In today’s Boston Globe James Carroll writes a startling column showing the mind of the Christian pacifist left. I have read no better example than this of the mindset that blames
He begins well enough, urging a more grown-up view of evil on this Halloween day:
But there is another way to think of evil, finding it in the juncture between individual freedom and social context. The story of Genesis posits the malevolent serpent, but what ruined
Paradisewas not the serpent but the option made in its favor by Adam and Eve. What follows such choice is always unforeseen, but its dynamic is inevitable: Choice leads to consequence, which leads to new and graver choice, which leads in turn to yet graver consequence, and so on. A train of action-reaction is set in motion that quickly outpaces the ability of any one person to slow it.
This phenomenon can take the form of the ”grooved thinking” of a bureaucracy or of the ”institutional culture” that trumps even the good intentions of those who operate within it. Every human choice is made inside a rushing current of prior choices, and the pressure is not good.
Fair enough. We all know that both poor choices (as well as choosing evil) have infinite and unforeseen consequences, and in our lifetime there is no shortage of murderous bureaucracies. But then James drives off the road:
spoke of the ”wiles of the devil,” but his defining metaphor for evil was systemic, not personal. ”For we are not contending against flesh and blood,” he wrote, ”but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness.” For Paul, the enemy was not fallen angels, but ”sovereignties” which are hostile to humanity. He was talking about Roman tyrants and an uncaring imperial bureaucracy. He was talking about politics. Saint Paul
Systemic, yes indeed! Political, no, at least not in this context. This is the very sort of wacky exegesis that Carroll would mock should it be done by an uneducated fundamentalist. He is quoting Ephesians 6:10-17:
Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all (the) flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
There is no shortage of political text and subtext in the Bible, but this is a strange text to pick out as political. The New American Bible has a note here, which directly contradicts Carroll’s interpretation, as does the Jerome Biblical Commentary on Ephesians (which is not online). Carroll takes this misinterpretation and uses it to justify his own cultural self-hatred (emphasis mine):
An unprecedented American momentum toward war was unleashed in the 20th century, its destructive energy fueled by the heat of an unchecked nuclear arsenal. That momentum defines the nation now, and, for the first time in history, threatens the very earth. The principalities and powers are us. In the name of the fight against evil, good people established the ”sovereignty” of a militarized culture, laying bare the darkest mystery of all: What we construct to oppose evil involves us in it. Having armed evil with the nuclear bomb, we have made evil more sovereign than ever.
If only there were a devil to exorcise or a witch to burn. If only there were an axis of evil to oppose.
Is it any more responsible to see evil only in one’s own culture than it is to see it only in others? I think not at all. Rather, both attitudes show an appalling lack of perspective. Self-righteousness leads to xenophobia and war-mongering while self-hatred leads to pacifism in the face of evil.
It is inevitable that “what we construct to oppose evil involves us in it” because that is a result of the human condition, not something unique to Americans. Yet as humans, we cannot live without making such choices or passively without taking any actions. Furthermore, Carroll is breathtakingly arrogant in simply assuming the world at large shares his own dim view of his country. I am reminded of Frost writing in the 1920s:
…How are we to write
The Russian novel in
As long as life goes so unterribly?
There is the pinch from which our only outcry
In literature to date is heard to come.
We get what little misery we can
Out of not having cause for misery.
It makes the guild of novel writers sick
To be expected to be Dostoievskis
On nothing worse than too much luck and comfort.
This is not sorrow, though; it’s just the vapors,
And recognized as such in
Under the new regime, and so forbidden.
If well it is with
, then feel free Russia
To say so or be stood against the wall
And shot. It’s Pollyanna now or death.
This, then, is the new freedom we hear tell of;
And very sensible. No state can build
A literature that shall at once be sound
And sad on a foundation of well-being.