Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: January, 2019

JUST WAR? – I

 

In 1971, at the ripe old age of 21, I found myself serving in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam.  I was well aware that the war was controversial back home.  I was fortunate in that I saw very little actual combat while I was there (I was a field radio repairman, and happened to be in “Nam” during a lull in the war), but I had plenty of time to think about what would happen if combat did come my way.  Would I actually be able to pull the trigger and kill a fellow human being?  The answer to that question, in turn, would depend on the morality of war itself.  What did God think about the Viet Nam war?

I was poorly prepared to face such a huge moral dilemma.  I had been raised in a Christian home and had spent two years in Bible college.  Yet neither pastors nor professors had spent much time discussing the morality of war.  The sad fact of the matter is that most evangelical Protestant theologians in modern times have not done very well at explaining the elements of what constitutes a just war.

As we have already noted, the word in the Sixth Commandment translated “murder” (NKJV) signifies the taking of human life by a private individual.  But the Bible specifically mandates capital punishment for the crime of murder, as well as for a variety of other offenses.  Moreover the nation of Israel was directly ordered by God to go to war against the Canaanites, among others.

But then when we come to the New Testament we read such passages as these: “But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . I say to you, lover your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you . . .” (Matt. 5:39; NKJV).  It was passages like these that led many Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation to espouse the doctrine of Non-Resistance.  Many of them held that a Christian could not serve in the military without violating the commandments of Christ.

One of the chief difficulties with this position is that the Bible represents the civil government as an institution ordained by God himself.  “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1).  The passage even goes on to say that “he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v. 4).

Some Anabaptists tried to escape this difficulty by arguing that “The sword in ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ.”  As Christians we must follow the example of Christ, and He did not go to war (Schleitheim Confession, Article VI).  In one sense, the Anabaptists were certainly right.  Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “Christian country” or a “Christian government,” if by that we mean a government that is based on Christian moral and ethical principles.  The various countries of the world are largely made up of lost sinners, and the governments they form are often founded on less than idealistic principles.  They exist to advance the interests of society, which are not always God’s interests.  And yet they are still “appointed by God” for the purpose of maintaining order in society.  Nevertheless a civil government is quite distinct from the Kingdom of Christ.  “You know that the Gentiles lord it over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be you servant . . .” (Matt. 20:25,26).

And yet the function of civil government itself is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is honest and administers justice fairly.  The mere fact that it punishes evildoers does not make it, ipso facto, evil.  In that sense it is merely imitating what God himself will do at the Last Judgment.

Part of the problem with the Anabaptist position is that it would involve God in a double standard.  It would have God condoning something in the Old Testament but condemning it in the New; ordaining something for civil magistrates but forbidding it for Christians.  But either it is morally right or it is morally wrong.  It cannot be both moral and immoral at the same time.

The answer, I think, is that a magistrate acting in his official capacity is not acting out of personal malice or a desire for personal revenge.  His desire is to see order maintained and justice established, and with it the peace and security of the entire community.  At the bottom of it he operates (we hope!) from a humanitarian impulse, and not from personal malice.  Under those circumstances a Christian should be able to serve in a civil government, and even its military.

 

Next week, Lord, willing, we will take a closer look at what makes a war just or unjust.

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THE DISASTER OF ROE V. WADE

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Today makes the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.  It was a decision that profoundly changed America, that changed the values that guide us as a nation.  It short, it was nothing less than a cultural revolution.  In moral terms it was probably the most catastrophic decision since at least the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the Court held that African-Americans could not be citizens and had not rights which white men were bound to respect.

Roe v. Wade had far reaching social and cultural consequences.  The argument for legalized abortion is usually based on the idea of a “woman’s right to choose.”  Abortion, it is argued, involves a woman’s control over her own body, and that it should be a private decision between her and her physician.  But what about the fetus itself?  Is that just a part of the woman’s body, like her tonsils or her appendix?  Simple high school biology would tell us otherwise.  The reason abortion had been made illegal from conception was the realization that the fertilized egg has its own genetic makeup quite distinct from the mother’s.  The embryo undergoes a continuous process of development, and as it does so it acquires its own heartbeat and the ability to move on its own.  It is a distinct, living, human being.  How, then, can we justify taking its life?   Abortion amounts to infanticide in utero.

But this, in turn, raises a deeper moral question.  What makes killing wrong in the first place?  The Sixth Commandment reads, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17; NKJV), and the Judeo-Christian tradition has always held that human life is sacred.  Human beings are created in the image of God, and thus killing a human being is not the same as killing a deer or a bear.  Roe v. Wade represents a decisive break with Judeo-Christian morality.

But what then?  What makes anything right or wrong?  Feminists argue that a woman has a constitutional right to have an abortion.  But does she really?  Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say anything at all about abortion?  The Court tried to argue that it was implied in a generalized right to privacy which, in turn, was supposedly implied in several other provisions of the Constitution.  But this was quite a stretch.  The tendency in modern times has been for the Court to treat the Constitution as a “living document” to be construed in different ways as the needs of society change.  But the problem with this approach is that it amounts to judicial tyranny – the Supreme Court can create law at will.  But the Constitution represents a social contract among the people – “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . . ,” and only the people have the right to change it.  It is not for the Supreme Court to read into the document what it will.

But suppose that the Constitution actually did stipulate a right to have an abortion (as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently suggested New State should put in its Constitution).  Would that make it right?  The U.S. Constitution, as it was originally written, tacitly recognized the existence of slavery, and stipulated that runaway slaves had to be returned to their masters.  But did that make it right?  What about the Nazi Holocaust, which was also official government policy?

What the Feminist argument amounts to is a denial of the existence of any higher, universal moral law.  It assumes that moral norms are man-made, and that we are not accountable to any Supreme Being.  But human societies have repeatedly shown themselves to all kinds of cruelty and injustice.  Does might really make right?

What we have today in America is a culture that is increasingly secular and amoral.  We think of ourselves as autonomous individuals acting in our own self-interest, without any respect to any higher moral principles.  This, in turn, has led to an increasingly lawless society.  Life is a matter of what we can get away with.

This lack of universal ideals has also led to identity politics.  Instead of seeing ourselves as sharing a common humanity, and as united as members of a single country, committed to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” we see ourselves instead as part of this or that oppressed minority group, engaged in a perpetual struggle against some other group or groups.  It was only a matter of time when white, working class people would begin to see themselves as an oppressed group; hence we have the ruse of white nationalism and Donald Trump.

But democracy cannot long endure under such circumstances.  Politicians need to be able to find common ground and reach a compromise, which is increasingly difficult when society is deeply divided over core values.  And people need an incentive to obey the law voluntarily – they need to be motivated by a higher moral law – that one needs to obey the law even when the police are not looking.  When that is lacking, when people are guided solely by individual self-interest, only a dictator can maintain order in society.

America is a very different country today than it was 46 years ago.  Roe v. Wade was a decisive break with cultural traditions held by Western Civilization for thousands of years.  It remains to be seen what the future will hold.

 

THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN LIFE

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The Sixth Commandment reads “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17; NKJV).  Most of us would recoil at the thought of murdering a fellow human being.  It is one the moral principle that is universally accepted.  Yet all too often, when it comes to issues like war, abortion and euthanasia, we find ourselves trying to rationalize the taking of human life.  Perhaps the commandment deserves closer examination.

One might begin by asking why it is wrong to take human life but not animal life.  To answer that question we must go back in time to the aftermath of the Great Flood.  After the flood waters receded God gave Noah and his family permission to eat animals as well as plant life, but He added this caveat: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4).  God then went on to state: “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man.  From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man” (v. 5).   And then He adds this explanation: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, / By man his blood shall be shed; / For in the image of God / He made man” (v. 6).

The passage is significant, for it establishes the sanctity of human life, and yet at the same time it gives a warrant for capital punishment.  The two, in fact, go hand in hand.  It is all based on the principle of retributive justice.  “. . . then you shall give life for the life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . .” (Ex. 21:23,24).  It is the gravity of the offense that warrants the severity of the punishment.

What makes human life precious, then, is the image of God in man.  In certain ways human beings bear a resemblance to God himself.  We have the capacity to think and reason, and to communicate verbally.  More importantly, we have the capacity of moral discernment and the ability to enter into a relationship with God.  All of these characteristics set up apart from animal life below.  Murder, then, is sacrilege.  It is an assault on the special dignity that we have derived from God himself.

And thus we have the sanctity of human life enshrined in the Ten Commandments.  The word there translated “murder” (“You shall not murder”) is the Hebrew word “ratzach,” which is a relatively rare word, and can refer to manslaughter as well as murder.  It is never applied to God, but refers specifically to the taking of human life by a private individual.  It does not preclude capital punishment or just war, as both are sanctioned by Scripture.

It is important to emphasize that in the eyes of God the real sin is the attitude of our hearts.  This is why Jesus could say, “Bit I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22 – “Raca” is thought to be an Aramaic word meaning “empty headed one”).  When Jesus said this He was not really adding anything new to what was already stated in the Old Testament.  What the Old Testament Law required, in fact, was this: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.  You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17,18).

God is love (I John 4:8,16), and what He requires of us is that we love each other.  Anger and hatred are the exact opposite of how we are supposed to think and behave.  They are the very epitome of what is wrong with the fallen human psyche and the essence of our rebellion against our Creator.  It is a moral catastrophe.  Do we need to look any further for evidence of our guilt before God?

THE SANCTITY OF HUMAN AUTHORITY

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Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

The Fifth Commandment reads, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16; NKJV).  So seriously was this commandment taken that the death penalty was attached to it.  “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastised him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the rulers of his city . . .” (Dt. 21:18/,19).  The parents would then make a declaration that their son was incorrigible.  “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear” (v. 21).

This commandment touches on the root of all man’s difficulties: the rebellious attitude we display to persons in authority.  It began with our rebellion against God himself, and that same spirit of rebelliousness aims at every form of human authority as well, and thereby threatens to undermine the whole structure of civilized society.

While the immediate reference is to the parent / child relationship, by implication it extends to other human relationships as well.  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” (I Peter. 2:13).  This includes servants being submissive to their masters (vv. 18-20) and wives submitting to their husbands (3:1-6).  This does not mean, however, that persons in positions of authority are free to abuse their subordinates at will.  Husbands, for instance, are told to dwell with their wives “with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered” (3:7).

The fact of the matter is that society cannot function without authority structures.  We need rulers and managers to plan and organize, guide and direct.  Otherwise unproductive chaos would be the result.  But the basic moral principle holds throughout: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  That means that those who are in subordinate positions must cooperate with those in authority to the full extent of their ability, so that the leaders can accomplish their tasks with a minimum of interference.  But by the same token those in authority are responsible for the wellbeing of those under them.  They are fellow human beings, of equal moral worth in the sight of God.  To mistreat or abuse them is unconscionable.

Much of this, of course, is just plain commonsense.  But what is significant about the biblical view is that it puts a divine sanction on our duty to respect authority.  It is a human authority; but it is also much more than that – it is also divine authority as well.

All of this is a little hard for Americans to grasp.  We are used to a political ideology that says that governments “derive their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.”  But according to the Bible we are to obey the government “for conscience’ sake” (Rom. 13:5).

This might strike a believer as somewhat odd.  We do not often think of the government as a particularly godly entity.  Governments are formed by men, often with little or no regard for God or morality.  Moreover a civil government operates on the basis of coercion, and in that sense does not reflect the Christian principle of “turning the other cheek.”  The whole political process can be a tawdry affair.  Yet Paul could call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:4).  He makes the observation that “there is not authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (v. 1).  The word translated “appointed”  could also be rendered “ordered” or “directed.”  The idea is that God in His sovereignty ultimately controls all that happens here on earth.  Hence Paul could say that “there is no authority except from God.”  The implication, then, is that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment upon themselves” (v. 2), and thus we “must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake” (v. 5).

Significantly Paul said all of this when the pagan Roman government was in power. In fact the emperor at the time was none other than Nero, although this was before the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and the persecution of the Christians which followed it.  Nero himself was known for being personally profligate throughout his reign.  Such was the kind of person Paul calls “God’s minister to you for good.”

Thus government derives its moral authority from God, not the people.  We are to be subject to it because God wants us to – it is part of our duty toward Him.  This does not mean, however, that the government is free to do anything it pleases.  While the authority of the state has been established by God, it is limited by Him as well.  God is the final Judge, and He is a God of justice.  He has promised to punish injustice and oppression.  No government has the power to command anything that directly contradicts God’s will.

Moreover there is a danger to the government itself when it tries to detach itself from God and morality.  If fails to gain the respect of its citizens, if it can command obedience only at the point of a sword, it will either become tyrannical or be swept away in revolution.  In a functioning democracy people obey the government voluntarily – and they do that only t the extent that they believe that it is their moral obligation to do so.  Let us ever remain “one nation under God.

THE SABBATH

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Jean-Francois Millet: The Gleaners

 

The Fourth Commandment reads, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8; NKJV).  Interestingly this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament, which raises the question, is it really a part of the moral law?  Are Gentiles required to keep the Sabbath?

To answer that question we must examine the purpose and nature of the institution.  The Ten Commandments are given in two different places in the Old Testament, and in each place a different reason for it is given.  The first place is the one just cited, Exodus 20:8-11.  There the reason given is that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh (cf. Gen. 2:1-3).   Thus the Sabbath is presented as a kind of “creation ordinance” – something that is built into the very nature of things, and intended for all mankind.  It was designed to meet a universal human need.

But then when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deut. 5:12-15 he gives a different reason for the observance of the Sabbath.  He reminds the Israelites that they had been slaves in Egypt, subject to harsh exploitation.  The Exodus was a deliverance from misery and oppression, and the achievement of a long sought rest.  Therefore the Israelites were under a special obligation to observe a weekly day of rest.  Furthermore, it was called “a sign between Me [i.e., God] and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13).  In other words, the Sabbath was a sign or token of the special covenant relationship that God had with Israel.  Gentiles are not included in this covenant.

At one point Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In other words, the primary intention was to serve a humanitarian purpose, not to be an unbearable burden.  The idea is to give both man and beast a needed periodic rest.  “Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Ex. 23:12).

Christian believers are not under the covenant that God made with Israel, but we are still human beings and have the same basic human needs as all the rest of mankind.  Thus the basic underlying principle remains valid: we need regular, periodic rest from our secular pursuits and labor that we might be physically and spiritually refreshed.

The Sabbath is, in fact, a part of the larger theme in Scripture condemning labor exploitation.  In Deuteronomy 24:14,15 we read “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy.  Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.”  And the same theme carries over into the New Testament as well.  “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries are coming upon you! . . . Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” (Jas. 5:1-6).

As our modern society become more secularized, and imagines itself as having thrown off the shackles of religion, the business community becomes more ruthless and rapacious.  We got rid of our “blue laws” that forbade most businesses to operate on Sundays.  Now most businesses want to operate seven days a week, twelve hours a day or more.  Most business owners seem to think that the only thing that matters in life is making money, and they want to do it “24-7.”  Workers are paid less than a living wage and are required to be available for work any day of the week, including weekends and evenings.  This obviously makes it difficult for them to meet family obligations and religious commitments.   But that does not matter to investors – money is the main thing.

The great prophet of modern laissez-faire capitalism, Adam Smith, tried to argue that in pursuing one’s own self-interest a capitalist is advancing the interests of society at large.  “. . .he is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” (Wealth of Nations, IV.II).  Unfortunately it does not always work out that way in real life.  Too often we have sacrificed our souls and the common good on the altar of material gain.

We need regular, periodic physical and mental rest.  But more than that, we need regular time off to put life in its proper perspective.  What is life all about?  What are we trying to accomplish here on earth?  Why do we work in the first place?  In the long run employees are more reliable, trustworthy, highly motivated and productive if the spend time each week in a place of worship contemplating the larger issues of life.

But most of all we need to spend a certain amount of time thinking about God.  As finite human creatures we are all ultimately dependent upon Him, “for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Dt. 8:18).  Therefore we ought to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).  We need to keep our priorities in life straight.

Thus when a company requires its employees to be available for work any day of the week, any time of the day, it shows a complete disregard for the personal well-being.  And regardless of what Adam Smith says, the essence of morality is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that means practicing the Golden Rule.  If you would not want to work those kinds of hours for that kind of pay, then you should not make your employees do it either.

When we insist on a seven day business week we are ultimately destroying ourselves – we are weakening the social and moral fabric of the nation.  If we neglect church where will our children develop the moral sense to know that it is wrong to lie, cheat and steal?   And how can the business community thrive and prosper in a dishonest society?  Ultimately we ignore God’s will to our own detriment.

THE SANCTITY OF GOD’S NAME

 

 

The Third Commandment (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. . .” – Ex. 20:7: NKJV) prohibits the use of God’s name for any vain or worthless purpose.  This would include, of course, outright perjury, but also much more than that.  It would also include the use of God’s name in incantations, sorcery, divination, as well as common everyday oaths and curses.

One might ask, what is so terrible about swearing?  Isn’t it only a manner of speaking?  To answer that question we must first consider the importance of God’s name and what is involved in using it for any purpose.

In the Bible names have much more significance than they do for us today.  Today, when we name a newborn infant, we are likely to pick a name for any one of a reasons – it was grandfather’s name, or the name of a favorite aunt, or it just sounds cute.  For us a name is simply an identifier, nothing else.  But in the Bible a name was much more than that.  It was the representation of the person himself – his honor and reputation, and sometimes even revealed something about himself, something the way a nickname does today.  To abuse someone’s name was to insult the person himself.

What all of this means is that the name of God ought always to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.  God is the Supreme Being, the Maker of heaven and earth, the source of all our blessings, yes, even of life itself.  He is wise and good and gracious.  If anyone is worthy of our honor and respect, it is He.  Thus if we use His name for a light, frivolous or trivial purpose, we are showing Him disrespect.  And if we use His name for an outright falsehood, as in a case of perjury, we make Him a party to our crime.  It is no wonder, then, that He says, “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (same verse as above).

Our duty toward God, then, involves much more than simply not committing perjury.  Rather, we ought to advance His glory through our worshp.

“Give to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

Give to the Lord glory and strength.

Give to the Lord the glory due His name;

Bring an offering, and come before Him.

Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!”

I Chron. 16:28,29 (cf. Ps. 29:1,2)

When we gather together on a Sunday morning we should have a sense of entering into the very presence of the Almighty Himself, and our conscious aim should be to praise and glorify Him.  And whoever is leading the worship has a responsibility to ensure that that is indeed what is happening.

Prayer plays an important role in bringing glory to God’s name.  When we invoke His name in prayer we show that we are trusting God to help us with our difficulties.  And then when He answers the prayer it becomes evident that the deliverance came from Him.

“Moses and Aaron were among His priests,

And Samuel was among those who called upon His name;

They called upon the Lord, and He answered them.”

Psalm 99:6

When God answers prayer it becomes evident to all that He is the God of mercy, grace and power.

The fact of the matter is that God has a vested interest in the people who are called by His name.  Whatever they do, and whatever happens to them, reflects on Him.  When they suffer it makes Him look like an apparent failure, and when they prosper it speaks well of His providential care.  “He restores my soul; / He leads me in the paths of righteousness / For His name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3).  On the other hand when Israel sinned and God had them sent into exile where they were abused by their foreign captors, the pagans naturally assumed that God was unable to save His people.  “’Those who rule over them / Make them wail,’ says the Lord, ‘And My name is blasphemed continually every day’” (Isa. 52:5b; cf. Ezek. 36:20; Rom. 2:24).

Likewise our personal behavior reflects on God’s reputation.  Servants are urged to obey their masters “so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed” (I Tim. 6:1); and young women are admonished to be good wives and mothers, “that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Tit. 2:9).  When we call ourselves Christians and then fail to act like Christians, we bring reproach on the gospel.

And, of course, honoring God’s name means keeping the vows and promises we make in His name.  When we take an oath or make a vow in the name of God, we are asking Him to bear witness to the truth of what we are saying.  But if what we are saying is false, or if we fail to keep the promise we made, then we are making Him a party to our lie and inviting His judgment to fall upon us.  “when you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you . . .” (Dt. 23:21-23).  A righteous man keeps his vows even when it hurts him to do so.  He “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:4b).  A Christian, in fact, should have such a reputation for honesty that he should not need to swear at all to confirm his declarations and statements (Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12).

Too often, in the daily affairs of life, we are apt to forget about God.  We figure that He can take care of Himself and we will worry about ourselves.  Yet we exist for His glory and what we do in life affects His honor and reputation.  How differently would we behave if we thought about Him and our purpose in life here!

THE SECOND SEX

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Simone de Beauvoir

 

Review:

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

H.M. Parshley, trans.

Vintage Books, 1974

814 pp., pb.

 

The American publisher of The Second Sex calls it “the classic manifesto of the liberated woman,” and so it is.  Simone de Beauvoir was a longtime close associate of Jean-Paul Sartre, and as such was close to the center of the French Existentialist movement.  And yet in some ways she came to have an influence far greater and more lasting than of Sartre or Camus.  It is because her book really was destined to be “the classic manifesto” of the Feminist Movement, and as such it has had a profound effect on Western culture and society.

The book is quite lengthy (814 pages) and devotes a great deal of space to describing in detail the condition of womanhood from birth through childhood, marriage and motherhood.  It is a dreary picture of subservience and drudgery, of women not being able to reach their full potential as human beings due to the male domination of society.  Throughout it all she insists that there are no purely natural differences between the genders.  The apparent differences in behavior that we see in day to day life are the result of social pressure and conditioning.  It is human society, civilization, that has put women in this position, and if we could change society to permit the full development of women’s potential, women could compete with men on an equal basis.

De Beauvoir sees the problem, naturally, through the lens of Existentialist philosophy.  Throughout her discussion she sees herself as an autonomous being who seeks to be an active “subject” who “transcends” her natural circumstances to shape her own destiny, rather than a passive “object” who is trapped in the “immanence” of her environment.  The goal of life, then, is not “happiness,” which can be achieved by being a loyal and devoted family member, but liberty, in which you are free to pursue you own dreams and ambitions.

Throughout her book de Beauvoir emphasizes the role of environment as opposed to heredity in shaping the human personality; but she is opposed to any form of naturalistic determinism.  She scarcely mentions the role of hormones in influencing the way a woman thinks and acts.  “. . .it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural, and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilization . . . Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relations to the world are modified through the actions of others than herself” (p. 806).  She concludes, then, that “woman is the victim of no mysterious fatality; the peculiarities that identify her as specifically a woman get their importance from the significance placed upon them.  They can be surmounted, in the future, when they are regarded in new perspectives” (p. 809).  Hence the impulse to write her book.

So according to de Beauvoir, what would an ideal society look like? She points to what the Soviet Revolution originally promised: women would be trained and educated exactly the same as men, and would work for the same wages.  “Erotic liberty was to be recognized by custom.”  A woman would be obligated to support herself financially, and “marriage was to be based on a free agreement that the spouses could break at will; maternity was to be voluntary, which meant that contraception and abortion would be authorized . . .,” and the state “assume charge of the children” (pp. 805-806).  In her discussion about abortion she goes into great detail about problem pregnancies, but scarcely mentions the moral problem involved in taking a human life.

De Beauvoir in particular paints a dreary picture of traditional marriage.  “Marriage is obscene in principle in so far as it transforms into rights and duties those mutual relations which should be founded on a spontaneous urge . . .” (p. 496).

The underlying worldview in all of this, of course, is an Existentialist one.  There is no God.  There are no divine, eternal essences that define reality.  We exist as autonomous beings and are free to choose our own individual destinies.

But what if God actually does exist?  What if we really are created beings designed to fulfill a divinely ordained purpose?  That would mean that the only way society as a whole can function properly, and the only way that we can find individual fulfillment and happiness, is by conforming to the will of the Creator.  In that case neither man nor woman is free just to “be himself,” to pursue his own selfish desires and pleasures.  Rather we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37, quoting Dt. 6:5; NKJV), and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39, quoting Lev. 19:18.  And love, in turn, requires that “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  Love, the genuine kind of love that God requires, does not act in a selfish or lustful manner, but looks out for the wellbeing of others.   It honors commitments.  It is a self-sacrificing love, a love that imitates Christ.  It is not just that wives are to be subservient to their husbands; both husbands and wives are to be subservient to God.

In a sense, what de Beauvoir is advocating is the very essence of mankind’s rebellion against God.  She could not have stated it in starker terms.  But in the end we must all face divine judgment.