Sunday, December 13, 2015

Burning zeal--but not for God's House

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”   --John 2:13-17
In a recent thread on a (thankfully unrelated) Catholic clergy sex scandal, Rod Dreher had occasion to comment regarding the pederasty scandals that:
One of the enduring mysteries of the sex abuse scandal is why some men in these parishes — cousins of the abuse victims, somebody — didn’t take these pervert priests out and teach them a hard lesson. I’m not remotely a tough buy, but anybody who harmed one of my kids in that way would count themselves fortunate if they weren’t permanently crippled by what I would do to them.
I am just the same.

If anyone, clerical or lay, were to rape any member of my family, I would with difficulty restrain myself from inflicting upon him punishments that would make look like comparative spa treatments both the fires of the auto-da-fé of the Catholic Inquisition, and indeed the even grislier punishment of being hanged, drawn, and quartered as a "traitor" for the "crime" of being a Catholic priest during the Tudor Terror.

Now, I hope I would restrain myself. First, and far less importantly for reasons of prudence: under our modern criminal justice regime, which quite sensibly frowns on vigilantism and clan feuds, I would be jailed for torturing a pederast or rapist to death; my my family needs a father and husband much more than it needs an avenger rotting away in jail. Second, and far more importantly, because such violent personal retribution would be unchristian:  forgiveness and mercy are at the core of Christ's martyred witness, criminal penalties are work for the sword of Caesar, and avenging hellfire is the Lord's alone.

Because of this last reason--because torture and cruelty are unchristian--we rightly judge the Catholic Inquisition and the Anglican (and, briefly, Marian) Tudor Terror alike to fall short of Christian justice, Christian charity, and Christian mercy. So the Inquisitors, and all the other heretic hunters of Tudor Britain and Ireland, or Calvin's Geneva, failed as Christians insofar as they countenanced such grisly barbarities. (As indeed did even the sainted martyr Sir Thomas More, when it was Protestants being burnt, rather than Catholics.)

So they failed as Christians insofar as they were violent persecutors of others' (ir)religion. But I am in no position to judge them, or to judge the like horrors of ISIS or the Wahhabist beheaders of Saudi Arabia, or in any position to reprove self-righteously the Biblical praise of the murderous zeal of Phinehas as aped by crusaders, conquistadors or Cromwell.

Why? Not only because of the general admonition to "judge not"--when was the last time a theological liberal admonished herself to forbear judging Torquemada, I wonder?--but because I would, if I legally could, rush to castrate and immolate anyone who raped a member of my family. Oh, I'd feel guilty afterward. I'd repent. But I'd probably do it.

Now, as a product of our Lockean liberal republic and of our secular age, it's alien to me to imagine myself countenancing the infliction of the punishments of the Inquisition or the Tudor Terror, of ISIS or Calvin, on anyone for their (ir)religion. It's not just that I disapprove:

I wouldn't be at all tempted.

But were some creep to hurt my family, it would take every resource of prayer and self-restraint I've got not to torture them to death. And Rod's comment indicates that in this, I am not (entirely) alone.

To murder brutally some rapist or killer of my own kin, I would be sorely tempted. But to the punishment (as opposed to gentle persuasion) or heretics? It is no merit of mine not to burn heretics; I am not thus tempted:
Ever since I served as an infantryman in the first world war I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed. No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin. It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion. 
--C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, preface.

Just so here. I am not exposed to the inquisitor's temptations, so I ought issue no preening advice that the inquisitor or ISIS jihadi ought to learn to learn to "coexist." Not that he oughtn't, but just that I, personally, am in no position to advise him about how to conquer a vice--"intolerance"--to which I am far too secular in my American bones to find even slightly tempting.

Not tempted to gamble, Lewis says he must pay for this with the lack of some good impulse. Which brings me to my second point, beyond the mere not-judging of the inquisitors of old.

What is the corresponding virtue that Phinehas had, that Torquemada had?

What virtue was incarnated by Our Lord when zeal for his Father's House consumed Him?

On reflection, it would seem that the fires of the Inquisition were kindled by an excess of piety. If there can even be such a thing! Perhaps one might better say a misdirection.

In any case, if I castrate my daughter's rapist, or burn alive my son's murderer, then I torture and kill out of an excess of love for other human beings. But the Inquisitor tortured and killed out of an excess zeal for the things of God. So who is the worse sinner?

That the fires of the Inquisition no longer burn is to be celebrated. But that we are no longer tempted to them? What does that indicate? Do our hearts no longer burn within us with zeal for the honor of God?

Have our secular hearts grown cold?

What virtue do we lose in not being tempted to the Inquisitor's vice?

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