The Power of Guilt
Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe is a fascinating read. Murray is a political commentator, journalist, and as to his religious leanings, he is atheist.
Wikipedia tells me that, “he has been described by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy as “one of the most important public intellectuals today”.”
In his book he explores why Europe has so dramatically changed, and may not survive as we know it. He cites two reasons. The first is the impact of mass migration of new peoples combined with Europe's negative birth rates. This has had a colossal impact on European identity. And the second is that Europe has lost faith in the beliefs and traditions, chief among them Christianity, which got it to where it was.
There is much that is fascinating. But one of the sections which really struck me was to do with guilt. How in a God-ignoring Europe we are plagued with guilt.
He sees that this guilt tugs at the psyche of Europe’s nations, writing, “It is one of the underlying themes of all of contemporary Europe – a unique, abiding and perhaps finally fatal sense of, and obsession with, guilt.” Guilt for all sorts of valid reasons: a colonial past, the Holocaust, particular countries' failure to take a stand in wars, closing our doors to the needy in previous centuries.
Murray contends though that this sense of guilt, rather than having been dealt with, hangs over us and hinders us from seeing issues clearly as European nations. It is as if we are always trying to atone for their past, thus making unwise decisions in the present.
In another section Murray writes, “Rather than being people responsible for themselves and answerable to those they know, they become the self-appointed representatives of the living and dead, the bearers of a terrible history as well as the potential redeemers of mankind.”
I think this is deeply insightful. There is a guilt that is real and haunting, but Murray speaks here of a different guilt—the desire to appropriate other guilt for ourselves so that we can feel good about ourselves when we acknowledge it and even grandstand our remorse. It may even be that we seek the guilt we feel we can do something about rather than acknowledge the guilt which we really have.
We love to have redemption in our own hands—there is something divine about it.
Yet nothing we do can actually deal with guilt—actual or otherwise. Our best actions can’t undo the wrong done. It is a perpetual stain on our lives. Redemption is not in our hands—either as individuals or as nations.
So what should we do?
I find Murray’s diagnosis fascinating because it connects to what the Bible says of the reality of guilt and its power. Europe might be trying to fly from its Christian moorings, but it can’t escape the realities of God’s fingerprints. And neither can we.
We are made in God’s image, we know right from wrong. Guilt is the echo of God’s warning voice in our souls. Yet thankfully there is redemption—not through anything we do, not in repeated admissions or public shamefacedness, but in Jesus Christ. Through Him the slate can be wiped clean—guilt gone, forever.
“Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is plentiful redemption. He himself will redeem you from all your sins.” (from Psalm 130)