30 July 2020

C.S. Lewis, Leo XIII, and Clarence Thomas on Riots

Fr Johnson looks at what C.S. Lewis, Pope Leo XIII, and Justice Thomas have to say about the revolutionary situation in which we find ourselves.

From Providence

By Fr Ben Johnson 

It has become an article of faith among a certain brand of commentator that the United States no longer exports anything. Recent events have proved that is not true: the US is now the world’s foremost exporter of riots, vandalism, and civil unrest.

Early on June 21, up to 500 people—some of them shouting “Allahu akbar!”—attacked the police in Stuttgart, Germany. During the riot, they trashed 40 businesses. “Stuttgart has never witnessed a night like this, with such attacks on the police,” said Mayor Fritz Kuhn.

Meanwhile in the US—where Black Lives Matter protests ebbed to 20 or 30 people in some places—violent protesters changed their focus from looting businesses to toppling historic statues. Few rioters have been arrested; few have even been hindered. They now threaten to vandalize every Catholic and Orthodox church in the country in the name of destroying images of Jesus they deem too “European.”
The magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church guides US leaders how to respond to mob violence, whether directed against man or monument. Pope Leo XIII encourages civil authorities to use force to suppress acts of violence in Rerum Novarum:
There are not a few who are imbued with evil principles and eager for revolutionary change, whose main purpose is to stir up disorder and incite their fellows to acts of violence. The authority of the law should intervene to put restraint upon such firebrands, to save the working classes from being led astray by their maneuvers, and to protect lawful owners from spoliation. 
In this case, the “lawful owners” of these statues are the whole people: the citizens whose taxes paid for the sculpting and preservation of these artistic memorials.
The self-proclaimed leaders of these movements insist they are following a higher law, correcting the sins of our past and the short-sighted bigotry allegedly woven into our national fabric. Their condemnation has caused some Christians to “repent” of systemic racism or kneel before activists to confess their “white privilege.”
Some may see these as misguided but harmless acts of masochism. C.S. Lewis would not be among them. Lewis discussed the spiritual “Dangers of National Repentance” in a letter published by The Guardian on March 15, 1940, and later included in his book God in the Dock.
When a protester confesses a “national sin” that he did not commit personally, he is “actually being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour,” writes Lewis. “And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others.”
Since detraction masquerades as repentance, there is no limit to the vitriol the assailants direct against their fellow citizens:
You can say anything you please about [others]. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’
Lewis implored the publications of his day to cease and desist such emphasis on collective guilt, historical grievance, and guilt-transference. This invitation for protesters to rail against those whom they already hate, Lewis writes, “is emphatically not the exhortation which your audience needs. The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment” to honor thy father and mother. “Of these sins I have heard nothing among them.”
The great moral theologians of the church bear out Lewis’ insight. “The task of moral judgment is always … to make us self-critical,” writes St. Hesychios of Sinai. Spiritually attuned people can monitor whether their thoughts and actions proceed from that which is just in God’s sight, because “love calms and agreeably expands the heart, whilst hatred painfully contracts and disturbs it,” says St. John of Kronstadt. It is impossible to remain calm while hurling an endless string of agitated invectives against “our” sins.
Those wishing to improve the world should begin with that part of the world over which they have the greatest control: themselves. They could take as their own the example of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who celebrated his seventy-second birthday on June 23. Racial harassment by a fellow seminarian ended Thomas’ vocation to the priesthood. His subsequent plunge into the pit of identity politics led him to his lowest point. As I write at the Acton Institute’s Powerblog:
In the summer of 1968, he soon fell prey to what MLK Jr. called “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” That year, he entered Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and formed a black student union that idolized such figures as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and Huey P. Newton. In 1970, he fomented a riot in Harvard Square inspired by nothing more than his rage. On his way back to his dorm room at 4 a.m., he stopped before the chapel and prayed for the first time in almost two years.
“I said, ‘If You take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again.’”
Unlike today’s (often college-educated, white female) BLM protesters, Justice Thomas came from environs that no one would associate with “privilege.” His family lacked indoor plumbing. Local communities enforced the de jure law of segregation publicly by the local police and privately by the Ku Klux Klan (whose memberships frequently overlapped). Prayer, and a drive to show the world that a black man can become the nation’s greatest living jurist, launched him into one of the nine most elevated positions the legal profession has to offer. Now, he writes opinions that would force the world to treat people of all races with the same dignity, regardless of “skin color,” and recognize their God-given equality before the law.
Thomas lived in a society festooned with artificial barriers to his success. Both the governmental apparatus of segregation and the pervasive social attitudes of Southern whites conspired to trap him in a life of hopelessness and penury. The first has been eradicated, and the second has fallen to such minuscule levels that they confine their hateful adherents to political impotence. Thomas transcended both by repenting of his personal self-destructive passions and enhancing his God-given gifts.
To this day, Thomas keeps a framed copy of the Litany of Humility on the wall of his Supreme Court chambers. That litany includes the petition, “From the fear of being wronged … deliver me, Jesus.” The justice embodies the call that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (St. John 3:30). This spirit of reflection and self-improvement leads to salvation.
Pray like him. Think like him. Act like him. And you will accomplish by building, instead of destroying.

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