unrealistic, but it tends to force discussions of hypotheticals into very clear, black-and-white extremes. It’s not traditionally Christian, but I’ve never seen anyone discuss it and redemption or salvation in the same sitting. In fact, I think it’s so pervasive because it doesn’t really have a name, definition, or associated philosophy; it only emerges from hiding when a political topic (crime, gun control, etc.) comes up.

    “What I should really learn from failures ‘out there’ is that there are the same failure points in myself. Can I trust myself? Not really, but I’ve learned to deal with it. Can I trust anyone else? Not really, but I could learn to deal with it.”

    I’ve found this to be true. If you have a problem forgiving others, then try to refuse to rationalize your own actions and forgive yourself. If you hate or can’t forgive yourself, then try to forgive others and understand their motives. You can’t do one without doing the other.

    • Eric permalink
      November 26, 2014 9:12 pm

      Ironically, part of my intention was to use Ferguson as as a jumping-off point for moral reflection. I’ve actually addressed Ferguson itself more directly elsewhere where I said that the real issue isn’t this particular shooting but that we still live in a society where we can worry about race-based shootings at all. (As opposed, say, to a society where the idea that someone would be killed based on their race would be as odd as the idea that someone was killed because they liked salt water aquariums. Of course, see depravity, someone has surely been killed for this too.)

      I actually think the Zimmerman case is even clearer – Zimmerman pursued Martin, an essential element of the conflict and an action Zimmerman should not have taken. (Also one Zimmerman engaged in almost certainly because of Martin’s race.) While Zimmerman MAY have engaged in self-defense when he actually shot Martin even in that case he needed to defend himself because he’d already done something that was both stupid and morally wrong.

      However, my main point was to discuss the good guys/bad guys mentality and how strange it is to believe that and also that everyone is deeply afflicted by sin.

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