Political Prisoner

by J. Budziszewski


"There he is," said a voice behind me. "He won't escape this time." I ducked into the elevator. Too late. Just as the doors were closing, a hand slipped between and stopped them.

"Going somewhere, Professor?"

"Yes."

"That's what you think. The course is over, we've turned in our exams, and you're coming with us."
"Where?"

"To the Student Union."

It was the Posse: Ling, Sarah, Mary and Zack. Much more self-conscious about how faith set them apart than most young believers are, from the first day of class they'd banded together.

They werenÝt cliquish or self-righteous. But they did share a tendency to dramatize.

Ling was speaking. "You're going to tell us what you really think."

"About what?"

"All semester you've made comments about the elections, but you won't actually say where you stand."

So that was it. "What makes you think I'll squeal?"

"We'll force you to eat donuts until you do," said Mary. "It may take minutes off your life."

"You might as well come along quietly," said Ling. I gave in.

As soon as we reached our seats, the Posse got down to business.

"First," said Zack, "we want to know why you've held back."

"Held back?"

"Don't play games, prisoner. You've hidden your political views."

"I deny the charge. I don't 'hide' my views, but teaching isn't indoctrination. The teacher is not the subject of his own course."

"But this course was about Christian political thought."

"So?"

"And you admitted that there's no such thing as objectivity."

"No. I said that there is no such thing as neutrality."

"What's the difference?" asked Sarah.

"Neutrality is having no point of view. That's impossible. Objectivity is having one, but being fair to those who don't share it."

"But you told the whole class you're a Christian. So why not couldn't you tell it how you vote?"

"I tell my students that I'm a Christian because they have a right to know my point of view. That way, if I ever do slip from being fair, they can compensate ˇ and if they ever do want to argue with me, they know where the target is. For the same reasons, a Marxist should admit to his students that he's a Marxist, a feminist should admit to her students that she's a feminist, and so forth."

Sarah could be like a remora. "You haven't answered my question. How is telling the class you're a Christian different than telling them how you vote?"

"Because a teacher can put his students at an unfair disadvantage in two different ways," I replied. "Not laying his cards on the table is one; laying too many cards on the table is the other. His students need to know the basis on which he makes judgments about the subject. But if he opinionates too freely, he merely intimidates."

"It sounds like you're saying opposite things."

"No, I'm saying that there are two opposite ways to be a bully, and good teaching has to avoid both. It's like good porridge: Not too hot, not too cold."

Whether because they agreed, or for some other reason, the Posse seemed satisfied. There was a brief silence. But some kind of communication was passing back and forth among them by furtive looks. They seemed to reach an agreement. The next to speak was Ling.

"Would you tell us how you voted now?"

"Certainly I would. I'm much more forthcoming about my opinions if a student asks me about them on his own. Likewise, I'm more forthcoming if a student asks in private than if he asks during class time."

"Professor. Please," said Zack. "We don't mean would you tell us how you voted if we asked. We mean, how did you vote?"

I told them.

Ling and Sarah grinned. Zack seemed astonished. "I was sure he ˇ"

"I told you," said Mary. "Now you have to buy everyone donuts."

"What was Zack about to say?"

"I was going to explain what threw me off," he replied. "It was a remark you made in class a couple of weeks ago ˇ right when the voting fraud in the state of West Carolina came out."

"The college students who cast double votes?"

"Yeah. Once at school, once in their home towns. And most of the illegal votes, about fifteen thousand ˇ"

"Twenty," said Mary.

"ˇ went to just one candidate. Remember how someone in class said something about 'turning the other cheek'? Well, you seemed to agree. I thought you meant that the other guy shouldn't complain. That made me think you wanted the first guy to win, the one who got the crooked votes."

"You made a false assumption, and you missed a crucial distinction."

Zack pantomimed a cringing penitent. "What was the false assumption?"

"You assumed that I said what I did about turning the other cheek because I wanted one of the candidates to win. No, I said what I said about turning the other cheek because it was the right thing to do. Too many politicians calculate what gets them what they want, then call it right. That road goes down and down. Instead we ought to discern what's right, then do it even if it doesn't get us what we want."

"I do know that, really," said Zack. "It's just that ˇ well ˇ the whole world seems to think the other way. Sometimes I forget."

"All the more reason to resolve not to forget. The ancient Roman statesmen had a saying, fiat justitia ruat caelum. 'Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.' Do the right thing, not what's expedient. Do it, no matter what."

"They didn't live up to their saying," said Mary.

"No, they didn't. Knowing he was innocent, Pontius Pilate handed over Jesus for execution, just for fear of what his enemies would say if he didn't. Of all people, we Christians should know better than to follow that example."

 "'Do what's right, not what's expedient,'" quoted Zack. "I think ˇ one problem is ˇ that it seems so obvious. Almost trite, if you know what I mean. Do you, Professor T?"

"I do. There are certain temptations which work better on educated than on uneducated people. They play in our ears all the time. One of them runs, 'If it's that obvious, it can't be very profound.' You see? In the end we wind up convincing ourselves that the clearest truths can't be true at all, just because they're clear. I like what George Orwell said: 'We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.'"

"Okay, Prof ˇ I know when I've been hung out to dry."

"But you also said he missed a crucial distinction," said Sarah.

"Yes. Turning the other cheek is right. But there's a difference between turning the other cheek, and turning your back on your duty."

The four friends merely looked at each other.

"You don't get it?"

"No," said Sarah.

"Think back to Jesus' examples. Someone insults you with a slap on the cheek, and instead of striking back, you shame him by offering the other cheek to slap. Or he sues you for your coat, and you offer him your cloak. Or he demands that you walk with him a mile, and you walk for a second one. What kind of interest is at stake in these examples? What are you giving up?"

"Revenge. Resentment," said Ling.

"Having everything your way." Mary.

"You're giving up your personal interest, right?"

"I guess."

"What kind of interest is at stake when foul play, like double-counting, takes place in an election? Is that the same, or is it different?"

"The same," said Zack. "Each candidate has a personal interest in winning."

"No doubt," I said. "But is that the whole story?"

"No," said Sarah. "There's a public interest at stake, too."

"What kind of a public interest? Do you just mean giving the voters what they happen to want?"

 "No, something more important, something that's right no matter what they want. Like you said ˇ let justice be done, though the heavens fall. It's against justice that an election should be decided by foul play. Humans need government. God said so Himself, didn't He? Through Peter? And that's not how a government should be chosen."

"Exactly," I said. "Just like a private individual, a candidate should be willing to sacrifice his personal interests in revenge, in resentment and in having everything his way. That's turning the other cheek. But he hasn't the right to sacrifice public justice, because it isn't his."

As they chewed that over, I rose to leave.

"You can't go now," warned Ling. "We arrested you. Besides, we want to continue the interrogation."

Mary cried, "What about when both candidates say that justice is on their side?"

"You can't hold me, coppers," I said. "I'm busting outta this joint."

I did, too, but I don't know how long I'll be free.


J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) is the author of How to Stay Christian in College. He also teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin. His column appears monthly in Boundless Webzine.

Copyright © 2000 J. Budziszewski, used by permission.