Celebrating Past Beauty (5)
Paul Ramsey Article (2)
Make no mistake, Mr. Ramsey had a partisan position with regard to participation in World War II — he was for it. However, the means by which he pressed his point of view could hardly be more different than those used by today’s Progressive Christians. For, nowhere in Mr. Ramsey’s article will you find accusations of mental illness in his opponents manifested as a “phobia.” Nor will you find dark intimations of evil motives due to some sort of “ism.” Finally, you will not find all of the talking points for his secular political position cobbled together with a throwaway reference to Jesus in order to claim that the piece is Christian.
What you will find is a profound meditation on the nature of the human condition in general and sin in particular. Along the way he will acknowledge truth and error on both sides of the debate. But the essential fact here is that Mr. Ramsey seeks to convince those in disagreement or on the fence by the quality of his arguments. That is, he treats those not or not yet on his side as moral and intellectual equals.
By his own words Mr. Ramsey is in disagreement with “Liberal Protestantism” on the issue at hand. His opponents apparently were scandalized by the fact that prosecution of the war required people to engage in unrighteous acts. Of this there can be no dispute, and Mr. Ramsey does not attempt to do so. Rather, he points out that by so completely focusing on sin as “unrepentant unrighteousness” they fall prey to the less obvious but far more dangerous and destructive sin of “unrepentant righteousness.”
The departure point for this argument is Christ’s words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34). For, this greatest sin (perhaps excepting the “unforgivable sin”) was done entirely by people who believed that their motives were righteous. For the Jewish leaders they were stopping a false Messiah. For the Romans they were maintaining peace. Mr. Ramsey’s point is that Christ’s words were not only applicable to that specific case, but are true in general. Here is the key excerpt.
Do we not here recognize that sin and responsibility may vary inversely, rather than directly, with consciousness, so that greater sincerity actually means greater sin? Our own responsible and sinful implication in social institutions must already extend far out beyond the range of our conscious participation, else on what grounds do we make ourselves more consciously sinful by making ourselves more sensitive to the grinding, impersonal results of our common life? And when we are stabbed sharply awake to evil results that have followed from one of our actions, which we certainly did not “intend that way,” should this not give us pause, and bring the reflection that it is not just in this case that we sin not knowing what we do.
Mr. Ramsey’s point is not that, because sin consists of “unrepentant righteousness” then there is no need to be concerned about “unrepentant unrighteousness.” Rather, it is to argue that by making an idol of our righteousness we can end up participating in greater sinfulness.
Before God, unrepentant unrighteousness and unrepentant righteousness come to the same thing; and an indication that they are judged alike by God is the fact that in history they come in time to the same thing, namely, cruelty. This is the Cross in History from which also, in the light of the Cross of Christ, we learn that man’s deepest sin lies in an unrepentant righteousness that knows not the sin for which it is responsible.
How then, if we must admit that we sin both in our unrighteousness and righteousness, can we avoid becoming incapable of any act or thought lest we thereby sin? Mr. Ramsey’s answers are:
More fundamental than sorrow for our past sins is a repentant faith which in acting nevertheless waits for the Lord to complete by His Divine Providence the goodness of our finite actions, and which still trusts Him when in His Divine Judgment our action is thwarted and rejected. If we are to be truly forgiven, truly the Father must forgive us.
By the action of God in history, the sinfulness of human actions is judged and corrected, and the goodness of human action saved and incorporated in the Divine Will. Since our judgment about what is good is always infected by our sinful righteousness, the act of God in history always has, in relation even to the best of us, an aspect of “otherness,” of being beyond the good and evil of our own mixed, self-defensive human judgments. When we do think we know the will of God for our time, our wills are strengthened, either to do or not to do, by a course of events utterly beyond our control. After each event we must always confess that we have been acted upon more than we have acted, that we have been changed more than we have changed anything, and that the ideals with which we began have not been realized in reality so much as they have been transformed to accord more with reality. By grace are we saved!
Although Mr. Ramsey’s prose does not achieve the heights of beauty discovered by Mr. Lincoln and Rev. Edwards, it yet is beautiful. Its beauty lives in the lovely, humble and trusting manner in which he connects our fallen lives on this earth with the judgement and grace found only in God. And, he meets a great human need by helping those brave but conflicted souls who found themselves called to oppose great evil to bear that terrible responsibility within the context of their Christian faith.