[Beliefnet, July 11, 2001]
The discussion in the wake of my Fourth of July column has been invigorating, and it is moving to see the high pitch of idealism on every side. There are things I wish I’d said more clearly, and side-topics I wish I’d had room to address, but limited space demands selectivity.
The thing that struck me most, however, was the amount of sheer confusion. Posts shot off in wildly different directions, as if there was no consensus about what the topic of conversation was. I think the source of the trouble is that our culture holds two deeply-ingrained ideas, which in theory sound fine together but in practice conflict sharply. When that happens, uproar follows.
The first is that we should be tolerant and non-judgmental and live-and-let-live. The second is that we should fight zealously for justice. But doing justice requires being judgmental. The first step is sizing someone up and deciding he’s a racist, a baby-killer, or wearing fur. How can you evaluate somebody, but not judge?
That’ s confusing enough, but Christians have a yet higher hurdle: they’re called not to merely tolerate opponents, but love them. How can we love our enemies, and not judge them, yet still try to stop the wrong they do?
Historically, of course, the tendency has been to choose one extreme or the other: either slaughter the infidels, or piously, passively withdraw from life. Justification for just about anything can be dug out of Scripture. So I think it’s wise to read Scripture in the context of the early Christian community; they wrote it, they lived in that culture and spoke those languages. What did they think Jesus meant? How did they live it out?
The early bible commentaries and sermons, the stories of martyrs and desert fathers and mothers, keeps recurring to a basic theme that we have lost today. One central principle guided everything they did, and enabled them to keep justice and non-judgment in balance. It was humility. Or, unpacking that word, it was living at the balance point of repentance and forgiveness, where humility can bloom in the security of God’s love.
We don’ t like the word “repentance.” Even conservative Christians find it embarrassing, as it prompts images of crazed revival-tent evangelists and pathological self-loathing. But this is a distorted understanding. For the early church, repentance was the wellspring of joy and healing. As Jesus taught, the one who knows she has been forgiven much knows she is loved much, and can pour out love in return. Repentance and joy go together, and send us back into the world able to love beyond our cramped natural capacity. We can work self-sacrificially for the good, kind to those who oppose us, humbly aware of our own failings, no longer anxious to be thought perfect.
You might be wondering why I went off on a tangent about irrelevant religious stuff when I was talking about something important, namely justice. But that’s the point: because we are fallen humans, if we don’t have humility or a sense of our need for forgiveness, our zeal to do justice can easily flip over into tyranny. We don’t see the tipping point; we become inflated with our cause, full of self-congratulation and self-righteousness, and run right over the edge. The oppressed of one generation become the oppressors of the next, and now those powerless must rise up, thinking themselves similarly noble. This kind of see-saw can go on for centuries, and everyone claims to be fighting for justice.
Jesus offered a very different approach. He taught that we should refuse to seek vengeance, and instead forgive those who hurt us. If we don’t forgive, he promised, God won’t forgive us. Much of the wrongdoing we see can be passed over in silence, if it doesn’t hurt others overtly. We can hold up a universal standard of goodness, and do our best to live by it, and ask forgiveness from God and others when we don’t.
In most cases there is no need to call attention to another individual’s wrongdoing, but when intervention is required, humility is still the rule. Even while pursuing justice we should think, “I am no better than he,” or “I could do the same thing.” Though we recognize when someone has violated the common standard, we don’t sit in the Judge’s seat. There is one who will judge on the last day, and till then we linger in the courtroom as the friend of the accused, hoping he will come to the repentance which has set us free.
This is far from the kind of detachment that is passive or cool. It is mercy, something active and seeking. St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th century) wrote:
“And what is a merciful heart? It is the hearts’ burning for all of creation, for men, for birds, for animals and even for demons. At the remembrance and at the sight of them, the merciful man’ s eyes fill with tears which arise from the great compassion that urges his heart. It grows tender and cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation. Because of this, such a man continually offers tearful prayer even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and forgiven.”
It would be anachronistic to ask whether the early Christians defended human rights; the very concept wouldn’t appear for almost 1800 years. For them the stunning news was the possibility of reconciliation with God through Christ. In our western culture we are inoculated against those words and it’ s news that now bores us. But it was unimaginably exciting at the time, and has been through the centuries for those on whom it breaks through.
Since this was an individual process, it obliterated the significance of barriers like class and gender. That works two ways: the early Christians didn’t discriminate, but they also didn’t see people with various needs occupying different interest groups. Christianity is a religion, not a political philosophy, and the important thing is returning to God; everyone does that as an individual.
Yes, the early Christians felt solidarity with the poor and the oppressed; at the beginning, they *were* the poor and the oppressed, so the identification was literal and not merely sympathetic. They worked for justice by living it, by showing in their lives an alternative that defied the surrounding culture: they honored women, freed slaves, rescued abandoned infants, rejected abortion, pooled their money for the poor, upheld chastity. Wherever the faith went this merciful justice followed, and even today, when we hear that a celebrity is a Christian, we expect him to meet a different moral standard.
In these attitudes Christians did not “judge,” but they stood against injustice by living a challengingly different life. They used all the nonviolent means they had available in that despotic age, and those of us who have more—freedom of speech and the right to vote, for example—can add such means as well.
What we must guard against self-righteousness and contempt. These poisons can appear on either the left or right, among Christians and non-Christians; it’s just the way humans act, left to our own devices. We are prideful and greedy; we are narcissistic and want to be acclaimed as heroes. We can do all this, even in pursuit of a just cause.
Which brings us back around again to repentance. Early Christians felt solidarity with the oppressed, but they also felt solidarity with the oppressor, because they knew that they, too, were tempted by sin. They could love their enemies, and hope to rescue them from a path of destruction, as they themselves had been rescued.
These opponents weren’t really their enemies, after all. It’s an illusion. Even demonstrably evil people are really just hostages of the real Enemy. And whenever humans act in haughtiness and hate, no matter how noble their cause, they are caught in that Enemy’s grasp.