It’s funny how even before reaching the current heights of government supremacy, we were all taught that government is virtually a holy thing.
Even the fabled Founders, who had every reason to be skeptical of coercive power and who gave us words to transform the world, clearly thought they were undertaking a sacred task when they sat down to write the documents directing the new country. Though some of them weren’t religious in any sense and a majority were quite specific about keeping government and religion away from each other, they spoke of God a lot, as if he were the creator, driver, and engineer of the whole concept of putting one group of human beings over another.
And there is that pesky passage in Romans — even peskier than the “render unto Caesar” one.
But if God instituted government, he must have done it in much the same way as lesser beings “institute” trash collection or sewer cleaning. Because no matter how many fancy words you wrap around it, governing is a dirty little business.
Government not only deals with society’s trash (both the literal and the human, in the form of violent criminals). Even the supposed good it does is done only through the dirtiest of methods — theft and assault, or threat of assault. And of course we all know what happens when governments fall — as they so often do — below the even normally lax standards of good governance.
So all the fuss and glory is pretty preposterous, considering.
One great twenty-first century philosopher did the best-ever job of summing up the real nature of the state. You all know him:
— Capt. Malcolm Reynolds
So maybe if a god invented governments, he did it only to see if his human lab rats could eventually make their way past all the obstacles government presents by its very existence, then come out on the other side, free and finally fully alive.
On Independence Day it’s tempting to become depressed about how much of our freedom government has gotten in the way of. Tempting to bbq our burgers, light our bottle rockets (where not forbidden, of course), and forget about broader implications. Tempting, if we do think about those implications, to mourn our loss and rage, rage, rage.
But really, if you think of government primarily as a thing that exists to get in the way, the situation looks a lot different.
After all, a lot of things get in our way in life: bad marriages, physical handicaps, poverty, being born ugly or dumb, scrofulous diseases, Walmartians leaving their carts in the middle of the aisle, and garbage trucks blocking our alley.
We may get ticked off about a nasty spouse or feel sorry for ourselves if we get stuck with a painful, limiting illness. But if we’re smart, we find ways to go around and go on. We do the best we can. We even discover, in the end, that we’ve learned and grown from our most pain-in-the-backside experiences. (As that lesser philosopher, Neitzsche, noted.)
Same with government, for the most part. True, sometimes more drastic, more Jeffersonian, action is required. But for the most part, it’s government’s job — its only real job aside from trash pickup and pick-pocketing — to get in our way. And it’s ours to go around and go on. And grow more free.
So on this Independence Day of wars and surveillance and militarized cops and armed bureaucrats, and all the other endless dreck and dross the state builds up to get in our way, we can be of good cheer.
Because while government, even in the most charitable viewpoint, is far from holy, the human spirit is sacred and free.
Also creative and wide-ranging and not easy to capture. We have something — many somethings — no government ever will. Free hearts and minds can go places and do things no state on earth can attempt — or even understand. We are the makers, the imaginers, the tricksters, the inventors, and the sources of love and joy. We are sometimes the rats that bite right through the wall of the maze. We are the unpredictable, the clever, the sideways-thinking-monkeywrench-in-the-machinery-shifting-the-paradigm forces who create the future. We are people. We are The People.
The least among us — and some of us count ourselves pretty lowly — are greater than the greatest state that ever collected a tax or beat innocents into submission. The least among us have something — many somethings — that no institution, however powerful or brutal, can ever possess or overwhelm.