One of the many reasons I enjoy reading pre-20th Century western literature is because Christianity — or more accurately, the teachings of Christ — still laid sufficient claims on people that it was commonplace to find discussions of questions of conscience in opposition to the passions, needs and dictates of the moment. For example, it is far from unusual to find even the heroines of the works of Jane Austen, occupied as they are with the pressing questions of maintaining a suitable station in life and whom one should marry, nevertheless remarking upon, or mulling, questions of Christian charity and duty.
Questions of conscience are largely banished from public discourse on current affairs, which almost exclusively adopt and develop a purely utilitarian, goal-driven, desire-based, everything’s relative, man-is-the-measure-of-all-things perspective. What we ask are questions like, "Are the Iraq and Afghanistan wars making us safer? Are we establishing stable, democratic regimes there that will respect individual rights?" Not, "Is it wrong to murder people to make ourselves safer from possible future attacks, or in order to establish what we believe will be a good political system for the survivors of our beneficence?" It is very clear from public discourse and debate about such things that both the initial choice of action, and our persistence in carrying it out, depend on the answers to our very own goal-driven assessments and utilitarian calculations.
Recently, Rev. Terry Jones caused an international brouhaha by announcement of plans to burn Qurans during services at his Dove (yes, you read that right, the symbol of peace) World Outreach Center on September 11th, the ninth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon. Modern man generally responded in typical fashion. General Petraeus (reflecting the utilitarian, our well-being and pain are paramount standard) asked this not to be done because it would inflame the passions of our enemies and thereby endanger our troops. The Religion News Service attacked the Rev. Jones’ — personality. (It’s too much, you really can’t make this stuff up.) Appeals for tolerance abounded.
While the planned book burning fizzled out, many Americans are still outraged and preoccupied with the proposed plan to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, and a dedicated segment of the media rides that wave. I realize that many, many people who may be reading this are not Christians, or even despise Christianity. I do not count myself as a Christian, though raised in that faith. Regardless, the Rev. Terry Jones, and many who denounce the building of the Islamic civic center and mosque are people who consider themselves Christians. Fred Reed had a really excellent article the other day endeavoring to explain why some Muslims might be angry with the West. But even if those considerations fail to defuse the anger that the book burners and building denouncers feel towards Muslims or Islam by illustrating that these outraged Christians are like the man who decries the splinter in his brother’s eye and sees not the beam in his own, even if they persist in seeing some or all Muslims as their enemies, well, they are still commanded by the one they call Lord to love and forgive their enemies. So it seems they might want to consider an old-school sermon on this subject, from a time when these things still meant something to some people, before religious news services offered personality assessments, before so much of Christianity, in self-righteous assurance of its own grace and personal relationship with God, turned away from self-examination and the commandment to love one’s neighbor, toward partnering themselves, the great, Moral Majority, with princes and principalities in the calling: "Come, let us make a world that is well pleasing to us."
Christians, should, theoretically, have a reason, therefore, to think of these things. But even for us non-Christians, I think it worthwhile and instructive to hark back to a time when writers still knew both the demands, and language, of conscience, so different from the passivity of tolerance, so much more demanding than the utilitarian, needs-based, self-serving standards given free rein today.
In time-honored fashion, therefore, I select, for our reading today, a passage that is ever timely, from the conclusion of Sren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love:
It is said, "Forgive, then you will also be forgiven."1 Someone, however, might manage to misinterpret these words in such a way that he imagined that it was possible to receive forgiveness himself although he did not forgive. Truly this is a misinterpretation. Christianity’s view is: forgiveness is forgiveness; your forgiveness is your forgiveness; your forgiveness of another is your own forgiveness; the forgiveness you give is the forgiveness you receive, not the reverse, that the forgiveness you receive is the forgiveness you give. It is as if Christianity would say: Pray to God humbly and trustingly about your forgiveness, because he is indeed merciful in a way no human being is; but if you want to make a test of how it is with forgiveness, then observe yourself. If honestly before God you wholeheartedly forgive your enemy (but if you do, remember that God sees it), then you may also dare to hope for your forgiveness, because they are one and the same. God forgives you neither more nor less nor otherwise than as you forgive those who have sinned against you. It is only an illusion to imagine that one oneself has forgiveness although one is reluctant to forgive others. No, there is not a more exact agreement between the sky above and its reflection in the sea, which is just as deep as the distance is high, than there is between forgiveness and forgiveness. It is also a delusion to believe in one’s own forgiveness when one refuses to forgive, for how could a person truly believe in forgiveness if his own life is an objection against the existence of forgiveness! But a person deludes himself into thinking that he himself for his part relates himself to God and on the other hand that with regard to another person he relates himself only to the other person rather than that in everything he relates himself to God.
Therefore to accuse another person before God is to accuse oneself, like for like. If someone is actually wronged, humanly speaking, then may he take care lest he be carried away in accusing the guilty one before God. Ah, we are so willing to deceive ourselves, we are so willing to deceive ourselves into thinking that a person for his part should have a private relation to God. But the relation to God is like the relation to the authorities; you cannot speak privately with a public authority about something that is his business — but God’s business is to be God. Suppose a domestic servant, to whom perhaps you are otherwise well disposed, has committed a crime, a theft, for example, and you do not know what to do about the matter. Then above all you do not privately approach the highest public authority, because he does not know of anything private in matters of theft. He will promptly have the guilty party arrested and initiate proceedings. Similarly, if you want to pretend that you are completely outside the matter at hand and now privately want to complain to God about your enemies, God will make short shrift of it and bring charges against you, because before God you yourself are a guilty party — to accuse another is to accuse yourself.2 In your opinion, God should, so to speak, take your side, God and you together should turn against your enemy, against the one who did you wrong. But this is a misunderstanding. God looks impartially at all and is wholly and completely what you want to make him only in part. If you address him in his capacity as judge — yes, it is leniency on his part that he warns you to desist, because he is well aware of the consequences for you, how rigorous it will become for you; but if you refuse to listen, if you address him in his capacity as judge, it does not help that you mean he is supposed to judge someone else, because you yourself have made him into your judge, and he is, like for like, simultaneously your judge — that is, he judges you also. But if you do not engage in accusing someone before God or in making God into a judge, then God is the gracious God.
Let me illustrate this by an incident. There was once a criminal who had stolen some money, including a hundred-rix-dollar bill. He wanted to change this bill and turned to another criminal at the latter’s house. The second criminal took the bill, went into the next room as if to change it, came out again, acted as if nothing had happened, and greeted the waiting visitor as if they were seeing each other the first time — in short, he defrauded him out of the hundred-rix-dollar bill. The first criminal became so furious over this that in his resentment he notified the authorities of the matter, how shamefully he had been defrauded. The second criminal was of course imprisoned and charged with fraud — but alas, the first question the authorities raised in this case was: How did the plaintiff get the money? Thus there were two cases. The first criminal understood quite correctly that he was in the right in the case of the fraud; now he wanted to be the honest man, the good citizen who appeals to the authorities to obtain his rights. Ah, but the authorities do not function privately or take up any isolated matter it pleases someone to lay before them, nor do they always give the case the turn the plaintiff and the informer give it — the authorities look more deeply into the circumstances. So it is also with the relation to God. If you accuse another person before God, two actions are instituted immediately; precisely when you come and inform on the other person, God begins to think about how you are involved.
Like for like; indeed, Christianity is so rigorous that it even asserts a heightened inequality. It is written, "Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but not see the log that is in your own?" A pious man has piously interpreted these words as follows: The log in your own eye is neither more nor less than the seeing and condemning the splinter in your brother’s eye. But the most rigorous like for like would of course be that seeing the splinter in someone else’s eye becomes a splinter in one’s own eye. But Christianity is even more rigorous: this splinter, or seeing it judgingly, is a log. And even if you do not see the log, and even if no human being sees it, God sees it. Therefore a splinter is a log! Is this not a rigorousness that makes a mosquito into an elephant! Ah, but if you bear in mind that from the point of view of Christianity and truth God is always present in everything, that it is solely around him that everything revolves, then you will certainly be able to understand this rigorousness; you will understand that to see the splinter in your brother’s eye in the presence of God (and God is indeed always present) is high treason. If only you could avail yourself, in order to look at the splinter, of a place and a moment in which God is absent. But, in the Christian sense, this is the very thing that you must learn to hold fast, that God is always present; and if he is present, he is also looking at you. At a moment when you really think God is present, it surely would not occur to you to see any splinter in your brother’s eye or occur to you to apply this dreadfully rigorous criterion — you who are guilty yourself. But the point is, even if all better persons, as far as their own lives are concerned, do their best to have the thought of God’s omnipresence present (and nothing more preposterous can be imagined than to think of God’s omnipresence at a distance), they still often forget God’s omnipresence as they relate themselves to other people, forget that God is present in the relationship, and are satisfied with a purely human comparison. Then one has security and quiet to discover the splinter. What then is the guilt? This, that you forget yourself, forget that God is present (and he is indeed always present), or that you forget yourself in his presence. How uncircumspect to judge so rigorously in God’s presence that a splinter comes to be judged — like for like; if you want to be that rigorous, then God can outbid you — it is a log in your own eye. The authorities certainly have already regarded it as a kind of brazenness on the part of that criminal we mentioned to want to play the righteous man who pursues his rights legally and judicially, alas, a criminal who himself must be prosecuted legally and judicially — but God regards it as presumptuousness for a human being to pretend purity and to judge the splinter in his brother’s eye.
How rigorous this Christian like for like is! The Jewish, the worldly, the bustling like for like is: as others do unto you, by all means take care that you also do likewise unto them. But the Christian like for like is: God will do unto you exactly as you do unto others. In the Christian sense, you have nothing at all to do with what others do unto you — it does not concern you; it is a curiosity, an impertinence, a lack of good sense on your part to meddle in things that are absolutely no more your concern than if you were not present. You have to do only with what you do unto others, or how you take what others do unto you. The direction is inward; essentially you have to do only with yourself before God. This world of inwardness, this rendition of what other people call actuality, this is actuality. The Christian like for like belongs to this world of inwardness. It turns itself away and will turn you away from externality (but without taking you out of the world), will turn you upward or inward. In the Christian sense, to love people is to love God, and to love God is to love people — what you do unto people, you do unto God, and therefore what you do unto people God does unto you. If you are indignant with people who do you wrong, you actually are indignant with God, since ultimately it is still God who permits wrong to be done to you. But if you gratefully accept the wrong from God’s hand "as a good and perfect gift,"3 then you are not indignant with people either. If you refuse to forgive, then you actually want something else: you want to make God hard-hearted so that he, too, would not forgive — how then would this hard-hearted God forgive you? If you cannot bear people’s faults against you, how then should God be able to bear your sins against him? No, like for like. God is actually himself this pure like for like, the pure rendition of how you yourself are. If there is anger in you, then God is anger in you; if there is leniency and mercifulness in you, then God is mercifulness in you. It is infinite loving that he will have anything to do with you at all and that no one, no one, so lovingly discovers the slightest love in you as God does. God’s relation to a human being is at every moment to infinitize what is in that human being at every moment.
- Matthew 6:14: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you."
- See, e.g., Luke 6: 37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven," and Matthew 7:2: "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
- James 1:17.
Jeff Snyder [send him mail] is an attorney who works in Manhattan. He is the author of Nation of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, which examines the American character as revealed by the gun control debate.