Acton Institute Powerblog

The bishop, Balaam, and communism

‘Weltchronik. Böhmen’ by Rudolf von Ems Public Domain

Lester DeKoster begins his book Communism and Christian Faith, now out in a new edition from Christian’s Library Press, with a quote from Bishop Joseph Butler’s sermon ‘Upon the Character of Balaam’:

“Things and actions are what they are, and their consequences will be what they will be: why then should we seek to be deceived?”

At first it seems transparently simple, obvious really, but in our day-to-day lives it is as obscure as it was to Balaam himself. Balaam is at once a prophet and a wicked man (II Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14). The Israelites having defeated Sihon, king of the Amorites, as well as Og, king of Bashan had raised the ire of Balak, king of Moab. Balak, as was the ancient custom, sought to have Balaam pray for the destruction of the Israelites before entering into battle. Butler explains that Balaam was seen as an extraordinary person, “…whose blessing or curse was thought to be always effectual.”

Balaam at first refuses, “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?” (Numbers 23:8) He expresses a desire to, “…die the death of the righteous…” (Numbers 23:10) but Butler reminds us he has other desires also,

So that the object we have now before us is the most astonishing in the world: A very wicked man, under a deep sense of God and religion, persisting still in his wickedness, and preferring the wages of unrighteousness, even when he had before him a lively view of death and that approaching period of his days, which should deprive him of all those advantages for which he was prostituting himself; and likewise a prospect, whether certain or uncertain, of a future state of retribution: All this joined with an explicit ardent wish, that, when he was to leave this world, he might be in the condition of a righteous man. Good God! what inconsistency, what perplexity is here!

This side of our final reconciliation with God, we sinners, you and me both, live lives of inconsistency and perplexity. Bishop Butler speaks the truth when he explains, “Our hopes, and fears, and pursuits, are in degrees beyond all proportion to the known value of the things they respect.” Always potential prophets of God we wind up wicked men. How do we wind up Balaams, unfaithful servants of the good?

Butler sees two sources of this double mindedness. First, we seek indulgences for our plain wickedness. We make ourselves comfortable by assuring ourselves that it’s alright to eat the cake today because we’ll make up for it tomorrow. We tell ourselves that we’re too tired to work out today, that our rudeness to friends and family is because we’re stressed and that it’s not really our fault. We’ll be better tomorrow, we tell ourselves, but our tomorrow never comes. Second, we fail to heed the warning of the Duke de Broglie, “Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing.” We dress up our faults as our true duty and explain them away.

We refuse to see things and actions as they are and are then surprised by their consequences. We are all tempted to live the lies we manufacture for ourselves and collude in our own doom. Butler shows us a deeply uncomfortable truth that, “Superstitious observances, self-deceit, though of a more refined sort, will not, in reality, at all amend matters with us.”

Just as we must battle this double mindedness in our lives, so too must we battle it in our social world. In his book, Communism and Christian Faith, Lester DeKoster lays bare the superstitions and rationalizations offered up by Communism that serve as a stumbling blocks to understanding ourselves as well as our responsibility and duty to others:

The man who has no personal sins to confess exacts from others the penalties for his own unforgiven crimes. He will make his own salvation sure by every means he can command, for he will find the source of evil outside himself and ever threatening his very life. And all the while the root of evil within him drives him to greater sins against his fellow men.

All utopian ideologies are attractive forms of self-deceit and Marxism remains the most refined sort of them all.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.