The sins of the fathers . . . and ours
Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis warned against surrogate contrition
In March 1940, C. S. Lewis wrote a column in The Guardian titled “The Dangers of National Repentance.” England had only recently entered the Second World War, and a number of young Anglican intellectuals were urging their fellow citizens to recognize penitently the extent to which England and other enemies of Germany in the war of 1914–1918 had created the conditions that gave rise to this new conflict. Lewis — who had been wounded in the Great War and whose brother Warnie was at the time of the column’s composition stationed in France — perceived a perilous temptation presented by activists eager to repent on behalf of their elders.
“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is . . . the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing — but, first, of denouncing — the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ . . .
“Is it not, then, the duty of the Church to preach national repentance? I think it is. But the office — like many others — can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance. We know that a man may have to ‘hate’ his mother for the Lord’s sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her — that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling before it in the unnatural — the spectacle becomes merely disgusting.”
— from “The Dangers of National Repentance” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970)
Note: A reading of this essay by C. S. Lewis is available here.