Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mistaking Human Sin for God's Will

[Update: Added links and corrected some grammar. Also, I feel the need to note I got a little carried away here and ended up mashing up what were meant to be two posts, which I think is somewhat apparent after re-reading it. Something I meant to add was that reading about the 19th century has driven home what I feel is a frequent gap in my analysis, I tend to attribute disagreement to varying conceptions of what is good and to honest disagreements about how to get there. But confronting issues like slavery and Indian removal drives home that some people are just downright nasty and are advancing arguments solely for the good of themselves and whatever they define as their kind, no matter how great the consequences are for others, including rape, murder, and torture. If this isn't evil, I don't know what is.]

Lately, I've been reading "What Hath God Wrought," an excellent history of 19th century America.* This has been forcing me to reflect the impact of human evil** on history (and living in a more religious area and encountering more people of deep faith has led to me having more confidence in sharing my own views inspired by faith).

So, reading, "For John Hagee, Hitler Was God's Will, but Hagel Must Be Stopped," provided me with a concrete instance of how human sin and ignorance continues to combine to produce evil in the world.***

To quote Hagee (from a Huffpo post linked to on TAC, not my ideal source admittedly):

"'And they the hunters should hunt them,' that will be the Jews. 'From every mountain and from every hill and from out of the holes of the rocks.' If that doesn't describe what Hitler did in the holocaust you can't see that."
I'm not qualified to attempt any Biblical exegesis here, but I can say that it is wrong to attribute evil to God when human ignorance and sin are sufficient explanations. The Holocaust occurred because of Hitler's particular evil and Hitler's rise of power is explainable in terms of the willed actions of numerous individuals that brought about catastrophic consequences. If Germany had not faced such punishing reparations, if monetary authorities had acted with greater wisdom, and if the powerful had acted with greater concern for the common man, none of that would have happened. Hitler has nothing to do with God and everything to do with man's fallen nature and our inability in that  instance to correct our ignorance and to rise above our petty tribalism and greed. We had choices to make,**** and we made very poor ones. That is our fault, and it we will be taking the Lord's name in vain***** to explain our own failings by his will.

The above is largely stating the obvious, but I mean for it to point to a larger problem. Too often, we excuse the abuses perpetuated by both the institutions we have created and by our own sin as simply being the results of the natural order (outside of some narrow circles it is generally unfashionable to attribute this natural order to God, but it is often implicit). I see this very often with market oriented rhetoric, as if the market is of divine creation rather than the result of human action and will. Only somewhat less often do I see the Bible used to to cloak our tribalism and bigotry, as if we can conceal the hatred and spite of our words by taking the Lord's name in vain to hide them.

This is no more excusable today than it was in the 19th century, when the Lord's name and the Bible were used to justify white supremacy, slavery, and Indian removal. As a Christian, I feel the need to condemn this just as many condemned these views at the time (we should take into account the limitations of time and place in judging history, but significant criticisms of all three of these views were raised in the relevant time period). Furthermore, I believe that it is just as important today to recognize the continued use of scripture or a closely related faux-naturalism (since quoting scripture is less common in modern parlance) to justify the oppression of the weak by the strong, to excuse our own failure to take responsibility for the destitution and misery arising from our institutions by blaming it on the victims, and to drive us apart rather than bring us together as Christ intended.******

To make this somewhat more concrete, I continue to see the doctrines that were used in the 19th century to perpetuate great evil used to wrap the flag or faith around ideas that seem likely to hurt the poor and weak. We see leaders in states with appalling records of helping the poor or providing equal rights using state's rights justifications in order to request more discretion in these programs, strikingly similar to how they used these justifications to keep down the poor and uplift the strong in the 19th century.******* These ideas were wrong then, and they are wrong now. What we know about the world is nicely congruent with scripture, societies that are more inclusive, that seek to make equality an earthly reality, and that regard the contributions of the poor and weak as essential components of our earthly welfare do better than societies that seek to use particularism, pride, and greed as engines of progress. They may enjoy temporary success, both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were able to use plunder and exploitation successfully for a short period of time, but such divisiveness, wrath, and greed have proven unable to withstand the test of time. It is remarkable that people remain unable to learn from history and to see that evil begets naught but evil; ignore your poor, turn a blind eye towards deaths in the streets, and use moral sermonizing to mask concrete evil and naught but decline awaits.

* It's a good book, but I agree with some criticism that he is too friendly to the Whigs. On the whole, however, I am struck by how strongly I disagree with the Democrats of that period, siding with the Whigs, and later Republicans, on just about everything. This book only reinforced that.

** I tend to see human evil primarily, though not solely, arising from those things that divide us rather than bring us together. This isn't to mean that we shouldn't disagree with each other, but doctrines that point to essential differences seem to universally collapse with time. There is a natural, heterogeneous range of human opinions, aptitudes, and beliefs but there is little evidence that these are regularly distributed across any readily identifiable groups (can't eliminate the possibility of a more regular distribution across traits like gene groupings). I really can't think of anything good that has come from divisiveness, though I can think of a lot of evil that has. Also, I do feel the need to add that I don't mean a naive, rhetorical use of the brotherhood of man, like the French or Russian revolution used, but one that is truly inclusive and accepts difference while acknowledging brotherhood. In the French or Soviet examples, the rhetoric was used to empower, and ultimately divide, particular groups from the rest of society and to enforce a narrow worldview, which naturally pushed those that disagreed out of the putative brotherhood.

*** I don't mean to endorse Hagel or condemn Hagee, though I do see what Hagee is doing as sinful and wrong; this simply struck me as a modern example of how moralistic rhetoric continues to confuse our sense of good and evil.

**** I tend to feel that both intent and consequence are important to judging human action. Not taking intent into account exaggerates human powers, not taking consequence into account falsely diminishes them. While it was not foreseeable that the actions of central bankers and the negotiators of the Treaty of Versailles would lead to Hitler, serious criticism of both was present at the time and it should have been foreseeable that the actions of each would have negative consequences. This was an intersection of human will with human ignorance, and the first could have been avoided with more humility and the second can always be mitigated. No reason to blame God for our own weakness and stupidity.

***** I realize I use this slightly differently than the common reading, but I find it hard to believe in a God who cares that his name is used casually, and easy to believe in a God that would not want his name to be abused in excusing human evil and failings or to sanction a dishonest oath.

****** In general, I have an extremely low opinion of man's ability to interpret what God intends. However, something that is pretty much universally agreed upon by any analysis of the impact of scripture on history is that Christianity served to erase many early particularities and to bring much greater equality of status to mankind (other religions did this as well, while a Christian I don't believe we have a monopoly on truth, I see the Bible as being written by fallible witnesses who sometimes allowed their own prejudices to intrude upon what they were observing requiring that we pay attention to what was actually achieved by revelation as opposed to our own interpretation of it, which is necessarily in error due to man's fallen nature). Where interpretations of Christianity are used to divide rather than bring together I see the sin and error of the interpreter rather than the intended meaning. It is notable that these divisive movements eventually die, while more inclusive interpretations (sometimes) survive.

******* Against my better judgment, I feel the need to point out that there seems to be what I can only call a Satanic perversion of the Christian faith present in some circles which tries to use earthly success as a justification for keeping the poor down and denying them equal opportunity. I won't point fingers at specific groups, but not for some people the idea that the poor should inherit the earth or that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." I regard it as a deep perversion to see the best way to help the poor as to deprive them of assistance, this is supported neither by the Bible nor by empirical evidence. It is nothing but the whispering of Satan in our ear to listen to our pride and greed rather than to pay attention to either the world or revelation, and it must be condemned as such.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments reminded me of a novel I just finished, "Not wanted on the voyage" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_Wanted_on_the_Voyage

    the nature of good and evil, God and Satan, etc.