The Hammer of God is a short story by G. K. Chesterton about two brothers, Wilfred and Norman. While Wilfred is an exceptionally devout priest, Norman is a retired colonel who finds his delight in wine and women. Wilfred’s attempts to inject some fear of God or the divine morality into his brother’s soul are only met with ridicule from the latter. Finally the priest kills his brother. Worse, he tries to put the guilt on Joe, the village idiot.
The theme of Chesterton’s story is the potential devilishness of self-righteous morality. The self-righteously religious people see themselves as superior to the normal people who have certain weaknesses like lust and gluttony. The self-righteous people prefer to pray alone in some corner or niche of the church or the Satsang, away from the sinners. They may even ascend some mountain in search of their superior aloofness. Standing at a height, actual or metaphorical, they begin to see the normal people as too small. One can only see “small things from the peak” when one looks down. Standing on the top of the mountain, if he were to look up he would have seen infinity stretching far beyond him. The ordinary sinners in the valley look up and see things big. The self-righteous person looks down and sees everything small. Revulsion enters his devout soul. The revulsion wants to destroy evil which is its perceived cause.
The irony is that the devout religious person commits much bigger crimes than the ordinary sinners whom he judges as immoral. Terrorists and other religious extremists are motivated by this revulsion. Women wearing the dress of their choice are thus seen as greater sinners than their murderers who commit their hideous crimes in the name of divine morality. A young man kissing his beloved while enjoying a romantic evening in a park is a bigger criminal for the religious person who is the lovers’ potential murderer.
This kind of divine morality will set limits to other people’s liberties. The Wilfreds among us will decide what we can eat and drink, how we should dress, which books we may read, and so on.
Father Brown is a priest who doubles as an amateur detective in Chesterton’s stories. “I am a man,” says Father Brown in the story cited above, “and therefore have all the devils in my heart.” Father Brown is not self-righteous. He does not see himself as separate from the normal men on the earth. He is aware of his weaknesses, the weaknesses that haunt every human being including himself. Just because one becomes a priest or a guru, godman, Satsangi or whatever, one does not become entitled to sit in judgment over his fellow human beings. Religion without compassion for fellow human beings is terrorism, though of varying degrees. Religion without compassion and understanding of fellow human beings soon ends as a hammer of god. Wilfred had killed his brother with a hammer.
At the end of the story, Father Brown tells Wilfred, “You tried to fix it (the murder) on the imbecile (Joe, the idiot) because you knew he could not suffer. That was one of the gleams that it is my business to find in assassins. And now come down into the village, and go your own way as free as the wind; for I have said my last word.”
Father Brown does not judge. He does not condemn the sinner. He understands. He understands that a man who cannot accept suffering himself but can pass it on to an innocent person who won’t ever understand it can’t be redeemed. Redemption does not lie in any religious ritual, not in prayers however devoutly they may be recited from whichever altitude, not in setting up oneself above others. Redemption lies in the ability to feel the pain of one’s fellow beings.
Though Father Brown refuses to reveal the truth to the police, Wilfred goes to the inspector and says, “I wish to give myself up; I have killed my brother.”