Chuck Colson and the evangelical idea of avoiding vice by avoiding virtue

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. — James 1:27 (NIV)

The above passage, I think, provides the key to understanding American evangelical Christianity.

For American evangelicals, the emphasis is all on that final phrase — “keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is a paramount concern for evangelicals, and one of the main ways they understand what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Keeping oneself from worldly pollution is so very important to evangelicals, in fact, that they’re extremely cautious when it comes to that other business about looking after orphans and widows in their distress. Orphans and widows tend to live in the dodgier parts of town, and we all know what goes on down there. Spend too much time in places like that and it’s all too likely that you’ll wind up getting polluted by the world.

Best to play it safe and make doubly sure that one is keeping oneself untainted by worldly pollution by only looking after the most desirable, hygienic and deserving orphans and widows.

And so, in order to preserve an unpolluted moral purity, evangelicals elevate that purity above the needs of the orphans and widows.

The irony, of course, is that being more concerned about one’s own moral purity than about others’ physical needs is exactly what James meant by becoming “polluted by the world.” His brother was very clear on that point. Jesus did not consider it “worldly” to drink with the drinkers, dine with the prostitutes and tax collectors, touch the lepers and the bleeding gentile women. His idea of “worldliness,” rather, was to be bound by a religious purity code that allowed one to pretend that it was more righteous to avoid becoming “polluted” by associating with the poor, the scandalous, the unclean, the diseased, hungry, broken, botched and bungled.

“God was not too pure to enter the world,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. “The purity of love, therefore, will not consist in keeping itself apart from the world, but will prove itself precisely in its worldly form.”

All of which brings us back to Chuck Colson’s ugly recent column. The jumping-off point for Colson’s rant accusing 99 percent of his neighbors of peasant-ish envy is this statement:

The line between clamoring for justice and envy can be very thin.

Colson’s entire column is premised on the idea that this line between justice and envy is so very thin that everyone who now claims to be “clamoring for justice” has crossed that line. Everyone crying out for justice, Colson assumes, is really just “encouraging people to indulge in a vice.”

Everyone. If he believes there are any exceptions to this, he isn’t allowing for them in his column, wherein he makes no distinction at all between calls for justice and the deadly sin of envy. Colson all-but equates justice and envy.

Colson’s discussion is also strange if you’re familiar with the traditional discussion of the seven deadly sins and the cardinal virtues. Envy is one of the former. Justice is one of the latter. For some Aquinastotelian writers, the virtues in excess would turn into vices. An excess of justice, in that view, could produce wrath.

The idea that an excessive clamoring for justice might lead to envy is a strange and novel idea of Colson’s, but where that idea leads him is more familiar territory. It leads him to the typical evangelical conclusion that purity consists in keeping apart from the world.

For Colson, the virtue of justice is dangerously close to the vice of envy. And since his idea of “religion that God accepts as pure and faultless” is all about shunning vice, he advises Christians to play it safe. Don’t pursue the virtue lest it expose you to pollution from the vice.

Colson’s ideal Christian is completely devoid of vice. And to ensure that is the case, his ideal Christian will also be — like Colson’s vicious column — completely devoid of virtue.

 

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  • Anonymous

    “Aquinastotelian” definitely needs to be a word.

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    only if you add in references to horses.

  • Anonymous

    No, that would be Equinastotelian.

  • http://jesustheram.blogspot.com/ Mr. Heartland

    No.  It needs to be a Mars Volta album. 

  • http://joshbarkey.blogspot.com/ josh barkey

    If you haven’t gotten around to Dr. Beck’s “Unclean” yet, Fred, you oughtta.

  • Anonymous

    It takes considerable mental gymnastics in order to jump from “justice” to “envy.” Which is why so few people are willing to try it, instead they are going the Glenn Beck route and claiming that the OWS wants to drag bankers out of their homes and kill them.

    But I like how it can’t even occur to someone like Chuck Colson that there might be altruistic motives behind the 99% movement. In fact, knowing Colson as I do, I find it doubtful he considers such a thing as “altruism” to exist. The peasants can’t be demanding better wages for their neighbors, because a man like Colson could never feel anything for his neighbor.

  • Anonymous

    It takes considerable mental gymnastics in order to jump from “justice” to “envy.”

    Not so hard:
    I envy those who have justice.

  • Anonymous

    My first thought when I heard about OWS was, “I’m extremely lucky to earn enough to live comfortably without working like a dog–I should join the protests so everyone else can have that too.”  Apparently this is a foreign concept to the “53%” crowd.

  • Hawker40

    “My first thought when I heard about OWS was, “I’m extremely lucky to earn enough to live comfortably without working like a dog–I should join the protests so everyone else can have that too.”  Apparently this is a foreign concept to the “53%” crowd.”This is similar to my pro-union father says: ‘I want everyone to get pay and benefits at my level, not to drag down everyone above me nor kick everyone below me.’

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I don’t think it’s true to consider guys like this as having withdrawn from worldly things at all. Chuck Colson isn’t just a priest or a pastor — he’s a lobbyist and was Special Counsel to the President of the United States. Like many right-wing Christians, his religion has completely merged with secular authority; it’s not possible for him to separate the Church from the RNC and I don’t think anyone can suggest that Colson has ever attempted to separate himself from the corruption of worldly affairs.

  • Arcaner

    I seem to recall a similar justice/envy confusion in a study of dogs doing tricks and only one of them getting treats. Now if I could just find it again. ;-)

  • Amelia

    When a poor man robs a bank he can expect to go to jail.

    When a rich man robs a bank he can expect to a quarterly bonus. 

  • Joshua Bowman

    “Aquinastotelian” wins the award for best theologico-philosophical neologistic adjective, in my book.

  • Anonymous

    “Aquinastotelian” wins the award for best theologico-philosophical neologistic adjective, in my book.

    We don’t have a lord! We’re an Aquinastotelian theologico-philosophical neologistic commune!

  • Graydon Saunders

    I think the shortest sensible response to this whole “thou shalt not covet” line of reasoning must be “thou shalt not steal”.

  • friendly reader

    I still like Luther’s interpretation (in the Large Catechism) that the “do not covet” commandment was included to keep rich people from feeling smug about never having been desperate enough to need to steal.

  • Kim

    Haha: I’ve never heard that before. I like that interpretation! It means we’re never preserved from vice by circumstances of our birth, so we’d best tackle it head on instead of curling into a tighter ball beneath the blanket of true denial.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think the situation is that Republicans who at least profess a Christian faith pretend to themselves and others that their behavior of only moving within insular Republican circles and only dealing with insular aspects of Republican culture (Fox News, etc) constitutes an acceptable means of “not being worldly or being of this world”.

    Thing is, “not being worldly” is shorthand for “don’t let Satan get to you”, and it’s easily abused. Instead of understanding it to mean obvious things like not being tempted to steal or cheat, it’s instead construed in a more subtle form but also one more insidious and dangerous to human unity: it’s assumed to mean walling yourself off from anyone who is not-you (or like-you), meaning you don’t have to interact with anyone who’s not exactly of the same political and religious circle as yours is.

    And thus is initiated the chain of reasoning that leads to justifying in one’s head that it’s OK to dismisss the very real problems ethnic minorities face (because they’re all Catholic or Muslim or one of “those” religions – i.e. they’re not-like-you) and to have a circle the wagons mentality when it comes to running the government.

  • Matri

    it’s assumed to mean walling yourself off from anyone who is not-you (or
    like-you), meaning you don’t have to interact with anyone who’s not
    exactly of the same political and religious circle as yours is.

    Well, that is the literal reading, after all.

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard ends with a confrontation between the owner and those whom he hired first. After reminding them that he paid them what he had promised them, the owner adds, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

    it’s interesting, for example, that Colson takes a parable that Jesus makes about giving ALL THE WORKERS THE SAME WAGES – where some people wanted to be paid MORE than the others – and somehow magically turns it into a so-called ‘class warfare’ issue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marshall-Pease/1324310862 Marshall Pease

    You’re tarring with a very broad brush there, friend.

  • animus

    If it weren’t for conservatives, we wouldn’t even have all these widows and orphans.

  • Dan Audy

    [blockquote]If it weren’t for conservatives, we wouldn’t even have all these widows and orphans.[/blockquote]

    I hate the republicans as much as the next reality based person frothing in a rage at their pettiness and stupidity but they aren’t to blame for the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of widows and orphans.  They get the blame for the war widows and children whose parents die due to lack of medical care but they are awful enough that there is no need to blame them for being kitten kickers too.

  • Anonymous

    I’m reminded of Serenity.  The Operative, and the Alliance he represented, wanted to create a world without sin.  In doing so, they created a world without life.  One could say they succeeded, but at the cost of genocide and creating a race of monsters.

  • Tonio

    People like Colson apparently think of virtue and vice as opposing sides, so they reduce the idea of moral purity to avoiding any association with the “wrong” people. It’s not about being virtuous, or else it’s about defining that word as a matter of allegiance.

  • Anonymous

    I am sending this to a relation of mine.  I’m curious to hear his thoughts on the subject.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I still have a hard time getting my head around the fact that people who were Republicans in the 1970s have no freakin’ clue just how single-mindedly ideological their party became by the 1990s.

    I think the Charles Colson of 1971 would not recognize the Charles Colson of 2011. The question is, how did the Charles Colson of 2011 fail to notice how far he’s drifted from the milieu he was in during the 1970s?

    His President, after all, proved to be ideologically quite plastic when it came to willingness to try and be a popular President – on the one hand, creating the EPA even as on the other, he pursued a “southern strategy”.

    Perhaps that very political plasticity rubbed off on Colson in the wrong manner.

  • Tonio

    how did the Charles Colson of 2011 fail to notice how far he’s drifted from the milieu he was in during the 1970s?

    But he wasn’t different. He’s the same holy warrior that he was back then, with the same conviction that he’s fighting for absolute good against absolute evil, except that his focus is on Jesus instead of Nixon. I doubt that he’s ever really had a political philosophy or ideology, just fanatical hero worship.

  • Lori

     But he wasn’t different. He’s the same holy warrior that he was back then, with the same conviction that he’s fighting for absolute good against absolute evil, except that his focus is on Jesus instead of Nixon. I doubt that he’s ever really had a political philosophy or ideology, just fanatical hero worship.  

    I wonder if it’s really about the hero he worships, or if it’s all about the enemy he fights. Colson strikes me as the quintessential authoritarian follower. That means he’s for whoever appears to be in charge and against the forces that want to change the established order. 

    Another way to look at it is that Colson is just a Cold Warrior who never stopped Commie hunting. In either case, it’s not about who or what he loves, it’s about who and what he hates. No matter how much Colson talks about Jesus that’s what seems to shine through. 

  • Anonymous

    Well, it is hard to find good Commies these days.

  • Tonio

    I like your theory even better than my original one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I don’t think Nixon (or even Reagan) could be elected today.

  • Anonymous

    I wish I could be confident about that. Recently, my sister – my beloved sister whom I love dearly – said that we need another Reagan now. Her conservatism, btw, is moderate compared to that of her husband’s.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    I think the root of this sort of mental gymnastics becomes obvious when you remember which virtue Envy really opposes in the Catholic theological model – and it isn’t justice. It’s kindness. Relatedly the opposite of Charity/Love is Avarice.

    And avarice and envy together make a toxic brew. We wonder how the wealthy can be envious of the poor? I fear it is because of avarice’s tendancy to desire more and more without satisfaction.  So the avaricious person wants more stuff, poor people have stuff (albeit not much stuff) and if they have it the avaricious person can’t. And so they become envious of people much worse off then them because the fact ‘those people’ have anything means that they can’t have everything.

    And then they tend to assume everyone else is really just like they are. So, of course, they assume people who want economic justice are just envious.

    (Note: I’m talking in generalities here – it’s a fair bet that some social justice campaigners are envious (because – well – humans are humans) and not all wealthy people are avarious. This is why we’re not supposed to judge – what we see and what’s really going on with a person can be very different both for good and ill. But darn it it’s hard sometimes.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    I fear it is because of avarice’s tendancy to desire more and more without satisfaction.

    Homer: Ya know Mr. Burns, you’re the richest guy I know – way richer than Lenny.
    Mr. Burns: Yes, but I’d trade it all for a little more.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    The need to worship heroes also seems to entail a need to kill monsters.

  • Ken

    For some reason “Avoiding vice by avoiding virtue” reminds me of the injunction against being lukewarm.  As I recall, Dante put those who took no sides in life just outside Hell – they weren’t bad enough to be damned, but they weren’t good enough to be anywhere else.

  • Rikalous

    For some reason “Avoiding vice by avoiding virtue” reminds me of the
    injunction against being lukewarm.  As I recall, Dante put those who
    took no sides in life just outside Hell – they weren’t bad enough to be
    damned, but they weren’t good enough to be anywhere else.

    And they passed their time being stung by bees while being forced to rush to and fro following banners. Not “boiled in oil” bad, but certainly not pleasant.

  • Daughter

    The shame is that Colson could have become a much better person.  His time in prison for his Watergate crimes had a profound impact on him.  He did a lot of reflection on the lack of opportunities that many of the men he met in prison had had, and how that affected their lives.  His writings in the early years after his conversion focused on, dare I say it, social justice.  At some point, however, he turned back to identify politics.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    For some Aquinastotelian writers, the virtues in excess would turn into vices. An excess of justice, in that view, could produce wrath.

    Oh, hi!  

  • Jack Heron

    “A good Christian should avoid wordly things”

    “What world is that?”

    “Well, it’s God’s, and… oh”

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think James was referring to the Pharisees when he told Christians not to become polluted by the world.
    Reading Colson’s article, there’s an interesting mix of Christian ideas – the danger of envy, the ugly human desire to see others suffer as we have suffered – and right-wing economics. His train of thought appears to be: Government programs and tax increases are not justice, they are rewarding an ineffective system. Thus, anyone who argues for them must not really want justice. What else could prompt someone to call for tax increases? Pure, base envy!

  • Aimaiami

    There can only be a thin line between justice and envy when words have no meaning and the role of the individual in pursuing justice is confused with the role of the individual in pursuing base, private, gain.  Colson is emphatically arguing that individual desire for things (envy) can look like the individual’s desire for social good (justice).  That only makes sense if you are a crazy person.  If I say “Let justice rain down…” I can’t ever intend for that to mean “let cars and tvs rain down.” If I say “take half my cloak” and you do you can’t be accused of envying my cloak even if you think, in some sense, that I’ve committed an act of justice and generosity in sharing.

     I think what I’m trying to say is that Jesus went and was with the outcasts, but his “followers” like Colson propose merely to minister to them as other.  They think in terms of charity and giving but  not sharing or co-ownership.  But neither justice nor things are owned by the individual and to be held hostage by an individual when others need it.  Charity can’t replace Justice because it leaves control in the hand of the giver and does not assign a right to the receiver.

      Another way of arguing this is to point out that Justice can not be diminished when shared, while things can.  The more justice the more justice, the more things and the more potential owners of things the fewer goods per person.  

    When we talk about seeking “justice” with respect to society or wealth we are assuming that it would be just to create a situation in which all were co-owners and call co-heirs (to things? to g’ds kingdom? to salvation?).  That can never be reduced to mere “envy.”

  • Richard Pratt

    What a load of distortion! Only acceptable ( by deadheads) in the current `Christianity  Bashing media environment.  God has called different Christians to different areas of service. There were many Christian care agencies, long before the rest of society took any interest in them, and there still are, eg, the Salvation Army, etc., To criticise one section of the whole Church of Jesus Christ, because it is not doing what other parts of His church are doing,is rediculous! It is like critisising a Doctor because he is not a Policeman- they both play their necessary, distinctive  roles in the Communal body.

  • Anonymous

    You do realize that this is a Christian blog, right?

  • P J Evans

    Possibly one of his oxen was gored by the post – or the comments on it.

  • http://brandiweed.livejournal.com/ Brandi

    Obviously not a real, true Christian blog, though.

  • Anonymous

    I didn’t realize you were the final arbitrator as to whether other people are really Christian or not.  Please, enlighten us as to when exactly you became God, to have such an insight into the inmost souls of others. (In other words, you’re committing blasphemy when you say that. Please stop.)

    BTW: Matthew 7:1-2 and 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12 might be of use to you. :)

  • Anonymous

    The_L1985, the phrase “Real, True Christian” (often abbreviated RTC) as deployed on this blog is a bit like the phrase “Nice Guy” in feminist circles, it doesn’t mean what its constituent words might imply. Our host coined it many moons ago in one of the Left Behind posts to certain kinds of Christians who deny that anyone other than their tiny sect is a Christian at all (e.g. the common claim amongst evangelicals that Catholics aren’t Christians). Brandi’s comment was a intended to imply that the even if Richard Pratt had noticed Fred’s faith, he wouldn’t acknowledge him as a fellow Christian.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I’m fully aware of this.  I’m trying to point out how blasphemous the very idea is.

  • Anonymous

    The sin of nothing.

    very, very dangerous.

  • Alan

    I would think that in our society, the lowest of the low, the most outcast, least empowered and those with the bleakest outlook on life – including for their families – would be those in prison around the world. Do you think Chuck Colson would ever get involved with helping them??? …Wait…

  • Anonymous

    I was never very good on Aristotle, and I don’t know hardly a thing about Thomas ‘The Ox’ Aquinas.  But Fred’s description of Aquinastotelian virtue isn’t quite right according to Aristotelian ethics.

    For Aristotle, moral virtues are aiming at the ‘mean’ between two forms of excess.  Courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and recklessness.  By definition, then, you can’t have an excess of virtue.

    (It’s not just a balancing act, though – I certainly recall Aristotle going on and on about being courageous or whatever ‘on the right occasions, in the right way, and for the right reasons’ or something like that an awful lot.)

    Aristotle devotes an entire book of the Nichomachean ethics to justice, and IIRC it’s not really a single virtue according to him – at any rate, it’s a lot more complicated than a simpler virtue like courage.  But if we were to treat it as though it was a simple virtue a bit like courage, then it might be something like a mean between laxity in matters of justice, so that e.g. laws are hardly enforced or are enforced in arbitrary or inconsistent matters; and rigidity in matters of justice, where e.g. laws are followed to the letter and the same sentence delivered regardless of circumstances such as extenuating circumstances of the crime or the guilty party’s ability to pay.

    (Of course, I don’t think it’s a good idea to try and simplify justice like this, and nor does Aristotle.)

  • James

    I’m not sure if you’ve ever read any of Richard Neighburs work called Christ and culture but this is partly what he talks about. One of my biggest pet peeves is Christians that don’t understand the calling to be in the world but not of the world. I think Neighburs had about 5 different iewpoints that he pulled out and all of them completely missed the point. Holinger, in my opinion did a great job evaluating Neighburs work and then using it as a spring board to explain a more biblical approach. His book is called choosing the good in case anybody is interested.

    James
    http://Www.goddamblog.com

  • Anonymous

    Who are Neighburs and Holinger and why do we care?


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