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FIRST-PERSON: Gravity of evil requires the duty of indignation

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–In a relativistic, therapeutic society, it is not surprising that moral indignation and retribution have fallen on hard times. After all, who are we to judge? And how can we countenance bitterness?

Listening to talk radio a few days after the trauma of Sept. 11, I heard one caller give his testimony of mental healing. Someone had murdered his brother and, at the time, he wanted to kill the guy who did it. He had the same impulse when they acquitted the accused. But then he realized that none of this would bring his brother back, so he got over it. He thought this was good medicine for the United States — we need to stop thinking retaliation, for it won’t bring those folks back.

A second caller faulted our leaders for “having that male testosterone thing going.” Just then I drove by a once-Baptist church, more excited about the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the normalization of homosexuality than expository preaching and evangelism. The posted sermon title concerned “fighting our inward terrorist.”

Back home, I turned on the television in time to see a young lady emerging from a candlelight service, rhetorically asking the interviewer, “We can’t think of retribution, can we?” I turned to a stack of newspapers, where I found clerics and politicians condemning “vengeance” and “revenge.”

Okay, okay. Yes, vengeance is the Lord’s. Yes, anger can make you stupid. Yes, the fruit of the Spirit is gentleness. But if that’s all your Bible says on the subject, you have a heavily edited Bible. Something’s missing.

I think we do well to turn to the writing of a divine of another day, Bishop of Durham Joseph Butler (1692-1752). In his extraordinary “Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel,” he drew a careful distinction between two sorts of resentment, hasty/sudden and settled/deliberate. The first is prone to evil, the second is a God-given spur to do the necessary things of justice, as noted, for instance, in Romans 13:1-7.

In Butler’s words: “Since therefore it is necessary for the very subsistence of the world, that injury, injustice and cruelty should be punished; and since compassion, which is so natural to mankind, would render that execution of justice exceedingly difficult and uneasy; indignation against vice and wickedness is, and may be allowed to be, a balance to that weakness of pity, and also to anything else which would prevent the necessary methods of severity.”

Without the spur of settled indignation, growing out of our innate capacity to judge the gravity of evil, we would be lost — serenely turning not only our own other cheek, but also our neighbor’s other cheek.

“Blaspheming” indignation is not as serious as blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but it is wicked nonetheless. Indignation may be aided by testosterone, but who put the testosterone in place?

I’m grateful that Lance Morrow addressed the issue in his Time essay after the Sept. 11 tragedy: “For once, let’s have no ‘grief counselors’ standing by with banal consolations, as if the purpose, in the midst of all this, were merely to make everyone feel better as quickly as possible. We shouldn’t feel better.

“For once, let’s have no fatuous rhetoric about ‘healing.’ Healing is inappropriate now, and dangerous. There will be a time later for the tears of sorrow.

“A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage.”

Well, we don’t have to endorse rage to appreciate his message. Rather, we should cherish the still, small (or large) voice that remains when the rage has died, the one that gets and keeps us on the moral track to settle the things of duty.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger