Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Men and Monsters, Part II

Anybody can enact that murder shall not be punishable by death; nobody can enact that the swallowing of a tumblerful of prussic acid shall not be punishable by death. In the former case, the connection between the two events is legal—that is, arbitrary; in the latter, it is a true causal relationship … When the laws regulating human society are so formed as to come into collision with the nature of things, and in particular with the fundamental realities of human nature, they will end by producing an impossible situation which, unless the laws are altered, will issue in such catastrophes as war, pestilence, and famine. Catastrophes thus caused are the execution of universal law upon arbitrary enactments which contravene the facts; they are thus properly called by theologians, judgments of God. …  

At the back of the Christian moral code we find a number of pronouncements about the moral law, which are not regulations at all, but which purport to be statements of fact about man and the universe, and upon which the whole moral code depends for its authority and its validity in practice. … If they are true, man runs counter to them at his own peril. He may, of course, defy them, as he may defy the law of gravitation by jumping off the Eiffel Tower, but he cannot abolish them by edict. Nor yet can God abolish them, except by breaking up the structure of the universe, so that in this sense they are not arbitrary laws. We may of course argue that the making of this kind of universe, or indeed of any kind of universe, is an arbitrary act; but, given the universe as it stands, the rules that govern it are not freaks of momentary caprice. 

—Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker

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At first I’d been thinking of beginning with the sociological side of my first post; however, my language of divine judgment provoked more reaction than I’d expected, and anyway, on reflection it makes far more sense to begin with the spiritual. That spiritual side of things is the suggestion I made, or the suspicion I harbor, that the United States is a nation under judgment, due very largely to the war crimes of which we are historically guilty—but that notion needs a lot of unpacking.

To begin with, let’s consider what is meant by judgment. Usually, the image this summons to the imagination is one of God-as-cranky-old-man hitting people with bolts of smite because they’ve annoyed him in some way. This image actually does have a good use, to which we shall return later, but for the most part it’s stupid and terrible, and most of what it says to our minds and emotions should be discarded without hesitation.

A proper understanding of judgment is, rather, grounded in God’s character as the Creator, and the corresponding integrity of creation. In making the universe, God made an ordered reality, a universe in which cause and effect relate to one another in regular harmony. Why he did this is a question I can’t answer with certainty, and I have a hunch that it’s secretly nonsensical, like asking what the shape of yellow is, or whether eleven is solid, liquid, or gas; if God the Son is the Logos, then order is grounded not just in the choices, but in the being of God. At any rate he did make an ordered universe, and creatures like ourselves that not only rely on order to exist, but can’t even really imagine a world without it. The closest we can get is by mixing known elements of our world at random, but even this depends on our understanding of the order and defined things that we know.

This orderly creation in which we live is, also, the prerequisite for free will, which is itself a sine qua non of love. A world of pure chaos would be incomprehensible by definition, and no self-awareness or meaningful choice (which are the things we mean theologically by free will) would be possible. Accordingly, love, which is the most divine choice, would not be possible either.

But if the universe is ordered and governed by cause and effect, and if there are free agents in it, then suffering and evil become real possibilities. Through ignorance or inattention, any free being could run up against the order of the universe in a painful or damaging way; and through deliberate malice, any free being could attempt to violate, break, or circumvent that order. But freelance modifications of creation would require the same power (in the double sense of authority and ability) that the God who made it possesses; and we don’t have that. Accordingly, the effect of such attempts will naturally be as painful and damaging as mistakes made through ignorance, if not more so. And the more a creature perseveres in its error, the worse the consequences will be, until that creature is either destroyed or corrected.

Thus, judgment is not an arbitrary act of God, intruded into creation as a punishment for behavior he doesn’t like. Rather, it is a name for what happens when a creature defies the inner logic of creation, and is met by the self-consistency of that logic, experienced as hostile because of the creature’s own hostility. Judgment may, in that case, sound like a strange choice of name; which leads into the one great advantage of the ‘cranky old man’ depiction of God. By representing the Creator as a Person, this image can remind us that forgiveness, patience, restraint, and mercy are possible, too. C. S. Lewis, in his epistolary on prayer, Letters to Malcolm, wrote:

You suggest that what is traditionally regarded as our experience of God’s anger would be more helpfully regarded as what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power. As you say, ‘The live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, but if we blunder against it we get a shock.’ My dear Malcolm, what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? … The angry can forgive, and electricity can’t. 
And you give as your reason that ‘even by analogy the sort of pardon that arises because a fit of temper is spent cannot worthily be attributed to God nor gratefully accepted by man.’ But the belittling words ‘fit of temper’ are your own choice. Think of the fullest reconciliation between mortals. … Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it. … Wrath and pardon are both, as applied to God, analogies; but they belong together to the same circle of analogy—the circle of life, and love, and deeply personal relationships.

Fine, fine. But what has all this got to do with describing America as a nation under judgment?

Our nation has, from its inception, been soaked in blood. With the exception of Rhode Island and parts of Pennsylvania, every square mile of US territory was either taken from its indigenous inhabitants by compulsion, or purchased from European powers that had done the same thing—England, Spain, France, Russia. The insultingly named ‘Indian reservations’ (as though they were parks maintained for endangered animals!), whose rights we regularly violate despite their technical status as independent nations, are an embarrassing continuation of colonialism. Our history in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries was imperfect even in relating to other Western powers; but we’ve really taken to war crimes since World War II. Interfering with other countries’ internal affairs, [1] killing foreign soldiers with no declaration of war, killing foreign civilian men, women, and children en masse, torturing prisoners of war … And all this is only about how the US deals with other countries, let alone immigrants and internal injustices like slavery, capitalist oppression, racism, and abortion.

John Gast, Spirit of the Frontier, 1872

I believe that, by this history of atrocities and by our general acquiescence to them (if not in many cases outright, vocal approval), we have invoked judgment upon ourselves. This violence indicates contempt for human life as such, and the nature of judgment is to work backwards, so that contempt of human life falls upon us. It certainly has: in the schools where we’ve taught children that destroying First Nation civilizations and killing or deporting them by the thousands was a historical footnote; at the military bases from which we’ve sent our brave boys to bomb Japanese or Vietnamese or Iraqi civilians with nuclear and chemical weapons, whose long-term effects we could never hope to control; in the office towers where the goods of clientele and employees alike are ruthlessly subordinated to profit.

Does this mean the individuals upon whom these judgments have fallen were the most guilty? No. It doesn’t mean they were guilty at all. Societies are vast webs of coïnherence, and as many people suffer for others’ sins as thrive on others’ virtues. This should be no new idea for the Christian: for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. The Last Judgment, the final settling of individual accounts, is yet to come, and while it tarries we still have an opportunity to invoke mercy, both for ourselves and for our society.

What does this invocation of mercy involve? First of all, individual repentance, because nothing can be done until and unless individual people—that is, you and I—own our thoughts, words, and behavior. To the extent that we’ve involved ourselves in social sins, whether by active approval or passive indulgence, we must repent: i.e., say that we’ve done wrong and that we’re sorry, ask for forgiveness from anyone we’ve wronged (God or neighbor), and resolve to do better.
And then, as far as possible, we must participate in societal repentance. Now, maybe our own influence on society is a very small thing. Maybe all we can do is swallow our pride by letting someone win a Facebook argument and switch to fair-trade coffee. But, in truth, those things aren’t nothing. Small decisions to foster peace are where the power to make biggers decisions for peace comes from; it’s like lifting: you don’t start with benching 350 pounds. Then again, maybe our influence on society is a bigger thing than we think. Maybe we can sponsor the education of a child in a war-torn country, or write music that celebrates kindness and honesty, or help organize an anti-war campaign, or all sorts of things. But it’s always those little things coming from us individual people that multiply and grow and finally start moving whole cultures. Bartolomé de las Casas, William Wilberforce, Susan B. Anthony, Cardinal Manning, Eugene Debs, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr made things happen because they did not wait for others to act. They went and did something. It was that which inspired others to do something too.

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[1] I’m not saying that this is never justifiable. I am saying that we are way too ready to dictate to other states what they may and may not do.


  1. "With the exception of Rhode Island and parts of Pennsylvania, every square mile of US territory was either taken from its indigenous inhabitants by compulsion, or purchased from European powers that had done the same thing—England, Spain, France, Russia."

    You overstate your case. My home town has on display the deed showing their purchase from the native tribe of the land which comprises the town.

    It further occurs to me to wonder whether large areas with no permanent settlements can properly be described as inhabited by people who passed through from time to time.

    This is not to deny the atrocities which did occur or the wrongfulness of forced expulsions. But as an acquaintance once quoted his mother, "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times, don't exaggerate."

    BTW, for years I've considered Harry Truman a war criminal for nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the few occasions on which I've made that opinion public, the inevitable response has been that it saved many thousands of American soldiers' lives, as if killing non-combatants to save combatants could ever be justified. Some refine the argument by asserting, probably correctly, that many civilian lives would also have been lost if the Allies had invaded the Japanese mainland. That, too, fails to justify the use of the A-bomb on those targets. It didn't take me long to realize that Roosevelt and Churchill were also war criminals — along with Hitler — for their bombings of populations.

    So I definitely agree with your overall premise that our country has been steeped in blood since before its founding; and I find your notion of our being under judgment well worth pondering.

  2. "The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment." - Nicolas Gomez Davila