Gilbert Meilaender is a truly heroic figure. I would like to share my admiration for him with others as an encouragement to persevere in the face of persecution. Meilaender is an internationally known ethicist and one of a group of eminent students belonging to the Ramsey Colloquium, named for the Princeton scholar, Paul Ramsey. These are among the most distinguished scholars of their generation. A careful, pastorally sensitive, contemporary statement regarding the church’s teaching on homosexuality was published by this colloquium. As a result, many of them were harassed and treated with inexcusable persecution on campuses, including Oberlin, the University of Virginia, and Yale.
Meilaender, a professor at Oberlin, seems to have received the worst treatment. In his article “On Bringing One’s Life to a Point” (1994 November edition of First Things), he describes his response to the cruel rage and paucity of responsible support with a testimony of unyielding perseverance without anger, self-righteousness, or self-pity. His demeanor and spirit were so devoid of what would be natural and human (in the negative senses of both terms) that it could be only described by one word: graceful.
I only know this man through his writings, but his graceful perseverance and faithfulness could be an example for any of us facing hostility in our own lives. Under pressure he drew on Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and the psalmists whose testimonies could lead and encourage any of us to a similar grace. In rereading his article after more than a decade, I am newly inspired by an insight he gives from Lewis.
He shows me something I had too long missed. It is the very word understand. To stand under an idea (as did Mark Studdick in Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength), with the knowledge that ideas are not mere opinions but tough, durable, and objective realities, gives one a perspective that is deeper and less self-righteous than one would have defending one’s own opinion.
Meilaender writes: “The truth I think I understand and for which I must stand up is, in reality, a truth that I stand under and to which I look up. To put the point again in the language of hymnody, in such moments I prefer ‘beneath the cross of Jesus, I long to take my stand,’ to ‘stand up, stand up for Jesus.’”
An even more important grace that comes with persecution is shown in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Isolation and suffering for what one sees as right is fraught with the temptation of self-righteousness. But in Bonheoffer’s writings and life Meilaender realized that in reading the Psalms, as Bonhoeffer did, we “pray them as our own only in him [Christ], the righteous sufferer who calls on God for vindication.” It is indeed “under the cross” that we are to take our stand.
These stands have always caused division, isolation, loss of friends, and sometimes death. Much of what and whom we have trusted is lost, and we have painfully discovered how relatively unimportant are the lesser things in which we have put our faith. Calvin taught us that our hearts are veritable “idol factories.” The refreshing thing about persecution, suffering, or unpopularity for remaining faithful to the Gospel is the chance to appreciate freedom from our idols. We can sing with more passion and gratitude: “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also…. His kingdom is forever.”
The most subtle and unproductive of idols has to do with righteousness and its shadow, self-righteousness. I have a painful recollection of sitting in my pew halfway listening to a sermon on the book of Amos. My mind wandered to my fellow bishops in the Episcopal Church. I was comparing myself with them and coming out quite favorably when the preacher poured Amos’ plumb line of God’s justice on my pew. My heart tore. I went home and fished out my carpenter’s plumb line and hung it from the second floor over the stairs so that it greets me at the front door. After two and one-half years my wife asked when we could take it down. “When there’s no more problem of self-righteousness,” I replied. It still hangs there.
When Jesus warned us against the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt 16:6, 12), it is an enduring and ever-needed warning. The yeast of self-righteousness is always in the air, and it is always welcome by our self-centered hearts. Like the alcoholic who never says he used to be an alcoholic but only claims that he is a recovering alcoholic, so we victims of Pharisee yeast should never say we used to be self-righteous, only that we are recovering Pharisees.
Danger lies, however, in the very subtlety of recognizing one’s unworthiness. It can inhibit the very nerve of action and fight, as Hamlet observed, “and conscience doth make cowards of us all.” One can wish perhaps that Gilbert Meilaender had fought more aggressively against the wickedness and tyranny of politically correct dogma in the academic world.
The figure of John Bunyan comes to mind as one whose stand for what he saw to be just and right landed him in jail for twelve years, refusing to relinquish his call to preach the Gospel. Whatever courage we might be showing today is reduced to less than insignificance in comparison with Bunyan.
In remaining faithful to Christ, subsequent stands can be occasions of freedom from our idols and a quality of grace we did not before possess.