This is a continuing series of chapters I'm writing in a book I will call Let Freedom Ring. If you haven't been following it, I suggest you start at the beginning.
In the previous chapter, I explained why a just government cannot extend mercy. It may aid people in seeking restitution, but it cannot offer mercy without robbing justice. In this chapter, I’ll explain why the government cannot be charitable. First, however, I have to explain what I mean by charity, and to do this, I will return to a discussion of the Golden Rule and the law of the harvest.
The Golden Rule has a dual expression. The negative expression is “don’t do something to others you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” I’ve previously explained how the violation of the rights of others (doing things to them that you won’t want them to do to you) is a crime. Based on the law of the harvest, sowing evil by violating the principle of the Golden Rule will reap evil results in one’s life. This happens whether you get “caught” by other people or not. Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong.”
The negative expression of the Golden Rule is the basis of what has been called the lesser law. It’s the law of “Thou shalt not…” like the rules for treating others found in the ten commandments, including don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t lie, and don’t commit adultery.
I’ve also explained how justice is based on the application of the law of the harvest against those who commit evil. It is seeking restitution to restore the breach of equity in society.
The Higher Law
The higher law is found in the positive expression of the Golden Rule, which says “treat others the way you would like them to treat you.” It’s more a “Thou shalt…” admonition. I assert that if crime or evil is violating the negative aspect of the Golden Rule, it is logical to think that good can be defined as acting in accordance with this positive aspect of the Golden Rule.
In fact, if crime can be defined as “deliberate and willful trespass against the life, liberty or property of another,” then doing the opposite of this would be, “a voluntary and willing sacrifice of one’s life, liberty or property, which is done to uphold, protect and defend the life, liberty, and property of another.”
Offering someone mercy or forgiveness as discussed in the previous chapter is one way of doing good which harmonizes with this definition. The other way of doing good according to this definition is to render service to others by being charitable. I’m referring to the principle of charity as defined by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
While most modern translations replace the word charity with the word love, I think the English word love fails to adequately express what is being described here. That’s because we use one word in English to describe what are actually three different mental and emotional states. These three types of low can better be referred to using the Greek words eros, philia, and agape. I also refer to this as the three levels of human relationships (eros = judgment, philia = justice and agape = mercy).
The Three Levels of Love
Recognizing that there are three fundamentally different kinds of love helps clarify what the nature of the higher law of mercy and charity, versus the lesser law of justice versus the lawless realm of human judgment.
Eros is the love of the self, which manifests as desire. When I say, “I love ice cream,” I’m referring to this type of love. People operating from the realm of desire judge everything based on whether it benefits them or not. Thus, they live in a constant mental attitude of judgment.
Philia is the love of friends and family, which manifests as fairness, honesty, loyalty, and devotion. Generally speaking, when I say “I love my children” I’m referring to this type of love. People who operate in this level of love are concerned about justice and fairness. If you’re fair with them, they’ll be fair with you. If not, don’t expect anything from them.
The word translated as charity in the passage in 1 Corinthians is agape. Agape is the highest form of love, which manifests two ways. It is expressed through forgiveness (mercy) and acts of selfless service to others (charity). Their mental and emotional state is primarily caught up in how they can be of benefit to others.
Here’s a closer look at each of these mental and emotional states. As we discuss this, remember, of course, that people can move from one state to another.
Eros: Self-Centered Love
We all desire happiness, pleasure, comfort, and the gratification of our physical needs. To seek health, happiness, and fulfillment for ourselves is an expression of self-love. There is nothing wrong with loving ourselves or with desiring good things for ourselves, but it is a narcissistic, self-centered form of love.
This form of love expresses as desire. I love something or someone because it pleases me. The Greek word eros, which is the root of our English word erotic, is a good word to describe this desire we call love. Sexual love is passionate, but we can desire someone sexually with little thought for what is best for them. So, this form of love is nothing more than a human urge for the gratification of one’s own needs and pleasure.
If a person’s love is based in desire alone, they see nothing wrong with violating the unalienable rights of others to gain satisfaction. They can seduce someone to fulfill their need for sex and then abandon them with little or no remorse. They can steal to satisfy their hunger or desire for material comforts. They can deceive people to gain acceptance and recognition. In short, a person who knows only the erotic love of desire typically thinks that cheating, lying, stealing or otherwise trespassing on the rights of others is fine as long it gets them something they want and they aren’t going to get “caught.”
When we say there is a “thin line between love and hate,” we are talking about the eros form of love. What I desire and want can rapidly turn to an aversion if I find out the person or thing I previously desired causes me pain instead of pleasure. Divorce courts are filled with people who once desired (loved) each other but are now locked in hatred for each other.
A person whose only experience of love is eros cannot do good in the world. They are an evil tree that brings bitter fruit to those who become involved with them. Everything they do which appears to be “good” is done for completely self-serving reasons. If they do something “charitable” it is done to make themselves look good. When they do something “nice” for you, it is only a bribe which they will use at a later date to try to manipulate them into doing something for you.
The negative aspect of the Golden Rule and the lesser law of justice are necessary to bring these people into a higher law of love, one that recognizes that other people have needs, too. They are the lawless or ungodly who sow (and ultimately reap) a crop of evil.
Philia: The Love of Friends and Family
At some point, a person has to “wake up” to the fact that they can’t really get what they want if they don’t give something in return. They must sow something positive for others in order to reap something positive from others. This mental and emotional transition comes from the increasing understanding that other people have needs and desires, too.
A person has to respect the unalienable rights of others and realize that co-operation and exchange are better ways to satisfy one’s needs. They develop a more enlightened self-interest that also takes into account the needs of others, not just their own.
So, for example, they develop their abilities and skills at providing goods and services that benefit others and exchange what they have for what they need. Instead of just sleeping around, they find a compatible person and develop a committed relationship where they seek fulfillment for their desire for sexual intimacy.
Philia is a friendly, warm kind of love we feel for those whom we serve who also serve our needs in return. It develops great personal and professional relationships, helps create happy families and lasting friendships.
People who operate at this level usually see themselves as good people, but their “giving” isn’t actually “charitable.” It’s really a form of “investing.” They are cultivating relationships with the desire to gain something from them. They may be offering helpful service to others, but they are doing it at least partially for the compensation it brings them. So, when whatever they’re giving stops “paying off,” they quit.
To explain this further, think of the presents we give people on special occasions. Birthday and valentine's gifts and Christmas presents aren’t charitable gifts. They are social obligations. We’re exchanging presents, not giving them. If we don’t give them gifts our friends and family will probably be disappointed in us. If do we give them nice gifts, we hope we will continue to receive their love and appreciation in return.
Philia love doesn’t earn us spiritual “brownie points.” It is a love that gives and receives. It is a love that has its rewards. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus stressed that if we do our “good works” to be seen by others (and hopefully appreciated by them) we already have our reward. That is to say, our just compensation for publicly giving to a charity or performing public service is to receive the publicity and benefits from other people for doing so.
Agape: Charitable Love
The two types of love I have described thus far are very “human.” It is only human to love those who benefit me and it is only human to invest in those who invest in me.
Agape love is a Divine love that goes way beyond these human forms of love. To understand how different it is, let’s return to some of the phrases I cited earlier from the King James version of 1 Corinthians 13:5-7. I’ll substitute the word agape for charity and give some more modern translations of these phrases so you can see the difference.
“[Agape] is longsuffering…” This is generally translated today as “love is patient,” however I’ve never seen people exhibit patience in eros love and even with philia love we often become impatient if we feel we’re doing our part and others aren’t doing theirs. Agape love, on the other hand, will put up with a lot of suffering, while doing things that benefit others.
“[Agape] envieth not…” doesn’t need additional translation. Eros love is filled with envy, jealousy, and covetousness. Even in philia love, we can be jealous of our spouse or envious of the achievements of our friends. Agape love is genuinely happy for the good fortune and success of others.
“[Agape] vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly…” has been translated as saying that love isn’t boastful, arrogant or rude. In other words, a person who has agape love doesn’t brag about themselves, call attention to their own achievements or “good” deeds. They also don’t think they are better than other people, so they aren’t condescending or belittling of others. Another way of saying this is that they are gracious rather than impolite.
It’s clear that people whose love is based in desire for good things for themselves don’t meet any of these criteria. They covet what other people have, envy other people’s achievements, and are often jealous of those who they pretend to love. But it isn’t just people who are self-centered that do this. People who are basically honest and fair are often striving to get ahead in the world, have status, and achieve recognition. Clearly, it takes humility to possess agape love.
“[Agape] seeketh not her own…” has been translated, “…does not seek her own way…” or “… does not insist on her own way…” Wanting people to do things “my way” is the source of much contention, even among family and friends in philia love relationships. In a broader sense, agape is not a love that is given for the benefit of getting something for the self. It is done completely for the sake of another.
“[Agape] is not easily provoked…” refers to the general lack of anger and retaliation present in this higher form of love. People who are after what they want are frequently irritable with others, especially those whom they perceive are “in their way.” People whose ego (sense of self-worth) is dependent on looking good in the eyes of family or friends will also rapidly jump to their own self-defense when they believe someone as slighted or insulted them. Turning the other cheek is not the general human reaction to being provoked.
“[Agape] thinketh no evil…” has been translated “love keeps no record of wrongs.” I like this translation because it implies that agape love is quick to forgive and forget the trespasses of others. How many spouses do you know who have a long list of their partner’s faults and past wrong-doings? Clearly, even with philia love, people often think evil of their spouse, accusing them of selfishness, ingratitude, thoughtlessness, and numerous other small “evils.”
Just consider the irony of calling another person selfish because they didn’t do what you wanted. The very fact that you’re upset because they didn’t do what you wanted, instead of doing what they wanted, means you’re the one who is being selfish. The human tendency to project our own faults on others is common in all eros or philia based love relationships.
“[Agape] rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth…” points out the all too human tendency to happily point out the faults of others. When we’re happy because we found a fault in someone, it’s because it helps boost our own ego and avoid taking a hard and honest look at our own shortcomings. In contrast, being willing and able to see the truth clearly, even if it means we are the ones who are in the wrong and need to change, is a higher way to live.
Agape is Charitable and Merciful Love
All of this brings us back to the definition I gave for doing good “a voluntary and willing sacrifice of one’s life, liberty or property to uphold, protect and defend the life, liberty, and property of another.” Agape love causes us to give our life, liberty, or property to aid others without expecting anything in return.
Whether we are giving or forgiving, agape love is so selfless, that one isn’t really aware that one is “doing good” when one is acting because of it. The left hand (the receiving hand) isn’t even aware of what the right hand (the giving hand) is doing. Or, as Jesus expressed in his parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous ask, “when did we do these things?”
In trying to teach people to express this love Jesus told people to “love their enemies” and pray for those who have trespassed against them. That’s preposterous from a purely justice level. Why should I pray for the well-being of someone who stole from me, raped me, beat me, or otherwise caused me harm?
In short, operating purely from justice level reasoning and philia love there is no good reason for us to do anything for someone who doesn’t treat us well in return and the lesser law makes no such requirement. There is also no just reason why anyone should give put their own life, liberty or property to rescue another person, especially one who is an enemy. This is the principle expressed in the previous chapter, which says mercy cannot rob justice.
But, the higher law of mercy and charity does ask this of us. The higher law doesn’t demand this of us because that would rob justice. It asks this of us because the positive aspect of the Golden Rule asks us to treat others the way we would like them to treat us. It asks us to actually return good for evil so we can overcome evil with good.
Society recognizes that the willing sacrifice of property, liberty, and life for others is heroic. The person who risks (and perhaps even loses) their own life trying to save another has performed the highest act of agape love. “Greater love hath no man than this…” Jesus said. But agape love also expresses itself in those who willingly give up their money (property) or liberty (time) to provide benefits to others without fanfare or expectation of benefit to themselves. They are doing good for the sake of doing good.
The law of the harvest operates to their benefit, too. Emerson knew this when he wrote:
There is a third silent party to all our bargains. The nature and soul of things takes on itself the guaranty of the fulfilment of every contract, so that honest service cannot come to loss. If you serve an ungrateful master, serve him the more. Put God in your debt. Every stroke shall be repaid. The longer the payment is withholden, the better for you; for compound interest on compound interest is the rate and usage of this exchequer.
Thus, everyone who willingly does things for the benefit of others, just because they see a need, will reap a reward from their sacrifice, just as the villain will reap a consequence from his trespass. When we endure unjust persecution for doing the right thing, go the extra mile by voluntarily doing more than is required, or practice random acts of kindness towards others, we sow good seeds. We are obeying the higher law.
Agape Love Cannot Be Forced
There is no way to force someone to perform an act of agape love. One cannot force people to be good beyond the justice level of philia love, which involves meeting social expectations.
Parental discipline can’t make children express agape love. When one acts out of fear of punishment or the promise of reward, the act is done out of self-interest. The child forced to give a present to someone, or to say please and thank you, maybe learning to do socially acceptable things, but they aren’t acting out of goodwill for others.
The same goes for donating money to a good cause because of social pressure. When a person does this, they are seeking the benefit of looking good to family and friends. The same is true for what has been labeled “virtue signaling.” This is where people express solidarity in having the “right opinions.” If you’re ready to punish someone for having the wrong opinion, then you certainly don’t have agape love for them.
Any “sacrifice” I make reluctantly, resenting what I feel I have to give, is not an act of charity as described in 1 Corinthians, as in previous verses Paul talks about giving all your goods to the poor while lacking this love. If I do something wondering, “what’s in this for me?” then I have not performed a genuinely charitable act. The act was done out of self-interest because a part of me was “seeking my own.”
This is why I began this chapter by saying that the government cannot be charitable. Remember, government is force, and force cannot be used to perform an act of mercy or an act of charity. There is no agape love present when we are using force. The highest level of good one can reach through the use of force is the justice level.
Government and Morality
There’s a saying I remember hearing as a child, “You can’t legislate morality.” What this really means is that government can’t be used to make people be good. It can discourage them from doing evil and it can compel restitution when evil has been committed, but it can’t make people willingly and voluntarily make sacrifices for the benefit of others.
People who see a problem in society and want the government to fix it are saying that other people should be forced to sacrifice their life, liberty and property to solve this problem. The real question we should ask ourselves when we see a problem in society is not “what should other people be doing?” but rather “what should I be doing? to fix this situation. Passing the buck to others gives us the appearance of being “good and moral,” but it is more of a justification for why we’re not doing something good and moral ourselves.
It’s true that a society can theoretically be just, but not good. In a just society, people would follow the negative expression of the Golden Rule, but this doesn’t mean they’d be following the positive expression of the Golden Rule. After all, under the law of justice, we can justly dismiss other people’s problems, especially those created by their own choices, as “none of my business.”
Justice is a necessary foundation to enable the good, but unless people are morally good, a free and just society is not likely to endure, because those who are less fortunate in society will begin to resent the more affluent. I believe that reconciling justice and mercy within a society is essential to the long-term stability of that society, and while government can’t force people to be good, it can create a society that fosters prosperity and helps people be generous with others. How this can be done is the subject of the next chapters.