Monday, July 28, 2003

The Grand Conspiracy

I talked previously about the book I am currently reading (Captain America and the Crusade against Evil -- The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence) and how it talks about the competing forces of zealotry and realism in American political life (actually, all political life, not just American). There is a fascinating chapter that discusses the phenomena of the Grand Conspiracy. This is the belief that all of the evils that beset us are actually just manifestations of a Grand Conspiracy of evil that seeks nothing less then the destruction of all that is good in the world. All the lesser conspiracies of evil are all just manifestations of this Grand Conspiracy and are instigated by the Grand Conspirator (Satan). The Grand Conspiracy theory has held sway in many cultures at many times and usually leads to crusades by the Chosen People against the Agents Of Evil. The theory being that, if the Chosen People could just wipe out the Agents Of Evil, then a paradise on earth would be ushered in, as promised to us so many times in prophecy. The problem with this theory is that the actual crusades never quite work out as well as planned (it worked so well in Vietnam, no?) and often, if not always, lead to even worse evils. Jewett and Lawrence have identified the flaw in this reasoning to be the arrogant presumption that any of us can possibly assume the mantle of God and purge the world of its evil influences. To do so IS a form of idolatry, but in this case the graven image we create is the idea that we have the power to destroy the evil doers. Idolatry is one of the big no-nos in monotheistic tradition quite simply because it encourages the arrogant presumption of God-like powers by mere mortals. It is when we begin to think that we have the right to judge and punish in God's name that we tend to commit the worst sorts of evil. Jewett and Lawrence have also identified the contrary tradition to this form of zealotry. They call it Prophetic Realism and they identify Jesus as one of its greatest proponents. The chapter on the Grand Conspiracy ends with their exegis of Jesus's message to his followers. Jesus lived at a time when Jewish zealotry was rampant and growing in influence. This zealotry pushed the idea that if the Jews could just rise up and purge the holy land of the Roman occupiers and all other Gentiles then, once again, paradise on earth would be achieved. All that was needed was the messiah who would lead the armies of God. Jesus was NOT the messiah they were expecting. Far from preaching the sword he instead preached to the Israelis that they should "fight" their enemies with love instead of hate. Jesus understood that the zealotry that was then rampant would eventually destroy and scatter the Jewish people (thus his prediction of the eventual destruction of the temple). His message was that the only way to save themselves was to leave it to God to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Jewett and Lawrence illustrate this via the story of the three temptations of Jesus which I'd like to quote extensively:
Jesus worked out his radical break with the popular myths of his time in a fundamental way in the temptation experience early in his ministry, which he later apparently told to his disciples in parabolic form. The parable portrayed the devil as a tempter who set the seductive motifs of the grand conspiracy before Jesus as strategies for ushering in the kingdom. Jesus' first temptation was to use divine power to eliminate the evil of poverty. To "turn stones into bread" would be to fulfill the pardisiacal conditions that the zealots were envisioning after the destruction of Satan's hordes, who they thought were taking food from the mouths of Jewish children. Jesus rejected this temptation as a demonic urge to transcend the human situation: we do not overcome the problems of life by eliminating evil but by living in the midst of it through faith in God's word: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that God utters" (Matt 4:4). Jesus' second temptation was to be given assurance in advance about the outcome of his ministry: to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple to test whether the angels will "bear you up" is to gain precisely the kind of certainty that the grand conspiracy seemed to offer. Jesus judge this, too, to be a demonic distortion of the finite situation of humans in relation to God's future: "Scripture says again, 'You are not to put the Lord your God to the test'" (Matt. 4:7). The ideals of the great crusade against the sources of evil, in which victory is assured in advance no matter what the odds, are crumbling here under the impact of divine reality. And Jesus struck the final blow when, in the third temptation, he rejected the theocratic dream itself: the rule of the entire world by the saints after the demise of Satan. He equated falling prey to such a dream with worshiping the demonic. "Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory. 'All these,' he said, 'I will give to you, if you will only fall down and do me homage. But Jesus said, 'Begone, Satan! for it is written, "You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone"'" (Matt. 4:8-10). This is a penetrating and comprehensive rebuttal of the theology of the grand conspiracy. Jesus has exposed its subtle distortions of God's will into a graven image of human dreams, its flagrant violation of respect for God's open future, and its pretensions of being virtuous enough to carry out God's rule on earth. But most shocking of all, he has denoted as demonic not the presumed source of evil in the form of foreign conspiracies but rather the very belief in the theology of the grand conspiracy itself! The mystique of evil, which has fascinated true believers from Daniel to the John Birch Society, from the Book of Revelation to the Left Behind novels and videos, Jesus has deftly set aside and replaced with a realistic appraisal of the moral depravity of a particular political program. What is demonic is not some alien conspiracy against the good but rather the religious and political perversions by those who presume to act on God's behalf.
Now that's an interpretation of this story that I have never heard before, but it truly fits into a wider picture of the message of Jesus (and Mohammed as well, who also preached against those who would presume that they had the right to arbitrate God's will). There is evil in the world and it must be resisted lest it destroy us. But evil comes in many forms, one of which is the presumption that we can assume the mantle of holy crusaders to eliminate God's enemies from the world. God can certainly take care of those enemies without our assistance. To march off to destroy the evil-doer is to, in essence, tell God that we are tired of waiting for him to do it and we are going to take matters into our own hands. We must resist evil. But we cannot destroy it. That is God's option alone and he, for whatever reason, has chosen not to. Who are we to say he made the wrong choice?


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