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A demonstrator holds a "Black Lives Matter" flag and another sign outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis April 6, 2021, the seventh day of the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin. (CNS photo/Nicholas Pfosi, Reuters)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media. It is the second in a series of columns by James F. Keenan, S.J., on contemporary issues in moral theology.

What is the pre-eminent form of moral and religious failure? According to Jesus of Nazareth, it would be failing to recognize another in need. At least it appears that way in the Bible, where Jesus presents parables involving people who do not fail after having responded; rather, they fail beforehand. They fail to bother to recognize the other in need in the first place

The priest and Levite pass by the man on the road in Luke 10:30-37, the goats do not see the hungry and the naked in Matthew 25:31-46, and the rich man steps over Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. None of them recognize the neighbor in need—and therefore none of them is a neighbor.

Let us return to the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s first recognition of the injured man gives evidence of his vulnerability to the wounded man. Then, after he recognizes the man as being in need, he conscientiously goes about what he needed to do: clean his wounds, get him to a safe place, make inquiries about the appropriate place in which to leave him, negotiate and secure from the innkeeper his oversight of the injured man, dispense with his funds, redesign his return so that he could stop at this particular inn and take the man with him, then to proceed to bring him to his own place.  

The Samaritan’s conscience got a workout, but the work of conscience was not the particular reflection of whether to respond, but what to do. Whether to respond happened when his vulnerable disposition recognized the man; the recognition led then to the question of conscience: Now what do I do? 

Recognition is so important because it is basically the threshold of ethics. Once you recognize, you are hooked. 

This is why the energy of Black Lives Matter was so tangible. Those in the movement realized that they were calling people to recognize what they had not recognized before—the simple reality that Black lives matter. The movement woke many white people up from our passive (or active) tolerance of the killing of Black men and women by police officers. We would see on the news yet another story of a Black person killed by police, but we would not recognize it as wrong, but rather as something that just “happened.” Where was the anger, the rage, at such wrongful killing? We did not recognize these deaths as “grievable” the way we saw other deaths as such. 

B.L.M. called us to account, to remember the names: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. Calling us to recognize these killings and to remember the names were exercises in waking us up to what we earlier failed to recognize: that these lives mattered, that these people should not have been killed, that they should be grieved. The movement provided a new summons of recognition (not that all of white America responded to the summons of B.L.M.), a way of awakening our consciences to be vulnerable to Black lives. 

Indeed, if you do not recognize, you do not act. Recognition is the beginning of the moral life. Our vulnerable selves, our capacity for moral responsiveness, becomes actualized once we recognize. Until then, our vulnerability is dormant. And once we act, our consciences also go into action.

Sometimes our consciences are like that of the good Samaritan: We recognize another in need and stop. Then we start the questions, asking, “Now what do I do?” But sometimes our consciences are engaged by others, like B.L.M., so as to indict us, so as to get us to recognize not what we need to do, but to recognize what we have failed to see. “Disturbing our consciences” is precisely what B.L.M. has begun to do. 

When we turn to the history of conscience in Western thought, we discover that for the Jews, Greeks and Romans, conscience basically functioned to judge one’s actions. For instance, in most of ancient philosophy the function of conscience was to distress us over our wrongdoing. The ancient notion of conscience awakened the wrongdoer with their guilt because conscience’s function was to force us to recognize our own misdeeds. In that rude awakening, many encounter conscience for the first time. Effectively, to have a conscience was to recognize one’s own guilt. 

The birth of conscience through remorse became a common theme; Cicero, Julius Caesar and Quintillian, for instance, refer us to the ways conscience prompts us to recognize these misdeeds. In his Conscience: A Very Short Introduction, the literature professor Paul Strohm remarks that this idea of conscience was so evident that in the popular rhetorical work from the first century, Rhetorica ad Herennium, prosecutors were advised to look and see whether their adversary’s client shows “signs of conscience.” If they did, they knew their adversary was guilty. Thus, they were instructed to look for the face of a person of conscience: “blushed, grown pale, stammered, spoken inconsistently, displayed uncertainty, compromised himself.” If you looked guilty, you had a conscience. 

It is here that the word “remorse” develops. The historian and philosopher Richard Sorabji notes in his Moral Conscience Through the Ages that the Romans referred to this experience as the “bites” of conscience, coming from the word morsus, the root of the word “remorse.”

Just as conscience made its appearance in history by first being recognized for the way it disturbed the ancients, so too does it first appear that way in the individual lives of most people. Often enough, a person’s first experience of conscience is troubling. Its pangs not only awaken us to our misdeeds; they awaken us to conscience itself. As we enter adult life, through these pangs we begin to realize that we carry within ourselves a moral beacon that troubles us when we are wrong and, with time, we also learn that it can validate us when we are right. A guilty conscience is precisely one that recognizes a disconnect between what we thought was acceptable or wanted to be acceptable and the guilt we feel afterwards. 

I invite you here to think of the disquieting introduction you experienced to your own conscience, when as a young person you first found yourself very uneasy about something you did and no one was there accusing you but you! Most often, our first introduction to conscience is when remorse tries to emerge.

Yet by recognizing our guilt, we recognize conscience. The reason why we acknowledge that conscience is born through the awareness of guilt is because only if it has the freedom to indict the agent can it have the power to guide the agent. If conscience is allowed to disturb the agent, and if the agent recognizes that authority, then it has the freedom it needs to discern the truth. 

Indeed, conscience is that which does not let us try to operate without surrendering to the truth. In our adolescence, we think we can escape the oversight of others and get away with mischief, but we have within us another guardian, one that wants us to be accountable to the truth. It appears within us as a disturbing act, reminding us even when no one else is there to be accountable to the truth. 

A final word, for now, on recognition and conscience. Years ago, in a brilliant work, Fundamental Moral Theology, the German theologian Franz Böckle wrote about the intrinsic effectiveness of confessing one’s sin. He argued that until one actually confesses one’s sin, one does not fully appreciate the scope and impact of that sin. Recognizing that the very nature of sin involves deception, it is not until we acknowledge our sin and confess it that we are able to fully recognize what our sin actually entails. Thus, it is by confessing sin that we are liberated from it—and until we do, it continues to have its hold on us.

Recognition is often disturbing, whether it entails finding another in need or discovering we are not as excellent as we thought. Yet it is precisely these disturbances, these recognitions, that keep our consciences vigilant and alive.

Read next: “What the disciples learned while grieving in ‘The Upper Room’

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