Most of human history is pagan. The advent of Christianity is a relatively recent affair. Some say Christianity is now receding. Some say Christianity has not yet fully taken hold. Is secularism taking hold? Is paganism reemerging? Do we live in a strange time characterized by a return to paganism, though with Christian characteristics? Whichever account is correct has implications for America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
The pagan world was the world of many gods, each associated with a people who made payments and sacrifices to their gods. Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract that when pagan nations battled other pagan nations, soldiers did not battle soldiers; rather, gods battled gods. Hence, the cathartic rage of pagan wars.
Christianity toppled the pagan world. The cathartic rage of war, Christians argued, in which one nation purged another, could not solve the problem of man’s stain, which was original, a term we no longer really understand. Original sin means that sin is always already there, prior to a person being born into membership of this nation or that nation. What this means is that blood rage cannot expiate stain; the sins of my people can no longer be purged by cathartic rage toward your people, and vice versa. That is why Rousseau concluded that Christianity had ruined politics, and had produced a civilization of pacifists, whose rage toward other nations could not be enkindled for the purpose of war. If you doubt this, ponder the fact that Christianity developed a “doctrine of just war,” according to which cathartic rage could not be reason enough to go to war.
Against the backdrop of pagan history, Christianity is revolutionary, not evolutionary. The evolution of paganism, had it occurred, would have brought about novel forms of cathartic rage toward other peoples. Christianity declared that no matter what evolutionary “advance” paganism might bring, it could never adequately address the problem of man’s stain. Christianity was revolutionary because it declared that we must look elsewhere than toward others, with cathartic rage, to expiate our stains. That “elsewhere” is divine, not mortal. Only through Christ, the divine scapegoat, who “takes upon himself the sins of the world” (John 1:29), can man be cleansed.
If Christianity is receding, then we will likely see the return to the pagan understanding that peoples are the proper objects of cathartic rage. That is a sobering truth, which defenders of secularism deny. The real alternatives might not be Christianity or secularism, but rather revelation or paganism. Should we return to paganism, one people will seek to cleanse themselves of stain by venting their cathartic rage on another people. The war between the gods of the nations would resume in full. The “blood and soil” nationalism that is straining to emerge on the Alt-Right is a witness to the reemergence of this pagan view, which is contemptuous of Christianity’s counter-claim, and always will be. What counts in the pagan world of blood is not me, the “person,” but the people of which I am but a representative. What counts in Christianity is Adam, whose stain I present; and Christ’s sacrifice, through which I am represented to God as righteous. The distance between these two understandings is infinite and unbridgeable.
If by some divine good fortune, Christianity someday fully takes hold, it will be inconceivable for us to think of ourselves in terms of members of blood nations, or to think of justice in terms of blood retribution. We will all be “adopted sons and daughters of God” (Rom. 8:15, 9:26; Galatians 3:26), whose merely genetic markers of peoplehood—exhumed these days by 23andMe and by Ancestry.com—tell us nothing, really, about who we are. In such a world, there will be no nations and peoples, only persons, who know that their transgression, their stain, runs so deep that only Christ can cure it. In such a world, “racism”—the belief that one group, one people, can achieve purity by venting cathartic rage upon another—would be unthinkable.
Liberalism, now under fire from so many quarters, is inconceivable without the backdrop of the Christian claim about persons. That is why liberalism can say without embarrassment that citizens who live in the bordered community that their state recognizes and enforces are equal under the law, that each of their votes counts, that each of their preferences count. Because of Christianity, the liberal state—rather than the national community—becomes thinkable. The question for America is simply this: can it become a liberal state, or will it become a battleground of national communities?
George Floyd’s death and the violent aftermath has prompted questions about what sort of world we live in. If we live in a liberal world that Christianity makes possible, George Floyd’s death is a singular transgression, which law can and will punish. George Floyd was a person. So, too, was the policeman who killed him. Persons are protected by the law; and those persons granted policing authority by the liberal state have a somber responsibility to use their vested authority to protect persons rather than to harm them. That is why the death of a civilian by police hands will always attract attention. The same original sin that is the basis for establishing the category of persons is also the reason why a policing force must be vigilantly watched.
What if we do not live in a liberal world that Christianity makes possible? What if, under the pretext of liberalism and Christianity, America is still pagan? That is, what if America has always been a white nation, and still is? This is the position of many on the American left today. It is a position that holds that the black man, George Floyd, and the white police officer responsible for his death, are representatives of blood nations, not singular persons. The murder of one by the other is representative of the collective murder of one people by the other. American law cannot bring about justice, because each blood nation has its own justice, from which marginalized blood nations can never benefit. American law is white law. Street vengeance, therefore, is the only recourse—whether we call them protests or riots. White people must die, as a just exchange for the black people who have died.
This pagan view certainly informs many analyses of America. What is striking, however, is that intermixed with this view is also a Christian claim that each individual person who is a member of the transgressive people should feel deep personal guilt about what has happened. In a purely pagan world, this would be unthinkable. Once a blood sacrifice was made, the score would be settled. In America today, there are some who are scoring accounts in this way; but what has been most remarkable about the aftermath of George Floyd’s death has been the mix of pagan blood accounting and Christian guilt, which has taken the form of a kind of racial contrition, in which apologies are offered to members of the black nation by whites for their complicity in murder, because they are members of a white nation. This intermixed pagan and Christian logic is what we are seeing play out in America today: persons who, on liberal grounds, are not guilty of a crime, confess their guilty complicity in the crime that through their proxy, a white policeman, they have committed.
The problem of America—and not of America alone—is that she lies somewhere between paganism and Christianity. The Christian hope that man treat his fellow man as a person was first violated by the legalized slavery of one race. We have yet to fully recover. As Tocqueville put it in Democracy in America, “Christianity declared the equality of all men; and yet American Christians introduced slavery into their country.” America: the country where Christianity held sway, and where Christians betrayed what Christianity proclaimed.
How, then, shall we proceed? Onward or backward. A return to paganism would spare us from the embarrassing Christian postulate that all the guilty-before-God descendants of Adam are persons, to be treated equally before the law. Pagan blood vengeance, we would contentedly conclude, is the primordial truth of man—therefore let us unleash the cathartic rage that dwells in every heart. If a man of one race is killed, blood payment is due; the score must be settled; persons must be sacrificed so that the idol of bloodline, of “identity,” can be appeased.
Alternatively, there is the Christian way forward, through which we will recognize the singular person of George Floyd, the transgression that ended his life, and the law through which man does what he can to bring about justice, in a broken world that God alone can heal.
Americans today are torn between these two distinctly different understandings of what justice entails: pagan blood payment between peoples, which treats persons as mere proxies; or liberal justice, whose foundation is, finally, the Christian understanding of persons. Paganism, let us remember, is the natural condition of man, the condition for which there is no remedy without the divine antidote that breaks in upon the natural world and informs us that justice entails more than cathartic rage that settles scores. An observer with a trained eye will see in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death an America that cannot decide between pagan justice and liberal justice, and which has settled into a dangerous and unstable intermediate arrangement having elements of both. Logic would dictate that either we go back to guiltless paganism or go forward to guilt-ridden, person-centered, liberalism. We have guilt-ridden paganism instead, another name for which is identity politics.