“I’m going to grant your greatest wish… I’m going to show you a world without sin.” With this line, the science fiction film Serenity introduces an ugly story: a planet on which a biochemical cure for aggression, administered globally with the very best intentions, left the inhabitants dead–or worse. The ruling, meddling Alliance was determined to root out the vices that are part of our humanity, and the result was a dead planet. A world without sin.
It is no news that in Hollywood, concern for public morality is merely the first step onto a slippery slope that ends in fascist dystopia, so I have always chalked up this theme from Serenity alongside plenty of other, similar cautionary tales, like V for Vendetta‘s thuggishly tyrannical government which apparently has no larger purpose than the jackbooted suppression of gay pornography.
But I have been reminded of the quote, and its dark connotations, as I follow the debate over sexual assault policies on college campuses. For those who may not be up to date on the latest developments, California recently passed, and other states are considering, a “yes means yes” affirmative consent law which requires each participant to gain explicit consent for every stage of every sexual encounter. Failure to do so, or to prove having done so, can bring charges of rape. If that seems like it’s creating an environment in which false accusations could be frequent and unfalsifiable, well, yes.
In fact, we don’t need to wait to see the results of California’s “yes means yes” law. Spurred by federal threats to withdraw funds if they are insufficiently zealous, colleges have been destroying lives over unproven accusations for years. (While simultaneously ignoring real crimes and the culture that encourages them; but that is a subject for another day.) Patrick Witt was a promising Rhodes Scholarship candidate and Yale quarterback destined for the NFL draft who lost all that and more in the face of a complaint process in which “specific accusations are not disclosed to the accused, no fact-finding takes place, and no record is taken of the alleged misconduct… The informal ‘process’ begins and ends at the point of accusation; the truth of the claim is immaterial.”
Witt’s story is similar to many others. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz put it in an article questioning the laws, “Some people regard rape as so heinous an offense that they would not even regard innocence as a defense.”
And that really is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? In the face of such an incomparably evil act, it’s a natural instinct to rush to prevent, protect, and punish in any way possible. So a mob forms, and innocence is no defense.
But there is something odd about this particular mob, because it is a very different group from the one that has been warning about sexual immorality on campuses for decades. This group is not composed of the conservative Christians who were presumably the progenitors of V for Vendetta‘s fascists. No, this mob is led by secular “sex positive” feminists who have pushed, and continue to push, for the legitimation of every possible mode of sexual expression with no moral boundaries or rules allowed. Nowhere has that vision been more perfectly expressed than on college campuses, yet the anticipated joyous liberation remains stubbornly concealed beneath a landscape of empty hookups and sex so ugly that women ranging from Lena Dunham to Jiam Gomeshi’s accusers (to pick two examples at random from the last month’s headlines) describe being initially unsure if what they experienced was rape or just unpleasant normalcy. Something clearly is wrong.
So now, the god of sexual liberation looking worryingly shaky, a second is erected to guard it: the new idol of consent. The underlying premise of the sexual revolution cannot be wrong, so the problem must lie elsewhere. If only every sexual encounter can be made perfectly and entirely consensual, then and only then will we finally reach the utopia that sexual liberation has been promising for decades. Hence the mob. Idols must be protected, even from unproven rumors of disrespect. A few innocents are a small price to pay for a world without sin.
The purge-bent mob is hardly a new phenomenon, but typically its excesses are laid at the door of religion. Fueled, we are told, by Puritan preachers frantic against sin, the Salem witch trials are the textbook example (literally) of what happens when unreasoning moralists get the upper hand. Yet the historical reality is somewhat more complicated. Compared with other episodes of popular insanity before and since, the trials are striking primarily for how quickly they burned themselves out. Within months, those imprisoned had been set free, the General Court of Massachusetts had repudiated the trials, reparations had been paid to families of the victims, and members of the jury had signed a statement of repentance and regret. What sparked the abrupt turnaround? Among other things, a campaign by Puritan preacher Increase Mather against the trials on the grounds that they were unjust and therefore ungodly. (Mather, who, like almost all his contemporaries, did believe in witchcraft, did not object to the trials in theory, but argued they were prosecuted on the basis of popular hysteria rather than evidence–a position arguably requiring an even greater measure of justice and restraint than if he had simply disbelieved in witchcraft altogether.)
The difficulty faced by would-be Christian fascists is that the same Bible which tells them to oppose sin also includes pesky principles like “Love your enemies” and stories like Jesus dining with tax collectors and prostitutes. Christ’s six-word comment to the woman caught in adultery–“Go now, and sin no more”–contains volumes of ethics, encompassing both the judgment which frightens Hollywood directors and the mercy which redirects that judgment every time the mob instinct seeks to harness it. The Savior who defeated sin by dying is a poor leader of moral purges.
No, the greater danger of horrors in the name of a sinless world comes from those who do not believe in sin. When Europe freed itself of the abuses of monarchy two hundred years ago, it was the explicitly atheistic French Revolution which tried to drown centuries of aristocratic sins in a sea of blood. Conservative Christians call homosexuals to repent, but it was Nazis who fed them into ovens and it is Putin’s goons who beat them bloody in Russia today. (And no, occasional appropriation of religious language does not make Nazi Germany or Putin’s Russia Christian any more than planting an embalmed bird on Johnny Depp’s head made him Native American.) And it is no coincidence that the two famously repressive countries which easily top the list for most citizens killed in the 20th century, Soviet Russia and Red China, were both godless as a matter of official policy.
Of course, one can always be accused of cherry-picking examples, and history does contain plenty of tolerant atheists and witch-hunting Christians. But those who fear the disruptive potential of Christian morality should remember as well that it is one of the few impulses strong enough to stand against the worst excesses of the heady rush of moral purification. If the mob ever comes to purge away your sin, you could do worse than to pray that somewhere among them are consciences which believe that the sin of the world was taken away when the good Man died for the bad.