Saturday, April 21, 2012
The False Comfort of a Morally Simplified Universe
For some, Alger Hiss will always be innocent and Chuck Colson will always be guilty.
We suspect that many who read this have never before heard of Alger Hiss. Hiss was a State Department Official of the 1940s accused of spying for the Soviet communists and eventually convicted of perjury. Hiss was patrician, erudite, and associated with causes and institutions celebrated by the political left. His accuser was Whitaker Chambers, a former communist turned political and religious conservative, who admitted his own perjury while accusing Hiss and who spent the next decade writing anticommunist, pro-Christian essays. But the most famous of Hiss's opponents was a young Congressman named Richard Nixon, who built his early political career around the Hiss investigation and hearings.
Though his conviction was reinforced by evidence that continued to emerge from US Government files and from KGB files released after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hiss insisted on his innocence until his death. He was for a generation a cause cèlébre of the intellectual left in the United States, who portrayed him as the archetypical victim of anticommunist witch hunts.
Colson, of course, was President Nixon's special counsel, responsible for many of the illegalities of Nixon's presidency. Like Chambers, he experienced a dramatic religious conversion that altered the course of his public life. Unlike Hiss or even Chambers, Colson's accomplishments following his public disgrace were prodigious. Prison Fellowship, Colson's organization, has inarguably been the most potent force for the welfare of the incarcerated in the history of Our Republic.
With Colson's passing, the mainstream media has updated its prewritten obituaries for timely publication. Most that have met the SWNIDish eye have respectfully balanced both sides of Colson's life, with due credit for his post-conversion accomplishments, even with admiration for the tangible demonstration of his redemption that they provide.
But the internet being what it is, some of the citizens who comment on such obits are less than respectful. For them, Colson can never be forgiven for his illegal activities in association with the great bogeyman of the twentieth century, Richard Nixon. His conversion was a public relations gimmick, which if real--if any Christian conversion can be "real"--would surely have cured him of his political conservatism and driven him to a lifetime of denouncing his former self, his former boss, his former ideology, and all those tainted by association or support of any of the above. There is no statute of limitations and no clemency for assistant bogeymen.
These who vilify Chuck Colson, we suspect but cannot prove, would in the next breath celebrate Alger Hiss, were Hiss's name to be uttered in the same context. Hiss did no wrong. Colson did no right.
One could go on about the hypocrisy of such ranters, as we apparently already have. One could decry the slovenly, un-self-critical thinking that so easily moves from credulity to vindictiveness and back again.
But we will instead observe something different, something that applies to many, regardless of religious or political affiliation.
We observe how comforting it is to construct a world in which certain people are the repositories of evil perpetually. In such a world, one can be deeply annoyed by evil but personally untouched by it. Yes, I may have my faults, but those people are the real problem. Look how awful they are! They are ruining our world! Ruining it! And all while it's just so obvious where the truth and goodness are.
One can double down on that comfort if it also excludes the possibility of conversion and change. Bad people remain bad, even if they try to do something good after they admit that they're bad. They can never apologize enough. They can never denounce what they've done enough. They can never exhibit sufficient shame to assuage my resentment about their ruining my world. They are always available for my quarantining of evil to their wretched souls.
As for me, I don't need repentance or conversion. I'm fine. I know what's true and what's right. Don't tell me about redemption. The right people don't need it, and the wrong people can't get it.
The human psyche tries to calm its fears by constructing a simple, predictible world in which bad things only happen to bad people, in which good people are safe from tragedy or guilt. When the bad people show signs of profound change, the simple world isn't simple any more. Repentant bad people threaten good people's goodness, when their badness is supposed to support good people's goodness. So repentance must be phony or inadequate.
When one gives up the effort to construct the world for such psychic safety, a couple of realities emerge. One is that good people and bad people both tend to indict the self. I'm not as good as some, and I've got plenty in common with people who are obviously and enormously bad. The other, flowing from the first, is that redemption had better be available, or we're all doomed.
We think that Chuck Colson demonstrates all of this. And as to the latter part about redemption, Colson would tell his obituary writers that his life after Watergate was not his redemption but the result of it. He didn't do good to overbalance his evil. He did good in grateful response to being freely forgiven.