“We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.”
Edwin Muir was a Scottish poet, raised on farms on the Orkney Islands, whose family fell apart when they moved to the slums of Glasgow in 1901. They were forced off their farm by high rents, but the move to Glasgow proved even more devastating. Within five years, Muir’s mother, father, and two brothers were dead. Muir himself — who went on to become one of the most respected translators, poets, and critics of the mid-twentieth century — likened the transition to being born and raised in the eighteenth century and suddenly finding himself in the twentieth. “When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days' journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time.”
That fascination with time and our movements through it, forward in hope and turning back in memory, characterized his poetry, which he came to rather late in life. In “The Good Town,” a poem that describes a town where no one had to lock their doors, Muir reveals how drastically it changed after two wars.
The soldiers came back from the First World War, maimed and ragged, to find the countryside divided up, the roads crooked, the light falling strangely. But after the second war the houses that sprang up from the rubble looked like prisons, families and friends were scattered, and all that was good and kind was thrown away. “How could our town grow wicked in a moment?” he laments.
His answer is that in the past the townspeople were swayed to follow good leaders; now “the bad are up…And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff / Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can / In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.” He closes with the epigram quoted above, and adds, “Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace / Look at it well. This was the good town once.”
The disappointment and regret evident in his tone might be dismissed as simple nostalgia for a past that can only stand in the way of progress, except that it stands as a warning just as relevant today as he thought it to be in the early fifties: how to fight evil without becoming evil?
In the good town, people went about their lives without much thought given to how their town might devolve into fear and suspicion. In the absence of threat, families took up their responsibilities and cared for others when needed. Vigilance for such freedoms was not pressing because everyone followed, more or less, the example of conscientious people.
But therein lay the weakness, Muir seems to say. Most of us simply follow those who lead, happy in the confidence that they will solve — or at least deflect — problems which we would have to face without them. But when the bonds of community evaporate and the corrupt and cunning thrust themselves into power, we must suddenly “ape them as we can,” either in “sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.”
Muir’s warning takes us to task for our naiveté, while mourning the loss of good will that made life peaceful and harmonious.
Recently, an incident was reported in national news in which a couple who wanted to rent a facility for their marriage ceremony and reception were denied on the grounds that the prospective groom was black, and his fiancée was white. The owner explained that the Bible did not condone mixed-race marriages and thus she would not rent the facility to the couple. The groom’s sister asked for clarification, but the woman refused to elaborate. It was simply part of her Christian belief.
The video of the exchange between them, while civil and restrained, went viral. In the aftermath of a wave of outrage, the woman and her husband issued an apology. Having been raised in Mississippi, it was her belief, she maintained, that such marriages were condemned by the Bible. However, her pastor had helped her to understand, she said, that the Bible does not condemn or prohibit bi-racial marriages. She and her husband were sincerely sorry.
When I read this account, my immediate reaction was to condemn outright such obvious racism being justified by the Bible in the name of Christianity. It was yet another example of an agenda fueled by inbred prejudice, an assumption of white superiority, and a grievance reflex in which evangelicals believe their religious freedoms are in jeopardy. Added to that was the unthinking assumption that one’s dominant culture — in this case white Southern culture — was somehow ordained by God in the natural order of things, and that Christians who questioned or refused to honor that order were disobedient to God’s law as outlined in the Bible.
Then I began to reflect on my reaction. It was not that I regretted it or questioned my beliefs. They sprang into light spontaneously and I knew they were genuine. What I began to wonder about was if my reaction was a mere accident of geography.
If I had been raised in that woman’s culture in the South, growing up with legalized and socially acceptable discrimination and racism, would I have questioned those embedded assumptions? She looked like somebody’s grandmother, the kind who bakes cookies and keeps an immaculate house — hardly the face of evil. Nevertheless, I felt a surge of anger and impatience. In order to suffer from cognitive dissonance, you need to be engaged in cognition. Would I have felt that dissonance, now so evident, had I grown up in the sixties in Mississippi?
Where I did grow up — in the foothills above the Napa Valley in Northern California — my private Christian college was only fully integrated in the early seventies, when a group of African American graduates from a Christian academy in Oakland came to campus. It wasn’t that there was an official policy barring them, it was rather that they did not feel welcomed or respected.
With numbers comes strength; one of those young men ran for Student Association president in his sophomore year and won. Gradually, attitudes began to change, and friendships developed. But if those African American teenagers hadn’t questioned the status quo, those embedded assumptions, how long might it have taken for understanding and acceptance to flourish?
We Christians are too easily satisfied with our cultural assumptions. We are living in a country founded upon some of the highest ideals in human history. But the tragic fact is that those ideals, in order to be fully realized, were made possible by our original sin of systemic racism. Freedom, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness — all of them were premised on the foundation stones of slavery, prejudice, and discrimination. We are enmeshed in this historical legacy.
“The unbelief of believers,” wrote Thomas Merton in 1968, “is amply sufficient to make God [appear] repugnant and incredible.” In words startlingly current, he writes, “A ‘Christian nationalist’ is one whose Christianity takes second place, and serves to justify a patriotism in whose eyes the nation can do no wrong…The pastors themselves tend to look to the state as a font of divine decisions in the practical order. All dissent in the civil sphere thereby automatically becomes a religious betrayal and a spiritual apostasy.”
“Rust never sleeps,” sang Neil Young, and we may be sure prejudice and racism never do either. Christians are no strangers to it — it was there from the beginning and it nearly tore the nascent Jewish Christian community apart. It took a strange and disturbing vision for Peter to put behind him centuries of ceremonial religious exclusivism toward all those outside his heritage. Peter, the disciple most likely to get things right about Jesus, was also the one who could show spectacular obtuseness when stretched beyond his norms. Yet, it is Peter, together with John, who responds later to authorities with the words, “Is it right in God’s eyes for us to obey you rather than God? Judge for yourselves. We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19,20).
And what had he seen? Jesus constantly challenging the cultural norms against women, against the poor, against the weak and dispossessed, against the established means for grasping and preserving power. What had he heard? Jesus, setting his face toward Jerusalem and his death, turning to the disciples on the road to say, “What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? What can he give to buy that self back?” (Mark 8:36, 37).
“What matters,” suggests Merton, “is not simply to set conformity over against dissent, to call the one evil and the other good, and be satisfied with that.” In a way that requires patience and humility, it is not enough for the dissenter to accuse and condemn, but “after showing the need for spiritual awakening and constructive analysis, to break open the way to dialogue and keep it open.”
Edwin Muir was right to be dismayed that good people can become crooked while fighting against crookedness. But he was off the mark to assume that neither the “good” nor the “evil” can change.
All of us fall short of the glory God sees in us, but none of us is beyond redemption.
Notes & References:
 Muir, “The Good Town,” 161.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Unsplash
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