Being Human as Subversion

We fight,
not against blood and flesh, but
    against the rulers,
    against the authorities,
    against the world-rulers of the darkness of this age,
    against the spiritual things of evil in the heavenlies. Ephesians 6:12

We impose on each other something that, lacking a better term, I call “legalism.” If we imagine an alternative to this “legalism,” it would be most of all something that requires more relational hard work and more accommodation to each other than we normally expend, and it would not be anything definable in terms of political ideals and certainly not in terms of the political options available to us.

    Law is of no value before living humanity. G. K. Chesterton speaks through a fictional judge:

[I]t gradually dawned on me that in my work, as it was, I was not touching even the fringe of justice. I was seated in the seat of the mighty, I was robed in scarlet and ermine; nevertheless, I held a small and lowly and futile post. I had to go by a mean rule as much as a postman, and my red and gold was worth no more than his. Daily there passed before me taut and passionate problems, the stringency of which I had to pretend to relieve by silly imprisonments or silly damages, while I knew all the time, by the light of my living common sense, that they would have been far better relieved by a kiss or a thrashing, or a few words of explanation, or a duel, or a tour in the West Highlands.

Chesterton again: “If you let loose a law, it will do as a dog does. It will obey its own nature, not yours.” It is a sky-high idealism to expect good from vague laws, forgetting that sin takes advantage of any law.

    Is that a misapplication of Romans 7:8 and 11 when I say that sin takes advantage of any  law? I don’t think so, because laws, by their very nature, give us a substitute for real righteousness, real guilt (before God), real choice, and real action by telling us “do this, and that  will be your righteousness.”


But now we have been freed from the law and have died to that which held us captive. Therefore, we now serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6)


    “Legalism,” as I’m using the term here, is our collection of ways of sorting out competing claims that are less difficult than dealing directly with people. For example, rather than working out details of a divorce directly or with a counselor, let’s do it through lawyers so that we can both say “I am following all the rules and doing exactly what the judge said I had to do — no more, no less. Therefore, I am justified.” Or, rather than dealing with a dispute in business directly, let’s take it to court. We go through the rituals of this legalism because we do not trust what is human and are therefore lacking in effective rituals of reconciliation and negotiation. We prefer to be protected by rules.

    Heywood Broun, Jr., said about the failures of the League of Nations meetings after World War I: “Beer and light wines can settle subjects which defy all the subtleties possible to ink.” There is something serious here: among fellow drinkers or fellow whateverers conflicts are dealt more honestly and optimistically and with more concern for usable outcomes. Diplomats are forced to have too much formality, too little conversation, too few permissible outcomes, and too many agenda of institutional pride, hate, and selfishness to do anything meaningful. They are easily deprived of being fellow anythings. Broun goes on:


What the world needs, then, is not so much a league as an international beer night to be held at regular intervals by representatives of the nations. Good beer and enough of it would have settled the whole problem of the covenants which were going to be open and did not turn out that way.

For “beer” read “realization of our shared humanness” or simply “shared good times.”

    As long as they are free, flies will do what flies do, and they might well experience some sort of fly joy and exuberance as they annoy humans. Flypaper takes away their freedom to do what flies do. They thus become less than flies, and they die.

    What is the glue that humans get stuck down by, that prevents us from doing what we might do? I know nothing about fly psychology, but for us mere beliefs can be the stickum on the people-paper. If I believe that I cannot engage in some particular action (or that I should not, which can be another way of saying the same thing), that glues me down.

    Such beliefs about what cannot or ought not be done are a natural human thing, a reflex. Lacking them can be dangerous: some extremely bipolar people might need to be reminded that they cannot fly, that trying really hard to do so and really believing “I can fly like a fly!” will only prove otherwise. And, thinking again about human conflicts, some of us might occasionally need to be reminded that heaven frowns on murder. But that reflex toward identifying what is impossible or futile or dangerous or evil goes too far. Because we are naturally “slaves to sin” (Romans 7 again) that protective reflex is exploited for the sake of laziness, self-justification, and control of other people. It is exploited to such a degree that we cannot find a middle ground where it might work rationally and realistically.

    Law is such control of others institutionalized. It takes what is good, natural, and human, the understanding that “I cannot fly,” and externalizes and expands it. It takes that “cannot” of self-understanding and right vs. wrong and turns it into a “cannot” of rules and, if that isn’t enough, of penalties. And, if that isn’t enough, more rules and harsher penalties. There is no self-activating limit to law. (A brief reminder: if you think this is an argument for libertarianism, go back and read again from the beginning.)

    And because government not only tells us what not to do but also insures our ability to eat and live — granted often only as a last resort and not in any style — “what not to do” has come to include take care of ourselves. My leftist heritage is offended at what I’ve just said, but the truth is that many of us think of providing for self as involving most of all, or only, working the system of government provision. Standing in line and jumping through hoops for unemployment or disability benefits is no walk in the park, but it has become the main form of work for pay done by some of us. That is what we have allowed ourselves to be taught.
    And there is a deeper and darker side to the control, in our acceptance of the increased role of government in society and in each human life. More and more has come to be done for us rather than by us. (Another reminder: no political program here.) As Chesterton pointed out, we no longer create our own society or any of its more important institutions: “In modern constitutional countries there are practically no political institutions thus given by the people; all are received by the people.” Relationship skills and practices of reconciliation are barely needed because we can always go to court and let the official sorters-out sort it out, but it goes beyond that. It is hard for us to get volunteerism right because we do not create our own society. Other ages have done so (though pacification by means of “bread and circuses” did not begin last week). They did it without thinking about it because it is natural for humans to create and maintain societies by collective action. Institutions keep their power over us is by discouraging action, particularly collective action. Action becomes what the government engages in, and we don’t. Start a prayer group, fishing club, anarcho-socialist cell, or street sweepers collective as a beginning toward subversion.


  • “It gradually dawned on me …”: the character Basil Grant describing his abandoned career as a judge in Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades (1905, at Gutenberg), chapter 6, “The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady.”
  • “If you let loose a law …”: Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (1922, at Gutenberg), Part I, chapter 2, “The First Obstacles.”
  • Heywood Broun, Jr., is quoted from Pieces of Hate and Other Enthusiasms (1922, at Gutenberg), ch. 31: “With a Stein on the Table.”
  • “In modern constitutional countries …”: Chesterton, A Short History of England  (1917, at Gutenberg), chapter 8: “The Meaning of Merry England.” He writes this on the way to mentioning trade unions as an exception, to some extent an “attenuated and threatened” holdover from the Middle Ages. Any “power” that unions have now was bought with much loss of their birthright.
  • “Bread and circuses”: Juvenal, Satires 10.81. It is helpful to remember that “circuses” were spectator sports, not the sort of thing we give that name to. The point is the decay of citizen involvement in government.

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