On Penance: a Post-Lenten Confession

Solidarity with Ukraine in the rubble of Syria

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.

Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian

I.

As all of my readers know, a leaked document from the Supreme Court of the United States earlier this week revealed that Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that effectively legalized abortion throughout the U.S., will likely be overturned in a matter of weeks. I have not discussed abortion on this blog, and I will not start in this post. I only bring it up because the reaction of social media, at least in this country, was immediate and emotional. For once, the majority of people I follow on Twitter were not jostling to offer the hottest, wittiest, or most incisive take. Most of them seemed consumed by the gravity of the news and their reactions, however passionate, seemed genuine (not a word one typically associates with Elon Musk’s latest endeavor).

I’m not especially active on Twitter, but I do get caught up in the culture of “takes”: the impulse to craft the perfectly concise, confident, usually detached-but-knowing 280-character response to any given controversy, no matter how big or how small. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m not (in the words of Jeffrey Lebowski) “into the whole brevity thing,” so I’m not especially adept at Twitter takes. But on Facebook or on this blog, and also in my everyday conversations with friends and family, I frequently find myself trying to articulate the cleverest and most knowing position on political and cultural issues as quickly as they arise.

Along with causing death, destruction, and the practical collapse of Europe’s second-largest and seventh-most-populace nation, President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated my tendency opine and offer takes that might generously be called “bullshit.” The Russosphere has fascinated me since I was a teenager obsessed with nineteenth-century Russian literature, the Bolshevik revolution, and the Cold War. I studied the Russian language in college, I spend much of my free time watching scholarly panels on Russian history and politics on YouTube, and, at my worst and most ill-informed moments, I act and speak as if I am an expert on the region. After the invasion, the sound of Russian and Ukrainian voices suddenly echoed from my radio speakers each morning. I immediately felt as if the world urgently needed to know my take on the war.

My initial response to Putin’s invasion—my “hot take”—was informed by years of books, articles, and interviews I have consumed about Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. During these decades, NATO and the European Union made several moves that seemed miscalculated at best, dangerous at worst. I won’t rehearse all the arguments about NATO and the EU’s eastward expansion here; they’ve been thoroughly covered in news media over the past few months. I will summarize my position, which I felt strongly in the weeks following the invasion. I believed that Russia was unfairly antagonized in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union; that they were not sufficiently supported by the West during this period (I agree with the academics and diplomats who advocated for a new “Marshall Plan” for the Eastern Bloc); that they were left out of critical conversations regarding NATO expansion, the bombing of Serbia, the American wars in the Middle East (their backyard), and other issues; and that official American policy regarding post-Soviet Russia had ranged from feckless (Clinton) to provocative (Bush) to naïve (Obama) to non-existent (Trump). Consequently, I viewed the invasion of Ukraine not through the eyes, experiences, and history of the Ukrainian people but through Russia’s relationship with the West. In short, I committed the classic American error of making a major world event all about us…and all the while, I accused others of making that same error.

Worse than all of that, I presented my beliefs about Russia in the glib, dismissive language of “takes.” I pretended to possess wisdom that others who know far more than me about Russian politics and Russian history do not pretend to possess. I acted as though, because I had watched a few John Mearsheimer lectures, I had some kind of insider knowledge, and so I made a lot of foolish statements about Russia, about the West, about Putin, about Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and about global politics. I said too much while knowing too little.

Over Great Lent this year, I committed to fasting from engagement with social media, particularly with Facebook. I was not always successful, but my screen time did go down substantially. And over the process of this disengagement, I learned something incredibly important: I don’t know much of anything about at least three-quarters of the things I talk about. Instead of talking and writing about Ukraine, I spent more time reading and listening. Usually my response to reading and listening is to react, to offer my insights. But, cut off from my online community, I found myself talking to virtually no one (except my wife, who is long-suffering and listened to me rant endlessly about American coverage of the war during our hour-long commute to Iowa City). Instead, I began to absorb the gravity of the situation and the experiences of the people living through it. I began to realize that I had been spending all this time online being a jackass, pretending to know much when in fact I knew next to nothing.

II.

During Great Lent, when I abstained from Facebook, I became humbled by everything I do not know. That hasn’t prevented me from jumping back into the fray now that Lent is over, but I’m doing so more cautiously, with a bit more humility (or simply a bit more shame). Whenever I find myself beginning to rant or react or make glib remarks or feign worldliness, I remind myself that I know pretty much nothing about anything. That doesn’t always stop me from posting nonsense, but it does move me to repent almost every time I do post nonsense.

But there is a long tradition in the West, dating at least as far back as Socrates, of intelligent people admitting that they know nothing. Admitting ignorance is the first maneuver most intelligent people make. What really scares me, deep down, is not being ignorant—ignorance can be a spiritual and intellectual virtue—but being wrong. Being wrong is not something that can be valorized. We don’t admire people who were wrong, unless they managed to be right about something else.

And my fear of being wrong has amounted to an unhealthy desire to be right, not in the eyes of God but in the eyes of my peers. I wanted to be right about Russia, about Ukraine, about the broader refugee crisis in Europe, about imperialism, about racial injustice, and about capitalism. I shot my mouth off about things I did not understand—I did this online, in public, and in private conversations with my wife, friends, and family.

I wanted to account for the horrific Syrian Civil War, which elicited little sympathy from the West, especially when compared to Ukraine. The Syrian war is the product of a Mideast that has been utterly obliterated into dust since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an invasion that was the crucible of my own political identity. And so, having been forged in that crucible, I wanted to know how to respond to—I wanted to be right about—the disparity between the West’s response to murder, death, social collapse, and refugee crises in Ukraine and its response to those same crises in Syria, in Yemen, in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar in Congo, in Venezuela, in Artsakh, in Ethiopia, in Haiti, in Sudan and South Sudan, in Jammu and Kashmir, in Nigeria and Mozambique and Burkina Faso, and in Palestine. I wanted to be right about COVID and climate change. I wanted to be right about my own country and my own people. I wanted to be right about my siblings, my family. I wanted to hold too much knowledge in my head, too many contradictory ideas at once. I wanted secret knowledge. I wanted to know too much: to become like God on my own terms. I wanted certainty. Most of all, I wanted to be right. I wanted to be right about these issues and about many, many other things. I made being right an idol. I wanted to be righteous on my own terms. I was imitating Satan.

Global events and international conflicts are not intellectual exercises. They are not entertainment. They occur in the real world, affecting (and effecting) real lives. I watched a recent interview with a one-time dissident from the former Eastern Bloc who used to complain, upon entering a Barnes and Noble in his newly Westernized city, that all the history books were about World War II. Why, he asked, do these American bookstores feature so many books on that one topic? he asked. Well, he reasoned, at least the Americans are serious about learning the lessons of that war. But in recent years, he has been horrified to find that most Americans—and most Westerners—were simply reading those books as entertainments, absorbing none of the lessons of the period.

As much as I hate to admit it, I have been treating history, current events, and politics as a kind of entertainment, or as a means of puffing myself up. I have been unserious about serious things. I was wrong. And I’ve found it’s very, very difficult to admit that you’re wrong…it’s easier to admit that you’re ignorant than to admit that you’re wrong.

Here, I think the German example is instructive. At the end of World War II, the Germans were more or less forced at gunpoint to admit that they were wrong. And over the decades that followed, they actually internalized and accepted the degree to which they were wrong. They taught us what being wrong looks like. They taught us a lesson in penance. I’m not trying to idealize German society or argue that their response to the Holocaust or the war are the perfect template that other offending societies should follow. But the average German’s attitude toward history teaches us a lot about how to admit that we were wrong. It teaches us about penance.

After the disaster of the American invasion of Iraq, very few journalists, opinion-makers, and news commentators who had gleefully supported the war admitted that they were wrong. Among those who have begrudgingly admitted their mistake, very few have demonstrated real penance for their role in ginning up public support for the invasion. Andrew Sullivan is one of the few examples of a public figure who has demonstrated real repentance for his writings at the time (I was reminded of Sullivan’s penance by Matt Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell in a recent episode of Know Your Enemy). Even William F. Buckley, late in life, admitted that the United States’ war in Vietnam had been a mistake. The examples are exceptional. The reason for this general reluctance to admit wrongdoing is easy to understand: as a journalist, admitting you made a mistake undermines your authority. But it’s absolutely necessary for writers and commentators to admit their mistakes.

So let me say it: I. Was. Wrong. I have been and will likely continue to be wrong. I have been and will be wrong for selfish, ego-boosting reasons. And the fact that being wrong is sort of my perpetual state of being doesn’t excuse it in the slightest.

III.

Not long ago, someone on Twitter posted the following maxim from Marcus Aurelius:

This is a reminder, the tweeter wrote, that Marcus Aurelius has absolved you from the need to have a “take.”

I have been reminding myself of the above maxim a lot lately. I have been trying to resist the urge to have “takes,” to show off my knowledge, to imagine that I have some kind of special knowledge. I have, instead, been thinking in terms of “belief.” I don’t need to bother with forming a take or dispensing information and knowledge (most of which is probably false, anyway) and thinking in terms of my core beliefs.

Here is what I believe:

There is a God, and He is the God of the Jews. I believe that, as Pope John Paul II famously said, the Jews are our elder brothers in faith. In the Bible, the Jewish people—the nation of Israel—formed a covenant with God, and eventually God revealed the Law to him. But I also have some unorthodox beliefs about the process through which the Jews received the Law. I don’t know anything about historical Israel, but I do have suspicions, so let me share what I believe…

I believe that the Jews discovered the Law after they formed families, and then a society, and then a nation. The process of forming families and societies and nations requires a people to formulate certain rules, rules about how to treat each other and how to treat strangers. But such rules need a basis—very few people are satisfied with rules that don’t have a basis in something, and very few people are satisfied with the claim that “this is how we’ve always done it” or “this is our culture” or “we evolved as a social species to have rules that preserved the cohesiveness of the group, which helped our species survive and reproduce,” blah blah blah. People want a stronger basis for the rules of their society. This is one of the reasons that nihilists mockingly post memes of the Joker with the caption “We Live in a Society”—they don’t believe that society has any basis in reality. Most people can’t accept this. And so the Jews realized that something must exist behind the rules, something that upheld their customs and traditions and laws. They called that something the Law.

A society necessarily entails a relationship between the particular and the universal, or else it may descend into nihilism.

But what is the basis for the Law? I believe that, in the process of investigating this question, the Jews discovered God. What could possibly justify the Law—which, according to the prophets, applies not just to the Jews but to humankind—besides an entity who existed outside the Law but affirmed the Law, who served as the basis for the Law? And so the Jews discovered their God, who affirmed universal brotherhood, universal truth, universal justice, and grace to all who sought it. But their God also honored the particularity of the person, in His covenant with Abraham, and in a people, Israel.

I believe that God embodied this strange amalgamation of universality and particularity by becoming a specific, particular Jewish man who was fully human but who could, through a mystery I do not understand, utter the words “I AM.” I believe this God-man showed us, who are so wrong, how to live. And I believe that he, through his death and resurrection and victory over death, showed us how our universal brotherhood could be perfectly united with our God-given personhood, so that we might be deified. I believe in one holy, apostolic, catholic Church comprising brothers and fellow sinners—people who are, like us, wrong—from all the particular nations, lands, and peoples of our world. I believe in what the Church teaches about Christ, I believe in the other teachings and traditions of the Church, I believe in the utterances of the Nicene Creed, and I believe that justice, mercy, brotherhood, human freedom (real freedom), and human equality before God are all real—real—and God-given.

I believe that God the Father gives us access to the universal truth that we all, one way or another, desperately seek. I believe that God the Son gives us access to the particular human experience that we need in order to live a righteous life. And I believe that the Holy Spirit interacts with us through our interactions with each other, through our experience as one member among many in the Church. Anyway, that’s my experience of God. The Father is impossible to represent or articulate but can be experienced; the Son can be represented and can articulate the way in which we should live; and the Holy Spirit governs and guides the Church, which is how Christians interact with and love each other and their neighbors.

I know very little, perhaps nothing. I will strive to be a not-knowing person so that I may be closer to God the Father, who is unknowable; to God the Son, who is knowable and who asks us to take up our cross and obliterate our self; and God the Holy Spirit, who invigorates, guides, and teaches us through our interactions within the community of fellow believers. I believe in the solidarity and love between believers that makes the Church possible. And I believe in a universal love toward all humankind, a love that all Christians are called to embody.

This is what I believe. I may be wrong, or I may express it in the wrong words, and these words may undermine what I am trying to say, and that will make me wrong. That’s okay. Instead of being right, I have faith. I do not know, but I believe.

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