Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Consider this a dangerous post, and a post that will be easily misunderstood. For here I am about to make a point that explores a biblical theme and apply it to today. But in so doing, I am “holding other things equal”—a technique which examines a certain aspect of a problem and focuses on that one thing, while not denying that other factors and issues are also at work.
As such this form of argumentation (ceteris paribus – other things being equal) requires a kind of sophistication on the part of a listener (or reader) that in the wider culture is not much in evidence today. Most often today people hear a point and absolutize what the speaker is saying, or presume the speaker means the point in an absolute way, with no distinctions or exceptions or acknowledgment that other factors are also at work. And this is a lack of sophistication since people seldom speak in absolute terms with no exceptions or distinctions. On the other hand a speaker, teacher or writer cannot speak to every possible scenario and so speaks of general principles, with the understanding that circumstances may vary, or, as the old commercials said, “mileage may vary.” And this what it means to hold “other things equal.”
So allow me to make a dangerous and controversial point about the increasing violence we in the West are experiencing from radical Islamists. It is a point that I do not mean absolutely. Neither do I propose it as the only explanation for our troubles today. The main goal here is to explore a biblical theme of how God explains some of the hatred and violence from enemies, and to show that it has something to say for the violence and instability of our times.
Simply put, part of the explanation is that God is permitting increased violence, and not restraining it, as a kind of chastisement on the increasingly secular West for our unbelief. This is a common biblical theme developed by the Prophets to explain to Israel why and how God had allowed the Syrians and Babylonians to wreak terrible suffering on Israel and Judah.
This prophetic tradition actually began in the Book of Moses. Consider this passage from Deuteronomy 32 in which God warns what will happen to an unbelieving nation:
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. “The Lord saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
‘And I will heap disasters upon them; I will spend my arrows on them…Outside the sword shall bereave, and indoors terror, for young man and woman alike, the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
“For this is a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them. How they could have chased a thousand and two have put ten thousand to flight, if their Rock had not sold them, if the Lord had not given them up! (Deuteronomy 32:18-25)
Now this is a very common biblical theme echoed by almost every prophet. Violent wrath from one’s enemies is to some extent a punishment permitted by God due to sin and unbelief among his people. The passage above makes that very case.
Now some may indignantly ask, “Is this not to blame the victim?” To some extent it is. It does not mean that those who die are more to blame than others. Neither does it mean that there would be no violent attacks at all if we as a nation were holier. But, other things being equal, the biblical tradition does indicate a correlation between violent attacks and a permitted punishment of God due to sin and unbelief. And such a correlation or connection is surely made above.
The basic Riv (or argument) and plan of God has the following elements:
- Israel has become: unmindful of God, provocatively sinful, perverse, and unfaithful, devoid of counsel and lacking in understanding.
- As such God will seek to purify them and draw them back by punishing them, making them jealous as they see blessing and victories go to others. God will permit violence and the sword to reach them in more numerous ways and sadly even the young and very old will suffer this.
- And the way he will do this is to make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
And for us today, much of the passage above fits. We have become, collectively, unmindful of God. We have pushed him to the peripheries. Secularism is rampant; church attendance is at an all-time low. And even for those who do believe, there is a widespread tendency among many to engage in a kind of false religion which features a designer god, a god of their own making and understanding, who just happens to agree with them on everything. The Scriptures call this idolatry. Those who worship the God who reveals himself in Scripture are fewer and fewer. So we are an unbelieving and increasingly unfaithful nation.
And we are perverse. Indeed almost every kind of perversity is on display and worse yet is approved and even celebrated by many. We have aborted more than 50 million of our children. Promiscuity is rampant, as is cohabitation, divorce, and the outright celebration of homosexual acts by many. Whereas such things used to cause shock and shame, today they are openly approved and made the stuff of entertainment. A recent television show featured a woman getting an abortion with the song “Silent Night” playing. This is not only perverse; it is blasphemous.
And we are devoid of counsel and lacking in understanding. There are few today who either counsel or will be counseled. Even those who would counsel are weak and timid. Pulpits are silent. So are kitchen tables and other parental forums. And those priests and parents who do seek to give counsel are often resisted and even punished for their admonitions. Understanding too is on vacation since few really understand what ails us and why it is wrong. Even many who would defend the faith do not often understand what is taught or how to coherently apply the faith to life. Catechesis and teaching of basic virtue has been on vacation for so long that many do not even know the questions, let alone seek answers.
And all of this exists in a kind of stubbornly unrepentant way. Beyond a small and faithful remnant and a small but steady stream of conversions, there is in the wider culture a stubborn refusal to change. Indeed there is a doubling down of our culture into deeper sin and defiance.
And thus the text said of ancient Israel, as us as well that God will trouble us with those who are no people; and those who are a foolish nation. It is an interesting fact that most of those who terrorize us are not from any particular nation. While many have Arab names, they actually come from all over. We are not under attack by a nation per se, but a philosophy or religion that is interpreted in the extreme. And the people who do this do not come from one nation. We are not under attack by Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, or Syria. Those who attack us come from all over, even from places like England and the U.S. They subscribe to a radical sort of Islam, and confederate under coalitions called ISIS, al Qaeda and so forth. But they are a “no people” in the sense that they are not a stable nation. At least not yet.
And what of them being a foolish nation? Here some care is required. In American English foolish means a form of being stupid, confused, immature or knuckle-headed. But in the biblical tradition to be “foolish” meant that one did not partake in God’s revealed wisdom. The foolish were the unwise. It did not mean they were stupid or unable to mount a very serious opposition that was strong and organized. Ancient Assyria and Babylon did not participate in God’s revealed wisdom but they were not stupid or disorganized.
And in this we must give our current opponents credit for a kind of dedication, determination and organization that we often lack. We have become soft, and our core beliefs in the decadent West are almost non-existent. Practically the only virtues left are tolerance and being nice. Just about every other value and virtue are up for sale or away on vacation. What is the average American willing to die for today? Almost nothing. What is the average American willing to make sacrifices for? Little else than the material possessions tucked under the notion of the “American Dream.”
Collectively we lack resolve. Our leaders are cautious and think more about reelection than what is right or courageous. We are even scared to try and identify the enemy lest we be accused of “profiling.” We are fretful, anxious, dominated by political correctness, and locked into decadent distractions like sports, shopping and frivolous entertainment. Meanwhile we face opponents with most if not all of the virtues we lack, but sadly they possess them for evil purposes.
Yes, God is troubling us with those who are “no people” and a “foolish” nation. They live stealthily among us, emerge as if out of nowhere, and strike with a ruthlessness that shocks us even more because we are soft and schooled in the happy ending philosophy of life. And their wickedness is intense because they are a foolish nation (i.e. not partaking of God’s revealed wisdom), and thus they lack any of the Christian notions of the sacredness of human life and that outright murder cannot be justified. Hating our decadence and perceiving that are soft, they exploit our weakness.
Yet we are weak, soft and decadent, because collectively we have forsaken God and have become perverse and lacking in counsel or understanding. We are an easy target.
But God says above, How they could have chased a thousand and two have put ten thousand to flight, if their Rock had not sold them, if the Lord had not given them up! And why did he do this to ancient Israel? Because they needed the punishment to avoid something even worse: Hell. It is surely the same for us. Once a flawed but Christian nation, now we are increasingly just a flawed and stubborn one, and many of us may well be heading for Hell. Time for strong medicine? You decide.
Am I blaming the victim? Yes, to some extent and other things being equal; and not the individual victims, but the collective victim: the decadent West of which I am a part. Yes, we share blame for what is happening to us. There are many factors at work in the current terror, but among them we cannot neglect the consistent biblical message that sin makes us weak and an easy target. At a certain point God hands us over to experience the fuller consequences of our rejection of his plan.
This does not give any approval to the evil acts, or to those that perpetrate them or to the doctrines of demons that inspire them. The perpetrators are wicked and will answer to God for what they have done.
And for us, the way back is clear enough: The Lord says, Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. But Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes (Psalm 81:11-14)
Or again, Oh, that my peoples hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! (Dt 5:29)
Or Yet again, If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chron. 7:14)