Wednesday, December 18, 2013

fascinating article at Powerline, ostensibly about the recent school campus shooting in Colorado, opens up some big moral and ultimately theological questions.

The article tracks the shooter’s fascination with “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” a product of then 19-year old William Powell.  Powell, like many at the time, was caught up in protest against the Viet Nam War and against the American system that enabled it.  He was part of the radical minority that proposed domestic violence as necessary and legitimate protest, and his book celebrates that point of view.

But the Powerline piece reveals the subsequent trajectory of Powell’s life, which he’s posted in a disclaimer at the listing for his book,
During the years that followed its publication, I went to university, married, became a father and a teacher of adolescents. These developments had a profound moral and spiritual effect on me. I found that I no longer agreed with what I had written earlier and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas that I had put my name to. In 1976 I became a confirmed Anglican Christian and shortly thereafter I wrote to Lyle Stuart Inc. explaining that I no longer held the views that were expressed in the book and requested that The Anarchist Cookbook be taken out of print. The response from the publisher was that the copyright was in his name and therefore such a decision was his to make – not the author’s. In the early 1980′s, the rights for the book were sold to another publisher. I have had no contact with that publisher (other than to request that the book be taken out of print) and I receive no royalties.
I almost fell out of my chair reading about a profound conversion through Anglicanism.  But that’s a little thing compared to the issues raised by Mr. Powell’s former and new lives.

1) While he’s truly repented of his former life, denouncing it, refusing to profit from it and above all walking a different path (leading schools and training teachers around the world), his past life continues to inflict evil on the world.  There is a girl in a coma in Colorado, shot by a student influenced by Powell’s writing. Powerline quotes an NBC News report,
Published in 1971, the book has sold more than two million copies and influenced hundreds of malcontents, mischief makers, and killers. Police have linked it to the Croatian radicals who bombed Grand Central Terminal and hijacked a TWA flight in 1976; the Puerto Rican separatists who bombed FBI headquarters in 1981; Thomas Spinks, who led a group that bombed 10 abortion clinics in the 1980s; Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995; the Columbine High School shooters of 1999; and the 2005 London public transport bombers.
Just in the last two years, law enforcement has tied the volume to Arizona shooter Jared Loughner, the Boston Marathon bombers, and at least a half dozen alleged terrorists and school shooters.
2) One moral approach is to say, “Well, he’s outweighing the bad with the good he’s done as a peaceful educator.”  But who calibrates that scale?  Is it based on raw body counts - “He taught x number of people who didn’t kill others, compared to only y number who did”?  How do we quantify that?  There are websites dedicated to his renounced violent philosophy, and who knows how many ne’er do wells frequent those and wind up shooting a liquor store clerk instead of some high profile act of political terror?  Because we simply cannot know all of the causal links coiling out of our lives, it seems an impossible (and dishonest) task to try to atone for our own sins.  As we say in our General Confession, we’re all guilty of sins “unknown.”

3) The Christian answer, the one which Mr. Powell has claimed, is different.  We surrender our past to and seek our future in Christ. We give up any pretense of atoning for our sins, which will prove impossible, and we accept atonement on our behalf by Jesus, with whom all things are possible.  “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

4) The story of William Powell is achingly relevant to the Australian Bishop election issues addressed by David Ould here at Stand Firm.  The question of whether or not Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins is not parlor or classroom debate - it is the life and death reality for William Powell.  It is the life and death reality for all of us, whose stories are not as dramatic, but who have, if we are at all honest, afflicted the world with our miserable “sins known and unknown, things done and left undone.”  To select Christian leaders who don’t get that throws people back on point (2) up above, a hopeless and hapless effort to “balance the scales” by our own efforts and in our own limited understanding, leading to ridiculous situations like Mafia Dons endowing hospitals while filling the community with narcotics, hammering girls into prostitution and murdering opponents.

I give thanks for the Good News of Mr. Powell’s new life, in which he and I are brothers.  We are equals - not in terms of earthly accomplishments (his way outweigh mine), but in our need for and reception of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and opens our eternal future. 

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