Saturday, September 1, 2012

Engaging Enemies (and other opponents) with Humility

I read this piece from Stanley Hauwewas which reminded me of this letter of C. S Lewis' written to his brother on September 10, 1939 at the beginning of World War 2:

In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was, ‘Prosper, oh Lord, our righteous cause’. Assuming that it was the work of the bishop or someone higher up, when I met Bleiben [the vicar] in the porch, I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous – a point on which he has his own views . . . I hope it is quite like ours, of course, but one never knows with him.
The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2

And that reminded me of this by Charles Williams also written in the midst of WW2 (1942):

The conversion, where it is demanded, of the wild justice of revenge to the civil justice of the Divine City is the precise operation of the Holy Spirit towards Christ. All we need to do is attend to the goodwill, to the civility; the justice (in the personal relation) can be left to Christ. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, sayeth the Lord.’ It is perhaps desirable to notice that the repayment is not limited to our enemy. We shall be unfortunate if we forget the trespasses, the debts, which our enemies desire to repay with their wild justice and are content to leave to his promise. It is important that we should be ready to forgive the Germans; it is not unimportant to recognize that many Germans (including Herr Hitler? Possibly; we do not very well know) may feel that they have much to forgive us. Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive but unprepared to be forgiven. Instruction is as badly needed in this as in many other less vital things; that holy light which we call humility has an exact power of illumination all its own.
The Forgiveness of Sins, p. 113

Can you imagine such things being said in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Who in America dared to suggest that Osama bin Laden and al-Quaeda might have much to forgive us? That the attacks, however inexcusable, might be understood as an act of 'the wild justice of revenge'? Or, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, that God might have his own ideas about the righteousness of our cause? Would we be willing to say such things today about Afghanistan? Pakistan? Iran? China? Russia?

A couple of things strike me in the above quotes. Both Lewis and Williams refuse to get caught up in nationalistic rhetoric that assumes that 'God is with us' or that their country is particularly blessed by God. Even in the midst of war, they were compelled by their Christian convictions to accept the possibility that their nation was wrong and that their enemies might well have grievances of their own. If that is the faithful Christian attitude in the midst of war how much more so in times of (relative) peace? It raises questions about the ease with which Americans blend God-talk and patriotism which smacks of syncretism. It raises questions about the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.

I am also struck with the fundamental humility expressed by Lewis and Williams. Both demonstrate an admirable reticence to claim to know overmuch about God's mind or to assume their side is necessarily God's. Both recognize that all humans are fundamentally bound to one another in a relational web and all humans are caught in the sin that infects that web. We should thus be wary of presuming our own innocence or consigning blame to others – both are awe-full things to contemplate if we recognize that we are all live under the awesome gaze of God's love and judgment.

If all this could be said in the midst of WW 2 where the right and wrong seemed so clear, might such things be said in other contexts? For example, might it change our perspective if Episcopalians acknowledged that those who have left the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) have 'much to forgive us' and their leaving represents a sort of 'wild justice'? And what if members of ACNA acknowledged that God might indeed have his own opinions about the issues over which they have left the Episcopal Church and whether those issues warranted schism? In the secular setting, if we adopted Lewis' and Williams' attitude would we engage our political opponents differently? What about in work, school, family, or other personal contexts? Are we willing to acknowledge that those who irritate or frustrate us might have as much or more cause for grievance against us?

I know enough of both Lewis and Williams to know that neither would advocate anything like a posture of moral equivalency. But, what both do seem to advocate is a deep humility and reticence to blame. And I find both refreshing.

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