The Old Testament prophets and Psalms echo the refrain, “How long God,” and then join this to a wide-ranging summation of evils as in, “how long must we suffer injustice, violence, and oppression. How long before you rescue us – will it be forever” (e.g. Psalm 13:1-2)? The darkness is accentuated with the coming birth of the Messiah. A world census in which a megalomaniac rules, sends Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. After Jesus’ birth, Herod murders all the babies of Bethlehem to wipe out the competition. And it only gets worse from there. The darkness is not banished but seems to deepen as the light grows in intensity. This is not a process completed in the New Testament but the battle continues in the Church so that there is an ever-heightened confrontation being worked out historically. The dark night prior to the coming of the light, characterizing advent, calls for describing the full depth of darkness Christ confronted and which he continues to confront in the Church. The presumption is that the battle continues as does the depth that revelation penetrates and the apprehension of the darkness it dispels and the nature of God revealed. There is an exposure, not simply of the genesis of subjective evil, but the anatomy of the madness that grips the world and the presumption is that the madness of the former is of the same order as that of the latter. The presumption of gaining peace through violence, of avoiding death by killing, of throwing off suffering by inflicting it, might describe the work of a mad individual or a world gone mad.
To make the point that a similar form of madness is at work at every level, I will use as an example the ultimate madness – M(utually) A(ssured) D(estruction) of nuclear war. Two years ago, in December 2017, Daniel Ellsberg published The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, depicting his work as a war strategist for the Pentagon in the early 1960s. At the same time as he copied the Pentagon Papers (detailing the Johnson administration’s lies about the Vietnam War), Ellsberg also copied nuclear war plans which he also intended to release to the public (but which were lost). Ellsberg describes U. S. plans for nuclear attack that can be triggered inadvertently (which has nearly occurred over a hundred times in Noam Chomsky’s count), or by intention, which would lead to a nuclear holocaust which would wipe out at least a third of all human life and potentially all life on the planet.
At one point Ellsberg came upon a document which read, “Top Secret- Sensitive” and marked “For the President’s Eyes Only.” The document posed the question to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as to how many people would be killed in the Soviet Union and China in a nuclear first strike by the United States. The answer was in the form of a graph, in which the vertical axis showed the number of deaths in the millions while the horizontal axis showed the amount of time in months. It was estimated that at least 275 million people would die instantaneously, while after six months the number would rise to 325 million deaths. The Pentagon calculated another 100 million deaths in the Warsaw Pact countries and potentially another 100 million dead in Western Europe, “depending on which way the wind blew.” The total casualties of a nuclear U. S. first strike would be at least 600 million dead, “a hundred holocausts” by the Pentagon’s estimate.
Ellsberg writes, “I remember what I thought when I first held the single sheet with the graph on it. I thought, This piece of paper should not exist. It should never have existed. Not in America. Not anywhere, ever. It depicted evil beyond any human project ever. There should be nothing on earth, nothing real, that it referred to.” Ellsberg has described it as an incomprehensible evil; a form of madness and destruction so large in scale as to be beyond the scope of understanding. Yet, the basic plans are the same today as those Ellsberg saw in the 1960s.
The basic strategy is for a “first strike” which would eliminate enemy cities and targets before U. S. targets are struck. To ensure that there is the possibility of retaliation, even after missing the opportunity for first strike, a series of individuals have access to the “button” should the chain of command be unresponsive or eliminated. This “dead hand” approach means that multiple individuals, and not the one finger of the president, have the potential to start or finish a nuclear war. The probability, according to Ellsberg, is that the same system is in place in Russia and China and other nuclear-armed powers. There are any number of individuals (Chomsky estimates 1 thousand) that might push the button should they perceive the chain of command above them to have been incapacitated. This means there is ample opportunity for mistakes or false alarms which could lead to unintended world destruction.
Ellsberg warns that the threat of nuclear holocaust has only increased since the end of the Cold War, partly due to a decreased public awareness of the danger and partly because of the continued “use” of nuclear weapons as a threat in negotiations. The “fire and fury” of Trump, in this sense, is not an aberration but the culmination of a “mad” logic in which ones negotiating partners will be more easily coerced if they consider the finger on the button to be unpredictable. Trump, purposely or not, embodies the “madman theory” pioneered by President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger. As in any robbery of a store with a gun, the victims must believe the gun is a real threat and the one holding it must appear crazy enough to pull the trigger. The crazier he appears the greater the perceived threat and the more effective the deadly weapon.
According to Ellsberg, during the Korean War both Truman and then Eisenhower threatened to drop nukes in order to get the Chinese to negotiate. He lists more than 25 such incidents of nuclear threats by U. S. presidents, during the Cold War alone. The following exchange between Nixon and Kissinger is from an Oval Office conversation (recorded on Nixon’s secret taping system) regarding a North Vietnamese offensive from April 25, 1972: Nixon: “I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?” Kissinger: “About two hundred thousand people.” Nixon: “No, no, no … I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?” Kissinger: “That, I think would just be too much.” Nixon: “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ sakes.”
Both Presidents Bush and Obama threatened nuclear war on Iran on several occasions. A near requirement for running for the Oval Office, whether Republican or Democrat, is a demonstrated willingness to resort to nuclear weapons. It is a sort of litmus test of ruthlessness to qualify for the Office. Trump’s tweets are just a more shrill and public version of what has been required of every American president and presidential hopeful in the nuclear age. Only potential “mad men” need apply. One must be willing to consider not simply homicide or genocide but omnicide – the destruction of the human species.
Given the logic that peace requires absolute violence, that life requires the weapon of death, the reversal of this logic by Christ can be understood to be salvific on multiple levels. The logic of mutually assured destruction is the logic that is always at work in tribal and national wars and rightly understood it is the logic at work within the individual. Death as the means to life, describes religions based on human sacrifice, societies organized by scapegoating the outsider, religion that pictures death as a doorway, or it might describe the masochistic individual bent on self-destruction which is aimed at ridding himself of his self-destructive tendencies. This death drive is that which Christ exposed in his life, death and resurrection. His formula for undoing this logic is world transforming because it reverses the logic of the world. “He would save his life will lose it.” This is because this mode of salvation is life destroying. Whether it is the accumulation of security through wealth, through religious righteousness, through chariots and horses, or through sacrificial manipulation of the gods, life is destroyed by human salvation systems. People are violent idol makers, hostile toward God and uncomprehending, according to Paul. In their incomprehension they would destroy themselves and the world.
The revelation of Christ witnessed to in Scripture is not about God’s anger being appeased or satisfied. It is about the human predicament, the exposure of the destructive nature of this logic, and the positing of life on a different principle. Christ comes to resolve the problem but also to give a surprising diagnosis to the problem. Humans are the problem and even the human solutions to the problem are the problem. He who would save himself is in the process destroying himself, and unless he gives up on this mode of saving his life, he destroys it. This obviously includes wars to destroy evil which multiply evil, religion to appease the gods which sacrifice to the gods (including notions of penal substitution), and scapegoating the neighbor in an effort to isolate and destroy the problem. If the problem is us then the solution will also be within us in the most minute and the most global way. Individual sickness, social disease, national disease, world disease, all consist of the same human problem and require the same cure. The incarnation is required because the sickness is within the human condition, as is its cure. Christ gives us a diagnosis of the problem that says we are the problem and he offers a cure that is focused on the nature of sin and the duplicitous and violent nature of the human heart but also on the global scale of the problem.
In a strange way Penal Substitution is a theory of mutually assured destruction in which God is not only on the cross but with his enemies at the foot of the cross carrying out the crucifixion. God was angry, but the destruction of Christ means now he is not. God is now enabled to forgive and love through the violence and death of Christ. This seems to take the logic of sin and apply it to God. In this deplorable theory, the primary message is that the violence and evil that would destroy the world has its ontological ground in God. In turn, the apocalyptic destruction of the world is presumed to be precisely the work of God, rather than as Scripture portrays it, as the culminating work of humans.
If the Gospel message is as we see it preached in Acts and in a summation of that Gospel in the epistles, there is no notion of the cross saving from hell or saving from God. We are saved from sin, death, and the devil and from the principalities and powers that would destroy everything. God is not like Caiaphas in need of a scapegoat, requiring one man to die to save the nation. God is not like Pilate, Anselm, Luther and Calvin, requiring an execution to satisfy justice. God does not follow human logic which is bent on violence and world destruction to save.
The perspective of the New Testament does not brush aside human suffering, violence, and evil, but presumes this is the problem creating the painful wait of Advent. Advent tells us what to expect with the coming of the Messiah. Christ is expected to expose and solve the problem of evil and we are part of the solution. Christ will defeat sin, death and the devil and rescue from mutually assured destruction, but this is the prolonged work which continues after Easter. The messianic salvation breaks into the midst of this madness, not to resolve it from above, but to cure it from within in the unfolding of healing sanity through the continued incarnate work of the Church.