The danger in denying what we can’t not know…

Revenge-J. Bud

“Things are getting worse very quickly now. The list of what we are required to approve is growing ever longer. … So why do things get worse so fast? It would be well to know, in case the process can be arrested.”


“The usual explanation,” writes J. Budziszewski, “is that conscience is weakened by neglect.”  Conscience is a passive barrier.  The more it’s overrun, the more it’s eroded.  Finally, it is worn down and is no barrier at all.


Budziszewski acknowledges that there is truth in this explanation.  But it’s not the whole story and probably not the most important part.


Conscience is not a passive barrier but an active force; though it can hold us back, it can also drive us on. Moreover, conscience comes not from without but from within: though culture can trim the fringes, the core cannot be changed. The reason things get worse so fast must somehow lie not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape.


In the “The Revenge of Conscience,” J. Budziszewski gives us a profound meditation on the mechanism of sin.  His essay is not a sermon on the “law written on the heart,” as discussed in the Epistle to the Romans.  Rather, it is a study in the psychology of sin from within a biblical framework.


If the law written on the heart can be repressed, then we cannot count on it to restrain us from doing wrong; that much is obvious. I have made the more paradoxical claim that repressing it hurls us into further wrong. Holding conscience down doesn’t deprive it of its force; it merely distorts and redirects that force. We are speaking of something less like the erosion of an earthen dike so that it fails to hold the water back, than like the compression of a powerful spring so that it buckles to the side.


Here is how it works. Guilt, guilty knowledge, and guilty feelings are not the same thing; men and women can have the knowledge without the feelings, and they can have the feelings without the fact. Even when suppressed, however, the knowledge of guilt always produces certain objective needs, which make their own demand for satisfaction irrespective of the state of the feelings. These needs include confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification.


Now when guilt is acknowledged, the guilty deed can be repented so that these four needs can be genuinely satisfied. But when the guilty knowledge is suppressed, they can only be displaced. That is what generates the impulse to further wrong. Taking the four needs one by one, let’s see how this happens.


Sin always generates demands for satisfaction, and at the heart of Budziszewski’s essay is his discussion of how this works.  Here are his main points.


·         The need to confess arises from transgression against what we know, at some level, to be truth.

·         The need to atone arises from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid.

·         The need for reconciliation arises from the fact that guilt cuts us off from God and man. Without repentance, intimacy must be simulated precisely by sharing with others in the guilty act.

·         Finally we come to the need for justification, which requires more detailed attention. Unhooked from justice, justification becomes rationalization, which is a more dangerous game than it seems.


Budziszewski’s discussion is not merely an exercise in abstraction.  He illustrates his points by using real-life cases, some of which he’s learned about from counselors in crisis pregnancy centers.  For example:


The need to atone arises from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid. One would think such knowledge would always lead directly to repentance, but the counselors whom I have interviewed tell a different story. One woman learned during her pregnancy that her husband had been unfaithful to her. He wanted the child, so to punish him for betrayal she had an abortion. The trauma of killing was even greater than the trauma of his treachery, because this time she was to blame. What was her response? She aborted the next child, too; in her words, “I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby.” By trying to atone without repenting, she was driven to repeat the sin.


The lessons provided by “The Revenge of Conscience” are profound.  The implications are personal and communal—and, yes, even national.  But can we learn these hard lessons?  Can we learn that “our contrivances never do succeed in canceling out the natural consequences of breaking the natural law?”


Unfortunately, the condition of human beings since before recorded history is that we don’t want to learn hard lessons. We would rather remain in denial. What power can break through such a barrier?


The only Power that ever has. Thomas Aquinas writes that when a nation suffers tyranny, those who enthroned the tyrant may first try to remove him, then call upon the emperor for help. When these human means fail, they should consider their sins and pray. We are now so thoroughly under the tyranny of our vices that it would be difficult for us to recognize an external tyrant at all. By our own hands we enthroned them: our strength no longer suffices for their removal: they have suspended the senate of right reason and the assembly of the virtues: the emperor, our will, is held hostage: and it is time to pray.


Nothing new can be written on the heart, but nothing needs to be; all we need is the grace of God to see what is already there. We don’t want to read the letters, because they burn; but they do burn, so at last we must read them. This is why the nation can repent. This is why the plague can be arrested. This is why the culture of death can be redeemed. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before thee . . . a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”



The Revenge of Conscience” was originally published in the journal First Things, June/July 1998.  It later became the title essay for the book, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man.

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