I have long been suspicious of causes. It’s not that I don’t think there are noble causes. Obviously, there are — anti-slavery, civil rights, and environmentalism are just a few notable examples. And I suppose I can be included, in a small way, among those who espouse anti-consumerism. But I remain deeply suspicious of causes and even more so of religious ones.
What makes me suspicious about causes isn’t their goals but their effect on people. I have in my experience encountered people who on the one hand embody all that is admirable about the cause they champion, and on the other hand treat abominably those who disagree with their cause or just don’t show sufficient enthusiasm. There’s something about causes that makes it easier for us to dehumanize others. The idea becomes more important and in some ways more real than people, so that as long as we can define the other as the enemy that excuses us from having to treat them civilly. The cause justifies giving fuller rein to our hostilities, anger, and tendency to devalue those whom we don’t love. Facebook is full of such sentiments, a fine example of this being those on the British Left, who happily created memes denigrating Theresa May in vulgar and sexist language. Many on the Right here used equally intemperate language to describe Diane Abbott and her less than stellar performances during the recent campaign. The American political scene does not lack similar examples.
When causes and religion are combined, the levels of self-righteousness and animus too often increase exponentially. If secular causes can justify reveling in the darker side of human nature, adding God into the mix only makes it worse. What behavior can’t I explain away if I’m convinced that God is on my side and that I’m among the few who are on his?
Given my background within the various causes that have riven Anglicanism, I have seen such awful behavior among those for and against women’s ordination and on both sides of the issues of human sexuality. The absurdity of such religious animus can also be seen in the invective employed in discussing such weighty matters as clerical vesture, styles of worship, or forms of spirituality. To put it bluntly, the Church is full of people championing (in their view) the noblest of ideals but who feel exempt on that account from the basic requirement to be decent human beings. And so we resemble less the forecourt of the heavenly Jerusalem and more the lobby of a secular legislature, with each of us a member of a competing interest group.
I think it’s the rare saint who can both feel passionately about a cause and resist treating others badly. I’ve known a few and respect them all the more for it. But ordinarily there’s something about our fallen nature that makes it hard for us to champion an idea or sentiment and still treat everyone with moderation, respect, and love. In fact, the nature of causes is such that they dispose us to downplay the failings of our allies while exaggerating those who oppose us. And if you seem to have betrayed the cause, even devoted pacifists begin to reach for long knives.
What is it that makes us this way? Sin, certainly. Pride comes into play, as does fear. Humanity regularly demonstrates itself eager to be excused from having to treat others decently, and causes do that well. Power is also an important factor in often complex ways — for example, fear of the loss of power can reduce people to the same state of hostility as those who feel oppressed and denigrated by those in power. And almost invariably causes resort to violence, be that actual physical violence, intimidation, violent language and images, or even the sanctioned violence of the legislature. In this respect, the Internet is one of the most violent places we can encounter.
Such violence arises because we long for the power to impose whatever we champion on everyone else. After all, who may stand in the way of righteousness? We can’t stand that others are resisting us, not least because we often decide that they’re too benighted to see the light. If I can’t reason with you, then isn’t my only recourse the use of force for the greater good?
Causes, whatever their failings, have often been necessary. I don’t dispute that, even if I think we too readily downplay how violent and inhumane some of their champions were. At times, the horror of what we confront outweighs the human ugliness our cause encourages. Few of us would care to have shared the company of John Brown, even if we excuse his approach to confronting the horror of Southern slavery. But I’m less convinced that this describes the majority of our causes, especially many of those that foment in the Church. There, the level of mutual invective strikes me as rising far beyond the good that people claim to promote or the evil they resist. One suspects that the world is more likely to sigh, See how these Christians detest one another, than to echo Tertullian’s famous boast.
What the Church needs, therefore, isn’t more champions of causes, even of the right sort of causes. What the Church needs is simply more decent, good, and kind people. The Church needs clergy and active laity who can stand apart from causes — even the ones they believe in passionately — long enough to walk alongside others from every kind of life. The Church needs clergy and laity who’ll devote themselves to doing what we have always done best (or, at least, at our better moments): simply loving people in their needs and being with them in their trials, their joys, and even the mundane moments of everyday life. This requires confidence in the Christ we proclaim, generosity of spirit, humility, and compassion.
Key to this, I believe, is a rediscovery of the cure of souls, except now as a responsibility that is shared among members — lay and ordained — of the Church. What I mean by this is that we promote routine and devoted pastoral care over and against being part of the various causes that mark our world. We demonstrate our identity in Christ primarily by being everything to all people, especially those whom we’re assumed to dislike.
I see little evidence on social media that Christians, let alone clergy, provide any greater wisdom and insight to the great causes. But I have often seen Christians demonstrate to others the love of God that can’t be found elsewhere. The all-embracing and reconciling love of God is what ultimately will transform this world, and has already overcome the world through the cross.
Participating in that kind of ministry is a cause that even I can get behind.