Monday, June 20, 2011

the besetting sin

Moral theology classifies the sins or faults of man in various ways. It is a discipline with its own taxonomy.

One kind of fault that pastors and spiritual directors must address is what is called the "besetting sin." One spiritual director of my acquaintance calls it one's "favorite sin." This is the sin, or fault, that one falls into time after time. It shows up in nearly every examination of conscience. Those who seek forgiveness of their sins find themselves confessing it over and over. We marvel that we dare to seek forgiveness for it; we marvel even more greatly that forgiveness can be obtained.

The fault differs from man to man. For most, it takes a form that modern society is pleased to call an "addiction." But it is not just those common attachments. It may be an easy resort to anger and violence. It may be small vanities or an excessive delight in the praise of others. This list goes on and on. I trust I have said enough on this subject: the reader is perhaps ahead of me and has already identified the fault in himself that seems most resistant to correction.

I postulate that societies, that cultures, bear this resemblance to men: that they are prone to a kind of besetting fault. And that the besetting sin of the West is the resort to the organized use of force. We call this organization the state.

I advance this postulation for two reasons. The first is that it is precisely the opposite of what we in the West so often aspire to, to wit, freedom. None of us wants to be a slave, even to another Westerner. We are not a docile people, and we chafe when we are commanded to use our time, our talents, our property in ways that we find repulsive, offensive, or simply inconvenient. We call this chafing the desire to live as free men. And by freedom we do not mean obedience to the law. We do not mean doing what we are told. We do not even mean doing what is right. We mean something altogether different, and most of us give it up only under protest. Alas, most of us do not protest very long, and after a while we forget to protest at all.

But the chafing, even when it does not actually occur, survives in our myths, in the way we read our history, even in our rationalizations. White Westerners now allow themselves to be treated as a conquered people in many of their home countries, but they insist that the infringements on their liberty are somehow an expansion of their "civil liberties." They accept the most ludicrous claims that government impositions on them are no violation of their liberty at all.

Another reason for my postulate is that the West has been so very good at creating institutions for organized force. Like other civilizations that have had their monarchies and their priests, the West came up with its distinct — and to some extent more robust and all-embracing — forms of tyranny. Where other civilizations experienced monopolies of resources, it was the West that perfected the central bank. Where other civilizations experienced war and battle, it was the West that perfected the military that trains and fights as a unit, not for personal glory, not for spoils. Glory and spoils themselves accrue to the state.

That sort of skill typifies a besetting sin; it stands to reason that a man who finds himself angry at his wife over and over and who beats her will construct not just rationalizations for having done it, but will construct occasions for doing it. We get good at satisfying our lusts, our power-seeking, our pursuit of vanities. And the West has gotten good at statecraft.

Like a man's besetting sin, the culture finds occasions and rationalizations for resorting to the state. It constructs political philosophies that contain the veriest stupidities and transparent euphemisms ever concocted. Not one man in 10,000 would swallow the arguments if they were applied to his own affairs. I am speaking not only of political philosophers: we pay thousands of teachers, of newspaper editors, of think-tank professionals, of propagandists, of novelists, of songwriters, of historians, of newsreaders, all to tell us over and over again how much we need the state, how much we need for it to be more powerful, how helpless we should be without it. They speak virtually with one voice when they find a new way for it to intrude into our lives. And we, as though possessing the deadened conscience of a shoplifter or a child molester, nod our heads and echo it all back to them.
--Ronn Neff

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