“Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!” Psalm 144:15b~
I had the great privilege once to meet Harry Wu, a Chinese dissident who spent 19 years in a laogai, a “re-education camp.” Wu was eventually exiled to America. He worked nights in a doughnut shop until he could learn English to become a voice for freedom until his death in 2016.
Something he said still resonates with me. “A barefoot peasant can be happy if he is free.” Happiness and freedom go hand in hand.
In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Fyodor Dostoevsky presents what at first seems like a different view.
Alyosha, a priest, is generous and loving. His brother Ivan is an atheist who plans to live until he is thirty, then commit suicide. The two discuss a parable Ivan has written. The conversation, a chapter in The Brothers Karamozov, is more of a political statement than a religious one. But sometimes, people substitute politics for religion.
In Ivan’s parable, a 16th-century Cardinal/inquisitor talks to a silent Christ who has returned to earth for the day. Christ sits silently while the inquisitor tells how he and others in power have replaced God, having improved upon His plan. They have convinced the populace to willingly relinquish their freedom.
Christ had brought freedom with the promise of heavenly bread. He had brought no guarantees of earthly bread or even of happiness. The inquisitor offers people earthly bread at the cost of freedom. Not having to pursue their own bread, the people will be happy, the inquisitor claims.
Speaking to Christ, the inquisitor sums up our times:
“Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? ‘Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!’ that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple.”
Published in 1880, Dostoevsky was prophetic. Much of the world has turned to the bread of socialism. They don’t, however, seem any happier for having done so.
Satan’s promises never pay off.
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson promised America freedom and happiness. He admitted he did not have the “full answer” to America’s woes. But he determined to find “the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America.” It’s unlikely that he realized his point mirrored the words of the inquisitor.
Johnson’s speech marks a turning in America, not the first nor the last, away from the wisdom of God to the wisdom of man.
“The purpose of protecting the life of our nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation.” The government’s new goal became to effect personal happiness in its citizens. Without it, the nation would be a failure.
Johnson’s Great Society would result in “abundance and liberty for all” and require “an end to poverty and racial injustice.”
After having spent more than $22 trillion over 50 years, rates of poverty first dropped from 17 percent to about 12 percent, rose again to hover at 15 percent, then ticked back up to almost 17 percent in 2020.
Changes to Social Security and Medicare accounted for much of the initial poverty reduction.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows a murder rate in 1960 of 4.6 (per 100,000). The rate soared to 10.2 in 1980 and was at 4.5 in 2013. Currently, the rate is 6.9. The War on Poverty has failed.
More than half a century since LBJ promised that programs could produce a heyday of peace and prosperity, a heaven on earth utopia has not come to pass.
It cannot be on earth.
The pursuit of happiness is not something that anyone–including the government–can chase on someone else’s behalf. Certainly, no one can pursue happiness without freedom.
In response to the inquisitor, Dostoevsky’s Christ remains silent. His only response: kissing the inquisitor before He departs.
Ivan thought he figured out how to fix the world. But Ivan still wasn’t happy. Before they part, Alyosha kisses him.
Alyosha knows happiness does not come in the form of government-provided bread. It comes in the form of love.
Love shares, provides for needs, and is generous.
That kind of love comes only through Christ.