The Coming of the Lord?

The Thanksgiving Day service was almost over. The singing had been inspiring, the sermon right on point, the prayers plain and heartfelt. Then the Congressman mounted the pulpit. “A Proclamation by the President of the United States,” he announced. I listened until my count of the half-truths and hypocrisies in the script reached five, then tuned out to save the spirit of the day.

That particular harbor was not to be found this day, however. Arriving home I clicked on the internet for news headlines. Over 200 killed just that morning in bombings in Sadr City. More than 250 injured. Well nigh 500 casualties, enough to fill most of the sanctuary where we had just heard the word of the Lord, and of the President.

My mind went back to the script. “Founding ideals of the Nation,” the Proclamation intoned. Well, maybe. “Constitution” appeared twice, twisted and abused and evaded though it has been the past five years. “The world’s freest country,” the President trumpeted, “where the hope of the American dream is within the reach of each person”–even though his tax policies have helped stretch wealth inequality to historic highs. “A time of great promise for America,” the Congressman recited. Without denying all that citizens of this nation can properly give thanks for, I wondered what this particular promise might be.

It turns out, Advent came early for me this year, on Thanksgiving Day. The destruction that morning in Sadr City signifies Iraq’s descent into the sort of chaos and destruction envisioned by the apocalyptic scriptures upon which Advent opens (e.g., Luke 21: 20- 36). Promise of the future? the prophets repeat, with no little incredulity. You don’t know what you’re asking for. The day of the Lord for which you piously mew will descend with darkness and woe–and for you, first of all. “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,” thunders Amos, “and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation…” (6:1).

Two-hundred-plus ghosts from Sadr City now hover in my church to bear witness to these words. They join all the maimed and executed and tortured and blown apart in Iraq, the twenty-nine hundreds of American troops killed there and the thousands more crippled for life, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and wounded, the millions of Iraqis displaced and exiled–all attendant upon a war endorsed by the Congressman, paid for by the congregants, concocted out of whole cloth, chosen by and precious to the President who daily calls on the name of the Lord.

Do we–should we not–tremble as did Thomas Jefferson (no stranger to self-delusion himself) on another issue when we remember that there is a God, and he is just? Will the bombs of Baghdad Thanksgiving 2006 not be revisited, someday, on those who unleashed the forces that eventuated in their explosion? Will we really have to ask, next time, why “they” hate “us”? Can we abide the day of God’s coming?

Are the pious ones, the God-invokers, in the American Zion at special risk in these auguries? White American evangelicals, until last month’s elections, consistently polled as the President’s most faithful supporters. Many of their prominent spokesmen, and ordinary pew-sitters too, sounded a regular litany that explained just why. He conducts daily devotions, they said. He opens Cabinet meetings with prayer. He does not have sex with interns in the Oval Office. He stands forth resolute against nay-sayers and doubters and the liberal media, and so he calls evil, evil, and America a good and righteous land sworn to defeating evil everywhere. He consults his heart, we hear implied, where speaks the counsel of God. And with that heart, he fathoms other hearts, whether it be of Pootie-Poot the Russian (“he is trustworthy,” the President pronounced, at first meeting) or of the Sunni insurgent (“he wishes to disrupt the new regime of freedom”). That the former verdict has long since come into doubt, and that the latter was evident to intelligence agencies years before the President finally intuited it matters not, for the model of simple faith trusting the inner voice in the face of experts, intellectuals, media, and bureaucrats all testifying to the contrary has long been a staple, sometimes the only refuge, of American evangelical faith in modern times.

With the abject failure of this approach now evident for all to see in Iraq, as it was earlier in New Orleans, and as it is now becoming evident to some evangelicals with respect to climate change, we may be able to appreciate the current situation as (for us) a mild harbinger of the day of the Lord. A moment for repentance. And since repentance entails self-knowledge, a moment for clarification. A time to reconsider how we think, who we are, what we have become. From that knowledge perhaps we can begin a reconstruction, not only, someday, of the Iraq we have helped ruin, but of the theological and ethical understandings by which we are to conduct our way in the world along the paths of peace.

The editors of Perspectives would like to promote a conversation on this front. We begin it in this issue with a critique of one able apology for the “war on terror” as this President meant to wage it. To remember the God of mercy who also comes to us in Advent, we close with John Calvin’s interpretation of one verse from Malachi’s apocalypse. For this column, it is enough to end with words written by a conservative Catholic and two-time voter for this President. In The Sunday Times (London) last June 4, Andrew Sullivan resurrected the counsel that Reinhold Niebuhr first devised for liberal Protestants in the wake of the United States’s earlier follies in and around World War I. The “fundamentalist Christianity” this President follows, says Sullivan,

can enable evil by promoting the lie that some humans have been saved from it. It misses the deeper Christian truth that even good people can do bad things. It forgets that what is noble about America is not that Americans are somehow morally better than anyone else. But that it is a country with a democratic system that helps expose the constancy of human evil, and minimise its power through the rule of law, democratic accountability and constitutional checks.


That system was devised by men who assumed the worst of people, not the best, who expected Americans not to be better than any other people, but the same. It was the wisdom of the system that would save America, not the moral superiority of its people.


What is so tragic about this presidency is that it has simultaneously proclaimed American goodness while dismantling the constitutional protections and laws that guard against American evil. The good intention has overwhelmed the fact of human fallibility. But reality–human reality–eventually intrudes. Denial breaks down. The physical evidence of torture, of murder, of atrocity, slowly overwhelms the will to disbelieve in it.

From this beginning, let us consider what Reformed Christians can contribute to finding a better way ahead.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College and co-editor of Perspectives.