Back to the Garden

After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:24 NIV

As I have mentioned previously, I grew up during the 1960’s. It was a turbulent and often violent time. The war in Vietnam intensified throughout the decade, as did the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies. Peaceful protesters of the Civil Rights Movement were often attacked and sometimes killed. At Kent State University, protesters against the Vietnam War were shot at by the Ohio National Guard and four were killed. Accusations of police brutality, and the frustrations of years of Jim Crow, poverty, and second class citizenship for African-Americans led to race riots in virtually every major city in the country.

But the violence of the times helped to fuel various movements to counteract it. The peace movement sought to bring an end to the Vietnam War, and to all war. Related movements tried to bring about an end to nuclear proliferation. Coalitions of people of all races formed to oppose segregation and discrimination of all kinds. Some groups sought to spread the “sexual revolution” with slogans like “Make Love not War.”

One of the groups that comprised what became known at that time as “the counter-culture” was the hippie movement. The hippie movement was very popular and very influential within the youth community, despite the fact that the actual number of “full time” hippies was relatively small.

The reason for this popularity and appeal to the youth was simple. It offered a lifestyle that seemed to be liberating and free of responsibility. Drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD, were consumed in copious amounts. Sexual liberation and communal living were other hallmarks of the movement. Rejecting straight society, with its rules and “hangups” was de rigueur. A saying to come out of the movement, popularized by LSD advocate and guru Timothy Leary, was “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

As mentioned above, communal living was a big part of the hippie philosophy. The idea behind communes was to create a perfect society within, but sealed off from the corrupted prevailing society, where individuals could pursue, unhindered by that corruption, their own course to enlightenment and perfection. In essence, create paradise and allow man’s better nature to prevail within it. The famous, or infamous (depending on your perspective) movie Easy Rider has a scene where the protagonists, two biker buddies played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, visit a hippie commune where the lifestyle described above is portrayed.

The idea, though, of transforming individuals by transforming society, was not just limited to the hippie movement, but gained widespread acceptance in society in general. Many people began dedicating themselves, through political activism mainly, but also other means, to transforming society to some idyllic, pre-fall Eden. This was, and still is, believed by many to be an achievable goal. A popular song at the time, Woodstock, captures this idea:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes
Riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust, we are golden
We are caught in the devils bargain
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

For the complete song, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: C, S, N, & Y Woodstock

Or from the composer, Joni Mitchell: JM Woodstock

These attempts at regaining paradise have a long history in America and the world. They usually involve some form of socialism, and they have ultimately ended in failure. Why? I believe it is because they end up encouraging the worst aspects of human nature; selfishness, laziness, theft, envy, and more. A prominent example of this is Plymouth Colony.

The Pilgrims, like the Jamestown Colony before them, had agreed together to a communal, even socialist, style of living. Everything was held in common and food was kept in a common storehouse. The result? Some people worked, others did not, and there was theft of food, often from the crops in the field, even before it was fully ripe. Those who produced resented those who did not, food production was inadequate, and they almost starved to death, until they abandoned their “communal” lifestyle for one which allowed every man and woman to keep the fruits of their labor.  For a first hand account, see the first Governor’s, William Bradford’s diary.  William Bradford’s Diary (See pages 234-236 in the linked edition)

There are other examples in American history of attempts to create some sort of paradise on earth, to go “back to the Garden,” so to speak; but of course these efforts did not start here. In a previous post, The Era of Big Government, I wrote about man’s attempts from the beginning of history to nullify the consequences of our first parents’ decision so many years ago by banding together in large numbers and unifying around certain principles and projects. The Tower of Babel being the first recorded effort.

These efforts continued throughout history, right up through the terrible Marxist and fascist movements of the twentieth century, to today’s efforts by many to enforce their political and religious views on the rest of us through violence, coercion, and conquest.

All of these efforts at regaining paradise, to this day, have one thing in common, and that is they have ended in abysmal , and often tragic, failure. Throughout the centuries, empires, and their associated dreams and visions, have risen and fallen. From Alexander to the Caesars, to Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, they have all ended badly, with the blood of hundreds of millions on their hands.

Why are these experiments doomed to failure? William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, determined that it was at least in part due to man’s fallen nature. Not a surprise, given that he was a Christian, but maybe he had, and has, a point.

What is man’s “fallen” nature? What does it mean to have a fallen nature? We see from the story of Adam and Eve, that after they disobeyed G-d by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were banned from the garden for fear that they would partake of The Tree of Life, and thereby gain eternal life.

What is interesting about the story is that prior to their rebellion, they could have eaten of The Tree of Life at any time. It was only afterward that they were barred. The implication of this is that something about them had changed, and because of this, they were barred from eternal life. It is good here to remember that G-d had told them that the consequence of their eating of the forbidden fruit would be death.

There is a relevant story in Acts 5 that tells of the early church in Jerusalem. Out of their love for one another, in G-d’s Spirit, they willingly shared their material wealth, and often donated the proceeds of sales of their property to the church leader’s, who would then distribute them to the needy.

One couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property, and donated the proceeds to the church, but they held some back while claiming to have donated all. When confronted with their lie and hypocrisy, they both died on the spot. For more information on this, see Story of Ananias and Sapphira .

Now some have tried to use this story to justify socialism, the argument being that if a form of socialism was good for the early church, it should be good for us. The problem with this argument is that the early Jerusalem church was a relatively small group who voluntarily shared their wealth. This idea has carried on to this day by various religious orders in which members take a vow of poverty and live a communal lifestyle. Modern socialist movements, on the other hand, are extremely coercive, and as has been noted, have been responsible for more death and destruction than any other movement in the history of the planet.

The story, though, would also seem to support Bradford’s contention that man’s fallen nature is the heart of the problem. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to participate in the communal giving and sharing, but not willing to give all. This would have been fine, as nothing in the story suggests that they had to give all, so it would seem that they were concerned with appearances. They wanted everyone to think that they had given all, so they held back some, and lied.

It shows that even in small, voluntary associations, problems arise when people feel, even if only from their own inner desire to be recognized, compelled to share what they have worked for. This is just as true in religious orders, where members who break the rules will eventually be expelled if they continue to refuse to conform.

So what is man’s fallen nature? Years ago, a well-known secular psychiatrist and author, Dr. Karl Menninger, stirred up some controversy when he published a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The controversy over the book at the time – this was 1973 – demonstrates how unpopular the concept of personal responsibility had become, and the idea that there is an immutable moral law that man has violated and continues violate. That in fact, there is something wrong with man that has put him at odds with G-d and his fellow man, and that compels him toward rebellion.

Keep in mind that this is a secular book, and it is not written from a religious viewpoint, but a clinical one. Therefore, there is much for a Christian believer, for example, to disagree with in the book; but the idea that any kind of healing or redemption for an individual is only possible when that individual accepts personal responsibility for themselves and their actions, is completely consistent with Judeo-Christian scripture, and is in fact foundational to religions based upon that scripture.

This idea that man exists in a state of sin that inclines him away from G-d and His laws, and toward disobedience, is still very unpopular today. Society, ones parents, bad teachers, the church, even G-d Himself, are all blamed. But the evidence is all around us, even in young children who, arguably, have not yet been “corrupted” by any of these things. Don’t believe this? Then ask yourself the question as to why “reverse psychology” works so consistently well.

How often have we experienced telling a child not to do something, only to have them immediately do it? “Don’t touch that dial” (on the television set, yes TV’s used to have dials), you admonish , and of course he touches the dial. “Don’t pick up that candy from the ground”, and then what happens? Not only does he pick it up, but he will put it in his mouth. When my daughter was young and had a miserable face, we would say to her “don’t you smile,” and of course she would inevitably smile.

OK, well this is all innocent enough when you are dealing with young children. But what happens with adults? No need to answer this, just look around you and at thousands of years of history. Now, you might say, well, yes, but not everyone is like that, and if you mean that not everyone commits horrible acts and heinous crimes, you would be correct. Most people do not do these things because we have been conditioned by parents and society to believe that they are awful things, and for us to do them would make us awful people, so most of us refrain from these  reprehensible acts.

There are, though, lesser “evils,” which all of us, at some time or another, do commit. Lying, unfaithfulness, gossip, unjust anger and hurtful words, and many others. The list is actually quite long. In addition, we all seem to have at least one “sin” that we just can’t seem to control, whether it is one of the above, or maybe an addiction, such as to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, money, power; again, I could go on.

So what are we to do? As has been indicated above, some analyze the problem and propose that its source lies outside the individual, for example in society. There is inequality and injustice in society, the story goes, and so people have the above mentioned problems because of this. The solution, then, is to remake society and rid it of its injustices. Once this is done, man will be free to do the right thing and will become perfect.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We are not responsible for our actions, society is! “Remake society the way I want it to be, and I’ll be good. Just you wait and see.” Hmm, what is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, the biblical paradigm, as proposed by William Bradford. If it is true, then this “solution” cannot work and could lead to much trouble – and it has!

Just take a look at the carnage that has been left behind from attempts to regain paradise! In the twentieth century alone, there was death, destruction, and suffering on a previously unimaginable scale. Just maybe the prophets, Jesus, William Bradford, and even Karl Menninger were on to something, when they claimed that the problem lay within the individual human heart.

So, if that is true, and it does seem that the problem does not originate from outside of man, then what are we to do? Of course, scripture has an answer! I’ll leave you with the following quote from Isaiah, 45:22:

Turn to me and be saved,

all you ends of the earth;

for I am God, and there is no other” (NIV)

Too simple, you might say? Well, sometimes the simple is sublime, but most importantly, true.

The Era of Big Government

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  Genesis 11:4 NIV

Big Government is not a modern creation, at least according to the book of Genesis.  It first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago.  The first Big Government program, as related in Genesis, was the building of the Tower of Babel.  The project was undertaken as a means of uniting the people and preventing them from spreading out across the earth. Strength in numbers, I suppose.

The problem is, they had been specifically commanded by G-d to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  So it would seem that the first Big Government was formed, and the first Big Government program was undertaken, as an act of rebellion against G-d and in direct disobedience to His command.

G-d’s response was to confuse the language of the builders, which in turn led to the eventual dispersion of man across the earth (Genesis 11:7-8), as G-d had originally commanded. Interesting, how G-d’s will is always fulfilled, despite man’s best attempts to thwart it, but that  is the subject of another post.

Unfortunately, the era of Big Government was not over with the failure of it’s first major project. From the early empires of Egypt and the Middle East, to Alexander and the Caesars, from Charlemagne to the Caliphate, to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, history is littered with the ruins of failed Big Governments and their projects, along with the corpses of their countless millions of victims.

Big Government comes in many forms. In ancient Babylon, all one had to do was worship a golden statue of the king, or be thrown into a furnace.  In Rome under the Caesars, complete loyalty to the emperor was required, and any sign of disloyalty, such as being a Christian, would get you hung on a cross or made part of the days entertainment in the arena.

In more recent times, a lack of commitment to the International Proletariat in the Soviet state would earn you time in the Gulag, or worse, make you “disappear”.  And of course, in Germany under Hitler, not conforming to Aryan purity got you a trip to the “showers”.

Alternatively, here in the US, and elswhere, there are Big Government programs that provide for retirement, medical care, and food for the poor, among others.  These programs are generally looked upon favorably.

Whether they are viewed as good or evil, though, there are some common attributes of Big Government programs, and given these attributes, we need to ask what is their impact on individuals? Not necesarily the political or economic impact, but the spiritual impact?  Do these programs promote spiritual growth and maturity, or impede it, or are they neutral in this respect?

Let’s first take a look at some of the common elements of Big Government and its programs: 

1. Participation is mandatory.  Whether the goal is ruling the world, or feeding the poor, Big Government programs require full participation.  If you allow one person to dissent, the whole scheme eventually unravels.  This is problematic for those who disagree with the goal, or the methods of achieving it.  Punishment for non-participation, or worse, outright resistance, can range from social ostracism, to imprisonment,  to execution.  Even the most benign Big Governments resort to extreme measures to ensure compliance with its programs.

2. Fear is the primary unifying factor.  It is hard enough to get even small groups of people to agree to a particular course of action, let alone large, diverse nations.  In addition to penalties described above, cooperation with Big Government programs is achieved by identifying some threat, real or imagined, and then managing the resulting public response to the desired result.  The threat could be military, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply not being able to pay for health care, as in the Affordable Care Act, but Big Government programs require some fear generating mechanism to gain support.  The leaders of the Tower of Babel project used man’s individual vulnerability as its fear generating mechanism.

3. Individual responsibility and action is futile.  Big Governments play down the effectiveness of the individual and individual action, unless it is directed toward the stated goal of the group.  Providing for one’s own retirement, or medical care, cannot be done effectively, therefore Big Government must do it.  People cannot be expected to provide lunch for their children, therefore Big Government must do it.  Families should not be responsible for the care of their elderly, so of course Big Government is there to help out.

4.  Targeted problems are exacerbated rather than solved.    It is telling that the first Big Government project at Babel resulted in the very thing the people were trying to avoid, being scattered across the Earth.  This is typical of Big Government projects.  Programs to make education more affordable in the end drive up the cost of education, programs to make health care more affordable end up making it more costly, wars of conquest lead to the eventual destruction of the would be conqueror.  The list goes on and on.  Never does a Big Government program actually solve the problem it was created to solve.  This leads us directly to our next common element.

5.  Big Government programs are self-perpetuating.  There are several reasons for this.  As indicated above, these programs tend to make the problem worse, requiring new and improved Big Government programs to correct the problems caused or worsened by the previous “solutions”.  Also, Big Government programs require Big Government bureaucracies to administer them.  Certainly it is not in the interest of the bureaucracy to actually solve the problem, as this would make the bureaucracy obsolete.  Finally, and most importantly, the very existence of these programs creates a need for them, because of the dependency they create.

6. Freedom and liberty are always diminished.  Big Government programs always require some sacrifice of time or property by some for the “benefit” of all. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  Of course, Big Government determines what one’s abilities are, and hence one’s contributions, and also what one’s needs are, and hence one’s rewards.  However, this requires a form of tyranny, either “soft” or “hard”, to enforce.  Individuals cannot be trusted to voluntarily make these decisions for themdselves, because they may not conform to the common good, as defined by Big Government; and the free market, which is simply the combined decisions of millions, can be trusted even less than the individual.

7. All other possible solutions are precluded.  Big Government programs stifle innovation and creativity, because of their very nature. We can all point to programs that have done a lot of good, but at what price?   Have they done any harm as well? Is there a better way of doing it?  The problem is, we’ll never know, once a Big Government solution is implemented.  In fact, other possible solutions represent a threat that must be eliminated at all costs.  Proponents of other solutions are considered to be unreasonable and uncooperative, they are misguided, maybe even insane.  They require treatment, or re-education; and if that doesn’t work, well, see item 1 above.

Now that we have enumerated some of the characteristics of Big Government, it is useful to review several legends concerning the Tower of Babel project, because, along with the Genesis story, they illustrate many of these characteristics.  Both of these legends concern an individual named Nimrod.

Nimrod, in Genesis, is not associated with the Tower of Babel story.  However, he is mentioned in Genesis 10:8-12 as being a mighty warrior and a “mighty hunter before the Lord”.  He was also a king who founded the cities of Babylon (Babel), Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.  He then moved to Assyria and built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calneh and Resen.

The Nimrod legends, on the other hand, do associate Nimrod with the building of the tower, but in completely different ways. In the one legend, related by the Jewish historian  Josephus, Nimrod was the king of Babel and desired to consolidate his power over the people with the building of the tower. An interesting comment by Josephus, concerning this Nimrod is “He also gradually changed the government into tyranny-seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of G-d, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his own power” (Ant. I: iv: 2).  As an added incentive, he told the people that they would build the tower high enough that if G-d decided to flood the Earth again, they could escape the waters by climbing to the top of the tower. 

It is important to note that in this story, Nimrod wanted to turn the people’s dependence on G-d to a dependence on Nimrod!  Isn’t this what Big Government and its programs are ultimately all about; dependence, power, and control?  The fact that Josephus wrote this almost 2000 years ago is more evidence that the Era of Big Government, and awareness of its impact, has been around for a very long time.

In the second legend, as told by Ephrem the Syrian, Nimrod was actually a righteous individual who opposed the building of the tower, and a Jewish tradition further relates that Nimrod fled Babel to Assyria because of his opposition to the builders. This would seem to agree at least in part with the book of Genesis’ information on Nimrod, that he went to Assyria and founded cities there.

So what are we to make of these opposing stories?  And more importantly, can we learn anything about Big Government from them?  Most definitely, yes!

Let’s first take a look at the Genesis story of the tower.  As stated earlier, Nimrod is not mentioned at all.  In fact, Genesis does not provide any information about the leader(s), except that it appears they were a group, not an individual.  In the verse just prior to the one quoted at the top of this post, it says, “They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (Genesis 11:3).  The “they” and “each other” being referenced here are the people who had “migrated from the east” (Genesis 11:2).  It seems that a group, and a fairly large one at that, led the people.  If there was a single ringleader, the Bible is silent about him.

Given the two opposing stories, what did actually happen in the land of Shinar, so many years ago?  We can’t really know for certain, beyond what scripture relates, but perhaps Nimrod was in fact a righteous man, and the primary leader, or king, of the group that initially founded Babel.  Further, perhaps there was a group of leaders (a city council?) that proposed the building of the tower, for the purpose of controlling the people and keeping them together, and dependent on them, instead of on G-d.  When people are in a large group, it is much easier to control them and create the illusion that they can live without G-d, than if they are living independently in small groups.

As a righteous man, Nimrod could not go along with this rebellion against G-d, and not being able to dissuade the people from their folly, he left Shinar for Assyria, and founded several cities there.  Sometime later, G-d confused the language of the builders, and spread them out across the globe anyway.

So how did the first story arise, that made Nimrod the primary culprit? Well, this leads to an eighth common element of Big Government, and that is that the architects of Big Government and their projects are never to blame when the project fails.  It is always someone else’s fault.  In this case, Nimrod, no longer around, was made responsibile for the undertaking, and therefore responsible for G-d’s displeasure, and the scattering of the people.

This is just one very speculative explanation of what may have happened, and I’m sure you could come up with your own.  What I believe we can safely conclude from scripture is that the building of the tower was a group action and a group decision.  Maybe Babel was the first democracy and the building of the tower the first example of “democratic” action?  There was no single leader, at least none is specified in the bible story, but perhaps a number of community organizers led the effort.  Seems like resonable conclusions given the Genesis account.

The greatest danger of Big Government and its various programs is the loss of liberty, independence, and individual identity that they foster in those that depend on them.  Even those that are initially forced against their will to participate are in great danger of succumbing to the illusion of peace, safety, and prosperity that they offer.  So what can an individual do?

The Babel story itself provides the answer. Man is a naturally dependent creature.  Even the smartest, strongest, and swiftest among us are woefully weak and helpless in the face of the forces, natural and otherwise, that are arrayed against us.  Our temptation is to band together in large groups, seek safety in numbers, and build great cities, nations and empires.  We think that by doing this, our numbers and our reputation, our “name”, will protect us.  This is a dangerous illusion, as history has repeatedly demonstrated.

We have a choice to make, a decision: be dependent on G-d, or be dependent on man.  If we choose dependence on man, it is clear we are choosing slavery.  If we choose dependence on G-d, we can participate in these programs, if we choose to, without becoming dependent on them.  That is the freedom that comes from being dependent on G-d.

Now when I say “if we choose to”, we must consider that these programs are mandatory.  If we choose not to participate, there are penalties, fines, imprisonment or worse.  So, unless these programs are so completely offensive to us that we believe we are committing a moral wrong, it is in our best interest to participate.  The point is, with dependence on G-d, we do have a choice; with dependence on man, we don’t.

So, we can choose dependence on man and slavery, or dependence on G-d and freedom.  It is a simple decision, really, clear cut and well-defined.  I know what mine is, what’s yours?