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In Search of the Cult of Personality

Part 4 -- Why I am a Christian (and a Diplomacy player)

by Jim Burgess

This column in the series is probably the hardest I've written and I've been working on it for quite some time. I sincerely hope I don't offend anyone by it since that is not my intent. On the other hand spiritual beliefs are a deeply held element of one's personality and ultimately I can only write about my own reaction to these questions. That element of telling one's own story though is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian is not about being a hermit or hiding from life and the diversity of people in creation. It is about being given each other to listen to and learn from. One of the ways to do that is in games and fun, like Diplomacy. Diplomacy played remotely offers even wider possibilities as people read my szine from all over the world and people play in it from all over the United States. The Game and its focus on personality offers a myriad of opportunities to listen and learn and I try to take advantage of all that offers. Yet, that statement is pretty general, what is Christian about this? The evangelist Linda Strohmeier has said, ``Religion is always struggling with its relationship with power and money and control. People who would have power in the world want to connect with the enormous power that religion wields. And spiritual pride is seductive, the certainty that `we know.' I want to be very sure that I don't climb onto my own spiritual pride bandwagon, seduced by temptations to power.'' I identify with that struggle quite viscerally and have found writing this column hitting to the depths of those urges. Moreover, I found it very similar to the feelings I sometimes have in playing Diplomacy in feelings of guilt generated by taking advantage of the skills that I have, weak though they might be.

A Christian approach to these questions must stem from Christian love. If the role of the Christian is centered in love and inclusivity, why is that so? Does it stem from browbeating, proselytizing, and commanding?? No, not in any sense that I believe. Since you can read scripture in so many different ways and the act of reading interacts with us as persons, I don't think you EVER can read the lessons of Jesus as saying that you should browbeat people into doing things your way. Instead, you're supposed to live like Jesus, which is much more than using him as a model or a standard. It's going out every day and trying to live like him and that means loving everyone, throwing no one out, and trying your best to feed other people with what they need. These three central elements of Christianity seem to me to be ever present in the Diplomacy hobby as issues to be addressed. But that's not exactly how I see them, they aren't issues to be addressed. They are ways to live, every day and in every way. I find Diplomacy to be a great way to feed people in all sorts of ways, some obvious, some not. Don't you?

Ah, but what about lying. You aren't supposed to ``bear false witness against your neighbor'' and in the game of Diplomacy lying is permitted or even encouraged. What does one do about that? The simple solution is to decide that you are going to play the game without lying. This is possible and has been taken as an approach by numerous people whom I have encountered in my nearly three decades of playing this game. I want to take one example whom I know well to describe some of the implications of taking a ``no-lying'' pledge. I am pretty sure the person I have in mind was choosing not to lie as part of being a

Christian, though I can't recall ever discussing it with him. I've decided not to name him in this column since it doesn't advance my point and actually might detract from it. Choosing not to lie took a large set of potential actions and strategies out of his toolkit. Partially as a result of this decision, he had a terrible record in playing Diplomacy games. Moreover, in struggling to do well in these games, he also tried to use deceit that came just short of actually lying in order to achieve Diplomacy goals. In other words, he would discuss particular moves or strategies and wouldn't actually promise to do his part for them and try to mislead others by doing so. In the long run, this also backfired because he became known for this to such a degree that even these deceptions were completely worthless. If he failed to come out and make an actual promise to do something, you knew he was being deceptive. He also had a slogan that I've found to be one of my favorites to such a degree that it always sticks with me. It was ``Learn to love to do well and you shall.'' I don't know where it comes from, but it says a great deal for me about how to grow and learn continuously in order to do well, not just at Diplomacy but at life.

The commonplace of lying and deceit, then, seems really difficult to overcome. How can this be reconciled with Christian moral formation, ultimately based upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Well, I won't even try to prove anything to you, but let's look at what is widely considered Jesus' most difficult parable, about the servant of two masters and see what it has to say on these questions:

Jesus said to the disciples, ``There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. And he called him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' And the steward said to himself, `What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.' So summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He said, `A hundred measures of oil.' And he said to him, `Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, `And how much do you owe?' He said, `A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill, and write eighty.' The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations. He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.'' (Luke 16:1-13)

The standard ``lesson'' taken from this gospel is that the temptation to be dishonest is almost irresistible. In doing so, the assertion of the self as I have been calling the expression of personality can lead to doing ``whatever you can get away with,'' honesty be damned. The nagging finger pointing view from the pulpit then can be a simple ``Enough is enough.'' Draw a line against dishonesty for yourself and live within it while also demanding that others do so as well. This ``shoulds and shouldn't's'' view of the Gospel is terribly simplistic though and this Gospel is far more complex than that. I want to discuss this from a couple of different levels.

First, note that the steward is commended for his shrewdness. Why? Let's start with a dictionary definition of ``mammon''. It was the Aramaic word for ``riches'' and really is meant to encompass all of the talents and resources which Christian theology clearly states belong to God and are given to us as stewards. Thus, a ``difficult'' Gospel also is a centerpiece for the concept of stewardship. To me, the personification of this word as devilish is a crucial misreading of the sum total intent of this Gospel. The steward does use the ways of the world (in its representations in the ledgers of the master's business) in order to secure for himself a life that he can live based upon an honest assessment of all that he is. Even though he ``cheats'' the master in a sense, he does so through kindnesses in distributing riches that all belong to God. And in doing so, his need to be dishonest is ended. Playing Diplomacy and using all of the riches provided to us is not un-Christian. It's part of where we are as sons of this world who are not completely divine in nature. In other words, being faithful in the unrighteous mammon is important and being faithful means not making the mammon the master. That tells me that doing as well as one can in games or anything else is a good thing.

Second, Jesus is very clearly telling us to draw lines and demand honesty at the ``meta-level'' where it really counts. This is very telling for how we play Diplomacy as Christians. This occurs within ourselves and in how we follow the real commandment to love one another as ourselves. Being honest with oneself at all times is essential. One of the reasons I like reading the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is popularly known for saying ``God is dead,'' (even though he really didn't, at least not so simply and clearly) is that you can look at him as a failed Christian who was trying to be honest with himself. I don't think it has happened yet, but someday some philosophic critic is going to write a revisionist treatise arguing that Nietzsche really was a Christian. Nietzsche said that, ``It seems to me that even the bluntest word, the bluntest letter is still more good-natured, still more honest, than silence. Those who remain silent are almost always lacking in delicacy and politeness of the heart. Silence is an objection, and swallowing things down unnecessarily makes for a bad character--it even upsets the digestion. All who remain silent are dyspeptic. Clearly, I would not have bluntness underestimated: it is by far the most humane form of contradiction and, amid modern pampering, one of our foremost virtues. When one is rich enough for this, it is even good fortune to be wrong. ((Clearly, Nietzsche is talking about the same kind of ``mammon'' and richness as Jesus was; and Nietzsche knew the Christian gospels backwards and forwards.)) Were a god to come down upon earth, he should do nothing but wrong: to take upon oneself guilt and not punishment, that alone would be godlike.'' (From Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, Section 5 of the chapter ``Why I Am So Wise'') While I am tempted to explicate that further, I think I'll just leave it with this additional comment: part of feeding people and throwing no one out means that we need to admit our wrongs to ourselves so we can go beyond them to love others.

Lastly, in a related way, think of this contractually. I have used this Gospel in teaching about economic contractual relationships in the classroom. One of the reasons I've always found it so fascinating is its clear sense of understanding of some of the concepts of game theory. Game theory equilibria obtain from the assumption that each independent agent will act in his or her best interest while anticipating the reaction of others. Why did the master (representing God) in the Gospel allow the steward to retain the books in order for the steward to give the master's wealth away? In fact, this was the welfare maximizing solution for everyone concerned. We've already dealt with the advantages for the steward, but the master benefits as well. For one thing, the steward creates good feelings for the master amongst the community, reversing the bad feelings generated by the wasteful behavior of the steward. While the steward receives the direct benefits, the indirect benefits are the ones valued by the master and he chooses to attain his goal by playing this game with the steward assuming that the steward's behavior will be self-interested. I assert these are relevant aspects of the game of Diplomacy. It is the indirect benefits of playing the game that accrue to everyone that are the most important. These benefits are the fellowship and fun obtained in playing the game and using the wits and skills God has given us in order to do as well as we can. Moreover, when we assume the contract of playing a Diplomacy game, we accept the rule condition that lying and deception are allowed. As in any game, things happen in games that would not be considered fair or ethical if they occurred outside of accepting the implicit contract by playing in that game. Think of the hitting and violence in hockey or football. Are these players any less followers of Christ because they do things to each other that would get them arrested if they did them out on the street in public? No.

One of the things that always has struck me as strange is the way we accept the use of physical gifts more readily than we accept the use of intellectual or clever ones. Of course, many people decry this sort of violence too, but to me the key is contractual acceptance of the terms or rules of the game.

As a result, a certain strength of character is needed in order to be a Christian in general and a Diplomacy playing Christian in particular. Game playing and Diplomacy fandom is part of a way of being and so are matters of religious doctrine. Using the imagination in playing games is part of the way we feed our souls and keeping our souls in line with religious ideals requires a duality that is common to religious thinking but ultimately not based in fact or mathematical proof. Using all of our gifts in playing Diplomacy means exercising a combination of the highest order of spatial, empathic, mathematical, verbal persuasive skills with which humans have been blessed. Doing that to the very best of our ability in playing games further develops those skills as long as we approach each game with an open and honest mind. To do so while still being an inclusive Christian requires that highly developed courage that Nietzsche asks for in the quote above, without the scorn (which I didn't quote from) that Nietzsche delivered against essential human failings. Diplomacy also is a game in which it is really easy not to be successful. Playing it has taught me a great deal about how to accept failure and keep trying. Being a Christian and a Diplomacy player might not be easy, but it can be an integral part of the lifelong spiritual growth that a contract with Jesus Christ asks of Christians.

Jim Burgess currently publishes the postal/email crossover zine The Abyssinian Prince.