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Mark Tooley on Liberal Theology & September 11
On September 11, thousands of Americans were murdered by fascist terrorists who seek to extinguish free speech, reduce women to robed chattel, drive out all infidels, and stone to death all the adulterers and sodomites. Liberal churches and their spokesmen might be expected to be outraged about such an incident, but their anger has been strangely missing or muted.
Of course, they conveyed their shock at the attacks and their grief at the loss of life. But many on the Religious Left treat the butchery of September 11 as merely a “tragedy,” on par with a massive earthquake, a famine, or a disease epidemic.
In their statements, they avoid dwelling on the awful details of the event: the numbers of dead and the manner of their death, the identity and motives of the attackers. Perhaps because these religious leaders are so worried about their fellow Americans being consumed by bloodlust and vengeance, they do not allow themselves any thoughts that might stimulate such base instincts.
They hurry to issue calls for “healing,” “reconciliation,” and a renewed determination to build “community” before they have even assessed the forces that disrupted the community. Without troubling themselves to find the proximate causes of the terrorist attacks, they are eager to identify the “root causes” of terrorism. Predictably, these root causes are not radical Islam but rather US foreign policy.
The liberal church officials have called for “justice” to be administered to the terrorists. But they instantly ruled out any US military response. Several denounced the US actions in Afghanistan. “Justice” in their minds seems to mean United Nations resolutions and possibly a trial before an international tribunal. Perhaps a delegation could be sent to Afghanistan to hand Mr. bin Laden a polite note: “Would you please come with us to the Hague? We’re sure the handcuffs will not be necessary.”
One official has actually suggested that all “punishment” is a form of “violence” and therefore unacceptable. He favored a public confrontation between victims and perpetrators. In Oprah Winfrey style, the victims would “share their feelings” with the terrorists. Perhaps the perpetrators would not repent, he admitted, but at least the confrontation might be an example to others. Of course, at least 3,000 victims and 19 terrorists would be unable to attend.
Many liberal church leaders have wondered how the United States could be so hated. And they know the answer to their own question: Of course, the cause for such hatred must be US support for Israel, US-led sanctions against Iraq, and centuries of Western “intervention” in the Middle East. It is convenient that Osama bin Laden’s pet peeves about America so neatly mirror their own.
The bishops of the Episcopal Church, along with a United Methodist official, have even likened the assaults of September 11 to the deaths of children around the world from malnutrition, which they regard as morally equivalent to terrorism. The implication is that terrorism, like famine, can be handled by stepped-up international good will. They imply that terrorism, as well as famine, is fueled by Western greed and callousness.
Religious leaders have, appropriately, expressed concern that Muslims and Arabs in America not be targeted by vigilantes. They have also, more dubiously, suggested that such private, racist vengeance is common in America, a land already supposedly teeming with “hate crimes.” Of course, they don’t realize the irony that September 11 was itself an unprecedented hate crime. The victims were targeted simply because they were Americans, not because they belonged to any particular racial or religious group.
These officials, leaders of Christian Churches, say almost no word of concern about Christians in Islamic countries, whose situation was already precarious and will grow still worse if bin Laden’s form of Islam gains influence. But then, in the minds of liberal church leaders, Christians are the oppressors rather than the oppressed.
The Left’s Confusion
For decades, liberal church leaders in America made excuses for the misdeeds of the Soviet Union and its allies. But at least in that case they actually sympathized with Marxism’s stated egalitarian aims. Their apologies for the harsh realities of Communist rule, however deplorable, at least made some sense.
Surely these liberal church leaders have nothing in common with extremist Islam. Nothing except its passionate anti-Americanism. But even anti-Americanism cannot fully explain the odd, inconsistent responses of the Religious Left to September 11. There are theological reasons for this confusion, and they can be summarized in the following ways.
First, liberal church leaders do not believe in Original Sin, or at the very least de-emphasize it. Hence, people will not kill unless provoked. Unprovoked evil, if performed by individuals, can only be explained as a psychological dysfunction for which therapy is the remedy.
Second, for the Religious Left, sin is more institutional than personal. Sin is found in “structures of oppression,” i.e., in Western civilization with its associated imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. Militarism, racism, sexism, and homophobia are all “demonic,” although liberal churchmen certainly do not believe in Satan or demons in a supernatural sense.
Third, liberal church leaders believe that hatred arises only in situations of inequality and injustice. If an embassy is burned, a pizzeria is bombed, or a plane is hijacked, it can only be because the terrorists feel incredible “pain” inflicted on them by powerful and oppressive forces. Their violent response is perhaps not justified, but it certainly is understandable, in light of what has been done to them.
In contrast, the Scriptures warn that doing good can often arouse great hatred. The Church’s Founder was crucified for his goodness. But a negative response to goodness can be fully explained only by Original Sin, which liberal church leaders reject or minimize.
Fourth, liberal church leaders drape nearly all developing countries, indigenous peoples, and anti-Western “liberation movements” with a mantle of holiness. These persons are all victims and in need of endless redress and apology. That developing nations are themselves divided among many ethnic groups that have conquered and exploited each other is not acknowledged. It is assumed that they are poor and powerless only because they have been victimized by the United States and other Western powers.
Naturally these indigenous peoples are angry, the liberal church leaders intone. We (the West) should share their anger and plead for forgiveness. This cosmology of oppressed versus the oppressor has, within liberal Christianity, replaced the more traditional cosmology of God’s Church going out into a fallen world.
Fifth, the Religious Left holds all warfare and violence to be morally equal, and therefore equally unacceptable. There is little difference between a terrorist and a soldier defending his country, between a criminal and the police officer attempting to nab him. This is a soft form of pacifism that has little relation to the more tough-minded, sacrificial pacifism that has always been one current within traditional Christianity.
The refusal to allow legitimate authorities to wield the sword, no matter how extreme the threat, is once again evidence of a denial of sin’s power in the world. It should also be noted that these same liberal Christians were largely mum about the violence of Third World “liberation movements” during the 1970s and 1980s, when liberation theology was the fad of their seminaries and agencies. Their abhorrence of violence is not always consistent.
Sixth, liberal religious leaders turn to dialogue and reconciliation as the answer to every earthly conflict. In their minds, every conflict can be resolved because God’s “realm” will be built and completed through human efforts.
Traditional Christians find wisdom and patience in realizing that their calling is more humble: to seek some provisional measures of peace and justice, pending their full realization at the Second Coming of Christ. Liberal Christians, rejecting the Second Coming as a literal event, reinterpret it as the broad, unfolding fulfillment of their own yearnings for utopia.
Seventh, liberal church leaders seem unable to say that Western liberal democracy is superior to the various despotisms that plague so much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Perhaps this reticence is related to their equal reluctance to proclaim Jesus Christ as superior to all other putative saviors, and the gospel of Christ as superior to all human ideologies and religions. The leftist commitment to relativism and “multiculturalism” is so complete that these leaders must overlook the testimony of their own experience of democracy, as well as ignore the theological confessions that they have vowed to uphold.
Similarly, liberal church leaders reflexively oppose Israel, and not only because it is democratic and seen as part of the West. More powerfully, it is an unwelcome reminder of “the scandal of particularity”: that God reveals himself most fully by intervening in human history at particular times and places using particular individuals.
Liberal Christianity, which rests its hopes on a constantly improving humanity, is driven to universalize and allegorize the complex biblical story of a rebellious chosen people who were God’s instruments for fallen humanity’s eventual redemption. It is therefore enormously convenient for leftist ecclesiastics to accept the Muslim scapegoating of today’s Israel.
Finally, church leftists are more comfortable preaching love at the most abstract levels—love of a vague, disembodied God and love of “humanity”—than in preaching the more particular loves of family, community, country, and church. In their statements, the subordinate loves are suspected of detracting from the larger loves, stimulating hatred for those whose families, communities, countries, and religions are different.
Patriotism is thus a form of idolatry that must be smashed in favor of loyalty to a utopian, unitary world order. Affirmations of marriage and family are branded as “intolerant,” because they might convey disapproval of non-marital sex. And concern for persecuted Christians overseas ought to be downplayed, lest it nourish hostility to other religions.
The inability of liberal church leaders to understand, describe, digest, and confront the events of September 11 will perhaps play some role in exposing the false promises and premises of twentieth-century revisionist Christianity. Christ prophesied that his followers would often be “sheep among wolves.” Liberal Christianity, unable even to distinguish between the sheep and the wolves, much less to think about defending the sheep from the wolves, seems to have reached another dead end.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.