On 2009-04-21, the president of the United State signed a bill tripling the size of Americorps. He said it was “just the beginning” of a sustained effort to remake the nation. Earlier on, the new administration had urged what was called “mandatory service,” and only time will tell if they follow through with that vision of servitude.
According to the Associated Press,
The service law expands ways for students and seniors to earn money for college through their volunteer work. It aims to foster and fulfill people’s desire to make a difference, such as by mentoring children, cleaning up parks or buildings and weatherizing homes for the poor.
“I’m asking you to help change history’s course, put your shoulder up against the wheel,” Obama said. “And if you do, I promise you your life will be richer, our country will be stronger, and someday, years from now, you may remember it as the moment when your own story and the American story converged, when they came together, and we met the challenges of our new century” (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090422/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_obama_national_service, accessed 2009-04-22 15:46Z).
We are going to change the course of history by cleaning up parks, eh?
What is actually happening here, of course, is a redistribution of wealth. Like Robin Hood, the state swoops in and takes from the rich to give to the poor. The state is our savior.
The state is a robber, that much is true; it is actually a gang of thieves writ large. An endeavor to inculcate virtue is not wrong. But much hangs on how this is done, and even on who does it.
The man who would not be bribed
This is not a new question (service for $$ or service for unselfish purposes). God and Satan engaged in a contest concerning this all the way back in the time of Job. The oldest book in the Bible is not Genesis. It is the book of Job.
The book can be understood as having roughly three main parts:
Chapters 1, 2 are a showdown between God and Satan over whether or not Job serves God for the good stuff that He gives to Job. Satan says it is just for the good stuff; God says that if this is all taken away, that still Job will serve Him. That is, Job’s motivations are from unselfishness and from righteousness. Terrific calamities befall Job and his family. Still he is faithful. God prevails.
Chapters 3-37 are a dialogue between Job and his friends. They are sure that Job is suffering because of his own sin, but Job insists that he is innocent.
Finally, chapters 38-42 are where God intervenes in the discussion. He vindicates Job and indicates that Job’s friends have not spoken rightly about Him and His kingdom.
Here is the wild thing: Job does not know who is causing all these calamities to fall upon him. He thinks it is God, but it is clearly Satan. And still he serves God. No incentives are dangled before his nose, no state comes to offer him cash money for this or to give him a tax break for that or to steal money from some productive neighbor to give to kids to clean up a park. Job lives a life of virtue without being bribed or bought off. He is good because he wants to be good.
The virtuous Samaritan
Another example, and one specifically offered by Jesus, is the Samaritan. We know the story (Luke 10:25-37). A man is set upon by thieves, robbed, and lay dying along the side of the road. One by one clergymen and church officials come down the road, spot him, and pass rapidly on on the other side. At last comes a man they would all regard as heathen. This man stops and at risk to his own life, helps the victim of the thieves, takes him to an inn, washes his wounds, and pays the innkeeper to feed and nurse the man back to health. This is not part of a state program; he does it because this is what he wants to do. He is virtuous at risk to his own life.
Both Job and the Samaritan would have been scandalized by the suggestion that they should be good, do good things, for money. It was their own basic story. They chose to be pluses, not minuses. They were not looking for incentives and would have regarded it as running with a multitude to do evil (Exodus 23:2) to receive money stolen from others as an incentive to themselves to do good.
The state as Robin Hood
We must regard most presidents and legislatures as people who are trying to do the right thing but who do not understand that coercion is incapable of generating such. Right idea; definitely, the wrong tools. Actually, the state is artificial.
How can the president speak of making a choice to participate in “national service” as “the moment when your own story and the American story converge”? The vision behind the American state was that the state would handle the minimum necessities in order to set up a situation where men might themselves engage in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is our business to pursue.
Instead, the state comes in pursuit of us. We are not a part of the “American story” until there is a convergence between our story and the American story. That is, between us and the state. The flaw here is that men do not need the state. It gets in the way, until children are being paid for good grades in public schools, and until the state can reach with impunity into the properties of productive citizens, steal them, and redistribute them to others in the name of inculcating virtue. That is, the state will teach our young to be virtuous by stealing from one group of citizens and giving to another. At the same time, this trains them to think that the state is indispensable. Yes, the state spends many resources (all taken from productive citizens) to tell us how necessary it, the state, is.
The story of a free man never converges with the story of the state. He chooses to be good because that is his desire. He needs not a thief to tell him not to steal.
Being good, that is a good idea. Paying people to be good? It marks the ineptitude of the state. Goodness will never be inculcated from mercenary acts. This is one more example of how the state stands in the way of the development of Christian character.