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My God, What Have I Done?

I'm in the middle of reading "The Screwtape Letters," bought for me by pirateguillermo who loved it when he was younger. I've always loved C.S. Lewis despite the silliness of Perelandria and the heavy-handedness of Narnia, and this is just the sort of thing I love to linger over.

"The Screwtape Letters" was originally published in 1942, back when Britain was still the dominant world power. American ascendance wasn't even really on the horizon when it was being written, as the Americans hadn't yet gotten involved in WWII, and yet there was a passage that I have had to read and re-read and go back to mentally chew over all night.

Screwtape the demon is writing to his nephew Wormwood about the demonic use of language to inflate the pride of humanity.

"We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from 'my boots' through 'my dog,' 'my servant,' 'my wife,' 'my father,' 'my master,' and 'my country,' to 'my God.' They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of 'my boots,' the 'my' of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by 'my teddy bear' not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom one stands in special relation (for that is what [God] will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but 'the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.' And at the other end of the scale, we have taught men to say 'my God' in a sense not really very different from 'my boots,' meaning 'the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit - the God I have done a corner in.'"

I can't help but read that and think about those in power right now.

pirateguillermo told me about a segment on To the Best of Our Knowledge where someone was pointing out that Americans are only proud of their extraordinary individuals. We are proud of our Bill Gateses and our Michael Jordans, whereas other countries are proud of how well they're doing by the entirety of their populations. They're proud of their universal healthcare or their high standards of living.

Americans have a mentality of entitlement that baffles me, and part of it comes from their constant use of the word "my." The economic prosperity of the post-WWII era meant that it became easy for many people to acquire the material furnishings of the upper class, but without acquiring the notion of noblesse oblige that had, prior to WWII, been part of the upper class character. It used to be that the only way the lower economic classes had of imitating the rich was in their manners, and graciousness and generosity to the less fortunate was seen as the hallmark of good breeding. The notion that people of great wealth should also be philanthropic with their money was common, but has all but disappeared. Nowadays, people are only charitable to the extent that it is tax deductable.

Money buys that sense of entitlement, as it buys a lot of things that can be labeled "mine." When one is used to the fact that all one can see is under one's ownership, why not naturally extend that to all one can't see? Why not extend that to God? To the extent that a man's business is doing well and making money, it is easy for him to imagine that God is on his side, favoring his endeavor. And if you feel that way, it isn't such a short step to telling other people "Stick with me, God's on my side."

If God is on your side, if God is "your man," then he must not be on the side of your enemies, right? In an incredible article about the bombing of Hamburg during WWII called "A Natural History of Destruction," (The New Yorker, Nov 1, 2002) W.G. Sebald writes "As far as I know, the question of whether and how it could be strategically or morally justified was never the subject of open debate in Germany after 1945, no doubt mainly because a nation that murdered and worked to death millions of people would hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of the German cities. It is also possible, as sources like 'The End,' Nossack's account of the destruction of Hamburg, indicate, that quite a number of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with whom there could be no dispute."

Americans are so disconnected from their own history and so bound up in their own sense of entitlement that they felt nothing similar to this on 9/11/2001, although it is what they should have felt. And those in power rushed into the vacuum created by our lack of self-recrimination and said "God is on our side!" And they know this because God is their man, and their man in the sense of possession. By putting their stingy little tithe into the collection plate, they have bought a share in GodCo, which entitles them to personal favors, to putting His name on their endeavors and claiming His endorsement, to claiming to know His mind and to state with authority that it is the same as theirs.

The lunacy of such a position seems lost on most people.

As usual, I don't know the answer. That much, I have a grip on.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
cumaeansibyl
Feb. 22nd, 2005 03:28 am (UTC)
This may be the historian in me talking, but I think part of this is bound up with our determination to forget or gloss over the past. You can't feel that 9/11 is justified if you don't know or care what your country may have done to deserve it. And if all you know is one long, glorious grade-school textbook history of Our Founding Fathers and American Values and Pioneer Spirit, how can you doubt that God is on your side?

(As a mildly interesting side note, the boy considers American firebombing during WWII an unforgivable atrocity. I'm coming around to see his point of view. No doubt we went into Tokyo and Dresden thinking God was on our side, too -- after all, God loves that eye-for-an-eye business, right?)
junglemonkee
Feb. 22nd, 2005 03:47 am (UTC)
Seberg also wrote that although the justification for the bombing of Germany was "to bring a speedy end to the war," that the unprecedented firebombing of civilians, rather than the targeted bombing of factories or railway terminals, didn't bring the end of the war one second closer.

The focus of the article, ironically enough, is the five-year hole in the collective memory of Germany where, in order to rebuild, they felt the need to dismantle and cart away not just the rubble, but any memory they had of the people they were that led up to the event.

Gmail me a snail mail addy if you'd like me to send you the article. I'm done with the issue. (Yes, I'm two years behind in my New Yorker reading.)
earthdog
Feb. 22nd, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC)
According to legend, a visitor to the White House during the Civil War
said to Lincoln, "God is on our side." Lincoln was said to have replied:

"We trust, sir, that God is on our side.
It is more important to know that we are on God's side."


Few people think this way.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )