Admonishing the Sinner

by Circle or Line

Lest we moderns gloat over the foolish Pharisees too much, however, we should note that postmodernity has contributed something new but not improved to this ancient evil of spiritual laziness. Postmoderns have added to the ancient tribalism of the Pharisee another very significant reason for the abandonment of admonishment: our rejection of the reality of sin.

Rejecting the reality of sin, we have ended up abandoning the hope of repentance. When you reject the idea of common truth, prattling that “truth is whatever is true for you,” you reject the basis for reason and argument. But you don’t (and can’t) reject the reality of your anger over sin. You can’t ignore it when somebody steals your wallet or beats up your child. But you can pretend that the sinner was an irrational animal acting solely on the influence of genes or environment and not to sin of which he can repent. So we increasingly treat sinners as we treat animals: diagnosing, caging, or killing them like rabid dogs, but never talking about sin or repentance.

The old idea of the penitentiary is almost entirely gone. It is no longer, as the name suggests, a place for penance. It is a state-run warehouse (and slaughterhouse) for human animals who have, as the saying goes, “forfeited their humanity.”

It is, of course, possible to laugh off the notion of repentance as hopelessly Pollyanna and caricature it as the naïve belief that hardened thugs will melt into saints if you talk nice to them. But that’s not my point or my claim. It is, rather, that in abandoning our understanding of the human person to the secular state instead of having the courage of our convictions as Catholics, we are laying the foundation for treating all human beings as animals and potential criminals rather than as citizens of a free society. One need only note the changes in our security state over the past ten years. Big Brother has eyes everywhere. In airports and public facilities across America, Boy Scouts, nuns, and little old ladies from Lake Wobegon are expected to endure invasive searches that, in any other context, should result in an arrest for sexual predation. An eighty-six-year-old bedridden woman is tasered (twice) while the cops stand on her oxygen hose and her protesting grandson is cuffed and frog-marched out of the house. The cops explain that it was all justified because she “took a more aggressive posture in her bed.” The idea that she was a human being never entered their heads.

The curious result of our culture’s growing abandonment of the notion of sin is (as Faustian bargains tend to be) a loss of our humanity. As we become coarser and our belief that humans are made in the image of God fades to a theory of humans as animals shaped by heredity and environment, our faith in the power of moral suasion goes with it. So, for instance, a majority of Americans (including, alas, Catholics) forget our successful use of conventional interrogation with Nazis and Communists and embrace the lie that intelligence can best be gained from enemy combatants via “enhanced interrogation” (a euphemism for torture). This is a complete rejection of the Church’s teaching on human dignity and is founded on the assertion that human beings are, at bottom, beasts. Eventually it occurs to Caesar that if “enhanced interrogation” may be used on perceived foreign threats, then why not on domestic ones too? Enhanced interrogation begins to be deployed to interrogate not merely suspected terrorists abroad but also suspected criminals at home.

In short, as a culture embraces the view that men are brutes, it is not possible to keep that genie in the bottle of a CIA black site. Caesar inevitably starts to treat his subjects that way too. He abandons the language of a ruler maintaining ordered liberty for a free people and speaks more and more like a bureaucrat barking threats at contemptible servants—or cracking whips at beasts. So, for instance, where there used to be public-service announcements saying “Every litter bit hurts,” we now get “Litter and it will hurt.” “Buckle up for safety!” has been replaced with “Click it or ticket!” “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” is replaced by “Drive hammered. Get nailed.” Threats, not admonishment, are the order of the day.

The apotheosis of such contempt-based social control in media (so far) is the infamous “No Pressure” ad sponsored by 10:10, an organized campaign to reduce carbon emissions. There was no attempt to admonish by saying, “Even if you are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming, it couldn’t hurt if everybody pitched in and cared for the environment as best they can.” That would respect human dignity. Instead the ad (which its makers actually imagined was funny) shows an elementary-school teacher urging her class to reduce their carbon footprint. When two children express reservations, the teacher mildly says, “No pressure,” and then pushes a large red button on her desk, whereupon the nonconforming kids explode in bloody chunks, splattering the other screaming children in the classroom. This revolting gag is repeated a few more times to drive home the message: Submit to the Religion of Anthropogenic Climate Change or be slaughtered like animals.

If Christ is to be believed, all this violent contempt for human dignity is foreign to what we actually are. Why do we prefer to treat people like animals when, in fact, admonishing the sinner and not stampeding the herd is truer to our nature as rational beings? Answer: because admonishing the sinner is hard. Christ did it, and it got him nailed to a cross.

For admonishment means looking somebody in the eye rather than imposing bureaucratic solutions from three thousand miles away. It means addressing a fellow human being as an equal, not a lab rat, sheep, or contagion. It means stating truly unpopular opinions, not to peers who share them but to enemies who don’t. It means the risk of losing friends, family, job, and reputation. It means speaking about things that are awkward and uncomfortable. And in our post-Christian world, it often means doing it in a grammar and terminology that members of our culture know, if at all, only in a sort of pidgin.

Mark Shea

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