How should Christians think about national sin, even “systemic” sin?
John Wesley, as the American Revolution began, preached in 1775 on “National Sins and Miseries.” British soldiers were dying in America. Britain was suffering unemployment and poverty. And there was growing social turmoil in Britain. Misery and sin suffused every aspect of the nation.
Citing King David in ancient Israel, who provoked divine judgment by pursuing a national census for prideful purposes, Wesley preached: “God frequently punishes a people for the sins of their rulers, because they are generally partakers of their sins, in one kind or other. And the righteous Judge takes this occasion of punishing them for all their sins.”
For Wesley, as with historic Christianity, God deals not just with individuals or the church but also with nations. Many contemporary Christians claim modern nations are nearly inconsequential to God. Not so to Wesley. Many contemporary Christians like to assume they are innocent victims amid the hostile culture and unjust rulers. But Wesley insisted all contribute to national sin, and rulers in both their virtues and vices reflect the people.
Israel’s example was instructive for Britain, viewed by Wesley:
Is there not in several respects, a remarkable resemblance between the case of Israel and our own general wickedness then occasioned a general visitation; and does not the same cause now produce the same effect We likewise have sinned, and we are punished; and perhaps these are only the beginning of sorrows. Perhaps the angel is now stretching out his hand over England to destroy it. O that the Lord would at length say to him that destroyeth, “It is enough; stay now thine hand.”
Britain’s sufferings owed to the vices permeating the whole people, Wesley insisted:
That vice is the parent of misery, few deny; it is confirmed by the general suffrage of all ages. But we seldom bring this home to ourselves; when we speak of sin as the cause of misery, we usually mean, the sin of other people, and suppose we suffer, because they sin. But need we go so far Are not our own vices sufficient to account for all our sufferings Let us fairly and impartially consider this; let us examine our own hearts and lives. We all suffer: and we have all sinned. But will it not be most profitable for us, to consider every one his own sins, as bringing sufferings both on himself and others; to say, “Lo, I have sinned, I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done”
It’s the refrain of nearly all that “we suffer because they sin;” Wesley observed. But we should chiefly look to ourselves. He chided Britain for ingratitude. They enjoyed liberty and riches as none other and yet there were pervasive complaints and entitlement:
Thousands of plain, honest people throughout the land are driven utterly out of their senses, by means of the poison which is so diligently spread through every city and town in the kingdom. They are screaming out for liberty while they have it in their hands, while they actually possess it; and to so great an extent, that the like is not known in any other nation under heaven; whether we mean civil liberty, a liberty of enjoying all our legal property, — or religious liberty, a liberty of worshipping God according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Sound familiar? Wesley continued:
Let not anyone think, this is but a small calamity which has fallen upon our land. If you saw, as I have seen, in every county, city, town, men who were once of a calm, mild, friendly temper, mad with party-zeal, foaming with rage against their quiet neighbours, ready to tear out one another’s throats, and to plunge their swords into each other’s bowels; if you had heard men who once feared God and honoured the king, now breathing out the bitterest invectives against him, and just ripe, should any occasion offer, for treason and rebellion; you would not then judge this to be a little evil, a matter of small moment, but one of the heaviest judgments which God can permit to fall upon a guilty land.
Wesley chided polarization, partisanship and tribalism that usurped national and social fraternity. Again, sound familiar? Today we like to imagine that we are oppressed by others and we ourselves are victims. But Wesley saw all both high and low as contributors to national miseries:
The time would fail, should I attempt to enumerate all the ways wherein we have sinned; but in general, this is certain: — The rich, the poor, the high, the low, Have wander’d from his mild command; The floods of wickedness o’erflow, And deluge all the guilty land: People and Priest lie drown’d in sin, And Tophet yawns to take them in. How innumerable are the violations of justice among us! Who does not adopt the old maxim, Si possis, recte; si non, quocunque modo rem: “If you can get money honestly, do; but, however, get money”
Wesley chided the love of money, luxury and self-indulgence:
Is there a character more despicable than even that of a liar Perhaps there is; even that of an epicure. And are we not a generation of epicures? Is not our belly our god Are not eating and drinking our chief delight, our highest happiness Is it not the main study (I fear, the only study) of many honourable men to enlarge the pleasure of tasting. When was luxury (not in food only, but in dress, furniture, equipage) carried to such an height in Great Britain ever since it was a nation? We have lately extended the British empire almost over the globe. We have carried our laurels into Africa, into Asia, into the burning and the frozen climes of America. And what have we brought thence All the elegance of vice which either the eastern or western world could afford. Luxury is constantly the parent of sloth.
Wesley also faulted Britain for its profanity as “not one nation under the canopy of heaven can vie with the English in profaneness. Such a total neglect, such an utter contempt of God, is nowhere else to be found. In no other streets, except in Ireland, can you hear on every side, the horrid oath, the direful curse, that latest weapon of the wretch’s war, and blasphemy, sad comrade of despair.”
Who preaches against profanity and blasphemy today?
In America today, including within churches, national miseries are blamed on others, whether secular society, the government, opposing ideological camps, particular races, institutions and systems, and even dead people. Wesley proclaimed the answer to national miseries was not blaming others, individually or corporately:
Now let each of us lay his hand upon his heart and say, “`Lord, is it I’ have I added to this flood of unrighteousness and ungodliness, and thereby to the misery of my countrymen. Am not I guilty in any of the preceding respects. And do not they suffer because I have sinned.” If we have any tenderness of heart, any bowels of mercies, any sympathy with the afflicted, let us pursue this thought till we are deeply sensible of our sins, as one great cause of their sufferings.
Salvation from national calamities begins with self-reflection and mortification, Wesley insisted:
Renounce every way of acting, however gainful, which is contrary either to justice or mercy. Do to everyone as, in parallel circumstances, you would wish he should do unto you. Be sober, temperate, active; and in every word and work, labour to have a conscience void of offence toward God and toward man. Next, through the almighty grace of Him that loved you, and gave himself for you, “purify your hearts by faith.” Be no longer double-minded, halting between earth and heaven, striving to serve God and mammon.
Wesley warned against any extreme party spirit and zeal for conflict, urging instead embracing all men, extending grace to others as you have received it:
Purify your hearts from pride, — humbling yourselves under the mighty hand of God; from all party-zeal, anger, resentment, bitterness, which now, especially, will easily beset you; from all prejudice, bigotry, narrowness of spirit; from impetuosity, and impatience of contradiction; from love of dispute, and from every degree of an unmerciful or implacable temper. Instead of this earthly, devilish wisdom, let “the wisdom from above” sink deep into your hearts; that “wisdom” which “is first pure,” then “peaceable, easy to be entreated,” — convinced, persuaded, or appeased, — “full of mercy and good fruits; without partiality,” — embracing all men; “without hypocrisy,” genuine and unfeigned. Now, if ever, “putting away with all malice, all clamour,” (railing,) “and evil-speaking: Be ye kind one to another,” to all your brethren and countrymen, — “tender-hearted” to all that are in distress; “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ hath forgiven you.”
Wesley suggested the answer to national calamities is “showing mercy to the poor.” Such mercy and gratitude by some may benefit and save the whole land:
Who knoweth but the Lord will yet be entreated, will calm the madness of the people, will quench the flames of contention, and breathe into all the spirit of love, unity, and concord. Then brother shall not lift up sword against brother, neither shall they know war any more. Then shall plenty and peace flourish in our land, and all the inhabitants of it be thankful for the innumerable blessings which they enjoy, and shall “fear God, and honour the king.”
A little leaven raises the whole loaf, Wesley knew. If the church counsels and embodies mercy and generosity, the whole nation will benefit. What was true in ancient Israel and in the 1700s for Britain may be no less true today in America. Human nature has not changed and neither has God.
Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism.
Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.