Happy post-Independence Day.
Never mind that post-independence might be all to apt a description.
I’ve been thinking about religion more than politics these days and contemplating my possible irrelevance. This post begins with religion, but it’s about the larger picture. And freedom; as usual, everything’s about freedom.
Inspired by books like Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian, Stephen Stoeller’s comprehensive insider’s look at gnosticism, and the works of Karen King, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and too many others to name, my mind has been in the past — and not the past of rousing revolutions or ringing statements of liberty or death.
Still, politics and religion have always been tightly bound. And freedom (or lack thereof) is bound with them.
Reading about religion is also reading about history. History chronicles mankind’s laborious slog from ignorance to … um, somewhat less ignorance or different varieties of ignorance. Along the way, mankind’s climb toward freedom figures prominently.
History is also too often about how the principled lose to the already powerful or the ruthless souls who know how to build new power structures and won’t stop for anything. Lose? Hell, the principled commonly get crushed, demonized, burned, and buried in history’s trash heaps.
For example …
The thesis of Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian is that such a loss and demonization occured two millennia ago.
He maintains (largely quoting Matthew) that the original religion around Jesus, eventually headed by his brother James, was “Observe the Torah with deeper devotion and prepare yourself for the end times by doing good works from good motivations.” Jesus preached to the Jews, the only people to whom a Torah-observance message applied. He excluded the Greeks, Romans, and others in the cosmopolitan world around him. His original followers considered him the (human) messiah, a political/spiritual/millitary leader, and again a purely Jewish concept. The messiah was going to rid Judaism of Hellenistic encrustations and compromises, rid Israel of its hated Roman occupiers, and usher in the kingdom of God on earth.
That religion got hijacked by Paul and followers, whose view was, “Forget the Torah; worship the the mystical figure of the resurrected Christ. Forget works; faith in the divinity of Christ is all you need.” That religion — essentially Paul’s take on then-familiar pagan mystery cults — was preached heavily to the Greeks and Romans who were Paul’s social peers. Paul not only said the covenant of the Torah no longer applied, but that Torah followers were “cursed.” About the only things the two very different religions had in common were the name of Jesus and a belief in imminent end times.
But Paul was a genius at PR and organization. He was a scrapper who slammed his critics to the mat. His religion was more accessible (no circumcision, no dietary laws, no 613 commandments to study and obey). History chose Paul over those who were actually on the scene. The doctrinal descendants of the original followers of Jesus were eventually — you wouldn’t be surprised to learn — condemned as heretics.
Accept, reject, question, or ignore Wilson’s claims as you like. He does occasionally do a bit of bait-and-switch on the evidence. But for me, he explained contradictions I’ve long wondered about and gave the best description I’ve read of the concerns and conflicts of those turbulent times.
Plus, he describes a phenomenon that also slithers its way through secular political history, from Luddites and Levelers to the III% movement. Crush or co-opt the originals; create something in their stead that serves the very different purpose of a new or existing establishment.
In any case, so it goes — history in its maddening making.
Yet time and again, various suppressed, misrepresented, and forgotten folk either end up influencing how power conducts itself or they raise their voices again in some other place or era. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls eventually did that for dissenting Jews who lived before the Romans destroyed them. The Nag Hammadi library did that for early heterodox Christians suppressed by the Church. Those works, rediscovered within three years of each other in the mid-twentieth century, sparked a revolution in religious, historic, and spiritual understanding. (Just think what discovery of a suppressed book by, say, Tom Paine or Harry Browne could do for future freedom.)
It’s intriguing, too, how forgotten voices come alive just when people are ready to hear them (as with Greek philosophers in the Renaissance and gnostics in modern times).
Occasionally — merely playing devil’s advocate here — it may be a good thing that some splinter group gets a limited hearing because its voice is full of insanity (Jim Jones comes to mind). But mostly, the urge to silence dissent or mere difference means the powerful recognize that an idea, an organization, a lifestyle, or a social trend is a threat to their security precisely because it’s onto something important. Therefore it must be co-opted or stamped out to preserve the “official story” that keeps those in power at the top of the heap.
Those who are right but don’t have political or military might fall, only to be resurrected decades or centuries later as lost champions of truth and justice — or at least as bearers of previously unknown diversity of opinion.
Is this the way today’s freedom movement will be perceived, if at all, in some distant eon? Romantic losers? Interesting little footnotes?
Or do freedom seekers have a real chance to achieve the Big Goal of building sustainable societies without coercive, self-interested power structures?
I’m inclined to believe the former, while noting that I’ve been happily wrong before.
To build social structures that stand, organizers are required, and procedures of courtesy and safety, and means of dealing with violations. All these sooner or later lead to coercive, self-defensive, and completely self-interested power structures. Maybe there’s a future in which they won’t; but there’s a past in which they always have.
So is it better, as the Founders did, to establish upfront a hopefully de-fanged minarchy and try to keep it from getting so out of control next time? It didn’t work, but limited government did have a decent run, and even now the founders’ creation provides some protection via the blessed Bill of Rights (thank you, anti-federalists). Maybe somebody else could design a better minarchism.
Or is it best to dive deep, with abandon, into individualism and voluntaryism, hoping to see that succeed and spread — then watching (and swiftly dealing with) whatever authoritarianism spontaneously develops?
Big question. A question that divides us when we’re far, far, far from reaching any such decision point. We’re human, so we argue theory rather than do what we should all do — tend first to the daily business of life and freedom.
The do-ers, the Outlaws, the practitioners of everyday freedom are rare. Living free is, like the works-based message of Matthew’s Jesus, hard. You can’t just wave a flag, shout “liberty or death!,” and gaze with starry eyes toward some future revolution (in which, of course, you’ll be a hero, and whose foregone, if bloody, conclusion will restore pure liberty to the land — you know, once government is in the “right” hands). For real freedom, we have to self-examine, self-determine, and self-direct — often while roadblocks, literal and figurative, rise up around us.
Still, over the decades of the modern liberty movement, we’ve made headway. The idea of prepping is no longer on the fringe of the fringe. Walmart and Amazon sell freeze-dried foods we used to have to order from obscure Utah vendors. When the Average Joe or Josey hears the term “libertarian,” they no longer confuse it with “libertine” or “librarian.” Urbanites may hate it, but carrying guns has become more, not less, acceptable. Bill of Rights defense is no longer the lonely province of the (inadequate and biased) ACLU, but is conducted, sometimes even successfully, by dozens of liberty-oriented organizations. We’re holding the bastion on freedom of speech, even as a violent mob attacks it.
We’ve had an influence. That’s good — isn’t it?
As Gandhi allegedly said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Except, of course, Gandhi and his movement didn’t “win” even though he and his followers achieved a political victory of sorts, and neither do most movements that are based on principle or on difficult personal practices.
Unfortunately, the next step is usually either to get crushed ignominiously or get co-opted and compromised by TPTB while having some usually minor and not necessarily good impact on the behavior of their power structure. (The Repbulicans having a wimpy “liberty caucus” and the LP becoming home to pustulent statist hacks like William Weld exemplify the “sterling” quality of co-option and compromise.)
The original quote mis-attributed to Gandhi is more sad and more telling. The final step isn’t winning. It’s “they build monuments to you.” But monuments are merely another way of dismissing — keep the symbol and discard the reality.
For freedom to succeed on its own terms, in a big way, when power militates the opposite requires both a simpler, more palatable message than ours (a message that will inherently misrepresent the reality of freedom as Paul misrepresented and discarded the complexities of Jesus’ preaching). Big-scale freedom will also require the very elements of organization and will that could ultimately damn us to more collectivist hell.
Still, maybe some technological or human advance will enable sustainably widespread individual freedom and autonomy. But I haven’t seen it yet, have you? You can sing all the paeans you like to cryptocurrencies, offshore colonies, the Deep Web, transhumanism, or free-market space travel. You can put your hopes in an infinite variety of futures, and many may be wondrous, I’m sure. But humans remain human and human organizations remain authoritarian by nature and design. Except a few small-scale and usually short-lived ones.
We wish for “Freedom Now!” And those willing to work for it can have it — in part. But for the sake of a freer, wider future, it might be lucky that we remain mostly on the Outlaw margins for now, gathering strength and trying out small-scale freedom realities as times grow more perilous.
Perhaps we can eventually sneak a big freedom reality past the gatekeepers of TPTB, and establish unobtrusive freedom outposts everywhere, without incurring either the standard crushing of hopes (and lives) or the polite forgetfulness of monuments.