Yesterday, as I read the president’s inaugural remarks (I don’t watch TV), I felt little joy or enthusiasm. Why, I thought, can’t I join in the festive celebration and praise this encomium to “liberty” and “freedom”?
Was it because, as the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan put it, Mr. Bush seemed “over the top”? Or were my qualms rooted in the speech’s adulation of the state? As Peter Robinson noted in the National Review:
The speech was in almost no way that of a conservative. To the contrary. It amounted to a thoroughgoing exaltation of the state.
Bush has just announced that we must remake the entire third world in order to feel safe in our own homes, and he has done so without sounding a single note of reluctance or hesitation. This overturns the nation’s fundamental stance toward foreign policy since its inception. Washington warned of “foreign entanglements.” The second President Adams asserted that “we go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” During the Cold War, even Republican presidents made it clear that we played our large role upon the world stage only to defend ourselves and our allies, seeking to changed the world by our example rather than by force.
My reluctance to join in the excitement was based on none of these observations. My concerns are, at the heart of the matter, theological and not political.
My attitude toward civil government is grounded on what the apostle Paul teaches about the depravity of man. This teaching allows us to see through the fallacies contained in such statements that, if only all men would live up to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom of God would be realized on earth. The Christian Gospel is not to be found in the Sermon on the Mount but rather in Paul’s proclamation of justification by faith and by grace. Man is basically incapable of saving himself, and that is why it is such “Good News” that God sent His Son into the world to save the world.
If men cannot save themselves, still less can they save the world or usher in the kingdom of God, however hard they try. Remember this the next time you hear a president say, “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.” The best of our accomplishments are tainted by our egotism and pride, however pure we may look from the outside. As Alec Vidler once put it, “It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences” (Secular Despair and Christian Faith, p. 22).
And so, while Christians will do all the good they can for society, they do not do so with any pretentious claim that they are creating a new world. I agree with Mark Jurries who recently said:
The Middle East will see no peace until it embraces the Gospel. (I include Israel in that; there seem to be some evangelicals who have forgotten that Israel is as pagan as its neighbors.) The military is made to break things, not to fix them and certainly not to build them. The new-world-order types may mean well, but they’ll only become tyrants themselves if they follow this course.
I must confess that to me the effusive praise for the president’s speech is reminiscent of the Ephesian demonstrators who cried out “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” for two hours. Of course, the cult of Diana was utterly repugnant to the apostle Paul. For him the only real God was the holy, living, eternal Being of whom it was said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” All the ancient gods were but fantasy and folly.
I suppose that some might think I’m being a bit too somber. I can see their point. I would like to think, however, that I am being sober, not somber. I have often pointed out to my New Testament students how Paul constantly had to tell his converts to think soberly, probably because they were liable to become over-excited. At any rate, I believe that every Christian should be able to agree that “Here we have no lasting kingdom, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). I see this verse as a healthy antidote to all forms of utopianism, including “triumphalistic Americanism.” If the early church “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6), it was not by advancing democracy and freedom at the point of the sword but by preaching the Gospel.
I shall always fear for my country as long as she fails to grapple with the sober truth that there is only one remedy for man’s enslavement, and that remedy is to be found in the Gospel and not in the efforts of men. It occurred to me as I read the president’s speech that perhaps this remedy, so desperately needed in the first century, is no less desperately needed today in the world of 2005.
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book is Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.
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