Mainstream America: secular “legalism” and the loss of civil “grace.”

The point of this post, in a nutshell, is to draw a link between an bit of church terminology from a past generation (i.e. legalism) and the same behavior manifesting itself in wider society (i.e. thought policing? political correctness? pick-a-better-name?) The solution in both cases is the same; grace.

Legalism; an old complaint about the church.

I find it the above shift ironic; I shouldn’t.  It used to be something of a common complaint by those of past generations who had left the church, that the church was full of legalists and hypocrites. A legalist, in a Christian context, is a person who looks to point out any moral failings in the lives of Christians around them.

I suppose the idea comes from the scribes and pharisees in the gospels who always had their eye on Jesus and his disciples. They seemed ready at any turn to point out where Jesus failed to keep the law (i.e. legal/legalism) as they though he should. They accused Jesus of breaking the Jewish/Mosaic law by healing a man on the Sabbath. In telling the paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk home, Jesus had supposedly given the paralyzed man leeway to “do work” on the Sabbath, supposedly violating the law of Moses. The lesson was that the Pharisees’ perfectionistic zeal for their own system of religious rules, well intentioned no doubt, produced a constant critical outlook. Worse, it blinded them to the miracles Jesus did; miracles which revealed his Messianic identity.

This motif from the Gospels  was applied to those in the church who exhibited the same behavior. “Isn’t that car a bit too fancy, it must have cost a fortune.”  “Isn’t that dress too short?” “You let your kids watch what?” “As the pastor should you be going on vacation there?” “If she were serious about being a disciple of Jesus then she would be here with us this morning.” “You get the drift?

To be fair, this behavior is more complicated than it appears at first glance.  After all, there are boundaries to behavior. I am a moral realist. Set that aside for the moment. Realist or not,  everyone engages in some sort of moral criticism. Brothers in a prison gang have their codes of conduct which will get called out if transgressed. There is also something “twisted” in a human who refuses to point out any moral failing in people around her. So there are two ends to the spectrum. Here, however, I am only focused on the “legalistic” end of the spectrum.

This post is not a suggestion that we turn a blind eye to blatant moral wrong. The pastor unfaithful to his marriage. The ceo who engages in corruption. The scholar who fudges data should be called out. This post is focused on the twisted form of morality, where one is constantly looking out for the failings of others. 

Legalism then, is not the mere pointing out of clear moral failings. There seems to be something about the frequency of it.  It seems to be a culture of moral nit-picking. The aetiology of legalism is often seen to be (a) insecurity on the part of the legalist (i.e. putting others down makes you feel elevated); (b) an elevated sense of one’s own performance and worth; (c) a moral and emotional immaturity that fails to see the complex nature of human diversity and behavior.

During the last 50 years, many people have complained that the Christian church was legalistic or hypocritical. Even if there was just one or two perpetrators in a local congregation, it was easy to blame “the church.” It became an easy excuse for people who wanted to quit attending church to point out that the church was full of hypocrites or unloving legalists. The underlying complaint was that this sort of fault finding and nitpicking contradicted Jesus’ imperatives to “love one another” or “not judge lest ye be judged”.  In response, thousands of Christian churches addressed this issue over the last 30 years and preached about the grace and loving patience of God. Churches by the thousands became more patient and accepting over the last generation. The culture in many churches has genuinely changed (in my opinion). Today many churches struggle with going to the other extreme, thanks to a, “Come as you are, anything goes” mindset.

Legalism and public fault finding has gone “secular.”

Permit me to use the term “secular.” It has historically refered to life and thinking outside of the church. I realize that to many Christian thinkers, “secularism” is a mistaken notion; every corner of life is imbued with the sacred. I don’t dispute that here. Allow me, however, to use the term in its old connotation. Mainstream America, secular America, has developed its own version of legalism. We find ourselves in a society of legalists of a non-religious flavor. It is as if our national pastime is now criticism. The nation’s fiberoptic networks are full of millions of critics, insulters, and backseat-drivers, trolls, shamers, grumblers. Whether the subject be a president, a local police chief, a university director, a school teacher, a parent, a pastor – everyone has a criticism to offer about the performance of others.

Has Donald Trump’s presidency has contributed to this? It certainly feels like this has intensified during 2016-2020.  I believe the idea that “Trump caused this” social crisis is naive. A more mature analysis would see  Trump as the catalyst. His bellicose personality agitated something latent in wider society.  What exactly that is would take more thought. I also suspect the ubiquity of social media has likewise twisted our epistemological resources by means of algorithms that help us to self-select the version of the news that reinforces our own perspectives.   Whereas the church was once blamed in past generations for legalism, now that legalistic fault finding is in full force outside the church.  

Legalism Changes People – “Straightened without, twisted within.”

Here is how legalism changes people.  (a) Criticism avoidance begins to affect one’s choices and behavior at an increased level. Rather than pursuing truth and virtue we begin to form our lives in ways that help us avoid criticism. Desire to change does not come from an awareness of love for us and for our good in the heart of the critic.  There is no doubt an awareness of dislike of the critic for our own person. Therefore legalism changes our behavior on the outside but darkens our heart on the inside.  (b) Legalism creates legalists. A natural defense mechanism for the above is to deflect and point out failings in others or failings in the original fault finder. This means we begin actively looking for failings in other people rather than looking for ways to love them.  (c) It destroys relationships because we feel the sting of criticism on a regular basis. We begin to assume others are looking at us critically. As a result new relationships are polluted before they begin. (d) Legalism affects children who grow up in a family where parents feel the need to control their children—not for the child’s good—but primarily for the purpose of avoiding criticism. Children learn to be overly concerned about the potential criticism of others. The behavioral context of legalism passes on to a new generation.

Legalism teaches us to look for the worst in people – even if they don’t deserve it. Grace teaches us to look for the best in people – even if they don’t deserve it.

Worse still, when legalism hardens, it begins to assume certain intentions in others. She did X, therefore she must think Y. This is such a dangerous move. When we think we know the intentions of others, we become emboldened; justified in dishing out judgements and consequences.

Grace as the solution to legalism.

You may or may not agree that the virtue of showing others grace was once alive in the public sector. Either way, it seems that this virtue is gone from public discourse. The nation is more divided than ever. Newsreels are filled with the failures of politicians. Tweets and blogs are full of the failure of thinkers and leaders. The desire to show someone else grace will be seen as a failing; as an approval of wrong behavior.

Grace is dead in the public sector.  “Did she show enough remorse?” “Did they give a statement soon enough?” “Was the wording perfect?” “Are they protecting the victims enough?” “Why aren’t they releasing information quickly enough?” “Who shouldn’t be playing golf when?” “Why weren’t their disaster protocols perfect?” “He wasn’t hard enough on the suspect” “He was too harsh with the suspect.” Because legalism is ready to find fault, the legalist will, unsurprisingly, always succeed in finding fault. 

Legalism attempts to inhabit a God’s eye point of view despite a gross lack of awareness regarding the full context of a persons, words, decisions, and choices.  By contrast, God who knows the full context of our actions extends grace to us in the person of Jesus.

Grace, by contrast, gives someone else space. It assumes one is innocent until proven guilty. It assumes the other meant well despite her behaviors. Grace knows that I too could have slipped up too; in fact I do slip up. Grace knows that if God were to find fault, I would be seriously guilty.

Grace is the solution to legalism, both in the church and without.  The church as a mandate to put an end to its legalism, but mainstream America does not. The church’s mandate comes from her savior – Jesus.  She knows that she has learned grace through the kindness of God, a God who in the person of Jesus Christ, came and associated with all the failures of his society. A God who knows our massive failings, but heals and forgives our failures. Christians have a reason to be gracious – they have received grace upon grace from God. Secular society has no such mandate and no such reason. What then will stem the growing tide of secular legalism? Perhaps the example of the church? Who else has the resources to reinject grace into the public?

Grace changes people.

Grace does not turn a blind eye to failing. It looks at it and says, I too need forgiveness, I forgive you. When we experience forgiveness, kindness, and grace from others it heals us. It causes us to be more ready to extend it to others. King David, in 2 Samuel 11, felt the kindness of God and so chose to extend that grace and mercy to the grandson of a man who once tried to kill him (King Saul). Inmates need grace. Cops need grace. CEO’s need grace. Democrats and republicans need grace. God does not need grace. God has extended grace to us. We should go and do likewise; first in the church and also in the public sector. I have no public policy plan for how grace will work itself out into our society without an awareness of the gospel – perhaps it never will. I hope it does.

Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. Psalm 130:1

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