- Clarence Oddbody, AS2, It's a Wonderful Life
Yesterday I noticed Carl Trueman's comments on RJ Rushdoony and the holocaust over at Reformation 21. Rushdoony was a Reformed minister who wrote many volumes about Biblical law, education, American history, and theology. He was no political activist, but his writings loomed large behind the rise of the religious right. Trueman dismisses him out of hand, claiming that he denied the holocaust. This irked me, because I read the passage to which Trueman was referring back in college (I've quoted it below), and I think Trueman's antipathy towards a movement (in this case, the politically-active American religious right) has overcome his sounder judgment.
This would not be the first time Trueman has gone off half-cocked.
Today the fellas over at the BHT picked up on Trueman's rant, which piqued some interest because of a prior comment that they had abandoned Rushdoony-- which evidently was newsworthy because they didn't know they ever had him. All of that is fair enough-- in fact I have Rushdoony and Stanley Grenz both on my shelf, and I've read both with profit (although I wouldn't endorse either uncritically). I don't have any quarrel with the BHT boys about this (i.e., no "you must renounce Grenz and bow the knee to Rushdoony, or we will all know that the only beverage on tap at BHT is yellow gatorade"; I'd just as soon Rushdoony be left out of that discussion, considering how few people have read him anyway), but I do think Trueman should be set a little more straight.
Trueman's comments about Rushdoony are sloppy, false, and misleading-- especially ironic in that Trueman is a historian, and his point is to dismiss Rushdoony's competence in that field. Here's Trueman:
in his Institutes of Biblical Law, RJR has a truly horrible section where he reduces the number of Holocaust dead to (from memory) less than a million, and roots the cause in the winter cold, not a Zyklon-B facilitated act of conscious act of genocide, His sources? Paul Rassinier et al -- no credibility with professional historians, but very popular among skinheads, Klan freaks, the British National Party and characters like David Irving.
But does Rushdoony actually do what Trueman says? Since the charge of holocaust denial is (rightly) inflammatory, I want to set out Rushdoony's point before even discussing the actual citation and statistics at issue. The point was the callous disregard for human life, and indifference to murder, that characterized many governments in the twentieth century. Here's Rushdoony:
Let us examine again the mass murders of World War II, and the background of false witness during World War I and later. Life had become so cheap and meaningless to these heads of state and their camp followers that a murder or two meant nothing. Likewise, a generation schooled to violence in motion pictures, radio, literature, and press could not be expected to react to a murder or two. The result was a desperately twisted mentality which could only appreciate evil as evil on a massive scale. Did the Nazis actually execute many thousands, tens, or hundred thousands of Jews? Men to whom such murders were nothing had to blow up the figure to millions. Did the doctor perform a number of experiments on living men and women? A few sterilized women and a few castrated men and their horrified tears and grief are not enough to stir the sick and jaded tastes of modern man: make him guilty of performing 17,000 such operations. The evils were all too real: even greater is the evil of bearing false witness concerning them, because that false witness will produce an even more vicious reality in the next upheaval. Men are now "reconciled" to a world where millions are murdered, or are said to be murdered. What will be required in the way of action and propaganda next time?
Where Trueman says Rushdoony "roots the cause in the winter cold, not a Zyklon-B facilitated act of conscious act of genocide," Rushdoony called them the "mass murders of World War II," and said that "[v]ery many of these people died of epidemics; many were executed."
The comment that originally set Trueman off (which he didn't bother to consult before blogging about it) was this:
The charge is repeatedly made that six million innocent Jews were slain by the Nazis, and the figure--and even larger figures--is now entrenched in the history books. Poncins, in summarizing the studies of the French Socialist, Paul Rassinier, himself a prisoner in Buchenwald, states:
Rassinier reached the conclusion that the number of Jews who died after deportation is approximately 1,200,000 and this figure, he tells us, has finally been accepted as valid by the Centre Mondial de Documentation Juive Contemporaine. Likewise he notes that Paul Hilberg, in his study of the same problem, reached a total of 896,292 victims.
When an emailer apparently confronted Trueman with what Rushdoony said below, Trueman retreated from the claim that Rushdoony was a holocaust-denier, and instead tried to claim that he was merely an incompetent historian, relying upon a discredited writer (and note that, instead of acknowledging that he got Rushdoony's point entirely wrong, he threw in the subtle dig that Rushdoony was "revis[ing] his revisionism"). So Trueman says he should've known not to trust Rassinier as a source. But this charge appears to be anachronistic. Rushdoony's book was published in 1973, drawing upon Bible study and lecture notes going back to the 1960's. Rassinier was not even published in English until 1977, the same year that "Georges Wellers, editor of the magazine Le Monde Juife, dissected the book in the first attempt at a detailed rebuttal of any of Rassinier's writings."
Before that, Rushdoony should have at least known that he was a partisan in the arguments over the Holocaust. But that wouldn't necessarily have any bearing in the passage cited. There, Rassinier is cited alongside another, apparently highly reputable, writer on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews. I can't vouch for any of those authors, either citing or being cited here, but it seems to me & my few minutes on Wikipedia that Trueman is a little too ready to villify Rushdoony with a poorly-recalled charge of Holocaust denial, all from memory, and play Monday-morning quarterback about how he should've seen his 1960's sources through the eyes of the intervening body of scholarly work from the last nearly forty-odd years since Holocaust studies hit the big time.
Trueman now says that this one-time sloppiness (if you believe Trueman's account, of course) should disqualify Rushdoony altogether as a historian. I wonder if this cuts both ways.
Rushdoony later wrote:
It is difficult to imagine that anyone can deny the reality of the mass slaughter that characterized the twentieth century, whether it be the Armenian millions murdered by the Turks, the Jewish millions murdered by the Nazis, or the untold millions murdered by the communists in China, Russia, and Cambodia.
In my Institutes of Biblical Law, I noted that the scope of such mass murder had so numbed the modern conscience that the murder of a "mere" thousand, or ten thousand, no longer shocked, tempting some to inflate the scope of lesser atrocities, lest they not seem sufficiently horrific.
It was not my purpose to enter a debate over numbers, whether millions were killed, or tens of millions, an area which must be left to others with expertise in such matters. My point then and now is that in all such matters what the Ninth Commandment requires is the truth, not exaggeration, irrespective of the cause one seeks to serve.
Trueman's sloppiness on this matter stands in contrast to others who have interacted critically with Rushdoony. You can get a more sober appraisal by reading reviews and comments by John Frame, William Edgar, and Peter Leithart, among others.
No doubt among some, Rushdoony is viewed as a guru, and fawning adulation takes the place of critical analysis. Unfortunately, comments like Trueman's only encourage this. Those who are familiar with and admire Rushdoony's writings won't be discouraged by Trueman's intemperate and ill-founded comments -- they'll simply dismiss him as casually as he dismisses Rushdoony, whereas one who actually undertakes to understand Rushdoony's writings could actually persuade those who may have unwittingly adopted his errors as their own.
Trueman's comments would also discourage anyone from reading Rushdoony and being exposed to his valuable contributions to Christian thought.
Even worse, though, is that this kind of over-the-top criticism lets Rushdoony off the hook for his deeply flawed writings in certain areas. Though originally a Presbyterian missionary, he generally eschewed ecclesiastical oversight and accountability in his church and ministry activities; this personal flaw appeared to flow outward into his view of the church and the value of the sacraments, in comparison to the overall priority of the family. The religious right heeded this call to focus on the family, but did so frequently at the expense of the church, which (at least in my view) was a self-defeating mission.
Another area is civil rights. While he was no Bull Connor, neither was he zipping off correspondence to MLK in prison. He was condescending and unsympathetic to the plight of American blacks in the sixties, critical of the genuine struggle for civil rights reform based upon the evident plays for political power within the movement, as well as its loose theological moorings. The failure of Rushdoony (and others, but here I'll focus on him, since he wasn't silent on the issue) here arguably served as a self-fulfilling prophecy as to the darker side of the civil rights movement. The result is its present dismal state, where the self-proclaimed heirs of that movement seek power over others, rather than freedom and equality, and many have abandoned the gospel. Rushdoony's writings were hardly influential back in the 1960's, and so didn't contribute to the racial acrimony of that time. But while he called us to see the world clearly through biblical lenses, in all areas of life, this he did not do on the issue of race.
Let me offer here two contrasting issues: abortion and race. On abortion, Rushdoony saw clearly that the biblical command against murder applied squarely to the slaughter of the unborn, and he saw it before most any others, several years before Roe vs. Wade. But America didn't listen. The voice was there, but not any genuine opportunity.
This is a man whose life calling was to study, talk, and write about how to see the world, including the world of politics, through the eyes of God's word.
Yet on race, sin colored his vision. Though his chief insights were forged by study and preaching in the sixties, during the critical moments of the civil rights movement, he forfeited the contemporaneous opportunity, the only opportunity God actually gave him to engage in a winning struggle for biblical justice. This, at a time when America would actually listen, and where he could offer some aid and correction to those who were struggling, though they may have lacked some of his sound, biblical insights into politics and society.
There is much to be gained in the example of Rushdoony-- both in his achievements and failings. But we'll have to do better than Carl Trueman to appreciate either.