Herman Cohen, a Jewish philosopher, believed that despite centuries of persecution in Europe, the Jews should forget about establishing a homeland of their own. Instead, he argued, they should take the great legacy bequeathed to them from the Hebrew Scriptures—the legacy of ethical monotheism—and, using those lofty ideals, work to better their respective communities, wherever they were. For Cohen (who died in 1918), one country in particular, in the heart of Europe, offered the perfect environment for his utopian vision. This was a country where the Jews, having already had a long history there, would not only be fully accepted but would be free to play a pivotal role in creating a just and prosperous society, a country that, surely, could stand as a model for what the Jews could become in Europe.
Which country was that?
Though having lived in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area for almost 35 years, I never tire of downtown D.C.: the museums, the mammoth government buildings of hammered stone and pillars, the memorials. I love them all. One of my favorite spots is the tidal basin, and its cherry trees, gifts from Japan in 1912, a symbol of the “eternal friendship” between the two nations. In 2004, a new memorial went up, only 200 yards away—to (among other things) Pearl Harbor.
In his memoir A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo wrote about the idealism of his youth, and—responding to John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”—thought that he could do something for his country by fighting in Vietnam. Before long, his officers were offering grunts beer for every Viet Cong they killed. “That is the level to which we had sunk from the lofty idealism of a year before,” he wrote. “We were going to kill people for a few cans of beer and the time off to drink it.”
Forgive my cynicism. On second thought, don’t. I mean, how many years elapsed from the Wright brothers’ historic first flight in a fixed wing aircraft to when Lieutenant Giulio Gavoritti (flying over a Turkish military base in Libya) threw four grenades over the side of the plane—the world’s first aerial bombardment?
Perhaps getting sick of themselves, humans have on occasion believed that they could better the species. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for instance, many of Europe’s intellectual class thought that reason and natural philosophy, unencumbered by religion and superstition (which, back then, were not always easy to disentangle), could lead to a new and improved human product. One ebullient exponent of this new optimism was Marie Jean Antoine de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794). Enamored by the early promises of the French Revolution, Condorcet wrote eloquently and passionately about the potential of human progress, claiming that “the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite.” Reason and philosophy would lead, he prophesied, to the emancipation of women, to the doubling, even tripling, of human life spans, to the freedom of workers, and to the end of all wars until, he wrote, “the sun will observe free nations only, acknowledging no other master than their reason.”
How ironic, and painfully telling, that having composed such paeans to human moral progress, Condorcet would have to poison himself rather than get his head lopped off by the very revolution founded on the principles of the “absolutely indefinite” perfectibility of humanity that he had espoused.
Even something as divine as the gospel gets contaminated by us. “What a pity,” wrote Anne Dillard, “that so hard on the heels of Christ came the Christians.” Forgetting the Peter-as-first-Pope hooey, if we use the starting point of 538. A.D. for the 1260 years of papal persecution (Rev. 11:2; 12:6; Dan. 7:25)—the 2,000 years of Christian history has been dominated, to one degree or another, for about 1,500 of those years by the anti-Christ. Meanwhile, Protestantism, around for only a third of that time, hasn’t always been all sweetness and light, either. I mean, the Germany that gave us Lutheranism later gave us Nazism, and what does it say about what humans have done to the teachings of Jesus that it took a bunch of Northern Jews and Unitarians in the 1950s and 1960s to get Christians in the American South to begin treating fellow human beings with dark skin even somewhat according to those teachings?
“And what more shall I say? for time would fail me to tell of” (Heb. 11:32, KJV) even a shadow of the human nastiness that I know or have even partaken of, in contrast to all I don’t know and couldn’t bear if I did. Yet, what? The gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, reveals that God in Christ bore in Himself, on the cross, the punishment for all our nastiness, for even worse than our nastiness—from Adam and Eve in Eden until the last sin of the last sinner. No wonder it killed Him. The depth of our evil is exposed by the cost necessary, the self-sacrifice of one equal with God Himself, to save us from it.
Sorry, but even if we were to stop sinning, or to become great friends with God, these goals can no more make us right with God than perfuming a pig can make it kosher.
Not long ago, re-reading an old on-line thread, I came across a post. Man, I thought, what nasty, hateful wretch wrote that? only to realize when I got to the end—it was me.
I know whereof I speak.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.