How does a nation atone for its sins? This question bubbled up a few nights ago – from where I know not. Where did I ever get the notion that such a question would be taken seriously by national leaders who have such a difficult time ever admitting simple mistakes, much less sins? And, of course, the answer to my first question is that you can’t atone for sins that you don’t acknowledge.
The problem, I believe, is that the inability to acknowledge any wrongdoing in transgression A virtually guarantees that transgression B will occur…and C and D and so on. Arrogance begets arrogance, and blundering begets further blundering. The tragedy, of course, is that national transgressions almost always cause misery and death for our fellow humans. But then here again we have a problem: if some people believe themselves to be superior to other nations, races, ethnic groups, then their misfortunes may be seen as perhaps regrettable, but as the inevitable fallout of policies designed for their best interests. Consequently, while three million deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were regrettable, the USA leaders were, nevertheless, blameless because they were protecting others from themselves, from the evils of communism. “We,” by definition, were able to decide that carpet bombing their land was in “their” best interests. The terms of “by definition” are power. The powerful define what is best for the less powerful even if it means killing a couple of million of them.
The classic expression of this power-arrogance was uttered by the American general who said, “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.”
So why dredge up Vietnam again? Why not let it recede to the quiet and quaint corners of textbooks where the potential culpability of the USA need not be seriously considered? Why indeed?
The answer is that our succeeding various administrations, having failed to deal with A (Vietnam), the current administration blundered right into B (Iraq) less than three decades later. And it was those same culprits who led us there – arrogance, ignorance, a blind sense of one’s own national moral infallibility. It is peculiar that so many professed Christians who are so eager to position themselves as political agents of God are blind to one of the fundamental precepts of Christianity – the Fall. This is the notion that all men, after Adam, are susceptible to the very pride that led Adam to disobey God.
It is that very pride that has led America to yet another quagmire in which hundreds of thousands of people have died, lost their homes, and have been forced to leave their country.
So back to my original question, how does a nation atone for its sins? I would suggest a rather simple idea: spend an equal amount of money and energy waging peace as we have spent in Vietnam and Iraq waging war. Build hospitals abroad, build schools, export culture and the arts, and provide food for starving peoples. In short, put ourselves on the side of life and a decent standard of living for all peoples rather than annually building and selling billions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition. Atone by being the world’s leading purveyor not of life-destroying industries, but of life-giving and encouraging opportunities. The prophet Isaiah writes (Isaiah 2: 2-4):
They shall beat their swords into
Nation shall not lift up sword against
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
That’s how to atone.