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We love forgiveness, but are we so eager for a good conscience


“And baptism … now saves you -- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, thorough the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

Which would you rather ask for? Forgiveness or a good conscience? We’re in the habit of asking for forgiveness: We do so in the sacrament of reconciliation, and we do so as part of every Mass. Many of us do so more frequently still, and the words, “Please forgive me, Lord” pass easily from our lips, perhaps several times a day, in or out of Lent. And we know that forgiveness is ours whenever we ask with sincere hearts. That’s a good thing.

But what about a good conscience? For my part, I don’t recall ever asking specifically for a “good conscience.” Not in so many words. What if I did ask for a strong conscience? Is a good or strong conscience something I really want? Do I need the annoyance?

There’s a saying that I first learned as a novice in the Society of Jesus, though it’s not unique to Jesuits: “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” Here’s how it applies in Jesuit life: If I want to do something I think I’m unlikely to get permission for, I can circumvent the issue, my superior and my vow of obedience by neglecting -- conveniently -- to ask permission before I do whatever it is I want to do, asking instead for forgiveness after I’ve done it. Something similar is going on with regard to conscience: to ask for a good conscience is to ask for the tools I need to evaluate my actions before the fact. Do I really want to do that? Do I really want to have to think about things before I do them, or is it easier to rely on God’s promise of forgiveness after the fact?

Think about it: Having a good conscience would make every shopping trip an exercise in social justice and an assertion of my own responsibility as a Christian citizen. Do I buy these grapes from Chile? They’re cheap because the men and women who picked them were paid next to nothing; meanwhile, Chileans go without because growers can make more money shipping their produce overseas. What about this coffee, grown on a plantation operated by a multinational corporation? What about this shirt, sewn in Indonesia or Mauritius by someone, perhaps a child, making pennies an hour in backbreaking conditions? What about veal? Veal calves spend their short lives alone, in the dark, chained in crates, unable to walk or even turn around. Do I eat meat at all? The world’s hunger problems could be solved if the grain used to feed animals raised for slaughter were used instead to feed people; the world’s cattle consume enough food to meet the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people -- more than the Earth’s entire human population. The meat industry is responsible for a large proportion of the destruction of the world’s rain forests.

What about this Oriental rug, hand-knotted in India by a child laborer? That big, hulking, utterly seductive gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle I’ve had my eye on? And that five-bedroom house way out in the suburbs? Our continuing flight to the suburbs has destroyed America’s cities and is fast destroying the countryside with ugly, unchecked sprawl. What an ordeal! Why, it seems that having a good conscience would require me to act like Christ -- never a popular option, even among Christians. Is this what I really want?

Forgiveness, it strikes me, is primarily for myself. It benefits me; it may or may not have an effect on other people. A good conscience, on the other hand, is for other people. They are the ones who will benefit from my having a good conscience -- from my acting like Christ.

The First Letter of Peter speaks of baptism using language that is at once familiar and surprising. It describes baptism not simply as the removal of sin, but as an “appeal to God for a good conscience.” That’s different: God wants me to have a healthy and active conscience. What’s more, God wants me to use my conscience. Now, forgiveness is a great gift and a grace I am happy to accept whether it comes from God or from another person. I daresay that’s true of all of us; we all look for forgiveness. Are we as eager to accept the gift of a good conscience? Forgiveness is a gift we are happy to live with. Are we as happy to live with the demands placed upon us by a strong conscience? Can we freely give this gift to the world -- the gift of a careful and deliberate Christian life, and a life lived for others?

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee is minister to the Jesuit community at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000