Our Sorry Freedom by Anthony Esolen

Our Sorry Freedom

How the Culture of Tolerance Destroys by Forgiving

The cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strips B.C. and, with Brant Parker, The Wizard of Id, recently died of a stroke as he sat at his storyboard. He had embraced the Christian faith some years after his first success as a cartoonist, and joined a Presbyterian church near the old mill town in upstate New York where he lived an apparently modest and happy life with his family.

B.C. was a genuinely funny strip, drawn with a minimalist subtlety, as was the very different Peanuts strip by Charles Schulz. But while Schulz conceived of stories steeped in Christian theology while seldom mentioning God explicitly, Hart began to write openly about the Cross and the Resurrection.

If you do an Internet search for Hart’s name, you will discover sites of incredible vitriol directed against a man whose great offenses were that he professed his Christian faith publicly, and that he did not believe in evolution. You will also discover Christian sites that celebrate Hart, perhaps missing what was so Christian about B.C.

Essential Humor

I mean that long before Hart had ever thought to bring up Easter or Christmas in his strip, and indeed before he had embraced the Christian faith, he had caught something of the essence of Christian humor—or Jewish humor, for that matter, because in this regard the faiths are at one.

The “hero,” B.C., is just an ordinary caveman, with nothing striking about him; a little shy, easy to impose upon. He bears a faint but definite family resemblance to his no doubt distant relations, Gimpel the Fool and Freddie the Freeloader.

He and the other characters in that world of sand, rocks, turtles, and archaeopteryxes are all a bit silly, without being obviously stupid or obnoxious; they are the causes and also the butts of humor. They fail, but are forgivable.

Such forgiveness is no mere sentiment. It is founded upon the deep knowledge that we should forgive, because we ourselves need forgiveness: With what measure we measure, so shall it be measured out to us. And that in turn should cause us to remember that there are more important things in heaven and earth than the particular public sin before us at the moment (whether that public is national or local or even neighborly or familial).

In other words, the faith helps to place our controversies before the glory of the God who commands us to forgive. If I keep an eye on eternity, even though I live in the passing hour and must redeem the time, still I know that I am not imprisoned in that time, and that one day all our strife will be resolved. I can say, with Christ, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I have the freedom to laugh at others and myself, not with a sneer, but with forbearance and generosity. I have the freedom to say “I am sorry,” genuinely, as a plea for forbearance for human weakness and folly, and not as a tactical maneuver to control the damage the public exposure of my sin might cause me.

It is altogether liberating, this true forgiveness and the genial humor it produces.

A Possible Life

And it makes public life possible in a way our Culture of Tolerance does not. For what happens when that dimension of the divine is removed? Why forgive? What we see, in our Culture of Tolerance, which bases tolerance not upon God’s grace but upon his absence, is a willful incapacity to bear the weaknesses and follies of others, except those we patronize by excusing their failings for political or ideological reasons of our own.

Instead, we insist that no one must ever look askance at our own sin. Take away faith in the One who counts, and who will reveal in the end that all have come short of the glory of God, and loss of reputation verges upon a veritable loss of being, and people whose sins have been exposed will snarl in fear and vindictiveness, like small dogs locked in a closet with insufficient food and water, or else grovel and prevaricate in the hope (often illusory) of being “forgiven,” which means tamed and neutered.

Look at the world of politics, where a single political sin can mean destruction, even of a good and honorable man whose political destruction would be a loss to the common life. It is better, in such a world, when one’s neighbor has fallen, especially one’s neighbor on the “wrong” political side, to take the same vengeance upon him that he would have taken upon oneself, and tear him to pieces.

The Christian, of course, is no fool. That we forgive a man does not mean that we might not also urge his removal from the public stage. But confident of the glory of the God who commands us to forgive, we can make such judgments without the fear and vindictiveness of those who have no such confidence. And we can accept our own public humiliation, even when undeserved.

So, paradoxically, hell rewards according to the same principle as heaven, though not with the same good grain. As I write, a certain caustic talk show host, and perhaps a certain prosecutor in North Carolina, are learning this sulfurous lesson even now.

— Anthony Esolen, for the editors

Anthony Esolen is a faculty member and Writer-in-Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including: Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House).