One thing every religion has to do is to form consciences. And no religion has been as good at that as Christianity, when it comes to promoting the values that underpin respect for human dignity.
One can recall the famous letter to Diognetus, written around the year 100 AD, which explained that while Christians were just like everyone else, there were big differences: “They [Christians] marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives.”
But one blot on this record is on ample and painful display in Mark Twain’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Huck’s Hurting Conscience
Drifting down the Mississippi, the runaway boy and the runaway slave forge a deep friendship that weathers numerous challenging events. At the climatic point of the novel, Jim is sold back into slavery by two traitorous con men, the “King” and the “Duke.” As Huck wonders what to do, he experiences an interior crisis.
“The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven … something inside of me kept saying, ‘There was the Sunday school; you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d alearnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.’”
Huck’s conscience is telling him that helping the runaway slave is stealing another person’s property and, therefore, is evil. How could he find any peace?
“So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote: ‘Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.’ I felt good and all washed clean of sin; for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.”
The Churches’ Failure
Twain was, of course, a relentless satirist. But satire can only be effective when it contains a large dose of truth. During the antebellum era, several Protestant denominations split along sectional lines over the issue of slavery. Southern preachers, for the most part, caught up in the defensive attitude of slave-owning society as a whole, became veritable biblical apologists for the “peculiar institution.” They frequently trotted out the so-called “Curse of Ham” (Genesis 9: 20-27) as proof that black enslavement was mandated by the Bible. (Many Catholic churchmen found themselves straddling the issue, despite papal condemnations of slavery.)
When religion fails to be religious and instead finds itself bowing to a false idol of ideology, it becomes the agent of conscience deformation. It takes a strong person to break free, to reject the conscience deformation and to do the right thing.
“ laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time … in the day and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. … [He] said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
… I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell’ — and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. … I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.”
Sadly, Huck can only express his conviction as a decision to go to hell. As a 14-year-old boy, Huck doesn’t have the mental categories and vocabulary for what is truly happening. In reality, he isn’t embracing “wickedness.” Quite the opposite. Reflection on his own personal experience of friendship and love is helping him to break with what was really wicked: the slavery-promoting culture that had proved itself adept at finding a biblical warrant for its institutional violence.
“Violent acts are apparently made in the name of God, but this is not God: They are false divinities that must be unmasked; they are not God” (Oct. 11, 2010). Pope Benedict’s words about modern terrorism, a more contemporary instance of ideology’s subversive effect on religion, could have retroactive application. I can almost see Huck nodding in surprised agreement.
Getting Constructive About Criticism
Unfortunately, in Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s skeptical eye rarely catches anything but the hypocritical and the incoherent when it comes to religion, such as his portrait of the rifle-toting, blood-feuding families listening happily to a sermon on brotherly love, oblivious to its obvious application. Twain is a classic representative of the skewering efforts of secular criticism that can leave believers either wincing or lashing back.
While requests for more evenhanded treatment are in order, objective criticism needs to be thoughtfully engaged. It can then help to spur that ongoing purification that is always a part of authentic discipleship, as when earlier this year Pope Benedict spoke of the abuse scandal not as much a product of media sensationalism as of “sin within the Church” (May 11, 2010).
Twain’s jaundiced view of religion would experience a later revision, if not a complete overhaul, when he discovered the virtues and heroism of St. Joan of Arc. (See my previous article). But Huckleberry Finn will always be a reminder that when religion provides cover for the expedient it invites rejection. Certainly the commitment to evangelize requires a continuous examination of conscience.
Legionary Father Steven Reilly writes from New York.