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

Chuck Colson and the evangelical idea of avoiding vice by avoiding virtue December 4, 2011

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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