Adventures in Theology--The Moral Theology of the Devil and the Antidote of Mercy

If you asked ten people on the street whether the word "mercy" has a positive or negative connotation, I suspect you would get either nine or ten votes for "positive."  You would think that if you changed venues from the street to the inside of a Catholic church on Sunday, you would be guaranteed ten out of ten positive votes.  After all, "Blessed are the merciful," the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, etc.  You would think.

On the other hand, judging from the comments sections of Catholic publications, you might think again.  A few weeks ago, Pope Francis announced a Jubilee "Year of Mercy."  Again, you would think this rank up there with being in favor of Mom and apple pie on the non-controversial scale, but there is a dedicated segment of people that are against the idea of expanding or widening or broadening or whatever the mercy of the Church (or, more accurately, the mercy of God as communicated by the Church).  The concern, these folks suggest, is that all this talk of mercy must be prefaced, both rhetorically and in practice, with an absolutely strict insistence on public disavowal of any and all behavior that violates Catholic moral theology.  Mercy, in this view, is contingent upon, and subordinate to, public acceptance of all of the moral rules of Catholicism.  Otherwise, this "mercy" is at best "cheap grace" (whatever that means) and at worse the beginning of the collapse of Catholicism and Christianity as a whole.

What's really going on here?  Remember, Francis has changed exactly zero moral theological "rules," so it cannot be the case that these folks are reacting to any specific policy proposal.  Instead, it seems the very notion of mercy itself is the problem.  But, again, that seems weird.  Who is against mercy?

I have a theory, which is that Francis's emphasis on mercy is a challenge to a view of Catholicism (and, by extension, Christianity) that defines the faith in terms of a "system of goodness," a term coined by James Alison (or, at least, Alison's writing is the first time I've seen it).  If that is the case, those folks are right to be worried, and Francis is right to insist on mercy in the way he is doing.  Because, at its heart, the vision of Catholicism and Christianity as a "system of goodness" is a perverse and pernicious one, one that is contrary to the message of the Gospel.  To support this theory, I am going to draw on two sources that I have used before--Thomas Merton's essay The Moral Theology of the Devil and the work of Rene Girard--and one new one in the form of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

First, I should be clear about what I mean by "systems of goodness."  A system of goodness has two components.  First, there are a set of rules that regulate behavior, either positive ("do this, do that") or negative ("don't do this, don't do that").  Second, there is an understanding that if one follows those rules, then one is "good" and deserving of some positive reward or status (from whatever source, in whatever way is appropriate in that system), while if one does not follow the rules, then one is "bad" and deserving of some negative punishment or lack of status.

The first component, strictly in isolation, is fine, and in fact is necessary for a functioning society--there needs to be norms of behavior of some kind.  The problem is the second part, and it is problematic for a basket of related reasons that are identified in different ways by Girard and Merton.

Let's look at the Girardian side for a second.  If you have to boil down the Girardian system to one sentence, it might be that all of us are wired to exclude the other, and simultaneously all of us are wired to lie or dissemble about our exclusions.  We find the scapegoat to dump all of our mimetic rivalry on, and then we come up with reasons--something, anything--to justify why that scapegoat "really deserved it."  And the trick is that, if we are not very, very careful, we actually believe the reasons that we give for why they deserved it.

What better tool for justifying the exclusion of the other than a system of goodness?
"Don't look at me, I'm not making Those People a scapegoat; Those People are Bad.  They have violated the rules for being a Good person, and so they deserve to be cast out.  I am protecting society or my group or my church from Those Bad People, and I have the right to do that because I am one of the Good ones."

And the fact that Those Bad People are suspiciously often some discrete group that can be easily singled out for easy identification and exclusion?  Yeah, funny how that works, but what are you going to do?  The rules are the rules.  The rules show us how to be Good, and show us who is Bad.  It can't be the rules that are the problem.

Consider the American criminal justice system.  According to a 2010 survey, the incarceration rate for African-Americans in the United States is almost six times that of Caucasians.  Now, some people react to statistics like this by alleging that the decision makers in the American criminal justice system--police, prosecutors, juries, judges, lawmakers--are intentionally and knowingly racist.  Certainly, you can find some people who fit this description.  But not everyone who is a decision-maker in the system in intentionally racist.  Instead, Girard would have us see the ways in which an unreflective adoption of a system of goodness, in this case the values of "law and order" in the criminal justice system, facilitates the unconscious use of the scapegoating mechanism while preserving a good conscience.  I don't have to question my own motivations and biases, because I can foist the difficult work of determining moral responsibility off onto the system--the law is just, and so my acts are therefore just.  As long as I am following the system, I can avoid looking at how the sausage is made.

Which brings us right to Les Miserables.  The central conflict of the story is between Valjean and Javert, who really aren't all that different at the end of the day (as seen in the song "The Confrontation" in the musical/movie version)

For Javert, the law is everything, and it makes all of the concerns Valjean raises irrelevant.  Your sister is starving?  People like Fantine are faced with impossible choices?  Well, that's tragic, but ultimately what I am doing is just because I have the cover of the law.  Javert never gets to the point where he questions the laws he is enforcing, because such a question is outside of the system of goodness that the law provides.  Outside the system of goodness, the moral superstructure that props up his entire life goes away.  And, when pressed, Javert admits that his entire life is predicated on proving (to himself?) that he is not one of Those People:

Dare you talk to me of crime
And the price you had to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way
You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you!
I am from the gutter too! 

It seems to me that a Girardian approach to any set of rules, including rules of moral theology, requires us to come to any set of rules that delineates the Good from the Bad, the Legal from the Illegal, the Righteous from the Sinner, any system that divides based on behavior, with a "hermaneutic of suspicion."  It's not so much that any specific rule, or even the system of rules as a whole, is problematic; it's a recognition that those that implement those rules are going to be under a gravitational pull that tends to distort that application in the direction of bias, exclusion, and oppression.  It's also a recognition that systems of moral rules are convenient justifications for covering up that very same bias, exclusion, and oppression.  Even if the person applying the rules isn't consciously aware of what they are doing.  Or, actually, especially if the person isn't aware of what they are doing.

What is the solution to this problem?  Mercy.  If one recognizes that any system of goodness has an inherent distortion toward the marginalization and exclusion of some identifiable other, even if you can't see anything wrong in particular, it stands to reason that you are going to be inclined to give people a break.  Mercy is a corrective to the inherent problems with the way human beings implement systems of goodness.

Back to Valjean.  What is the key event in his life?  His encounter with the bishop.  Valjean steals the silver from the bishop, he gets caught, and the bishop arrives on the scene to give mercy.  The point is not that Valjean somehow "deserved" the silver after his 20 years in prison, and even if he did somehow deserve it, the bishop didn't know anything about Valjean's specific situation.  Indeed, the point is specifically that he did not deserve it.  It was an entirely gratuitous act of mercy on the part of the bishop to let Valjean have that silver.  This act allowed Valjean to step out of the system of goodness in which he would otherwise be permanently locked.  He can reinvent his life, not as one of Those People, but as one of the Good People.  Moreover, because he has been shown mercy, he is primed to show mercy to others, as seen by the Fantine/Cosette storyline.  Valjean was liberated by mercy, and thus mercy was spread to others.

That mercy cannot be contingent on and subordinate to the rules in order to do its work.  The instinct which insists on public self-criticism prior to the reception of mercy is really an insistence that a person publicly acknowledge that the system of goodness is appropriate and righteous.  "We, the Good People, will let you cross over to our team from the Bad People, but not until you recognize that the Bad People are really, in fact, Bad."  Far from undercutting this system of goodness, it actually reinforces it.  The core Girardian insight, that we need to be skeptical of the entire superstructure, is obscured.

Which, again, brings us back to Javert.  Valjean's ultimate sin, in Javert's eyes, is that he doesn't accept the "righteous" judgment of the law.  It's not OK, in Javert's view, for Valjean to be able to push the reset button on his life; that's, in a sense, cheating.  Valjean must acknowledge his "responsibility" for his crimes.  He must acknowledge that he is always and everywhere subject to a system of goodness, and there is no way to escape its power.  If mercy is a "get out of jail free" card, then such a card cannot be allowed.

But there is another dimension to systems of goodness, and here The Moral Theology of the Devil comes into the picture.  It is not simply the case that these systems of goodness are bad for the people on the "receiving end" of them, the Bad People; they are corrosive to the Good People as well.  As Merton so brilliantly explains, people caught up in this system of goodness grow to hate other people and revel in their misfortune (either here or presumably in the next life).

The theology of the devil is for those who, for one reason or another, whether because they are perfect, or because they have come to an agreement with the Law, no longer need any mercy. With them (O grim joy!) God is “satisfied.” So too is the devil. It is quite an achievement, to please everybody!

The people who listen to this sort of thing, and absorb it, and enjoy it, develop a notion of the spiritual life which is a kind of hypnosis of evil. The concepts of sin, suffering, damnation, punishment, the justice of God, retribution, the end of the world and so on, are things over which they smack their lips with unspeakable pleasure. Perhaps this is because they derive a deep, subconscious comfort from the thought that many other people will fall into the hell which they themselves are going to escape. And how do they know they are going to escape it? They cannot give any definite reason except for the fact that they feel a certain sense of relief at the thought that all this punishment is prepared for practically everyone but themselves. . . .

It sometimes happens that men who preach most vehemently about evil and the punishment of evil, so that they seem to have practically nothing else on their minds except sin, are really unconscious haters of other men. They think the world does not appreciate them, and this is their way of getting even.

Earlier in the essay, Merton makes clear that there is no room for mercy in this view.  Mercy is, again, literally the antidote for the hatred that insisting on systems of goodness generate in people.  Absent such an antidote, the hatred of Those People--especially Those People who are "getting away with it" or are receiving "cheap grace"--eats away at them.  We all, unfortunately, know of judgmental, self-righteous people who defend their orientation in terms of their religious beliefs.  These people, too, are victims of the system of goodness that they proclaim and on which they insist.  They too need mercy, just as much as the people on the "receiving end" of the system.  Maybe more.

That's why Javert, ultimately, is a tragic figure.  He was, in the end, consumed by the law that dominated his life.  Valjean escaped the prison of a system of goodness, but Javert never could, and it claimed his life.  He was destroyed by the thing that was most dear to him.  He needed to be forced to see the limitations of his system of goodness.

Once he had that, perhaps he could have stepped back and let go of his destructive need to see that others are punished, that others "get what they deserve."  He needed an experience of mercy.  But, he didn't get that--there is no equivalent to the bishop in Javert's life.  When Valjean, his great rival and (in true Girardian fashion) his double, offers him mercy, Javert can't handle it, and rejects it.  His destruction is complete.


So, back to Pope Francis and his Year of Mercy.  Is he suggesting that the Catholic Church offer "cheap grace"?  Is he suggesting that people should receive mercy whether or not they "deserve it," according to the complex rules of Catholic moral theology?  I hope so.  If he is, he is acting like the bishop in Les Miserables.  By showing mercy to the Valjeans of the world, he is creating the conditions for the spread of mercy to others.  Conditions which, hopefully, will chip away at this enormous and potentially very destructive system of goodness that the Catholic Church possesses.  That's good for those of us who are potential Valjeans, but it is just as good, if not better, for those of us who are Javerts.

The people who are complaining about cheap grace need a dose of the antidote of mercy just as much, if not more, then anyone else.   


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