From Reflections on the Psalms
Every attentive reader of the psalms will have noticed that they speak to us severely not merely about doing evil ourselves but about something else. In Psalm 26:4, the good man is not only free from “vanity” (falsehood) but has not even “dwelled with” (been on intimate terms with), those who are “vain.” He has “hated” them (v. 5). So in Psalm 31:7, he has “hated” idolaters. In Psalm 50:18, God blames a man not for being a thief but for “consenting to” a thief, (in Dr. Moffatt, “you are a friend to any thief you see”). In Psalm 141:4-6, where our translation appears to be rather wrong, the general sense nevertheless comes through and expresses the same attitude. Almost comically the psalmist of Psalm 139 asks, “Don’t I hate those who hate thee, Lord? Why I hate them as if they were my enemies!” (vv. 21, 22)
Now obviously all this – taking upon oneself to hate those whom one thinks God’s enemies, avoiding the society of those one thinks wicked, judging our neighbors, thinking oneself “too good” for some of them (not in the snobbish way, which is a trivial sin in comparison, but in the deepest meaning of the words “too good”) – is an extremely dangerous, almost a fatal, game. It leads straight to “Pharisaism” in the sense which our Lord’s own teaching has given to that word. It leads not only to the wickedness but to the absurdity of those who in later times came to be called the “unco guid” (Rigidly Righteous). This I assume from the outset, and I think that even in the psalms this evil is already at work. But we must not be Pharisaical even to the Pharisees. It is foolish to read such passages without realizing that a quite genuine problem is involved. And I am not at all confident about the solution.
We hear it said again and again that the editor of some newspaper is a rascal, that some politician is a liar, that some official person is a tyrannical Jack-in-office and even dishonest, that someone has treated his wife abominably, that some celebrity (film-star, author, or what not) leads a most vile and mischievous life. And the general rule in modern society is that no one refuses to meet any of these people and to behave towards them in the friendliest and most cordial manner. People will even go out of their way to meet them. They will not even stop buying the rascally newspaper, thus paying the owner for the lies, the detestable intrusions upon private life and private tragedy, the blasphemies and the pornography, which they profess to condemn.
I have said there is a problem here, but there are really two. One is social and almost political. It may be asked whether that state of society in which rascality undergoes no social penalty is a healthy one; whether we should not be a happier country if certain important people were pariahs as the hangman once was – blackballed at every club, dropped by every acquaintance, and liable to the print of riding-crop or fingers across the face if they were ever bold enough to speak to a respectable woman. It leads into the larger question whether the great evil of our civil life is not the fact that there seems now no medium between hopeless submission and full-dress revolution. Rioting has died out, moderate rioting. It can be argued that if the windows of various ministries and newspapers were more often broken, if certain people were more often put under pumps and (mildly – mud, not stones) pelted in the streets, we should get on a great deal better. It is not wholly desirable that any man should be allowed at once the pleasures of a tyrant or a wolf’s-head and also those of an honest freeman among his equals. To this question I do not know the answer. The dangers of a change in the direction I have outlined are very great; so are the evils of our present tameness.
I am concerned here only with the problem that appears in our individual and private lives. How ought we to behave in the presence of very bad people? I will limit this by changing “very bad people” to “very bad people who are powerful, prosperous, and impenitent.” If they are outcasts, poor, and miserable, whose wickedness obviously has not “paid,” then every Christian knows the answer. Christ speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, Christ with the woman taken in adultery, Christ dining with publicans, is our example. I mean, of course, that his humility, his love, his total indifference to the social discredit and misrepresentation he might incur are examples for us; not, Heaven knows, that any of us who was not specially qualified to do so by priesthood, age, old acquaintance, or the earnest request of the sinners themselves, could without insolence and presumption assume the least trace of his authority to rebuke and pardon. (One has to be very careful lest the desire to patronize and the itch to be a busybody should disguise itself as a vocation to help the “fallen,” or tend to obscure our knowledge that we are fallen – perhaps in God’s eyes far more so – ourselves.) But of course there were probably others who equally consorted with “publicans and sinners” and whose motives were very unlike those of our Lord.
The publicans were the lowest members of what may be called the Vichy or Collaborationist movement in Palestine; men who fleeced their fellow-countrymen to get money for the occupying power in return for a fat percentage of the swag. As such they were like the hangman, outside all decent social intercourse. But some of them did pretty well financially, and no doubt most of them enjoyed, up to a point, the protection and contemptuous favors of the Roman government. One may guess that some consorted with them for very bad reasons – to get “pickings,” to be on good terms with such dangerous neighbors. Besides our Lord there would have been among their guests toadies and those who wanted to be “on the bandwagon”; people in fact like the young man I once knew.