Hating Sin

It is Passover, and Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem with his disciples. He has come to the Temple, where he finds people “selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the moneychangers at their business.” It is interesting to note what he does then, and what he does not do.

He does not engage the moneychangers in a discussion about what profits are licit and what are not in the sale of sacrificial animals. He does not bid the salesmen good day. He makes a whip of cords, which must have taken some deliberation and time. We can imagine the intense anger of our Lord as he did this, and it is hardly likely that any of the disciples knew what he would do next before he began to do it: he “drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple.” Jesus, remember, was a construction worker. The man whose image is imprinted miraculously upon the Shroud of Turin is tall, broad shouldered, and barrel-chested. He was not singing falsetto in the Galilee glee club.

Nor does Jesus spare the instruments of their trade. For “he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables,” and told the men to get lost, because they had turned his Father’s house “into a house of trade,” and, in another account, “a den of thieves.” His disciples later applied to the scene a verse from the Psalms: “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” This zeal is a powerful word for a powerful emotion: it is related to the word that is translated as jealous in the commandment: “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God,” who would have his people devoted to him entirely, and not to any other gods, or to any graven image of some creature on earth, under the earth, or in the skies above.

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Jesus was no Stoic indifferent to suffering or to sin. He hated sin because he loved sinful mankind, and his love implied a complete rejection of sin: “Be holy,” he says to us, even as our Father in heaven is holy. Remember the terrible judgment that threatens the final church to be warned in Revelation, the church at Laodicea: “So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Jesus demands more than intellectual assent. He demands love, and love, being the kinds of creatures we are, will call our passions into play. “I come to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” he cries. “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” He does not come to bring peace, the false peace that is a lull while the prince of this world herds men like sheep into hell. No, he comes to bring the sword. And you cannot swing a sword unless you are passionate about it.

Sin is to the soul as cancer is to the body. It does its foulest work in secret. Uncle Screwtape of shrewd memory suggests that most people who walk to perdition do it in their sleep. You do not want a sleepwalker for a spiritual director. Worse, you do not want someone who has a secret affinity for the evil. The best oncologist hates cancer with a pure and passionate hatred. He does not stand back from it to view its strange increase. He does not, while treating you, harbor a secret fascination for the disease, pleased to see it extend a tentacle, like a squid, into a new organ. He does not accompany your disease, clicking his tongue in equable disapproval, while otherwise lacking the determination to burn the invader to cinders or tear it up wholly by the roots.

The good oncologist is not corrupt in his imagination. He wants the cancer out, completely, and without a trace. He cannot otherwise be passionately devoted to your health. For though the cancer is in you, and may have twined itself so thoroughly into your system that it seems that you and it are inseparable, it is no part of your essence, no part of what you would be if you were in perfect health. You must never identify yourself with the usurper. You are not your cancer. You are not—and you were not meant to be—your sin. But you will be that horrible thing, that cancer-raddled corpse of a soul, if you do not cry out to be cured by the divine Physician.

So far most Catholics will agree. But it is in the moral life as in the physical. It is better to keep from getting the dreadful disease in the first place. Here the analogy begins to fray. You cannot remain healthy forever, because we are bound to die. But you can grow in spiritual power and health. You can keep your physical health for a long time if you stay away from certain bad habits, and you give yourself some moderate exercise. So it is also in the spiritual life that we must shun evil habits, and beg the Lord to work us out in the arena, and the more the better, because there is no completion here on earth, and no point at which we will say, “I will come so close to the Lord, but no closer.” The more we love him, the more we wish to love him. By that standard, we are all paltry and lukewarm stuff.

Now here is the thing: It is not too hard to keep from getting drunk on gin. But it is not too hard to keep from gaining a hundred pounds. It is very hard to keep from falling into moral vices, because the opportunities are everywhere, the temptations are strong, and the pleasures they deliver are often, at the outset, intense. Do not doubt that the gang member’s first kill will make him feel more alive than ever. So, too, with the more popular and politically celebrated sins of our time. If we are going to raise our children and train ourselves to hate the cancer with a pure and implacable hatred, we must engage the passions. Theoretical opposition, i.e., notional opposition, amounts to nothing. The man with a steel bayonet will slay the man with the theoretical bayonet every time.

We cannot simply say that we disapprove of a sin, intellectually, as if we were Immanuel Kant strolling in theoretical abstraction across the bridges of Koenigsberg. The one thing that his famous “categorical imperative” can never do is be imperative; it does not command. No theory does. The man who disapproves of cowardice in theory will be the first to turn tail in practice. He must find cowardice contemptible: the sight of it must rouse his indignant scorn, the “fierce fighter on Reason’s part,” as the poet Tasso calls it. The man who disapproves of licentiousness in theory will be the first to shed his trousers. He must find it shameful: he must blush for those who do not blush for themselves. The man who disapproves of fraud in theory will be expert at trimming and squeezing. He must hate falsehood as the fundamental enemy of all things good, as Jesus did: “When [Satan] lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The man who disapproves of perversion in theory will wink at it in others, if not encourage it outright. He must find it disgusting: his gorge must rise as it, as at the smell of sewage.

Even so, we cannot arouse the passions, even if they are according to reason, without embodying them in our story. That is, they must be personal. Benedict Arnold shows us treachery in the flesh. John Wilkes Booth, the thespian coward, shoots an unarmed President Lincoln while he is watching a romantic comedy. A healthy man must look upon the deed with contempt, regardless of politics. Clara Bow was a notorious trader in her own flesh, a fornicator fit for the legends of hell. Harvey Milk had an eye for adolescent boys whom he would debauch and then dump, when he had cloyed his stomach with them. Goebbels, father of the modern political campaign, turned lying into an art. We must say to our young people, “Do not be like these, not even in a lesser vein. Shun their deeds. Hate the deeds. We can show you that the deeds are wrong, but all the demonstration in the world will not matter. You must train your passions. Do not be easy in your mind about evil.”

Here someone may object that it is all too easy to shift from hating the evil deed embodied in a person, to hating the person. Yes, it is all too easy. But the objection is null. When your only choice is between death and danger, you choose the danger. There is no alternative. Abstract hatred of abstract sin is to real hatred of real sin as a blueprint is to a tower, or a strategy is to the battle fought with much sweat and blood. In the case before us, the most genuine hatred of the sin is in concord with the most genuine love of the sinner. I concede that it is difficult. Many necessary things are difficult. That is neither here nor there. And we may be assisted daily by remembering that there is at least one sinner whose welfare we desire, even while we despise his failings: he looks back at us in the mirror.

It seems clear that many of the bishops of our Church were like the indolent oncologist, or even the macabre oncologist, who does not hate cancer with a passion, or who has a hankering to see it flourish in strange new forms. It is hard to explain how some of them could recommend to us a bland rapprochement to cancer, as if we were in a pleasant little daydream in which the cancer is not really a cancer, but just an alternative method of cellular reproduction. Their carelessness in this respect would explain their carelessness in others. We should not be surprised that the same bishops who did not deeply hate the cancer also did not love their flock. They were not men of passion. They were hardly men at all.

There may be one other possibility. It is no more pleasant to consider. We cannot imagine allowing conferences of physicians in their home countries to vote on diseases one by one, to decide whether for “pastoral” purposes to call them diseases or not. That would be evidence not of their care, but of their agnosticism as regards disease. It may be that our leaders do not want us to be passionate about sin because they do not believe in sin at all; for to allow each national conference of bishops to go its own way would be to imply that there was no reality to bind them. But the man who does not believe in sin does not believe in the holy God. Perhaps our leaders are apathetic because they are atheist. I do not know.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Christ Expels Moneychangers” painted by Caravaggio in 1610.

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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