by Matthew W. Bassford
The other day, a Facebook friend of mine posted the following quotation from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, something she apparently does annually.
"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, `Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible?
“If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything - God and our friends and ourselves included - as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred."
In a time when people across the political spectrum seem more interested in believing evil about their enemies than discovering what is true, this certainly has a great deal of resonance! So far as it goes (and it may go further in the book, which I neither own nor have read), I think Lewis’s analysis is astute. Indeed, Christians must beware of the corrupting power of hatred!
However, we also ought to press the inquiry forward another step. It is not enough to identify hatred and contempt for our enemies as seductive. We must ask why it should be so.
The answer, I think, is one of comparison. The more vile our enemies are (or we make them out to be), the more brightly we and our friends shine. Next to the manure pile, even the soiled garment appears clean. The lesser of two evils often comes to resemble a positive good.
The benefits of adopting such a stance are manifold. We no longer have to subject those who are on “our side” to searching moral inquiry because, well, look at the other guy!
Most especially, we no longer have to subject ourselves to searching moral inquiry. Our enemies, rather than the word of God, have become our standard for self-evaluation. In comparison to the picture we paint of them, we have no flaws worth mentioning. There is nothing we need to change; instead, we can bask in our own self-righteousness.
Of course, when the hearts of God’s people are given over to hatred and self-righteousness, the devil has won completely. We have no justification for maximizing the difference between ourselves and our enemies. We too once were deceived, enslaved, hateful, and hating one another. Rather than contempt, we must respond with recognition, sympathy, and pity.
The difference between us and anybody else is not our inherent goodness. It is that we have known the light of the grace of God, which cleanses and instructs us. If God could love and be merciful to me when I was His enemy, I must love and be merciful to my own enemies.
Admittedly, humility and self-sacrifice are not as enjoyable as contempt and self-righteousness. However, we have no hope for true righteousness apart from them.