I have spent the past six weeks in Mayberry.
I have been more or less homebound this summer recovering from surgery, so television has been my escape. I love the Andy Griffith Show. I love the characters and their foibles. I love the values that Andy tries to instill in Opie. I love the small town world that is portrayed; a world filled with good people that make mistakes, but somehow manage to settle their differences with equal doses of neighborliness and Aunt Bee’s fried chicken. There is a part of me that very much wants to live in that world. Part of me longs to escape from so much of the nastiness of the age I live in.
Yes, I know that Mayberry is fictional, but like all good fiction there is plenty of truth there. Maybe one of the reasons I love Andy Taylor and all of his neighbors is because they remind me of so many people I have known in my own life. Maybe I watch it because it helps me to reconnect with them. I think it reminds me of some of the values I have let slip and how much those people still have to teach me.
It doesn’t escape my notice that through eight seasons of this show I don’t recall seeing even one black face; not even as an extra. This show is supposedly set in rural North Carolina. I have been to rural North Carolina. There are plenty of black people there. The glaring omission reminds me that there is plenty of truth that this show leaves out; truth that it is so easy for me to forget when I am in a nostalgic mood. The truth of racism and segregation. The truth of hatred and violence. It’s easy to long for the days of Mayberry when we aren’t looking at the whole picture, but real history is a mixed bag.
History is a nuisance; it’s always interfering with my fantasies.
Part of me longs to be a real conservative, holding onto and defending traditions and “old-fashioned” ways, but history forces me to recognize that some times traditions die for good reason. Our ancestors may have had virtues to celebrate, but they also had plenty of sins too.
Part of me feels the power of progressive arguments, of the need to repent of past mistakes and develop new and better ways of doing things, but here history gets in the way again. How many times in the past have we thought that doing the “new” thing was the better way, only to discover farther down the line that it was in fact a mistake? Progress may help us to see past sins more clearly, but I think it very often blinds us to the sins of our own age, not to mention the sins of the future. Science can give us great insight into the natural world, but it cannot compel us to make good judgments. Science gave us Penicillin, but it has also given us Thalidomide, Zyklon B, the atomic bomb and margarine.
This is the tension of my life: I am constantly torn between being a conservative and a progressive. I want to uphold old values, but I don’t want to repeat past sins. I want to create a better world for future generations, but I am aware that I am probably leaving them a mess to clean up as well. The adjective “old” has no more intrinsic value than the adjective “new,” and I see no more salvation in marching to the left than I do to the right. What am I to do?
For me at least, it is the Christian Doctrine of the Fall that most eases this tension and helps me to find peace and hope in the midst of two conflicting ideologies.
Regardless of what you make of the history of the Book of Genesis, its opening chapters point to a fundamental truth that I find hard to deny: from the beginning human beings have consistently made bad choices. Our faith begins with the observation that the world is not as it should be, and we are to blame. That seems to me to be an insight that both conservatives and progressives could agree upon. We can desire to do good, but history has proven that our actions will frequently accomplish just the opposite. As the Apostle Paul says: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
The Doctrine of the Fall seems to be to be the great leveler across time. From the very beginning, innocence has been lost. We have forfeited Eden and God has posted his sentry at the gate. There is no going back. Regardless of what I may imagine or even remember about a bygone era, it wasn’t Eden. It couldn’t be. All of us humans, in every generation, have been products of the Fall. We are all guilty of sins, known and unknown.
But what is true of the past, is true of the present and of the future as well. In the Book of Revelation the New Jerusalem comes at the end of time, and it is instituted by God, not by humans. It is not a city that we could ever build on our own. Those who gather in that city have not overcome sin; they have not saved themselves. Their sins are washed away by the sacrifice of another: the blood of the Lamb. Their song as they stand before the throne is: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Salvation belongs to God. We cannot save ourselves. This isn’t just a theological belief, it is a historical conviction as well. Human beings have not through progress solved the problem of human sinfulness, and they never will.
The universal fallen nature of humanity throughout time gives me peace, because I no longer have to seek salvation in either the past or the future. My conservative side and my progressive side do not have to be at war with each other for dominance because I can recognize that neither one of them has the solution to the problem of human nature. In fact, I need both sides to point out the sins that the other is all too willing to overlook.
The Doctrine of the Fall is not an excuse for sin, far from it, but it is an antidote to self-righteousness. While I do think it is important to take a moral stand against injustice and evil when I encounter it in the world, doing a righteous deed in no way makes me a righteous person. That satisfaction that comes with being on the right side of an issue is often the Devil’s tool to get us to overlook the myriad other ways in which we may be wrong. I may be able to see other people’s sins clearly, but I have no doubt that there are plenty of my own that I am blind to or don’t want to see. I believe in striving to do the right thing, but I must always do so with humility. At the end of the day, I have to recognize that I am never going to get to heaven by confessing someone else’s sins.
It is worth noting that a defining feature of Andy Griffith’s character was that he almost never carried a gun. He continually had to defend his decision not to carry a gun and when a movie was made about his life it was entitled “Sheriff without a Gun.” I wonder what modern conservatives would make of such a progressive sheriff? Maybe people don’t fall into categories of conservative and progressive as neatly as we expect them to; I know I don’t, but then maybe I’m not supposed to. Because I believe that all humans are essentially fallen or broken, and prone to making bad judgments even when it is their will to do the right thing, I know that I cannot place my hope in any human ideology.
The Doctrine of the Fall means that no group of humans (either historic, political or otherwise) has a monopoly on sin. Maybe my conservative side and my progressive side are meant to work together, each pointing out the sins and weaknesses unseen by the other; each trying to direct a fallen and fallible human being closer to the one true savior. It can at times feel lonely, lost in that space between conservative and progressive, but for me at least, it was in that loneliness, and in that in-between space, that I actually found Christ.