On Palm Sunday, March 17th, 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to his brother who was at war in France. C.S. Lewis had had an article appear in The Guardian the previous Friday called “Dangers of National Repentance.” This is the newspaper that went on to print The Screwtape Letters in 1941 and launch Lewis into his public career. But Lewis had begun in 1939 to slide into that public profile by writing The Problem of Pain and a few articles for Theology magazine. He also began sending notes to the Anglican weekly, The Guardian, beginning with this article.
“Dangers of National Repentance” is a short, witty piece that ends up in his famous essay collection, God in the Dock. Lewis is responding to a trend among young Anglican intellectuals at the outset of WWII to call for England to repent of her contribution to the evils of WWI. It is obvious to most that even though the Nazi regime was clearly evil, the context that allowed Nazism to flourish was partly caused by how Europe and North America finished WWI. Lewis allows that the national Church of England may undertake a project of national repentance, but he argues that for young people to do so is to miss two key things.
First, the young people were just children at the outbreak of WWI, that brutal clash of military flesh that began a century ago. They had no voice in WWI, and so were not the “sinners” that need to repent. Therefore, they are repenting on behalf of others, repenting for the sin of their neighbours. Spiritual health, Lewis reminds, is repenting of one’s own sin.
“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, 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.”
Second, the sentiments of the generation have moved on. For an older patriot to repent of England’s sin, there is a price to pay because the patriot truly loves England. It is painful for him to repent; it requires mortification of the flesh to do so. But young, urban intellectuals at the height of social conversation in WWII have different cultural feelings.
“When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies, he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen. All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But ‘my enemy’ primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate and traduce. If you listen to young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names—Colonel Blimp* and the business-man’. I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker’s father, but that is speculation. What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion.”
It is not repentance if it is easy. One cannot repent for the sins of another person’s subculture (or “his own age and class” as Lewis calls it). And there is a cost to focussing on the sins of others, a kind of willful self-blindness that can be spiritually deadly.
“If a man cannot forgive the Colonel Blimp* next door whom he has seen, how shall he forgive the Dictators whom he hath not seen?”
If we can translate the context, the subculture, the “age and class,” I think this critique applies suitably well in today’s social conversation.
Intriguingly, there were three letters to the editor on March 29, 1940, responding to this note of Lewis’. I’m certain they have not been printed. I had the opportunity to go through the WWII-era Guardian in the summer of 2012, and stumbled upon this letter. It is written by the Very Rev. R.H. Malden, Dean of Wells, classical scholar, and author of several ghost stories. He begins by saying he generally agrees with Lewis but wants to challenge one of the presuppositions. After quoting from the paragraph above, Malden writes**:
It is a witty and poignant respond to Lewis’ own thesis written in the same vein.
The second letter, by M.A. Binstead (a pseudonym?), takes singular exception to Lewis’ essay:
“May I venture to say, on behalf of the “youthful national penitents” (his own description) on whom the vials of Mr. C.S. Lewis’s wrath are poured out, that many of us—old and young—who “repent” of certain parts of England’s foreign policy since 1919, are repenting the acts, not only of our neighbour, but of ourselves, as presumably represented by an electoral government?”
“Not that I should say—as does Mr. Lewis—that “repentance” must presuppose condemnation. We ‘repent’ of un-wisdom, of lack of charity and foresight, quite as often as of actual sin, and of such lack we all know there has been in evidence in the Allied policy since the Armistice of 1918, ‘whose pledges were violated in important respects by the peace of 1919 and by its sequel’ (as we were reminded by the Archbishop of York last December).
“In such cases there is less to condemn than to regret, but such regret is poignant, for, as T.E. Lawrence wrote, ‘When we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out and took from us our victory, and re-made it in the likeness of the former world they knew.’
“It was these same elderly men who were to mould the ‘new world’. ‘Can we wonder at a certain bitterness felt by the young at the overthrow of their fond belief that humanity would never again resort to its historic paraphernalia of secret treaties, economic injustices and balances of power?’ To read Mr. C.S. Lewis’s article is to make one realize the generosity of their outlook as against his own narrower one.”
I wonder if the author knew that Lewis was one of the young man of WWI rather than elder men if that might have helped him understand his tone. I don’t know, but the author is right that there is a lot to be disappointed by post-1918.
Lewis and his two critics were approaching the meta-sins of culture—the underlying attitudes that can create a series of consequential actions and ills. The last letter writer, “P.A.C.”, goes to the ills themselves.
“In regard to these dangers, is not the greatest that of unreality? Should we not first of all repent of our real sins?—gambling; football pools; drink; the craze of cosmetics in women, which means egotism and selfishness, lust, as seen in divorce court, and, too often, in cinema and other shows; and, most of all, neglect of God, and indifference to the way in which education has been separated from the true teaching of religion.
“As a nation we are not cruel, and do not hate our enemies, thanks to past teaching on this subject, but the above are our real sins and should be acknowledged as such. The prevalence of such ideas as Dorothy L. Sayers pillories in Strong Meat, shows how little the teaching of Christ and His Church is understood in modern England.”
I think Dorothy Sayers would find it humorous that a fundamentalist would use her as a source! I wonder if aboriginals oppressed by England’s imperial advance, or the children that worked in the factories, would have agreed with “P.A.C.,” that England is not cruel.
As far as I know, Lewis did not respond to any of the three letters. It do find it intriguing, though, that his approach in The Screwtape Letters—written within a f
ew months of this note—is the precise opposite of the sentiments in the last letter. Screwtape’s focus in temptation is not the social sins like drinking, gambling, dancing. Certainly he could use “football pools”—I’m planning to lose in a hockey pool here in Canada—for his nefarious purposes, but only in so far as it draws the believer away from Christ and works against his own humanity. I do not know if Lewis even read the letter, but he certainly did not share the point of view of the third letter-writer.
Otherwise, we wouldn’t be visiting The Eagle and Child, a bar, when we visit Oxford.
*Colonel Blimp was an editorial cartoon character who represented haughty, arcane, elite traditional society.
“Anyone over forty (the age which Mr. Lewis regards as the dividing line) who casts his mind back will recognize that these words were as true twenty, thirty or even forty years ago as they are today.
“Go back further—say to Thackeray, Clive Newcome and Arthur Pendennis show that, in the earlier part of the Victorian era, the views of ‘Young England’ on art, literature, and politics were very much as Mr. Lewis finds them now. Earlier again, the opinions held by Lord Saltire in his youth (as recorded in Ravenshoe) were not dissimilar.
“The truth appears to be that there has never been a time when young men in their twenties were not restless and prone to distrust all wisdom but their own, and to despise all interests which they do not share and all results to which they have not contributed. Probably it is to be hoped that there never will be.
“To attempt to consider how far this perennial attitude of mind is tinged with the self-complacency which, in the comfortable conviction of its exponents, is always the peculiar characteristic of their immediate predecessors, would be, I feel, to embark upon a vast and dangerous sea of speculation.”
I have attempted to find the original publisher of The Guardian or the owners of copyright and have been unsuccessful.