Forgiveness and the Politics of Christian Charity | Henry George
The rancour of contemporary political debate and discourse is there for all to see. There is scant focus on working towards realistic solutions and achievable outcomes, both for the short and long-term. Instead we see each side shouting the other down, arguing for 100% or nothing, rather than 80% of something. The lack of forgiveness for political and cultural opponents is laid bare by social media, our virtual Coliseum where contestants in digital blood-sports hack each other’s lives apart for the titillation of the baying electronic mob. Charity, the virtue Abraham Lincoln saw as central to building a democratic polity together is lying decapitated on the floor, while we continue to thrash its bleeding corpse. There has to be another way forward.
In his The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray argues in favour of a rediscovery of forgiveness, both for our own actions and mistakes, as well as for those we both love and detest. The need to act in the world without omniscience, Hannah Arendt argued, means that whatever we do will have consequences down the line, often negative. This means that those who come after us will bear the burden of our mistakes without being able to come to we who made them for restitution. We who lived the life we do will be able to duck our immediate responsibility for its consequences. As Arendt argued, the only way to deal and cope with the consequences of the actions we all take is to adopt an attitude of forgiveness to those who went before, acting as they did with the blinkered sight inherent to the human condition in this fallen world.
This requires that we attempt to gain a level of self-awareness, that those who come after us will judge us in the same way we intemperately judge the past for its sins. The humility we should gain from this perspective should be twinned with the insight that seeing the sin in the souls of others, whether our opponents today or our forebears of a damned yesterday, is the arrogance of those who place the sin for killing in Christ only in those who called for His death, rather than realising that this is something we all bear.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts … And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” Placing all the sins we harbour ourselves in the hearts of others, yesterday or today, is a way to avoid facing our own fallen humanity, to avoid the need to face our own complicity in the perpetuation of the degradation of the soul that Christ sacrificed himself to redeem.
The need to recover forgiveness is twinned with that of charity. Charity is another core tenet of Christian belief that calls us to practice patience and humility in the face of tribal conflict between groups that hold incommensurable values. Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War that tore America in two and almost tore the heart out of the American project, saw that charity to one’s opponents and enemies was the only way that a shattered and blood-drenched country to knit itself together again. As Grant Havers argues in Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love, charity is the central tenet of what Lincoln called America’s “political religion.” Making Christian love the highest moral standard for democracy in America or Britain means that, as Lincoln saw it, a true democracy must be charitable toward all. Only those who live according to such an ideal can succeed in building democracy that is the political expression of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the home that we build together.
Charity is not limitless in its application, however. The ethic of charity, Havers writes, brings a realism rooted in Christianity to the politically universalist tendencies of democracy. Nigel Biggar argues in Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation that our being creatures made in the image of God means our love is not infinite and does not reach over the globe, but rather is felt most strongly for those nearest. The nation is the political and cultural manifestation of this love. Many intellectuals and political leaders today, influenced by the universalist liberalism of Kantian Enlightenment rationalism deny that this is the case. They hold that there is no relationship between democracy and Christian love. There is no limit and the former does not need the latter.
They instead argue that proposing democracy itself, denuded of its religious roots, is ethical enough without reliance on a specific tradition rooted in a religious heritage. The mistake of neoconservatives and liberals in the last two decades was that they instantiated a universal yearning for democracy that required no foundation in the ethic of charity. This democratic universalism was espoused by those who believe that the West constituted a “chosen people”, who should uphold the natural rights of all humanity, and which meant democracy would be the natural result should the shackles of tyranny be struck off. The disasters of Iraq, Syria, Libya and the rest proves the falsity of this delusion.
At home, to bind the wounds of recent political conflict means a recommitment to the ethics of forgiveness and charity, to build a home together that provides a ground for the democracy of both the living and the dead. That we will be attempting this in a society that has left Christian faith behind will make the task a more daunting one. However, the alternative is political, ethnic and religious communalism, which will eventually mean that the only equality we will enjoy will be in the access to the rubble of what we destroyed. The leap of faith required to prevent this seems the better choice.