If there are graduate students two hundred years from now, and if one of those graduate students sits down to write a dissertation on the morbid mentality of our times, he will have to devote a chapter to our curious combination of broadmindedness and bigotry. “In the early twenty-first century,” he may write,
“most men and women in the West were marvels of complaisance and clemency. They smiled on conduct that would have caused their grandfathers to call the police, and their critical faculties were so strictly curbed by moral modesty that their motto might have been: Who am I to judge!”
Were it not for the fact that biblical literacy has all but disappeared in the early twenty-first century, our scribbling historian of the future might explain this broadmindedness as the perfection of Christian forbearance, and see in it the fulfillment of Christ’s command,
“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37)
Were it not for biblical illiteracy and our astonishing lapses in forbearance. For our young historian would certainly have to qualify what he said about broadmindedness with something like this.
“The amiable broadmindedness of these men and women of the early twenty-first century was, however, frequently interrupted by violent storms of condemnation and rebuke. It seems as if they contained pent and distended reservoirs of hate that required regular evacuation.”
Six days of the week, twenty-first- century man is like Dickens’ Christopher Casby, an apparent “mound of meekness” and “lump of love,” but on the baleful seventh day he will spit and scratch like a frantic cat.
* * * * *
One need not write a dissertation, or enjoy the benefit of two-hundred years’ hindsight, to see how we have amended Christ’s Sermon on the Plain with a principle of selective application. This means that we accept “judge not” as a universal law that admits of exceptions, those exceptions being the people who really fry our oysters and have it coming. Against these unforgivables, we claim license to be as bigoted and blistering as we please.
Let me show you what I mean.
Lizzie Wade writes on matters archeological for Science Magazine, and she recently gained some notoriety with an article on the tzompantil, or walls of human skulls, with which the Aztecs embellished their capital city.
Speaking of the sainted Aztecs, Ms. Wade is as broadminded as can be, a real “mound of meekness” and “lump of love.” One wonders if she didn’t, in fact, have the text of Luke 6:37 affixed to her computer screen on a post-it note. Eschewing anything so coarse as censure, she writes,
“It’s hard for me to imagine that people ‘wanted’ to be sacrificed, but that’s my own biases and cultural conditioning talking.”
The spirit of “who am I to judge” is strong in this one. But not, it so happens, indomitable. For in her very next sentence, Ms. Wade’s broadmindedness fails her and she launches stinging judgments against the Spaniards who spoiled the Aztec’s fun.
“How I see the world, filtered through centuries of colonial oppression and destruction, is irrelevant to understanding how they [the Aztecs] saw the world.”
Do you feel the whiplash? What happened to that generous spirit of “who am I to judge?” Did that post-it note flutter to the floor? How is it that this woman who can (albeit with difficulty) understand Aztecs cannot (even at the cost of extra effort) understand Catholics?
Isn’t there something terribly judgmental in those words oppress and destroy? Wouldn’t it be more broadminded to say lead and reform?
* * * * *
In those “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction,” men often said that “charity begins at home.” They said this because they knew that it is easy to fulfill the requirements of Luke 6:37 at a distance. And they knew that it is especially easy when a show of “telescopic philanthropy” (Dickens again) allows us to require “the utmost farthing” from the low-down skunks who really fry our oysters and have it coming (Matthew 5:26).
Ms. Wade is a woman of the early twenty-first century, so she reverses the old saw and believes that “charity begins with the stranger.” And the stranger the stranger, the better. For blood-soaked Aztecs who offered beating human hearts to their hungry Moloch, she has a sweet and understanding smile.
“All is forgiven, my sanguinary friends; for after all, who am I to judge.”
But it is bigotry and the “utmost farthing” when it comes to the Spaniards who, although not above reproach, actually helped to make the world that Ms. Wade inhabits. For the stranger, indulgences are limitless, ungrudging and free of cost. But kith and kin who fry her oysters really have it coming.
* * * * *
I earlier mentioned Dickens’ character Christopher Casby. He appears in the novel Little Dorrit and is a pious Quaker who affects an air of universal philanthropy while in fact grinding the poor tenants of his rickety rookeries. Near the end of the novel, Casby’s fraud is exposed by Pancks, his erstwhile rent-collector, who knocks the broad-brimmed hat from the old man’s head and calls him a “sugary swindler” and a “philanthropic sneak.”
Our curious combination of broadmindedness and bigotry is a sugary swindle and a philanthropic sneak because our selective broadmindedness allows us to nurse hatreds and vendettas behind a flowered screen of universal charity. What is more, it allows us to nurse hatreds and vendettas against the kith and kin to whom we actually owe a debt of gratitude and have a special obligation of forbearance.
G. K. Chesterton nails this “scheme of partial pardons” it in the last two stanzas of his poem, “The World State
This compromise has long been known,
This scheme of partial pardons,
In ethical societies
And small suburban gardens
The villas and the chapels where
I learned with little labor
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbor.