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The Horse I Rode In On Rides Back Out

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 8/25/13 at 11:01 PM

 

A reader writes:

I happened to be flipping through some old e-mails from The National Catholic Register when I ran across your article, “God Bless you and the horse you rode in on,” As usual, your ability to look beyond the top layer of things produced an outstanding account of how the subject of masked hatred can be demonstrated, rationalized, excused and then just simply explained. 

I take from your description that there are at least two possibilities for why people vent anger and hatred, then follow it up by a “may God bless you.” The first is hypocrisy. They want to hate you – and they do – but at the same time, they want to appear to be “honorably motivated,” thus the strained reference to divinity. The second possibility takes the form of temperance. These people also actually hate you, and in their passion attack you, but immediately after, recognize a conflict between their passion and their ideals, taking the edge off the former by an expression of the latter. The second state would seem far better than the first.

Extrapolating from your insights, may I suggest a behavior that reverses the order of hate delivery. Some haters first patronize their target with elaborate praise - then with great craft, subtly insert a knife between the third and fourth ribs. The hate displayed here exceeds that of the two you describe above, in that it is evidently premeditated and designed to destroy. No extenuating circumstance softens this version of hate, the hater himself appearing reasonable while the hated is unmistakably painted as suspect – worthy of the hate directed at him. 

I’m fairly sure there are a slew of other hatred scenarios that might be pursued. Perhaps you might develop a few more to stimulate reader introspection? We would certainly stand to benefit.

Certainly we know from revelation and from common experience that in addition to the phenomenon of genuine interior struggle against sin, there is also the phenomenon of those who struggle to conceal their sin so as to indulge it.  Jesus speaks of the Pharisees who rejected him, not as weak men nobly striving to discover and express the better angels of their natures, but as "whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matthew 23:27-28).  And indeed that is typically the first assumption we make when we encounter seriously hypocritical behavior from a pious person. 

(And by the way, I would use "pious" to denote not merely religious piety, but a wide range of behavior by which people live out their conception of what a "good" or "decent" person does.  So one can be a "pious" supporter of recycling, or public radio, or volunteering at the homeless shelter or whatever other way somebody might live out what their culture tells them is a "moral' life.  And, even on those terms, "pious" people can be hypocrites and violate their own personal codes.  So the civic minded volunteer at the voting booth might secretly destroy ballots, or the library supporter might filch books, or the one who preaches environmentalism might drive a gas guzzler.)

So sure, there are people whose words and deeds contradict each other, not because they are decent people locked in combat with their disordered appetites, weakened will, and darkened intellect, but because, as you note, they are are malicious people covering their malice with a veneer of seeming virtue.  So we see people all through the gospel asking Jesus questions, not out of an honest interest in the truth, but in order to catch him in his words and find some way to condemn him.

Sometimes, that can be pretty easy to discern.  So when somebody flatters you a couple of times before sticking in the shiv (as in your example) sure, common sense says not to go all pollyanna and pretend they mean well.  But at the same time, part of the reason I wrote the column is that this easy inference can sometimes be wrong and we can misread people's intentions.  And the problem can be that there is simply no way to know if the person we are dealing with is a malicious person covering his malice with a veneer of virtue or a virtuous person struggling with concupiscence like St. Paul:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:15-19)

All this lies in the realm of prudential judgment, of course.  You have to make the judgment call as to whether you are talking to a struggling friend or a duplicitous enemy.  The gospel, of course, gives us the counsel of charity in all cases, including with enemies.  But it also calls us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. With the weak, we are called to gentleness.  With the sinner we are called to admonish and rebuke.  And with the impenitent we are called to forgive and to not cast our pearls before swine.