First Principles

No Common Love, No Common Life

What happens when a formerly Christian nation forgets the reality of sin and our desperate need of grace?

Down in the ninth circle of Hell, where “traitors are laid to waste forevermore,” fixed up to the head at least in ice, Dante picks his way through the region of Caina, named after Cain, the first man guilty of fratricide and founder of a city. There he comes upon two men who glare at each other, face to face, ensnared by the hair. “Who are you?” he asks, and when they raise their eyes to look at him, the tears freeze in their eyes and lock them shut. “Never a clamp clamped plank to plank so hard,” he says,

at which they were so overcome with wrath,
they butted head to head like two he-goats.

Who are they? A soul nearby, stoolie to the last, spills the beans, revealing that the men are brothers, the counts of Mangona, who killed each other in battle:

From the same womb they came. And you could search
all of Caina, and you’d never find
souls fitter to be fixed in aspic here.

Is that an apt image of the two Americas of our time? 

Some people say that we are drawing near to a new civil war, brother raising his arm against brother. Mere weeks before Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln recalled for men of both the North and the South the admonitory words of Christ: “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh” (Matthew 18:7). 

Slavery, said the president, may have been one of those offenses which God in his providence has borne for a time but will bear no longer, giving to both North and South “this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” If so, who can fail to discern, he said, “any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” 

Blood for blood: every drop shed by the lash paid for by every drop shed by the sword.

Yet Lincoln was not crowing in triumph. Many thousands of men had yet to die on the battlefield; more than 300 at Appomattox alone. So he ended his speech with a call for mercy and brotherhood: 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Had Lincoln lived, perhaps he might have restrained the most radical members of his own party, those who wanted to humiliate and rape the South. “May the fires of his new furnace never go out,” wrote the editor of The Louisiana Planter at the death of Thaddeus Stevens, the most vindictive of the Republicans, in 1868.

Yet somehow the nation did pull together. We must not be sentimental about it. The people of Vicksburg, whom Grant starved and shelled into submission, would not celebrate the Fourth of July for another 81 years. Reconstruction was quite an ugly chapter in American history, with evils on all sides, not the least of which was the transformation of a group of idle white pranksters into a vigilante army of terror, the Ku Klux Klan. But the union endured. After all, it was as Lincoln had said, that the men of both sides “read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.”

Let the agnostic and atheist scoff. What needs explaining is not the strife. Romulus, in the founding myth of Rome, slew his brother Remus. Olympias, it is thought, poisoned her husband Philip, the king of Macedon, to clear the way for her darling son, Alexander. Marc Antony traded the life of his brother to Octavian, in return for permission to assassinate his enemy Cicero. When the English came to New England, they did not find the native tribes at peace, but rather the Pequots were hated by their cousins the Mohegans, who were joined in this hatred by the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts; hence came the Pequot War (1636-1638). 

Homo homini lupus, the saying goes. Man is a wolf to man.

What needs explaining is that men of the North and men of the South managed somehow to forgive one another and live together again. Their consciences were touched. It is hard to reach that mysterious place, the human conscience. Mostly it lies beneath a hundred layers of habit and stone. 

Sometimes only calamity can do it. In every village and town and city in America, every Sunday, the words of Jesus were heard, and many were the old slaveholders and soldiers of the Confederacy who did take them to heart, regardless of what their worst enemies to the north said about them; and the best of the old abolitionists in the North, not so many as we should like, came down from their moral high horses and did hard and honest work for the black men they had helped to set free. Perhaps they remembered that no man is free from sin. On that dread day of judgment, the saints themselves shall tremble, as the sober old hymn rightly says.

Some people say we are on the verge of another civil war. I cannot tell. If so, we will not see another Manassas or Gettysburg. We are not in the physical or moral shape for it. But it raises this question: Whom are we more like? Grant and Lee? Sherman and Forrest, who became warm friends when the war was over? Or rather the brothers of Mangona, for whom physical proximity itself was a cause of irritation and a spur to hatred and violence?

But here I should recall my own observation. What needs to be explained is what the reconcilers did, not what the fratricides did. What but the grace of God can move a man to love his enemy? But what happens when a formerly Christian nation forgets the reality of sin and our desperate need of grace? What happens when there is nothing left to lift the souls of men to a realm wherein they leave off their strife, and stand abashed before the justice and mercy of God?

At best it is a dry and dreary life. That strikes me as I make my slow way through The Penguin Russian Course (1961). It is as if in the old Soviet Union there were no churches, no holy days, no prayer, no God; no beloved traditions of the people; nothing but work, career, finding an apartment, hearing a lecture on Lenin, and so on, world without end. 

“After finishing the university,” goes a typical sentence, “he began to work in the Foreign Office.” A dreadful epitaph. Today we have our American versions, too. “The man selling wine at this counter,” goes another sentence, “has twice been to prison.” No doubt for offenses against the people, as adjudged by the Party.

At best, as I say. Something of that drought is among us now. And worse than drought. What will happen, I have no idea. “All flesh is grass,” says the prophet, and all the nations no more than “a drop in the bucket.” We may yet have time to remember it. But that time will not last forever.