On November 5, 2009, I was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the 24-hour staff duty at my unit’s barracks on Fort Hood, Texas. Typically, this duty is one of the most mundane activities of military service. Your job is, in essence, to sit, along with two junior enlisted soldiers, for 24 hours straight, occasionally making rounds in the barracks area to pick up cigarette butts and, on the weekend, corral drunk young soldiers. Your biggest challenge is simply staying awake for the duration of it. That night, however, was different. That was the day Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on a group of soldiers in a building across the street from my unit’s barracks.
The religious form of legalistic ethics is to be found in pharisaism. It is a mistake to imagine, as many Christians do, that Pharisees were morally and religiously on a low level and to use the word almost as a term of abuse. On the contrary, pharisaism was the highest point reached by the Jews in their moral and religious life. And, indeed, starting from the hard-set ground of the Old Testament religion of the law it was impossible to rise higher. But it was this pure and lofty form of Judaism that Christ denounced. The thing that impresses one most in reading the Gospel is the rebellion against pharisaism, the denunciation of its falsity as compared with the New Testament truth. That means the denunciation of legalistic morality, of the idea of justification by the law, and of complacent self-righteousness. The Gospel puts sinners and publicans above the Pharisees, the unclean above the clean, those who have not fulfilled the law above those who have fulfilled it, the last above the first, the perishing above the saved, “the wicked” above “the good”. This is the paradox of Christian morality which the Christians have found it hard to understand and accept. Christians imagine that the Gospel denunciations refer to Pharisees who lived in the distant past, and themselves join in rhetorically denouncing them as villains. But in truth those denunciations refer to ourselves, to us who are living to-day, to the self-righteous, to the morally “first” and “saved” of all times. The Gospel morality as such will be discussed later. But what does this paradox mean? Why shall the first in the moral sense be last and vice versa? Why is it better to be a sinner conscious of his sin than to be a Pharisee conscious of his righteousness? The usual explanation is that the sinner is humble while the Pharisee is proud, like the Stoic, and Christianity is first and foremost a religion of humility. It seems to me that this explanation does not go to the root of the disquieting problem. The Pharisees stood on the confines of two worlds, at the dividing line between the ethics of law and the ethics of grace and redemption. The impotence of the ethics of law to save from sin an evil had to be made manifest in them. The difficulty of the problem lies in the fact that the precepts of legalistic ethics are fully practicable. One can fulfill the law down to the smallest detail and become pure according to the law. This was precisely what the Pharisees did. And then it appeared that the perfect fulfillment of the law and perfect purity do not save, do not lead to the Kingdom of God. The law sprang up as a result of sin, but it is powerless to free man from the world in which he found himself after plucking the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is powerless to conquer sin and cannot save. Pharisaism, i.e. the ethics of law, is mercilessly condemned in the Gospel because its adherents do not need the Savior and salvation as sinners and publicans need it, because if the final religious and moral truth were on the side of the Pharisees redemption would be unnecessary. Pharisaism means rejection of the Redeemer and redemption and the belief that salvation is to be found by fulfilling the moral law. But in truth salvation means rising above the distinction between good and evil which is the result of the Fall, i.e. rising above the law engendered by that distinction. It means entering the Kingdom of Heaven, which is certainly not the Kingdom of the law or of the good as it exists on this side of the distinction.
Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, pp. 98-9