Elusive Perfection

Christian faith is comprehensive rebellion against the powers and compulsions of this world, and definitive acknowledgment of citizenship in the kingdom of God. However: glorious as that may sound, come the cold grey light of dawn, we find ourselves still in the same surroundings. We haven’t stopped being meat; nor have our neighbors changed. What do we do next?

Our spiritual ancestors the Puritans, or the separatist fraction of them, changed neighbors. They moved to Holland, then to Plymouth Colony, then to Brook Farm and beyond, intending to construct a political order based on their understanding of holiness. Wherever they went, they ran into predictable problems. We can’t all be ministers of the Gospel. Somebody has to bake and brew, spin and weave, plow and slaughter, join rail to stile, and all the rest. The high-minded ones quickly found themselves dependent upon coarser folk, whom they could prevent voting or renting pews, but whom they couldn’t control much beyond that.

Eventually, such optimists have to confront a reality they have done their best to deny: The inner man might be amended, but his surroundings haven’t changed. However that may be, his reasons for what he does are wholly different from the optimist’s reasons: to make his faith clear to himself, and to offer thanksgiving to God.

New World

Two kinds of work lie open to a Christian: on one hand, grandiose programs of political reform or personal perfection; on the other, the humbler project of waiting on God while we live and let live.

Perfection is the American way, as we see it in the separatist experiment. If we make our commitment to a small group of like-minded people, so the thinking goes, we can get a fresh start. The historic coincidence of the Protestant Reformation and a New World open to colonization made that temptation irresistible.

American politics from the beginning has been driven by the hope of political and moral perfection, even more than the drive for industrial or technological progress. We are still witnessing the devolution of the noble experiment of 1620. From Christian pulpits we still hear sentences which begin, “In the richest country in the world, it is shameful that we still have . . . ” —fill in the blank: children without health insurance, homelessness, whatever offends the speaker’s sense of himself as the best sort of person, and his sense of our country as an example. This homily makes no sense unless we believe in our exceptional election as a nation; that we of all people, we if nobody else, can achieve perfection.

Such belief cannot stand the light of day. Nevertheless, our politics runs on this sense of ourselves. It is still a matter of religion seeking tangible expression, even if we hide the fact from ourselves. From main stream electoral campaigns to radical opposition, everybody thinks of himself as embodying a truer patriotism—i.e., greater godliness—than the rest.

This is as much the case with liberals whose virtue consists of breast-beating denial of American exceptionalism as it is with their conservative brethren. It also goes just as strongly for those whose goodness is packaged as ungodliness; they have their superiority over the hypocrites in Church. Consequently, elections in America can never be purely secular power struggles. The public face, not excluding the secular left, must always be that of the crusader, pure and undefiled. President Bush was excoriated for using the word crusader, but his critics were fully as convinced of being in the right as any rock-ribbed evangelical.

Old World

A more modest way, live and let live, is Old World. It is the approach of people who live among jostling masses, expecting no dramatic improvement, only survival from moment to moment.

Jesus’ ministry follows this latter pattern. To be sure, he offers New Being as well as healing; yet some of his hearers—always following the crowd to a spectacle— are likely to be found among those who shout for his blood before Pilate. In any case, he certainly has not eliminated suffering from the world; even his faith has changed nothing. His movement is driven by a more elemental reality, the coming Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, he removed what pain he can while we await it in hope.

The difference between New and Old World is clear to an American visiting London. London has no founding dates; everything in America does. The UK has no stated purpose; the United States does: “to found a more perfect Union.” London, and many another city in Europe, can be accepted as a constantly unfolding miracle. America is a constant disappointment to itself, its perfection always unrealized. No wonder the American experiences such great relief away from home; he is free from the disappointment. Outside the Land of the Free, everything appears in a different light.

When a political leader performs badly in France or Italy, people give a wry smile, joke about it, let the embarrassed fellow recede to the background for a decent interval, then call him back, having agreed to forget it. Not here: “I’m disappointed in you” doesn’t even need to be said. It is the patronizing condemnation we have heard all our lives, from the Miss Grundys of the world; the Widow Douglases and Aunt Pollys of both sexes, who never let up.

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