A Temptation for Political Man

I'm reading C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters for the first time. The Screwtape Letters is the story of an "under-secretary of a department" of Hell (Screwtape) giving advice to a "junior tempter," who is working on the corruption of a young man. Lewis's intention, of course, is that in learning of the tactics of Hell, we will also learn how to defend against them.

As a politically-minded fellow, I am struck early on by a passage where Screwtape is talking about introducing a temptation to instrumentalize faith:
Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the 'cause', in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.
This is a temptation of which the political man, the man concerned with worldly life, should be particularly aware. The devil can corrupt our concern for justice by encouraging us to confuse it with our final end or our summum bonum. We mistake the trees for the forest, or choose the part over the whole. This is a temptation in all things, but political life, with its focus on justice in this world, is particularly prone to encouraging this mistake. The point is we need to put first things first, and the first thing is not politics but our relationship with God Himself. If we are not in right-relation with God, we cannot be in right-relation with our fellows. In being in right-relation with God, we are necessarily in right-relation with our fellows.

The triumph of justice, a social virtue, is ultimately dependent on each one of us personally having our priorities straight. This is not to say that this is something we do alone; nothing human can be done "alone" - this is a Liberal (enlightenment) myth. What it does say is that the line of good and evil and ultimately justice runs through each and every human heart. We cannot forget this in participating in our worldly affairs. The problem is not "out there" in some abstraction or social construct - it is in our hearts.

No comments: