Dangers of National Repentance, Lewis

The idea of national repentance seems at first sight to provide such an edifying contrast to the national self-righteousness of which England is so often accused and with which she entered (or is said to have entered) the last war, that s Christian naturally turns to it with hope. You Christians especially — last-year undergraduates and first year curates — are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the built for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England. What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine. Most of these young men were children, and none of them had a vote or the experience which would enable them to use a vote wisely, when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?

If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society. When we speak of England’s actions we mean the actions of the British Government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbor. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement if gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing— but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ’they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, not to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the Cabinet, whiner we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’

Such an escape from personal repentance into that tempting region
Where passions have the privilege to work
And never hear the sound of their own names (Wordsworth, The Prelude)

would be welcome to the moral cowardice of anyone. But it is doubly attractive to the young intellectual. When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies, he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an educated man who is not in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of this less-educated fellow countrymen. All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But ‘my enemy’ primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate and traduce. If you listen to young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names — Colonel Bimp and ’the business man’. I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker’s father, but that is speculation. What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion. I do not mean that what you are asking them is not right and necessary in itself; we must forgive all our enemies or be damned. But it is emphatically not the exhortation which your audience needs. The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class — its contempt of the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public oblique, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have hear nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue.

— C.S. Lewis, Dangers of National Repentance, God in the Dock

Advertisements

One thought on “Dangers of National Repentance, Lewis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s