None Good But God

The name and rank of convicted war criminal William Laws Calley comes quickly and effortlessly to my recollection. I don’t need Google, Wikipedia or anything else to help me remember who he is or the infamous role he played in American military history; “Lt. William Laws Calley” is a phrase forever seared into my consciousness by countless nightly television newscasts aired while I was still a boy, just beginning to make sense of a much larger world that was far more confusing and contradictory than anyone – adult or child – really wants to deal with.

I was, after all, only eight years old when many of the horrific details of the My Lai Massacre in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam became public knowledge. (Caution: My Lai link contains graphic content.) As an adult, armed with considerably more information and historical analysis, I can of course appreciate the distinction that Lt. Calley did not, all on his own, slaughter between 347 and 504 civilians, most of whom were women, children and the elderly. Although 26 U.S. soldiers were charged with war crimes for their actions at My Lai, Calley alone was convicted. He served just three years of a life sentence, though his name will forever be associated with one of the most barbaric incidents in all of American military history.

The tragic, blood-soaked history of the American involvement in Vietnam – and Calley’s name in particular – came to mind once again as I read an article entitled Members of Stryker Combat Brigade in Afghanistan Accused of Killing Civilians for Sport, published Sept. 18 by The Washington Post. While it should be noted, of course, that being accused of war crimes is not the same thing as being convicted of them, the preliminary evidence against a few members of 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, seems pretty compelling. According to The Post, “Members of the platoon have been charged with dismembering and photographing corpses, as well as hoarding a skull and other human bones.”

I have a deep, routinely-frustrating love for the United States. Given the opportunity and wherewithal to live anywhere else on the planet, I’d almost certainly live here. The truth is that I love the U.S. so much that deep down in my soul I still want to naively believe that we are at least trying to be “the good guys” – any and all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. I greatly prefer to keep my spiritual color palette black and white; heroes need to be heroic and villains need to be villainous. And I want them to stay that way, if at all possible…please don’t confuse my already-shaken loyalties by publishing photos of hapless victims that have been very deliberately mowed down by American military firepower.

The supreme irony weaved into this depressing, disturbing piece of news coming out of Afghanistan is that one of the primary reasons the U.S. entered into armed conflict against the Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan is precisely because they (the Taliban) helped train the terrorists who exacted such a huge loss of civilian life with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C. Our moral outrage against targeting American civilians for murder has somehow morphed into…targeting different civilians for murder. Afghans can be forgiven for asking what, exactly, separates Stryker Combat Brigade from the 9/11 hijackers.

As I spent the last week or so meditating further on this recent news, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that we as a nation are very obviously not learning from our own very-recent history. Yesterday’s Son Tinh district in South Vietnam all too quickly becomes the La Mohammed Kalay village in Afghanistan of Jan. 2010. Insert different names, calculate a higher or lower body count, change the details surrounding the various aggravating circumstances…it all adds up to far too many nauseating examples of the depravity of the human heart and a disillusioning realization that there really are, after all, no good guys.

Jesus caused such an uproar in 1st-century Palestine precisely because He was perfectly committed to the Truth (John 18:37-38) and unflinchingly provided humanity with the most accurate portrayal of the human condition to date. He upset His own disciples, undoubtedly, by calling them “evil” (Matthew 7:11) and hacked off the Pharisees time and time again by telling them that they did not understand the Scriptures (Mark 12:24-27), that they were, in fact, “white-washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27-28) and acting as blind guides and fools (Matthew 23:16-17). Jesus alone had a perfect understanding of the human heart, and He clearly did not like what He saw. And yet He was consistently filled with compassion for our plight (Matthew 14:14-16; 15:32), not wanting to leave even one of us in our deplorable condition (2 Peter 3:9).

Jesus offers the grimmest-possible assessment of the human condition, that we are all evil and capable of unspeakable evil. He affirms that God is less concerned with the fate of nations than He is with the renewal of the individual human heart (Matthew 18:10-14). Simultaneously, Jesus offers the best-possible answer to human wickedness and depravity, namely that through His sacrifice we can become co-heirs with Him of a Kingdom that will not spoil, tarnish or fade (Matthew 6:19-21). The trouble seems to be that most of us will not accept the first part of the equation (total depravity) and thus we see no need for the salvation part of His equation, either.

I really don’t like to think of myself as “evil,” and my guess is that you don’t, either. So what do we do with the fact that Jesus very clearly and repeatedly says that we are? That we all are? Are we tempted to distance ourselves from the truth of Jesus’ assessment simply because we are not personally responsible for atrocities such as My Lai? I have to think that not many of us like to think of our armed forces carrying out unspeakable atrocities against civilians when we have entrusted them to prosecute a war that we may feel was completely justified by the tremendous loss of life that occurred when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. It’s human nature to locate an enemy and vilify them, but confusing as heck when pursuing the enemy turns out to reveal our own bloodlust.

If we can somehow distance ourselves from the worst of the worst, does that then mean that what Jesus says about us is nullified somehow? It’s helpful, I think, to regularly recall that Jesus saved some of his harshest denunciations for those who allowed themselves to believe that they had achieved any form of moral superiority over their fellow man (Matthew 23). Under the right circumstances, we can all very easily become the next William Laws Calley.

I know a lot of folks who don’t agree with various tenets of reformed theology, and I can certainly respect that. I am always willing to enter into a congenial, spirited dialogue about the Five Points of Reformed Theology with another Christian brother or sister, as long as we both appreciate that our theologies are, at bottom, just our best attempt to make sense of the Scriptures that we both agree were breathed out by God and validated by the life and ministry of Jesus. I note with interest, though, that the one point of “Calvinism” that people tend to resist most vehemently is the Doctrine of Total Depravity. Funny, since that would seem to me to be the easiest one to prove. Pick up any newspaper. Turn to any page. There it is.

Romans 3:9-18 (ESV)
“No One Is Righteous”

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Note: In his book Created in God’s Image, Anthony Hoekema provides what I have found (so far) to be the single best explanation of the reformed doctrine of total depravity. (See Chapter 8, “The Spread of Sin.”) Hoekema softens his preferred terminology somewhat from “total depravity” to “pervasive depravity,” arguing that many people reject sound biblical doctrine by misunderstanding the term itself.

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