Of whom I am first

3 August 2016

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.

The two kinds of people are those who believe that the world can be divided into good guys (us) and bad guys (them), and those who believe that we ourselves are part of the problem.

A few days ago Jim Forest, of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, drew my attention to a review of a book on the poet Wystan Hugh Auden which put this very well indeed — The Secret Auden by Edward Mendelson | The New York Review of Books:

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

This is something that Orthodox Christians are, or ought to be reminded of every time they receive the Holy Communion, with the prayer that begins “I believe O Lord and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

CondemnationThis is all too easily forgotten, sooner or later after receiving the holy communion, when we revert to our usual habit of perceiving ourselves as more righteous and less sinful than other people. This habit becomes even more easy to slip into in times or war, or even elections. Right now we are preparing for local government elections in South Africa, and the rhetoric is hotting up, though we don’t seem to be a patch on the Americans, whose rhetoric seems to be even more extreme and vituperative (did you see what I just did there?)

Someone asked (of that saying of St Seraphim of Sarov) “What does he mean by condemn? Does that mean giving constructive criticism too?

When St Seraphim said “All condemnation is from the devil”, he may have been referring to Revelation 12:9-12 “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” ( καὶ ἐβλήθη ὁ δράκων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, ὁ καλούμενος Διάβολος καὶ ὁ Σατανᾶς, ὁ πλανῶν τὴν οἰκουμένην ὅλην) . The point here is that both the Greek word diavolos (from which the English word “devil” is derived) and the Hebrew word Satan mean “adversary” or “accuser”, something like a prosecutor in a law court, and that is clear in v10 “the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night” (ὅτι ἐβλήθη ὁ κατήγορος τῶν ἀδελφῶν ἡμῶν, ὁ κατηγορῶν αὐτῶν ἐνώπιον τοῦ Θεοῦ ἡμῶν ). The categoriser of our brethren to thrown out, the one who categorised (or pigeonholed) them before God (cf Zechariah 3). The most satanic activity we can ever engage in is the making of accusations.

This is all summed up rather tritely in a saying that has almost become a cliche: Hate the sin, but love the sinner.

One can criticise constructively (or even destructively, if necessary) what a person does, but not what that person is. Judging by what a person is is what is called an ad hominem argument — this person is a bad person, therefore what this person says must be wrong. And so in politics, one may (and sometimes should) criticise the policies of a politician but to condemn the person crosses the line, and puts us on the side of the devil, as St Seraphim points out.

And “Hate the sin but love the sinner” also becomes monstrously hypocritical without the “of whom I am first”. Is Jacob Zuma a sinner? So am I. Is Hillary Clinton a sinner? So am I. Is Donald Trump a sinner? So am I. Is Poroshenko a sinner? So am I. Is Putin a sinner? So am I. Was Tony Blair a sinner? So am I. Was B.J. Vorster a sinner? So am I. Was Adolf Hitler a sinner? So am I.

When, over the next few months, you see (as you surely will)  pictures of any of these political leaders, or others, on Facebook and other social media, with their ugliest possible pictures, and denunciations of their policies, then ask yourself whether those are really their policies, or policies falsely imputed to them by their political opponents or the media. And judge whether the policies are good or bad according to conscience. But if it merely attacks the person rather than the policy, then do not like, do not share, just say a prayer and pass on.

What Auden writes against is the tendency to put wicked politicians (or other kinds of sinners) in a separate category that doesn’t include us. They are mad, insane, inhuman. And it is this putting people in a separate inhuman category that was so characteristic of the devil — the categoriser of our brethren has been thrown out (Revelation 12:10) . When we say that someone is a waste of space, a waste of oxygen, a worthless human being, we blaspheme the God who made them and us.

G.K. Chesterton, a contemporary of W.H. Auden, wrote:

The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring

Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.

Can I trust Jacob Zuma and his cronies the Guptas? No. Can I trust Donald Trump? No. Can I trust Hillary Clinton? No. Can I trust myself? No. The last sentence in the quote from Chesterton is the most important.

A friend in college introduced me to W.H. Auden’s poem Vespers, in which he expressed the sentiment described in the quotation with which I began this article:

Was it (as it must look to any god of cross-roads) simply a fortuitous intersection of life-paths, loyal to different fibs or also a rendezvous between accomplices who, in spite of themselves, cannot resist meeting to remind the other (do both, at bottom, desire truth?) of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget…

You can see the whole poem (Horae Cononicae) here, or even hear Auden himself reading it, here.