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Guilt, Atonement and Freedom

Shakespeare's Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, says at one point, "Conscience does make cowards of us all." In this sentence, Shakespeare summed up an ancient awareness of the corrosive effects of a bad conscience. Guilty men pay a price: they lose the power to be free. Being enslaved to sin, they become outwardly slaves as well. As our Lord says, "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant [or, slave] of sin." However, "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (Jn. 8:34, 36).

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from The Roots of Reconstruction, Position Paper No. 43, ©1991, R. J. Rushdoony)

Shakespeare's Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, says at one point, "Conscience does make cowards of us all." In this sentence, Shakespeare summed up an ancient awareness of the corrosive effects of a bad conscience. Guilty men pay a price: they lose the power to be free. Being enslaved to sin, they become outwardly slaves as well. As our Lord says, "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant [or, slave] of sin." However, "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (Jn. 8:34, 36).

When the Russian Revolution began, only a very small minority of the people favored the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, however, led by Lenin, preached envy and hatred on every possible occasion. When their takeover began, many millions were ready to exploit the situation to loot shops and homes. Having done this, they were guilty partners to the revolution and thus had little moral grounds to fight the Bolshevik power. Many years later, an older man said sadly, "We brought judgment upon ourselves."

With World War II, Stalin, fearing more than anything else his own subjects, encouraged the most vicious behavior by his advancing troops. Everything was done to incite them to rape, murder, and loot. The Germans were provoked to brutality in every possible way. As Nikolai Tolstoy says, in Stalin's Secret War (1982), "Stalin went out of his way to invite Nazi ill-treatment and later extermination of Russian prisoners-of-war" (261). He knew that the reaction to this would be greater brutality by the Soviet troops.

By so doing, Stalin demoralized his own men. How could they, after the war, fight against the horrors of Stalin and communism when they themselves had been guilty of like brutalities? How could they stand against Stalin's evil when they themselves had been so readily and brutally evil? A bad conscience had disarmed them.

Guilt has always been a useful and basic tool of tyranny and false power. Over the years, I have encountered situations where a husband or wife tries secretly and covertly to push their spouse into adultery. The purpose is to give them a bad conscience which will enable the manipulator to dominate the erring partner. In one case, a wife, failing to push her husband into adultery, became violent and mentally unstable because she had been unable to use guilt to control him.

This power is well known to evil politicians. A guilty people are a more readily controlled people. Hence, such politicians are prone to creating guilt. We have heard much in the past generation about hunger in America, even to "statistics" on the number of the hungry. That this is a myth has been shown more than once, to no avail. We are given horror stories about how exploitive we are, in order to make us more readily exploitable. The purpose of a vast amount of political oratory is to create guilt in the people at large and all who oppose them. Too many "liberals" are people who feel guilty for things they never did while feeling no guilt for unhappy things done.

It is very difficult for a Christian to speak before certain types of audiences without being indicted for things totally unrelated to his subject. To cite one example, one questioner (or indicter) declared that no Christian had a right to speak, given the treatment of the Indians! The fact is that, very often, the only friends the Indians had were Christians. Most of the men on the frontier were lawless men, runaways from the law and from a disciplined society. They were godless men. Does it make sense to blame contemporary atheists for the sins of past atheists? More than a few of the traders and agents who exploited the Indians were Masons. This gives us no moral right to condemn current Masons for anything other than their own sins.

When men are found guilty and convicted, they may or may not face a physical prison, but they most certainly face an inner prison. Their conscience convicts them first of all, and their conscience imprisons them in the barless but far stronger prison of guilt.

Those who work to lay a "guilt trip" on us are simply trying to imprison us and to take away our freedom in order to have the freedom to work their own evil will.

At the least, they seek to put godly men on the defensive, trying to vindicate their innocence rather than to do their work. The answer thus to the question about the mistreatment of the Indians is a counter-charge: If you believe this country was stolen from the Indians, as a few million of you do, sell all you have, give your money and land to the Indians, and migrate back to Europe. Until you do that, believing what you do, are you not a hypocrite?

Guilt is the enemy of freedom. It disturbs rest and sleep, and it hinders our work and functioning. Most important, it is a precondition for the enslavement of a people. As I pointed out in Politics of Guilt and Pity (1970), enslavement by guilt is an essential aspect of modern politics. If we are rich, we should feel guilty; if we are middle class, again, we are guilty; if we are lower class, we are somehow sub-human and responsible for it. If we are Christians, we should feel guilty. If we have had a good education, shame on us. If we enjoy our work, or our play, our family, or our friends, we are somehow guilty of neglecting "the big picture," and are vile creatures. Politics has become the art of creating and manipulating guilt in order to increase the powers of the state.

The Bible too tells us that we are guilty men, that "there is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10), "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). For Scripture, however, the recognition and confession of sin and guilt is the first step towards absolution. We are told emphatically that sin and death are causally related: death is the consequence of sin and guilt. The whole point of Scripture is that redemption and freedom from sin, guilt, and death are to be had through Christ's atonement. Not only does Christ become our sin-bearer and vicarious atonement, but he remakes us so that we are a new creation. To be free from sin, guilt, and death is to be a new man with a renewed nature. The purpose of salvation is to make us a free people: "Ye shall know the truth [Jesus Christ], and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8:32). Only a free people can create a free world.

Thus, the release from sin and guilt before God is the necessary prelude to human freedom.

This is why atonement is so essential to political freedom. In the ancient world, men were aware of the dangers of guilt. Hence, they sought to be free by requiring atonement for all citizens. In Rome, all citizens (except soldiers on duty) had to be present for the annual lustrations, to be washed of their sins. Freedom from guilt was essential to the status of a freeman. All such efforts were futile of course, because the Roman lustrations provided no atonement. It should be noted, however, that Rome did see in its early years the relationship between a clear conscience before the gods and freedom.

Now the recognition is of the power of a bad conscience and guilt in enslaving people. A few years ago, one man told me that he no longer subscribed to a daily paper, because the input from the "news" was, "If I don't save the world before lunch, I'm a dirty, rotten bastard." More than a few businessmen have withdrawn from social responsibility in a sick disgust: both politicians and their modernist pastors do little more than to "lay a guilt trip" on all businessmen, and they are weary of it. But they are impotent in the face of it without faith. No man escapes from slavery merely by resenting it.

We have spoken of the role of politicians in fostering guilt. It is very necessary to speak also of the role of the clergy. I can never forget the friend who told me of her father, a life-long member of a fundamentalist church. Every pastor he had ever had was an expert at congregational control through guilt. Every Sunday that poor man went home feeling wretched because he had "failed" God; he was a miserable sinner, and so on. Instead of empowering the congregation to go forth in the power of the Lord to serve Christ's kingdom in every area of life and thought, the pastor made one and all feel how sinful they were, and how they had to do more for and give more to their church to be "right" with the Lord.

This is preaching for enslavement, and it is very popular with both fundamentalist and modernist churches. It goes hand in hand with over-government. The guilt-laying church no less than the guilt-laying state wants to control people. A church that is very "strict" in church government is not necessarily any more godly than one which is very lax. Many a "strict" church prides itself on its godly severity when what it is really saying is that it does not believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. (Not without reason, Milton wrote, "New presbyter is but old priest writ large.")

Over-government allows no room for freedom nor for growth. It allows for one voice in the church, and none other. It furthers centralization of power in both church and state. In brief, over-government distrusts the power of God in the life of man. Some of the religious over-governors seem to believe that, while they were created in the image of God, the residue of men were only created in a partial image and, hence, need the dictatorship of the elite element. These non-elite ones are to be kept in line with a bad conscience.

Revelation 6:16 tells us of the guilty, as they face God's judgment, that they cry out to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb."

Earlier, we cited the use by Stalin of guilt as a means of enslaving and governing his subject peoples. It must be added that Stalin himself was governed by guilt. He demanded the most fulsome adulation and praise to conceal the truth of his nature; he wanted pictures of himself to mirror his ideal image and had several portrait painters shot for falling short of his demands. "The desire to humiliate and terrify extended even to his own family" (N. Tolstoy, 23), and, with it, an intense fear of all men, including his own carefully selected guards. He had an obsessive belief in the omnipresence of his enemies and went to extreme lengths to protect himself. The one constant factor in Stalin's policy, according to Tolstoy (50), was fear, a total fear that warped all his being. He had made slaves of all the people, but he himself was the continually haunted slave of his bad conscience and his fear of the people.

Since Stalin's day, there has been no essential change in the rulers of the Soviet system. Slave labor is still the lifeblood of the economy, and total surveillance, and total fear, prevail. The same extreme precautions are taken to protect the present leaders from the people. There is no real or substantial difference between Stalin and Andropov: both represent the enthronement of evil and of evil power. The cowardice of Stalin stemmed from a bad conscience; the same bad conscience governs in the Kremlin today.

Although not to the same degree, the same bad conscience governs most Western heads of states. They wage war, usually covertly, against God and man in terms of a humanistic ideal. They see other men as no more than manure to fertilize the ground of a planned future. They sacrifice men in wars they do not plan to win, and they treat people as instruments to be manipulated.

Like a volcanic ash which covers the entire earth, colors the sun, and becomes a part of the air men breathe, so too a bad conscience is a part of the spiritual air of the twentieth century. It colors the life and thought of most men: it makes cowards and slaves of them.

The world's great and overwhelming need is for freedom, but men reject freedom when they reject Christ. "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8:32). That truth is Jesus Christ, who declares "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (Jn. 8:36). This is a political and psychological fact and premise, and even more, it is the religious premise for all things.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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