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Love and Wrath

Last week some of us attended the “Mere Anglicanism” conference in Charleston, hosted by our neighbours in the Anglican diocese of Charleston. The topic was “Telling a More Beautiful Story: Lessons from C.S. Lewis on Reaching a Fractured World”. Lewis is one of the few Anglicans in the 20th century to find readers right across the theological spectrum from Roman Catholic to Evangelical (a spectrum represented in the conference speakers.) An Oxford don, and a literary historian whose work on medieval and renaissance literature remains standard in the field, he experienced a “reluctant conversion” to the Christian faith, and became (rather to the dismay of his academic colleagues) a writer of apologetics for a popular audience, with a celebrity that has only increased since his death in 1963. (“Apologetics” does not mean “apologizing” for the Christian faith but rather defending and commending it by rational persuasions.) Like countless others, I myself have a personal debt to Lewis, as the reading of his Screwtape Letters as a teenager did more than anything to bring about my own conversion. His other works – The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, to name only a few – did much to strengthen it.

The speakers at the Charleston conference were polished communicators, and if at times the curmudgeonly clergy in our party would have preferred a bit more to chew on, even they could not complain about what was said in such an accessible fashion. Some speakers discussed Lewis’ apologetic works; others sought to bring his apologetic approach to the current climate. The impressive woman director of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics bravely broached apologetics in today’s social justice culture, from a conservative Christian feminist perspective sympathetic to oppressed and abused women. As she noted, Christianity is not indifferent to injustice: the certainty that every wrongdoer will have to face an exact justice for wrongdoing, is an integral element of the Christian belief. In Christian moral teaching, as has been noted here before, love is not incompatible with justice. To the contrary, one cannot speak of God’s love without acknowledging his wrath against injustice; for the love that seeks the wellbeing of the beloved must resist all that abuses or oppresses the beloved, or it is not love at all. Love without wrath is merely sentimental enabling. An effective apologetic will thus align the gospel in authentic solidarity with women who are abused or oppressed. Not only is there justice for the offender, but there is also justice for the victim: it’s called resurrection.

To those impatient for justice now, however, I doubt this would go far enough – and this is where I would have liked the Oxford speaker to have said more. Why wait for justice yet to come instead of demanding it now? The assurance of an eternal justice for a woman who has been raped or abused may seem like another version of “pie in the sky when you die by and by”. The same demand for justice now underlies the idea that anything less than condemnation of a wrongdoer amounts to the condoning of wrongdoing, a stance that leaves little room for tolerance of other points of view, much less compassion, forgiveness, or reconciliation. This same demand for justice underlies the intolerance of other views in our present “cancel culture”, and the echo chambers, purity tests, and rotating execution squads that characterize our public discourse on moral and political issues. How can there be a compassion that is not enabling? And a justice that is not hasty and harsh? How can there be room for the tolerance of opposing views that is necessary to critical thinking? (Without tolerance for opposing views it is unlikely that once-unpopular views on equal rights for women or blacks would ever have gained credence in the first place.) Populist applause-lines and group-think are no substitute for the hard work of discerning truth.

Ironically, the judgmentalism of which Christians used to be accused is now what the social justice culture demands: and instead Christianity is accused of an enabling compassion. To say that the cost of forgiveness – the penalty of wrongdoing – has been paid on the cross is certainly true; but it is a truth unlikely to be convincing to a social-justice warrior. To my mind, a robust apologetic argument needs to establish by careful argumentation the problems of harsh judgmentalism and the need for the reconciliation of justice and compassion that is found in and through the cross – and how Christians might model this reconciliation of justice and mercy in their own responses to injustice. The Christian moral tradition has a wealth of profound reflection on this question. This is the “more beautiful story” we must learn to tell, if we expect to persuade a confused and hurting world.

This essay by Fr. Hunt was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on Feb. 5, 2023., Christ Glorified in the court of Heaven by Angelico