I enjoyed reading Sam Goldman’s review of my play Arguing With God. AWG uses familiar stories from the Old Testament to expound a general theory of man. Tribalism (i.e., judging based on tribal membership in lieu of character and accomplishments) seems hard-wired into the species. Every tribe is convinced that its members are a chosen people or a master race anointed to dominate the others, by force and violence if necessary. Unspeakable crimes are committed again and again in the name of a chosen people.
It may always have to be that way, because no one person or persons can alter our DNA. In all places and at all times, people succumb to their lower selves in seeking to gratify cravings for power, fame, sex, money, and certainty. That is why the Bible teaches that what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun: the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. All of mankind is made of crooked timber. No person is exempt from original sin. Each of us has the responsibility of managing our lower self as best we can to enable the better angels of our nature to flourish.
The human condition would be the same today even if Moses, David, Solomon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Pericles, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, David Ben Gurion, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, FDR, etc., had never lived. Graveyards are filled with indispensable people. The only thing that has changed from the beginning of time is that occasionally there is greater opportunity among formerly oppressed tribes to get back at their tormentors and practice a dominance of their own.
Even when justified as benefiting the dominated (e.g., the white man’s burden), the ulterior motive of tribal supremacy invariably crushes justice. A life not dedicated to making power subservient to justice is—despite the ultimate futility of the endeavor—not worth living. The striving for justice is the only thing that distinguishes civilization from savagery. Here and there, civilization may temporarily overcome or domesticate tribalism. As Macbeth said, it prevents man from becoming nothing more than a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Judaism and Christianity inventively remake Yahweh into the universal God. But Yahweh in the Old Testament speaks and acts as a tribal God and creates a tribal people. In AWG, Yahweh symbolizes limitless power wielded by contemporary presidents of the United States. For three generations, American presidents have conducted presidential wars in the name of the American people. For five generations, Americans have been told that we’re “good guys” who have been chosen to wage war against “bad guys.” AWG shows the toxic combination of unlimited presidential power and the chosen-people narrative. The United States will be fighting endless wars until it breaks with this Old Testament foreign policy and embraces our founders’ understanding that going abroad in search of monsters to destroy will result in ruination.
John B. Henry’s Arguing With God will be onstage at 7 p.m. November 29 at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, DC.