Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Pelagius, Augustine, and the "Rape of Nanking": orthodoxy in disarray (part two)

The "rape of Nanking," a terrible atrocity that occurred over six weeks at the end of the year 1937 in the Chinese city (now transliterated as Nanjing) was largely overlooked in the West until it entered the popular mind in 1997 with the publication of a best-seller, The Rape of Nanking, by a young Princeton-born Chinese-American journalist, Iris Chang, who became famous and then developed "reactive psychosis" and took her own life.

The Yale Divinity School has an archive on the Nanking massacres:
And here is a short capsule explaining the horrific six-week episode of mass murder and mass rape:

What has this got to do with the Augustine-Pelagius debate and Christian doctrine?

Here's what. A few weeks ago, wanting to understand more, I went on a binge of watching movies about the events in Nanjing during those terrible six weeks of 1937. One of them, John Rabe, tells the story of a "good German," a member of the Nazi Party, who was a leader of the international community of doctors and missionaries who set up an International Safety Zone within Nanjing, thereby saving hundreds of thousands. (Other hundreds of thousands perished.) The second one, Flowers of War, by respected director Zhang Yimou who has done some excellent work in the past, was tarted up with Christian Bale and a glamorous prostitute (the central episode of self-sacrifice, however, is based on a real event). The third and fourth films, City of Life and Death and Nanjing, are justly admired treatments in quasi-documentary style. The History Channel also has a 40-minute documentary on YouTube.

I have never been bothered by violence in movies and do not flinch from it, in most cases. Often it is clearly just cinema. However, as I watched all this material from the Nanjing massacres (and much of it is profoundly disturbing and truly sickening to see), I was appalled to discover something happening in myself. I am, naturally, ashamed of this, but I am admitting it in the interests of something greater. I began to be repulsed and fascinated at the same time. I began actually to want to see more violent episodes because of the sensations they produced. I could feel something happening in myself that lay far beyond the reach of my conscious will.

Why am I admitting to this alarming propensity? Because I believe it is universal.  I believe, with good cause, that any person under certain circumstances can become anesthetized by pure sensation, so that one becomes capable of reactions that otherwise would be very out of character--reactions that in certain circumstances will lead to actions. Take for example the recent book What Soldiers Do by Mary Louise Roberts, which details the appalling behavior of many American GIs after the liberation of Paris, acting with impunity and the active encouragement of senior officers. There have been numerous stories out of our recent wars, from the massacre at My Lai (Vietnam, 1968) to the Haditha killings (Iraq, 2005). The photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (2004) displayed what can happen when ordinary American soldiers are allowed free rein to indulge in sadistic fantasies without fear of repercussions. In Jarhead, his book about the Gulf War, Anthony Swofford told how his Marine unit repeatedly watched supposedly anti-war films like Platoon to bond over their delight in the violent scenes, without any context other than that of warrior culture.

I'm suggesting that there is something wrong with us all, something beyond our conscious wills, that causes us to lose our bearings. The vile torture-murderers of today's ISIS seem truly to believe that they are no worse than the Americans who were in charge of Abu Ghraib. The negotiations now taking place about releasing a cache of Abu Ghraib photos that have so far been withheld from the public are not encouraging in this regard; they are said to be much worse than the ones previously published. The young Americans in the photos we have already seen, giving thumbs-up signs over dead bodies, laughing and joking at the humiliation and torture of others, would have lived and died as ordinary citizens if they had not been placed in the midst of the fog of war with no moral guidance from their leaders.

These human failings, which ail us all even though only some of us get found out, are caused by Sin. Sin is as forbidden a word in the church today as are racial epithets. St Paul's teaching about Sin as a Power operating in the world independently of human positive thinking is little understood and very seldom preached or explained. Instead, the popularity of "human potential" and "human possibility" holds the center. That's what Pelagius believed in. His writings have survived only second hand, but he seems to have feared (as we do today) that our self-esteem and our motivation to do good would suffer if we were to take seriously a gospel of undeserved, radical grace.

The goodness that overcomes evil in this world is not a result of human potential but of divine gift. It lives out of hope and faith in the God who has restored human nature in his Son Jesus Christ, alive in the Spirit as a guarantee or "down payment" of our inheritance in salvation "until we acquire possession of it" (Ephesians 1:14). In this life we must live with the ambiguous fact that the "world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph. 6:10) are as near to us as our own unconscious, and more dangerous to our soul's health than we can ever understand if we continue to look for such health inside ourselves. There is no unsullied location in the human interior where we can find victory over the "elemental spirits of the universe" who seek to enslave us (Galatians 4:3). The only victory over Sin is found in the direct action of God who "sent forth his through God you are no longer a slave but a son/daughter" (Gal. 4:4-7).

Years ago, the mainline churches used to sneer at Norman Vincent Peale, with his "power of positive thinking," but his form of the Pelagian gospel of human potential has just been replaced by another, in the form of various kinds of self-affirming messages clothed in "spiritual" language, as though Sin did not exist. These lies are not only evasions of the truth about ourselves and the Powers we face, not only pablum about the benignity of the creation as though it were unfallen, but most deceitful of all, they violate the truth about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who gave himself up to the Powers of Sin and Death in order to save the entire created order from its bondage and to restore the true image of humanity. He accomplished this by recapitulating the human story in his own human life, the only human life that has ever been lived free from the power of Sin. It is precisely in absorbing the onslaught of Sin into himself that he won the victory and was raised into eternal life on our behalf. It is in his agony and death that we see the final judgment upon the infernal Powers, and it is in his resurrection--and in that alone--that we see the final defeat of all that afflicts the human race.