Os Guinness — Hebrew Wisdom for America: Ep. 33
Hosted by Rabbi Dr Ari Lamm
Whenever humanity manages to build something worth preserving, whether a family, a community or an entire society, the biggest threat to its future is simply forgetting how you built it in the first place! Forgetting the values and ideas that lie at its foundation. That’s the challenge we have today: we, as a country, got here through the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew civilization. What do we lose by forgetting that? And what can we gain by recapturing that spiritual heritage?
This is Good Faith Effort with Ari Lamm. And here’s your host, Rabbi, Dr. Ari Lamm.
Ari Lamm [00:00:21]
Hello, hello and welcome to Good Faith Effort, The World’s Most Dangerous Bible podcast, the podcast, where we show you how the values and ideas of the Bible can illuminate the most important conversations in society, from politics to pop culture and beyond. And today, good faith fam. We have with us the best selling author and social critic and no doubt, a great guy to have a drink with. The brilliant, incisive Os Guinness is here with us. And today we’re going to talk about the Hebrew roots of the American experiment. So I’m going to read a quote to you: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. I have a dream.” Who said this? I can already hear you mouthing the words Martin Luther King Jr. Well, what if I told you that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t write a single word of what you just heard? Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying it was plagiarism. In fact, Reverend King would have thought you were crazy for thinking he did write those words. After all, as he would have expected you to know, he was simply quoting from America’s constitution. No, not its legal constitution, its moral constitution, the Hebrew Bible. As we’ve talked about so often on the pod, so many of the greatest moments in American history are rooted firmly and securely in the language, the stories, the values of the Hebrew Bible. So just to take one example, think about Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt, brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, shepherded his people all the way to the edge of the promised land. Moses and his story are actually central to the American experience. On the eve of the American Revolution, Patriot leaders like John Adams began comparing King George to the evil Pharaoh of Egypt. Benjamin Franklin wanted Moses to feature on the official seal of a young United States. Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad, led so many people to freedom that she earned the nickname “The Moses of Her People”. During World War One. World War Two. American writers and thinkers often use the Moses story as a way of thinking about American responsibilities. And the last words we ever hear Reverend King speak in public were, hauntingly, a quiet reflection on how he felt like Moses destined to reach the edge of the promised land, but never to enter it. But the relationship between the Hebrew Bible in America amounts to so much more than just stories. And in fact, this country’s entire political structure, its unique sense of destiny and its almost magical ability to reinvent itself and learn from its mistakes have been shaped deeply and directly, not only by the Hebrew Bible itself, but also by the great thinkers who’ve interpreted the Bible. So in short, if we really want to understand America itself, where we’ve been, who we are, where we want to go, you have to understand and appreciate this history. And you don’t have to be a believer. You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian or anything like that. It’s kind of like how every nation or culture has a defining literature. The French have Voltaire, the English of Shakespeare, India has the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. You don’t have to be religiously connected to any of those things to find them really meaningful and honor the ways in which they’ve shaped society. So in America, any serious reading of American history and politics reveals that our version of that is the Hebrew Bible. And so to unpack how the past, present and future of this insight, what it’s meant for us as a country and how it can shape us moving forward, I invited on one of the world’s clearest, most engaging thinkers on the topic, the best selling author, editor of over 30 books, the social critic Os Guinness. Os, thanks so much for being here.
Os Guinness [00:03:58]
Great privilege, Ari, thank you. You said it so well, what more is there to add? You said it magnificently well.
Ari Lamm [00:04:05]
I know you and I’ve read your books, so I know there’s a lot more to add. So I’m really excited to have you here. And one of the great contrasts that you set up in your latest book, The Magna Carta of Humanity, which everyone go out and buy, it’s unbelievable, is you set up this contrast between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, between 1776 and 1789. So can you unpack why that contrast is important?
Os Guinness [00:04:29]
Well, everybody knows that America today is deeply divided. The great polarization and so on, but why? Is it the social media? Is that the former president? Is it the coastals against the heartlanders? Is it the nationalists over against the globalists? There are various other factors, but for me, the deepest is the understanding of America and freedom from either the perspective of 1776, which, as you said, owes everything to the Hebrew scriptures, or ideas that have come down from the French Revolution. And you can see that much of the hollowed-out liberalism and much of the radical left we have today owes everything to the heirs of the French Revolution, not the American Revolution.
Ari Lamm [00:05:16]
So when you think about the key thinkers of both revolutions, or sort of the key players in both revolutions, who are some of the key figures of the French Revolution that we should be thinking about if we want to understand the current moment in history? And who are some of the key thinkers, leaders, what are some of the key intellectual trends like Christian Hebraism in the American Revolution?
Os Guinness [00:05:38]
Well, if you look at the thinkers behind the American Revolution, they go back to the Hebrew scriptures because of the reformation and the invention of printing. So the early church followed the structures of Rome, and Rome was hierarchical in power. And as you know, old power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the Reformation went back to the Hebrew scriptures, sola scriptura, and above all, to notions like Covenant and all that it meant. So that came through the Swiss and then the Dutch and then the Scots, like John Knox, Oliver Cromwell called Exodus the direct parallel to what he was trying to do in England, and he failed. But that idea, which is a losing cause in England, became the winning cause in New England. And the Hebrew idea of covenant came across the Mayflower Compact, John Winthrop on the Arbella, New England townships, and then John Adams called the Constitution of Massachusetts a covenant, which it was. So those of the ideas that came across, and we the people, in the 18th century, is really a nationalized, somewhat secularized form of Hebrew covenant. But people today, as you started, well, they can cite the quotations, “let my people go,” things like that, but they don’t understand the truths and the themes. So you take the notion of the consent of the governed, that goes back to Exodus. And you could go on right down the line. The deepest ideas in the American experiment in freedom owe everything to the Hebrew scriptures.
Ari Lamm [00:07:18]
So what are some of the key concepts and you talk about so many of them in your book, what are one or two key ideas that derive ultimately from the Hebrew scriptures that people walking around the American streets today wouldn’t readily identify with the Hebrew scriptures, but that perhaps I would argue and I think you would as well would be incoherent without the Hebrew scriptures. What are some key ideas that people should know about?
Os Guinness [00:07:46]
Well, I mentioned that first one, the consent of the governed. You know, as you rabbis say, well, when the master of the universe put his covenant forward, it was only ratified when the people said three times “all that the Lord says we will do.” That’s the origin and the consent of the governed. And then incredibly important. Or take a second idea, the reciprocal responsibility of everyone for everyone. We think of the 17th century, the Three Musketeers, all for one, one for all. But of course, you Jews had that centuries earlier. And of course, that should be behind the idea of “We the people.” A collective responsibility of the entire people. Well take the notion of making a morally binding pledge. A covenant and a constitution is much more than a contract, a mere law. And the trouble in America today, it’s become everything to do with justices or judges and lawyers arguing various things, whereas it should be a matter of promise keeping. When you have promise keeping, then you have trust. And where there’s high trust, you can have high freedom. Where there’s low trust, you have to have high surveillance. And you can see in America today, constitutionalism is all a matter of law and a negative idea and has nothing to do with the citizens pledging their words, keeping their promises and so on. So that’s one area. Another huge area, and I greatly admire your Jewish heritage here, is transmission. Passing it on. As Rabbi Sacks, my hero, says, if a project takes more than a single generation, you need history and you need schools. And both faith and freedom require transmission because they last longer than a single generation. And you can see that incredible stress on teaching, instruction, and schooling in your Jewish heritage. Despite the most horrendous persecution and shattering, you survived miraculously and magnificently as a people, through transmission. But America’s thrown transmission out. Civic education went out in the 1960s, and now it’s been replaced by the Howard Zinn view of American history and for many more recently, by The 1619 Project. In other words, you’ve got anti-American views of history being taught to the youngest generation. Well, that’s a recipe for suicide of Republican freedom as the framers set it up.
Ari Lamm [00:10:20]
Oh, there’s so many things I want to dig into that such a rich, incredibly, conceptually rich answer. I actually want to pick out one personal detail there and explore that first, because it certainly moved me when I first learned of it, which is that you had certainly an intellectual relationship and even, I believe, a personal relationship with the late and lamented and beloved Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England. How did you come to learn about Rabbi Sacks? How did you come to discover him?
Os Guinness [00:10:52]
Well, I was actually put in touch with Daniel Elazar many years ago, and it was he who turned me on to the profound significance of covenantalism. And through Elazar, I then went on to Rabbi Sacks and I read his series on the Torah, Covenant and Conversation. They are the best insights not only into the Hebrew scriptures, but also into the nature of freedom and justice and people formation and notions like that. So I’ve read everything I could lay my hands on Rabbi Sacks and I was thrilled to meet him later and discovered he’d read several of my books. So this book is dedicated to him. I owe him so much. I sent him an early draft and he sent back a humorous email. He said, You’ve done something which is very, very difficult to do. You have turned this Rabbi mute. But then, of course, as you know, sadly, you never saw the completed book because of his sad cancer and his death. But I owe so much to him and admire him enormously. So the book’s not only dedicated to him, it really is an exposition of his ideas and of other great Jewish thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Daniel Elazar himself, Michael Walzer and many others. The Western world doesn’t realize, certainly doesn’t say how much it appreciates, so today’s antisemitism is not only vile and terribly wrong, it’s stupid. Because our Western ideas depend crucially on Jewish ideas, far more than on Greek and Roman ideas.
Ari Lamm [00:12:33]
It’s so fascinating to hear you say that. I mean, this is a conversation that I’ve had with close friends over the last couple of days. It strikes me that the historical calculus around anti-Semitism has been reversed in the present day. It’s just that the Western world, and America in particular, hasn’t realized it yet. And that is that once upon a time, the reason why every society that has ever hosted the Jews has eventually chosen the path of anti-Semitism is because of a very simple calculation, which is that the Jews needed them more than they needed the Jews. The Jews depended upon whatever Queen, Archbishop, Chancellor, Sultan was responsible for there or took responsibility for their protection at the time. And everybody knew, the Jews and their patrons, that they’d suffer no consequences for eventually kicking the Jews to the curb. So there’s a reason why England in the you know, in the 13th century, Spain in the 15th century, or Iran in the 20th century lost not a lick of sleep over kicking their Jewish communities out eventually. But today, that calculus, it seems to me, has been reversed, especially in America and in a fascinating way, which is that because of the existence of Israel. So on one side of the calculus, Jews no longer need America as much as Jews needed their former patrons, in the sense that we’re here because we like to be here. We choose to be here, and it’s a privilege to be here and to help build and continue the grand American experiment. But if things were to become unbearable, we have family, friends and a Jewish army waiting to welcome us and protect us. And on the other side of the calculation, as you put it so exquisitely just now, America is unlike every other nation that’s come before it, any other nation that’s come before it, in that it’s built on an aspirational idea rather than ethnic ties or kinship ties rooted in the past. It’s built on an aspirational idea. And those ideas depend for their coherence, vitality, and their continuation on Jewish and Hebrew wisdom as continued by Jewish and today, great Christian thinkers as well. And so it seems to me that unlike in the past, you know, today, Jews can afford to be kicked out of here. But I don’t think America can afford the same thing. And it seems to me that reverses the calculus around anti-Semitism, does it not?
Os Guinness [00:15:03]
Know you put that extremely well. And I agree with you thoroughly. I would only add, though, you know, I would, as a Christian, say that the treatment of the Jews whether, 12th century, England, as you said, the Spaniards or the Russians or the Iranians, that is, well, the Iranians are not Christian. That is the greatest stain on the Christian church in two thousand years. I’m glad to say, it’s not a full answer, that the evangelicals after the Reformation were in favor of restoring a Jewish homeland, actually before many Jews were. So my family were friends of William Wilberforce who fought for that in the 18th century. And then my own great-grandfather was a passionate champion of the restoration of Palestine to Israel, and he was one of those who bought land in Palestine in order to give it to the early Jewish settlers who were able to go back. And his book was actually behind the Balfour Declaration and so on. So there are Christians who are different and those of us who are Evangelicals are passionately in favor of supporting, what you said is exactly right. And sadly, you can see even the political equation changing this month.
Ari Lamm [00:16:23]
You’re absolutely right. And I think, by the way, that the story of the intellectual and spiritual scaffolding of early Christian thinking about a restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is one of the great untold stories, or at least not popularly told stories, because I think today there’s sort of like the stereotype that it’s all this sensationalism, but it’s really not. I mean, there’s this long and deep, inspiring history of great early thinkers like that. And the truth is, the way that you describe that history as proceeding from one of fraught tension, you know, persecution to what is now, I think, one of the great and historic opportunities for friendship and fellowship in the history of humanity between Jewish and Christian communities. I think it actually gets to something that you said earlier that I want to return to, which is the difference between covenantalism and contractualism. And, you know, you used a phrase that so resonated with me, which is “promise keeping.” And I think that that kind of help solve a crucial dilemma at the heart of American life today, which is how do we cope with the increasingly obvious and publicly apparent fact that the founding era sort of tolerated and even perpetuated some profoundly evil things, and yet at the same time announces this marvelous and historically extraordinary aspiration. And how do we cope with those things? So on the one hand, you have folks on the left, especially the far left, who insist that because evil was present, at the American founding, so the entire rest of American history is sort of the poisonous tree. And yet on the other side, you have a certain type of thinker on the right who wants to squeeze all of American virtue into a 1776-sized-box. And it strikes me that both of those are aren’t really tenable thoughts. But I think they both fall afoul of contractualism because a contract, all the terms have to be met at the time the contract is signed. But covenantalism, if it’s promise keeping, as you said. So the reason you make a promise is not to affirm that things are good as they currently are. You make a promise because promises are aspirational, because something is not currently right and you want to make it better. Does covenantal some sort of help us out of that 1619/1776/1789 bind by saying, yes, the whole point of a covenant, the whole point of a promise, the whole point of American aspiration is precisely that things were not well in the early history of the Republic. And the point is that we can make them better. That’s what covenantalism is about, right? That’s covenantalism in the Bible as well. It’s not like idolatry disappears. As soon as God appears to Abraham, it takes a thousand years for Israel to eliminate idolatry, right?
Os Guinness [00:19:09]
I would add to certainly from a Christian point of view, and I imagine you agree with this, the difference in Genesis One creation and things were very good, and then Genesis Three and the arrival of the inclination to evil. In other words, what was evil was not original. Something has come in and things have gone wrong. That’s the same with America. And again I mentioned Wilberforce. Wilberforce pleaded with Thomas Jefferson, and later with James Monroe, to deal with slavery. And Samuel Johnson, our great English creator of the dictionary. He could see the hypocrisy an ocean away and he, famous remark I’m not exactly quoting. Why is it those who are yelping about freedom, are the drivers of slaves? The contradiction between the glory of the declaration or as Martin Luther King said, it was a promissory note, that sadly wasn’t cashed in. And I think that would be the better way of looking at it. So things were definitely wrong, hypocritical, evil, and they needed challenging. But then, of course, you think of the Year of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter sees an injustice, Jews and Christians see an injustice. We all agree with injustice. Where we disagree is how you address it. And prophetic truth, addressed to power, a call to repentance and a turning round and the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness. You have a very different way of really restoring something that’s badly wronged. Rather than the radical left, which is all power conflict.
Ari Lamm [00:20:46]
That’s so fascinating. So actually, that makes me think of a wonderful section in your book about the crucial connection between human freedom and an educational system. And it’s not enough to have freedom, but you need to teach freedom and educate people into the habits of freedom. So why should a nation conceived in liberty and wishes to keep it that way, why should a nation like that value an educational system more than some other sort of “replacement-level” nation?
Os Guinness [00:21:15]
We’ll go back to another eminent Jewish philosopher, to whom I owe a lot, Isaiah Berlin, whom I knew when I was at Oxford. I was a graduate student. He was the eminent professor. But as he often pointed out, freedom is double. It’s negative and positive. So it’s freedom from, you’re liberated from a domestic abuse or a schoolyard bully or a colonial power. That’s freedom from. But a lot of Americans end there. So libertarianism, just get the government off my back and don’t tread on me and not in my backyard you don’t. It’s all freedom from. Whereas Isaiah Berlin pointed it out, true freedom is negative as a start, but it’s positive. You have to be free for, free to be. Now, that requires truth and of course, it requires us to talk. He says it requires an apprenticeship in liberty. So in Exodus, the Jews were free when they crossed the Red Sea, but they had to become a people and know how to govern themselves. And that takes time. So freedom requires education and freedom requires time from generation to generation.
Ari Lamm [00:22:22]
Beautiful. And if we’re looking ahead now to the future of freedom, preserving the American experiment, if you’re speaking to a group of young people who are just as passionate about compassion and who are passionate about the future of liberty and want to discover meaning in their lives, I think one of the things that you’re seeing now, whether in sort of the excesses of wokenessor the excesses of QAnon level conspiracies, is we experienced for the last several decades the political and cultural dominance of a generation rooted in sort of the upheavals of the 60s, as you talked about earlier, that just fundamentally understood its own countercultural rebellion as a rejection of religion and just this pervading skepticism. And now you have a new young generation that kind of looks back on their parents and is rebelling against that skepticism, and actually wants meaning and sees the essential and frightening emptiness of the world that their parents built. A world, as you just said, a world that’s all freedom from that’s just a rejection of everything is frightening oblivion. So you’re speaking now to the next generation that’s looking for meaning that has those stirrings of religious thirst in its heart, but doesn’t know necessarily where to pour it or what to do with it. What do you say to a generation like that? What is the call to action for a new generation that has those stirrings?
Os Guinness [00:23:47]
Well, I think to define the choices and challenge them to choose. Like Moses, good and bad, life and death, choose life. Or Joshua, choose today whom you’re going to serve or Elijah. If Baal is God, follow Baal and you’ll find out he isn’t. And then you come back to the Lord. And so on. So I think as America emerges from the pandemic, she is really facing a civilizational contest and choice. Because if you look at the left and as you know, I say in the book, I was born and grew up in China and I knew the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe under communism. Revolution on the radical left side has never worked and the oppression has never ended. So this generation faces a choice. So I would challenge them. What do you value? Human dignity, freedom, justice, peace, stability, whatever it is? Then you choose because the two ways lead entirely different directions and one of them is a disaster. The other, the wonderful news is where is the high value of human worth and freedom and justice? It’s in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Ari Lamm [00:25:02]
Amen. Wonderful. Amazing. Os Guinness. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Os Guinness [00:25:07]
Enormous privilege, great privilege. And one of my passions is that we should have, not a false ecumenism, but a Jewish-Christian renaissance and a real recognition of how close we are on the fundamental truths. And it’s these truths which are key to the future of human freedom and maybe even to humanity itself in a just way. So we’ve got a lot to do to stand together at this incredible hour.
Ari Lamm [00:25:35]
I love it. And to quote one of my favorite headlines from I think it was a Forward article from many, many years ago. You bring the Guinness, I’ll bring the Manischewitz, and we’ll make it happen.
Os Guinness [00:25:45]
Ah, great. Thank you so much.
Ari Lamm [00:25:47]
Ari Lamm [00:25:55]
You read through the Bible and one phrase you encounter constantly is remember and do not forget, the command to remember is all over scripture. And the reason, if you listen to Os, is obvious. Whenever humanity manages to build something worth preserving, whether a family, a community or an entire society, the biggest threat to its future is simply forgetting how you built it in the first place, forgetting the values and ideas that lay at its foundation. And that’s the challenge we have today. We got here through the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew civilization. So now is the time to come together and recommit ourselves to discovering the power of that wisdom for a flourishing American future. Anyway, thank you so much for joining me today. And if you like what you heard, if you enjoy, then here’s what you do. Give us a five star ratings on iTunes or Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcast. And if you do, and if you review us, hit me up on Twitter or Social on Instagram so I can let the world know how awesome you are. That’s it for now. This is Ari Lamm making a good faith effort. I’ll see you next time at.
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