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Letter to a Deist

I’ve been thinking about what you said at breakfast, and several lights have gone off in my head as I’ve been thinking. The real issue between us regarding Christianity is not moral or philosophical…it’s more historical than anything else, and political. And this fits in with everything I’ve been studying and thinking lately. So let me see if I can clarify the issue a bit.
Your contention is that “religion divides and causes violence, so why would I want to be a part of that?” There’s three things that could be said in response.
1) The first point is that “religion” is a pretty unhelpful term. In some sense, almost anything is a “religion,” in the sense of an ideology that causes people to act in a certain way. Atheism can be a religion. Even agnosticism, if held tenaciously, can be a sort of religion. The Enlightenment taught a religion of human autonomy and autonomous reason. But that’s a bit beside the point. Even with the organized, historic religions, there are many many differences (incidentally, this is where I disagree a bit with the book I just lent you), and to make an accusation against all of them together is like saying, “You know, I can’t stand food—food is evil, because it makes people sick.” In our present day, and historically since its foundation, Islam has tended to be by far the most violent, and the most eager to use war to succeed. An accusation against Islam is one that Christianity would completely agree with, so you can’t use Islam’s faults as a critique of Christianity. Of course, Christianity has some violence to answer for as well, which I’ll get to, but I think it’s important to be honest and make proper distinctions in your accusations.
2) History is really a large part of our disagreement. Many, perhaps including you, seem to think that history is an open book, with easily known facts, and trends that are easily understood. But anyone who really studies history knows that history is often as opaque as philosophy, and far messier, with different theories and interpretations going in and out of style all the time. So you feel content to appeal to history as a justification for your claim about religion, as if it’s that simple. But what you’re really appealing to is a particular version, a particular story of history, a story that many historians, I know, would disagree with. Of course, perhaps your story is right, but it’s important to realize that it is not self-evidently right, and there are other narratives which might prove far more compelling.
On my reading of history, your claim is just plain wrong. Here’s the other side of the story: for a very long time, you had various nations and tribes, each with their own sets of gods, making war on one another because they believed their gods would give them success over others. (At this time there was no distinction between religion and politics.) When Christianity came in, it preached a God who ruled over all nations, and hence, it made no sense for one nation to go to war against another in his name. It made possible for the first time the idea of many nations living together peacefully. Now, I don’t say it always lived out this idea, but in previous paganism, this wouldn’t have made sense—the gods were always fighting, so the nations had to as well. Of course, at the time of Christianity, there was a rival notion of peace being preached, that of the Roman Empire, which promised to allow all religions and unite all in peace. The only price they had to pay was slavery, and ruthless punishment if they disobeyed. So the Roman Empire brought peace within its bounds, but at the cost of great violence to create and maintain it. When Christianity came in, preaching and promising peace, it did it by serving. In medieval times, there were of course still wars going on, even between Christian nations, but more often than not, the Church intervened to force them to make peace, rather than to shed blood. It is a historical fact that Church authorities were usually the leaders in making peace treaties, though they made their mistakes as well. When Christianity divided after the Reformation, civil governments promised to pick up the slack and take over as the uniters of society. This they have tried to do for the last four hundred years. (The Enlightenment also tried to propose universal reason as the uniter of society and the solution to all differences and violence, however, it ran into the problem that different people have different ideas of reason, which turns out not to be universal, and how to persuade those who disagree? Ultimately, the Enlightenment types had to embrace the violence of revolution and the aid of the state to accomplish its goals. The French Revolution, and later, under a modified ideology of the Russian Revolution followed this pattern, and neither came close to the success they dreamed of.) What has happened then is a return to the Roman methodology—unity and peace through force and conquest. Hence the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, Soviet expansionism, etc. (As I said, Hitler killed more each day, probably each hour, than the Inquisition did in its entire history) Curiously, you blame precisely this—the attempt to force agreement through conquest—on religion, when it is precisely post-religious societies that have sought this kind of unifying mechanism.

3) The third point to make is that, yes, indeed, Christianity has much to answer for. I believe the narrative I just gave is substantially correct, and that Christianity has prevented far more wars than it has caused, but even so, we have a lot to answer for, and we come to the discussion table red-handed. However, this is not a damning criticism, if it can be proved that those who resorted to violence in the name of Christianity were clearly misunderstanding their faith. Everyone makes this sort of defense—Marxists can argue that Stalin didn’t get Marx right, and that’s why he did all those horrible things. If someone said to you, “Look how your daughter has gone off and become a fundamentalist—what’s wrong with your teaching?”) you would protest that it was precisely against what you had raised her to be that she went off and became a fundamentalist. You should at least be open to the possibility that the violence done in the name of Christianity has been a misuse of the name of Christianity. I do not wish to disown any of my Christian brothers throughout history, but many of them do need to be rebuked and called to look more closely at the content of their faith, and many of them have given Christianity a bad name.
I could attempt to prove that Christianity properly understood is innocent of your charge by examining historical counterexamples, but I want to go right to the heart. In our charter, our guidebook, our constitution to which we are all committed, the message is clear: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”—in other words, if someone really needs punishing (and occasionally, I think you will agree, people do), God will decide, but that’s not our job. Our job is to show love and mercy. James tells us “True religion in the sight of God is to visit widows and orphans in their distress,” and when Jesus is asked if he is truly the Messiah he proves his credentials by answering “Go and tell John the things that you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news preached to them.”
Just to pick from one of the hymns we sang in church this morning (actually from the Psalms):
“The Father to the fatherless, / Defence of widows in distress, / Is in His habitation. / He in the goodness of His grace / Gives lonely ones a dwelling place; / He grants them consolation. / He leads the captive out to see / The joys of newfound liberty / For bounteous is God’s mercy.”
What is the gospel? Paul says, “How beautiful are the feet of he who brings the gospel of peace,” and later says that Christ “came and preached peace to those that are far off, and peace to those that are near,” that “he made both one, abolishing the enmity, thus making peace.”
In other words, I think Christianity, far from being the cause of violence is the only tool we have in order to stop violence and war, that far from trying to bring others into line by force, Christianity believes in bringing grace to others by showing mercy and service to those who are in need. We have many mistakes in the past to atone for, but we also have much success to build on, and I think an honest look around at history, and Christian ministry in the world today, will prove that point.

As I made clear in my last post, some things Doug Wilson has been saying lately have concerned me, seeming to be casting a blanket of complacency over the consciences of Reformed Christians, consciences that need to be gashed and laid bare over issues of mercy, justice, and charity. “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God is this: that you visit orphans and widows in their affliction…”
Pondering back on my previous post, I had begun to wonder if I was perhaps tilting at windmills, making a mountain out a molehill…something of that nature. But Doug Wilson’s recent sermon on Amos 5 set my alarm bells blaring again. Of course, each of his sermons in Amos has left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable, and not the right kind of uncomfortable. Amos, for those of you just tuning in, is, of all the prophetic books, among those that rants most persistently against the rich and their perversion of justice and oppression of the poor. Pastor Wilson’s sermons have repeatedly dulled the edge of passages that go right for the jugular of comfortable affluent American Christians, but, in general, I was understanding of his attempt to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. But this latest one…well, I just couldn’t go for it. The passage in question centers on the following warnings: “Therefore, because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them: you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.”
How did this come out after being filtered through Pastor Wilson’s sermon? “We need to remain faithful and wait upon the Lord even when confronted with the injustices of a court system that rewrites laws to allow abortion and homosexual marriage and the like.”
Huh? I’m serious, that was the gist. Now, how he got there was to reason that a major perversion of justice in our society that afflicts those who are weak and defenceless is abortion (and which also perverts justice in other ways that we aren’t happy with. Thus our society has this analogy to the situation Amos is critiquing. Now, I’ll grant that this might be a reasonable application by analogy, but it’s certainly not the most important thing Amos is trying to say, nor the most relevant and needful application. Much more central and relevant would be the message: “You—yes, you, right here in the congregation—are fat and happy and willing to not merely ignore the plight of the poor, but to be complicit in their oppression, simply for the sake of making your own lives easier. How great are your sins!”
Wilson has, however, deliberately evaded the seeming force of Amos’s condemnation of American Christianity through two main routes (explicit in his sermons): 1) The real thing Amos is after is bad worship, not economic oppression. We need to focus on fixing our worship more than anything else. 2) Amos is condemning people who consciously, intentionally seek to oppress the poor. Obviously we don’t do this, so it doesn’t really apply to us.
Both of these arguments, it seems to me, are highly problematic. To the first, I would reply that this simply does not seem to be the case by simple word count. Seventeen verses, by my count, explicitly deal with the problem of oppression and injustice; eight deal with perverted worship (and of these, for several, the main issue seems to be their evil in coming into the presence of the Lord with the guilt of their oppression of their brothers on their hands). Repeatedly we hear in the prophets, “I desire mercy and not a sacrifice.” It simply does not appear that the reform of worship has any kind of priority over the aid of the oppressed.
The second argument depends upon the claim that only conscious, intentional transgressors are actually transgressors. But when do we ever reason like this? Negligence and inattention to our duties are equally culpable. Is only the man who actively beats his wife a bad husband? No, the husband who pays more attention to his work than his wife, who ignores her needs, is still guilty, even if he may be well-intentioned. On what basis do we say that only the Robert Mugabes of the world are being blamed by Amos? How many people really go out of their way to oppress the poor? A pretty small minority…most do it in the name of some good cause, or by bowing to “the free market.” Are we really guiltless of the economic conditions of those in the world that suffer from our greedy consumer demands and blatantly selfish government policy?
What, I can’t help but wonder, is the motive for pronouncing over the heads of the parishioners the verdict “not guilty,” for saying “peace, peace,” when there is no peace?

Doug Wilson has recently drawn considerable attention to N.T. Wright’s remarks, towards the end of Surprised by Hope, about the urgent call for global justice, in particularly, to redress the abominable oppression of Third World Debt. In response to Wright’s fairly brief remarks in that book, Wilson unleashed a barrage of no less than 15 posts over the previous two months (see, essentially hammering on the same themes over and over again. Last month, Wright finally responded to these and similar criticisms with a short summary defense which can be found here: Wilson responded to that (albeit very insufficiently, in my opinion, on his blog recently).
This interchange has served to bring into sharp relief this whole question about the Church’s duty to seek global justice, a question that is urgently relevant to the Reformed Church, and indeed the whole American Church, today. So I would like to make a few observations and raise a few questions, though I will not seek to cross-examine every statement that was made. Though I believe N.T. Wright is substantially correct on these issues, my purpose here is not to attack Doug Wilson per se. However, I do want to suggest that he doth protest too much, and to defend N.T. Wright from some accusations that I think are unwarranted. Also, I think it is important that we examine the potential pitfalls in some of the lines of argument that Wilson brings up.

The crucial question here, in my mind, is this: Which side of this argument does the Reformed Church here in America need to hear more, Wright’s or Wilson’s?
That is to say, even if I were to concede that all of Wilson’s criticisms were on the mark, that Wright had gone too far with his agenda, and all that, I would still be very concerned about the way in which Wilson had addressed the issue. Is the problem in Reformed churches today zealotry or complacency? Well, quite frankly, our Reformed churches couldn’t care less about global justice, the oppression of the poor, or all the problems that the Old Testament prophets so loudly inveigh against. Even if Wright goes too far, his is a voice which needs to be heard and paid attention to in our Reformed churches. By speaking so loudly against Wright’s call for global justice, Wilson runs the risk of simply reinforcing the complacency we find in our churches when it comes to these issues. Of course, Wilson says repeatedly that he isn’t trying to encourage complacency, but I fear nonetheless that complacency may be a by-product of some of his arguments

Though Wilson speaks at great length, his claim is fairly straightforward: Wright may be right about the fact of the problem, and the need to address the problem, but it’s a very complex problem, and Wright’s solution is simplistic and shows that he knows nothing about economics. Unfortunately, I would contend, Wilson nowhere spells out a clear defense either of the proposition that it’s a highly complex problem or that Wright’s solution is simplistic. So, at least pending a detailed and clear defense, I must take issue with these claims.

First, I want to address the charge against Wright. While Wilson insists that his answer is simplistic, it does not appear that this rests on any more than the fact that certain summary utterances of Wright’s on this topic (such as in Surprised by Hope) have been simplistic. However, I would be very surprised if more thorough statements of his views would not reveal a very well-thought-out position. Everything he’s ever written on every other issue would suggest this. Of course, he is not perfect, but, at least he is an exceptionally thorough scholar who prefers to leave absolutely no stone unturned. If any claim he makes appears to be simplistic, it usually turns out that he has backed up that claim with dozens of pages of argument elsewhere in his writings. Our assumption, until proven otherwise, should be that Wright has probably done his homework when he speaks out on an issue. This is particularly the case when it is an issue that he is passionate about, and has spoken about and argued about for years, such as this issue of Third World Debt. Furthermore, Wright’s recent response to Wilson demonstrates that he is well-acquainted with the details of the issue. You may argue that Wright is wrong, but you may not insist that he is na├»ve or is speaking before thinking, as Wilson seems to repeatedly insist.

This reasonably leads us to question why Wilson would make this claim, why he would suppose that Wright, so thoughtful and thorough about every other issue, would suddenly start talking foolishness on this issue? I actually used to think the same thing about Wright, so I think I might know one reason why, though of course I can only speak for myself. It’s because his statements don’t seem to fit our particular view of economics, so we assume that he must just not know anything about economics. Of course, all this means is that he doesn’t buy into the American capitalist ideology, which we blithely assume must be the only economics there is. “He doesn’t know economics,” we claim, as if capitalism were simply a fact of nature, like gravity. But it’s not, it’s an ideology, which we must repent of if we are to begin to look at justice and poverty through Biblical eyes. I have a bit more to say on this in my conclusion.

Now, what about Wilson’s claim of complexity—that this is obviously much too complex a problem to begin proposing solutions? Well, I would like to ask why this is just such a complex problem, so complex that we simply cannot begin to take action on it right now? Of course it is complex—it’s not just like requiring your six-year-old son to return the candy bar to the convenience store he just stole it from. But why is it cripplingly complex? Well, Wilson says, because we need to take everything into account. It’s not as if there’s solutions for a problem like this—rather, there are tradeoffs. That is to say, if you try to fix this one thing, you’ll create a problem somewhere else. This may be a fair point (though, of course, this is true of everything in life to some extent, but does not mean we should never take action to fix a problem), but what precisely are these terrible tradeoffs? What Wilson says is that if you forgive the debt, you’ll simply keep dictators in power and make the problem worse (there are a couple of other difficulties he points out, but this seems to be the biggest one).

He doesn’t really spell out the argument for this claim, but I would guess it would look something like this: things are so bad in these countries that the dictators are only barely clinging to power. Pretty soon, the people, tired of poverty, will rise up against them, and, then, presumably, things will get better (though I’m not sure how we can assume this, if they still have the debt burden). If we forgave the debt, however, the country would have plenty of resources for the dictator to feed upon and stay in power indefinitely, thus putting any improvement in their condition further off.
This scenario may be plausible, but it doesn’t seem much more plausible than the opposite—namely, that the only reason the dictators stay in power is that the people are too downtrodden and hungry to take any action, but that, if they were more prosperous, they would begin to find ways to reform the government. So, I’m not certain he’s wrong here, but, before dismissing Wright for failing to consider economic realities, we should do some thorough and documented study on what these economic realities are. From Wilson’s posts, though his claims may be accurate, he gives no concrete evidence from such study. In fact, the only concrete testimony on the issue is provided by Wright, who cites a number of examples demonstrating that Wilson’s prediction is false; in fact, the opposite is the case—that is, that countries that have experienced debt relief have seen rapid and very visible improvements.

Another claim worth considering is Wilson’s repeated warning against the danger of “keeping the tyrants in power.” He never really specifies what tyrants he’s talking about. Of course, there are tyrannical dictators in Africa, but the situation is not what it was thirty years ago. Sure, we hear a lot about Robert Mugabe, but that simply proves the point—if every ruler over there were a tyrant, Mugabe wouldn’t get so much press. As it is, most of the countries over there, though not under ideal government, are moving toward fairly representative governments, and are not the property of all-controlling dictators. Wright points this out in his response to Wilson.

But it seems there is another, more important point to be made in response to claims such as Wilson’s, even if all his warnings were to prove well-grounded: if we have a clear personal moral duty toward a person or group of people, their presumed response should not change our duty. If I have a neighbor with a drinking problem, and I stole $2,000 from him years ago, and am now feeling guilty about it, I cannot refuse to make restitution on the basis that he might use the money for his drinking habit. My sin is clear, my moral duty is clear, and only after I’ve fulfilled it am I in a position to look for ways to help my neighbor address his drinking problem. This debt-relief question may not be quite such an open-and-shut case, but it’s close.
In several of his posts, Wilson seems to lump together this debt relief with things like giving food aid to these countries. This is not necessarily accurate. In the case of debt relief, we are not simply doing a nice thing for these countries, not even simply doing a Biblically-mandated nice thing, but making restitution for our own sins. As Wright points out in his response, these countries weren’t simply taking a loan out from the bank—they were the victims of predatory, intentionally enslaving lending by our countries. We have a duty to repent and redress this injustice.

The root issue here is not whether the problem is complex—indeed, there are complexities, and Wilson raises other potential difficulties worth discussing—but how complexity is being appealed to. Is complexity being brought up in order to sort through it and get on with a solution, or is it being brought up as a substitute for action? That is to say, is complexity simply a shield for complacency? I am not suggesting that Doug Wilson intends to advocate complacency—he expressly says the contrary—but that appears to be the likely effect of his remarks. If someone is passionately concerned to fix a problem, they will only bring up complexity in order to set to work unraveling it and clearing a way for a solution. Wilson has not yet appeared to do that. If Wright is correct that this is a problem that urgently needs solving, our reaction should be, “Well, there’s a lot of difficulties involved here, but let’s see how we can start working through some difficulties.” It will not do to simply insist that there are difficulties, and Wright needs to do his homework, without ourselves doing the homework to show exactly where the difficulties lie.

While some of Wilson’s points need consideration and discussion (and I’ve attempted to address some of them), raising objections in the manner and tone that Wilson has may have the effect of discouraging, rather than encouraging people to solve this issue and help the needy. Whatever Wilson’s true intentions, the reader cannot help but come away with the impression that Wright is thoughtfully and passionately concerned to implement the gospel mandate, while Wilson is content to leave us with the reassurance that we’d better sit back and wait for some realistic agenda to appear.

“Then He will say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’
“Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
“And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”

Yes, we should be prudent, we should be thoughtful, but we should fear this condemnation enough that we never use that as an excuse for inaction. After all, Christ never says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, for I was needy, and you did not take all the necessary economics courses before proposing a solution for Me.”

I have one other note to make on the appeal to prudence in the face of complexity.
We must take care that this be an appeal to Biblical wisdom, not worldly wisdom, in the face of complexity. We must remember that the “foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” If an appeal to think through the issues more simply means to act in light of contemporary economic wisdom, then I fear we will stand condemned. This is not to say we should blindly pursue self-destructive policies, but that we should carefully examine our motivations for calls to be “sensible” in our search for solutions.

Again, my purpose here is not to “take on” Doug Wilson, because his response to Wright is not unique, but is fairly typical in our circles. But I have come to believe that we in Reformed circles need to be shaken up a bit and brought to terms with the mandate for justice that Wright is espousing, and, as postmillennialists, we should believe that effective action is possible. I hope that this discussion stimulates those in our communities, whichever “side” they are on, to take this issue seriously and find opportunities to make Biblical relief of the oppressed a reality in our world.

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