“The Moral Crisis – A Study in Treason”
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
February 19, 1950
I am not preaching this sermon because I think I understand treason. In most respects it is as baffling to me as to anybody, and I lay no claim to superior wisdom. But I have done a good deal of thinking about it. Perhaps you have, too. I very much hope so. I hope so because I believe that we need some better explanations than are commonly offered to us. And I am taking up the subject with the thought that if I cannot provide the right answers I may at least be helpful in indicating some of the right questions.
We used to believe–most of us, at any rate–that a traitor was an altogether evil person. His aims were low, his motives sordid and his behavior squalid and iniquitous. That is the way traitors had been described to us. But we should have known better. We should have studied a story like that of David and Absalom in the Old Testament. We should have considered the character of a political assassin like Brutus. We should have learned a little more of Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. We should have recognized that treason is seldom consciously evil and that its motives are almost never simple and uncomplicated. And we should have known that what has happened in the past can always happen in the present and the future, too…
How does it come about–this is what we need to try to understand–that one whose personal qualities seem admirable comes somehow to serve an evil purpose and conspire against the loyalties that, to the rest of us, seem good? How does a man, apparently honest, arrive at a position where deception and duplicity are not obnoxious to him? What happens to his sense of right and wrong?
And it is here, of course, that we must raise our first question. How do we establish, as over against this man, our own standards of right and wrong? From his viewpoint, what he is doing is right. If we tell him that treason is always wrong, that no one has the right to conspire against the society that nurtured him, he can remind us that in 1776, two thirds of the American people were guilty of treason; or at any rate that this was the opinion of the remaining third. He can point out to us that we do not mind treason if the society against which it is directed is repugnant to us. If a citizen of the Soviet Union conspires against the Kremlin, we are glad of it, and hope his treachery will prove successful. So how can we contend that treason is always wrong?
We can meet these arguments, no doubt, to some extent: perhaps we can even meet them to our own complete satisfaction. We can object that the American Revolution was an open mutiny and not conspiratorial; those who engaged in it were not for the most part practitioners of subterfuge and imposture; they were forthright, honest men. But to this the modern traitor might reply that in 1776, conditions were favorable to forthright revolution, and that if the revolution had not succeeded, the victorious tyranny of King George III would have been resisted by every device available.
Since this conjecture might be true, there is nothing we can say in answer to it–nothing, that is, which would convince a modern American who had transferred his loyalty to the Soviet Union. What it would come down to is the question of which society deserves his loyalty, and if such a man had decided that his sympathies were Russian, he could go on to tell us that he was entitled to do whatever he could in furtherance of them. We might object to this–that he could do it only through deception; we might say that deception is an evil thing, no matter what the end in view, and that if he stooped to conspiracy and fraud, he would corrupt and vitiate whatever might be good in his own purposes. We could say this, but he would not believe us. He would tell us that we were merely voicing our own preferences; that we were prisoners of a bourgeois moral code–a code which is not binding upon those who have emancipated themselves from it. And, in short, that we are not the final arbiters of right and wrong.
So that, as I say, the first question, and obviously an important one, is the question of establishing standards: standards of right and wrong. And we live in an age when this is far from easy. Doubtless, it always had its difficulties, even in the days when most of the world believed that moral standards were vested with divine authority; but today, that belief has largely disappeared: men do what seems right in their own eyes because they are not sure that right and wrong have any other sanction; then, when they grow tired of this, they make the Kremlin their authority–a substitute for God.
Here, we begin to see what our second question must be–the question of what it is that brings men to this spiritual allegiance, turning communism into a religion and surrendering conscience to a secular hierarchy. But we must wait a moment before we are ready to consider it. We have not yet understood the question of the loss of standards: standards of right and wrong.
Where do they come from, these standards? And what authority do they ever have? This, of course, is one of the ultimate questions–and has always been. The nature of it is brought out particularly well, I think, by Bernard Shaw, in his play, Major Barbara. In the third act of that play, Andrew Undershaft is trying to discover what occupation his son should take up. He has a rather low opinion of his son’s abilities; and the son has an equally low opinion of his father’s social ethics. So the father suggests some possible careers: literature, art, philosophy, the army, the navy, the legal profession, the stage, but his son will have nothing to do with any of them. “Well,” says Undershaft, becoming impatient, “is there anything you know or care for?” “I know the difference between right and wrong,” replies the son, rebukingly. “What!” exclaims the father. “No capacity for business, no knowledge of law, no sympathy with art, no pretension to philosophy; only a simple knowledge of the secret that has puzzled all the philosophers, baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business, and ruined most of the artists: the secret of right and wrong. Why man, you’re a genius, a master of masters, a god! At twenty-four, too!”
The secret of right and wrong! Yes. The secret that baffles every generation and resists the efforts, even of the wisest, fully to disclose it. How sure can we be that what we call right is really right? That what we condemn as wrong is truly so?…
The answer is that with our minds alone we cannot be sure. From the ethics of revealed religion through the ethics of utilitarianism to the ethics of communism–everything can be argued, and argued interminably. That, doubtless, is what got the British physicist into trouble.* In his father’s words–and his father is reported to be a theologian–this man has the mind of a genius and the soul of an infant. He did not mean the soul of an infant in the sense of unspoiled purity or simplicity. He meant–or I assume he did–in the sense of an arrested spiritual development. The soul of the man is stunted, dwarfed, ungrown. If this is not what was meant, it should have been meant. For I am convinced that it comes as near to the truth as words can come. There can be a mind like Spengler’s, for instance, stupendous, magnificent, but at the disposal of a soul that never grew up. And because it never grew up, it never grew strong enough to bear the burden of a fully human life; and so it became sick and disordered and its sickness contributed to the rise of Hitler and all the malignities of the Nazi epoch of German life.
To a lesser extent, the same may be said of Karl Marx. By a lesser extent, I mean that the sickness of soul was less–not the consequences to the world at large. And so may it be said of Schopenhauer and Nietszche, and of many another. A brilliant mind cannot of itself unlock the secret of right and wrong. Unless the soul can grow–that is to say, the spirituality, the wide, deep sympathy, the compassion, the inner hardihood which makes it possible to deal strongly with one’s own life and gently with all other life: unless this inner mystery of heart and conscience can break forth and go out with a man into the world in which he makes his way–he will never find the right and wrong even of his own age, his own time, his own generation, and its part in the struggle of history. He will never know–will never allow himself to know, until, perchance it is too late–that right and wrong are part of the law of his life and that if he would, he might have seen them well enough to follow them.
This is what we can understand when we read the writings of such converted communists as Arthur Koestler. And very few who have not read such writings will fully grasp what I am saying here, this morning. A great many who have never been tempted to treason could be tempted to it–if the circumstances of their lives had happened to bring temptation near. They could be tempted because they have not discovered what Arthur Koestler did–he, and many another, most of whom have been speaking to us in vain–about this inward truth of the human soul.
What is it that happens to an undergrown soul? Let us try to be specific. Let us take such cases as occur–and might occur in greater numbers–in our own American life. This ungrown soul is in revolt against its own frustrations. It hates, perhaps, the neglect or injustice suffered in childhood, and sees in every kind of authority that represses or restricts it, the repugnant image of the father. Here, we come to the dark places that modern psychology has been trying to brighten for us. To the oppressions and rivalries of childhood we can trace many of the feelings of persecution and injury that are carried forward into adult life. Here, also, are the hated inferiorities: inferiorities in attractiveness, in talent, in virility, in any of a hundred ways–inferiorities which the stunted soul refuses to accept as real but attributes to the evil nature of the outer world which is constantly insulting and rejecting it. The greater success of others is due to injustice, never to their superior abilities, and so the success of others is hated and rebelled against.
Gradually, a secret malice poisons the soul and prevents its growth. Instead of defeat being distilled into wisdom, it becomes the ground of mutiny. Instead of sympathy going out to others, it is turned inward on oneself. Right becomes an expression, partly of a rational desire for justice and partly of this hidden, secret malice. Wrong is whatever stands in the way of what the distorted soul is wishing for. Not, of course, that these facts are recognized–except sometimes in the office of a psychiatrist, or through a spiritual liberation or conversion. On the contrary, these evil motives unite themselves with higher ones and turn their victim into a crusader. The higher motives are just as genuine as the evil ones, but the evil ones are likely to gain a camouflaged ascendancy, especially in a crisis. And thus an individual who is a communist (or a fascist) mainly because he is an idealist–or at least partly for that reason–becomes in the end a conspirator against human society because he hates human society. He hates it because it has not given him what he wanted, and out of this hatred comes such a monster as Hitler and all the lesser Hitlers of the entire Nazi psychosis; out of this hatred, also, comes the malignant inner core of the communist movement, highly developed mentally and stunted in soul.
Out of the dark depths of this same cavern of human frustration comes the surrender, the moral surrender, that refuses henceforth to discover right and wrong for oneself, but submits instead to an authority, a vengeful authority, an authority that is on the side of the sick soul’s maliciousness, and which promises to destroy the last vestiges of the spiritual authority which the soul has rejected. The Kremlin is the father-substitute, the god-substitute, the symbol of mutiny enthroned in the sky. And so it becomes two things at once: the focus of the soul’s revolt and at the same time the tranquillizer, the blesser and soother of the ill-adjusted individual conscience.
The psychology of this is rather subtle: yet, once you have seen it, it is perfectly plain. I have yet to meet a communist, or a near-communist, who is not largely explained by it. Let us try to say it again, in a rather different way. The soul is childish and undergrown. But the mind is well developed. This means that spiritually and morally the things a child wants are the things the adult communist wants. He wants to accept authority and to have its approval–this is a powerful psychological urge–and at the same time to avoid being restrained–to rebel violently against authority. He can only achieve this contradiction–or seem to achieve it–by accepting an authority, the communist hierarchy, which is itself in revolt: in revolt against all other authority, including the authority of prevailing standards of right and wrong. In this way, it is possible to rebel against the parental image and at the same time be accepted and guided by the parent-substitute. That is the first thing. The second is that restraints are removed in such a way that inferior people, by becoming conspirators, can cause themselves to feel superior. They belong to an elite–the conspiracy. They can indulge their malice against society. It is not necessary to make a personal effort at adjustment; instead of this the society can be made to adjust to one’s own undergrown soul. The hated superiorities which one cannot oneself attain can be dragged down and trampled on–and all in the name of justice and restitution.
Meanwhile, there can be tantrums and name calling, as witness Hitler or the Soviet delegates at the United Nations–obvious manifestations of arrested emotional development and symptoms of prolonged childhood. The malicious instincts of an undisciplined but precocious child can be combined with plausibly right aims and higher idealisms: right and wrong, so to speak, can be done both at the same time. Right, that is, as the mind contrives to view it, wrong as it exists in hidden motivation. One can have approval–the approval of the parent-substitute, or the god-substitute–for doing wrong; and at the same time pretend that wrong is done only that right may eventually prevail.
That is the sickness of the stunted soul–so far as I have had time to describe it in these few minutes–which makes it easy for apparently honorable men to turn to treason. In some such men, the sickness of soul is less and the idealism more, especially at the beginning. In others there is almost no idealism whatever; nothing but sickness of soul. And the worst of it is that highly intellectual types–types, also, which are emotionally very sensitive–are most susceptible to this spiritual underdevelopment. Magnificent minds and the souls of infants…And so the minds grow strong only to get lost. And the souls are too weak, and after a while too sick, to help the minds to find their way.
So that our first question leads inescapably to our second. Indeed, in formulating the one more fully, we have also stated the other. The undergrown soul, because its sympathies are narrow, is never cleansed of malice, never makes its peace with life as life really is, hates itself and turns its self-hatred out upon the world, and so is unable to find its way between right and wrong–and if the mind is brilliant, the effect is merely to increase the contradictions and confusion.
I do not mean by this that there are no evils in our own society which could make us look at other societies in the hope that they might be better and invite allegiance. A free mind is a mind free to choose. There can be no slavish loyalty to existing institutions merely because they claim such a loyalty. A mind which cannot look at communism fairly and discerningly is itself undergrown. And I do not doubt that many free minds have been strongly attracted to communism. In the same way, a vigorous conscience will protest with all its force against the evils of American democracy. If such a conscience could be persuaded that Kremlin-centered communism is more righteous than our own society, it should express itself accordingly. This would not, however, be treason. The Constitution of the United States permits it.
But when the individual so persuaded is asked to engage in a conspiracy, or to become blindly obedient to the orders given him, or to condone great evils in the hope that good will some day come of them, if his conscience is adult and healthy he will refuse to do these things.
And not only so; he will see clearly the unrighteousness of the cause to which he had become attracted, and will repudiate it. And he will do this, not at the last moment when he has become enmeshed in treachery and his misery is unbearable, but as soon as he sees that what he is following is evil.
Some few years ago, there may have been some excuse for those who pinned their hope to communism; I do not say that it was intellectually excusable, for I cannot see how anyone who had taken the trouble to find out for himself what Lenin, Stalin and the others had written could possibly be hopeful of it. It was always sure to turn out as it has. But I do understand that a great many fine people did not bring themselves to take this trouble, and so they were more hopeful than they should have been. I can understand, too, how some such people, looking at the deficiencies of our own democracy, and at the evils of Western civilization as a whole, may have thought the Russian Revolution heralded a new and brighter opportunity. These people hoped for wider justice, and thought that perhaps a certain amount of upheaval was inevitable in attaining it. We must not suppose that the people who were hopeful about Russia were all psychopathic cases! Or that all American patriots are wholesome. Sickness of soul can express itself in many ways, not just in one. In this respect, communism and fascism are two aspects of the same evil, and we have at times seen symptoms of a native fascism.
But however all this may be, confusion as to the true nature of the issue is excusable no longer. Treason, today, and indeed for several years past, can have no real explanation but that of the sick soul. The London scientist, I think, would have to acknowledge that, now, and if he is a man at all, I hope he will have the courage to give up his false talk of schizophrenia and speak of the evil that he allowed to poison his sick and under-developed soul.
To betray the remaining free nations of the earth today, or even to do them injury, is to strike a blow at the only hope there is left–here or anywhere–the only hope for the Russian people as well as for the free peoples: the only hope on earth.
And yet, I wonder: I wonder if anyone is beyond the reach of treason who has not made up his mind about right and wrong? Who has not allowed the bitterness, the malice, the mutiny to be washed out of his soul? Who does not love justice for its own sake and not revengefully? And freedom, even when it frustrates him and strains his patience?
What I am saying, of course, is that I wonder if anyone is safe whose loyalty has not been given to a free man’s faith: who has not given his heart to a high religion? Communism, you see, is not merely a political movement; it is a rival religion. As I have said, it is a religion for stunted souls.
Can it be defeated except by another religion? A religion that sets a soul free to grow? A religion that says love, not hate; sympathy, not malice; justice, not vengeance; brotherhood, not conspiracy; open-eyed devotion, not blind obedience; liberty, not subjection–yes, and instead of this monstrous image of embitterment and mutiny, darkening the very sky itself and threatening the world with destruction, a religion of the heavens swept clear for that which is imageless: God, the creative; God, the redemptive; God of brotherhood and love.
Prayer: O thou God of truth, of justice and of love, against whom we rebel, teach us that it is to thee alone we must surrender. Amen.