Many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories portray the ineptness of men to uphold traditional ideals of manhood. The men show no leadership, they do not protect or care for their family members, they lack all manner of chivalry, and they lose a sense of priority as they commit to careers and professions or social and political agendas at the expense of their family members. In these stories, the failure of men to live with honor, integrity, and magnanimity leads to tragic loss of family members they neglected in their pursuit of political causes or personal desires.
In Everything That Rises Must Converge, a recent college graduate is determined to educate his mother about the evils of segregation and to correct her racist views. Embarrassed by his mother’s bigotry, Julian is adamant about enlightening his mother and changing her narrow views, hectoring her when an angry black woman strikes Julian’s mother with a pocketbook when they leave the bus. Accustomed to giving small black boys a nickel as a gesture of kindness, Julian’s mother offers a penny to a child even when forewarned by Julian that the boy’s mother would interpret the good intention as offensive: “Don’t do it!” Insulted by the condescension, the irate black mother strikes the elderly woman, shouting “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!”
Julian feels righteous in condemning his mother’s insensitivity and ignorance: “I hope this teaches you a lesson.” Viewing himself as the large-minded son of a small-minded mother, Julian espouses the cause of civil rights and welcomes the integration of the races. As the champion of justice and equality, he cannot resist taunting his mother when he notices the black woman dressed in the same elegant hat worn by his mother—a sign of the equal status of the two races and an image of the demise of the Old South: “She can wear the same hat as you, and to be sure…it looked better on her than it did on you.” The defender of human rights and of the rule of law who identifies himself as the advocate of liberty and justice for all does not give his mother her due—human respect.
While Julian is enamored of the abstract idea of justice and the political theory that justifies the end of segregation, he does not honor his mother or love his neighbor. While Julian acts infuriated at the thought of his mother giving a black boy a nickel, he shows no just anger at the unwarranted violence of a black mother’s attack on an older woman who intended no harm and harbored no ill will with her gift of the penny. Julian’s attempt to educate his mother with prideful superiority (“You got exactly what you deserved”) equates morality with enlightened, progressive policies and overlooks the justice a son owes to a mother and the charity all men owe to one another. Julian fails to distinguish between humanitarian benevolence owed to large social groups deserving of fundamental human rights and Christian charity that every person owes to the people in his daily life in the family, workplace, or associations. No matter how idealistic Julian’s vision of human justice, it does not reflect authentic goodness or love of God because it violates the commandment to love neighbor. As the Letter of John teaches, “If any man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4: 20).
O’Connor’s story illustrates that moralistic political agendas that espouse social justice to large groups but overlook simple common decency to members of one’s family or daily acquaintances reflect hypocrisy. Rejoicing over the blow dealt to his mother as the triumph of racial equality over racist bigotry, Julian reduces all moral issues to the simplistic categories of black and white. As a white Southerner whose grandfather owned a plantation with two hundred slaves, Julian’s mother is willy-nilly guilty. As an oppressed black woman no longer bound by segregation, the boy’s mother is unquestionably justified in attacking a white woman who deigns to insult her with the patronizing gesture of the penny. Julian harangues his mother throughout the story with insults like “Don’t think that was an uppity Negro woman… That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies” and “The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” Julian, however, says nothing to the wrathful black mother and lets an act of aggression harm an innocent person who poses no threat and intends no offense. Julian lacks chivalry in failing to defend or protect his mother, shows no valor in watching a strong woman beating a weaker woman without intervention, and fails to observe the Commandment that teaches “Honor thy father and mother.”
In his self-righteousness and faultfinding, Julian sees evil only in the one person of his mother but ignores the black woman’s unjustified rage and the conceit of his imaginary moral superiority and enlightened political views. While Julian’s mother fears boarding an integrated bus to go to an exercise class to lose weight and requests the company of her son, he resentfully accompanies her with a sulking petulance as if suffering martyrdom while “waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to begin piercing him.” To provoke his mother further, Julian deliberately changes his seat on the bus to sit next to a black passenger to feign friendship and shock his mother’s sensibility. He spends all his efforts reforming his mother but never examines his own conscience. To Julian, the height of all virtue is the abolition of discrimination, not the love of neighbor or the love of God.
O’Connor shows that those devoid of true morality rooted in charity and love of neighbor create an aura of ethical superiority by their sympathy for social causes as the ultimate and sole test of goodness. While Julian holds in theory the Christian view of the dignity of all human beings regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity, it remains a reified idea divorced from the real world. Justice is an attractive intellectual idea in the head, not a deed done to a real person like his mother. While Julian justly feels empathy for the victims of discrimination, he lacks filial affection for his mother and shows no sensitivity or patience for her disorientation in a time of social unrest and change.
Julian’s error is the intellectual sin of the day, the fascination with abstractions like “the affordable care act” or “equality under the law” or “the right to human happiness” or “the quest for self-fulfillment” that trample upon the religious freedoms and legitimate rights of those who oppose tax monies for abortion and Planned Parenthood, who seek to protect children from immoral sex education, and who reject same-sex unions as the law of the land. Julian’s notions of justice and equality make sense intellectually but lack consistency. Justice is due to blacks and whites, to strangers and to one’s own parent. Equality under the law makes sense when the law is no respecter of persons but fails the test when it discriminates against pre-born children and the terminally ill. The right to marriage is a universal human right, but it cannot change the meaning of marriage. Man’s rule of law commands respect, but it cannot elevate man-made law above natural law, divine law, and the wisdom of the ages.
Julian’s cavalier attitude toward his mother in his exaltation of social law ultimately causes the death of his mother who suffers a stroke from the stress of the tension he causes and the blow of the angry woman. Julian’s intellectual sin of loving ideas above persons and glorifying political causes without regard for the wake of destruction they cause is the deadliness of ideology. Julian did not teach his mother a lesson by appealing to her mind, conscience, or heart. He browbeat her and attempted to coerce her by insult, humiliation, and aggravation. He was determined to force her to change by all the manipulative tactics he could devise. Ideology proceeds in the same coldhearted, ruthless, unconscionable way—like Procrustes stretching or cutting the legs of his victims to fit his infamous bed.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (November 2015).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.