by Jack Hoehn  |  18 November 2019  |

David Berlinski lives on the rue Chanoinesse half a city block from Paris’s recently destroyed Notre Dame cathedral. He watched in dismay as its spire toppled, until the police forced him to evacuate to the other side of the Seine. This destruction is the introduction to the latest book by this polymath American. Berlinski was born of Jewish parents, has a PhD from Princeton in philosophy and many published works on mathematics and its history, evolution and its philosophical deficiencies. He is against the pretensions of atheism, while remaining uncommitted to either Judaism or Christianity, but deeply knowledgeable of both.

And deeply knowledgeable of most everything else. His latest book is Human Nature.[1]

Violence and 231 Million

Of interest to me at this time in our church life was the introduction to our human natures in section 1, Violence. Berlinski dismembers the conceit of writers claiming that every day in every way humans are evolving better and better, as in Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.[2] Pinker maintains that since things were once worse, they must be getting better. “Believe it or not…violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence…”—a Darwinian view of life that he maintains is “scientific and quantitative.”

Berlinski takes that challenge, and decides “not.” Darwinian optimism may claim to be scientific and quantitative but sadly this does not make it true. The claimed reduction in violence is based on extrapolations from presumed homicide rates in the Middle Ages to present homicide rates in our cities. This data is carefully challenged by Berlinski. But history alone vitiates unrealistic optimism.

Beginning the 20th century in August of 1914 with the tragedy of the First World War (WW1), and extending through the rise of both communism and fascism with their necessary violence, to the Second World War, followed by a misnamed “long peace” from my birth in 1946 to, say, 2014 , Berlinski asks how the suggestion that life is evolving onward and upward can ever be reconciled with the two hundred thirty-one million (231,000,000) men, women, and children who died violently in the 20th century “shot over pits, murdered in secret police cellars, asphyxiated in Nazi gas ovens, worked to death in Arctic mines or timber camps, the victims of deliberately contrived famines or lunatic industrial experiments, whole populations ravaged by alien armies, bombed to smithereens, or sent to wander in their exiled millions across all the violated borders of Europe and Asia.”[3]

Elias Canetti is quoted as saying, “It is a mark of fundamental human decency to feel ashamed of living in the twentieth century.” Do those same feelings dog us into this present century?

The 231 million victims only accounts for violent homicides and deaths. The corrosion of life caused by violence extends beyond graves. A dictionary definition of violence is incomplete: “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone.” But not only physical force is violence. Laws, institutions, attitudes, judgments and the people who use them may all be violent without physical acts. “The threat of violence is often as effective in compelling behavior as its administration…An act may be violent in degrees; or it may be violent in effect; violence may be obvious or disguised; systematic or haphazard and even incidental; it may be overt or subtle; there are violent states and violent societies…”[4]—and let’s home in, violent churches. Christianity Today magazine this week describes a Christian university where “everybody is scared…everybody walks around in fear.”[5]

“In 1937 Stalin reduced the Soviet Union to a state of gibbering terror. In his account of the Great Terror, Moscow 1937, Karl Schlögel argued that some 1.5 million men and women were shot or died in miserable captivity in the gulag. To paralyze a large and complex society by fear is itself an achievement in violence, for those paralyzed are afraid of violent death. Violence is not simply a matter of what is done but what might be done.”[6]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Religious Violence

Before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed for opposing Nazi terror, he also saw the intrusion of violence into his church, especially when a serious Christian had a very definite idea or vision for the church that was not fully accepted by his brethren.

“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.” This sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But he continues with this warning, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the matter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial…”

It makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary idea of community demands that it be realized [not only by himself, but by others, and by God]. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dreams bind men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community is going to smash. So, he becomes first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself…

When a person become alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself… I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love.”[7]

Coercion by Love

Let’s grant that imposition of a dream of how the church “ought to be” by our present administration is founded in sincerity and considered to be love. But let’s also understand that regulation, coercion, domination even in love is still violence. Jesus made it clear that spiritual rape occurs without physical adultery. It is likewise true that violence and murder occurs without guns, knives, or clubs.

“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery… You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not murder’…But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:28, 21-22).

According to Jesus, women are desecrated by thoughts and words as well as by actions. Men warned, censured, or shamed (good Christian leaders, of course, never would get visibly “angry” when others refuse to accept their vision for the church) are being subjected to the sin of violence without being murdered. Violence is not only physical acts, but any attempt to “hurt or damage” even if motivated by high Christian goals and administered “with reluctance” and in proffered “love.” Does prayer mask holy violence?

Where Is the Opposition?

Berlinski ponders the cause of wars to see if they are inevitable and, if not, why statesmen of the time were unable to derail the circumstances leading to WW1. In church administration one asks why more voices derailing the occult violence against women and the anger against men not in compliance with the leader’s dreams were not raised? Obviously, those publicly warned and intended to be personally shamed are courageous spiritual warriors. But there are hundreds of good men and a few good women who remain in the Autumn Councils of this church on the sidelines or in support of this covert violence.

Berlinski is not shy in evaluation of the supposed statesmen in 1914 who did not stop the slide into WW1. “European statesmen, and especially their foreign ministers, were crushed by a sense of their own impotence.” (I’m only a union conference president; what can I do?) “The men who made the First World War, or who allowed it to be made, were curiously modern in their outlook, their temperament, their education, and their training. They were mediocrities.” (Ouch. I’m nothing special, I’ll just watch and pray about it.) “The foreign ministers of the great powers were in July of 1914 not so much helpless as unimaginative. They could, and sometimes they did, appreciate the fact that they were running risks, but not one of them, until it was far too late, had the power to appreciate the magnitude of the risks that they were running. Throughout the July crisis, England appeared to the other great powers as a ship in the fog.” (If England was a ship in the fog in 1914, where are the quiet hidden union conferences of England today, and why are the union conferences of Australia, Canada, and the rest of the USA—apart from Columbia and Pacific—still coasting along silently and fearfully?)

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter will soon be honored by the nation’s flags at half-mast.

“All formulas were tried to still
The scratching on the window-sill,
All bolts of custom made secure
Against the pressure on the door,
But up the staircase of events
Carrying his special instruments,
To every bedside all the same
The dreadful figure swiftly came.”
(W.H. Auden)

The most powerful memory of the man, though, will not be for his idealistic but stumbling presidency, but for his idealistic and powerful voice since the presidency. For me, most influential was his stand on gender discrimination and abuse, expressed in action by withdrawing membership from his Southern Baptist denomination dedicated to male headship, but also in his 2014 book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power. There, former president Carter laid out the outline of this commentary:

“I have become convinced that the most serious and unaddressed world-wide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts…almost exclusively by powerful male leaders in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu faiths to proclaim the lower status of women and girls. This claim that women are inferior before God leads to abuse of women and girls in the secular world.”[8]

Powerful male leaders in the Adventist faith—good men before you have been judged by history as “mediocrities,” “unimaginative,” and “until it was far too late” they appeared as “ships running in the fog.” The fog is clearing. Attempts to hurt or damage others by coercive actions that are unacknowledged but real violence have been publicly made.

Church members, while we can recognize the right for others to be wrong in their interpretations of our religious texts, we cannot permit violence against women or against men defending women to go unopposed. Your tithes and offerings support this present administration. Nothing will get quicker response than a massive tithe boycott. Put tithe into a savings account, and write your conference telling them it awaits their public stand on recognition of women in ministry, teaching, and administration by the same ordination as for men. This is not to force others to agree with us, but to demand that they also permit us to interpret our texts promoting the redemption of gender equality.

You have emails, phones, and a good postal service. Human nature tends to comply with violent governments. The easy choice is just to drop out—not my circus, not my monkeys. But even if we are just sitting in the bleachers, in fact it is our circus. It is a mark of fundamental human decency to feel ashamed for the actions of humanity in the 20th century. What about our actions in this 21st century?

[1] David Berlinski, Human Nature (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2019).

[2] Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).

[3] Ibid, page 41.

[4] Ibid, page 45.

[5] Christianity Today, November 2019, page 28.

[6] David Berlinski, pages 46-47.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Gemeinsam Leben).

[8] Jimmy Carter, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), page 3.

Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa. 

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