Cover Image: The Magna Carta of Humanity

The Magna Carta of Humanity

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Member Reviews

Os Guinness provides an insightful and penetrating treatise in which his main thesis is that America, finds itself between "Paris and Sinai". Guinness dissects the roots of "the left" as grounded in the ideology of the French, Chinese and other revolutions, which had even occult roots. On the other side, he finds the Biblical truths as found in the giving of the Law as vital for America's recovery; a nation under God. This book is fairly important for the current momentum in post-Covid America, medium-level and not complex for the lay-reader. Guinness is right, America's decision will affect the coming generations, and either it extirpates the cancer or dies with valor.
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I have mixed feelings about this book. Because this is a book review and not a paper addressing all of the issues in the book, I will only consider the most important concerns I have about the book.

America is in a crisis of freedom, Guinness says. I appreciate his exploration of the concept of freedom. True freedom is not the freedom to pursue all desires and passions. True freedom requires responsibility. True freedom is “the power to do what we ought...” (158) It requires virtue and self-limitation.

Guinness presents “...the exodus as the precedent and pattern of Western freedom.” (19) The fundamental principles of the Exodus Revolution should be recognized as the Magna Carta of humanity. One of those principles is that man is created in the image of God. “Each individual human is exceptional.” (78) Evil, injustice and oppression “are always to be fought.” (78) I agree.

I have issue with one of his principles, however, that covenant people were equals before the law, in schooling and in worth. (94) Leviticus 27 is clear women were valued less than men. Women were not allowed education in that society. The true Sinai principle of the inequality of women bore fruit in America with women not being allowed to vote for over a century, nor be allowed to engage in higher education or even own property for decades after the nation's founding.  

Another problem I find with using Sinai in relation to the founding of America is the role of God. Only the power of God was able to free the Israelites. “Without the intervention of God, there would have been no exodus...” (138) Can Sinai be related to America? God founded a theocracy. The Israelites were given specific instructions for religious action and belief. America was founded on the principle that a religion could not be established by law, nearly opposite the situation at Sinai. The religious aspects of Exodus and 1776 are very different and I think Guinness' argument falls flat.

Guinness defends the American experiment. He acknowledges the evil and hypocrisy of slavery but says if “acknowledged and corrected,” the founding documents stand clear and strong. (22) I was disappointed Guinness failed to recognize and address the repeated slaughter and disenfranchisement of Native Americans. Near the end of this book, Guinness identifies the serious work needed to acknowledge and correct that evil associated with America's founding.

Guinness is, in general, very critical of the progressive left. He does admit, however, that they have reason to be upset. “Many of the injustices and inequalities are genuine, and they require genuine resolution.” (209) It is in how they respond he finds error. At times, his attacks on the left are almost humorous. He writes, “...the attitude of the left is clear: if elections go the wrong way and investigations and impeachments also fail, what is left but assassination?” (35) Ah, but then his draft of this book went to the publisher before the 2020 election and the actions of January 6, 2021. How ironic. 

Guinness' book is written in a scholarly fashion and is, perhaps, aimed at scholars rather than those who need to hear and heed his message. He quotes various scholars, historians and authors, people most Americans will not recognize nor care to hear about. He also makes reference to so many political movements and ideas, average Americans may become glassy eyed as they skim over sections of material. Guinness also relies heavily on the work of Rabbi Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, something evangelical Christians may find puzzling.

I agree with Guinness' conclusion. “For Sinai (and Calvary) America must make amends, and the very real sins must be confessed with very real repentance. But if this happens, the American experiment in freedom may be given a second chance and can then go forward both wiser and more humbly.” (233) Forgiveness is the next essential act to reconciliation and restoration. But, repentance must come first.

I appreciate Guinness' honesty at the role of Christians in creating the current anti-Christian feelings. “All too often, Christian behavior has flatly contradicted Christian beliefs.” (32) “Christians have betrayed their Lord, dishonored their faith and brought down attacks on their own heads...” (32) “Confession, the willingness to acknowledge our sins...is essential today.” (33) Will Christians take the first step of repentance?

All the evils of America, and Guinness admits to the evils from slavery to Vietnam, (basically the entire history of the nation), were egregiously evil. (234) But, he argues, they were contradictions to the ideals of America's founding. Those ideals “should be lifted high so that succeeding generations could aspire to achieve them more faithfully than their ancestors did...” (234)

From my observations of recent activities in the U.S., I would say the ball is in the court of the political right. Will leaders, those in political and religious power, repent of the egregious evils against the Blacks, Native Americans, the disenfranchised, and seek forgiveness and to make amends? Will a visionary leader call for a national acknowledgment of the sins and failures of the past and present and call to recommit to the principles of America's founding? (244) I am waiting.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher. My comments are an independent and honest review.
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I applauded Os Guinness’ “recovery” of the older, Hebrew and the newer, Greek Testaments as one integral Word of God. This is often ignored by those who believe the latter supersedes rather than fulfills the former. Sadly, many Evangelicals make short shrift of this. 
I was quite struck however by the criticisms of the left and the endorsement of the right. American Evangelicals align themselves quite closely with the “Right”. The background for this is the increasing polarization of the right and the left, typified in the last four years or more of US politics, a legacy that will linger for a long time. In the Bible, God advocates for the poor, the aliens, the widows and orphans, where justice and Jubilee call us to heal the suffering. Given this I was surprised to find the book heavily weighted in favor of a conservative ideology, in which freedom is a matter of “everyone for themselves”, individualism run rampant. In fact, we are “individually members one of another” in the body of Christ. Guinness finds little on the “left” to be respected, despite his fundamental conviction that we are all made in the image of God. 
Too often, and increasingly so, we justify ourselves as God’s children by labelling our enemies, excluding rather than including them in His Kingdom. 
Dichotomies (in this instance, Sinai vs. Paris) are in my view not examined critically enough.
An interesting contribution to this area despite my reservations.

An InterVarsity Press ARC via NetGalley
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Positives
Os Guinness is incisive in his analysis and eloquent in his defense and elaboration of the true, the good and the beautiful nature and vision of freedom that Sinai propounds, and makes a compelling case - but only to those who are already sympathetic with his position. Arugably, the main dichotomy Os Guinness sets up, Sinai and 1776 America versus 1789 Paris, is fair, although I have concerns about how he applies these contrasts to America today. 

Despite being a Christian, he draws extensively on Jewish frames of references and interpretation of key Old Testament texts, especially Genesis and Exodus. Reading these sections were refreshing. Os Guinness clearly wanted to find common ground and I think he does so with respect. 

The chapters on the "covenantal vision" of Exodus and the importance of "transmission" through education were well structured and argued. He paints a clear and grand picture of what could be if his American(?) readers frequently drank from the deep wells of its rich history. 

Negatives
The author writes with passion, but it can come across as lacking empathy and understanding of the "other side." When he talks about the threats to freedom today, the dangers he identifies are mostly, if not almost exclusively, from the Left. There are rare instances of him mentioning the less savoury characters and things that the Right produce. 

If the progressive left is threatening freedom today, what's the solution? Os Guinness doesn't explicitly state "the conservative right," but it is implied. Because in America, there is realistically only two options if people want to make political change. But those who profess allegiance to Sinai and 1776 often don't behave any better than their revolutionary counterparts.  

Furthermore, he doesn't engage adequately with the concerns of the left. Why are they upset, angry and aggressive? Os Guinness identifies societal problems like racism and inequality, but does not offer solutions. He writes about the need for forgiveness and tells powerful anecdotes, but I doubt that's going to be enough. I was hoping for him to challenge or motivate those who hold to the principles of Sinai and 1776 to take positive action. 

Closing thoughts and who should read it
For me, the biggest benefit of this work is introducing, or should I say, re-introducing Jewish thought back into Western Christianity. Chapter 1 on God's self-identification was hands down my favourite chapter. The way he used "freedom" as the controlling narrative of the book is a model of good political theology rooted in (Judeo-Christian) exegesis. 

As a Christian, I don't deny that Os has accurately identified that America faces a crisis of freedom, and I wholeheartedly agree with the Sinai, or should I say Jewish, or Judeo-Christian, principles on which true freedom - like that of 1776 America - must be founded and maintained. However, I think the solution he proposes might work at the level of personal conviction, and maybe a small conservative, Christian community, but it will not be able to drive impactful political action and change.
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Guinness makes a careful, nuanced argument that what makes the American ideal of freedom work is its basis in Judeo-Christian philosophy, rather than a secular ideal created in the later French Revolution. Great insights, building on ideas from Rabbi Jonathon Sacks' work as well as ideas Guinness explored in earlier books.
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