Monday, October 19, 2015

C.S. Lewis’ "Dangers of National Repentance"

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“…men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable.”

This short essay of Lewis’ references young British students and the contemporary trend to take responsibility for World War II.  Looking back on it, this was just the beginning of the Allies trying to “repent” of their part in the bloodshed; my own history classes in college taught that it was the “unfair” treatment of Germany in World War I which bankrupted the country and made it “desperate” enough to turn to Hitler and the Nazi party for survival. 

War is bad.  

I’m well aware this is possibly the three-word understatement of the year.  I’m also well aware of my own ignorance when it comes to the horrors of war. No matter how many books I read or movies I watch, it’s still all fiction compared to the in-person experience.  So what I say next will have to be taken only as a convoluted moralization on a subject I realize I’m only vaguely informed about. 

The thing about war is that it puts Christians in a tough position.  As a Christian, I’m supposed to love my enemies, pray for those who persecute me.  By this logic Christians should never go to war.  But what about against truly, distinctly evil forces?  The Bible says to put on the “full armor of God,” and though this is a spiritual analogy (“We do not war against flesh and blood…”), what happens when the spiritual evil in the world makes itself known in the physical realm?  We can talk about darkness and sin and shadows in a nebulous, wiffle-waffley way, but then there are Hitlers, concentration camps, gulags, Roman circuses and crucifixions, kidnappings, ISIS, shootings in every place from kindergartens to movie theaters.  Evil isn’t just a smoky, insubstantial presence.  It’s real and it can hurt us.  And war is part of it.

But if Evil exists in a corporeal way, it follows Good also does.  Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”  In becoming a believer, Christians don’t just accept God’s salvation; they also accept a mission of doing good in the world. 

The question Christians are faced with, then, is this: Do we remain pacifists and peace-keepers and trust that God will stop the evil-doers on His own, or could fighting a war against evil be part of the good works He’s prepared for us?

This is the sort of conflict that young people were facing during World War II, though I think it’s fair to assume this conflict existed long before, and has lasted to the present day.  One solution was for the young students to blame their own country for being involved in this messy war, to apologize on behalf of their entire nation, and generally feel guilty for things that were not necessarily their decision.

Lewis doesn’t argue that “war is good”, but sidesteps that issue to point out the real problem that this sort of “solution” creates: 

“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is…the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others.”

The central problem for these students was that they were apologizing for things that were not their responsibility.  They had judged that their government had made the wrong call to declare war, that it had sinned in deciding in this violent course of action, and because they doubted that the government would be conscientious enough to regret this decision, they were going around and apologizing on the government’s behalf.  Meanwhile, as they went around apologizing for others, their own sins were going unaddressed. 

I don’t know what sins these were, so I’ll use myself as a contemporary example: It would be easy for me to go around apologizing for the curse of African slavery in America.  A lot of people do.  Not only is this easy in the sense that obviously slavery is wrong and so it’s simple to identify as sin and evil, but it’s easy for me because it doesn’t hit home.  I wasn’t alive during that time, and I can’t even feel “genetically guilty” on behalf of ancestors, since most of them didn’t immigrate until after the Civil War.  It’s easy, because it’s far removed from the real sin that exists in my heart. 

It would be much harder for me to go around apologizing for every wicked thought, cruelty and sarcasm and rudeness in words, laziness at work, covetousness of others’ belongings, elitism and being judgmental according to outward appearances.  These are things I know are integrated into my heart, soul, mind and personality.   They are the things that I really have to repent about.  They are the things that God has saved me from.  And they are things that I still struggle against every day, along with every other person on this planet ever.

War is bad.


It’s even worse when we don’t know what war we are fighting.



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