The Problem with “Civilized” Christianity

I’m sitting outside on my front porch, listening to the sound of rolling thunder and falling rain. It is one of my favorite things to experience, and perhaps my favorite type of weather. The rain calms me, reminding me of that poetic passage in Isaiah, “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and waters the earth… and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it might give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be… it shall not return to me void.” I love rain; but that is not the subject of this post. This post is one that is more like the thunder, the holiness of God.

As I was reading G.K. Chesterton’s grand Father Brown detective stories, I came across an interesting idea (often in these stories, Chesterton sneaks in theological quips). A criminologist was asking the old priest how he had caught so many villains, for by this time Brown was famous for his unique ability to seek out the criminal. Father Brown simply replies, “Well, you see, it’s because I murdered all those people.”

He does not mean this literally, however. What Father Brown is getting at is the fact that he can understand why someone would murder another man, why they would so desperately long after a precious stone. He compares it to a child’s desire for some sweet or candy, bringing them to point of pilfering it for themselves. When the priest is able to put himself in the thief or murderer’s position, he is able to find them with ease, saying, “If I had been in his position, and had nothing better than his philosophy, heaven alone knows what I might have done. That is just where this little religious exercise is so wholesome.”

The man he is speaking with asks him if that would give him a higher tolerance of crime. Brown goes on to say, “I know it does just the opposite. It solves the whole problem of time and sin. It gives a man his remorse beforehand… You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it.”

This brings me to the subject of this writing, the problem with civilized Christianity. By civilized I mean that type of Christianity into which we have been born today, particularly in the South of the United States, but it includes much of Western Christendom. This is not to say that anyone born into a Christian home is at odds; it is simply an idea that has been put into Christianity – or perhaps I should say “lost”.

Paul the Apostle wrote in Romans 3, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”

So often we forget that this verse applies to us. We forget the gravity of our sin; I will honestly say that I don’t think I know the weight of my own sin. We must understand that not only have we done wicked things (and if you don’t think that you have, you do not know yourself), but that we are wicked to the very core. We are all criminals, murderers, thieves, down to the depths of our hearts. Paris Reidhead aptly puts it in calling us, “Monsters of iniquity.” This is what we are, outside of grace.

This is also why Father Brown is such an effective detective. He understands this idea, that we are at heart criminals. He understands that, in such a place, we might do the very same, if not worse. In one particular case, Father Brown has just revealed to a group of “civilized” Christians that the man they thought had slain someone in a duel was actually a treacherous, cold-blooded murderer. Father Brown’s rebuke to them is thus:

“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”

“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”

“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”

He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.

“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”

“The dawn,” repeated Mallow doubtfully. “You mean hope — for him?”

“Yes,” replied the other. “Let me ask you one question. You are great ladies and men of honour and secure of yourselves; you would never, you can tell yourselves, stoop to such squalid reason as that. But tell me this. If any of you had so stooped, which of you, years afterwards, when you were old and rich and safe, would have been driven by conscience or confessor to tell such a story of yourself? You say you could not commit so base a crime. Could you confess so base a crime?”

We must remember not just who we are in grace, but who we were apart from it. This is Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 2:11 – remember who you were, that you might impart grace to those who have none. We must not proudly vaunt ourselves over and against our fellow men. We must have the words of Christ on our lips, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.”

And in all this, the rain and thunder walk run together. The thunder cries from heaven against our crimes; the rain cleansing us from them. And both come from heaven.


The two stories I referenced:


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