“All too late, experience has taught me that we should not evaluate people by their vices but, on the contrary, by what they have kept intact and pure, by what there is still left in them of childhood, however deep we have to search for it.”
I discovered this quote from French novelist George Bernanos in Fr. Donald Haggerty’s penetrating spiritual book, Conversion. I’m particularly struck by the way Bernanos presses the issue: when it comes to people who are easy to dislike or even hate, we must evaluate them by what goods they still possess, though the search may be deep and the effort distasteful.
I have much to learn here. But if we are to take seriously Christ’s reminder that we’ll be judged in the same manner that we judge others, then we must start by looking for what’s right in everybody, especially opponents who seem to be misjudging us. Our divisive times offer a golden opportunity to do just that.
This truth was hammered home by the novel I’ve been reading alongside Haggerty’s work, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. The setting for this book (chosen, along with his novel The Heart of the Matter as one of TIME magazine’s hundred best English-language novels since 1923) makes our current political moment look like Candyland.
And it reveals, as only a good novel can, the gradual way our souls can come to love our enemies.
In 1917, Mexico’s government outlawed Catholicism in a backlash of opposition to Spanish and French interference with Mexican independence.
Staunchly anticlerical, President Plutarco Elías Calles, elected in 1924, increased the persecution against Catholics by enforcing the 1917 Constitution and enacting new legislation that destroyed religious orders and deprived priests of basic civil liberties including the right to trial by jury and the right to vote.
That sounds a bit more hostile than the situation American Christians find themselves in today. Greene’s novel takes place in the same time period as the Cristero War portrayed in the 2012 film For Greater Glory.
The book’s main character is an alcoholic (“whiskey”) priest who is hunted by an atheistic, passionately socialist lieutenant. The priest, though a thoroughly undesirable representative of the Church, is nonetheless attempting to fulfill his duties despite his soul’s own doubts.
Greene, a complicated Catholic convert who took Thomas the Doubter as his patron saint, is unblinkingly fair to each of his characters.
That’s what separates his fiction from Christian propaganda. The lieutenant sincerely believes eliminating faith from his countrymen is a good thing, and Greene’s description of the man’s inner dialog articulates Catholicism’s problems with an accuracy that can make a true believer flinch.
The lieutenant is out to kill the whiskey priest for the sake of a revolution he believes will better his country. He has been hurt by churchmen. His violent, totalitarian tactics are intended to create justice for children in the next generation.
In an encounter with the priest (whom he hasn’t yet recognized) the lieutenant says, “You are getting too old for work,” pressing a five peso piece into the priest’s hand.
The priest held the coin in his fist. The price of a Mass. He said with astonishment, “You’re a good man.”
You’re a good man.
Our country experienced a temporary ceasefire in “the war of the words” when President George H.W. Bush was laid to rest this past week. Many of his political enemies were able to call Bush “a good man.”
Yet even a few self-proclaimed Christians decried the respect offered as not enough. Some used the occasion to snicker at the body language of the presidents seated on the preferential front row of the funeral. Others (on both sides of the political spectrum) saw fit to question the reverential tone their opponents used in the moment of national mourning.
This addiction to ridicule, this judgment of persons rather than ideas, is diminishing the dignity of us all. Click To Tweet
A beautiful, alternate possibility is offered by Greene as he develops an inner transformation in the whiskey priest’s heart. Just before he is able to recognize good in the lieutenant who is trying to kill him, he overcomes his personal distaste for a pious woman he meets in jail.
“When you visualized a man or woman carefully,” the priest realizes, “you could always begin to feel pity–that was a quality God’s image carried with it.”
When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.
How we need to ponder the possibility that hate is a failure of imagination, a failure to consider the souls of people who, regardless of how distasteful they appear or misguided their ideas or behavior in a given moment may be.
Do we think we’re doing anyone good with our ridicule?
On the contrary, when we ridicule others we are acting as if they were not made in the image of God, as if they have no soul at all.
We’re not acting as Christians, no matter what we call ourselves.
Haggerty suggests that conversion of the heart overcomes hasty judgment:
When we do not really love, is it because our relations with people have become something of an exercise in abstract thought? Is this not what every form of shallow judgment is–to analyze, classify, categorize persons, to arrive at rapid conclusions after contact with external features?
This Advent, as we prepare our hearts for Christmas, we might ask the coming King to heal our shriveled imaginations and deliver us from the temptation to ridicule and hate, no matter how we feel about the ideology others profess.
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One of my favorite discoveries of the past year has been the rich conversation on the CiRCE Institute’s Close Reads podcast (CiRCE also produces The Daily Poem). I would be remiss if I didn’t share that this episode greatly enhanced my understanding of The Power and the Glory, but I highly recommend them all.
One never knows when a soul who opposes faith may “suddenly” embrace Christ. See Deathbed Conversions and the Power of God’s Persistent, Patient Call.
For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada (Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria) is a beautiful film portraying the violence that followed Mexico’s anticlerical laws in the 1920’s and the heroism of those who fought for their faith.
Featured photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash. Graham Greene by Bassano Ltd. courtesy of Wikipedia.