The Catholic Thing
The Beam in Our Brother's Eye Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 15 June 2008

I do not normally consider myself a Nietzschean. Nietzsche, for those fortunate enough to have been spared the disputes of professors, was the most brilliant exponent of the idea “God is Dead.” Yet more than anyone, he knew that without Christian belief, we cannot have Christian ethics. In the century since his death, there’s ample proof he was right. Even a few secularists now see how desperate the defense of the West has become without Christianity. But more remarkable is how many Christians have given up a good part of the Christian ethos because they have reduced the faith to generic tolerance. Say what you will about Nietzsche – I believe he was wildly mad even before he became certifiable – he had the true madman’s eye for the weaknesses of modern Christians.

At least in that regard, as I look about the world, I’m feeling a bit Nietzschean. He claimed to be nauseated by the kind of false, milk-toast humility he found among Christians around him. Many Germans who agreed with and partly misread him wound up as Nazis. But there is a different case to be made for true humility, which can exist quite consistently with vigorous life and action. Mother Teresa was humble – and unstoppable; Maximilian Kolbe practiced humility and heroism. There are thousands of lesser-known cases. Anyone not blinded by the current misreading of Scripture and tradition knows that such people faithfully followed Christ.

Benedict XVI has deplored the widespread misrepresentation of Jesus as Someone Who “demands nothing, never scolds, Who accepts everyone and everything, Who no longer does anything but affirm us.” It was not always thus. Why? Well, to begin with, if you read the Gospels, Jesus says He is meek and humble of heart, but He has a sharp tongue: He calls some fellow Jews a “brood of vipers”; in Luke, after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, He remarks almost casually to His own disciples, “If you then, who are wicked. . .”; and He warns often about the possibility of eternal damnation. This excludes people, is judgmental, may not exactly build self-esteem. Benedict has noted tartly that Christian community “must not be conceived as if the avoidance of conflict were the highest pastoral value.”

But the phenomenon that’s making me feel a little Nietzschean is a bit different. A lot of people today take one dominical saying and want to turn it into a whole way of life without looking at the sayings just cited. Jesus warns us in several places, “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother's eye” – very good advice, even in secular terms. We’re quick to criticize others and to give ourselves a pass. But like all virtues, this one becomes a vice beyond its proper scope.

My version of “What Would Jesus Do?” is that He would remind us today that slow to judge does not mean giving evil the run of the house. I met a woman recently, an intelligent Christian, obsessed with the idea that the United States is too evil to possess nuclear weapons. Possibly so, but in a world where nuclear weapons exist, peace must be “the sturdy child of terror,” (i.e., we now need mutual deterrence) as Churchill said after the first atom bomb test. Like many other well-meaning people, she also believes that jihadism and Islamic terrorism must somehow be our fault, as if in the Christian perspective we cannot identify others as malefactors, indeed as mass murderers. For these too self-critical souls, a new commandment is needed: “Remove first the beam in your brother’s eye before you obsess about the splinter in your own.”

We’ve seen a similar phenomenon with regard to Christian failures in this country. Whenever the latest Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, or priest predator arises, Christians are mocked as hypocrites. It always surprises me that Christians take the abuse instead of simply replying, “That changes nothing. We deplore these sins as much as you do, and we continue to deplore the sins these sinners deplored, unworthy messengers though they were.”

We’re often hearing now that Christians are simply bigoted about homosexuality and that gay marriage cannot do much harm because, well, just look at the level of divorce, spouse abuse, and infidelity in heterosexual marriage. Rare is the Christian clear-headed enough to say: that’s false and illogical. For the record, on homosexuality the Church is being faithful to Moses and the Jewish tradition. And if marriage is already troubled, what will happen when we take the sexual revolution, which unleashed a tsunami on the family, a giant step further?

Don’t get me wrong. Christians should examine themselves constantly. But Christ did not urge us to beat our breasts while people not at all concerned about beams and splinters use Christian principles to destroy Christianity and civilization. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” presumably means that acts, beliefs, and communities matter. The Christian who really wants to follow Christ should not ignore the beam in his brother’s eye. Sometimes it’s really there.

Robert Royal is president of the
Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.”

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