Magazine article The Christian Century

The Sin of Smugness. (A Time for Regret)

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Sin of Smugness. (A Time for Regret)

Article excerpt

I NEVER EXPECTED First Things to give a theologically nuanced interpretation of the current U.S. war on terrorism, and it hasn't disappointed me. Its editor-in-chief, Father Richard Neuhaus, has yet to see a war for which he could not provide theological justification from the magnificent Catholic magisterium--despite what the pope says. Yet I have been astounded by the relentless, unanimous smugness that has characterized First Things since September 11. Everyone who writes for the journal is so sure that we are right, so certain of President Bush's sagacity, so damnably smug.

Though Jesus didn't condemn smugness as a sin, he should have.

Even if ours is so obviously a just war, whatever happened to the place of repentance in the execution of such a war? What of the pervasive sense of regret that pervades classical just war theology? It would be a great step forward for these just warriors to repent if not of war then of their lack of discomfort. For whatever good reasons they have felt forced to commend using destructive force against those for whom Jesus died. Is there no cause for regret?

Wisely, in their praise of the war, the writers in First Things make much of Augustine, pragmatism and utilitarianism--and scarcely mention Jesus.

At a recent conference at Messiah College on "Spirituality and Social Justice," in which a number of experts articulated the churches' doctrines on matters of justice, a young man rose out of his seat, shaking with emotion, virtually shouting about his experience in Israel's occupied territories. "I'm so frustrated! I've just returned from Jenin and seen there the devastation. I'm not sure what I or my church ought to do, but I know we ought to do something more than sit here and have discussions!"

I felt ashamed that I had lost such youthful frustration. I longed for some gospel-induced sense of disease. God forgive us our middle- aged numbness, our calloused rationales, our informed complacency, our smugness.

One evening, in a dormitory Bible study group with students, we were taking apart Matthew 22, the passage about Jesus and Caesar's coin.

"Jesus, should we pay taxes to Caesar?" people ask.

Jesus says, "Who's got some of that coinage on him? My pockets are empty."

A coin is produced.

"Whose picture is on it?"

"Er, uh, Caesar's," the people say.

Jesus tells them, "Well, give it to him. But be careful. Don't give to Caesar that which belongs to God."

End of the lesson.

A student asks, "Did I miss something? He didn't answer the question! …

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