Too much idealism is a bad thing. Julian Assange is a case study in the reason why.
I am an idealist. I identify with idealists. I tend to gravitate toward a vision for how things “should” be. But when reality collides with my ideals, my ideals sometimes come crashing down and cynicism sets in.
In the past, I have hung onto ideals about the Church: The Church should be full of faithful people who seek God all the time and love others unreservedly. It should provide a haven from a broken world. It should be grace-giving toward others when they mess up. It should never inflict wounds on its own.
I have hung onto ideals about government: The Church should do its duty toward its neighbor in such a way that no poor person is ever left alone and in want. We almost never should have to use the government to provide for people; that’s what communities are for! The American Dream means that everybody should try to rise to the top of the economic ladder. Those who don’t make it are lazy. Simple as that.
Our world is an idealistic place. The problem with idealism is that it often fails to recognize the reality of a sinful, broken world and one’s own brokenness. Idealism can lead to major blind spots and self-aggrandizement. One recent documentary illustrates this problem. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (available on Netflix) is a powerful cautionary tale when it comes to idealism. A computer hacker (Julian Assange) starts out with the revolutionary idea that there should be no secrets in the world and that transparency is the ultimate good. And so he founds an organization that promises to always protect its sources, to be a publisher of the truth and secrets of the world. He inspires a lot of people, including jaded journalists. The hunger for truth, after all, is deep in the human psyche and WikiLeaks makes some valuable contributions to the world, bringing the sometimes evil acts that occur in wartime into the light. But to Assange transparency does not seem to apply to everyone or everything. Bringing a light to all secrets turns out to be a wickedly hard way to live. Does this mean one’s own secrets are fully revealed? Can one live with absolutely no secrecy? Can one reveal all secrets and continue to remain allied with the forces of good? Is transparency morality-neutral?
When Assange begins to refuse to answer questions about his own secrets and failings, when he fails to protect innocent people from the publication of secrets that might lead to their torture or death, when he begins to ally himself with oppressive governments like Ecuador, his followers begin to lose some of their faith in him. While Assange initially began with noble goals, his hubris overcame him. This pride blinded him to his own sinful inclinations. He tried to label others the oppressor and to ignore his own capacity to join with and be oppressor.
The closest parallel we see in more recent news is, of course, the story of Edward Snowden. Snowden also had high ideals and many people agree that his revelations of large-scale information-gathering from everyday Americans by the NSA was a valuable and important service that needed to be provided to the American public. But Snowden (and the journalists working with him) has continued to dish out more and more state secrets of dubious public value, further showing his allegiance to the idealistic doctrine of absolute transparency. He has now allied himself with a government (Russia) that is known for human rights violations. Absolute idealism will always lead you into a place of evil when taken far enough. This is because absolute idealism will blind you to your own capacity for evil. Like Assange, who called himself Mendex (“noble liar”), we can easily come to justify any means at all for the sake of our idealistic ends.
This, too, is what communism did and does. It starts out with noble ideals–hard work, bringing different classes into a place of equality with one another, making sure no one in the “kingdom” suffers want. Unfortunately, it is too bound to its ideals to acknowledge the seductive quality of power and the way that human beings are forever tempted to wield their power over others once they have it. And so, the countries that hold to doctrines of equality and leveling class differences become some of the most oppressive in history.
Capitalism, too, has good and noble ideals about working hard and earning what you achieve in life. It is a philosophy of hopes and dreams and taking responsibility. All of these are good things. But unfortunately these ideals also lead to a tendency to take full credit for the good that happens in one’s life and to blame the poor for their suffering. They lead to a tendency to ignore the reality that circumstances and governmental and social systems tend to control far more about our lives than we’d like to admit.
We must lay aside absolute idealism in order to be confronted by our own sin and brokenness. We must remain humble and open to hearing correction from One outside ourselves. That is the difference between human ideology and an external Word of God. Ideology comes from human energy and perfectionism. The Word of God changes us even as it confronts us. It happens to us whereas we attempt to make ideology happen to the world. We will never achieve perfection in this world. But we will grow in relationship with the One who is making us new. And we will be changed day-by-day by Him.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.–Hebrews 4:12, NIV