Villainy somewhere! Whose? One says we are villains all.Lord Alfred Tennyson
Justice, freedom, rights, choice, liberty, happiness, love…these are powerful words, and we hear them often. We read them in thousands of contexts, used both carelessly or carefully. Words matter. Words give birth to ideas, and if Joseph Stalin was right, ” ideas are far more powerful than guns.” I’m inclined to agree with Stalin here, after all, he proved the truth of his words over the mass graves of millions of dead through the power of his ideas and their implementation. Ideas have the capacity to inflict great suffering, and it is through the meaning we infuse behind our words that we shape, and justify these ideas. I am willing to quarrel over words, after all, “why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? (G.K. Chesterton)” When words of such grandeur and importance are thrown about, I am inclined to dig deeper to identify what is meant–and intended by–their use. I think you ought to do the same if your intention is to identify their true and universal meaning. If we are not willing to take the time to do this, we may fall into grave error.
Powerful word-driven ideas have been at the root of a multitude of human ills.
It was in the name of happiness that the bloody, chaotic massacre of 17,000 people (and likely hundreds of thousands more, unofficially) were justified during the Reign of Terror.
It was in the name of freedom from oppression that the average German found himself ransacking his Jewish neighbor’s storefronts during Krystallnacht, and later stealing belongings from them as they were rounded up for extermination, believing Jewish wealth to be a symbol of German oppression.
It was words like liberty that were used to justify the Gulag’s where those who dissented were enslaved, and endured unspeakable torture.
It was words like rights that were used to justify the enslavement and mistreatment of black people in America well into the 20th century, deeming them property, hanging them from trees, denying them access to education and entertainment, hating them.
It is words like choice that are used to justify the murder of the unborn in America, torn limb from limb, suffocated through cutting the umbilical cord in utero, leading to a greater death count than all other atrocities in human history.
Using words like justice does not justice create. For Christians it is imperative that we recognize the ideas leveled behind the words being used. It is crucial that we do not allow ourselves to be swept up in the conviction of the age that hijacks aspects of truth, while ignoring others. If we cannot discern these things we “may come to think murder is wrong because it is violent, and not because it is unjust (G.K. Chesterton).”
This struggle has always existed as a challenge to the Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor under the rise of the Third Reich, found himself at odds with both Hitler’s ideals, and the State church that had been largely silent against them. This was because the State church had ceased being the true Church, adopting the nomenclature that was informed, not by scripture, but by the ideals of the age. “Bonhoeffer’s struggle, at least initially, was not against the Nazis, but against those reasonable people, who, nonetheless, muddied the waters of theological conviction to make all confessions of faith and statements of fact against the Nazis powerless (Matthew Kirkpatrick).”
These muddied waters were, according to Bonhoeffer, a result of liberal theologians who, “make the claim to be able to distinguish the Word of God and the word of man in Holy Scripture.” In their arrogance they claimed they knew which parts of scripture were relevant, and which others could be discarded because they did not mesh with the ideas of their time. They gutted their faith, eventually marrying themselves to a regime of wickedness, with no power or standard with which to speak against it.
It is this tendency of arrogance that has marked all of human history. Instead of submission to God’s word and definition of these words–these ideas–we have sought to seek our own definitions. Despite our constant efforts to overcome the crimes of previous generations with claims of great progress “a humanitarian is always a hypocrite (George Orwell).” Why? because when we set ourselves up as our source of authority we will always exchange one evil for another. We may eradicate one type of oppression, but it always leads to another. If you don’t believe this, you need only read a history book, “Nearly two hundred years’ experience of the moral failings of humanity-turned-divinity have been enough to convince most that it has been a failed experiment…humanity has been responsible for a series of moral, social, and political catastrophes, some inspired by a belief in God, others by a belief that God must be eliminated, by all means and at all costs. The common denominator here is humanity, not divinity (Alister McGrath).”
Human idealism leads to death, often in horrific ways. Why do we keep falling for it? Because, like Sylvia Plath described of the men in her life, human idealism is a “light borrower”.
If the moon smiled she would resemble youSylvia Plath
you leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating
Both of you are great light borrowers.
Justice (or Love, or Peace, or any other beautiful ideal) is something we desire. We know, with the law written upon our hearts, that these are good things. But, when we divorce them from their source, from the only One who is just, we are merely borrowing from the Light, and doomed to annihilate other goods as a result. We will always fracture our ideals of Love, Justice, Peace, and Freedom, so long as we pursue them apart from faith in the God who is the source and aim of them all. Our desire for autonomy from God leads to our ultimate destruction, always. “When a person chooses his or her supposed autonomous self as the authority, she models Satan in his rebellion against God (Jessica Hooten Wilson).” In our rejection of God as authority we keep tasting that same fruit, wanting to judge good and evil for ourselves, as a result we bring about more evil. We then use a twisting of our words to justify ourselves, believing even our evildoing to be “good”. We have been trapped within this cycle since the dawn of the Fall.
What do The Great Purge, The Reign of Terror, The Holocaust, American Slavery, American Segregation and Lynching, Abortion, and all other human ills have in common? Every single group determined themselves as the standard for right and wrong and sought to self-justify their actions. These are the marks of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
We create these ideologies to justify our refusal to submit to God. We refuse his Lordship, we take his name in vain as we commandeer pieces of his words for our use in our attempt to bring about heaven on earth without him. We choose which commands we want to obey, while expecting to receive his blessing. This is a wicked, reckless venture. Doomed to fail. We attempt to set up our own standards so that we might never have to face the wickedness that resides within our own hearts. So long as we do this we are doomed to repeat the same sins of the past that we often condemn.
We are Adam, exchanging obedience and intimacy with God for our own knowledge.
We are Cain, caring little for God but expecting his blessing, jealous of our brother and hating him when God shows him favor.
We are Babel, trying to reach heaven on our own terms and descending into disunity.
We are Israel under the Judges, where everyone does what was right in their own eyes and unspeakable wickedness prevails.
We are our ancestors, considering humans “not quite persons”, allowing a utopian vision to cloud our judgment, letting others be slaughtered, oppressed, and stolen from as we try to force into existence what can never be had apart from God.
Is it hopeless then? What are we to do when our hearts are so crafty as to fool us into to calling good evil and evil good? “The only thing that is truly able to disarm the sophistry of sin is faith (Soren Kierkegaard).” We cannot address injustice if we cannot first recognize that we are much more villain than we are just. Without God there can be no goodness in man or in the world. No system can create justice. You cannot legislate, educate, nor engineer sin out of the human heart. “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).” There is only one Great Physician who can replace the wicked heart of man with one that beats in time with righteousness. The alternative to injustice and evil is not a system, it is a person. Our answer has always, and will forever be, Christ.
We protest evil through preaching Christ crucified, bringing the end to mankind’s enmity with God. His Church must be faithful to him alone, standing in humble obedience and in boldness speaking the complete truth of his Word, for “interpretation is achieved not by the choice of certain texts but by the demonstration of the whole of Holy Scripture as the testimony of the Word of God (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).” We must avoid the pitfall of choosing only the popular pieces that fit into the “conviction” of the day. This isn’t action that topples statues or leads chants, it won’t create books that make top seller lists or get thousands of followers and likes, for “Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities (G.K. Chesterton).” It is the work of the unpopular prophets who call nations out of sin, addressing both greed and sexual immorality, both oppression and idolatry. It is the Church being the Church, no matter the cost. For
“She tells them of Life and Death, and of all they would
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they
like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one
will need to be good.”
We are not called to systems, but to submission to the God who has rescued us out of the darkness of the world and the darkness that resides in our very own hearts. Systems of human ideals are fig leaves and golden calves, they are a hazy fog that lets us believe we can create a moral universe apart from God, that is really only our attempt to do precisely as we wish with no interference from him. It aims at perfection but ultimately leads to bloodshed, because we refuse to accept the blood that was shed by Perfection himself. We often attempt to claim his name in our efforts, while refusing to submit to him, but we cannot cry for justice until we first cry for mercy from the perfect Judge whom we have all wronged.
We are villains all, but as for God? “his way is blameless; the word of the Lord is tried; he is a shield to all who take refuge in him (Psalm 18:30).”
We can take refuge in him, we can know his Word so well that we see the counterfeits and refuse to be drawn in by the fashionable convictions of the day; instead being securely and steadfastly committed to God: his word, his standard, his supremacy over all things, while remembering that it is ultimately Christ himself who holds us steady. He is our refuge, he is our strength, he alone can meet his standard of perfection, we need only follow him. As we seek intimacy with him, and submit to his Word we can discern the “light borrowers”, and we can follow the true Light, as Tolkien wrote, unflinchingly.