In Washington, DC, a crisis has been manufactured over something the government used to do routinely: raising the “debt ceiling” so it could pay expenses already incurred. A particular faction of politicians is threatening to send the government into financial default, a circumstance that could cripple our already weak economy and destroy the government’s ability to function. Some of them explicitly say that this destruction is a good thing because it will in the end be good for America. They are destroying the government, and probably the economy too, in order to “save” it.
We’ve heard this sort of thing before. Back during the Vietnam War some American official was infamously quoted that the military had to destroy a village in order to save it. This perverse logic is not an isolated case. It represents a stream of bad practice with deep roots in the Western tradition. When the Spanish Inquisition or other authorities were busily burning witches and heretics at the stake, they were torturing people to death in order to “save” them, that is, save their souls from an even worse fate in hell.
This is all based on a doctrine that somehow weaseled its way into Christianity. The doctrine is Original Sin, and its most virulent form is called Total Depravity. It basically holds that, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, the consequence was that the Image of God in them and all their descendants was thoroughly erased, leaving nothing in them that was good at all. Human begins then became essentially and fundamentally evil. The only answer to this predicament had to come from outside of them: from God’s free act of grace in Jesus Christ. Grace comes to people as an alien force, imputing Christ’s goodness to them by replacing their evil natures with his good nature.
The 5th century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, came up with this, reacting to the doctrine and practices of another theologian, a teacher from Britain named Pelagius. Augustine wanted to protect God’s free grace and exclude any possibility of people saving themselves by their own initiative and action. Therefore, God is totally good, and people are totally bad. I know it’s an over-simplification, but the upshot is that God saves us by destroying our evil nature and replacing it with Christ’s good nature.
(One of the more disgusting effects of this doctrine was the belief that unbaptized babies were transmitted directly into the eternal torment of hell. The Presbyterian Church did not reject (or at least qualify) this cruel insanity until 1903.)
This interpretation is nowhere found in Scripture. Genesis does not say that God’s Image in humanity is obliterated by the Fall. The New Testament does not talk in terms of people having to be completely annihilated before God’s grace can come to them. This doctrine, though it became pervasive in the West for both Protestants and Roman Catholics, is not generally accepted in the Eastern Orthodox churches, who look to more of the early church teachers than Augustine for their insight.
Whatever Augustine was trying do to, the doctrine of Original Sin may have brought some comfort and stability to those who had to endure the horrors of living in the Roman Empire as it collapsed and was repeatedly overrun by gangs of violent thugs. I don’t know. It is about the ultimate triumph of God’s grace, after all. However, when this doctrine was grasped and applied centuries later by a resurgent church and powerful empire, it became the source of untold misery, pain, murder, fear, and atrocity.
The consequences of this doctrine were awesome and nauseating. It meant that, in order to “save” them, the church often got into the business of destroying individuals and cultures. It turned evangelism – which is supposed to be the communication of the good news of God’s love for the world in Jesus – into violent, genocidal conquest. This was Charlemagne’s approach to conquering the Saxons. This was the justification for the repeated exercises in mass-murder on behalf of medieval business-interests we call the Crusades. It was used to rationalize regular pogroms against the European Jewish communities. And it was also the model followed by European conquerors when they invaded the New World. In order to receive Christ, a people’s society, religion, morality, politics, and economics had to be totally wiped out. This distorted version of Christianity has destroyed countless indigenous peoples in order to “save” them.
In pastoral terms, it is the source of the cult of self-hatred and crippling guilt that has psychologically oppressed Christians for a thousand years. If you don’t hate yourself, your body (especially your sexuality), your thoughts, your imagination, your dreams, your emotions, you can’t receive eternal life in Christ. Countless Christians have had their souls (and bodies) tortured by this doctrine, and it continues to this day in conservative churches in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Wherever we find guilt, and fear, and self-hatred, and wherever we find people willing to do violence to themselves or others in the name of some kind of abstract “salvation,” there we have this un-Biblical and catastrophic doctrine of Original Sin/Total Depravity.
Naomi Klein’s important book, The Shock Doctrine, has to do with this same mentality, used today in the service of global Capitalism. The explicit and deliberate practice is to destroy individual people, economies, neighborhoods, nations, whatever… so that the triumphant Capitalist order may move in and replace it. They exploit natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, using them as pretexts to displace and disenfranchise poor and working people and their communities, and replace them with large, profitable business enterprises, which mainly benefit the wealthy. The same strategy is used with industrial accidents like oil spills. And if there are no disasters or accidents, they manufacture them. This was the intent of Bush’s invasion of Iraq: to destroy Iraqi society and replace it with a Capitalist paradise. (It didn’t work.) And of course the current “crisis” over the debt-ceiling and government spending is another instance of this.
In order for the “destroy it in order to save it” logic to work, one has to believe in the total worthlessness and even evil of the thing to be destroyed/saved. That is why, once this mentality takes hold, compromise becomes impossible. You don’t compromise with “evil.”
Finally, the “salvation” that is promised by this secular, literal corruption of the good news is, for those being “saved” completely abstract and imaginary. The ones really gaining the benefit are the ones doing the killing and stealing of actual resources and labor. The message is: “You are totally evil. You need to be killed so you can be born again in heaven. In the meantime, we have good news for you, which is that you get to serve us.”
There is a version of Original Sin that is faithful to the Bible and to Jesus. This is one in which the Image of God was not obliterated in the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but covered over, soiled, defiled, obscured. But the point is that deep with human beings there remains this spark of the divine, God’s Image. We are infected with evil; but we have not essentially become evil.
Seen from this perspective, the action of evangelism is not a matter of destroy-and-replace, but cleanse-and-release. It is about liberation. The practice here is to locate and build on the good already in existence within people and cultures, and at the same time critique and encourage the removal of elements that still draw them into sin. The good in people was not obliterated, but buried. Evangelism means unburying it. It means healing and making whole, which is what Jesus did when he met diseased or possessed souls.
There are no examples of Jesus destroying anyone or anything in order to save them. Jesus does not heal by killing a person and giving them a different life. He did not destroy the Temple (indeed, he mourned its future destruction) but cast out those who defiled it. His healing ministry is about liberation: letting the true, blessed, and good person shine forth.
Finally, it is important to note that Jesus’ actual practice is utterly useless to human imperial projects. Jesus’ liberation does not mean bringing something foreign to people, but releasing the Image of God already within them. It is a selfless, sacrificial task that completely gives itself for the good of the other.