Mission Nary Impossible
The Unevangelized May Be Better
& Worse than Savages
by Anthony Esolen
Man is an ineluctably moral being. He can pretend to moral relativism, but he cannot live it. He can say, misunderstanding Jesus' words, that we must never judge another person's actions, but in the blink of an eye he will assume that judgment seat, nor must he be a hypocrite to do so.
The question is not whether we will judge between good and evil, but how. What criteria will we look to, what models of virtue will we honor, what awareness of our sins will instruct us in mercy? What will charity towards sinners plead in their behalf? What will charity towards the innocent plead in their behalf? How will our moral judgments hang together? Whom will we acknowledge as our authority?
We Christians now must be missionaries to people who are better than the nihilism they do not know they profess. The old, sturdy Christian virtues remain in the wisps of etiquette, detached from one another and from the grace and example of Christ. An echo, a fragrance, a half-forgotten memory remain, and make it harder for us to persuade our well-fed and much-distracted fellows of the real moral vacuity.
We do not dwell in the City of God. We do not even dwell in the City of Man. We dwell in the Suburb of Man, beside and beneath civilization. We have neither the purity of the saint nor the gritty material squalor of London in the time of Dickens. We have hygiene and proper diet. We follow something cleaner and sillier than superstitions. We follow the news.
So the evangelist has his work cut out for him.
Fr. De Smet's Mission
When Father Pierre-Jean De Smet made his courageous way among the Indians of the American northwest, he met plenty of tribes whom Europeans might have considered savage. They sang out like howling wolves; they painted their faces and chests; they slept in skin huts; they raided their weaker neighbors; they had no writing; some of them took more than one wife.
But Father De Smet did not regard them as savages. They were children of the one God. They honored him, thousands of them sometimes gathering in silence, for hours, to hear him speak about the Great Spirit. Some had sent emissaries all the way from Puget Sound to Saint Louis, pleading with the Jesuits to send a priest to teach them. Father De Smet could travel where no other white man would dare to go without armed cavalry.
Whatever may have been the moral errors of the native customs, the Indians were not insane. If you grant that the manhood of the warrior, the wisdom of the chief, and the spiritual intuitions of the medicine man are worthy of honor, and if your brains are not addled by mass media, mass politics, and mass schooling, then that honor will engender among you certain customs and moral judgments. If I may be allowed a gross simplification, to preach among such a people was to reveal to them who the Great Spirit really was, and what he really required. The missionary did not have to build up humanity from the rubble. They were often bad men, to be sure, but they were men. They could reason and act from principles.
You can argue with a sane man, advising him that his principles are wrong. You can evangelize a sane society, directing minds and hearts to the Lord, who is alone the Way. But what the evangelist meets today is insanity or perhaps subsanity. It will not suffice to correct a mistaken principle when the people can no longer reason from principles. You cannot redirect a lost people when they have no direction and no experience of following one. You can hardly try to heal their humanity when they have not yet risen to the full stature of a wounded sinner.
Allow me to provide a few painful examples, from recent events.
Instances of Madness
An owner of a basketball team, stricken in years, leaves his wife and family and takes a mistress fifty years his junior. She has renamed herself "V," a common allusion to the impudendum. She dresses and behaves like a whore, scoring young men of her own on the side. He is aware of it and does not mind, with one proviso. She may bed down men of any race, so long as she does not bring to the basketball games her gigolos among the blacks. She surreptitiously records his conversation and releases it to the press, whereupon his fellow owners banish him from the league.
A woman posing as a fifteen-year-old girl shows up with a hidden camera at a Planned Parenthood clinic. She asks the counselor about "kinky" things, pretending to have a seventeen-year-old boyfriend who likes whips. The counselor gives her advice, much of it obscene and proceeding from her own experience. She talks about whips, sex toys, porn, sodomy, and how to tell the difference between pain that feels good and pain that doesn't. The video is released to the press, and again there are expressions of outrage.
A young man, the son of good new-fashioned liberated feminist parents, is attending a good new-fashioned sexually nihilist university. He and a young woman, a "friend," fornicate for a couple of months, and then decide that they are just friends after all. One night they are walking back to the dormitories after a party, drunk. He puts the moves on her. From this point on, he and she give differing accounts of what happened. What they both admit is that they returned to the dormitory together and had sexual intercourse, including sodomy. She says she only went along with it because she wanted to get it over with; he says she initiated things by removing her clothes. She accuses him of rape. His parents spring to his defense. Outrage ensues from two quarters: from women, who see the incident as one more evil in a miserable history of men abusing women; and from men, who conclude that women will lie to themselves and others to shirk responsibility for their actions. Both sides focus on what they can guess about the woman's feelings at the time of the incident. Both sides assume that there is no crime if the criminals were partners in it.
Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal party in Canada, announces that the Liberals will no longer submit any candidate who does not support the abortion license. A few Canadian churchmen and politicians protest this encroachment upon the consciences of party members.
The mayor of Boston, meanwhile, leads the Gay Pride parade while men in drag and various states of undress strut their peacock wares. The marshals of the parade are drag queens, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. These hairy nuns bear names like "Porn Again" and "Roz Erection." A policeman in Utah, tagged by his department to lead a similar parade, begs off and asks to be assigned traffic duty instead. He is slapped with a suspension. Some people are outraged that he would ask to be reassigned. Others are outraged, and justly so, that an arm of the state should attempt to force him to bless what he considered to be evil. No one asks about the nature of his objection.
What almost all of the outrage reveals, however, is insanity. When the federal government arrested Al Capone, it was for tax evasion, the least vicious crime he ever committed. That was only the means for putting him behind bars. No one said, "Mr. Capone, yes, a murderer, no question, but evading taxes—now that is really too much!" When Caligula elevated his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, none of the people who seethed under his rule complained that he had chosen the wrong horse, or that Incitatus should first have served as aedile and praetor. When Sherman marched to the sea, burning fields, ripping up railroads, and leaving towns in scorched and smoking ruins, no southern lady wrote to President Lincoln to complain that some of the soldiers said, "Damn!" When the Nazis sent Jews to the showers and gassed them instead, no one condemned them for telling a fib. Radical Islamists televise themselves beheading an American soldier and shouting praise to Allah. No sane person asks what they gave him for his last meal. Savages drink the blood of their enemies from china teacups; do we flounce away in high dudgeon because they do not extend their pinkies?
Camels & Gnats
Let's return to the instances of madness. Planned Parenthood is in the business of snuffing out the lives of babies. We need to fix that in our minds. They snuff out babies. Now, we ought to allow a certain leeway, in human affairs, to stupidity and self-delusion. I suppose that an ignorant person seventy years ago could talk himself into believing that Planned Parenthood supported a tricky form of "abortion." The term itself was a euphemism; without the participle "induced," it simply meant "miscarriage." But that deception is no longer possible. We know that the fertilized egg is alive and is human in nature, and we have sonograms to give hands and feet and a face to the brother we want out of the way.
So let us fix it in our minds. These people smother babies in the cradle of the womb. They dismember them with stainless steel. They burn them in salt. They flush them out and dispose of them in biohazard containers, or, if they have a gruesome penchant for honesty, like Kermit Gosnell, they whistle while they work and preserve their trophies in a freezer.
They kill babies. They defend the killing of babies. They promote the killing of babies. We are surprised, then, to find that they are sexual nihilists and go for perversion? They've been peddling pornographic "information" to teenagers for years. They've been transporting teenagers across state borders, against federal law, to help them snuff out their babies. Whips and chains are tweezers by comparison. Defenders of Planned Parenthood say that the counselor was not indicative of the "service" they generally provide. Indeed.
Or turn to Trudeau and his Liberals. They support the baby-snuffers. Let's fix that in our minds. It's not that they support people who have been caught doing bad things. It is not even that they support people who promote a range of things, some of which are bad. They support those who dismember babies in the womb because they dismember babies in the womb. They want such people to ply their hideous trade. They also compel the celebration of sodomy in their state-controlled "Catholic" schools. What are a politician's hurt feelings to that? The enemy rolls into your village in tanks, while you beg, "Please, let me have my antique walnut nightstand! It's hand-painted and everything!" What did you expect, you effete pro-life Liberal politicians giving abortionists a drink on the house, for amity's sake?
Turn to the odious Donald Sterling, the owner of the basketball team. Did anyone call for his resignation when he broke his marriage vow and sent his family packing? But that camel had only one hump—camels with one hump go easily down the gullet. Did anyone call him a degenerate when he slouched in the bleachers with his whorish mistress? Another camel; no problem. Is anyone troubled by their fornication? By her taking up a corral of lovers—as if one old man's contribution were like chucking a bean into the mouth of a lion? By his shrugging away the degeneracy? A spoonful of sugar makes the caravan go down. But he expresses the incorrect view regarding the type of male degenerates the young female degenerate can take to watch the team owned by the old male degenerate after they have engaged in degeneracy. There's the gnat.
Wholesale evil, before our eyes; we are in a whorehouse or an abattoir, and we grow indignant about the wallpaper. Consider the sad case of the college un-man and un-woman. No one is ashamed by the fornication, not her parents or his. No one is appalled that they use the organs of procreation for mechanical hedonism. We have here neither true youth nor the flights of eros. They are not Romeo and Juliet; they are not even the Duke of Gloucester and the lass with whom he begot the bastard Edmund, who made him pay dearly for that sport. They fornicate with the ennui of the woman in The Waste Land who endures the "young clerk carbuncular," then says she's glad it's done with, and puts a record on the gramophone. Utter misery; and we are to worry only about the vagaries of emotion, whether the woman did what she did because she wanted to, sort of, or was exhausted, or didn't care, or some floating and varying series of them all? It occurs to no one that the un-man did evil when he sought the child-making act from a woman to whom he was not married?
The policeman in Utah did the right thing; he was stretching his tolerance to the utmost. He was not in a position to say what a truly free man might have said. He did not say, "These people parading down the street are confused at best. They are promoting wickedness. They dress as freaks, they flout our ordinances against indecency, and they reduce the virtues of continence, purity, and chastity to a laughingstock. They are destructive of marriage, the innocence of childhood, and the common good. It is a shame that they rouse no shame. I will no more 'celebrate' such a thing than I would throw a party for a divorce." But do we believe that people who would cheer at such a parade will care about someone's qualms against leading it? They fill a child's mind with squalor; are they going to care about his eyes?
We must reason with our opponents, because some of them still do reason, and because, beneath all our heaped up wickedness and folly, we are still human, and it is human to use reason to seek the good and to pursue it. But we should not mistake our situation. There's no point arguing with a drunk when he is drunk. You can't talk a madman out of his illusion when he is in its grip.
Father De Smet could secure peace among Indian tribes—could be the one white man whom they would trust—because neither he nor they were drunk or mad. They both believed in courage, honor, loyalty, reverence, and freedom. They both looked to moral truths that were as constant as the northern star. They could therefore reason among themselves from those truths to action.
We are now among people who are better and worse than savages. They are, in most places, and for the time being, less likely to break the crockery, as Chesterton put it, than were the savages of old. They will cut babies to pieces in the womb, more than a million a year, but only rarely out of it; and they will be roused to the height of righteous wrath should they see someone leave a dog in a hot car in the summer. They watch filth all the time and let it soak their souls, but they will not roll in mud, because it is not good for the complexion. They judge by the flights of feeling and mass sentiment. They know what sluts are: women whose sexual immorality is a degree or two more degraded or more consistent than theirs. They are the more ruthless and severe in their condemnations as they are incapable of telling exactly what is to be condemned and why.
Because they have no sense of sin, they have no mercy. They speak of tolerance, yet they are the touchiest sensitive-plants ever to sprout upon earth. There are no sins; and every sinner deserves to be destroyed.
What must the missionary do with such a people? He will not be teaching letters to an illiterate people with their old and venerable legends and poetry. His charges will know how to read a page, but will have no poetry. He will not be teaching a catechism to a people with strong but sometimes mistaken moral customs. He will be teaching a catechism to people who take their moral cues from an idiot box. He will not be teaching Indians that one wife is enough. He will be teaching addled sub-marital illuminati what it means even to have a wife.
Far be it from me to give up the mission! I write these things to make clear what that mission is. •
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.