Last week, I had a piece on The Federalist about the destigmatization of racism. In it, I argued that despite the way we have been raised to think of racism as the ultimate evil—the closest thing to a moral absolute that most progressives will admit to—that term is losing its rhetorical force. The blatantly self-serving way in which the left uses the word actually removes it from the moral arena altogether. They redefine it so that it can only be applied to whites, try to make it a matter of privilege, and constantly cry about it as though they were some kind of Frankenstein hybrid of Chicken Little and the Boy who cried Wolf.
Well, this post you’re reading now is only loosely related to that piece, but I bring it up because there was a tangential response in the comments section that caught my eye. Though his tone suggested that the commenter is a troll (which is why I didn’t respond there,) I did think the question he raised was ethically interesting.
One element of my argument was the effect that our current morass of microaggressions has on how seriously we perceive racism. I wrote, “When ‘racism’ primarily describes the trivial and the innocuous it becomes absurd to consider racism consequential and injurious.” The commenter applied that analysis to some of Jesus’ teachings—specifically, those places in the Sermon on the Mount where He tells us the extent of the Law:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
In saying such things, did Jesus make “sin” as mushy and irrelevant a term as “racism” has become? Did he turn it into a shallow excuse for a guilt trip rather than a serious issue? The answer, of course, is “no,” but the difference lies in a very important distinction that those of us in the Lutheran tradition would call the Two Kinds of Righteousness.
One of these kinds is righteousness coram mundo—before the world—which refers to being a good person in the sight of others. This is just the basic, practical kind of judgment required for having a healthy civilization on Earth—recognizing the helpful neighbor, the good father, the upstanding citizen, and so forth. When we’re talking about righteousness coram mundo, there are good guys and bad guys, and if most of us are to live in relative peace and prosperity, it means that the bad guys need to lose and the good guys win on a fairly regular basis. As is the case with most social commentary, my article was written entirely in terms of righteousness coram mundo—intended to explore the way that anti-racism has become a farce which does not serve the public welfare. Indeed, I believe that it has become more dangerous than racism is.
The other kind is righteousness coram deo—before God—which refers to being a good person in the sight of the Creator Himself. It is in terms of this kind of righteousness that Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount. He does not suggest that we try and forge a society in which all micro-lusts and micro-murders are purged away. Even a cursory glance at human history will reveal what an astoundingly bad idea that kind of Utopian vision would be. What Jesus is saying, however, is that righteousness coram mundo does us no good coram deo. It should not be terribly controversial to suggest that God has higher standards than we do. This is not to say that He has an entirely different Law to which we are bound but not privy, but rather that God’s idea of being a good person goes far deeper than ours does. So deep, in fact, that coram deo, there are no good guys at all.
And why shouldn’t God’s standard be higher than ours? I am well within my rights to expect that my neighbor refrain from sleeping with my wife. However, being what I am, how can I expect him to refrain from having a lustful thought about her? It would be the height of hypocrisy to demand that from him because I could never live up to it myself. Nevertheless, God, being who He is, has no such restriction. He is not “pretty good for a 20th century American,” but Goodness Himself in person. And Goodness wants what is good for those He loves—something that is better than being a decent fellow.
Because there is still something seriously wrong with merely being a decent fellow.
After all, most people I know would consider me to be one, and yet… When I first moved to Iowa, I had a terrible time trying to get my internet working—a pretty big deal to me because I work from home. Every time it went out (and it was common), it took a week before the would send a technician to look at the problem. Sometimes they could identify the problem and not fix it because they had fewer tools than technicians, and they had to share. Sometimes they came by, fixed it, then accidentally broke it again before they left without checking, at which point I had to wait another full week before I could get a technician back out. Even though this happened literally ever time, their managers and technicians said those kinds of waits were so rare that it would be statistically impossible for me to have experienced it so much. If it weren’t for my wife’s grandparents who allowed me to borrow their internet during the days, I would have been out of a job. I ultimately had to upgrade to their business service and pay more money for less speed just so that I could get adequate support.
All this made me angry—very angry. There were times when I wanted to reach through the phone and strangle the people who were lying to me, downplaying my concerns, and yet somehow satisfied with their own ridiculous behavior. From what I hear, that does not seem to be a terribly uncommon feeling when dealing with cable companies, and so coram mundo, it’s not a big deal. But one troubling fact remains: I seriously wanted to hurt people simply because my internet was out. I didn’t act on that desire, of course. I never even considered acting on it. But I wanted to. I really wanted to. Sometimes, thinking back on what incompetent wretches they are, I still want to.
What does that mean in terms of righteousness coram mundo? Not much. It means that civilization has done its job of restraining my baser impulses. I did not hurt my neighbors or my community, and while I was upset, in the grand scheme of things, it passed fairly quickly. No harm, no foul, so I’m still basically good.
But there’s a lot more to it that my neighbors simply have no right to comment on. Consider how often all of us treat our spouses poorly, or disobeyed our parents growing up, or are rude to cashiers for no fault of their own, or tell tiny lies to make ourselves look better (or to make someone we don’t like look bad,) or fail to help the needy around us, etc, etc etc. The list of peccadilloes goes on and on, and while my neighbors have no right to call me out about it, God does. Indeed, how can He not when the sheer prevalence of these peccadilloes suggests that there is something deeper that’s wrong with me—with all of us? Is being pretty good because civilization usually buries our worst impulses really what humans are supposed to be?
And yet, as I’ve already mentioned, we cannot root our all the micro-lusts, micro-murders, micro-lies, and every other micro-sin. When we try, we just make things worse by sacrificing greater goods like freedom, love, and justice to root out the lesser evils. In this way, these two kinds of righteousness are central to the Christian religion. There are all sorts of philosophies, traditions, and systems that can make civilization better, but there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves genuinely good. For that, we need God. And He delivered by becoming one of us—paying humanity’s debt and being truly good in our stead—so that by dying and rising with Him, we can be made truly good as well.
So no, Jesus is not reducing sin to an absurdity by what he says about lust and wrath. He is merely reminding us of the whole picture when we are so prone to judge ourselves merely in terms of each other.