01 August 2019

Why resist when the target is so juicy? (Was: A new commandment)

Twitter discussions are often unproductive, but Lilith's accusation reminded me of old pre-Twitter conversations on religion and cruelty:
A few minutes browsing the Internet reveals the perennial fascination of this debate, but nothing that qualifies as conclusive. The most sobering insight that comes to me is this:
  • the human species has, throughout its history, included many violent members;
  • religious or anti-religious identification doesn't seem to affect this reality.
Religious identity is just one of the influences that shape our behavior; many other influences may spring to the surface when we (consciously or instinctively) choose to act violently or nonviolently, cruelly or kindly, in response to the stimuli we're receiving.

In other places, I've written about the impact on my teenage self of discovering the book War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, on Evanston Public Library's "new books" shelf. As my eighteenth birthday neared, and its related deadline to register for the military draft, I was reading a lot about war and aggression, and these books went a long way to helping me understand how violence seems to be part of who we are as animals. All this was before my Christian conversion, but already I was being prepared to be radically skeptical of any attempt to link violence with high ideals. And isn't it true that almost all religions try to motivate us with high ideals?

In any case, the debate over who is more cruel -- religious people or non-religious people -- is unproductive without definitions and without honesty about the debaters' motives. I'm more interested in promoting integrity among the people I know best -- believers. Does our faith open our eyes to the actual biological roots of violence or mask those roots with pious justifications (whatever rationalizations we're receiving from the principalities and powers)? Does it help us understand and practice the love it claims to embody?

(And ... could our behavior as believers undermine the skepticism of non-believers, even to the point that they might want to peek inside our communities and test our claims, to their eternal advantage? Are we ready to greet them with honesty and love, rather than the snarky arguments I often find on the Internet?)

All of these thoughts reminded me of a blog post I wrote shortly after Saddam Hussein's execution:

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.

(Original 2007 post, with original comments, is here. By next week, I expect to be back home and depending less on old material to meet deadlines.)

In my Internet wanderings around the "who is more cruel" debate, I re-encountered this helpful essay from Martin E. Marty: Varieties of unbelief.

Looking thoughtfully/critically at the new Museum of the Bible.

Patricia Dallmann on prayer, self-preservation (or not) and shooting the moon.

Ukraine's Soviet-era archives are opening up, with consequences for memory politics. Research can be emotionally draining for staff as well as visiting families:
When you work in an archive related to state repression, you can’t take documents too close to heart, says Andriy Kohut.

“We had a new member of staff,” Kohut tells me. “We started giving her files to catalogue – to put document descriptions together. I called in her office and she was crying: she had begun to read the case histories and it was too much for her. People who have worked here for a long time try to distance themselves: they just note the key data and ignore everything else. She had started reading a file, rather than processing it.”
Who knew conservatism had so many varieties? Here's one: Liberal conservatism.

Suits my mood...

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