At one point in C.S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra the hero, Elwin Ransom, had “an experience that perhaps no good man can ever have in our world… a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred” in which “the energy of hating never before felt without some guilt, without some dim knowledge that he was failing fully to distinguish the sinner from the sin, rose into his arms and legs and he felt that they were pillars of burning blood.”
In current politics we seem to be having the opposite experience.
The hatred is flowing in torrents, all right. And bringing with it enough energy to surge into the United States Capitol before flowing the other way. But it’s unmixed the wrong way, with increasingly little sign of any sense of guilt or dim knowledge of its corrupted and corrupting qualities.
At this point you probably expect a pro forma condemnation of the rioters. But you aren’t going to get it from me. You’re going to get a passionate condemnation of the riot that confesses to struggling with the temptation I’m talking about.
I want to denounce what they did. No, I need to denounce it. I do denounce it. And I also denounce the vile thoughts they allowed themselves to wallow in, getting angrier and more bitter until they erupted into disgraceful violent conduct. But I must do all these things while extending compassion to them.
It’s not easy. And to avoid mixing sanctimony with rage, let me be very clear that I am sorely tempted by anger and bitterness. At the rioters, and now at those releasing a flood of scorn and abuse at anyone who failed to distance themselves from the dark side of Trumpism soon enough, strongly enough, or at all.
They aren’t wrong to condemn the conduct. But that smile is very disquieting.
In case you haven’t read it, in Lewis’s novel Ransom finds himself in the unusual situation of feeling purely virtuous hatred because he is literally face to face with the Devil. Inhabiting a human body, to be sure. And the body of a man Ransom passionately disliked with good reason. But the man is no longer there, just Satan. And even he is in some sense absent.
As Lewis goes on to say, “What was before him appeared no longer a creature of corrupted will. It was corruption itself to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person: but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation. It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for.”
Which is hating evil. Doing so is lawful, indeed obligatory. So is hating evil deeds. And taking some sort of action, on a spectrum from exposing them intellectually to denouncing them morally to opposing them physically. It is why there are police as well as priests and professors, and just wars as well as turned cheeks and unturned pages.
It is also lawful, I think, to stow our theoretical love for the sinner safely away behind many sandbags while doing literal battle. A soldier in a Western army in World War II, to take an easy example, may be fully focused on killing the enemy and even elated while shredding men’s flesh with metal projectiles or bayoneting them at such close range their last breath blows in his face. If it is wrong, I am not one to judge it because I have not been there.
Of course as Christians we know we must very much regret the taking of life. And we must pity not only the good German forced to fight for Hitler but the bad one who succumbed to Nazi ideology. Like one character in The Name of the Rose, though he is on the wrong side, we might without hypocrisy kill a man then immediately make the sign of the cross over his still-warm body.
As you’ll note in the passage above, Ransom is relieved of his obligation even to pity the Devil, who long ago ceased to be a Person who could benefit from or even receive pity. But we are not, even in a situation where we get up the next morning and kill again.
I write as one who never wore a uniform, let alone went into combat. And although I engage in what we call policy “polemics” all the time, I try to avoid battle metaphors, partly to avoid vainglory and partly to avoid sandbagging my theoretical sympathy for those whose ideas, it seems to me, are very dangerous. But however you want to put it, we are called to oppose policies and principles that, because they are wrong, do very real harm.
In a free society we must oppose even dreadful policies like legal abortion and appeasement of aggressors without resorting to force. In a tyranny it is different. But in either case an important aspect of our obligation to oppose evil is not to feel unmixed hatred for those who support and implement the policies we oppose. Including those who attack Capitol Hill or commit arson in Portland because they have mistaken a democracy for a dictatorship.
To be clear, the riot on the Capitol was very dangerous. Not because it might actually have overthrown the American government — in that sense it was comic opera. But because it discarded norms of civility at the urging of a sitting president. And then, I feel obliged to repeat, it gave cover for a great many people who have spent five years sneering at the deplorables to release a torrent of unmixed hatred that was anything but perfect.
Including Joe Biden’s poisonous declaration that if the rioters had been black the police would have responded more forcefully. It would be hard to devise a more divisive statement at a less propitious time given the violent “progressive” riots that rocked American cities this summer, killing and injuring people, destroy property, and shredding public trust.
(I could also get very angry at Nancy Pelosi for saying Trump with his finger on the button was an imminent peril and then wandering away for the weekend. But one outburst at a time.)
It is tempting to say that frustration at the failure of the police to deal firmly with Antifa and BLM rioters clearly pushed some MAGA types over the edge. But it’s the wrong metaphor. They allowed themselves to be lured over the edge by it. Say what you like about predestination, but if we do not have moral choices that matter, the Sermon on the Mount was a waste of wind. Whereas if we do, let us be determined to make them. In our minds as well as with our hands.
I am not offering counsels of perfection here. At another point in the Perelandra series, someone encounters a look of pure charity on the face of an angel, untempered by human affection, and finds it frightening, not just for its intensity but because it strongly resembles hostility. You certainly won’t have that problem looking at me. But awareness of our own fallibility is not an excuse to chuck the enterprise, any more than Ransom’s awareness of his unfitness for physical combat with the “Un-man” on Perelandra permitted him to duck the obligation to try.
Right now everybody needs to say the people over there behaving badly in the grip of sinful ideas are worthy of our love, and act like they meant it. Especially because, if you’re like me, you’re finding it even harder than usual fully to distinguish the sinner from the sin.