Corruptions of Christian Virtue

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In human life, there is no idea, principle, or calling that cannot be corrupted. In my previous post, I set empathy, compassion, and justice in opposition to power, prestige, and privilege. Justice is important within that trio of God-forms in which Christians are called to live, important for many reasons one of which is that it helps keep empathy and compassion from slipping down into sentimentality, pity, and self-satisfying benevolence.

How is justice corrupted? It is often corrupted by authoritarian judgments we make “by the book.” Jesus tells his disciples not to live by the book, not to become judgmental. He refuses to adopt the principle that people should get what they deserve; indeed, his teaching, life, and death all nullify that principle from God’s point of view. He speaks out against the religious tradition of seeing justice and righteousness in terms of reward and punishment. God is not the supreme and ultimate dispenser of rewards and punishments.  God is not in the business of giving people what they deserve. What Christians call “grace” is the very opposite of judgment according to what each person deserves.

Justice also corrects empathy and compassion when they take satisfaction in helping the poor and downtrodden without challenging the systems that keep them poor and downtrodden. What we now call charity, giving to the needy, can bring pride and self-gratification to the well-off while enabling them to avoid confronting the systems in society that maintain those inequalities and by which they themselves benefit. I have seen it trumpeted that conservatives give more in charity than liberals. Whether that charge is factual I neither know nor care. Because charity makes a self-satisfying but very easy substitute for justice, it enables the well-off to feel quite good about keeping people in their places and things the way they are.  The charitable are empowered to feel good about themselves and contemptuous toward the needy who fail to show them proper gratitude.

How else are empathy and compassion corrupted? Ask a woman who has gone to her pastor seeking help because she is being abused by her husband, only to be told she must endure her beatings more patiently, try to understand the pressures under which her husband lives, and strive to be a better Christian wife who doesn’t drive him to such rage and violence. Her pastor is thereby telling her the fault is hers and she deserves the beatings she receives from him. She, not he, needs to be fixed. She must forgive, endure, and try to do better. Such false counseling is unfair, unfaithful to Christ, and horrifically cruel.

In many contexts of personal life and the life of human societies, Christianity has corrupted its call to empathy and compassion, to forgiveness, and to humble service. Certainly that calling is corrupted whenever its admonition is imposed upon the weak and vulnerable, the already shamed and degraded, and so is put forward in support for the more powerful oppressor. Before the American Civil War, churches wrote slave catechisms to proclaim as God’s own will the institution of slavery and to push upon the slaves a sacred duty to accept and even embrace their enslavement and obey their masters even when they were not being watched by any overseer. God was presented as their great overseer, their divine slave master. Jesus was to be their field boss.

Christ’s call to humble service is NOT a summons to become servile and live as doormats for anyone wishing to walk all over us. In my next post, I’ll endeavor to clarify why it is not.

2 Comments on “Corruptions of Christian Virtue

  1. Debbie Homan

    This post brings to my mind a moment that occurred more than 5 years ago but is still very vivid for me today. Christmas was approaching, and as had been done for many years, the staff of the school I was working in brought in Christmas gifts for several identified families in need. When a woman, who had just picked up the gifts that had been collected for her family, left the building, a person I considered a friend remarked, “She didn’t even have the decency to say ‘thank you.'” I was so blown away by the remark I still feel the sadness when the memory returns.

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