The Bare Minimum

How often do we come across the claim that so-and-so is ‘basically a good person’, or, despite the fact that they repeatedly behave in an obnoxious fashion, use crude or vindictive language, etc, that they are, deep down, basically a nice guy? This situation presents a number of problems for the Christian, as we are told not to make judgements about others, knowing that only God knows the secrets of the human heart, and that there are large bits of wood that need removing from our own eyes before we start trying to pluck splinters from the eyes of others. However, not judging people does not mean being oblivious to falsehoods, especially when they are misleading ones.

The above claims I’ve cited are predicated upon the assumption that to be a ‘good person’ means reaching levels of civility, politeness and common courtesy that we should expect from each and every member of society – i.e.; the bare minimum. They also seem to imply that it is enough that someone act courteously towards people face-to-face, but when cutting things are said about others behind their backs, this does not impinge upon the slanderer’s character. The number of times I have been in a situation where I have heard such things said is innumerable, and I still haven’t worked out a satisfying means of dealing with it other than remaining silent and trying not to give any impression of endorsing the slander.

Again, I would not wish to imply that I am ‘judging’ from a position of moral superiority, or have never done such things myself – this would be a gross misrepresentation of my past and present history! I am however very concerned that the excusing of such behaviour, in all of us, on the basis that one can be a ‘good person’ in spite of these transgressions, is a very damaging thing indeed. Firstly, it is clear that justifying bad behaviour (no matter how commonplace or casually performed) in others is a very good way of making oneself believe that the same sort of things are okay in general – i.e.; it makes the one who endorses slander, vindictiveness, crudeness, etc feel as if these are not serious sins, and so makes it more likely they will succumb to them as well.

Secondly, if an observer sees someone who claims to be a Christian joining in with such behaviour, then we will have reinforced already prevalent ideas that all Christians are no better than anyone else, or in fact worse for being hypocrites. One remedy to this is of course to avoid society we know to behave this way, but once in such company, silence does seem to be the best option, as it avoids both endorsement and pedantry (both of which can make for damaging witness). C.S. Lewis has some good advice here, in his Reflections on the Psalms, where he considers passages in the Psalter that deal with such situations:

Silence is a good refuge. People will not notice it nearly so easily as we tend to suppose. And (better still) few of us enjoy it as we might be in danger of enjoying more forcible methods. Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority. A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.

Reflections on the Psalms (1964), p.63, Fontana Books.

            Lewis’ advice is sound I think, and I have tried (not always successfully) to keep to some version of it. However, my main point here is that the behaviour that I have loosely described above – fulfilling obligations to courtesy in public, whilst saying and doing either rude or downright nasty things in private – is considered to meet a ‘bare minimum’ level of conduct, which qualifies one to be described as ‘basically a good person’. An extension to this could also include the fact that such-and-such a person is nice to their friends and family members, willing to do things for them, look after them, give them a shoulder to cry on, etc, whilst still exhibiting the aforementioned pernicious behaviour, and not extending their charity beyond friend and family.

The first thing to note here is that the bare minimum standards for being a good person that are invoked today are quite often very bare indeed. During my lifetime I have met a great number of scoundrels, all who have been considered to be ‘nice guys’ by those well aware of the full range of their behaviour. It is becoming increasingly hard to see just which criteria of goodness are being met in some individuals, to the point where the term ‘nice guy’ almost becomes meaningless. It seems the maxim that ‘as long as you’re not hurting anyone’ used as an ethical rule of thumb is being taken to its logical conclusions, and as long as you’re not being actively violent towards anyone, you have met the minimum standards necessary.

So first of all, the standards seem to have been lowered quite substantially. The second thing though, is that even when we are not behaving as scoundrels, or not chatting about people behind our backs, and when we are consistently good to our friends and family – in other words when we are meeting something that could be said to be a bare minimum of good behaviour – this, according to Our Lord, is not enough. For we are not called to do just as much as everyone else should be doing; we are called to excellence. The standards we must aim for (whilst being fully aware that we will regularly fall short of them) are those laid out on the Sermon on the Mount – we must be perfect, as Our Heavenly Father is perfect.

The ethical rule of thumb for the Christian is instead to aim for the great heights, knowing full well that although we, weak as we are, will often stumble along the way, that the One who sets the bar so high is also One who is infinitely merciful, and waiting to help us up off the ground every step of the way. The higher the goal, the more one can and will achieve – if we aim for the bare minimum, which even the Gentiles and the tax collectors do (c.f.; Matthew 5:43-47), then we may reach it, we may not. But if we aim for the higher path, the way walked by Our Lord and taken by the saints that followed Him, then even our imperfect attempts to do so will greatly exceed the minimum standards, and the Kingdom of God may, in some small part, be shown in us.

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4 thoughts on “The Bare Minimum

  1. Great article Michael – thank you! I agree with everything you have said. Not many people remember that “to give false witness”, or IOW, to slander a person’s character knowingly and unjustly, is considered by God to be a grave sin and is included in the Ten Commandments, to be avoided at all costs. (Oh dear, I can’t say I’ve never been guilty of this too!! 😦 )

    I have often found myself in the same predicament as you, when silence is really the most prudent action. Depending on the occasion though, sometimes one can (and should) speak up against what is being said in the calmest and most natural way one can muster, when to remain silent would be making oneself an accomplice to the evil.
    This happened to me once – I’ll never forget it – when at a meeting some really sinful ideas were being condoned by fellow catechists, Catholics, (very liberal ones though) that would have affected the children we were teaching. Although I was snapped at and criticised, and even called “a fool” by someone (which all caused me a few tears that I held back till afterwards), I was also filled with a sense of peace for having spoken out.

    Yes, as Catholics we should never be satisfied with just “the bare minimum” – to be considered by the world at large “a good person” (which is all relative to what we understand by that phrase anyway). We should constantly seek a deeper conversion, to be more Christlike in EVERY way in our love for God and neighbour, not just family and friends (when being kind and generous is easy, precisely because we love them), and this sets the goal post very high! 😉 It is our daily challenge as we trudge along our pilgrim way, stumbling a little sometimes (as you say) but always keeping our eyes fixed our eyes on our Heavenly Home.

    • Thank you Kathleen! 🙂

      It is difficult in those situations isn’t it (and we’ve all been in them), and hard to know what to do. As you say though, whilst staying silent is often the best policy, there are definitely times when something needs to be said, and this is why I find Lewis’ advice very useful – to say what needs to be said calmly and not didactically, and also to remember that even if the person is convinced at the time, our words might well stick with them later.

      His point about it not mattering as much as we think whether we ‘win’ the argument or not has helped me out a lot, as I have been in so very many exasperating discussions, and found it very hard to stay calm! I am sorry to hear about that situation at the meeting that you’ve described – the behaviour of your fellow catechists sounds downright horrible. But the sense of peace for speaking that you received is wonderful 🙂 And hopefully they will have felt shamed for their behaviour, perhaps even considered what you said because of the shame!

      As you say though, the important thing in all this really is to keep our eyes fixed on Heaven (there is something in Saint Paul – Colossians perhaps? – about this, but I can’t remember the reference!) If we do this, the opinions of people will matter less, and we will more easily choose the right thing to do in ANY situation.

  2. Re the unpleasant experience with those “liberal” catechists – thank you for coming so loyally to my defense Michael! 🙂 Yes, it really was horrible, especially as these were fellow Catholics (which is why I think I was so hurt by it) though it wasn’t the whole group who “attacked” me, only a few. One of those who was nasty obviously regretted it afterwards (though she never apologised) and made a big effort to be extra friendly later! It was altogether a difficult period when I found myself surrounded by many liberal-leaning “Catholics” who challenged a lot of the Church’s teachings. A very formidable leftie woman ran the catechesis in those days, and she badly influenced what would have been some otherwise nice people. Anyway, she moved from the parish a year or two later, to be replaced by a newcomer, a very scholarly orthodox Catholic man, and in no time he got the catechesis back on more traditional levels. He persuaded the dear old priest (not present at the incident btw) to change the books we were using that had been highly unsuitable – all “feel good” rubbishy stuff.

    Yet to get back to the subject of speaking out – it really does take guts to do so sometimes when you are alone and surrounded by a bunch of hostile adversaries. Occasionally I am cowardly and just too scared to do so, I must admit. In reality sometimes speaking out in defense of Catholic teachings when you are with non-Catholics could even provoke greater and nastier insults to ensue, so certainly silence would then be your best bet. I really admire Catholics like Caroline Farrow, Nick Donnelly etc. who are very much in the limelight, defend Catholic principles, and have to suffer so much verbal aggression and harrassment because of their courage and faithfulness.

    This is perhaps wandering away a bit from the subject of your article, but then again perhaps not! After all, just leading a protected, comfortable, uncomplicated life, even if one automatically fulfills one’s daily duties, is just not enough. This is the bare minimum, yes, but we are asked to do more, much more – as you point out above. We are called to pick up our cross of “complicating” our lives by going to where we will be ridiculed, confronted, even vilified sometimes, by “swimming” against the tides of secularism, hedonism, consumerism… and all the other nasty “isms”! But we should not fear; we are not alone – we know that. 🙂

    • I am glad that the new catechist rectified the situation! It is notable also that you say he was a scholarly man, as well as orthodox. I find that we are often presented with a situation wherein all the liberal-leaning people are seen as subtle, penetrating thinkers, who rigorously consider the sources and arguments for any position, whereas the orthodox amongst us are seen as just stick-in-the-muds, and worse of all ‘out of date’ with the ‘latest scholarship’.

      Whilst it is true that the liberal-leaning types are often more ‘up to date’ in this way, in my experience there is very little questioning of the latest scholarship, with its findings accepted unquestioningly and uncritically; whilst it is the orthodox who really take the time to weigh up arguments old and new, and who can really be said to be the ‘scholarly’ ones. No doubt I could be accused of prejudice here as I agree with their position, but I really think it is the case that there is a lot of superficial intellectualism in liberal circles, and a lot more considered scholarly reading in orthodox ones. Re the ‘latest scholarship’, there is of course some good stuff out there, but we really do have to be as ‘wise as serpents’ in finding it, as there’s an awful lot of chaff out there too!

      Sorry, I have digressed now 🙂 But your digression was indeed not really so – firstly, your experience shows just how important it is to speak the truth when the time comes; and secondly, the issue of doing so in the public sphere is a very important one, as secularists (despite proclaiming that they have no problems with religion and just want to keep Church and State separate) really do just want to silence the religious voice completely. Having people like Caroline Farrow and Nick Donnelly (plus many others) speak up on important issues (and providing a corrective to the biased presentation we get in the media) is a thorn in their side – they hate religion, and want it out of the way, principally I think because it reminds them of that little voice inside telling them that the way they are living is not what it should be.

      As you say, picking up our cross is the real bare minimum, and it is only by doing so that we will be able to stem the tide of those (both within and without the Church) who hate the true Faith and either want to destroy it or to turn it into something more comfortable and amenable to their own desires. Thank you again for sharing your experience btw – it is precisely this sort of courage to stand up and speak that is needed 🙂

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