The following analogy illustrates the point that ‘good nature may be a great misfortune if we do not mix prudence with it’[i]:
”An old man and his young son were driving a donkey before them to the next market to sell. ‘Why have you no more wit’, says one to the man upon the way, ‘thank you and your son trudge it on foot, and let the donkey go light?’
So the old man set his son upon the donkey and continued himself on foot. ‘Why, sir’, says another after this, to the boy, ‘you lazy rogue, must you ride, and let you old father go on foot?’
The old man upon this took down his son, and got up himself. ‘Do you see,’ says a third, ‘how lazy old knave rides himself, and the poor young fellow has much ado to creep after him?’
The father, upon hearing this, took up his son behind him. The next person they met asked the old man whether the donkey was his own or not. He said, ‘yes’. ‘There’s a little sign on it’, says another, ‘by loading him thus.’
‘Well,’ says the old man himself, ‘and what am I to do now? For I am laughed at, if either the donkey be empty, or if one of us rides, or both;’ and so he came to the conclusion to bind the donkey’s legs together with a cord, and they tried to carry him to market with a pole upon each of their shoulders.
This was sport to everybody that saw it, inasmuch that the old man in great wrath threw down the donkey into a river, and so went his way home again. The good man, in fine , was willing to please anybody, and lost his donkey in the process” (‘The complete John Ploughman’)
In some respects the father’s acquiescence is blind. His son also shows the same symptoms by his inability to challenge the father’s sedate tolerance which, because of a lack of assertiveness has led to absolute confusion.
Father and son were both paralyzed not just by fear, but also by indifference and indecision. Something akin to moral failure or as penned by Carl Trueman, ‘moral abdication’.[iii]
They were unable to push back or challenge the wisdom behind what they were accepting, because they were too eager to appease the commentary of their detractors.
Accommodating the high opinions of those around, and not wanting to offend, negated the very purpose of their journey, harming not only themselves, but also the donkey.
In a comment related to this story, the blunt-talking, 19th Century Preacher, the Rev. Charles Spurgeon, stated:
‘Put your hand quickly to your hat, for that is courtesy; but don’t bow your head at every man or woman’s bidding, for that is slavery…A person is not free if they are afraid to think for themselves, for if our thoughts are in bonds we are not free.‘[ii]
This is somewhat echoed in the words from theologian, Marguerite Shuster:
‘Those who Jesus confronted most directly were as likely to want to kill him as to follow him. He seemed to not have the slightest inclination to make hearing and following him pleasant and easy…Truthfulness, in other words, is not determined by customer satisfaction surveys’[iv]
For the free citizen, Shuster’s words mark the very essence of what it means to be a ‘good citizen’ instead of a ‘nice citizen’; the ability to say “yes” and “no” with a ton of responsible care and a stack of well-informed conviction.
Control the language means control of the argument, and therefore control of the people. All contradictions, double standards and hypocrisy are ignored, if the end justifies the means.
Spurgeon’s donkey in the ditch analogy also shows the danger of double mindedness. Accommodation and blind tolerance, in the forms of indifference and indecision, create the ground from which the late political scientist, and feminist, Jean Bethke Elshtain unpacks her own concerns:
‘Western democracies are not doing a good job of nurturing democratic dispositions that encourage people to accept that they can’t always get what they want and that some of what they seek in politics cannot be found there’[v]
What Shuster, Elshtain and Spurgeon speak to is the giving of an ”absolute feel-nice yes” with a notable absence of any ability to say “no” and have it respected.
For example: equality, fairness and freedom cannot exist in a truly democratic society when the people give unquestioning loyalty to the state, or the fashionable ideology propagated by some circles in academia.
It is right to suggest that nihilism and its progeny: utilitarian hedonism or totalitarian fascism, should be identified and resisted by the public when it comes to having a decisive influence on socio-political policy. It is wrong to not allow these to be reasonably argued against in the free marketplace of ideas.
Equally bad is a politics of appeasement which caves in to demands for unrestrained freedom or extremist forms of social justice for easy political gain. Such politics, and those who advocate it show that they do not understand freedom. Genuine freedom[vi] must have responsible restraints. For example: the ability to say no to ourselves is an act of freedom.
In essence, no self-control, no freedom. Know self-control, know freedom.
Freedom is negated if we are not free to say both “yes” or “no” responsibly.
‘Absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom. The revolution to achieve justice, through freedom, ends by aligning them against one another.’ [vii]
Absolute freedom is an illusion because of its innate contradictions. Such as absolute justice, which allows the mob-in-revolt to violently dictate and impose the rule of total law. Or allow a leader to take on emergency powers where, drunk with power, he or she, takes that ”one ring to rule them all.”
The place where free citizens become subjects, and take on the lonely and confused, dire submission of Ralph and his faithful companion, who amidst the mad chaos and fire, stirred up by Jack, in Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies, decide:
‘…under threat of the sky, to eagerly take a place in this demented, but partly secure society’. [viii]
Like the donkey in a ditch, democracy could easily be abandoned, left to lay dormant; placed there by indifference and indecision. Denied, despairing and desperate for rescue, whilst those who chose appeasement for applause, pledge allegiance on an altar of sinister ideologies, advancing by a list of lustful, lost and predatory activism.
In today’s “post-modern” society we see this in the accommodation of blurred distinctions.
Our society tends to value appearance and reputation, over against the truth and the substance of real character.
It is not surprise then that Christians are subsequently forced, or sadly, sometimes surrender to trends, bad theology, and failed ideas, which lay waste to the existence of a free and responsible representative democracy, governed by faith, reason, mercy and justice.
Perhaps that old reminder stands as true today as it did then:
‘When we don’t apply a moral criteria to politics, we mix good and evil, right and wrong. Therefore we make space for the triumph of absolute evil in the world’
(Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1971, Harvard address[xiv])
[i] Spurgeon, C.H. 2007 The complete John Ploughman Christian Focus publications
[ii] Ibid. This echoes the biblical call to pray: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach… because a double-minded person is unstable in all their ways’ (James 1:8)
[iii] Trueman, C. 2004 The Wages of Spin Christian Focus Publications Kindle Ed. (Loc.89)
[iv] Shuster, M. 2008 Truth and truthfulness in Performance in preaching Childers & Schmidt, Baker Academic
[v] Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy on Trial, Perseus Books Group (p.62) See also, Elshtain, J.B 2000 Who are we? critical reflections and hopeful possibilities (particularly chapter three) Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Grand Rapids Michigan U.S.A
[vi] Albert Camus, The Rebel 1951 Kindle Ed. (Penguin Classics, 2013)
[vii] Ibid, 1951
[viii] Golding, W. 1954 Lord of the Flies Bloomsbury House (p.167)
[ix] Solzhenitsyn, A. 1978 A world split apart Harvard sourced from Columbia.edu
* The phrase ‘freedom in limitation’ is Karl Barth’s, not mine.