Despite the trend toward “collective guilt,” man is still personally responsible for his individual actions

Historians looking back on our decade may call us the generation that absolved itself of personal responsibility when collective guilt could be claimed.

The tendency is all too familiar. The assassination of President Kennedy was not, it is said, the work of a demented man: instead it was the inevitable manifestation of America’s public prejudices and private hatreds. The 1964 triple murder in Mississippi, the assault on the Reverend James Reeb in Selma, the deaths of Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels were not acts of a handful of fanatical racists: they represented American apathy over injustice that began with the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619. The Negro riots of past summers in New York, Rochester, Philadelphia, Chicago, and especially Los Angeles were not the irresponsible outburst of a minority hoodlum element: they were the justified expressions of despair at oppression by a white society that would not listen until a stunning number of adults and children lay wounded in the streets. The murder of a defenseless woman by a vicious assailant is almost lost from view in the general condemnation of the cowardly witnesses who chose not to get involved.

To be sure, these acts of violence and all such crimes against persons and the state do have general underlying causes. The incendiary literature that swept the nation during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, continued throughout President Kennedy’s three years in office, and still persists today reveals how seriously hatred has poisoned parts of American thinking. And there were surely other places in this country that might have been as dangerous to John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, as Dallas proved to be. For this the hate-mongers are culpable.

But Lee Harvey Oswald alone aimed and fired the rifle that ended President Kennedy’s life. Not the Minute Men nor Dan Smoot nor Fred Schwarz nor Billy James Hargis nor George Lincoln Rockwell nor Robert Shelton nor Cyrus Eaton nor Corliss Lamont nor Gus Hall. Whatever the influence of these spokesmen, right and left, the blame must rest on one man.

So too with the deaths of the civil rights workers. In each case, blind hatred for those who sought to overturn social inequities caused bigots to react like the primitives they are. They struck out and killed, then fled. They are the ones responsible, not the whole of Southern society.

The ghetto conditions of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, of Chicago’s South Side and Los Angeles’s Watts, are undeniably awful. Man by nature prefers kittens and parakeets to rats and cockroaches. Slum landlords, self-serving politicians, brutal police conspire against community pride. Something must indeed be done. But what? Surely stealing from neighbors is not the answer. Surely bombarding passing automobiles with bricks or shooting at will along the Harbor Freeway is not the answer. The martyrs of Mississippi and Alabama deserved a better monument than the gutted ruins of a supermarket on Avalon Boulevard, destroyed in a frenzy to be free.

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Brazen attackers are encouraged by the knowledge that a man’s concern for his own safety will often keep him from interfering in the affairs of someone else, even if that other person has been stabbed before a score of witnesses. And since skillful defense attorneys have cudgeled juries into believing themselves to be as weak as the cowards who stood by, assailants know they stand a chance of getting off lightly.

Enough of this distortion! Man is responsible for his own behavior, even if all the currents around him seem to surge toward a new morality of license and libertinism. The Nazi war criminals convicted last summer in Frankfurt, like those before them at Nuremberg, were held accountable each for himself. No man could say, “Hitler told me to do it.” The four million who died at Auschwitz were put to death by the Third Reich, yes; by the Nazi hierarchy, yes; by the orders of Adolph Hitler or of one of his stooges, yes. But the man on the scene who pulled the switch or pushed the button or fired the trigger—ultimately he must be blamed.

In Germany, such a man is still responsible. Why not in America? Because America has been weakened by a philosophy of economic and social determinism that abandons man’s relation with God and with his fellow men. We think that if a child is born and reared on East 100th Street in Manhattan, he will through no fault of his own be a parasite on society. But if he is born in Westport, Lake Forest, or San Marino, he will be a credit to society. Moreover, our decline into relativism has blurred the absolutes of our ethics and corrupted our mores. We have convinced ourselves that, in New York State, killing an armed policeman is worse than killing a helpless child, and that only that sort of crime can justify the right of the state to electrocute the guilty; and we have burdened ourselves with a stricken conscience because in the past we have settled with those who took the lives of others.

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We have been duped into believing that society is all at fault for the thousands of drug addicts who must obtain their daily supply by prostitution, theft, or murder. Our clinics and doctors, some tell us, should dispense the drugs in recommended doses.

For too many sociologists, the pat solution to mankind’s problems is to legalize the forbidden. Gambling, prostitution, abortion, and euthanasia have all been proposed as candidates for legality. The individual is freed from his obligation to the state by the state’s abrogation of its responsibility to sit in judgment. Rather than single out the individual offender, society moves to cover his crime with a blanket woven of alleged social progress and outright moral laxity.

Mankind’s collective guilt is more than a theological presupposition; it is an observable fact. But this must never obscure the greater truth for the individual; I am responsible before God and man for what I do. The alternative to acceptance of one’s own accountability is the situation that followed the fall of man in Eden, when each blamed the other. Is it any wonder that the first child of Adam and Eve asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Refusal to accept personal responsibility can have in our time only the same result it has had throughout human history—separation from God and from his goodness.

The God Nobody Wants

The “modern man” for whose sake contemporary theologians reject historic Christianity and substitute an alternative has no objective “identity.” As Professor Kenneth Hamilton, of the United College faculty in Winnipeg, Manitoba, observes in a new paperback (Revolt Against Heaven, published by Eerdmans), theologians disagree among themselves on what modernity demands—dialectical theology, existentialism, linguistic theology, the “death of God,” or whatever else. Each faddist says that those who advocate rival views are guilty of self-deception.

Lacking is an agreed standard of meaning. The frontier movements seek an antisupernaturalist “theology of meaningfulness” and refer the term “God” to man and the world. They reject not only a God “up there” (precluded by Copernicus) but a God “out there” or independent of the cosmos (precluded by naturalistic philosophy). Instead, God is found “down here” or “in here” in the depths of everyday non-religious experience—a theological turn that earlier Christians would have deplored as a reduction of deity to illusion. No genuine continuity remains between the God of traditional Christianity and this “god of the depths.”

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Hamilton exposes the long series of deviant theologians who have sought to make Christianity understandable to the contemporary mind by naturalizing it. And he rightly protests that they beg the question of a criterion of meaning.

For the present generation the dialectical theology has largely determined the background of debate, but concern for a theology of meaningfulness really reaches far into the past. Returning to the kind of rationalism characteristic of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the frontier theologians enthrone an earthbound god. But their vaunted immanence of God is no less a matter of faith than his transcendence. Whether in the nineteenth or the twentieth century, moral-pragmatic approaches to religious faith disclose an antisupernaturalistic bias that conceals their metaphysical presupposition of an immanent, earthbound God. To his credit, Bonhoeffer did not think antisupernaturalism gives relevance to Christianity but insisted rather that our beliefs must remain a response to revelation.

In a hurried yet readable survey of contemporary religious thinkers, Hamilton scores many good points against opposing views: “The disadvantage of founding a theology on relevance is that it may suddenly become irrelevant and die.” A theology agreeable to the spirit of the age is unlikely to be the theology of the Bible. Hamilton recognizes the neo-liberal revival of a theology of excessive immanence in a pro-metaphysical mood, and ventures a sturdy critique of its positions. In the emphasis this kind of theology places on direct knowledge of God available from general human nature, and its notion that Jesus is the Son of God not as Jesus but rather in his overcoming human limitations, he finds an unacknowledged debt to Schleiermacher. Moreover, he contends that the thought of the Niebuhrs, Tillich, Ferré, and Daniel Day Williams is largely rooted in this same modernist subsoil.

So far so good. Hamilton skillfully rejects metaphysical theology that is based on excessive divine immanence and that views transcendence simply in terms of a limit (the unconditioned ground of one’s being and meaning). But when he contrasts the biblical and speculative interpretations of transcendence, Hamilton disowns any conceptual scriptural understanding and confines its biblical sense to the non-spatial, non-figurative awareness of divine mystery recognized in worship. He rejects the unconditioned character of God on the ground that God conditions himself in speaking to man. To argue for God’s metaphysical transcendence is said to suspend God’s reality upon human reasoning and a particular cosmological system. He apparently excludes the possibility of rational revelation and of a revealed world-view.

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Revelation as a ground of faith is thus introduced with no sure relationship to reason, and a complete disjunction is encouraged between the truth of revelation and the truth of philosophy. But the attempted deduction of the nature of divinity from a study of the world by contemporary theologians actually gives Hamilton no solid basis for disconnecting revelation and reason. His absolute contrast of theology and philosophy perpetuates an error that underlies dialectical-existential theology. What destroys the biblical sense of terms like transcendence and immanence is not their place in a metaphysical system, since they have meaning only in an implicative whole. The only requirement is that the universe of discourse be biblically controlled.

Just because a theology of revelation is received by faith, must right reading of the evidence be denigrated or deplored? Does the Spirit of God use truth as the means of persuasion, or contradiction as the goal of human inquiry? Is the truth of revelation valid whether men respond to it or not, or is its truth established by subjective decision? In much contemporary theology the relation of faith and knowledge is left obscure. It is regrettable that Hamilton follows Barth’s total disjunction of the truth of revelation and philosophical truth, so that faith and philosophy must necessarily espouse different deities.

With good reason Hamilton opposes the natural theology of Aquinas. But he does less than justice to Augustine, understates his differences with Greek philosophy, and misses the force of his “I believe in order to understand.” Kant is said to be an ally of the Augustinian tradition of metaphysical theology because he supports a “mystical” theology. One finds here no awareness of the recovery of the Augustinian principle by the Reformers; instead, we are told only that they rejected rational formulations. While evangelical Protestants found faith not on human reason but on divine revelation, they insist on the rationality of revelation and faith against contemporary irrationalism. A recognition of the importance of this emphasis, and of the consequences that flow from it, is regrettably missing in a paperback that has much to commend its reading.

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Problems Of Evolution

News Report, publication of the National Academy of Sciences, in its October, 1965, issue gives the following echoes of a day-long ‘Symposium on Time and Stratigraphic Problems in the Evolution of Man”:

“What we need are more competent fossils. We have plenty of competent anthropologists but not nearly enough specimens.…”—DR. G. L. JEPSON, professor of vertebrate paleontology, Princeton University. In his closing remarks, Professor Jepson warned that uniform rates of evolution cannot be assumed. He has been working with the skeleton of a bat 50 million years old, and he said that if it were restored to life it would be impossible to detect any difference between it and a modern bat.

In contrast to most other mammals, “the direct or fossil evidence for primate and hence for human evolution is relatively scanty and largely incomplete, too frequently consisting of mere fragments or even only teeth.”—DR. WILLIAM L. STRAUS, JR., professor of physical anthropology, Johns Hopkins University.

A challenge was directed toward the recent statement of an astronomer that “there are many worlds in space and we may be sure that a considerable number of them will duplicate the conditions of our earth. On these men will be found.” “If man was so ubiquitous, so easy to produce, why had two great continental laboratories [Australia and South America], worlds indeed, failed to reproduce him? They had failed simply … because the great movements of life are irreversible, the same mutations do not occur, circumstances differ in infinite particulars, opportunities fail to be grasped, and so what once happened is no more.”—DR. LOREN EISELEY, professor of anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Selling Cigarettes Overseas

Since January 1 every pack, box, and carton of United States cigarettes has carried a conspicuous label: “Caution, cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.” This mild statement is part of a federal law that, curiously enough, forbids the Federal Trade Commission from requiring a similar warning in cigarette advertising.

Now we discover that what may be bad for Americans is good for non-Americans. Uncle Sam is currently spending American tax money to convince the people of Thailand, Japan, England, France, Austria, Denmark, and other countries that they ought to smoke—especially cigarettes made from American tobacco. With a discretion bordering on hypocrisy, the pro-cigarette propaganda does not indicate that it is sponsored and paid for by the United States government. In addition, European movie-goers will view a Warner Brothers twenty-three minute technicolor “soft-sell,” distributed overseas, not knowing it is subsidized by Uncle Sam and the tobacco industry. The theaters will have to show it as a short subject along with Warner’s theatrical features.

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Must this double standard continue? Certainly not. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman need only return—this time for good—to the former ban on government-sponsored cigarette promotion abroad. It is time to remove all doubt that what the American government wants abroad is the well-being of the people, and not simply their dollars.

Protestant Confusion

Protestant Christianity is currently beset by a confusing inner turmoil and a search for an authentic identity. Indeed, it may be that the Church is faced with its gravest crisis since the Reformation. The January 3 issue of Newsweek, in dealing with the Church’s struggle, shows how deep the cleavages are and how diverse the suggested remedies.

Part of the Church’s present predicament obviously comes from the rejection by many of the full integrity and authority of the Scriptures—a rejection now bearing its inevitable fruit of dissatisfaction, unbelief, and the desire to remodel what some feel to be irrelevant and outmoded structures.

Some of the loudest voices have shifted the emphasis from a sovereign God to self-sufficient man; from the apostolic Gospel of personal regeneration along with involvement in society, to involvement in society without personal regeneration. Humanism has crept into the Church in the form of a gospel that rejects historic Christianity, necessitating this frantic search for a new and relevant image.

No one should sidestep the issues or avoid involvement in this struggle, and the view that prevails will determine the shape and the ministry of the Church in the years ahead. CHRISTIANITY TODAY is a part of the struggle. We cannot prevent change nor do we wish to do so. But we are wholly convinced that the Bible remains a timeless guidepost in an age of transition and change.

The form of the building being erected may differ markedly from what we have known in days past. But it is our business and mission to see that the foundation of the building is the “one foundation,” the Jesus Christ of the Holy Scriptures.

The Paralysis Of A City

The transit strike in New York City brought about virtual paralysis involving more than eight million people whose right to work and to get to work depended upon the ailing Michael J. Quill and his Transport Workers Union.

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New York State’s Condon-Wadlin Act, which prohibits strikes by public employees, did not deter Mr. Ouill; neither did a court injunction. When Quill was taken into custody he told newsmen that the judge “can drop dead in his black robes.… I’ll rot in jail.… I won’t appeal. I don’t give a damn.” What he said is reminiscent of another day when one capitalist said, “The public be damned.” In this case the issue does not involve labor and capital; it involves labor and a municipal utility owned and operated by an agency of the City of New York.

A strike of this nature involving so many people is intolerable. Calling such a strike was senseless. No real stalemate had been reached, nor had any evidence emerged to show it was impossible to reach some kind of compromise. Moreover, the union struck in open defiance of the law, a defiance that bodes ill for the future in destroying respect for the law and encouraging further breaches of it by others.

The fantastic demands made by the union and the bombastic approach to the problem taken by Mr. Quill were the surest guarantees for preventing a prompt and just settlement. Unionism is legitimate, and it is here to stay. But such irresponsible labor-union activities could bring about restrictive legislation that would hurt unions that have acted fairly and responsibly across the years.

A Significant Venture

The American Institute of Holy Land Studies, first planned a decade ago, became a reality in 1959 with the arrival of its first students in Jerusalem, Israel. Since then, this interdenominational educational and research organization has flourished. Under the leadership of Dr. G. Douglas Young, it has outgrown its present facilities and is moving to a new location atop Mount Zion.

The institute has included on its faculty a number of competent Israeli scholars, who, along with evangelical American personnel, have provided post-graduate Hebraic and archaeological studies as background material against which to understand the Bible. It has been highly endorsed by leading Israelis, educators, students, and American Embassy personnel. More and more European and American colleges, universities, and divinity schools are granting transfer credit for studies the institute offers.

The return of the Jews to the land of Palestine and the emergence of the State of Israel make the work of The American Institute of Holy Land Studies highly significant, especially in the light of the prophetic Scriptures. CHRISTIANITY TODAY offers its best wishes for the success of this new venture and commends the institute to its readers.

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