Is the West's Problem Christian Guilt?

The "cultural confidence" news coming out of Europe has been uniformly bad for a while now, so it was no surprise last week to see this editorial by a retired Dutch politician, Frits Bolkestein, in the Wall Street Journal. But Christians may be surprised at where Bolkestein lays the blame for what he calls Europe's "current masochism."

His essay, "How Europe Lost Faith in Its Own Civilization," starts with this teaser: "Beset by Christian guilt, the Continent won't defend Christians persecuted by Islamists." It proceeds to identify Christianity as the foundation of Europe's masochism, and concludes that "[i]f Europe can retake pride in its own classical values, it and the world will be better off." Says Bolkestein:

Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that "whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as "slave morality." But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to "turn the other cheek" and "go the extra mile," do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.

This is essentially Edward Gibbon's thesis in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; it is not a new theme in European thought. Bolkestein combines it with an allusion to the "shame culture/guilt culture" distinction popularized in the last century by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, among others. "If Islamic civilization may be described as a shame culture," he says, "Christianity is a guilt culture."

But he continues with this passage:

This would not be a problem if the burden of a bad conscience came with atonement, forgiveness, confession, expiation or any of the other theological or liturgical forms for purging guilt from the sinner. Formerly, Catholicism and Lutheranism provided for the atonement of guilt. But these traditions no longer have credibility in Europe. Feelings of guilt are not sublimated. This also goes for Calvinism, which in its purest form knows no remission of guilt in this life. Its effects have been deep in Europe and outlast the doctrine.

My concern here is not, for the moment, with the claims about denominational doctrine or "credibility." Rather, it is with the complete absence of a particular word from Bolkestein's discussion. He lists atonement, forgiveness, confession, expiation, and the purging of guilt as dynamics of God and conscience promoted in Christian theology. But he does not mention redemption.

We can't say what all the reasons for that are, but I suspect one of them is that much of Christendom has itself had difficulty assimilating and communicating the concept. Redemption is very different from atonement or expiation. The latter are both oriented toward sin and guilt. The focus of redemption is not on sin or guilt, but on the sinner. With redemption, the sinner is "redeemed" for a new purpose. His condition and future are transformed.

Bible teachers often use the story of Ruth to illustrate the concept of "redemption" under the Law of Moses. Boaz, Ruth's distant kinsman through her late husband, stood in the relation to her of a "kinsman-redeemer" (the 2011 NIV calls it a "guardian-redeemer"): the relative who, according to Leviticus 25, was to redeem the property or condition of a person who had fallen into economic distress.

Ruth's labor in the fields, while she was in dire want, was analogous to the cycle of atonement or expiation. It was a practical arrangement to serve the needs of her household through daily gleaning, but the cycle was endless and it left her basic condition unchanged. Redemption by her kinsman Boaz, however, dramatically changed her condition and prospects. Her whole future became different. She was no longer defined by the losses or exigencies of the past. The need to indenture herself was gone.

The New Testament is full of promises along these lines. The antidote for guilt is Romans 8:1-2: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set youfree from the law of sin and death" (all citations NIV). As for being defined or limited by the past, there is 2 Corinthians 5:17:  "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"

Christianity is not designed to be a guilt culture. It is designed to be a redemption culture. Its focus is not on sin, the abstract burden on the conscience and condition of man, but on redemption of the human being—each person, one by one—for a good purpose. Guilt, regulation, and ritual are not at the center of Christianity; the person of Jesus Christ is. Indeed, the possibilities of human personhood arethe great prize that Jesus redeemed. In his words (Jn. 10:10): "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."