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Robert Hart on the Merciful Kindness of Disapproval
For years, my work in Baltimore sent me to the poorest of the poor. The families I saw were not families at all, but single women with pathetic bastard sons and daughters by various fathers, none of whom were going to be brought up with the love and protection all children need. Early on, their childhood would be stolen and their innocence destroyed, making it impossible to grow up, only to grow old.
I have written before about the strippers on Baltimore’s glamorized “Block.” The ones I was sent to help were mostly heroin addicts, many diagnosed with AIDS, and dancing only to pay for their habit in what little time they had left on this earth.
Such is life for those deprived of the benefits, and the true pleasures, of stable and secure family life. They are not offered the true pleasures of education, a developed mind and culturally acquired tastes for good, noble, and beautiful things, along with the resolve to protect an inheritance of philosophy and liberty.
All this seems clear, but many conservative Americans, including “family values” conservative Christians, are closer to creating this kind of world than they realize. They tolerate too much in themselves. I still remember when, in 1990, the first of the new series of movies about Batman received the endorsement of some prominent conservatives, such as then Vice President Dan Quayle, who took his children to see the movie. Others criticized the film as dark and macabre, saying that it was not appropriate for children.
Taking warning, I viewed the movie alone to decide whether or not I would allow my children to see it. I found it unsuitable for my children, but not for the reasons given by some well-meaning “family values” conservative Christians.
The movie was unsuitable for my children mostly because in one scene, after a date in Wayne Manor, the leading woman wakes up in Bruce Wayne’s bed. Batman, the hero of little children, was now behaving like James Bond.
The fact that Hollywood would be so vile came as no surprise, for corrupting children at the earliest possible age serves their commercial interests. But to this day I am disappointed that none of the conservative Christian critics of the film’s macabre tone had so much as one negative word to say about its promotion of fornication, placed in young heads through almost subliminal means. (And I have not noticed many of them protesting such scenes in movies since. Fornication often seems tolerable if it takes place off screen.)
Some “family values” conservatives have become more and more accepting of sexual relations that fall far below Christian belief in chastity, to the point where many churches accept unmarried couples, as long as they are not homosexual. These churches have drawn a line that is simply arbitrary.
That line allows for loose and sloppy acceptance of divorce and remarriage, and fornication among cohabitating couples. It is drawn at the point of “same-sex relationships.” For Christians, it should be drawn where Christ and the Church drew it at the beginning, excluding every sexual act outside of marriage, and excluding unnatural or perverse practices even within marriage.
I once made it clear, during a sermon, that I am unwilling to marry any couple who refuse to abstain from sexual relations before their wedding night. Neither would the church building itself be available to them. One woman confronted me in the parking lot. “I think I am in the wrong church!” she pronounced. “Maybe young people won’t want to join us if we make such rules for them.”
I could only agree with her first statement. She was in the wrong church. And why did she think that we were making any rules at all? God gave his commandments quite a while back, and a woman who had spent six decades in the Church should not have needed to be informed of that fact.
Granted, conservative Christians are not likely to use the “safe sex/simply wear protection” line—at least not yet. But many of them would find strange, if not offensive, my use of certain words. It is time to put back into our vocabulary words that directly suggest disapproval: words like “fornication,” “wantonness,” “sodomy,” and “promiscuous.”
Clergymen have a duty to remind their congregations, from time to time, about the duties of Christian morality and discipleship, to be willing to address the call to self-denial as part of taking up the cross. Pastors must meddle, warning their people from the pulpit against entertainment that harms by making fornication (or any other sin, for that matter, like anger or vengefulness) look normal. They should tell them to turn off the television instead of watching shows that “aren’t that bad,” even if they are hits everyone they know will be talking about the next day.
Replacing the mercy of disapproval with tolerance is replacing medicine with poison. Our Lord Jesus Christ said that we must, if we are to be his disciples, take up the cross and follow him daily. Anyone who wants to tolerate willful sin in his own life, to lay down the cross, must be tolerant of others’ sins.
“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin,” says the writer to the Hebrews. These words speak of a kind of Christianity that many of us have forgotten. They come from an age when Christians used the language of martyrdom more readily because their lives demanded a willingness not only to die to passions and lusts, but to be so dead to these things that they could face violent death on short notice.
Nothing of this world was allowed to hold them back, no passions to lure them from their ultimate witness for Jesus Christ. Their words about mortification seem violent to us, as do the words of the Lord himself in the Sermon on the Mount. But they knew that the world hated them because it first hated him.
If we want to do good to this society, we must speak and act like people who know that only God’s “service is perfect freedom.” We can be tolerant or we can be merciful. We can accept what people do or we can love them.
Our choice depends upon the degree to which we daily carry the cross. I have seen the broken lives of many people who would not give themselves to the care of spouses and children, who were left alone, divorced, and bitter. The surprise, for those willing to receive it, is the joy that comes from having lived faithfully. What I see in my children, grown now, is a comfort to me and a joy to their mother. Fidelity has no substitute.
But if we do not bring back the blessed intolerance of sin, applying it first of all to ourselves, then be warned: I have seen the end result of tolerance as it is lived out already in the slums of Baltimore.
Robert Hart’s article on Baltimore’s “Block,” “Dead Kids on the Block,” appeared in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone.
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.