In "The Last Temptation of Christ," Nikos Kazantzakis supposes what would happen if Satan offered Jesus a deal that was so difficult to refuse. It may be that America is receiving a similar temptation these days. Can the United States avoid falling into a similar trap?
In the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. He doesn't turn stones into bread to eat, despite being hungry. He doesn't test God by hurling himself from the Temple of Jerusalem, in the hopes of angels catching him. And he doesn't give in when offered dominion of the world, in exchange for bowing down before Satan.
But in the film, Jesus is given a final temptation on the cross. What if he were to give up all the pain and suffering, use his powers to come down, live with Mary Magdalene, and have a happy life instead? He does appear to give in, which makes it a controversial film. But then as Jerusalem is sacked by Romans, he sees how the people will be scattered, with nothing to hold on to. Jesus chooses to be back on the cross, die a painful death, and save humanity with his sacrifice.
America is facing an equally daunting temptation. From our humble origins as a colony based upon religious freedom and many other freedoms, this country overcome a bloody Civil War that would have destroyed most nations. We overcame a Great Depression, two World Wars, and a Cold War rivalry with a superpower to become the strongest country in the world.
We have political freedom, in the form of protection of our civil liberties, and political rights in the ability to pick our leaders, and our policies at the state and local level. We have economic freedom in the form of a free market to stimulate growth and trade, and a state with the capacity to protect those less fortunate. We have even shown the ability to overcome past mistakes, showing tolerance and acceptance of many. And sure, we Americans are quite capable, but I personally believe that none of it was without accident. I contend that there was a higher power at work, giving us a helping hand, especially when we sought it.
And now we face our greatest temptation: ourselves.
In recent years, there's been a growing feeling that all of our success is our own. In the last election, you even saw signs and stickers proclaiming that we did it all. We were the masters of our own destiny and fate. We could do anything, say anything, act any way without fear of being held accountable to anyone on Earth, or beyond. Our Tower of Babel heads skyward.
Similarly, there are calls to deal with those who look and act differently in a way that reflects a subjugator and subjugated role. It is as if all of those teachings, parables, stories, and lessons about charity, humility, faith, sacrificing oneself, and the two greatest commandments (concerning love) never existed, or reflected "defeatist" talk.
Most churches recognize this spiritual corruption and have tried to get us to focus on message, but are increasingly being marginalized in favor of rival forms of worship, with Golden Calves that look nicer and promises of power and the easy life on Earth that the traditional faiths can't or won't guarantee. Their worship infomercial is just too slick.
This Easter, I hope you'll think about where we are, where we're going, and what we can do to, as Langston Hughes put it, "Let America be America again," instead of a path not so different from those biblical temptations.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com.