Being Lovingly Kind by Letting the House Burn

Recently on Facebook my publisher, Fred Zimmerman, pointed me to this article, titled “Tennessee family home burns while firefighters watch

Vicky Bell told the NBC affiliate WPSD-TV that she called 911 when her mobile home in Obion County caught fire. Firefighters arrived on the scene but as the fire raged, they simply stood by and did nothing. “In an emergency, the first thing you think of, ‘Call 9-1-1,” homeowner Bell said. However, Bell and her husband were forced to walk into the burning home in an attempt to retrieve their own belongings. “You could look out my mom’s trailer and see the trucks sitting at a distance,” Bell said. “We just wished we could’ve gotten more out.”

South Fulton Mayor David Crocker defended the fire department, saying that if firefighters responded to non-subscribers, no one would have an incentive to pay the fee. Residents in the city of South Fulton receive the service automatically, but it is not extended to those living in the greater county-wide area.

The firefighters did the moral and ethical thing, which was to allow the home to burn.

The Bible repeatedly instructs us that the State is a tool of social order (this was a theme of my series, “Jesusism-Paulism,” and my monograph, Revolutionary Strategies in Early Christianity. Because it’s been a while since I talked about the concepts, some major themes of my work were

But anyway…

An unstated thought behind the entire series — one that is so obvious it is often missed — is that the State is a provider of security. This is the core competency of the State, and one that it does better than any other form of institution — indeed, when other service providers become effective in the security spaces, they in effect become micro-States unto themselves. (Indeed, the United States is explicitly designed to have multiple levels of security providers, one level of which are called “states” and the other is the “United States”!)

The State can achieve the scale necessary to provide security through its relationship with violence the State can MIHOP (make it happen on purpose) or LIHOP (let it happen on purpose). The State can throw individuals in prison, or simply direct local security officials to not intervene when violence befalls individuals. The State’s power to provide security is thus intertwined with the State’s power to tax: Without this understanding of what the State is for and what it does, Christ’s and Paul’s directives to embrace State power make no sense.

So, back the the story: a family chooses not to pay a State tax, and the State, in line with its policies, withdraws either MIHOPs or LIHOPs the family. This is as unremarkable as stating that a a man chooses to ignite a stove, and the ensuing flames warms his food. If the object (the State, the stove) did not have this function, why would we even have it?

Of course, whether MIHOP or LIHOP is a better method of collecting taxes is a policy question, that depends on the time, the place, and the culture. In more individualistic cultures, the Christian thing to do is probably co-opt the self-reliant streak in the culture and rely in LIHOP; in more collective cultures, MIHOP might be more appropriate.

In this case the State chose LIHOP. As the State in question is not only American but in an area where the Scotch-Irish frontier strain is predominant (Kentucky), LIHOP seems appropriate.

Good show!

19 thoughts on “Being Lovingly Kind by Letting the House Burn”

  1. 🙂

    … nor would that interpretation leave much room for killing, or depriving him of his liberty, nor of teaching his children how to turn plowshares into swords.

    Fortunately God did not cruelly abandon us like that, and instead gave us governments, which are good.

  2. Not a big fan of Ayn Rand’s “let the hobos ride the train for free” policy then?

    I think the outrage we’re seeing isn’t a belief that the family should pay no fire tax, but rather the disproportionate penalty for failing to pay the fire tax.

    For example, if I do not pay my electric bill and I am medically dependent on electricity, the (private) electric company will not turn my electricity off – because it is inhumane and ethically wrong for them to do so. Likewise, if I am a business owner who cheats on the sales tax that pays for the police department and courts system, the police will not stand by and watch me be raped.

    LIHOP and MIHOP aren’t necessarily clear-cut categories, but I think you’ll agree that rigid, mechanical enforcement of the law that elevates rules over basic human decency is frowned upon in Paulism in a much more central way than paying taxes is.

  3. Hey guys,

    Thank you everyone for your time.

    Michael’s comment is, perhaps, tricky to respond to, as it includes the rhetorical ‘perhaps.’ Certainly some set of facts might compel one type of action, and another might compel another.

    Fred’s comment that such a general-purpose, all-weather, semantically-empty comment is “simple and true” is, perhaps, true.


    Thank you for your insightful comment. There’s a lot to provide.

    While the police may not stand by, they would be in their right to, and this has been litigated up to the Supreme Court. Just as the prosecutor has discretion of what charges to bring, the police have discretion of what individuals to protect.

    I don’t think any sensible policework can exist without such discretion. Further, my understanding of crime management in large cities leads to think that the police use their ability to provdie security as a resource at their disposal.

    Further, the concept of “disproportionate penalty” is invalid here. Clearly, the most dispropriate penalty for free-riding is death by mihop, and not far behind is death by lihop. But the concept of health insurance makes no sense if we consider death by lihop to be a dispropriate reaction for free-riding.

  4. Dan, you do Michael a disservice. His comment was specific to the situation and semantically meaningful. (And please, don’t start an argument about the meaning of semantically …)

    I say the following as a friend who has read much of your work and thinks very highly of your analytical prowess and insight. You would do well to consider Adam’s comment about the Christian primacy of simple human decency over legalism. Legalism takes many forms, not least analytical prowess.

  5. As we’re mixing multiple levels of analysis anyway…

    Christian life extends beyond circumstances five year olds are likely to encounter. A straw-man argument between “simple human decency over legalism” would lead us to abandon charity and embrace anarchy: how is it decent to deprive men of their freedom, or lock them in cages, or use the power of the police to take property from them, or remove crying children from the arms of their parents?

    Stepping back from a defense of government to a technical issue of how government mike work, negotiating for fire services on the spot, providing this does not lead to the end of collective action (why should anyone pay for a service until they require it?) Presumably such a system means that the fire department is permanently funded by a small fraction of home-owners with excess liquid cash, while the fire department randomly receives income from those who (a) have their trailer caught on fire and (b) have the resources to cover the fire.

  6. Dan, you dismiss a hypothetical straw-man argument by a) defining it as a straw-man argument then b) taking your version of the argument to an extreme conclusion that you have selected. Surely it is obvious that you yourself are making a straw-man argument?

    More broadly, you have a tendency to dismiss others’ arguments as childish (see 9.22 para 3, 10:46 para 1), which does nothing to help you persuade. Rather, it simply illustrates my point that you are taking way too analytical an approach to just about everything.

    I’ve always wanted to see someone write a book on Jesus as an analytical genius — in my view his brilliance in dealing with paradoxes is a tipoff that he would have been a Godel in the modern era — and it’s my view that one of Jesus’s greatest contributions was that he used his very analytical genius to pierce through the analytic paralysis of the Pharisees and redirect our attention inward, to the self in its relationship with God and neighbor, unburdened by the analytical constructs that separate us from Him.

  7. Hey Fred,

    Excellent comments. The two themes seem to be on legalism on logic, so I’ll try to address both.

    Wrt legalism, you simply define my comments as examples of legalism, and then declare legalism to be invalid. It’s clearly a strawman, but more importantly it’s also the genetic fallacy: whether or not my arguments spring from legalism aren’t valid in discussing whether they are Christian. Presumably the set of overlap between Christian and legalistic statements is not-null.

    Wrt logic, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Jesus grew up in a “western” household, or was ever exposed to western concepts such as logic beyond however they were filtered by the Pharisees and Sadducees. I don’t think there’s any doubt that any random al Qaeda leader has a thinking much more enlightened by both ancient Greece and early modern Europe than the Galilean.

    Given all the choices of the Axial Age, God could have Incarnated into a family of Themistocles, or into the Han Dynasty, or any other choice: instead he was a Galilean (the Appalachians of the New Testament), without early experience in public organization or structured thinking. There’s probably a reason behind that.

    But anyway — more likely than Christ being brilliant in dealing with paradoxes is that he was raised in, and speaking to, a community bereft of logic. Without the translation into western rhetoric and logic provided by Paul, the Gospels would be incomprehensible and utterly self-defeating to a western audience.

    Which is another way of saying the Galilean is as much an analytical genius than any housewife in deep India.

    What’s special about Christ is beyond logic.

  8. Dan, we seem to both be convinced that the other is making straw man arguments. Perhaps we are both correct–which means it’s time to move on…

    Not many other people seem to have my view of Jesus as an analytical genius, but let me just point out that he was a carpenter (nearest thing to an engineer in those days!) I find your view of him as a rube just as implausible! I think if you read the Gospels it is clear that Jesus was pretty darn good at logic-chopping–or, in your view, was that Paul, dressing it up?

    I also don’t share the view that what’s special about Christ is beyond logic … and I think I may have more company on that score!

  9. I’m hesitant to revert back to the subject of the post, but I really don’t see how tdaxp is going to win this one. It seems eminently clear that the firefighters should have used their discretion to put out the fire, rather than to stand in front of the fire and watch it.

    Every day, state schools feed children whose lunch account balances are in the red, state hospitals (both civilian and military) treat the uninsured, state bus drivers allow on at frantic riders who are a nickle short of the fare, and state employees of every stripe (Priest and Levite) spend official time and resources to assist and help both citizens and strangers.

    Curiously, we have seen no widespread embrace of anarchy.

    If the system in South Fulton has been created in such a way as to encourage firefighters to watch homes burn down, the system ought to be rebelled against.

  10. Adam,

    Firefighting is fun. 🙂

    I don’t care about winning this, as I talk to better understand the world and my views…

    That said the State “treat[s] the uninsured” to a much, much, much less extent that South Foulton fights the fires of free-riders: South Foulton will fight fires of free-riders when human life is at risk. If you believe the same standard holds true in the US of health care (the government will continue doing what is necessary to keep you alive, regardless of your insurance status or ability to pay), you live on a different planet! 🙂

    With the exception of health care (which is a false analogy, as mentioned above), none of the circumstnaces you mentioned are analogous:

    1. Chlildren are not responsible for their own actions, and the State has an interest in a fed citizenry that extends beyond the trivial free-rider problems that may not come up. In this case, though, you have an expensive civic service withheld from free-riders.

    2. Being “a nickle short of the fair” is not a morally repulsive decision to free-ride on neighbors, unlike not paying for fire-protection services.

    3. Charity rarely involves actively destroying the ability of a community to solve collective-action problems, unlike the course of action you suggest.

    The reason we don’t have a ‘widespread embrace of anarchy’ is that most people are very happy to tolerate mihop on free-riders, but not lihop. In my heart I can’t understand this choice — it seems more caring and dignified to let someone make their own mistakes than to instigate violence against those who make decisions that seem unusual or weird — but most folks clearly don’t see things that way.

    I’m not sure what you are advocating we should rebel against — that civic virtue and voluntary insitutions are better than force and coersion? That all insurance schemes are immoral because they don’t pay out to non-members?


    The closest thing to an engineer in the Roman Empire was an engineer — the aquaducts did not descend from the sky.

    Further, there are other characters in the Gospels who thought and acted in a rational manner (Caiaphas and Pilate, most obviously), but these are outsiders with more experience to rational decision making who are forced to act within a primitive polity.

    The Galilean engaged in a form of biblical rhetoric & analysis that I think is inaccessible to those of us who have not spent a significant amount of time in pre-western pre-logic cultures.

    By “beyond logic” I meant that there are multiple clear signals that logical thinking capacity is not the road to salvation…

  11. I think we’d agree that MIHOP v. LIHOP aren’t the only variables involved in most situations. A LIHOP involving the loss of a home that could easily have been saved (crews were still on the clock, I presume) is > a MIHOP late fee on a fire bill or a MIHOP millage increase.

    Early this morning, my local fire department put out a house fire before they even knew the address, let alone the names and tax status of the homeowners. [as a perhaps-relevant bit of trivia, the address turned out to belong to an adjacent city, and the wrong fire department responded! when Wheeler FD learned of the mistake, they stayed on the scene instead of abandoning the flame and leaving them to the Fayetteville FD]

    It seems your aversion to unpaid-for-work doesn’t hold true in all circumstances, but is unique to the set of circumstances regarding these South Fulton firefighters.

    I’m curious then:

    If it is immoral for the firefighters to — as a matter of ordinary practice — put out fires at “deadbeat” houses while acting in their official capacity is it….

    moral for a neighbor to bring over a pail of water?

    moral for a South Fulton firefighter who happens to be off-duty at the time to bring over a pail of water?

    moral for the South Fulton Fire Department to officially designate certain homes as “pro bono” cases based on non-monetary value the home might provide? (i.e., the home has interesting architecture, or the chief sees a Christmas tree through the window and is struck with a generous spirit)

    moral for the South Fulton Fire Department to officially designate certain homes as “pro bono” cases via lottery?

  12. Adam,

    Thanks for the comment.

    So we are clear what we are talking about, the MIHOP alternative is imprisonment. That is how taxes are paid for, and I am assuming you are advocating the use of the police power to extract taxes as the alternative.

    I don’t know how much of the remainder I can respond to, because it addresses another comment you might have received in an alternative universe, as opposed to one I wrote. 😉 I’m consistently sticking to the theme of free-riders against collective action problems. THe issue of unpaid-for work is so much more general there seems no point to conflate them.

  13. Hi all,

    I have some personal experience with subscription fire protection. Back when I was in the army, (1968) I was stationed at Ft. Campbell, KY and lived off post in a housing development in a rural part of TN. When we moved in, the landlord, advised us that we were respondsible for the rural fire protection fee that he collected as part of our deposit. A few months later, a neighbor’s home caught fire and they called the Clarksville, TN fire department who responded and upon finding no lives or other property a risk, declined to intervene when it was discovered that the homeowner had declined to sign up. Just as in the article above, controversy exploded about the lack of concern on the part of the fire department and the city of Clarksville. The city and county defended the policy by pointing out that previous offers to fund a rural fire protection district has been voted down by the majority of people living in the rural area and the subscription service was installed as a opt-in choice. I don’t know the circumstances of South Fulton, but it appears from the attached article, that some things never change.

  14. “I’ve always wanted to see someone write a book on Jesus as an analytical genius”

    After my, somewhat quick, read of The New American Bible, I thought the New Testament’s thesis pretty much cover that.

    I think Paul’s Grand Strategy, coming from Jesus’s analyses, is far more interesting.

    Combining Jews and Gentiles, as the west (represented by Greece) pushed against the east (represented by Iran), was exactly what the Jews needed, which, obviously, came about despite themselves.

    And while my comment in this posting doesn’t seem relevant to TDAXP’s theme of the posting, if the fireman and the home owner were Oriented according to the advantage that Christianity gave Judea-Christians, over its history, the story, as Adam suggests, would have been much different.

    Perhaps we need to understand what that advantage was, as Fred suggests, in book form, although TDAXP is doing OK :).

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