Saturday, September 13, 2008

Guilt, Atonement and American Foreign Policy

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. And they carried the ark of Godon a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.

---II Samuel 6:1-7

In I Samuel 4 the Philistines defeated the Israelites and captured the Ark of the Covenant. After being afflicted by tumors and seeing their “gods” embarrassed they returned the ark to the Jews on a cart. Soon Israel followed this example rather than the revealed law of God which required the ark to be carried by priests (Exodus 25:14, Exodus 25:14).

Though the ark would have been surrounded by priests, when the oxen stumbled Uzzah took it upon himself in an act of presumption to steady the ark. He was immediately struck dead by God.

Uzzah was guilty of presumptuous responsibility. In effect he was saying, “If you need something done right, do it yourself.” But such false “responsibility” is in fact a desire for control. It is fundamentally grounded in a desire to be God and assume responsibility and control outside one’s legitimate sphere.

The fabrication of false responsibility is a strategy employed by the elite to make men guilty so that they hand over power and authority to the state. It is an ugly strategy designed to accumulate power.

Guilty men with a troubled conscience, in other words all men, seek atonement. Christians seek a right standing before God through repentance and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us through the instrument of faith. Though as Adam’s heirs we are sinners (Rom. 5:12) dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) we are made righteous through though Christ, our representative in obedience.

Unbelievers seek justification elsewhere through self-atonement and self-justification, effectively a form of masochism. The other option is the transfer of guilt to other parties. Politics ultimately becomes a forum for obtaining atonement and its ministers and magistrates take on a priestly function rather than serving in their God-ordained office as ministers of justice (Rom. 13:4).

How has this desire for atonement driven American foreign policy? Through the systematic propagation of guilt, Americans have been indoctrinated with a belief that their history is little more than a series of power-grabs, a desolation of innocents. We are repeatedly assured that our history is simply an account of guilt toward Blacks, Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and ultimately the entire world.

The result of this defective history is a politics loaded down with guilt, in the face of which the populace assumes a posture of submissiveness. A foreign policy elite than is able to advance its interests by claiming a “humanitarian” justification for military adventurism, effectively placing guilt on one party in the midst of great complexity (e.g., Serbs vs. Bosnians, Russians vs. Georgians, etc.). Thus we are urged to atone for our sins by “saving” a “tyrannized” people from their “oppressors.”

The other possibility is to heap the guilt upon ourselves and assume responsibility for every malady on all continents. All the guilt for the starving and oppressed of the world or the ruination and environmental degradation of the planet is thus placed squarely at our feet. Atonement in this scenario leads to foreign aid schemes and similar looting of taxpayers.

Because few men can do more than look after their families and a small circle of friends or fellow believers, the task of imposed responsibility is soon delegated to the state and its planners. By acquiring this duty the state seeks to remake the world in its image, making salvation and liberation the work of man rather than God.

What is particularly irritating is when this guilt-mongering becomes the work of prominent Christians. And I don’t mean simply leftists like Jim Wallis. Consider the messianic pretensions of our Christ-professing President. In various speeches the President has sounded more like Robespierre than Burke:

“I believe democracy can take hold in parts of the world that have been condemned to tyranny. And I believe when democracies take hold, it leads to peace. That's been the proven example around the world. Democracies equal peace.”

"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

"With the power and resources given to us, the United States seeks to bring peace where there is conflict, hope where there is suffering, and liberty where there is tyranny."

But America’s “special obligation” to the world is also parroted by evangelical theologians like Richard Land, who in addressing a gathering at Harvard said this:

We believe that America has a special role to play in the world. Now we do not believe that America is God’s chosen nation, but we do believe that God’s providence has blessed this country, and that that is a belief that brings with it obligations and responsibilities and that America has a special obligation and responsibility to be the friend of freedom and the friend of democracy in the world.

And I cannot tell you the number of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals and Catholics who told me that they were moved to tears by the president’s second inaugural address and the statement that we are going to be the friend of freedom. People of traditional religious values believe America has a special obligation and responsibility because of the blessings we have received to be the friend of the oppressed ... and to help those who want freedom for themselves.

Naturally Land believes that we are "culpable" (his word) for failing to intervene in Rwanda and our tardy excursion into the Balkans.

From where Dr. Land conjures this divine imperative is unclear, suffice to say that it is Christ, not the United States, that came to free His people, to make them sons, not slaves. We have no condemnation and guilt in Christ but are liberated by His sacrifice. The “obligation” and “responsibility” of Land’s universalist ethic leads to slavery and total power in the hands of a seemingly all powerful state where God’s predestination is replaced by that of man. Total responsibility becomes total control. Man’s duty is to control himself, his family and his work. His responsibility does not extend to the entire world and his relationships are to be governed by the Word rather than a response to the guilt engendered by those who would enslave us.


Chris Wilde said...

So, isolationist political foreign policy is also correct theology! This must be pretty convenient for reformed Baptist American paleo-conservatives.

Is there any chance that a person might see suffering in Rwanda, and simply feel bad about it due to a feeling of empathy (as opposed to self-absorbed guilt)? Any chance that same person--for no deeper reason than a differing philosophy about the practical scope of secular government--might view Rwanda as something world governments ought to do something about? Is it really self-evident that all politicians who think global justice and peace is within their scope of responsibility, act on that with the ulterior motive of personal power and the imposition of tyranny?

Now, whether governments actually proceed to make a competent effort at fixing Rwanda-like situations is another story. Reasonable people could certainly argue whether government is practically suited to pursue global peace and justice, whether that objective is better pursued with church soup can drives, or whether Rwandans are just supposed to fix their own problems (while we pray for them). I'm just not sure that I buy the premise of this particular post. It seems a little simplistic, as though personal belief in theology A, and personal belief in politics B, means they universally relate.

Lee Shelton said...

"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

That quote from Bush should cause every freedom-loving American to shudder. Theology and politics relate more than we wish to admit.

According to Romans 13, we are to submit to governing authorities. That has been used time and again to get Christians to support just about every endeavor (especially military) taken on by the federal government.

But in the U.S., the governing authority is not the whim of elected representatives; it is the Constitution. And nowhere in that document is government granted the power to end world tyranny. Nor is it charged with easing the pain and suffering of people in foreign nations (or here, for that matter). In fact, I would argue that government intervention usually makes matters worse. Just look at Iraq. We had to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and displace millions more in order to "liberate" them from an evil dictator and replace that regime with one sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism.

As George Washington once said, "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." When government takes it upon itself to provide "humanitarian aid," it does so through force. The funds for such "aid" come from the confiscation of tax dollars. The soldiers charged with providing that "aid" are threatened with imprisonment if they don't follow orders, no matter how unconstitutional those orders may be. The foreign civilians we are supposedly helping are forcced to submit to our rules: "Get in our way, and we'll either kill you or consider you an enemy combatant and lock you up indefinitely."

I don't think this stems from a sense of guilt as much as it does from pride and selfishness: "This world would be a better place if everyone just did things our way." Or perhaps it's simply a lack of faith in the transforming power of the gospel: "God's way certainly hasn't worked, so let's try it my way for a while." Take theology out of the picture, and people will find justification for anything.

Chris Wilde said...

Oh, I don't disagree one bit that the Bush administration's attempt to spread democracy through the invasion of Iraq has been a miserable failure. But that's a question of tactics. It may be safe to say that foreign military intervention is never a way to spread justice and democracy. Maybe. I would bring up WWII, but I hate "argumentum ad hitlerum" debates.

To say that it is not the role of the governments of the world to do something about human pain and suffering in other parts of the world; to look at the US Constitution as a shell outside of which government shall not trespass, vs. a framework upon which government shall be structured; to say that the US Constitution is perfect to begin with...these are all political philosophies worthy of debate. They are not Truth.

You believe your theology is Truth, and I respect that. But if they way your theology melds with your politics starts to become a justification for rich, spoiled Americans to just look the other way when people across the world are starving, tortured, dying, and oppressed by governments whose tyranny and cruelty exceeds beyond your wildest dreams the "tyranny" of taxes, then I start to lose respect.

Sonny Davis said...

This is certainly a contentious issue that we all must face. And while there are legitimate arguments from all political points of view, we as Christians should desire that all peoples are afforded the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Personally, I feel that those are found in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Additionally, there are many that would disagree with your statement of The fabrication of false responsibility is a strategy employed by the elite to make men guilty so that they hand over power and authority to the state. It is an ugly strategy designed to accumulate power. That may be how you perceive it, but it is not necessarily so because you state it.

In closing, I find it apalling that Mr. Shelton would make the following comment: Just look at Iraq. We had to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and displace millions more in order to "liberate" them from an evil dictator and replace that regime with one sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism. This, to me, is straight out of a liberal playbook that seeks to portray America as the tyranist. It is a slap in the face of many who have fought, AND BELIEVE, in the mission of the United States as it pertains to confronting terrorists (and this isn't coming from someone who wants to make anyone feel guilty, nor do I condone war). It was Sadaam Hussein, and other sympathetic terrosists that have indiscriminately killed "hundreds of thousands".

Hopefully, we will be mindful of the way in which we choose to speak. Obviously, our words have to ability to pursuade, but we should make arguments based on facts, not presumptions.

Lastly, why don't we address our leader as President Bush, instead of Bush?

Lee Shelton said...

Chris, personally I would probably have stuck with the Articles of Confederation. Many of the antifederalists (who were actually the real federalist) at the time saw the Constitution as an affront to liberty. They believed it granted the feds too much power. Nonetheless, it remains the supreme law of the land. That means no one is above it -- especially those in government. Perfect? By no means. But it establishes the confines within which the federal government is allowed to operate.

I admit that I am very libertarian in my political philosophy. As such, I want to see the burden imposed by government to be as light as possible for all people everywhere in the world. But if we're told the way to relieve pain and suffering is through the use of force (which is what government is), then I think it is legitimate to question the intentions of our political leaders and those who support them.

That in no way suggests a justification for "rich, spoiled Americans to just look the other way." But what is the alternative? Force those rich, spoiled Americans to help by giving their time, their money, or their very lives? Is that the loving, Christian thing to do? Forced charity is not charity. You don't show love to Neighbor A by pulling a gun and persuading Neighbor B to help.

Are there tyrannical regimes? Yes. The world is full of them. So, does that mean our government is responsible for going after each and every one?

And how does this translate on the domestic front? Should we not rest until we have universal health care for all?

I guess the question that needs to be answered is, How far do we go?

Sonny Davis said...


Well said, and thoughtful indeed; "How far do we go?"

Lee Shelton said...

Zebedee, the current war in Iraq is a point of contention with me because of the great number of Christians who enthusiastically supported the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. What's worse, I've heard many of them liken it to spiritual warfare, seeing our invasion as a way to battle Islam and advance the gospel in the Middle East.

It is not my intent to slap anyone in the face, but I don't think the mere act of fighting places one above reproach. Is it not possible for an American soldier to take part in a war that's just plain wrong? Have there been any military conflicts in our nation's history that you would consider wrong (i.e. unjust, immoral, or unconstitutional)? If yes, which one(s)? Or does it all depend on the individual soldier's motivations and actions during that conflict?

The Militant Pacifist said...

A brief comment on, “So, isolationist political foreign policy is also correct theology!” (from Chris Wilde's comment).

It certainly seems to me that it is. If it is not, then what is?

The scriptures teach that the Christian’s (the only person with an interest in “correct theology) citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

So how can a Christian righteously advocate the use of collective arms against anyone who is not actively attacking? Even if it seemed like a “good idea,” in a particular situation, how could we know that it would turn out to be a good idea? It seems that Galen’s maxim “primum non nocere” is certainly apropos here.

It is sad that many brethren have been so propagandized that they will accept the false “culpability” that Dr. Land feels. I’m sorry that he feels guilty. Christ’s truth is “freeing” in many ways. It can even remove “false” guilt.

Sonny Davis said...


Your stance against the Iraq war is well taken. I will disagree with you; however, on a few issues. The first issue is that I'm not willing to agree that our invasion was unprovoked. I simply don't have all of the facts that our elected officials had. Some, from what I understand are still classified to this day. We only know what the press reports, and it is usually slanted to one side or the other. A second issue that I will address is those Christians whom you state were "enthusiastic" in their support. Perhaps, many of the supporters were merely trying to undo the injustice that was served to our fighting men upon their return for Vietnam. I don't think that Christians are blind to the policies that our Government takes. I was one of those Christians that supported our President, based on the information that was given. As far as those that liken the invasion to spiritual warfare, I don't agree with that.

Lastly, our soldiers do not have the option of fighting for themselves. They fight for their country. When orders are given, they are expected to carry them out. This can be a very contentious issue as it relates to some very difficult moral dilemnas, especially for a Christian soldier. I can vouch personally, since I was a participant in the first Gulf War. Yet, the bottom line is that a soldier makes the decision to carry out the orders given him or her when he or she enlists.

In closing, while we may disagree somewhat in our politics, I would like to say thank you for all that you do here at your site. It has quickly become one of my favorite destinations, and I wish you continued success. My prayer is that God will continue to bless your ministry.

Darrell said...

Glad to see my little essay has spurred some interesting dialogue.

In his first reply Lee mentions that there is interplay between theology and politics. My essay was simply an attempt to examine ONE aspect of the theology undergirding the messianic state. Lee mentions the issue of pride, and indeed our desire to be as Gods is clearly a part of the picture as well. Certainly covetousness and the desire for ill-gain is also a factor. So I am merely discussing a part of the problem, though I believe a major contributor to it.

Chris asks “Is there any chance that a person might see suffering in Rwanda, and simply feel bad about it due to a feeling of empathy (as opposed to self-absorbed guilt)?” Yes, but empathy or pity is never promiscuous. It is always selective and the fundamental issue here is jurisdiction. We can have all the empathy we want, but if we use improper means in even in pursuit of good ends we’ve got a problem.

The magistrate is given authority in his state to be a minister of justice. He is NOT given authority to take care of the moral misdeeds of those in other countries. Though the end may be legitimate and even proper, we sin if we use improper means. And the Bible limits the state in such a way that non-defensive warfare (whether that be in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, or Haiti) is unbiblical.

If you can find biblical warrant otherwise, I will certainly listen to the argument.

The Proverbs warn us about meddling in affairs not our own: “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own (Prov. 26:17).

Likewise comes the warning that we should not become a surety for others: “A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge and puts up security for his neighbor (Prov. 11:15, see also Prov. 17:18).

These warnings apply not merely to individuals but to nations as well.

Chris Wilde said...

I am a pragmatist. Not an ideologue. Sometimes there are unjust situations in the world, about which something should be done. Many of these unjust situations are geo-political in nature, and so have to be dealt with at a geo-political level. That means governments. There are not any other existent bodies that have the resources governments do. A representative government getting involved in humanitarian efforts, either domestic or foreign, is not "forced charity" any more than any other function of government is "forced". It is simply what results when enough people within that representative system decide they want to do it. The same goes for domestic things like universal health care. If enough people want it, we will have it. Sure, there will always be certain interests that will have disproportionate influence on the decisions of representative governments--exactly who and why will change over the generations--and there will always be people who will be unhappy with what the will of the "majority" (roughly) ends up being, but that's the cost of democracy. It's messy. The Articles of Confederation were discarded after a few years, because people who actually lived under it felt they weren't working well enough. The Constitution has become respected over time as the profound and defining document of our federal government. But the same guys who signed it were right back at each other's throats over federalism vs. anti-federalism before the ink was dry! So, I reject the notion that there is some grand "correct" philosophy or theology of what government should be. Government will be and do what enough people with enough influence want it to be and do. As messy as that is, it's preferable to anarchy.

This means that there is no pat answer to "where do you draw the line". Clear lines are only drawn in ideology. They quickly blur in the real world when you have to make things actually work. We will be involved in foreign affairs when there's sufficient will to do so with a given situation, whether that will comes from self-interest, moral outrage, or some amalgamation of the two.

And this is where it's even hard to rule out military support, though all the parties in this room seem to agree that the military option has been very poorly and foolishly exercised by the Bush neocons. After all, our predecessors probably wouldn't have won the Revolutionary War, and got our own little American democratic experiment off the ground, had not France intervened with military support. And that for the messy, non-ideological reason that France just wanted to undermine the British!

Lee Shelton said...

If clear lines are only drawn in ideology, then how do we know when the line separating justice and tyranny has been crossed? Or are the lines are clear, and it's just a matter of who draws them?

The problem with military intervention is that it's never a benign humanitarian mission. Having care packages or medical supplies delivered by men and women with guns, who arrive in vehicles with bigger guns, which are transported in ships with even bigger guns, doesn't exactly convey the "We come in peace" vibe.

The problem with government-run "relief" is that it caters to the rich, spoiled Americans who run things in Washington. We only step in when "American interests" are at stake. We will punish the people of a nation with economic sanctions because we don't like their particular form of government, and yet turn around and grant special favors to other nations with even more brutal regimes. Or worse, we will help overthrow duly elected governments and set up ones that suit our own interests -- all in the name of "democracy."

Yes, this is a nation supposedly run by "we, the people." But when we abandon the concept that the Constitution serves as a restraint on government power, the very idea that we can continue to influence government is laughable. Soon, we may find ourselves wallowing neck-deep in the same kind of pragmatism that swept through Europe in the early 20th century.

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