Letters to the Editor
The Gospel of the Bottom Line
The Rev. William H. Willimon’s article, “Beyond the Mixing of Politics & Religion” (April), suggests that organizations such as People for the American Way are crying “Foul!” at Jerry Falwell and the Christian New Right because they are “doing what the Left did so well earlier — pushing a political program upon the body politic in the name of Jesus.” Not so. People for the American Way’s problem with the New Right is the latter’s insistence that people are good Christians or bad Christians depending on their political points of view. To deem a fellow American satanic, or an opposing view “the work of the devil,” because that person or idea does not square with the political or social doctrine derived from an ultra-fundamentalist reading of inerrant Scripture is not the American way — and that is what causes us to cry “Foul!”
As for the rest of Rev. Willimon’s well-reasoned piece, this person for the American way is in complete agreement. The American predicament does indeed “require solutions that can only be described as religious, moral, and spiritual.” We do indeed require “some vision of justice beyond the limits of balanced self-interest.”
I would suggest that the central societal disease of our time is our national obsession with short-term thinking. In business, give me a profit statement this quarter larger than the last — and everything else be damned. In education, get them graduated, out of school, and to hell with whether they read or write adequately. In politics, what do the latest polls show? Who is winning and who is losing?
We are raising generations of youngsters who believe that there is nothing between winning and losing. Succeeding at the level of doing one’s best is a lesson not simply lost, society positively eschews it.
How, in Rev. Willimon’s words, can we recognize that “there is a purpose of life beyond selfish striving,” so long as leaders and institutions alike continue to preach the gospel of the bottom line?
Act III Communications Inc.
Los Angeles, California
I look after a library that has just opened here. Several readers have asked for the New Oxford Review, but we have no funds to pay for magazine subscriptions. I am wondering if some of your subscribers might be willing to send us their issues, after they are no longer needed?
Turkeys in the Pews?
James Hege’s letter to the editor (March) is a good example of what’s wrong with Catholic biblical criticism. Certainly there is a place for literary forms, cultural conditioning, etc. in biblical hermeneutics. Even evangelical Protestants attempt to interpret various books of the Bible in the manner their original authors intended — poetry as poetry, parable as parable. But biblical critics are not content with this modest agenda. They begin discerning “parable” and “myth” in the midst of passages and books which appear to be historical, appear to have been considered by their authors as historical. First they classify Old Testament books such as Jonah as non-historical. Then they move on to the New Testament. So Hege, following the critics, begins speculating that the Wise Men are perhaps a pious fiction. At this point I have to stop. If a passage appears to be historical, or is embedded in what claims to be a historical work, the burden of proof is on the skeptics to show that the passage is clearly non-factual. A passage should not be rejected simply because it contains miraculous elements.
Hege suggests that a literalist approach to Scripture is a form of covert gnosticism, denying an “incarnational theology.” It seems to me that if too much of the New Testament (or Old, for that matter) is classified as “drama, poetry, myth, epic, beast fable, parable,” the Incarnation is also undermined. If we can have no certain information about Jesus, just what do our “incarnational” claims mean?
It appears that most Catholic scholars have managed to wriggle out of what limited restraints Pope Paul VI and the Pontifical Biblical Commission placed on biblical criticism. The “nuanced” arguments by which these scholars claim to avoid the pitfalls of Modernism may be valid ones. But many of us wonder.
Are these scholars clothing their unbelief in jargon so as not to offend weaker brothers and sisters? Well, they already scandalize many, myself included. A less charitable possibility is that they wish to hide their unbelief to keep us turkeys in the pews writing checks to support their “Catholic” scholarship.
Reply to My Critics
“Seams in the Seamless Garment?” (my article in the Jan.-Feb. NOR) produced a remarkable outpouring of letters pro and con (April NOR). It is also remarkable that most of the con letters are mainly concerned with the death penalty, which would not have been so in any preceding century, causing me to reflect on the siren voice of the Spirit of the Age. I could not respond adequately to all these letters in less than an entire issue of NOR. Still, I shall attempt a brief reply to each.
To Mark Stephen Caponigro, who supplemented my account of the Battle of Marathon with a learned history of events before and after, I shall say, first, that had I wished to expand my two paragraphs into two pages or 10 (and had the editor allowed this), I too could have related all that Caponigro supplies — but not with his interpretations. The immense Persian Empire was not created without aggression, most recently in the subduing of the free Greek cities of the Ionian coast. When the great Greek city-state of Miletus rebelled and Athens sent ships and men to help their Ionian kinsmen in their fight against an aggressor, it was a generous and dangerous act without hope of gain. That Persia needed no casus belli is shown by its effort, a few years later, to conquer all of Hellas, not just Athens. And finally, if the Athenians were later corrupted by power into imperialism, the fact is totally irrelevant to the valor and idealism of the generation that fought to free Miletus and to save Athens.
To Stephen C. Settle, who invokes the horrors and moral dangers of guerilla warfare, which I am not as unaware of as he thinks, I shall say only that I ought to have made it clear that my conception was of an “underground” or dispersed-unit U.S. Army (and Navy) with trained officers who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, units under full discipline with a communications network — not predatory guerilla bands.
To Deb Langhans, who is a pacifist, I can only say that, after much hard thought, I am not a pacifist. Evil triumphs because good men do nothing. She and I must agree to differ. She calls my distinction between innocent human life and guilty human life “splitting hairs.” Then so is the difference between black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. I see the gulf between tremendous opposites, not the negligible difference that is called hairsplitting. But then my emotional sympathy is with the victim of the murderer, not the “poor old murderer.” And the whole thrust of my essay was that we must make distinctions. It is what minds are for.
To Dale Rosenberger who “nearly gagged” at my having spoken of “capital punishment as ‘upholding the sacredness of human life,’” I can but say that assiduous re-readings fail to disclose that I said any such thing. But I did say or imply that if the secular order deprives a murderer of further life, it does not deny the sacredness of human life, which I, too, believe in. And yet I also believe that a man may forfeit his otherwise absolute right or entitlement to go on living. The suicide’s life is sacred, but he forfeits, by his own act, his entitlement to continued life. Similarly, the murderer — who takes away someone else’s entitlement — forfeits, by his own act, his own entitlement. One more distinction that may commend itself to some minds is this: the sacredness of human life is one thing; the right or entitlement to go on living is quite another.
To David Shaneyfelt, who argues against capital punishment (and also to Langhans, Settle, and Rosenberger), I would say that still another distinction that must be made is that between Christian moral law, which is concerned with salvation, and the secular law, which is concerned with order. Both are necessary. With respect to the “just deserts” as the foundation of a reasonable and humane secular law, I urge the reading of C.S. Lewis’s “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (to be found in God in the Dock) before impatiently sweeping away the concept of desert. Shaneyfelt cannot imagine Christ “flipping the electric chair switch” and Langhans cannot imagine Him turning “thumbs down” on the hardened murderer. They are both giving us rather emotional images. I hope, though, that both of them can imagine Christ saying to those on His left hand, who, like the murderer, did not recognize and feed and shelter the Christ in others: “The curse is upon you; go from my sight to the eternal fires…” (Mt. 25:41). Rather a “thumbs down,” isn’t it? And the electric chair isn’t in it compared to the horror of hearing those dread words.
If capital punishment is the most likely to bring the murderer to repentance and salvation — I do say “if” — then I will choose it every time.
To all who wrote, I am grateful, and very grateful indeed to Peter Kreeft and Francis Canavan, both of whom I deeply admire and respect. To the others, though, I’m afraid I must say that if I were rewriting the essay, I should make but small changes (such as that I outlined to Settle).
But I might, if I were to rewrite it, add something else about life, God-given life, even if not sacred in the way that human life is. I might add something about the whole Creation — the birds and the beasts and the trees, and the air and the water that sustains them and us. We are stewards of the Creation, but we are marking it with ruin. We may kill the buck for food or cut down the tree to build our house, but we are despoiling the earth, destroying the last refuge of species after species and polluting the sustaining air and water — poisoning the very earth in some cases. This is not only madness. It is greed. It is sin.
Just War Criteria Ever Applied?
You have shown us two illustrious historians crossing swords over the “just war” question: Sheldon Vanauken in January-February, and Mark Stephen Caponigro in April. Being no historian myself, I would like to put a purely factual question before them and others.
In recorded history, is there a single instance of a Catholic government — or any of its subordinates — refraining from some advantageous military option on purely moral grounds?
The option can be whatever you like: an entire war, a campaign, a particular method of conducting either, a distinctive weapon, anything. What I have in mind is one specific kind of decision. “Yes, we could do that, and it would be wonderfully advantageous for ourselves. But it would be grossly immoral: we mustn’t do it.” How often — if ever — have such decisions been taken?
People talk of “Catholic tradition,” perhaps too uncritically. It seems to me that we have a centuries-old tradition of simply switching off the Catholic conscience as soon as it comes to any question of war. In 1139 the Second Lateran Council — with Pope Innocent II presiding — imposed strict limitations upon the weaponry that might be used in warfare: did anyone in Catholic Europe take the slightest notice?
Or am I painting too black a picture?
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