According to the Scriptures, people who hold public office are divinely ordained ministers: God has assigned to their offices the solemn duties of administering justice and promoting the public good (Rom. 13:1-7). The main lines of Christian thinking have traditionally held that officials of this kind deserve respect and scrutiny because of the weightiness of their calling to protect and enhance civil shalom.
But, as a smoldering electorate knows, public officials often have vocational ideas of their own that sometimes wind themselves around ordinary provisions of the political system and ignoble expectations of voters in such a way that the net result is perverse. County prosecuting attorneys, for example, are ordinarily elected officials. The system turns prosecutors into politicians; their experience makes them savvy politicians. They come to know that many voters prefer bulging jails to nice distinctions between guilt and innocence and that voters in the market for a prosecutor therefore shop for one with an impressive string of convictions.
Predictably, prosecutors try to oblige them. They begin to hunger not for criminal justice (who could campaign on that theme?) but for guilty verdicts. In fact, they may try only those cases in which they are really confident of gaining a conviction, particularly near election time. If it takes a good prosecutor to convict a guilty party but a great prosecutor to convict an innocent one, then—judging by the number of persons annually released from prison because of the discovery that they had been unjustly convicted — the public is endowed with an impressive number of great prosecutors.¹ The justifying ideology for such perversion is simplicity itself: if you want to get elected, you have to sell what people are buying.
Perversion is an ends-and-purposes disease. Most broadly understood, perversion is the turning of loyalty, energy, and desire away from God and God’s project in the world: it is the diversion of construction materials for the city of God to side projects of our own, often accompanied by jerry-built ideologies that seek to justify the diversion.
Specifically, to pervert something (such as the office of prosecutor) is to twist it so that it serves an unworthy end (such as merely gaining convictions) instead of a worthy one (such as achieving criminal justice) or so that it serves an entirely wrong end (such as humiliating one’s political enemies). Examples abound: a journalist distorts an event in order to render it more controversial and thus more newsworthy; a clergyman uses his office and authority to bend children to his sexual wishes; a juror casts her vote to express her lifestyle preferences; a teenager uses a friendship to move up in the social pack; a head of state launches a short but lethal war against a tiny nation in order to boost the economy, raise his standings in the polls, and bury criticism of his domestic performance.
Sometimes we pervert our own longings, aiming them at the wrong objects (as in sexual perversions) or indulging them disproportionately so that they become dull where God and the things of faith are concerned but acute where various genuine but only proximate goods such as money, knowledge, and power are concerned. Many of our longings rise in us like a force of nature. Some of them seem to be a force of nature, as little under our control as a cramp.² Still, as every successful dieter knows, the discipline of desire is often merely difficult, not impossible. Whether or not we succeed depends in part on how much we are encouraged by others, including society as a whole. And, of course, contemporary society
picks and chooses the desires it would like to see us discipline. In many settings, society seems far readier by various programs and prohibitions to help us discipline our desire for, say, cigarettes than our desire for our neighbor’s spouse.
Good spiritual hygiene includes a practiced ability to assess goods (goods seldom come with their weights written on them) plus the power of will to pursue them with appropriate degrees of interest and to enjoy them with a fitting level of pleasure. Unhappily, involuntary longings lead us around a good deal, and ignorance and self-deception often skew our judgments about what is worth longing for in the first place.
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Cornelius Plantinga Jr. was the president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 2002-2011. Plantinga received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. He is the author of many books, two of which have won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year, Engaging God’s World (2002) and Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (1996). First Things praises the work by saying “This breviary of the cardinal sins recasts traditional wisdom in lively engagement with the follies and fads of a culture that, with a dreary lack of imagination, fancies itself beyond sin.”