From Reflections on the Psalms
(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.)
He had been a strict socialist at Oxford. Everything ought to be run by the State; private enterprise and independent professions were for him the great evil. He then went away and became a schoolmaster. After about ten years of that he came to see me. He said his political views had been wholly reversed. You never heard a fuller recantation. He now saw that State interference was fatal. What had converted him was his experience as a schoolmaster of the Ministry of Education – a set of ignorant meddlers armed with insufferable powers to pester, hamper, and interrupt the work of real, practical teachers who knew the subjects they taught, who knew boys, parents, and all the real conditions of their work. It makes no difference to the point of the story whether you agree with his view of the Ministry; the important thing is that he held that view. For the real point of the story, and of his visit, when it came, nearly took my breath away. Thinking thus, he had come to see whether I had any influence which might help him to get a job in the Ministry of Education.
Here is the perfect band-wagoner. Immediately on the decision, “This is a revolting tyranny,” follows the question, “How can I as quickly as possible cease to be one of the victims and become one of the tyrants?” If I had been able to introduce the young man to someone in the Ministry, I think we may be sure that his manners to that hated “meddler” would have been genial and friendly in the extreme. Thus someone who had heard his previous invective against the meddling and then witnessed his actual behavior to the meddler, might possibly (for charity “believeth all things”) have concluded that this young man was full of the purest Christianity and loved one he thought a sinner while hating what he thought his sin.
Of course this is an instance of band-wagoning so crude and unabashed as to be farcical. Not many of us perhaps commit the like. But there are subtler, more social or intellectual forms of band-wagoning which might deceive us. Many people have a very strong desire to meet celebrated or “important” people, including those whom they disapprove, from curiosity or vanity. It gives them something to talk or even (anyone may produce a book of reminiscences) to write about. It is felt to confer distinction if the great, though odious, man recognizes you in the street. And where such motives are in play it is better still to know him quite well, to be intimate with him. It would be delightful if he shouted out, “Hallo Bill,” while you were walking down the Strand with an impressionable country cousin. I don’t know that the desire is itself a very serious defect. But I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel, dishonest, spiteful, and so forth.
Not because we are “too good” for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces. The temptation is to condone, to connive at; by our words, looks, and laughter, to “consent.” The temptation was never greater than now when we are all (and very rightly) so afraid of priggery or “smugness.” And, of course, even if we do not seek them out, we shall constantly be in such company whether we wish it or not. This is the real and unavoidable difficulty.
We shall hear vile stories told as funny; not merely licentious stories but (to me far more serious and less noticed) stories which the teller could not be telling unless he was betraying someone’s confidence. We shall hear infamous detraction of the absent, often disguised as pity or humor. Things we hold sacred will be mocked. Cruelty will be slyly advocated by the assumption that its only opposite is “sentimentality.” The very presuppositions of any possible good life – all disinterested motives, all heroism, all genuine forgiveness – will be, not explicitly denied (for then the matter could be discussed), but assumed to be phantasmal, idiotic, believed in only by children.
What is one to do? For on the one hand, quite certainly, there is a degree of unprotesting participation in such talk which is very bad. We are strengthening the hands of the enemy. We are encouraging him to believe that “those Christians,” once you get them off their guard and round a dinner table, really think and feel exactly as he does. By implication we are denying our Master; behaving as if we “knew not the Man.” On the other hand is one to show that, like Queen Victoria, one is “not amused”? Is one to be contentious, interrupting the flow of conversation at every moment with “I don’t agree, I don’t agree”? Or rise and go away? But by these courses we may also confirm some of their worst suspicions of “those Christians.” We are just the sort of ill-mannered prigs they always said.
Silence is a good refuge. People will not notice it nearly so easily as we tend to suppose. And (better still) few of us enjoy it as we might be in danger of enjoying more forcible methods. Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority. A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.
There comes, of course, a degree of evil against which a protest will have to be made, however little chance it has of success. There are cheery agreements in cynicism or brutality which one must contract out of unambiguously. If it can’t be done without seeming priggish, then priggish we must seem.
For what really matters is not seeming but being a prig. If we sufficiently dislike making the protest, if we are strongly tempted not to, we are unlikely to be priggish in reality. Those who positively enjoy, as they call it, “testifying,” are in a different and more dangerous position. As for the mere seeming – well, though it is very bad to be a prig, there are social atmospheres so foul that in them it is almost an alarming symptom if a man has never been called one. Just in the same way, though pedantry is a folly and snobbery a vice, yet there are circles in which only a man indifferent to all accuracy will escape being called a pedant, and others where manners are so coarse, flashy, and shameless that a man (whatever his social position) of any natural good taste will be called a snob.
What makes this contact with wicked people so difficult is that to handle the situation successfully requires not merely good intentions, even with humility and courage thrown in; it may call for social and even intellectual talents which God has not given us. It is therefore not self-righteousness but mere prudence to avoid it when we can. The psalmists were not quite wrong when they described the good man as avoiding “the seat of the scornful” and fearing to consort with the ungodly lest he should “eat of” (shall we say, laugh at, admire, approve, justify?) “such things as please them.” As usual in their attitude, with all its dangers, there is a core of very good sense. “Lead us not into temptation” often means, among other things, “Deny me those gratifying invitations, those highly interesting contacts, that participation in the brilliant movements of our age, which I so often, at such risk, desire.”
Closely connected with these warnings against what I have called “connivance” are the protests of the Psalter against other sins of the tongue. I think that when I began to read it these surprised me a little; I had half expected that in a simpler and more violent age when more evil was done with the knife, the big stick, and the firebrand, less would be done by talk. But in reality the psalmists mention hardly any kind of evil more often than this one, which the most civilized societies share. “Their throat is an open sepulcher, they flatter,” (Psalm 5:10), “under his tongue is ungodliness and vanity,” or, “perjury” as Dr. Moffatt translates it, (Psalm 10:7), “deceitful lips,” (Psalm 12:3), “lying lips,” (Psalm 31:20), “words full of deceit,” (Psalm 36:3), the “whispering” of evil men, (Psalm 41:7), cruel lies that “cut like a razor,” (Psalm 52:3), talk that sounds “smooth as oil” and will wound like a sword, (Psalm 55:22), pitiless jeering, (Psalm 102:8). It is all over the Psalter. One almost hears the incessant whispering, tattling, lying, scolding, flattery, and circulation of rumors. No historical readjustments are here required, we are in the world we know. We even detect in that muttering and wheeling chorus voice which are familiar. One of them may be too familiar for recognition.