“God help us!” said Holmes after a long silence. “Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’”
(The Boscombe Valley Mystery: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Guilt, and to meditate terror, are grievous to them. They like not to see their misery before they come into it; though perhaps the sight of it first, if they loved that sight, might make them fly whither the righteous fly and are safe.
(The Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan)
In the opening decades of the twenty-first century the prevailing Western belief is that equality is a thing which only travels in one direction. That is, if we look at a person who has beaten us to a job for which we applied or at someone whose only claim to fame is that they married a prince we can easily say “you are no better than I am,” however, when we look at a racist thug or a publicly convicted liar we never say “you are no worse than I am.” The two statements though belong together. If the first is true it can only be for the same reason that the second is true, and if the second is false it must be that, for the same reasons, the first is false also.
If we do not see it that way it is because equality has ceased to be a personal moral category and has become a purely social one, a category moreover linked to some doctrine of ‘progress’ which supposes that, for some unspecified reason, the world moves ever upward to more equality, more peace and more justice. All we have to do is hang on to its coattails. This cannot, however, be true. If everyone deserves to be considered equal that has to be because of some quality which inheres in each individual human not some quality that is intrinsic to societies. And if that quality is in all humans then it is something which we must share with murderers and abusers in exactly the same degree that we share it with activists bringing about a more just world.
If it is the case that we contain the potential for greatness then it is also the case that we contain the potential for its opposite. If it is unfair to treat us without respect it is also unwise to regard us without suspicion. It is a truth about ourselves that each one of us is perfectly capable of doing mean, underhanded, selfish things which benefit us and harm others. And if we are being honest we must acknowledge that not only do we posses that capacity but we have exercised it more than once during the course of our lives, probably more than once this week alone. Is it to our benefit to ignore this truth, to deny it perhaps, or do we gain by holding it close to our hearts and regarding it intently?
In an interview the historian Tom Holland once said “the concept of original sin keeps us all honest” and I think that is right. We are enabled to look with compassion on those who have done wrong if we recall our own frequent wrongdoings. Scarcely a day goes by without some public, semi-public or totally private figure being sacrificed for the crime of having committed an -ism or a phobia or of being in possession of a toxicity. Jobs are lost, reputations are ruined, families are put under intolerable strain because people without any sort of personal sense of sin relentlessly attack others who intentionally or accidentally have said or done the wrong thing. Certainly wrongdoing should have consequences, but the consequences that we would desire to be inflicted upon us for our wrongdoing should be the same as those we wish to inflict upon others for their transgressions.
“But that’s different!” we might argue. An -ism, phobia or toxicity can only proceed from bigots and hateful people, individuals with a fundamentally wrong orientation. We, by contrast, are well intentioned. Our faults are out of character, their faults are their character. This, of course, is a self-serving defence which rests upon an arbitrary distinction. We cannot separate actions from motivations. They are racist for a reason, we lie for a reason; that reason in both cases may be a desire to gain for the Self an immediate material benefit of some sort. They have acted as they have because just like us they are vulnerable to pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. This is the true equality that binds us together, as humans we share the capacity for evil and if things had been (or will be) slightly different for us then our capacity would be actual and not merely potential.
What Christians call ‘a sense of sin’ or more acutely ‘a conviction of sin’ serves a useful social function. It continually calls to mind our flaws and imperfections, our need for forgiveness. The revolt against Christianity of the 1960’s looked upon these things as morbid and in need of consignment to the dustbin of history. Yet without such an awareness of our own brokenness how can we find it in ourselves to be compassionate and forgiving to others? And without mutual forgiveness and understanding how can societies flourish and families be at peace one with another? Humility is the fruit of a sense of sin, it is a knowledge of ourselves of being less wise and less good and less beautiful than we at times imagine ourselves to be. The time has more than come, I think, to make humility great again.
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The picture, Hopeful advises Temporary, is from an illustration by W.J. Linton Jr. to The Pilgrim’s Progress