Monday, July 21, 2003

Book Recommendation

I am currently reading a fascinating book called Captain America and the Crusade against Evil -- The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence. Jewett and Lawrence argue in their book that American political history has been dominated at various times by two conflicting biblical traditions. The first is zealous nationalism, a tradition that "seeks to redeem the world by destroying enemies." The second is Prophetic Realism, a tradition that "seeks to redeem the world for coexistence by impartial justice that claims no favored status for individual nations." America is a study in conflicting personalities. At times it wants to be that "shining city on the hill" that is an example to the rest of the world of how to live. At other times it simply wants to "rid the world of evil doers" in the zealous belief that doing so will usher in the eternal peace of the kingdom of God. The problem, of course, with the latter belief is that it never quite seems to work and ultimately leads to a dispirited sense that America has lost its way which can then lead to a new revival of the zealous spirit to go out and try it again but this time do it right. What I find interesting about this book is the sense I have that the tendency towards zealous nationalism is almost unavoidable given our human desire to meet out justice to wrong doers. That desire is often frustrated by the practical limitations of day-to-day life and that frustration eventually boils over into a feverish zealotry that often results in even more injustice. Yet can such zealotry ever be defeated purely by rational arguments? I think not and Jewett and Lawrence seem to argue the same thing. Instead what appears to be needed is the continued development and support of a prophetic realism that will counter our natural zealous tendencies. In a way, the only argument that seems to win out over a religiously inspired sense of "being on a mission from God" is to also appeal to a religious sense to "let God's will be done" but to not become so arrogant as to presume that we can ever know what God's will is. I've been thinking long and hard about this over the last several years and it seems to me that one of the most important, yet least appreciated, of the ten commandments is the commandment against idolatry. I think many people forget this commandment because they are under the mistaken impression that it is an obsolete rule that applied primarily to a time when the early Israelites were fighting against "heathen idolaters" who were occupying the Promised Land. But idolatry is not simply a matter of graven images. It is an insidious idea that presumes that man has the ability to create any artifice, whether it is stone, wood, or even mere thought, that could contain the magnificence of God. Indeed, idolatry, in its most basic form, is an attempt by man to control the powers of God and make them submit to man's will. The heresy in presuming that we can identify and quantify God's will is the heresy that says that man can be equal to God. I think THAT is what the second commandment is all about. The first commandment tells us not to put any god's on the same footing with God. The second commandment tells us not to put OURSELVES on his level as well. The zealot presumes that he can understand God's will. The zealot mistakes his own will for the divine Will and that ultimately leads to the destruction of the zealot and much of what they fought for in the first place. The problem, of course, is that the zealot cannot be dissuaded by an appeal to rationalism. Thus he must be opposed by an appeal to spirituality that is as strong as their own zealous impulses. It may be that the only way to defeat the "armies of God" is with God.


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