Finding new authors is akin to finding new friends, and I recently read with great delight Herbert Butterfiled’s Christianity and History. I will need to read more of him.
One his great observations dealt with Old Testament prophetic literature. He writes,
What was unique about the ancient Hebrews was their historiography rather than their history. . . Their historiography was unique also in that it ascribed the success of Israel not to their virtues but the favor of God; and instead of narrating the glories or demonstrating the righteousness of the nation, like our modern patriotic histories, [they] denounced the infidelity of the people, denounced it not as an occasional thing, but as the constant feature of the nation’s conduct throughout the centuries; even proclaiming at times that the sins of Israel were worse, and their hearts more hardened by the light, than those of the other nations around them.
He goes on to say that, in contrast to pagan societies around them, the prophets blamed Israel’s troubles not on the “Gentiles” or the “unrighteous,” and not on “God’s deaf ears,” but on themselves. “The beds you lie in, O Israel, are the beds you made.”
This might explain the prophets’ lack of popularity.
I always get wearied during elections not because the issues lack importance, but because of how much posturing and blame both sides throw around. It’s always “the liberal media,” or “the right-wing conspiracy,” or, “We are the 99%,” or, “The Makers vs. The Takers.” No one wants to risk losing 51% of the vote to say, “It’s our fault,” preferring rather to carve up the carcass of the American body politic and divide us into “us” and “them.” Until someone speaks as a prophet might speak, and until we hear them, I don’t see much changing.
I wrote recently about The Story of Rome, and, while not a big fan of the book, I did find a few insightful tidbits. Among them, the book discussed how modern historians view the problems of Rome’s empire, and how different the views of the Romans themselves were from modern thinkers. We often say the problems revolved around economics, or incongruous geographical frontiers, or barbarian migrations, or political centralization, or some other such measurable factors.
The Romans never saw things this way. For them, it came to virtue, plain and simple. When they practiced virtue, they succeeded, and when they lacked it, troubles came their way.
Not quite equal to prophetic genius, perhaps (especially considering what the Romans meant by virtue), but as foreign as the words sound to our ears, perhaps we should hear them. Take their “Social War,” of 91-88 B.C., for example. Before the 2nd Punic War Rome treated its allies well, but the rebellion of some of their so-called friends during Hannibal’s invasion left a deep scar on their psyche (much as 9-11 has on us — Toynbee masterfully outlines the consequences in his book on the late Republic). They treated their Italian allies afterwards as second class citizens and after 100 years of such treatment, it came back to bite them terribly (the aforementioned “Social War’) in a conflict with an estimated 300,000 casualties on both sides. Rome survived only by making concessions at the very end.
The prophets, the presidential campaign, and Rome ran around my head when I think of the great current stain on American morality, our drone campaign in the mid-east. A recent NYU/Stanford University study, if true, indicts us of great evil. This article in the U.K.’s Guardian highlights many of our atrocities. We have attacked and killed (unintentionally let us pray, but still) civilians many times over. Our administration hides the facts and our watchdog media has played right along, always calling the dead “enemy combatants.” An excerpt reads of the study reads,
But Republicans, get off your high horse. Romney has said nothing to indicate that he would do things any differently. Other prominent conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, have praised Obama’s assassination program. In fact the only candidate who has said publicly that he would end the drone strikes is the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson.
But “We the People” cannot blame the politicians. We’re all guilty of preferring our immediate safety to the welfare of others (myself included). For the drones, Pakistani civilians are guilty until proven innocent, which would be bad enough, but drones offer no court of appeal.
Most of us understand the posturing and policies that come with a nation at war. But if we want to claim any kind of identification with the “righteous” side in the “War on Terror,” we have to consider whether we have the willingness to consider other lives more worthy than our own, to think of others as better than ourselves.