11 January 2007

A new commandment

My favorite icon, one that overlooks the stairs down to my home office, is a very plain paper-on-board icon I bought in Zagorsk, USSR (now Sergiev Posad, Russia) in 1975. Jesus is holding the Gospel open at the words, "I give you a new commandment, to love one another."

As I searched for redemptive meaning in the vindictive death-scenes of Saddam Hussein's execution, the words of Jesus came to me with fresh force. The particular scripture (John 13:34) is addressed to his closest friends, but there's no doubt in my mind that the love we practice among those in our community truly is practice, so that we can love in wider and wider circles, even to our "enemy."

Almost anyone who talks about Saddam Hussein in the context of peacemaking feels bound to stipulate to his numerous crimes, including mass murder, not to mention summary executions of his political enemies. Where does love fit in? Just as C.S. Lewis advised not tackling the Gestapo as lesson one in learning to forgive, we do not have to lapse into sentimentality in considering how to love a tyrant. But how is this for a start? Resist the ancient temptation to kill him!

Why resist when the target is so juicy? Why not just let the drumbeat of "duly constituted authorities," the soothing rhetoric of "this young democracy" lull us into shrugging off another deliberate extinguishing of a human life?

Here's what I'm starting to realize. As a species, we have so little practice in resisting this ancient temptation. It's time to advocate and spread a "new" ethic: turn away from that urge to kill. Resist! When the desire to turn a human being into a sack of bones and guts arises, turn within and ask where that impulse is coming from.

Those of us who are protected by the buffers of middle-class gentility from the world's bloody reality still need to be in on this campaign. Our passivity too easily licenses our government's participation in the Saddam Hussein debacle; we can pretend not to see that the legal fiction of his execution is only a few steps removed from the common practice, in that same country, of methodically sawing off the heads of one's militia's enemies. (Clips of these "executions" are also provided on Internet video sites.) Neat distinctions between the gallows (that death facility in Baghdad that was made so notorious by Saddam himself) and the less formal executions only serve to obscure this imperative: even when we feel fully entitled to kill, we need to put an end to this practice. We need to demand that our foreign policy not bless others' willingness to continue practicing the ways of death. We need to oppose militarism, capital punishment, abortion, and every other deadly compromise, not from sentimentality, but because every time we end a life, it makes the next time easier.

Dale Aukerman, among others, has written movingly of the impulse to kill as a persistent reflection of the Fall. In Darkening Valley, he wrote these words (pp. 21-22):
Jesus said in one of his most drastic images, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell" (Mt. 5:29). As we sense the incipient dynamism of sin within ourselves, we must, rather than yielding any further, make the most determined move imaginable for breaking with it. It can be seen throughout our world how much that call and warning of Jesus applies to readiness for war. Where there is not the determined plucking out of the eye that looks, however hesitatingly, toward killing, the whole person and the whole society are plunged toward the inferno of thermonuclear murdering and being murdered.

Theologians who have reiterated a just war or a war-of-liberation position have not adequately reckoned with this dynamism. For them a limited sinning (for which grace abounds) is permissible when a preponderantly good outcome is to be expected. Such positions have often been elaborated in the context of declaring with great emphasis the sin and guilt of all human beings. Because the sin and guilt are so encompassing, it is supposedly necessary, proper, and forgivable to add to them at times by going to war. Such positions are possible only for those who have no real comprehension of the biblical understanding that in sin and sinning a mighty dynamism strives for total dominion over those who in any way choose to commit sin and that God's grace moves not only to blot out guilt but, even more crucial, to hurl back that dominion. The history of our [20th] century, probably more than that of any other, corroborates the biblical awareness of sin's dynamism. Jesus said to the adulteress, "Go, and do not sin again." Only as we strive to hear and obey that directive with regard to our readiness to kill, can we be freed from this aspect of sin's dominion.

A prominent American clergyman asked me once, "What's the matter? Are you afraid of getting a little blood on your hands?" I am--not because I'm so good, but precisely because I'm not. I am in jeopardy, exposed before the power of evil impinging upon me and lurking within me, the little blood on my hands would inevitably become much, much blood.
The hard work of obeying Jesus' commandments concerning love does not involve getting misty-eyed over murderers and tyrants. It involves inner work: building the capacity to resist objectifying anyone who bears the image of God, and then confronting the dilemmas involved with organizing alternative approaches. Not killing the murderer is just the first step. We still need to find out what makes people into murderers, how to safeguard society from future danger, and how to heal the wounds their crimes have left. But wait a minute--we had those same challenges before, even when we felt free to obliterate our enemies. But too often we just dealt with the symptom and, apparently, made no progress with the disease.

To what extent is advocacy of nonviolence a luxury for me? As I said once before on this blog, when I was an editor with Quaker Life, I checked the subscription records once to see if any copies of the magazine went to the zip codes around the area where my sister Ellen was murdered. After coming to the USA, our family lived in Evanston, Illinois, and that was where my sister lived nearly up to the time she was kidnapped and killed. Quite a few copies of the magazine went to Evanston's zip codes. But not a single copy went to the area where Ellen died. True, I grew up in an alcoholic and occasionally violent family, and my mother reinforced that I was from "officer class" stock on my German side. Some of my warmest childhood memories were the times I'd sit with my father while he cleaned and oiled his guns. I can still remember the smell of the oilcloth. Still, my own survival never appeared to depend on willingness to use force.

What I long to do is to withdraw my consent from the conventional wisdom that blesses killing under the "right circumstances," which functionally means anytime we as a society don't have the will or imagination to find another way. I really hope that the worldwide revulsion at the the Saddam Hussein spectacle might be a moment of conversion for human beings--this is what it does to our soul to choose deliberately to end a life.

There's plenty for all of us to do who want this conversion. Those of us who live in relative safety don't need to feel guilty or useless; let's work to expand the zones of safety. Those of us who love to use words should consider whether we enjoy killing the reputations of others; let's not drop one syllable of our opposition to bad policies, but without trashing the human beings behind those policies. Some of us are gifted to discern the forces that link militarism, economic exploitation, and racism; please help the rest of us get a handle on the implications for the way we live, vote, and spend. But sooner or later, a few of us will actually know when a life is literally in our hands. Maybe the ancient temptation will have lost its force.

I'm history. I was looking at some photos that my German grandparents, my mother's parents, kept in a cigar box. It's odd to think that these ancient black and white pictures are of me and my family. They look almost like they're from shortly after the U.S. Civil War. Have I really been around that long?

Even more startling: here's a picture that looks like it dates back to the invention of photography. Taken in Versailles, France, this postcard photo can't really be all that old: the people standing second and fourth from the right edge are my mother's parents, Paul and Emma Schmitz. And they're not, apparently, all that young.

They were living in Japan at the time the photo was taken. True, they had their one and only child, my mother, when they were already middle-aged.

A little further down in the cigar box, I found a photo of me dressed up far more elegantly than I've ever been dressed as an adult. It must have been taken in Stuttgart shortly before I left Europe for the USA.

And here's a photo of Ellen and me on the deck of the S.S. United States in 1963, with the Atlantic Ocean behind us. Our first port of call was Southampton, England, after which we disembarked at Bremerhaven. I vividly remember that trip, but it has now been decades since there was routine transatlantic passenger service by ship between New York and Europe. (However, all is not lost. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 provides several transatlantic passages each year, and other lines provide repositioning cruises that cross the Atlantic.) 

1963 was the year my father's father, Knut Maurer, retired as captain of the M.S. Meteor after bringing it into Oslo harbor one last time. After watching that beautiful little cruise ship dock right in front of Oslo City Hall, I clambered on board and roamed the ship, telling anyone who would listen that my grandfather was the captain.

Righteous links:

Just in case another sea travel enthusiast happens upon this post, Google led me to this page dedicated to the history of the M.S. Meteor, with links to several photos of the ship under various names and flags. In the years immediately after World War II, my grandfather also served on the famous M.S. Stella Polaris, the subject of this page.

2007 King Holiday Observance information is here.

Has the weather changed where you live? Karen Street's A Musing Environment links to a discussion of apparent changes in climate and weather, with (at tonight's count) 230 comments. Today she added another post, inviting us to test our knowledge of relative dangers of energy sources.

Here's a site, The Simple Way, that has been mentioned in blog comments but I want to give it more prominence now that I'm reading Shane Claiborne's thoughtful and delightful book, The Irresistible Revolution.

If I don't say anything about the bogus controversy over new Congressman Keith Ellison and his desire to take his ceremonial oath of office on a Koran, it's not because I don't have opinions. But Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, who also appears in our local newspaper, the Oregonian, has said it better than I could.

Similarly, Friends Committee on National Legislation provides abundant resources for responding to the U.S. president's call for escalation in Iraq. I partly disagree with FCNL on only one major point--"Underwriting of Reconstruction with U.S. Dollars." It's not that I want the U.S. to withhold resources needed for reconstruction, especially since we're so notoriously stingy whenever it comes to helping repair the damage we've caused--witness the vindictive way we treated Viet Nam after the war there. However, I have a queasy feeling about the corruption that would accompany massive official aid unless there were significant reforms and safeguards. I guess an approach that would rely on widely-disbursed grassroots-oriented aid efforts is not likely. For now I would rather the U.S. simply stopped meddling in Iraq entirely, and focused on (1) a respectful but assertive debate with anti-American opinion-leaders in the region; and (2) restoring the semblance of an honest-broker role in Israel and Palestine.

Andrew Sullivan is just one of many who point out that Bush's military escalation in Iraq is support for a fictional partner--that is, a functioning government in Baghdad. The plan appears to me to be a tripod with two missing legs--an Iraqi partner and a credible civilian-aid component.

A Quaker in the Vatican: George Fox University professor Paul Anderson meets Pope Benedict XVI and augments the Pope's library with good Quaker ecclesiology and christology. And while I'm in an ecumenical mood, I read with interest Bradley Nassif's article in Christianity Today, "Will the 21st Be the Orthodox Century?" I appreciated Nassif's enumeration of helpful mutual influences between evangelical and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but he doesn't touch on some Orthodox weaknesses that may well be exacerbated if Orthodox Christians don't challenge the growing movements of nationalism and pseudo-Christian fascism in some Orthodox quarters. See this article, "The Russian Orthodox Church and Social Doctrine" (Word .doc file) by Charles West on the Religion in Eastern Europe site at George Fox University. It's nice to be able to speak from a position of superiority, knowing that American Christians never confuse piety with nationalism.


Anonymous said...

Johan, I applaud your comment, "We need to oppose militarism, capital punishment, abortion, and every other deadly compromise, not from sentimentality, but because every time we end a life, it makes the next time easier." And the commentary surrounding it.

This understanding is absolutely critical to the future of humankind. It is something I have been working on in my capacity as President of Consistent Life.

My colleague Rachel MacNair (a Quaker), Vice President of CL and President of our research arm, the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, has done some interesting work on the effects of committing violence on the perpetrators. The effects are similar across different circumstances for violence - soldiers, abortionists, executioners, etc.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for adding those links, Bill. I should also add one for Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.

Nancy A said...

I followed the link to Leonard Pitts' article on the swearing in of Keith Ellison and the controversy. The spirit of Pitts' article was sound and sensible, but the language betrayed a we/they thinking that I found dismaying.

He says there is a core of intolerance in Americans. And by Americans, he implicitly means Christians. If you try to read his article with a broader notion of Americans, you can't do it. Christians are the "we" and Muslims are the "they".

Is there a core of intolerance among Americans (meaning all Americans)? Or is it just among right-wing Americans and fundamentalist Christian Americans? And how do people get away with using the word American as if it doesn't include these other groups?

A journalist should know better. But these slips in language create the cultural concept backdrop for the popular prejudices of the right-wing classes. His article unwittingly does harm.

Canada has had muslims in government for years now, and a whole lot of hindus and first-nations people as well. None of them swear on the bible. Even our Governor General refused to swear on the bible at her swearing in last year.

Johan Maurer said...

Nancy--I'm not sure I follow you. By "Americans," Leonard Pitts is referring to the U.S. nation ("It is paradoxical that the same nation that speaks seriously of electing Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama to the presidency can also speak seriously of denying Keith Ellison his office because he is a Muslim") in the same limited and inaccurate way that many USA citizens use the word. I see no evidence that he's referring to Christians specifically. Anti-intellectualism and chauvinism in the USA have certainly not been confined to Christians. Nor have the forces opposing these tendencies within the USA only been non-Christians.

In describing a national phenomenon, Pitts is admittedly painting with a broad brush. But when Pitts says that "there has always been a strain of intolerance in the American character, a reactionary streak that denies American values under the guise of defending them," he's not saying that all or even most Americans exhibit this strain--just that it has been present in our mix from the start. I also don't think he's setting up a dichotomy between "Americans" and "Muslims" (as if the categories normally don't overlap, or as if reactionary attitudes never occur among Muslims). To me, it does work "... to read his article with a broader notion of Americans...." And I would not want to say that all Canadians who, in my presence, have made cynical comments about bilingualism and multiculturalism are Christian.

Comparisons between the USA and Canada may be useful. There are many government officials in the USA who are not Christian or Jewish, but our Congress is overwhelmingly dominated by at least nominal Christians and Jews. To what extent does the USA political culture influence the accuracy with which politicians report their affiliations, in comparison to Canadians? I wish I knew.

See "Religious affiliation on Capitol Hill" and "New Congress brings along religious firsts."