I occasionally like to play a game called Civilization. It’s a strategy video game in which you aim to build an empire and conquer a large map, overcoming many challenges and enemies on your way. I’m terrible at it, but there are many lessons to learn by playing it, so on occasion I’ll fire it up to remind myself of how complex the world is and how inevitably corrupt human governments are.
To “win” in Civilization, you must manage many aspects of your human civilization well, including providing resources and infrastructure and even entertainment for your populace, just in case they get sick of being the overworked pawns in your little game. Which, of course, is exactly what they are. When you play such a game of governance, it’s all about the macro concerns, not the micro, and all the little walking pixels on your screen are just a means to an end. It’s all about the survival and the growth of the whole, so you have no time for the stories or concerns of individuals.
It’s very difficult to hold the whole societal system in your head at once as you play a game like Civilization. It can quickly make you feel desperately unintelligent and inadequate. The map is vast and the systems are many. You are an Emperor, an economist, a military General and a Pope all at once. There are little icons everywhere displaying the status of the many systems at your command. How much food are you producing for your population? Is there enough housing? Are we protected against natural disasters? These are only matters of survival. What about growing your influence in the region? This prompts a whole new set of questions and colourful panels. Are you upgrading your technology through research to one-up your national neighbours? Are you building a formidable military? Are you constantly scouting the region for more natural resources and for villages or towns which you can either trade with or conquer?
The game is played in turns like an old-fashioned board game, and in order to quickly gather my thoughts for each turn, I call to mind the most macro question of all: “Am I doing the four X’s?” Let me briefly explain. Civilization is a particular type of strategy game called 4X Strategy, and the four X’s represent eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. Lovely, I know. But if a player keeps these X’s in mind, victory is enormously more likely. So, “Am I continually exploring beyond the boundaries of my current domain? Am I expanding the capacity of all of my systems and building new ones to grow my footprint? Am I exploiting the natural resources and manpower within my grasp? Am I exterminating my foes?” Like I said, lovely.
This is about the least Christian pastime imaginable. If people are in your way and can’t be turned to your advantage, you simply wipe them out and continue to further your own priorities, expanding to fill as much of the map as possible. Still, there is much to learn from such a game, even if it is a very negative kind of learning. You must decide between various forms of governance after reviewing how each works and what advantages each offer. These are, of course, modelled on the real governmental systems of history. You must find creative ways to keep your people happy in troubled times. You must consider the composition of your military and how various units will counter the strengths of other military forces. These are, tragically, questions which have steered the “success” and “failure” of many civilizations throughout history (depending on how success and failure are measured; I’d personally rather be dead with my goodness intact than alive as a tyrant).
Our societies are complex beasts, and the decisions of the few individuals at the top have staggering influence. As I write this, toward the end of 2021, Australians are freshly reminded of the gravity of the decisions of their governors.
There is one thing about playing Civilization which is most puzzling of all. It’s something not unique to the game but common within the genre. While playing, you feel absolutely justified in most decisions that you make, since they are on the surface of things very reasonable. They have positive practical outcomes. To serve your overall mission, you really must make some morally questionable choices, otherwise the complex system that you’ve built will start to fail. In order to appease your overworked citizens, you might need to just keep building attractions and festivals for now. (Maybe future generations can enjoy a more balanced life!) If you have a food shortage, perhaps you’ll pressure a neighbouring town into a questionable trade deal or even seize their real estate. They just happened to inhabit the most ideal strip of the coast for fishing.
When the game of life is played as an abstract system from a great distance, almost anything can seem reasonable. This is why, particularly at a large scale, human governments are inevitably corrupt. Our systems become incredibly complex and fragile, yet we cannot live without them. In such an environment, decisions are made to protect the system rather than the dignity of individuals. Ethically, utilitarian approaches (with a focus on particular outcomes rather than highest ideals) can quickly be seen as the only practical options. This is an inescapable problem of large societies.
When playing Civilization, every player is an accidental tyrant. However hard you might try to be a “good leader”, every path to success is inevitably tyrannical because your whole endeavour is tyrannical in nature. You are playing with a human society as a child plays with an ant farm.
While our national and local governments are rarely so tyrannical and we enjoy many real social benefits in Australia, there are certainly parallels between the game and the reality. In the past eighteen months, many decisions have been made for the people of Australia without their permission. Some have been reasonable, and some have not. On the face of things, many of these questionable decisions have gotten the job done. Lockdowns and vaccines do have many positive outcomes (depending on the focus of your metrics, which have generally been shockingly narrow in their reporting here). But how far should we go in order to secure the outcomes we desire? Is it right to threaten people’s livelihoods if they won’t vaccinate, even if they are in an extremely low risk demographic? The fact that we even have to ask such a question reveals the appalling moral depravity of our age. We have drunk the Kool-Aid of the 4X Strategy game and forgotten that the individual dignity of each human is the highest value in the universe. God’s value is higher still, of course, but he is not “in” the universe. The universe is in Him.
While this affirmation of individual human dignity might seem wildly overstated, I encourage you to consider it from a Christian perspective. On the very first pages of Judeo-Christian Scripture, humanity is set apart from the rest of the creation, uniquely made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). But what does this mean? God has no corporeal form, so it must be something to do with humanity’s ideal character, nature and purpose. And these are no mystery since they are revealed in the first chapter. We are called to rule and reign in God’s creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15). Not to rule over other humans as tyrants, but to rule upon God’s good earth, bringing order and peace where there are chaos and harm. We are to bring fruitfulness and to multiply the goodness of the earth. Humans are, if you like, “little gods” in that we actually have an autonomous will and the intelligence to bring about profound change in the world. This unique skill set also makes each of us highly morally responsible, hence the rest of the dramatic biblical story. God cares about our actions because we understand what we’re doing, and we can (at our worst) do immeasurably more harm than the rest of His creatures put together. We are each of us powerful free agents with high moral responsibility. This is an essential part of what it means to be made in the image of God. He is good, and he brings the good, but he is also powerful and free. He has handled such power well, creating environments and opportunities for life and relationship. Sadly, we have not.
This foundational conviction about the nature of a human being is the very beginning of humanity’s part in the Christian story. It is, I believe, a “revealed anthropology”; a divinely inspired message about the true nature of the human person. And it has profound implications for our present circumstances. In short, it means this:
To diminish a person’s agency is to diminish their humanity.
Basic Christian Love
This is why I, as a young pastor, cannot stay silent about the mandating of vaccines in our country. Yes, there are positive outcomes. But I cannot pretend that the world is an abstract system. I cannot pretend that the stories of those who don’t want to vaccinate don’t matter. As a vaccinated person, I refuse to see all unvaccinated people as a single group, because I haven’t heard all their stories. From the many that I have heard, it seems that (contrary to popular opinion) the average intelligence and goodness among the unvaccinated is roughly the same as among the vaccinated, and that there are actually many good reasons not to vaccinate.
There have long been other, lower-impact mandates in our society, like seat belts and speed limits, but these are very limited in scope and so are forgivable. The cost of the first is that I spend four seconds buckling up when I enter my car, which long ago became subconscious anyway. My autonomy and dignity are intact. (The cost of infraction is still arguably merciless for low income people, but at least it’s only a one-off monetary punishment.) If I were unvaccinated and living in Victoria, however, or working in education in NSW, the cost of the vaccine mandates could be my livelihood, no matter how long or how well I have served my community in the past. As it happens I am vaccinated, so I’ll be fine, but when did our supposedly enlightened, loving and inclusive society give up on such simple empathy? What happened to basic Christian love?
The widespread application of mandates this year is, in my assessment, evidence of our global leaders’ deep failure to lead through change in a loving and godly way. Christ did not go easy on those leaders who loaded others up with “heavy burdens” in the gospels (Matt 23:3-36). God’s love is invitational, not coercive, and there would have been a dozen other paths we could have taken which would have left people’s dignity intact. Paths which emphasised invitation, encouragement, education and positive incentives rather than coercion. I deeply lament that we’ve ended up here, and I pray for change.
Unvaccinated folk. I love you.
Vaccinated folk. I love you.
Accidental tyrants. I love you. I know how you ended up where you are. But I pray that you will come to realise where are you are, and start to unwind the systems which are presently dehumanising a significant percentage of our population. They are precious children of God, and their freedom to choose for themselves and their families is not some “luxury we can’t afford”. It’s fundamental to their truest human nature, and we can’t afford to give it up.