Conversations like this (and a zillion ones like it on Connexions) I generally stay out of. The arguments over whose sins are worse than whose don’t interest me very much. I’m with Paul: we’re all sinners, capisce? However, what bothers me a bit in these “war on terror causes terrorism” claims is the lopsided approach to free will and determinism. The U.S. is the cause of its own misdeeds, but it’s also the cause of the terrorists’ misdeeds, because the actions of terrorists are, apparently, determined by U.S. actions.
Now, I think that free will is overrated, so I don’t pretend that terrorist actions came out of nowhere. But why should U.S. actions be treated as inherently different? In fact, the U.S. war on terror also had a cause, that little experiment in amateur skyscraper demolition that occurred four years ago. You can argue that the U.S. didn’t do a very good response to the cause, but then I don’t think slaughtering civilians and taking hostages is a very good response either, so on that point it’s a wash. The 9/11 attacks also had causes, of course; but that is my point. There is no such thing as a “root cause,” really, in the sense of going back to a beginning point where something happened without provocation. Every important thing that’s happened in history has, on some level, been a reaction to something else.
But I think a more basic assumption underlying this, and that is common in Western culture generally, is that power = freedom. If you have money, position, and influence, the thinking goes, you have more choices and alternatives than if you’re poor and downtrodden. Therefore you are more responsible for your own actions, and circumstances and outside influences don’t matter as much.
It seems commonsensical. After all, as a middle-class American I have more choices about things like what I do for a living, where I live, what I drive, and so on than, say, an African peasant. But as to whether I have more freedom in moral choices … well … I don’t know. And one important thing to consider, in the whole power = freedom assumption, is how this interacts with the old, old Christian habit of equating sin with slavery. “We confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” the Lutherans say every Sunday (well, at least in churches where they still do the Confession of Sin). Way back in the New Testament, the first Christians are told repeatedly that Christ has freed them from sin.
Despite all this, there’s definitely a strain in modern thinking that connects sin with freedom. If anything, sinners seem freer than the righteous because they don’t bother obeying the rules, but do their own thing. And if it’s suspect in Christianity to gain power and wealth, but gaining those things brings you more freedom, well, what’s so freeing about Christ?
I’ve never studied this question in depth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back to the old habit of tracing all sin to idolatry. If money and power are what you want more than anything, they become your idols, and eventually they enslave you. And certainly if you’re going to build an empire, or a giant business, or some combination of the above, it takes more than a passing devotion to the idea. The hardship and sacrifice of our forbears that we all learned about in U.S. history are pretty much standard for any country that becomes a major player in the world.
Another potentially imprisoning feature of success — and one more relevant to those of us who are riding on the back of past achievement — is fear. The more you have, the more you have to lose, and the more other people will be happy to take it from you. I’ve covered business for six years, and I can tell you that even the hugest companies in the world live in perpetual low-grade anxiety: you always have to beat last year’s numbers, fight off the latest competitor, top your previous achievements. Intel founder Andrew Grove summed it up aptly with his book, Only the Paranoid Survive.
The same goes for political leaders. Elected politicians are infamous for bending to lobbyists and public opinion polls, but of course they do it for fear of what will happen to them if they don’t. Unelected leaders suffer from their own version of this. According to an Atlantic article a while ago, Saddam Hussein spent his last years in a secretive, armored existence, sleeping in different places each night, surrounded constantly by guards, and never sure of whom he could trust.
Common Americans have our own threats that come from success. I remember back when I was in college I heard a radio report from Haiti, talking to peasants who were supporting an economic boycott of the country over a military coup. The reporter reminded them that they stood to suffer themselves if no business came to the country. One of the peasants pointed out some leaves on nearby plants that they knew were edible. “You see, we’re used to doing without,” he said. “We know we can survive.”
Compare that to how Americans react when the economy dips or the price of gas goes up, and you’ll see what I mean. Likewise, our attachment to our political system also evokes certain fears; most of us were brought up with the attitude that our freedoms can never be taken for granted, and must be vigilantly protected. Paradoxically, this fear tends to limit the choices we make.
Don’t mistake me, I’m not saying these things are bad. I wouldn’t want to change places with a Haitian peasant. I’m just saying that having and wanting these things pushes all our choices in a certain direction, just as an Iraqi’s not wanting to have the U.S. in his country will push his choices in a certain direction.
Beneath this, and somewhat harder to quantify, is how one’s cosmic view limits the choices that one makes. A few weeks ago when my mother was here, we went to see the movie Match Point, which showed a good example of this. In his review of that movie David Denby said that some viewers he knew didn’t believe that its main character would resort to murder: “After all, they say, this is modern life, and these things can be worked out.” But the way the character was written showed how his nihilistic worldview made murder inevitable. He believed that the universe is random and meaningless; therefore, his only hope of salvation was in material success. He also believed that luck trumps everything else, and that what he had came through luck instead of merit, so if he lost the set of relationships that brought him success, he could never do it again. The movie itself casts doubt on how much of this is true, but the point is that he saw it that way, and so he simply could not see any other options.
Now, one could debate how much free will he actually had in all this; but the point is, I don’t see how wealth gives one greater freedom to choose a worldview than poverty does. In fact, if your worldview is rewarded with material success, you will likely be driven farther into it, rather than loosened to explore other options.
The Gospel, then, is not just a prescription for social justice, but a declaration of reality. It is a denial of the sort of illusions that lead to murder, and to all other sins. And I think that in that way, its attitude toward the powerful differs from the typical modern leftist one, and that’s why it bugs me to see leftist Christians get them tangled up. The leftist attitude says, “You have all the good things, and what’s wrong with you is that you misuse them and you don’t share.” The Christian attitude is, “You don’t even see what the good things are.”
Now, I’m not about to deny that the Gospel demands sharing. But it also emphasizes the Kingdom as a pearl of great price, a treasure greater than all earthly treasures, etc. I think that aspect turns the attitude toward the powerful from one of envy to one of warning. Their power is nothing compared to God’s power. They are devoting themselves to illusory things that are not of God, and therefore they will fall with them. The beatitudes are not a prescription for how society ought to be; they are an announcement of what is coming.
I think the danger in envy is that, even in criticism, it colludes in the illusions of the powerful that they have obtained the best in life. The Gospel, however, says otherwise. They think they have power and freedom, but in reality they are pitiful slaves. And unless they see it like that, I doubt they will be interested in giving any of it up.
And by the way, though I use “they” here, that applies to me too. No one in the world is either 100% powerful or 100% powerless; and so, to misquote Gandhi, the divide between the two runs through every human heart.