Sheldon Vanauken on the Dangers of Social Action

Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy is probably one of my favourite books. It is certainly the most emotionally involving and moving book I can remember reading in my adult life. I was interested to read in the sequel, Under the Mercy, about Vanauken’s involving in the ’60s anti-war movement. I think his honest description of how a genuine Christian believer can be drawn into such things and then lose sight of faith altogether is instructive and is particularly relevant to our age in which a similar tone is present though the subject matter may have changed.

It was originally the faith that pushed me into action in the ’60s. A church closed to a black man was an offense against Christ. And the war, less certainly, seemed so too. But the danger of social action is, well, what happened to me. First, a generous and loving Christian response to injustice and suffering. Then putting the neighbour first – ahead of God. And finally, putting goals and victory first, ahead of both God and neighbour. Hating one’s enemies. Feeling virtuous, as the social activist always does. Finally, the feelings of virtue leading to pride, even arrogance. In some respects its a noble sin, but it may lead to hell all the same…

I now think that making God secondary (which in the end is to make Him nothing), is, quite simply, the mortal danger in social action, especially in view of the marked intimations of virtue – even arrogant virtue – that perilously accompany it.

Sheldon Vanauken, Under the Mercy

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