I recently re-read The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This story draws upon Hawthorne’s time living at Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community, founded upon some the ideals of New England transcendentalism. One of the main characters is a philanthropist named Mr. Hollingsworth whose soul is consumed by his project for reforming criminals.
Hawthorne’s critique of Hollingsworth gave me insight into why fervent Marxists and homeschool mothers make me uneasy. Hawthorne describes Hollingsworth as one of those who have “surrendered themselves to over-ruling purpose.” He says it is wise to avoid such people:
They will keep no friend, unless he makes himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third.
Yes, Hollingsworth is an extreme case, but we have all seen the ease with which people dedicated to a good cause can become cruel and in name of saving humanity, lose their humanity.
I have, of course, met very humane and wonderful Marxists. One of my best, and most open-minded, graduate school professors was a communist. I got an A in her courses even though I directly attacked some of her dearest convictions. And I am married to a homeschool Mom who is full of grace and kindness. I know some homeschoolers who avoid making homeschooling into a all-consuming passion.
I use Marxists and homeschool mothers to represent those who sometimes sacrifice others for the sake of a cause. Often utopian leaders (of the left or right) become first frustrated, then angry, and then cruel. Marxists are famous for their purges in Russia and the tyranny of Red Guard in China, all in the name of ideological purity. I have seen homeschool mothers for whom home education is an ideology that condemns those who send their kids to public schools. Some homeschooling parents will continue to homeschool even when it becomes clear it is not the best choice for their kids.
I could present other polarities as well. I am wary of someone who puts denominational loyalty over the biblical convictions, but I am equally wary of house church pastors who rail against denominations. (I say that as former house church pastor). I am cautious of anyone who places a cause or ideology above kindness and friendship.
Hawthorne’s own critique of such people is harsh. He argues that this “over-ruling purpose” can become a “false deity”. It is easy to lose our way when as believers our loyalty to Jesus is diluted and then ruled by a loyalty to another cause—no matter how noble. In graduate school I attended a “Bible study” on liberation theology. The leaders loved Jesus to the degree he could be seen as a revolutionary leader championing the poor but disliked his teaching on forgiveness.
Today we see people on the left and right enlisting Jesus in their causes. On one side there are those who are “woke” to social injustice and racism. On the other, there are those who are loyal to right wing politicians no matter how ungodly they act. Both sides can, like Hollingsworth, cancel others—even other brothers and sisters in Christ—if they are not ideologically pure enough.
Toward the end of The Blithedale Romance the most scathing critique of Hollingsworth comes from Zenobia, a woman he rejects in favor of a more completely devoted disciple:
I see it now! I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled! Self, self, self! You have embodied yourself in a project. . . . But foremost, and blackest of your sins, you stifled down your inmost consciousness!—you did a wrong to your own heart.
Only Zenobia sees that Hollingsworth is not so much committed to his cause as he is passionate about his image of himself as a great philanthropist and reformer. At the heart of his cause, lurking in the fog of idealist rhetoric was “Self”. When we sacrifice others to our cause, we betray those noble sentiments that first drew to the cause. We betray our own heart when we put a cause on the throne that belongs only to God. When Protestants persecuted, even burned at the stake, other Protestants for not being biblical enough, they betrayed their own heart—and even their own love of God’s Word.
I find the example of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery as the right path forward. Pharisees saw a sin, Jesus saw a person. He did not diminish the sin, but instead said, “Neither do I condemn you, sin no more.” Some today would be offended that he straight-up called what she did “sin”. Others might be offended that he did not follow the Old Testament law and condemn her to be stoned. Jesus, however, never lost sight of the woman.
In all our passions for causes, even the best and noblest, we can’t lose sight of people themselves. Being right, never gives us the right to be mean. We can never justify a cruel means by citing a noble end. Loving people and bringing them into relationship with God is both the means and the end. We must join in God’s project rather than seek His blessing for ours.