One of the few positive aspects of the current civilizational conflict in which we are enmeshed is that it is forcing us to recognize that one cannot fight a something with a nothing. The Christian roots of America's founding can provide spiritual and moral strength for a war against Islamist terror. But this will only work if the Christianity in question is in good order. Some people have been beavering away to see that it instead sinks into a relativistic quagmire of near-atheism that can offer us no help. Case in point: John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of Newark, NJ.
Spong is no stranger to controversy. He maintains a high profile by promoting unorthodox positions on several sensitive topics. A closer examination of Spong’s beliefs reveals a deviation from traditional Christianity that runs much deeper than one might initially imagine. Spong advocates a "new Reformation" that would shake the foundations of Christianity. In their religious revolt, Spong and his allies have lost their moral clarity, and they speak out against the War on Terror in the most Leftist of terms. Bishop Spong’s analysis of the War on Terror is flawed both morally and factually.
Many others have responded to Spong’s religious radicalism at length, but it seems worth reviewing here. Some of Bishop Spong’s more extreme religious views would make many of his fellow liberal Christians balk. Spong’s religious beliefs no longer conform to any recognizable form of Christianity, yet he speaks with the assumed authority of a Christian leader. Spong does not believe in the type of God who can answer prayers or can intervene in human affairs. Spong denies the possibility of the virgin birth. He denies the divinity of Christ. He believes the crucifixion had no salvific meaning, and he denies that the bodily resurrection occurred.
Here are his theses:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
To him, all the miracles of the Bible are dismissed as myths for a "pre-Newtonian" age, and the Bible itself does not contain the word of God. Though he is entitled to hold any views he pleases, it is not clear in what sense Spong could call himself a Christian, let alone use his title of Bishop of a major denomination to advance his very unorthodox agenda. "Anglican Atheist" is a term that seems to resonate with this religious philosophy, as is "post-Christian Christianity." "Fake Christian" is perhaps an even better term, given that Anglicanism, like Christianity, has a well-defined historic identity and one cannot claim to belong to it while denying its essential doctrines. Here is a web site put up by other Episcopal bishops who denounce him.
There was a time when the Episcopal Church stood for something in this country; its decline into relativistic mush began with the corruption of the seminaries in the 1930’s and is a signal aspect of the collapse of the old WASP ethnarchy that used to play a role in this country similar to that played by aristocracy in older nations. Although there are flickers of hope in some branches of the Anglican Church — the most conservative bishops tend to be Africans schooled by old-time missionaries who really believed in Christianity — the rot is pretty deep. The only bright side is that this has caused Episcopalianism to plummet in membership and influence while churches that still retain some backbone, like evangelicals and Catholics, continue to grow.
John Spong once posted his "Twelve Theses" on the Internet, calling for debate and a new Reformation. Each thesis displays the very untraditional thought of Spong, but the ninth thesis captures the essence and foundation of practical liberal Christian thought:
"There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or in tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time."
Thus, aspects of the Scriptures that are not convenient to modern (or post-modern) life can be readily dismissed. Having eliminated objective moral and ethical standards, liberal Christians have effectively done away with any meaningful concepts of right and wrong beyond their own woolly liberal preferences. When there is a conflict between God and liberalism, God had better shut up and defer to the platform committee of the Democratic party. The decision to accept or condemn the actions of others is reduced to a matter of instinct rather than careful moral reasoning.
Of course, this never stops them from being self-righteous moral fanatics about things they happen to support.
This moral fog underlies liberal Christian criticism of the War on Terror. Without firm ethical standards, the terrorist attacks of September 11 cannot be labeled immediately as unqualified wrongs. Indeed, Spong claims that the terror had "no meaning." Certainly the terrorists themselves thought that their actions had meaning and purpose. Instead, Spong and other liberals would rather engage in root-cause sociological speculation that ironically (but unsurprisingly) places much of the blame on the United States for not having done enough to prevent poverty and despair in other parts of the world. Spong has lost the moral clarity to say that the terror attacks were egregious wrongs committed against the United States, and it is through his prism of plastic morality that Spong judges the War on Terror.
What does Spong say about our current national situation?
"The lessons that we must learn from our encounter with terrorism are complex. But the first rule is that one does not destroy terrorism by destroying terrorists! One destroys terrorism only by destroying the forces that create terrorism: hopelessness, hunger, powerlessness and despair. The fanaticism that produces terror is born when life loses its value."
When Spong’s statements are stripped of all their polish and rhetoric, his argument is that military action is neither necessary nor sufficient to deal with global terrorism. Framed in other terms, our current military actions fail to constitute a "just war".
Spong is not wrong to say that social problems contribute to the magnitude and frequency of radical and destructive behavior. His mistake, a moral misjudgment, is assuming that the United States is responsible for all the ills that ail the Muslim world. Have we overlooked the internal terror and repression imposed upon the population by virtually every regime in the region, most notably Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Iraq?
The second mistake Spong makes in his criticism of our military action is one of urgency. At this moment, around the world and in our own country, there are people who want to destroy America and Americans and are plotting to do so. They want to kill us. They want to destroy our culture. Their programmed hatred has been festering for a long time and cannot be quickly diffused. Even if it were possible to instantly resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, end other ethnic conflict, and bring prosperity to the region, there would still be a lost generation of Jihadists bent on destroying the perceived infidels. Our military action is a matter of self-defense. It is a matter of practical necessity, contrary to Spong’s assertions.
It is also a matter of moral necessity, or justice, as President Bush so frequently has reminded us. For typical crimes committed in civilized nations, criminals are apprehended, tried, and punished if convicted. If murderers resist arrest then law enforcement will use lethal force in their apprehension. Who could doubt that crimes have been committed against the United States? Should we not apply our long-held standards of justice on the international scale?
Spong’s claims regarding the necessity and sufficiency of the war were half right. He is wrong when he says that the war is not necessary, but he is right that it is not sufficient to protect us from terror. However, the sufficiency of military action has never been the position of the Bush Administration. Spong claims that the only US reaction to 9-11 has been a military reaction. This is, of course, untrue. Military action is only the most visible aspect of the broader War on Terror. We are also fighting the War on Terror on the following non-military fronts: financial, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, and propaganda. And even as we were dropping bombs on Afghanistan last winter we were also dropping food for the people of that country.
Spong also fails to see the real successes of our military action. While it is true that the success of the War on Terror cannot be determined solely by the military (as President Bush and others have said all along), it would be a mistake to say that there have been no real successes in that aspect. The Taliban regime was in many ways responsible for the attacks against the United States. If the Taliban had not been allied with al-Qaeda then the Taliban forces would not have opposed our military action. We have now removed the primary ally of al-Qaeda. Some "collateral good", if you will, has also come from military action in Afghanistan. The oppression associated with the Taliban regime has been nullified. The Afghans have been liberated, and we are currently engaged in the unsought but necessary task of "nation building".
What would the liberals have us do instead? According to Spong, the "the ultimate lesson that we have learned from the terrorists" is that we must build "a world where the humanity of every person can be enhanced." What does Spong mean by this?
"To defeat terrorism, policies aimed at developing a world consciousness have to be enacted. Common causes, like protecting our global environment, sharing our world's limited resources, and building a world based on justice and human rights must be part of the recipe. Terrorism can be defeated only when it becomes intolerable for all people to have a world where half of the population diets while the other half starves. Terrorism will be defeated when the world's population ceases to explode and Third World nations no longer give birth to more lives than they can feed. Terrorism will be defeated only when the world's needs are placed on a par with our national self-interest."
Only two of these points are legitimate, but they happen to be changes that can only be undertaken by the indigenous populations themselves; the goals of expanded justice and human rights, and the slowing of population growth can not be heaved upon an unwilling people by an exogenous force. The remainder of this statement amounts to global socialism, blaming the greedy Americans for the problems of the world. These statements remove responsibility from particular individuals and place blame solely on the sociological phenomenon of poverty and oppression. This error in analysis can be traced back to Spong’s ninth thesis and his moral subjectivism. Nothing compels Spong to address the morality of the flying of airliners into buildings.
The greater irony in all of this is that the Bush Administration’s execution of the War on Terror will bring about Spong’s long term goals, only not by the means he would prefer. When the despotic regimes in that region are eventually replaced with freer, more responsive, more democratic, and more law-ruled regimes, only then will the region prosper and the people live full and hope-filled lives. We will, as Spong says, "[destroy] the forces that create terrorism: hopelessness, hunger, powerlessness and despair". The liberal alternative is to succumb to the terror and pay the ransom. To promote that course of action is to provide aid and comfort to the enemies of the state. Under the liberal method the terrorists get exactly what they want, which only provides an incentive for further terrorism.