Below Deck

Michael Metzger

The Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings are less about Brett Kavanaugh’s credentials and more about what’s going on below deck.

In last week’s confirmation hearings, Lindsey Graham hit the nail on the head. Character assassination. But why murder a man’s reputation? The answer lies in human conscience.

We don’t hear much about conscience anymore. That’s our loss, as the whole point of life is love that’s ordered by a good conscience (I Tim.1:5). Our loves must be ordered, for “love is bound,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, and “the more it is bound the less it is blind.” A good conscience orders our loves, making us self-aware. Conscience defends what we get right while accusing us of what we get wrong (Rom.2:15).

And that makes conscience dangerous. Jeremiah warned that conscience, when corrupted, dupes us. We become blind. We rationalize what we get wrong and accuse others of being the problem. Kavanaugh and his accuser both claim to be 100 percent certain of what did (or did not) happen. They can’t both be right, but neither is likely to acknowledge any possible blame unless each one’s conscience is clean.

John Newton’s story is a reminder of this. Newton was captain of a slave ship. His life savings were in the slave trade, making him wealthy and able to hire extra crew, reducing his onboard responsibilities while transporting slaves. He enjoyed long spells of solitude on the deck of his slave ship, keeping a diary and recording that he knew no “calling that… affords greater advantages… for promoting the life of God in the soul.”[1]

It was a different story below deck. On average, 40 percent of a slave ship’s human cargo died en route. The dead were tossed overboard to the sharks. Yet, on all those ocean crossings, and for more than 30 years after Newton left the slave trade (during which time he preached thousands of sermons, published half a dozen books, and wrote Amazing Grace and 279 other hymns), he seems never to have heard God say a word to him against slavery. Newton’s conscience was coarsened.

As was England’s collective conscience. As Brits sipped sugar-sweetened tea and enjoyed sugary biscuits and jams, most overlooked the human cost below deck.

Dr. Peter Peckard didn’t. In 1785, he became vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, setting as a topic for Cambridge’s most prestigious Latin essay contest the question Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare? Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?

Thomas Clarkson, a Cambridge student, addressed the subject merely as an academic exercise. He won the prize. Then pangs of conscience hit Clarkson. He was complicit for his nation’s sins. He was culpable. In his diary, Clarkson wrote, “…it was time for some person to see these calamities to their end.”

Clarkson enlisted the help of William Wilberforce and the “patient saints of Clapham” in a four-decade fight to abolish the English Slave Trade. They targeted what the Apostle Paul targeted: “every man’s conscience” (II Cor.4:2; 5:11). Historian James Mackintosh noted how Clapham sought to “evoke the conscience of the British people.”

This included John Newton. Pangs of conscience moved him to come clean, publishing a forceful pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade. Newton wrote it as a “confession, which comes too late, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” The nation’s collective conscience was touched.

Few Americans think collectively. We’re the most individualistic country in history. The few Christians who recognize conscience see it as shaping individuals. It does, but God sees humanity more as a collective (“let us make them in our image”). Nations have a collective conscience. America’s collective conscience is coarsened, having murdered over 61 million babies since Roe v. Wade. Like begets like, murder begets murder—as in Diane Feinstein seeking to murder Kavanaugh’s reputation. Had she been confident that Brett Kavanaugh is pro-choice, he’d have sailed through the confirmation hearings.

Paul understood conscience, living his whole life with a clear one (Acts 23:1). A good conscience doesn’t mean you’re always self-aware. It means you repent when you discover you’re not—when you’re wrong. Paul did that on the road to Damascus. He strove to keep a good conscience (Acts 24:16). As a nation, we haven’t done that.

As a nation, we’re culpable. Our judicial system presumes you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. Kavanagh was presumed guilty. His accuser’s accusations, delivered to Senator Feinstein weeks ago, could have been investigated long ago. They weren’t. Feinstein held the letter, hoping it’d be a bullet, assassinating a man she fears will tilt the US Supreme Court toward overturning Roe v. Wade. To date, only Lindsey Graham has called this out. Whatever comes of the FBI’s investigation, Kavanaugh’s hearings are mostly about what’s going on below deck. We ought to recognize this.


[1] These quotes are taken from Adam Hochschild’s Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).


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  1. I beg to differ. In Trump’s selection he has been presumed qualified (by the President), so he has not been presumed guilty. Upon review of his qualifications his presumed qualification is being questioned. Senators voting on his selection are not determining his guilt or innocence, they are questioning and determining his qualification to their collection of individual judgments. I think there are interesting “below deck” questions answered in the faces of the individuals being questioned.

    But I love what I take to be your main point: “Clapham sought to ‘evoke the conscience of the British people.'” What is more at stake in America…how we conduct law or how we treat unwanted pregnancies? Our conduct in understanding and applying law is crumbling faster than our capacity to enforce whim over law. When and how will our collective conscience be evoked to respect law over the whims of executives and legislators?

  2. Lindsay Graham was correct. As Mike said more politely this is a political hit job, pure and simple. I cannot see any semblance of conscience in this process, except perhaps Graham.

  3. When emotions become the basis for truth, there is no safe place to stand.

    I was appalled when Jeff Flake was accosted by women in an elevator saying that if he didn’t vote against Kavanaugh, he was attacking their personal experiences.

    No matter what happens, our country has truly lost its way if we let our consciences be manipulated and turned into Policy.

  4. btw, it is worth quoting Senator Collins’s c.osing remarks before saying she will confirm Kavanaugh:

    “Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence and fairness do bear on my thinking and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.” The presumption of innocence, she said, “is relevant to the advice and consent function.”

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