The language of turning the other cheek and Christian ethics in general can really get quite nasty. Christianity, alas, provides a wealth of rhetorical resources for the passive-aggressive prone persona and the self-dramatizing martyr type. I am talking about the person faced with attacks or disagreements, by saying, “It is very unfortunate that you are so mean, but I think that it is important to turn the other cheek. Indeed, I am worried, genuinely concerned, about you.” Rhetorically, this move does two things. First, it casts one’s interlocutor as an aggressor. Second, it insulates one’s own response from criticism. After all, who could be against Christian charity?
Samuel Adams, who knew a thing or two about the power of rhetoric, insisted that the first rule of politics was to put your enemy in the wrong and keep him there. Explicitly or implicitly self-referential Christian rhetoric is an excellent way of doing this. It can also be a both annoying and, in its own, passive-aggressive way, rather snide and nasty. I am reminded of an exchange between Ross Douthat and Douglas Kmiec in the wake of Obama’s election, in which Douthat (a practicing Catholic) criticized Kmiec (a practicing Catholic) for his enthusiastic support of (extremely pro-choice) Obama. Kmiec’s response was to turn the other cheek in the face of Douthat’s cruelty and express worries for his soul. Tucker Carlson’s response, I think, was instructive:
Hey, Doug. Toughen up. Seriously. I’ve read suicide notes that were less passive-aggressive than this. Let’s review what actually happened: You argued that Obama is not a pro-choice extremist. Ross disagreed. Rather than respond with a counterpoint, you got hysterical, dismissing Ross as a hater, even fretting about the future of his soul.
I understand it must have hurt when Ross accused you of shilling for Obama. On the other hand, he’s right. You did shill for Obama. That’s not Ross’ fault. Don’t blame him.
But if you are going to blame him, do it directly, like a man, without all the encounter-group talk and Pope quotes. People often attack the religious right, sometimes with justification. But as you just reminded us, there is nothing in the world more annoying than the religious left.
I found myself nodding my head vigorously while reading Carlson’s reply. (And not because — or just because — I find the Christian left annoying. I find the Christian right annoying. I am often annoyed.) Yet, at the same time I do, at some level, believe in Christian ethics. One ought to turn the other cheek, love one’s enemies, and pray for them that curse you and despitefully use you. How to reconcile that belief with my distaste for much of the rhetorical use of Christian ethics?
For my, Christianity is hard. Frankly, most of the time I am not particularly Christian. I am not saying this to draw attention to my own humility by acknowledging my sinfulness. I am just saying that I am not a particularly charitable person. I usually find myself indifferent to humanity and frequently annoyed by particular humans. Actual moments of Christian response, in my own life, to wrong doing or injustice are actually quite rare. I cannot believe that I am all that different than most people on this front. Indeed, I’m un-Christian enough to man up and claim that I am probably quite a bit more charitable in my responses than many. This, however, is what is known as damning with faint praise. Accordingly, most protestations of Christian virtue are, from my point of view, simply not credible.
Indeed, even in moments of genuine charity there is something distasteful about calling attention to your behavior. Charity is not puffed up and the left hand is not to know what the right hand is doing. Frankly, I have always been a little bit uncomfortable by the numberless stories that President Monson tells about his own acts of Christian service. It is not that I doubt either his sincerity or the reality of his service. It is just that there is something about anyone talking about their own humility that makes me uncomfortable. I do know a few genuinely charitable people, such as the relief society president of my current ward. I think that she would be genuinely surprised to read me write such a thing, precisely because when she acts on behalf of another, she is not casting herself as the Samaritan on the road to Jericho in some Christian drama played out in her mind. Rather, I suspect that in her action she simply drops away as a an object of concern. She isn’t thinking about her own sinfulness or righteousness at all. The question simply doesn’t arise as a matter of concern.
The upshot of this, I think, is that we are almost by definition unaware of when we take a truly Christlike action. To be aware of one’s self as actor in the moment of action is, in some sense to have failed to have taken a Christlike action. A completely Christlike statement will therefore be silent about the self. The comfort I take form this is the possibility (although it is a possibility, and not more) that I may have actually engaged in acts of humble charity in the past unaware. I certainly hope so.
If I am right about this, then the preaching of Christian ethics is always a dicey matter. I believe in preaching, in the importance of telling stories and instilling doctrine in a way that motivates as opposed to merely persuading. Indeed, at some level I think that motivation without persuasion is to be preferred to persuasion without motivation. Therefore, we ought to exhort one another to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. But there is a toxic side to such language, a toxicity that is best avoided, I think, by taking a less morally grandiose vision of one’s own actions. Express opinions, given reasons, defend yourself if you must, but do so honestly, without the poison of Christian rhetoric.