No Mercy for Sin Itself

Tolerance is for persons. It does not apply to principles.

When the Supreme Court overturned its infamous decision that invented a right for a woman to procure an elective abortionone not necessitated by, for example, an emergency hysterectomy to remove a malignant cancermany people said that it would not result in fewer abortions. I think that most opponents of abortion understood that, in the short run, the effect would be negligible. The hard work remains, of persuading people that we have gotten the whole range of sexual morality very badly wrong, and that children pay the heaviest penalty for the sins of their parents. Sometimes they pay by loss of innocence. Sometimes they pay by a broken home, or one never properly formed to begin with. Sometimes they pay by blood.

But it was crucially important to get that legal buttress out of the way, lest the evil principle of abortion, the fail-safe for fornication and the foulest form of the lie called bodily autonomy, so thoroughly work itself into peoples minds that they could no longer imagine a world without it. Supposing that some people are still uneasy about the action, they fall back upon saying that whether we like it or not, the permission must remain in place. Necessity, the tyrants plea, says Milton. It is also the cowards plea.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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It often helps to move from an area of current contention to an area of former contention to see what is at stake when you accept an evil principleand what you may expect in the short and middle run after you have rejected it. Let us take, then, another kind of evil principle, that of theaffaire dhonneur. Martins sister has been the subject of scandalous conversation, and Martin accuses Paul of having begun the slander. The accusation is public. Martin calls Paul a coward and a liar, and he defies him as a gentleman. We must settle this matter as gentlemen, says Paul.

England and France had both outlawed dueling by the end of the seventeenth century so that what remained was that same hard work of persuasion. For the evil principle, having lost its legal permission, still wrought in the imagination and the soul. Now, if Martin and Paul are Frenchmen in 1850, they may proceed on the following morning, with their seconds, to some agreed upon place out of the way, to fight out the matter with a duel, using pistols or swords as they have determined beforehand. It must be out of the way, so some element of skulking is involved, and that must settle into the soul like a burr, to prick and sting. 

If Martin and Paul are Englishmen in 1850, they may not duel on English soil. They must go to France or to Belgium first because by then the English had turned against the practice and its principle. They no longer tolerated it. They no longer said that homicide was bad but a man must be free to uphold his honor. If a man were killed in a duel, the survivor might be convicted of murder. That meant that return to England might prove dangerous, so the survivor might be bidding farewell to his homeland for the rest of his life.

I will hear that Prohibition proved that it is unwise to try to eliminate any kind of evil from a pluralistic nation, but that we must live and let live. Here we need to make distinctions.

Prohibition was not the rejection of an evil principle. The evil principle had already been rejected. Laws against drunkenness and disorderly behavior and wife-beating and other bad things that drunks do were everywhere. Prohibition was an attempt to secure by national legal oversight what local laws were unable to secure. It was an attempt to put a stop to certain evils by outlawing what was not evil, even what was a minor good: as if one might end fornication by keeping boys and girls strictly separate before marriage and setting up a national police force to oversee the encampments.

Prohibition was intolerant. The sins that sometimes call for tolerance are those that we all fall into by infirmity or by the prompting of momentary passions. If Bill has too much to drink at his daughters wedding, we tolerate it as the sort of thing that can happen, sometimes without the persons being quite aware of it. If a kid is really hungry and pinches an apple from a grocers cart, we might give him a lecture, but we dont make a federal case of it. If a patient in a hospital snaps and snarls at an inattentive nurse, both he and she have something to tolerate: his illness, and her being overworked. Prohibition overrode all such tolerance.

But if it was not first in rejecting the evil principle, Prohibition did give the rejection additional force, and it widened its scope. For there was, lurking in the shadows, an unfortunate willingness not to come to terms with human weakness but to sell the principle short. So then, someone might say, Drunkenness is bad, sure, but not when youve just gotten out of the steel mills and you want to enjoy a few drinks with your friends. Then its all right. Or, Drunkenness is bad, but sometimes its either you drink or your wife drives you insane. 

Those who pushed Prohibition did compel a retreat from those outposts of moral cowardice and irresponsibility. People might still do the bad things, but they had to do them with an uneasy conscience. And even as imprudent and intolerant a measure as Prohibition did have a profound effect upon general behavior. The fact is, most people did obey the law, and alcohol-related deaths plunged quite sharply.

Sometimes the evil principle is a corollary of a prior evil principle, so that if you reject the corollary, you reject the prior. Here we see how a supposed tolerance of what looks like an evil principle of limited scope involves you in the tolerance of much greater and more widespread evil. 

Let us suppose that you say that what two people do in bed is their own business, about which a society has nothing to say to approve or to disapprove. You may not have wished, at the time, that the two people might be other than a man and a woman. You may not have foreseen, at the time, that you would be making marriage, in the best cases, the ho-hum conclusion of years of cohabitation. You may not have supposed that people, in the darkening of their imaginations, would sever the child-making act from child-making itself, so that unprecedented numbers of children would be conceived out of wedlock. 

But the bad corollary could only have arisen from a prior assumption, also bad, which is that sex is not a matter of the most important of the strictly human obligations that any society has, which is to renew the generations in that haven of ordered life we call the family. It was to privatize, even to isolate, the social, and to do so as a matter of evil principle.

So, it is one thing to tolerate your brothers sinbecause you yourself are a sinner, after all. It is another to accept it in principle, explicitly or implicitly. I may be content that my nephew has survived a duel. I may not send him a card of congratulations, wishing him happy returns of the day. 

I may do what I can, quietly and personally, to make the life of a fatherless child as orderly as possible. I may have mercy upon the mother. But I may not accept the principle that single motherhood is an acceptable thing. 

I may do what I can, quietly and personally, to make the life of a fatherless child as orderly as possible. I may have mercy upon the mother. But I may not accept the principle that single motherhood is an acceptable thing.Tweet This

I may tolerate all kinds of expressions of ignorance, knowing that I, too, share the same failing in many ways. But I may not accept the principle that it is fine to be ignorant, so long as the subject in question is something my social set holds up to scorn.

Let all the leaders of Christian churches understand. Sinners warrant mercy, because, as Shakespeare puts it, in the course of justice, none of us / should see salvation. But sin itself, no mercyfor the sake of sinners all, no mercy.

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