Rules for Radicals, Pt. 4.

“Ethical standards must be elastic to stretch with the times. In politics, the ethic of means and ends can be understood by the rules suggested here. History is made up of little else but examples such as our position on freedom of the high seas in 1812 and 1917 contrasted with our 1962 blockade of Cuba, or our alliance in 1942 with the Soviet Union against Germany, Japan, and Italy, and the reversal in alignments in less than a decade.

Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus, his defiance of a directive of the Chief Justice of the United States, and the illegal use of military commissions to try civilians, were by the same man who had said in Springfield, fifteen years earlier: ‘Let me not be understood as saying that there are no bad laws, or that grievances may not arise for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed, still, while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.”

4. The fourth rule of ethics of means and ends is that judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.

Saul Alinsky also tells the story of the Boston Massacre and the dirty propaganda of Samuel Adams who incited the townspeople to revolt. One of the original patriots, Patrick Carr, confessed while dying after the massacre that the British had only been firing in self-defense. The citizens of Boston, Carr explained, had made the first move.

When word of Carr’s deathbed confession got out, the townspeople withdrew and the catalyst for revolution seemed to be passing its moment. Quickly, Samuel Adams began to attack the recently deceased Patrick Carr as an “Irish Papist,” alleging that Carr’s recantation had occurred in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Once Carr’s testimony had been thus tainted in the minds of anti-Catholic Congregationalists, the Boston Massacre could become the powder that loaded the gun that fired the shot heard ’round the world.

What we have to deal with when asking questions about means and ends is the overwhelming naivete of the masses regarding the true art of politics. Indeed, political activity is an art — to some its a Jackson Pollock of random spatter, disorganized and disgusting. To others, politics is a Rembrandt that captures the eyes of the soul, the passion of a moment, or the nuance of shade and hue that reflects life as it really is.

Most Southern Baptists, however, are unwilling to face the incarnation of their cherished doctrine of sin in the face of religious leaders. The kinds of people who dismiss fiscal irresponsibility at NAMB by saying that Bob Reccord was a “really nice guy,” or the folks who exonerate every Pattersonian transgression with stars in their eyes about a mythical reformation hero, do not understand that the depravity of man can institutionalize. Once institutionalized, it festers. Once it festers, it kills.

Last Spring, Wade Burleson and I spent two days in Waco, Texas, meeting with Paul Powell, the dean of Truett Seminary and the immediate past president of the Annuity Board. Paul is a colorful figure in Texas Baptist life. He’s as conservative as any man ought to be, and he’s tough as a boot. With his feet kicked up on his desk, Paul Powell leaned back in his chair and told us old war stories about the days of the takeover.

We wanted to hear from Paul Powell because his reputation as a conservative pastor who believes the Bible is unquestioned, even among the most flaming of fundamentalists. He talks plain and quick, and he knows how to move with political skill in denominational life.

About an hour into the meeting, Paul interrupted his own train of thought. “You know that if you win this thing,” speaking of the fight to preserve the convention from the noose of ideological conformity beyond reasonable parameters, “you’ve only got about twenty years before you start stinking like they do.”

Or as George Orwell would put it, the pigs always end up looking like the farmers. Today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s bureaucrats, which is why I’ve made a personal commitment time and again that I will never accept any appointment to denominational service. Fortunately, I recognize up front that I’d be twice the tyrant Paige Patterson has become if given the reins of power in the Southern Baptist Convention.

I don’t think Paige set out to rule the convention like a denominational despot. In fact, I don’t think he believed the takeover would ever work.

But when it did work, he certainly didn’t deny himself the spoils of war. Paige Patterson is worried about the intoxicating effects of alcohol. He needs to worry about the intoxicating effects of power and money. After all, the love of booze is not “the root of all evil,” according to the Apostle Paul.

Everybody knows Patterson thinks of himself as the sheriff of the kingdom, as one megachurch pastor told me on the phone the other day. But not everybody can figure out when he changed. Some people, of course, suggest that he’s always been a ruthless cut-throat out for control. His closest associates through the years, however, can pinpoint a few events that morphed the man.

One colleague of Patterson’s through the resurgence years has told me that Paige changed when he became convention president. Once his term was over, and the BFM2000 had been approved, everybody figured that Paige would go back to Southeastern Seminary and end his days of ministry leading the seminary he rebuilt from near dissolution.

But Paige Patterson is a shark, who can’t stop swimming and hunting. And I don’t really fault Patterson for what he has become. One day in his Wake Forest office, Paige told me that “all power in heaven and earth” had been given unto him. Any man — or woman if she was suffered to have such authority — would succumb to the intoxicating effects of power and privilege.

Rather, I fault the trustees at Southeastern and Southwestern for heaping endless praises on Patterson, so much so that he started to believe what they said about him. I fault the long line of chapel speakers who begin their sermons with the obligatory honors and accolades for the “Martin Luther” of the Southern Baptist Convention. I fault every Southern Baptist who has been content to “trust” that Paige would run the convention just fine without their informed oversight.

Corporately, we all have made Bob Reccord and Paige Patterson fat on convention funds. We’ve allowed them to hire inordinantly large staffs, fly to London for movies and install $4000 gas grills in their Pecan Manors. Bob Reccord knew better than to think he could cut off his craving for the prestige and pleasantries afforded him by lax trustee oversight. Once they put him on a diet, he hit the road. I have a feeling that Patterson would find his way to retirement if Southwestern’s trustees started looking at his expense accounts with a little keener eye for excess and waste.

The only difference between Paige Patterson and me is that I’ve been given the privilege of seeing what’s happened to him — enough to reject up front any offer of convention appointments. If I were president of Southwestern Seminary, I would be the Rehoboam to Patterson’s Solomon. Things weren’t great under the latter, but they were worse under the former.

Which explains, I suppose, why I’m blogging all of this. I’m making sure that I never get asked to sit on a committee or serve on a trustee board or lead a denominational agency.

And all God’s people said???