The Lower Demons of Our Nature

By Max Bindernagel
October 15, 2018

Like Justice Brett Kavanaugh, I too was educated by the Jesuits.  For many of us who claim that distinction, there is a well-known section – worthy now of particular attention – of the Spiritual Exercises, the thirty-day retreat outlined 500 years ago by the order’s founder, Ignatius of Loyola.  Before he enters the substance of the retreat, Ignatius suggests that especially, though not exclusively, in the context of spiritual direction, a “good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.”  If this proves difficult, one ought to ask the person to clarify his words.  Only then should one correct another – and even then, only “in love.”

Ignatius here names one instance in which God’s grace ought to transform the otherwise normal “ways of the world.”  If humans tend by sinful nature towards violence, scapegoating, and hatred, then insofar as there is an infusion of grace, a new order of peace, reason, and justice ought to reign among those grafted onto Christ in baptism.

Ignatius discerns one such manifestation: if the usual course of our instincts would lead us to exploit another’s words or use them as weapons against him, Christians ought actively to seek the good intentions behind another’s words, however wrongheaded or offensive they might appear at first glance.  This is a basic precondition for any authentic communion or dialogue.  Put somewhat crudely, Christian charity demands giving another the benefit of the doubt, and in so doing, moreover, you might actually learn something from another person.  

Beautiful though this lofty calling may be, its political ramifications are not always clear.  Those among the Founding Fathers who believed in the operations of a benevolent divine providence knew also that, while a Jesuit priest giving a retreat might reasonably presume that his listeners would cooperate with God’s grace, an enduring political order could not be established on the supposition that its citizens would do the same.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” writes James Madison in Federalist 51.  A government run by men and over men is more complicated.  
 
The Founders were wise, knowing both the pits and the peaks of which human nature is capable.  Not only can human beings revert to injustice and mob violence, but, for the sake of its stability, a good government must be established on the assumption that, given the opportunity, humans inevitably will. Literature explores this facet of human nature to great effect; we read everything from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with mixed fascination and horror.  We ought to recognize something of ourselves in Madame Defarge, casually knitting knots for each head that roles off the guillotine, whenever we delight in a celebrity’s downfall or gloat over the public condemnation of our adversary.  
 
Without a citizenry which to a person strives for the good, certain political mechanisms can avail in preserving liberty and checking tyranny.  One such mechanism is the criminal court and the guarantee of a trial by jury.  In Jackson’s short story, killings are regular and random, done for the sake of some unnamed tradition or perhaps as a collective, arbitrary catharsis.  The wise know that this desire in man cannot be suppressed, but rather must be channeled towards the higher good of justice (a sublimation beautifully mythologized by Aeschylus in his Oresteia).  Society can and indeed should dole out punishment, but in a way that is lawful, proportional, and only towards those actually guilty of a crime.  Absent such respect for the law, mob violence is the rule, and the only court is the court of public opinion.  The preservation of liberty means attending to the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln said, and this only comes with reverence for the rule of law.   
 
For all Americans, therefore, public life demands the virtue of humility under many species: the humility of deferring certain feuds to the court system, the humility of accepting the rulings of those courts, and the humility to resist turning the legal process into a public spectacle.  This last form of humility is particularly difficult today since media and news outlets discovered during the O.J. Simpson trial that public spectacles are unsurprisingly both popular and profitable.  
 
Nevertheless, a good civic education ought to combat such base instincts and draw us towards higher, more noble virtues as citizens.  The delight we take in public blood sport ought to give way to a disinterested yet eager thirst for truth and justice, coupled with the courageous humility to acknowledge when we do not have the answers.
 
But for those of us Americans who are also Christians, even more is demanded.  We must heed the demands of charity, always presuming the good in our neighbor’s words and actions.  We must actively work for the good of others, especially the dejected and even the stranger.  Our words about others, whether public or private, spoken or written, become conduits of God’s grace – or impediments thereof.  As Augustine attempted to cover his eyes at the gladiatorial games, we are given a choice between delighting in the spectacle of another’s humiliation or averting our eyes and instead looking at the world with the mind of Christ.
 
What was lamentable about the Kavanaugh hearings was that few people if any attended to these civil and religious obligations – and the fact that the Judiciary Committee is not a criminal court makes little difference here.  Spectators watched Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh alike become pawns in the hands of politicians, the media, and a bitterly divided American populace eager to see a good public hanging.  There is no scenario in which the hearings could have precipitated the happiness of either party involved.  It is doubtful that either found justice or closure, but both will receive more glances at the grocery store for the rest of their foreseeable lives – the public and partisan nature of this battle guaranteed as much.  
 
Perhaps this is all we can expect from human nature, but I do hope that Americans will hold themselves to a higher standard, if not through the grace of a religious conversion then at least by a civic conversion.  As an American, I for one must withhold personal judgment on criminal accusations of which I have little if any real knowledge and refrain from stirring up public sentiments which frustrate impartiality and justice.  As a Christian, I am compelled to shun malice of any kind, and to pray for both accuser and accused.  
 
My father once worked security at Charlie Sheen’s show when his tour came to our hometown.  This was at the time when Sheen was going through his very public and very dramatic downward spiral.  My father said the crowd was unusual for the venue, known for hosting operas and musicals.  But he eventually perceived the common denominator among the motley attendees: people had come to see a man at his worst.  The entertainment value was not in the substance of the performance, which had been poorly reviewed, but in watching a man’s life spin out of control.
 
Surely the American people can do better.