Body Count

During the presidential campaign, I appeared on a national talk show and talked about values. Afterward the host said to me, "I don't understand why you religious people are such absolutists-why you want to impose your values on everyone else." Sounds familiar, doesn't it? All through the campaign, the media told us that values aren't an issue, that anyone who talks about them is just trying to cram their own values down people's throats. As I said Friday, many people assume that anyone who holds absolute moral principles must automatically be absolutist in mentality as well: rigid, inflexible, and hostile. Writing in the New York Times, historian Arthur Schlesinger went so far as to say a belief in absolute truth is responsible for war, slavery, persecution, and torture. How can Christians respond to charges like these? We ought to start by helping people see that there are two completely different kinds of absolutes. For Christians, God Himself is the only absolute; truth and ethics are rooted in His character. This keeps us from looking for absolutes anywhere in the created world. We should never deify any person or idea or political system. But nonbelievers will always end up deifying some part of creation. You see, all people are created to be in relationship with God; even when they deny His existence, they still feel the need to base their lives on something bigger than themselves. As a result, they take some part of the created world and absolutize it. They turn it into an idol. This explains why the modern world has become a battleground of ideologies. Bereft of religious faith, many people turn to a system of ideas-like communism or fascism-which becomes a secular absolute, taking the place of God. With all due respect to Arthur Schlesinger, these secular absolutes are much more likely to produce an absolutist mentality than Christianity ever has. The twentieth century is witness to the worst slaughters ever committed in the name of absolutist ideas. Take a simple body count. Christianity has on its record the crusades and the inquisition. But the crusading armies were tiny by modern standards, and medieval warfare consisted mostly of isolated battles between professional soldiers. Compare that to World War II, when the Nazis plunged the whole world into war. Not to mention the millions they exterminated in concentration camps. By modern standards the inquisition was small potatoes, too. It's estimated that 3,000 people were killed over a period of 300 years. Of course, that's 3000 too many-but compare it to the 60 million killed during 70 years of Communist oppression. So the next time someone accuses you of being an absolutist, try explaining the two kinds of absolutes. Secular absolutes are often advanced by the power of the sword. But transcendent absolutes, when rightly understood, foster tolerance-because our ultimate allegiance is not to any group or government here on earth but to the things above. When we contend for Christian moral absolutes, we're not pushing "our" morality on anyone. We're simply communicating God's transcendent law-a divine truth that sets men and women free.


Chuck Colson


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