For Shame

Yesterday marked the first year anniversary of Senator Edward Kennedy’s death, which seems to warrant another re-post:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

–St. Peter (1 Peter 2: 13-17)

The life of Senator Kennedy, lived very much in public view, was a life that was badly lived.

–Douglas Wilson

Long, brief, ham-fistedly uncouth or silver-tongued, relevant-Christianity-with-a-conservative-bent blogdom is filled with postings like Wilson’s (unfortunately, the page is now defunct, but to my knowledge the utterance hasn’t been retracted).

It is very hard to grasp just what sort of outlook must inform the latter statement by Doug Wilson, nor how one imagines it aligns with the former from 1 Peter 2. What is it that drives those commanded to seek the peace and be humble servants of the city to speak so deridingly and to undermine instead of honor kings? It is quite beyond me how those who utter such obnoxious things seem to be so absent any sense of shame. And while I am not particularly given to it as a general rule, I do wonder where the moral outrage might be when professing Christians mutter such dishonorable tripe.

But when one takes into account the context of such statements it really seems to be yet another function of how western religionists have confused, quite badly, things political with things moral. Many lament the mixing of politics and religion, but fewer seem to realize that the politicizing of religion tends very often to go hand-in-hand with the moralizing of politics. Both are cause for concern. Whatever else this sort of wrong-headed disposition yields, it certainly does exactly nothing to fulfill Peter’s command to show proper respect to everyone. Peter goes on to suggest that it is no credit to a slave to endure a beating for bad behavior, rather it is to his merit that he endure being kicked in the teeth for doing good. If the ham-fisted railings of certain professing Christians is any measure, do we really imagine that they would be anything but three-sheets-to-the-wind should that sort of adversity come their way?

It is one thing to disagree politically with a king, it is another to suggest a moral degeneracy and a “life badly lived” because of it. And lest anyone think some particularly political axe is being ground here, it isn’t unusual to hear the same malignant speech on the lips of those religionists opposed to shock and awe, which isn’t any less troublesome. One is reminded of the theological row revivalists had with confessionalists over the questions surrounding of revivalism (and one that, to greater or lesser degrees, prevails yet today between their respective heirs). Not seeing eye-to-eye, the revivalists went toe-to-toe with the confessionalists and, kicking them in the shins, played the same theological card Wilson ideologically plays here. They charged their confessionalist interlocutors with being unregenerate. As some have rightly asked, how exactly does one argue against such a suggestion? It is as enormously frustrating and maddening as when one might be told he is a mere contrarian for dissenting or seeing something from another angle. It is the verbal equivalent of being roundly kicked in the groin by a rather desperate opponent. But if Peter has anything to say about it, it would seem our public comportment is held to a vastly higher standard than the likes of Wilson exhibit. True, living up to high standards is just plain tough and really isn’t a thing for the faint of heart. But, like mama always said, that’s no good excuse not to.

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7 Responses to For Shame

  1. Paul says:

    “But when one takes into account the context of such statements it really seems to be yet another function of how western religionists have confused, quite badly, things political with things moral.

    So Zrim, do you then deny that political philosophy is a subset of ethics, as a species of normative evaluations?

    “It is one thing to disagree politically with a king, it is another to suggest a moral degeneracy and a “life badly lived” because of it.”

    Can’t we evaluate the public actions of men and issue judgments, i.e., “life badly lived.” Why think Wilson’s problem with lennedy was *just that* Kennedy was a Dem, taking nothing else but that into consideration?

    And Zrim, do you not agree that the book of Revelation serves as an indictment on Rome (at least part of it)? Those words John used weren’t necessarily considered genteel and civil.

  2. Zrim says:


    Maybe I missed it, but the railings of folks like Wilson and the Bayly’s never seem to personally target those who more or less share their politics. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the personal jabs are ways to make political statements, as in whoever holds this or that political conclusion is personally morally bankrupt.

    I’m not saying that “genteel and civil” public language is the touchstone. I was dismissed from the Bayly’s for having the unmitigated gall to suggest their “sermon to the President” was a glorified anti-Obama (abortion?) speech. But Rome stands for the powers of the world, the flesh and the devil. Revelation’s indictment isn’t over some particular policy or another. If that were the case, couldn’t we, contrariwise, expect some praises for Roman policies that pass muster with Wilson and the Bayly’s (like punishing infidels who confess something other than the state religion, so long as that state religion is Jesus instead of Caesar)? So where are Scripture’s praises for those?

  3. Paul says:


    Even if their complaint were partisan, you should be able to see the distinction between the motives driving the argument and the argument itself. If the argument is valid, the motives don’t change that. To think otherwise is to commit a form of the genetic fallacy.

    Moreover, one is allowed to be partisan in American politics.

    In any event, I’m not going to comment on the your and the Baylys’s exchange, since I didn’t read their post or your comments. However, I do understand the recapitulated implications of Romans, and I do understand the larger critique against the powers that undergirded the Roman system, however, there seems to be little doubt that John was critiquing actual Roman government policies and attitudes.

    The churches mentioned in Revelation can be viewed as all churches throughout history, but they were real churches nevertheless. The indictments were real, aimed at actual, living, pastors and church members—but they also apply to church pastors and members throughout history. So with Rome. Rome served as the present manifestation of Babylon, a city corrupted by the devil. John is indicting actual, current, historical goings on in Rome. John covers the goods they buy (from oil, wheat, and wine, to the more luxorious items) to the slave trade. As Richard Bauckham notes,

    “He is pointing out that slaves are not mere animal carcasses to be bought and sold as property, but are human beings. But in this emphatic position at the end of the list, this is more than just a comment on the slave trade. It is a comment on the whole list of cargoes. It suggests the inhuman brutality, the contempt for human life, on which the whole of Rome’s prosperity and luxury rests” (Bauckham, Revelation, 370-71).

    And Bauckham points out the above symbolism inherent in John’s prophecy. So, while what you say is true, it fails to recognize that current, historic Roman practice and leaders are subjected to much stronger language than Wilson offers Kennedy. The empirical evidence we have at our disposal is that Kennedy’s life was one ostensibly badly lived. I don’t mean that in any way to reflect his party, plenty of Republicans have lived bad lives. Hell will be full of Democrats and Republicans.

  4. Zrim says:

    So, Paul, all that said, how do you harmonize Peter’s call to honor magistrates with Wilson’s dishonoring remarks? Maybe you don’t think they were dishonoring? If so, what would be an example of, speech-wise, violating Peter’s call to honor magistrates?

    But let’s assume the argument can be made that Kennedy’s life was in fact poorly lived. Doesn’t jurisdiction figure in to any of this, as in Kennedy was the charge of the Bishop of Rome, not the Bishop of Moscow? Can it be said that Wilson is speaking out of school? And what about the difference between “poorly lived” and “living in sin”? It sure seems to me that if one is going to speak out of school about one quite out of his own jurisdiction that at least the ante should be raised from the snotty and sniveling “poorly lived” to a more manly charge that a man is actually in danger of being handed over to Satan. Seems to me that Wilson’s smearing words are ways to imply the worst without actually having to take any responsibility for their implications, and you seem to think that’s all just fine because “the empirical evidence we have at our disposal is that Kennedy’s life was one ostensibly badly lived.” But, out of curiousity, what is this evidence we have that Kennedy was morally bankrupt?

  5. Paul says:


    Yes, I don’t think “his was a life livebadly lived” are “dishonouring remarks.” As an argument, I pointed you to Revelation’s remarks on the Roman government, which were much harsher than Wilson’s. In your post you took this for granted, though I haven’t seen an argument by you for why Wilson’s remarks deserved you ire. Indeed, you offer some harsh charges of Wilson. I have tried to make this argument to you before, maybe it’ll stick this time: you’re forgetting the “show respect to everyone” part. If the claims you can make of Wilson (i.e., “bishop of Moscow”, “snotty and sniveling”, “unmanly,” not to mention claims you’ve made in other posts) fit perfectly well with “show respect to everyone,” then you’ve lost the moral right to complain about Wilson’s charge that a man’s public life was badly lived.

    As far as the putative evidence:

    * What about hsi behavior that led directly to the untimely death of Mary Jo Kopechne?

    * What about when he manhandled Carla Gaviglio and through here on a table and rubed his genitals on her?

    * What about when he tried to elicit the help of the USSR in secret against cold war policies in the 80’s? The Soviet memmos we have tell us that Kennedy’s aim in doing this was to become president in 88.

    * He was a drunk.

    * He divorced his wife who stood by him through all the allegations of his womanizing. A champion swimmer became an an alcoholic after years of adultary

    * He was an infamous womanizer. When pictures were shown of him getting jiggy with woman on a sailboat, his fellow senators said that Kennedy had “changed his position on offshore drilling.”

    * What about the rape that happened at his Florida estate? One girl left when he entered the room in just his t-shirt. The other claimed to have been raped by Kennedy’s nephew on the beach.

    * Time magazine described Kennedy as the “Palm Beam boozer and lout.”

    Then I could talk about some of his politcal votes, but the above is enough.

  6. Zrim says:


    You still seem to have the idea that pointed language is the problem, thus my own toward Wilson negates mine about his toward Kennedy. But it’s not pointed language that’s the problem, rather it’s inappropriate language (jurisdiction, etc.) that also happens to be pointed. Wilson is within my religious orbit, Kennedy isn’t within his. And I consider my language to be more hardball than lowball. I know that is not always an easy distinction, but so far I don’t think I’ve personally insulted Wilson as he has Kennedy.

    This isn’t necessarily to generally defend a public figure like Kennedy, or to defend any specifically poor behaviors. It’s to question what interest a Presbyterian pastor has in the life of a member of the RCC no matter how public that life was. I’m not saying that Wilson can’t believe that Kennedy’s life was badly lived, but suggesting that ultimately maybe it’s more important to keep it to himself given all the complexities involved. It seems you think that it’s enough that a public figure did some deplorable things. Nothing else really needs to be considered, and out pops defense of a theocratic Presbyterian pastor feigning admonishment (read: insulting) of a Roman Catholic Senator.

    I find it interesting that you think pointing out his political voting could count against him personally. That’s another point of this post, which I know you disagree with. But, as you know, I simply reject the idea that one’s politics is a comment on one’s personal morality. If it helps, my liberals hate that point, too, when I suggest that conservative politics do not make certain people evil.

  7. Paul says:

    Okay Zrim, I’ll let you have the last word.

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