One Conscience is Not Enough
Georgia’s legendary Representative to the U. S. House recently died. He was a man worthy to be lionized. “The most Christ-like person I ever knew,” said one of his Congressional colleagues.
There’s never been a time in my adult life that I haven’t known about John Lewis. He was one of those people who truly believed that you cannot achieve the goals of peace and justice with acts of violence and injustice. He was a student of the greatest advocates for the power of love and our common humanity.
But today I’m not going to focus on him. Today I want to focus on a phrase used in almost every tribute I heard or read in the days following his death.
“He was,” it was often said, “the conscience of the Congress.” This sounds good, even admirable, perhaps even humble for fellow political leaders to say of one of their number, but it is also a terrible confession. One conscience is not enough to share among the entire congress.
Nor is one conscience enough for any group of human beings, whether it is a political organization, a civic or fraternal club, or a religious congregation. Unless we are monstrously malformed, the conscience is a standard piece of the equipment that comes on every new model of humanity and is operative from cradle to grave. And no one can get by with a proxy on this one.
I cannot expect someone else to carry out the duty of reminding me to be good or just or kind or compassionate. Nor can I indulge craven self-interest in the expectation that someone else will balance out my greed and cruelty with their goodness.
When I arrive at the metaphorical Gate of St. Peter, I cannot say, “Oh, my conscience was John Lewis (or anyone else). Not unless I want to provoke the Saint to a fit of laughter.”
My conscience is my own, formed piece by piece by my experiences, forged in the fires of human history, and informed by centuries of holy wisdom handed down by saints and sages.
One conscience is sufficient for each of us. But one conscience is not enough for any group.