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The Theology of Blame

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The gagging of God, so far as courts, professors and advanced theologians can accomplish it, gets slightly in the way of attempts to puzzle out the Tucson massacre.

God with a gag over His metaphorical mouth was a less usual concept back when people talked more routinely than now about evil, not to mention the devil and all his works. A particular word would come up regularly in those old conversations -- sin, defined as stubborn, self-focused detachment from God, accompanied by defiance of His purposes. Sin was supposed to be bad: the more so because all were involved in it. Because all were involved, no one could tell what would happen next. Some nut might sidle into a political gathering, pull out a gun, and ...

It was not that general acknowledgment of moral deficiency provided quick answers to the questions people asked about the awfulness they couldn't help noticing -- wars, murders, assassinations, massacres worse than anything that took place in Tucson last week. That was, for one thing, before TV and the Internet. No one needed a blogger to explain in outraged tones that loud mouths and gun imagery had precipitated this or that horror. There were fewer surprises back then. The nuttiness of the human species was a given.

The desacralization of American life -- achieved at a speed no one would have foretold even 50 years ago -- leaves the secular-minded to identify secular villains and secular ideas as the cause of life's disasters. There was a "climate of hate" in Arizona! Oh, the violent and military language of the tea partiers! The shouting, the screaming at public meetings! Only bad was certain to come of it.

Among the ironies of the post-massacre "climate" in the media and the Internet is the not-quite-spoken assumption that the war that took six lives in Tucson continues, with the side that was formerly down -- supportive of health care reform and "civility" -- poised now to beat the bloody hell out of the side that formerly was up. The shouting hasn't gone away; different people have gone to shouting -- that's all. There's a triumphalism in the attacks and self-righteous commentary marshaled by the anti-tea party, anti-Palin set in good, reliable we-told-you-so fashion. That's notwithstanding the absence of proof that Jared Loughner derived even a shred of an idea from the political debates of last year.

It is despite something else -- humanity's dismal experience at restraining mayhem apart from teaching conformity to the standards and designs of God. Not always succeeding even then, but all the same understanding human offenses as grounded less in outside excitation than in inner impulses toward gain, self-advertisement, and such like. That the recent past has produced awfulness -- Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley, Sirhan Sirhan, etc. -- unconnected to Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck is the point Americans don't get to notice because loud voices dismiss it.

Sin? Human evil? Bah. Don't go tangling God in human affairs; it might violate the "church-state separation" principle. That's the secularist principle. The guilty parties HAVE to be conservative. No other explanation works for these folk. The sweet goodness they see all around them has but a single enemy -- the malice of the right. There's no such thing as sin.

Ah, gentlemen, want to bet? As it happens, sin takes many forms, some deadlier to the soul than to the body. What about, say, announcing recklessly (Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 1/10/11) that the "toxic rhetoric" of the right is the villain of the piece. Must be, what else?

But that's stupid and malicious. Not to mention modern, secular and ahistorical. The Krugmans of our time -- against the ancient understanding of the Christian West, whose influence needs rekindling and fast -- imply that evil descended upon us the day Sarah Palin first opened her mouth. Talk about painting "targets" on people's backs! The Krugmanite line is, oddly, the ideological flip side of the Obamacare-is-Socialism line. They poison the very well they claim to be unclogging.

Our national sorrow over the massacre doesn't need this salt-in-the-wound approach to understanding and appropriation. It needs -- well, what? A good old-fashioned prayer meeting?

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