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Returning to Egypt: On the Loss of Mercy

Easter reflections are supposed to be lighthearted and joyful. But I’m gravely concerned by the unkindness in the name of kindness so evident in our cultural moment. Our society appears determined to return to the mastery and enslavement of Egypt. We have become forgetful of human limits, do not stand in awe of God’s acts, and so we have become cruel. Jewish and Christian holy days remind us of the need for mercy if society is to overcome its hatreds.

In these holy days of Passover and Easter, Jews and Christians remember that it is God who redeems. Each celebration, in its way, acknowledges that while deliverance does not negate human freedom, it is the Almighty who frees. Without God’s action, the people perish.

These truths invite theological reflection, and rightly so. Yet they also have implications for the turmoil of our cultural moment, particularly the marked absence of mercy in political and social life.

If we accept that God acts in the world for the salvation of humanity, as I do, and that his action is gracious and merciful, then our deliverance is not a necessity of nature but a free act of the Almighty. A study of the human, no matter how thorough, would not discover an innate source of redemption; deliverance requires a supernatural cause, one that not only redeems but elevates us beyond our natural end. This means, as Fr. James Schall describes in The Politics of Heaven and Hell, that there are “powers at work in the world . . . oriented toward the ultimate and temporal good of each human person” but not “simply the result of unaided human reasoning or power.”

Consequently, suggests Schall, after the revelation of God’s saving activity in the world, the idea of goodness goes beyond the imagination of the classical pagan world. God’s actions, the “powers at work,” are never irrational, but they are not confined to the limits of a merely natural reason, since, at least in the Christian understanding, God’s action includes his sacrificial love, an irruption of goodness and an affirmation of the dignity God bestows. Divine life is sacrificed for the human good, and thereby strict justice is transformed by mercy and charity. The human good has become more than that known by the philosophers, and thus, too, evil action has become radically worse, for moral evil violates not only justice but also the demands of the charity made known by God. To violate the integrity of another is not simply to act counter to justice, but violates the sacrifice God made for that person. Justice, while never negated, is nonetheless transcended.

Justice is not enough; mercy and forgiveness are also required. Evil is repaid with goodness, not in a way which denies justice but in “a manner unexpected by reason itself.” Aristotle has no category for redemption, no expectation that the vicious man could enjoy beatitude. Consequently, the Christian sees both more wretchedness and more exaltation in the human condition than did the Greeks, believing in both original sin and the incarnation. All men are grass, all sinful, and yet all are created in the image of God and all are offered a share in the divine glory through the startling fact of Easter. No one is beyond redemption, no one disposable.

 

The terrible genius of modernity is its mastery of nature. Modern man not only plumbed the mysteries of the universe but promised to control and alter the world through the power of rationality. Man’s estate, as Bacon reminded us, is at our beck and call, and we can make of it what we will. Our mastery, moreover, is comprehensive, tolerating no space, no license, for acts of God not conforming to the limits of reason alone. Reality becomes immanent, God’s acting for our salvation forbidden. In the words of Czeslaw Milosz, the “second space,” that beyond immanence, is vanquished: “Without unearthly meadows, how to meet salvation? And where will the damned find suitable quarters? Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss. Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.”

Our mastery delivers benefits undreamt by ancient and medieval man, but there is also a cold finality to human effort—there is no God to elevate us, or to forgive our trespasses. Still, modernity is post-Christian. It does not revert to the old paganism but maintains Christian optimism, making a mighty effort “to justify goals and values formulated under the impetus of revelation but now recast in strictly human intellectual terms,” as Schall puts it. Modern science and modern politics inherit a theology of supernatural hopes bereft of a supernatural agent to bring them about. We must be godlike in our competence.

Schall cites Leo Strauss on the tensions that arise once the divine aspirations of charity devolve into compassion, sentiment, and humanism: “Moral virtue has been transfigured into Christian charity. Through this, man’s responsibility to his fellow man and for his fellow men, his fellow creature, had been infinitely increased.” All the high aims of supernatural charity remain, now absent grace, but with the presumption of rational mastery and control of nature. Hobbes’s Leviathan follows. A new sovereignty is needed, albeit ever so awful and unremitting in its demands, somehow akin to God in potency and quite unlike God in mercy. That is, political power in modernity tends toward the tyrannical, in its various guises. The state will claim omnicompetence, admitting no dissent.

Beyond the political, morality turns into relentless moralism. If Christ gave a new command to love one another as he has loved us—which is part of the Christian claim—he also promised to enable our ability through grace and sacrament, and with forgiveness. When those high ideals are maintained but effectuated entirely through rationality and mastery, morality becomes a grim master. Post-Christian moralism is terrible, demanding, unforgiving.

 

In part, the new moralism is unrelenting because it has appropriated the claim from the Sermon on the Mount that not only actions but intentions matter. Now, however, charity is transformed into compassion and sentiment, and if you do not feel the correct sentiment, do not exhibit the proper compassion, you are guilty, irredeemably so. This is evident in much of the ubiquitous puritanism of wokeness. Given the assumption of mastery, wrongdoing and suffering might be rooted out, and thus must be rooted out. Original sin is no more; neither is the tragic recognition of human fallibility and fragility. Justice demands perfection, and failures of compassion or manners must be punished in an endless rooting out. Sinners will not be saved, for there is no grace, and mercy is denied. To err is human, perhaps, but to exact justice far too human.

Easter reflections are supposed to be lighthearted and joyful. But I’m gravely concerned by the unkindness in the name of kindness so evident in our cultural moment. I’m also convinced by Leon Kass in his commentary on Genesis where he notes that “as Abraham must emerge out of and against the ways of Babylonia, so the nation of Israel must emerge out of and against the ways of Egypt.” According to Kass, Genesis presents this emergence as “a permanent human choice,” an ongoing fact, one facing each person. Either a choice for a “world in which the rational mastery of nature and the pursuit of immortality leads ultimately to the enslavement of mankind,” or “a way of life in which all human beings, mindful of their limitations and standing in awe-and-fear of the Lord, can be treated as equal creatures.”

Put in those terms, our society appears determined to return to the mastery and enslavement of Egypt. We have become forgetful of human limits, do not stand in awe of God’s acts, and so we have become cruel.

But those of us who have not forgotten that God acts in history know that while the return to Egypt is a permanent possibility, so too is the freedom of exodus. Jews and Christians understand this somewhat differently, of course, but we share the idea that God has spoken, has acted, has made covenant, and that more is possible than immanentized rationality admits. We are thus, both Christian and Jew, open to hope, to repentance, and to redemption. At a moment when justice has turned cruel, humanism vindictive, and compassion tyrannical, our holy days remind us of the need for mercy if society is to overcome its hatreds.

That is the promise of these days, a promise we remember with joy and hope and celebration. So many in our time do not know these promises, and thus know neither mercy nor forgiveness. We have not forgotten, and in these promises we exult.

I wish you a happy Passover, a joyous Easter.

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