Ruler of All Nations

(This article is a lightly edited version of a talk originally delivered on June 8, 2003.)

Throughout recorded human history runs the thread of human beings trying to rule and control as much of this earth as we are able. Nation rises against nation, there are wars and rumors of wars, empires rise to control vast territories, enduring for perhaps a hundred, perhaps a thousand years, and then they are gone, surviving only in the history books and in the collective consciousness of the human race.

Right now the United States is the dominant power on this earth. Some people think this is wonderful. Others think it is terrible. Still others are of two minds about it. But my purpose is not to say whether this is good or bad, but to remind you that it is temporary.

Every human work is temporary. We may build great buildings that last centuries, and great empires that last centuries, but in the end, everything we humans do here on earth will crumble into dust and be gone. We may gain control over a large part of the world’s territory and wealth, but that too is only temporary. It may last for our lifetime, or over many lifetimes, but sooner or later the wealth and lands will pass out of our hands, or out of the hands of our descendants.

We humans here on earth are mortal—creatures of time. Everything about us that dwells in and relates to this material world will live out its life, and then die. We can have no permanent memorial here on earth. Even if we manage to build physical or cultural monuments that last thousands and thousands of years, we know that in the end, the earth itself will be swallowed up by our dying and expanding sun, and even the entire universe will eventually either collapse back on itself, or dissolve into a thin film of inert matter, dead stars, and random energy, incapable of supporting any further life. All things of this material existence live out their lives, and then die.

It is only in a temporary sense that any one of us, any group of us, any human government can be said to rule any part of this earth. We may have the reins of power in our hands for a time, but then our power is gone.

How real is our power?

Even when we do apparently have the reins of power in our hands, much of that power is illusory. The United States is currently the most powerful nation on earth. Over a decade ago we militarily crushed the governments of two nations with ease. Then we discovered the same thing that the North Vietnamese discovered after they defeated us in the 1970s: that winning the peace is much harder than winning the war. With our overwhelming military superiority, breaking the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq was not difficult. Establishing reasonable governments to replace them is turning out to be far thornier a task than we had imagined.

Even here in our own land, with our government wielding the most sophisticated means ever devised of tracking its people’s movements and their economic and recreational activities through computerized databases reaching into many of the things we do each day, our government remains in power only as long as the people want it to. The power that our leaders feel they wield is not their own, but is only donated to them for a time. Those who were in power ten or twenty years ago are now simply private citizens, if they are not already in their graves.

In the end, all human power—whatever effects it may have for a time—is merely an illusion. It is real for a time, and then it is not real. And it depends on so many factors beyond human control that the power can hardly be considered our own. Even the President himself depends for his power on thousands and millions of others who could at any time decide that they do not want to do what he wants them to do.

Human law vs. divine law

Further, we may have the strings of military and economic power in our hands for a time, but we do not create or control the physical, economic, biological, and social laws that govern all human action and interaction. In fact, any law we humans make can be successful only to the extent that it abides by and harmonizes with higher laws that are not merely legislated, but are built into the very fabric of existence. If we abide by these laws, our actions gain a certain long-term staying power. If we violate them, we are fighting against the very nature and structure of the universe—which is a battle we cannot win for long. We are all subject to laws that we did not create and that we cannot change.

The Divine Author of those laws is the only true ruler of the universe and everything in it. The Creator of the physical and spiritual worlds, who established their foundations and delineated all their laws, is also the supreme and only ruler of all that exists. Our power is secondary, derived power. God’s power is the original and real power, because God is the source of all that is.

Now, many of us will accept that theoretically. “Yes, of course, everything comes from God.” But we think that God has done God’s creating, and has now given us the power. And there is a sense in which that is true. God did put us in charge of the garden, to tend it and care for it (Genesis 2:15). And he gave us dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28).

Yet God still retained ultimate control. When we violated the one prohibition that he had given us—against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil—he expelled us from the Garden of Eden, where all had been provided for us in luxuriant fashion, and we began the existence that we still know today: scratching out a living for ourselves through laborious work, in the sweat of our brows. Dominion was only lent to us as long as we tended and cared for the garden according to the higher law established by God.

To this day, all of our power is merely lent to us by God. Jesus, when he was before Pilate, said to him, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).

Whose power is it?

Even the idea that the power is ever actually ours is an illusion. We may think that God hands power over to us in the same way that an employer writes a check so that the money (meaning the power) is now ours. And God purposely gives us the illusion that this is how it works. If we knew that, as Emanuel Swedenborg says, “no angel, spirit, or person is able to move a hand or foot except from him” (Apocalypse Explained #726.2), we would rebel against God, continually resentful of and resistant to God’s minute awareness and rule over even the most trivial aspects of our lives.

God knows that if we have a sense of personal power and control, we will work and struggle to move forward and achieve the purposes that we believe are ours. So God allows us to think that we are autonomous; that we control our own lives; that everything we do is from our own will and through our own power.

But it’s not true.

God sustains everything moment-to-moment

Not only were we originally created by God, and from God’s substance, but every ounce of capability and power that we now have comes from God, moment by moment. We literally cannot move a hand or a foot unless God gives us the power to do it in that very instant. We may think that it is our brain and nervous system and muscles that enable us to lift a hand or a foot, but that is true only in a limited sense.

First, we now know that this physical body of ours, which looks so solid, is mostly empty space. It is made of infinitesimally small bundles of energy and matter—electrons, protons, and so on—whizzing around and giving the illusion of solidity. When we touch one another, it is not physical “stuff” touching physical “stuff.” Rather, it is energy and force fields approaching one another.

The engine behind all that energy and motion is God. If God were not continually flowing into the material world, sustaining every particle and keeping them all in motion, they would instantly cease to exist. Our very bodies, and everything we touch and see, are continually held in existence by the power of God’s love. If God’s presence in and around us ceased even for an instant, we would instantly cease to exist.

And second, even the impulse to move our muscles comes from within. Without a mind inhabiting this body of ours, it would be a lifeless mass of flesh. Without a spirit, the body is motionless and dead. The impulse to move our hand or foot comes from within—from our will, which is part of our spirit. And though we may think our thoughts and feelings are our own, in fact, every one of them comes from the angels and spirits around us, and through them from God. Even if the physical means exists to move a hand or a foot, it will not be moved except at the command of our spirit. And our spirit also was created by God, and is continually sustained in existence by God every moment.

The only ruler of the universe

Now let’s look around at this world of ours again. Doesn’t it look a little different? Suddenly the weight of human wealth and dominance seems light and fleeting. Even the most powerful people on earth are merely children playing with their toys for a time, until their toys are taken away.

There is only one ruler of all nations, and of all the universe.

Whatever the appearance may be, God is in control of our world. We may not always see God’s purposes, but we can take comfort in knowing that God’s purposes are eternal, not temporary, and that they will be accomplished. And we can take even greater comfort in knowing that the God who rules the earth with infinite power is also a God of infinite love and mercy.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly, and guide the nations of the earth. (Psalm 67:4)

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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7 comments on “Ruler of All Nations
  1. K says:

    Speaking of government, will people who have been socially engineered by government in life — such as through propaganda — have the opportunity to be “deprogrammed” in the World of Spirits? For example, would people who lived and died in Nazi Germany be able to overcome the indoctrination the Nazi party raised them on?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      As covered in the article, “What Happens To Us When We Die?” for people heading to heaven, the final stage in the world of spirits before heading to their eternal homes in heaven is a stage of learning, in which they are taught the basics that they need to know in order to live in heaven. By this time any external masks or personas that don’t match their true inner self have been left behind, and their good heart underneath it all willingly leaves behind misconceptions they were taught and inculcated with on earth, while eagerly soaking up the realities of heavenly love, understanding, and life.

      The only people who continue to cling to false, racist, and evil ideologies are those who have selfish and greedy hearts. These people remain mired in falsity and illusion because that falsity and illusion supports their evil desires. The same is true of false systems of religious doctrine. People of good heart happily leave behind such terribly false ideas as God being three people, God requiring Jesus’ death before he will allow people into heaven, and salvation being based only on what we believe, and not on how we live. Only people who are selfish and greedy at heart, desiring others to serve them and fawn all over them continue to cling to these old, false religious dogmas in the afterlife.

  2. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    I understand that politics is something you prefer to keep separate from this blog, but maybe political *philosophy* is another matter? Because I’m wondering if Swedenborg’s visions give us any glimpse as to how we ought to organize and govern a society here on Earth. I was speaking with Howard Storm a couple of years back, who you of course know from his famous NDE. In our conversation about the afterlife, he remarked that what struck him about heaven is how nobody owned anything. The idea of no one possessing private ownership over something sounds…Socialist? But perhaps not in the specific sense in which we currently understand the term.

    Myself, I feel as though I’m going through a crisis of faith in Democracy these days. I, like many others, grew up being educated about Democracy and told how there is no greater social principle worth upholding and defending. There is ultimately nothing more American than Democracy itself. And, of course, I was happy to accept that, and regard other systems of governance as flawed, or insufficient at best.

    But upon reflection in these times, it’s fairly apparent to me that the value of a democracy is only as strong as the values of the people it represents. And what are our collective values? We’re a selfish, materialistic, and materially minded people. We tend to look out for ourselves and for people like us, and that’s reflected in the way we vote. We vote for who will serve our immediate self-interests. We tend to not think about the consequences of getting what *we* want has for others, and for the home in which we all inhabit. And we live under a system of governance that’s designed to distill all of this into policy. How on Earth can democracy be a healthy and worthwhile enterprise under these conditions?

    At the same time, it could be argued that a democracy is the ultimate manifestation of free will, the same free will that is Divinely bestowed to us and ultimately makes as human. That is, after all, what democracy means: the will of the people, and there may be no grander actualization of our collective free will than a democratic system. We are free to make choices. We can make them with others in mind, or make ones that will only benefit ourselves. We are free to actualize whatever world we want for ourselves. There is maybe nothing more respectful of our free will than a democratic system.

    At the same time, we don’t necessarily allow people to exercise their free will simply because they have it. Parents don’t permit their children to do whatever they will, because parents know that children are simply too ignorant to ultimately know what’s good for them. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe a deeply materialistic society like our own in a similar way. We are, collectively, too undeveloped, naive, or just plain selfish to be afforded a level of power to bring the desires that spring forthwith to fruition. A healthy society could facilitate the best of their values through democracy. I don’t consider our society a healthy one, and a democracy strikes me as something that we either don’t deserve or just aren’t ready for.

    So yes, I am beginning to doubt lately whether a democracy is something we ought to have as our current ideal. At present, I would tend to favor something more akin to a monarchy, with the philosopher-king that Plato described in his Republic. Not a ‘philosopher’ in the academic sense, but a philosopher in the Platonic sense, who are more like the founders of our world’s religions. I don’t see any problem with entrusting our present and future to someone who simply knows better than we do, should such a person exist, and should such a system be possible without corruption.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      When Winston Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” read in context it’s clear that he was presenting this as a quotation from some unknown (to us) source; and it is not clear that he held to that position himself. Still, it’s an incisive remark. It’s fairly easy to point out the flaws of democracy. It’s quite difficult to come up with anything that works better in practice.

      The problem with philosopher kings is that they die. And there is rarely, if ever, someone as wise and Platonic as they were to succeed them. In almost every case, when the benevolent dictator dies, others take the power that the dictator had amassed and wielded benevolently and use it for selfish and corrupt purposes, leading to even greater corruption and a bigger fall. It’s happened over and over again throughout history. It continues to happen today, not only in nations, but in human organizations of all kinds.

      The problem with democracy is that, as you suggest, the bulk of people in today’s world are concerned with their own well-being first. As a result, they will vote to promote their own interests even if what they are voting for is not good for the long-term well-being of the community and the nation. That is why democracies, like other forms of government, tend to go through a cycle of morning, noon, evening, and night (death) just like other forms of government. I’ll leave it to you to apply that to particular nations and democracies.

      I do not believe we can avoid the rise and fall of nations no matter what form of government we adopt. Not until the bulk of people on earth are spiritually awakened and “regenerated,” to use Swedenborg’s term. I suspect that day is many centuries away.

      Lately, I’ve been considering the possibility that such a day will never arrive on this earth. We are all born unregenerate and primarily self-interested. We must grow out of this during our lifetime on earth—if we are willing to do so. That’s the whole purpose of our earthly life. I doubt there will ever be a time when we are born, and arrive at adulthood, putting the well-being of others on par with our own well-being. Perhaps this earth is designed to be a forum of conflict in which we must all struggle along as we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

      About property ownership, it’s true that no one in heaven owns anything. That’s because they all acknowledge that God owns everything. This is reflected in the opening verse of Psalm 24:1:

      The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
      the world, and those who live in it.

      A careful reading of what might be called “property law” in the Old Testament shows that the ancient Israelites were not supposed to own property in the current sense of the word. Rather, the parcels of land they inhabited were an “inheritance” given to them by God. When they “sold” property, it was only selling its use until the next Year of Jubilee, which happened every fifty years, at which time the property was supposed to revert back to the original “owner.” I say “supposed to” because if this was ever observed in practice at all, it didn’t last long. But that was the theory. The theory was that God owned the land, that God had parceled it out and granted the use of particular sections of land to the various tribes, clans, and families, and that those tribes, clans, and families did not have the right to permanently sell their land because it did not belong to them, but to God.

      This is quite different from socialism, which is based on “social ownership,” meaning collective ownership. There is still human ownership of land. It’s just that it is owned by a large group of human beings rather than by individual human beings. In practice, this almost always means government ownership of “the means of production”—including the land, which represents a fundamental “means of production” in the form of agriculture. To date, most socialist countries have also been officially atheist, or at least non-religious, which would preclude operating by any notion of God owning the land and everything it contains.

      Back to heaven, property ownership there is not necessary because God provides everyone with the perfect place to live, and supplies all their other needs as well. The “means of production” is in God’s hands. And God, unlike any human being or group of human beings, always has the good of every one of God’s children in mind at all times, and always acts from absolute love for every single resident of heaven—and even of hell, though those in hell resist that love and bring misery upon themselves as a result.

      This does not mean that no one in heaven has anything permanent that they can think of loosely as “theirs.” Angels do have their own homes, together with all the “possessions” inside them. Their homes are permanently “theirs,” and the things inside their homes and in their yards are also “theirs.” That’s not because of any system of legal ownership, but because their homes, and everything in and around them, are perfect expressions of their own specific character, which is not exactly the same as the character of anyone else. It would not work for them to live in anyone else’s house, or for anyone else to live in their house, because it wouldn’t fit their character, and they would not feel comfortable and at home there.

      In other words, heavenly communities are not some sort of communistic “all for everyone and everyone for all” in the sense that people just fluidly live here, there, and everywhere, and share everything in common. Even in cultures that have more of a group identity than an individual identity, people have their own bed and their own special possessions that reflect and express who they are as individuals within the group. Individual identity is never erased. Rather, individuals think of themselves in the context of the community, and in relation to it. But they each still have their own role and position within the community. This is reflected in their particular living situation and in the particular things they surround themselves with.

      There are also human governments in the lower two (of the three) levels of heaven. But none of the “princes” there (Swedenborg was writing in the days of monarchy, but he never called them “kings”) would ever be so foolish as to think that the power resided in themselves. They view themselves as executing God’s will. And they are in that position precisely because they look to God and God’s law whenever they make any kind of decision. Ditto for everyone in their court. (Today, I suspect princes have gone out of style in the newer heavens just as kings and queens have mostly gone out of style on earth.)

      In the highest, “heavenly” heaven, there is no need for any human government. The people who live there are beyond conflict. They have regenerated to the level of living from love of God and the neighbor in their heart, such that the sort of interpersonal and inter-group friction or conflict that governments are meant to adjudicate doesn’t exist there.

      People in the lower two heavens do still have the capacity for friction and even conflict because they operate from intellect (in the middle heaven) or from simple obedience (in the lowest heaven), and that doesn’t always prompt them or give them the wisdom to put the well-being of others ahead of their own in every situation. However, unlike here on earth, they do always arrive at a mutually agreeable and beneficial solution. In many cases this solution will come from looking to their leaders, who are more enlightened and impartial than the ordinary residents. Even in these heavens, ultimately their leaders look to God for inspiration and understanding in governing their communities.

      There don’t seem to be nations as such in heaven, though cultures do persist. Heaven is organized into an overall structure, but it is God who does that organizing, not human beings. Based on Swedenborg’s description, the highest level of human government in heaven seems to be at the level of individual communities, from the size of a city down to the size of a village.

      One conclusion I draw from this is that in general (and I realize there are exceptions, such as national defense), the more local a government is, the more likely it is to do a good job of taking care of the people under its tutelage. Some people believe that we must advance toward world government. I doubt that would be a good idea. When governments get too big, they can’t have the detailed knowledge of local cultures and conditions required to do a good job of governing everyone under their rule. Only God has that level of detailed knowledge of all the human beings whom God has created.

      Perhaps one day we will be able to establish benevolent, largely local governments here on earth in which the leaders are enlightened by God and look to God and to the well-being of everyone in the community in all their decisions. But I’m afraid that as of now, there is still far too much falsity in the world about who God even is, and what God’s will is, to allow any kind of “theocratic” rule. The countries in our world today that are ruled by “theocracies” are generally not the sort of places most people would want to live.

      Ditto “philosopher kings.” Those who style themselves “philosophers” these days are, if anything, more in the dark about how the universe, and human society in it, operate than the ordinary folks who take out their trash. They’ve gotten themselves all tangled up in ratiocinations based on appearances. The last thing they would do would be to look to some hypothetical and fanciful god who is the opiate of the masses. They’re much to “wise” for that. But really, they have far too much pride in their own intelligence to submit their brilliant mind to One who might be greater, wiser, and smarter than they are.

      So . . . I guess we’ll just have to muddle through the mess. But this is why, many years ago, I decided to devote my life to the spiritual development and well-being of the people. The lack of that is the root of all our problems here on earth.

  3. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    Do you believe there can be a moral justification for draconian state violence? When people think of modern day examples of this, they would, at least in the recent past, often think of a place like Singapore, which is clean and safe but also strictly enforces particularly harsh penalties against people convicted of crimes. This is either an upside or a dark side, depending on who you ask, but I can understand the rationale from both perspectives.

    More recently, an example like the Philippines comes to mind, with their president Duterte declaring a war on drugs that has either directly and indirectly resulted in the deaths of thousands of drug users and drug dealers. This is truly quite horrifying, even for someone who believes the overall campaign is a justified one- it doesn’t matter how you turn it, this is simply a horrifying reality.

    But the president’s rationale isn’t at all hard to understand: it’s apparent that he doesn’t want his country to turn into a narco state, much like the way Mexico has been absolutely overrun with bloodthirsty drug cartels who have infiltrated high levels of the government and by some estimates control 11% of the entire country. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no room and no time to rehabilitate or even just isolate the criminal element: the safety of our streets and the stability of our country is at stake, and this criminal element is a scourge on our society that needs to be eradicated by any means necessary.

    There’s the line from Batman Begins in which Liam Neeson’s character says “Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.’ Now the film rightfully paints him as a militant zealot, but you’d be hard pressed to find fault in what he said. It’s absolutely true. You probably recall back in the mid 90’s when the young American man was caned in Singapore for acts of vandalism. The then president of Singapore remarked (supposedly, and I can’t find a reputable source to back this up, but the sentiment is in-line with what I’m talking about): “When a continued state of defiance and disorder cannot be checked by the rules, then new and sometimes drastic rules must be forged to maintain order. The alternative is anarchy.”

    And that’s the general gist of what is essentially dictatorial-style violence: it’s about more than any one person, it’s about our society, our culture, our shared history, and any future we may hope to have. As far as they’re concerned, some people must be made an example of. As distasteful as this may feel to our modern palette, the simple fact is this type of state violence was common in ancient societies, and persists in some places even up to the modern age. Centuries ago, throughout most of the world, you got out of line, you broke the rules, you were dealt with severely.

    Putting this in a modern context, even if this is somehow justifiable, there is no denying the many obvious dark sides to such ruthlessness, even if it’s in larger service of social order and well being. For one thing, for every criminal targeted, there will be an innocent person who is unjustly confused. Trials- if there even are trials and not just summary executions- will no doubt be swift and biased and mere formalities designed to fruition an already decided upon verdict. Additionally, you can expect the fallout, like nearly every other kind of fallout all over the world all throughout history, to hit the poor fastest and hardest. Indeed, a very large number of Filipinos who have been killed in the war on drugs have been the poor. Additionally, the society as a whole may become safer and more stable, but also more violent and bloodthirsty. You cannot expect to run a ruthless campaign of violence and not expect your society’s value to reflect that violence.

    It may be that a society overrun with criminals may in fact be healthier than the one that uses violence to purge those criminals away.

    • Rami says:

      Interesting factoid about capital punishment in Singapore: when people are convicted of capital crimes, they’re caned before they’re executed. This doesn’t seem to make sense, as why would you administer a lesser punishment before administering the highest one? But I would later learn that this is done as a deterrent, because there are some people who aren’t afraid of death- but everyone fears the cane.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      The Old Testament prescribes harsh penalties, including both corporal punishment and capital punishment, for all manner of crimes. It prescribed the law of retaliation: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

      In the New Testament, Jesus did away with this harsh regime, rejecting the law of retaliation, and generally speaking against harsh penalties for sinners, but calling them to repentance instead.

      This difference reflects the difference in the nature of Old Testament society and religion and New Testament (Christian) society and religion:

      • Old Testament religion is characterized by external, and externally imposed, behavioral adherence to a strict code of laws.
      • New Testament religion is characterized by an internal “faith,” or better, faithfulness to a more spiritual set of laws, the chief of which are love for the Lord and love for the neighbor.

      Unfortunately, it did not take long for Christianity to become corrupted, and to revert back to largely Old Testament culture and ways, except without the animal sacrifices. See:

      Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!

      As a result of this reversion, Christianity largely fell back on rigid sets of behavioral laws that were to be obeyed without question. Catholicism, in particular, developed a huge code of canon law on just about every element of human behavior. Both corporal and capital punishment were common in the enforcement of these behavioral laws, not just in Catholicism but in all the major branches of Christianity.

      However, in the last few centuries, in majority Christian countries at least, corporal punishment has more and more been replaced with non-corporal punishments such as fines, community service, and prison time. Capital punishment is also gradually being phased out by many states and nations.

      Meanwhile, in the disciplining of children, corporal punishments such as paddling and spanking are being replaced by non-corporal punishments such as suspension, grounding, withholding of privileges and allowances, and so on. When I was in elementary school in the late 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for disruptive boys or giggling girls to go over the teacher’s lap in front of the class and get their bottom spanked until they were crying. Six decades later, many states (and countries) have banned corporal punishment in the schools. Even in those that allow it, it is generally done in private in the Principal’s office, and there are strict rules about how it must be done.

      Why the shift?

      Because corporal and capital punishment are appropriate to external, behavioral, obedience-based cultures and religions, whereas non-corporal punishments are appropriate to more internal, intellectually-based (religiously, “faith-based”) cultures and religions.

      Today we live in a mixed world and society. But we are gradually, finally, making the transition from being a society based on external behavioral obedience, punishment, and reward to being a society based on internal adherence to rules of proper behavior toward one another based on an acceptance of the fairness and goodness of those laws.

      In an obedience-based society, people don’t have an internalized sense of what is right and wrong. They rely upon external codes of law that prescribe proper and improper behavior in many and varied situations, often in very detailed fashion.

      People in such societies also tend to be materialistic and physical in their thinking. Therefore what they fear most is physical punishment, especially if it occurs in public. And what they crave most is material and social reward. These are usually honor-based societies. In such societies, a person’s reputation and honor in the community is highly valued and eagerly sought after. Public honor translates into success in political, social, and business relationships. Public loss of honor translates into failure in all of these.

      In such a society, consider the impact of being partially or wholly stripped and beaten in the public square in front of a crowd consisting of the convicted person’s entire community, who have been summoned and required by decree to assemble and witness the punishment.

      • The function of the whipping was to inflict severe physical pain.
      • The function of the stripping was to inflict shame and humiliation.

      These two elements together represented the worst fears of any man or woman in such a society. Not only would they have to bear the excruciating pain of the corporal punishment, but due to their shameful public exposure, their honor in the community would be ruined. Their social status, and their material well-being along with it, would take a severe nosedive in the aftermath.

      Incidentally, as hard as it may be for many people today to believe, if a public punishment did involve partial or full public nakedness, the resulting shame was not sexual in nature. In these honor-based societies, fine clothing represented high social status, average clothing represented average social status, ragged clothing represented low social status, and nothing but a loincloth represented very low social status—commonly that of a slave.

      By extension, wearing no clothing at all represented the lowest possible status in society. To be reduced to nakedness in public meant having one’s status reduced even below that of the minimally dressed slaves and raggedly dressed paupers in the crowd witnessing the punishment.

      In short, in those societies public nakedness represented the loss of all honor in society. Hence the significance of “clothing the naked” in the Bible. To clothe the naked was to confer honor upon people who had none.

      Crucifixion, made famous or infamous in the New Testament, combined the two elements mentioned above—pain and shame—with capital punishment. Even then, as in the present-day practice in Singapore that you mentioned in your follow-up comment, the offender would be whipped before being crucified. This is seen in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as told in the Gospels.

      Now, in contrast, consider the effect today if a public whipping were administered in France or England or the United States. Such things did happen in these countries in earlier centuries. But they no longer do. Instead, even when Americans or Europeans hear of canings administered in Singapore or elsewhere in the world, the reaction is a sense of horror, and a condemnation of that society and government as brutal and barbaric.

      Why the change?

      Because today, more and more people are motivated, not by fear of physical punishment and shame and hope of material reward in an obedience-based society, but by inner convictions of right and wrong and the ethical, thoughtful, and compassionate treatment of our fellow human beings. In ages past, witnessing a public whipping would help to keep the populace in line and under obedience to the regime and its laws. Today, in many parts of the world it would more likely lead to the populace rejecting that regime and replacing it with a different one.

      Consider also spanking and its variations as a punishment for children. In past centuries, its purpose was to instill in children a fear of breaking the rules. It was meant to keep children in line and under obedience to their parents, their teachers, and the rules they imposed upon them. This prepared them for a society in which as adults they would be expected to remain obedient to the regime and its laws all their lives, under threat of punishment involving physical pain and the loss of honor in society.

      Today, in more liberal (in the classical sense) societies, parents and teachers commonly no longer aim to raise their children to be motivated by obedience to external authority. Rather, they hope to instill in their children an understanding of and appreciation for the positive values of the society, so that they will grow into adults who will guide and direct themselves to live good, thoughtful, compassionate, and constructive lives based on their own internal motivation rather than on fear of external punishment and hope for external reward.

      Put simply, baring a child’s bottom (as was done in earlier times) and spanking him or her, privately or in front of others, was compatible with the old type of society based on external behavioral obedience. In such a society, spanking or paddling children was the ideal punishment to inflict the pain and shame necessary to keep them obedient, without inflicting any permanent physical damage. I can tell you that whenever our teacher set up that chair at the front of the class, sat down on it, and tanned the hide of one of our classmates while we watched, we were on our best behavior for quite a while afterwards! If the goal is to keep a tight lid on children’s behavior, spanking was an effective punishment.

      However, corporal punishment is incompatible with the new type of society based on an informed, intelligent, internal adherence to the principles of a just and compassionate society. Today, good teachers commonly like to see some liveliness and spontaneity in their classrooms. It is a sign that the children are engaged in the learning process, and enjoying it. Spanking a child in class would suck all the life out of the classroom. The same goes for the freer atmosphere at home in much of today’s society.

      Similarly, for adults corporal punishment, whether administered privately or publicly, was compatible with the old obedience-based societies. But it is not compatible with the new paradigm of society based on educated, thoughtful, self-responsible adults.

      It may be true that even today, some people in some societies still require corporal punishment and shame to keep them in line and obedient to the rules of society. But nations and states that practice corporal punishment today are throwbacks to an earlier era of societies based on behavioral obedience to external laws. It is a backward step, not a forward one.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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