The Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment

moral-manThis is what I am thinking about today.

From Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p.248-249:

“One of the most important results of a spiritual discipline against resentment in a social dispute is that it leads to an effort to discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it.  Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolise.  If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation.  William Lloyd Garrison solidified the south in support of slavery by the vehemence of his attacks against slave-owners.  Many of them were, with the terms of their inherited prejudices and traditions, good men; and the violence of Mr. Garrison’s attack upon them was felt by many to be an evidence of moral perversity in him.  Mr. Gandhi never tires of making a distinction between individual Englishmen and the system of imperialism which they maintain. “An Englishman in office,” he declares, “is different from an Englishman outside.  Similarly an Englishman in India is different from an Englishman in England.  Here in India you belong to a system that is vile beyond description.  It is possible, therefore, for me to condemn the system in the strongest terms, without considering you to be bad and without imputing bad motives to every Englishman.”  It is impossible completely to disassociate an evil social system from the personal moral responsibilities of the individuals who maintain it. An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt.  But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so.  Any benefit of the doubt which he is able to give his opponent is certain to reduce animosities and preserve rational objectivity in assessing the issues under dispute.”