Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Post #56 - The Other

"Now, therefore, you are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens…" (Ephesians 2:19)

We are often tempted to draw lines. Quarantine off the sick, so the healthy can stay healthy. Pluck out the bad apples, to save the rest of the barrel. But, as William E. Hull, a professor at Samford University in Birmingham, has written (in “Let Them Grow Together,” Christian Ethics Today, Spring 2007), that the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30) cautions against this. When it comes to moral judgments, Hull asserts, Jesus counseled against trying to separate good wheat from bad weeds prior to the harvest, in order to let us know that many judgments must be left to God; that in attempting our well-intentioned sorting, we may do unanticipated damage. He quotes Robert Farrar Capon (in Parables of the Kingdom) as saying: "...the enemy [the devil]...has to act only minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly he depends on the forces of goodness...to do his work...Goodness itself, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all the evil ever had in mind." Hull goes on:

"One of the greatest threats to human survival today is a creeping fundamentalism in the culture of every major world religion that would absolutize its understanding of good and evil to the point of justifying violence in the name of the sacred... [Jew, Christian or Muslim] they are all united with the field hands of old in saying, 'Let's pull up and destroy the bad weeds we don't like in order to protect the good wheat that we have.' And it all sounds so sensible, even 'godly,' until we realize how many weeds of bigotry, prejudice, and hatred are sown by such misguided zealotry...
"Do these [conclusions] imply that we are to be moral pacifists who fail to oppose evil until the weeds overwhelm us? No, 'let both grow together' (v. 30) is the imperative of our text. We are not to give up sowing good seed and let bad seed take the field...we are to be busy growing an ever stronger faith that can more than hold its own even in a weed-choked field...But what about the weeds that never seem to change? God will know best what to do with them.

Jim Forest
Jim Forest, author of Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons and other books of faith-based scholarship and insight, head of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and a good friend, has written about “the reality of enmity” and its reflection in the scriptures. When Jesus says, “Love your enemies; bless those who curse you...” (Matthew 5:44), says Forest, He was addressing a community who knew something about suffering and persecution. At that time, “There was no concept of human rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments.” His guidance was “not a teaching that...would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him...When we talk about Christ's commandment to love one's enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day.” Yet, the example of Christ, in so many different contexts is crystal clear, in his forbearance, his forgiveness, his healing.

“Healing,” writes Forest, "...is another word for peacemaking. Peacemaking is the healing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew, but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a critically ill servant...
"Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy...Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation...God's love...is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust...
"I'm talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of the Gospel according to Hollywood is that the evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their death. Confronted by such pure evil, what else can one do? But the teaching of Christ is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity."

Forest told an audience in Belgium in 2005: "The reality is that we are brothers even if we are divided from each other as Cain was from his brother Abel. It is because we are brothers and sisters that Christ taught us to say the words “Our Father...” There is no other kind of warfare than fratricidal warfare."

A recurrent element in our encounter with “the other” is a tendency to impute motives differently depending on whose behavior is being judged. In a column written for The Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam wrote about the differences that have been observed between how we explain the actions of public figures with whom we agree, versus those taken by our friends or by ourselves:

"When people do something unforgivable, we often find it easy to conclude that the wrongdoing is a manifestation of their nature. This allows us to go after them with a vengeance – when you are dealing with fundamentally bad characters, anything that can undermine them is fair game....Wesleyan University social psychologist Scott Plous said one dimension of the phenomenon is known as the actor-observer bias. When we do something wrong ourselves...we explain our actions in terms of situational factors....But when we see someone else do something wrong, we are far more likely to link the behavior to the nature of that individual...
"Experiments have shown that our tendency to see the actions of others as dispositional – reflecting their true nature – persists even when we are explicitly told otherwise...
"Partisan animosities or any other kind of group membership exacerbates and extends the problem...we choose situational explanations to justify the errors of our allies, and we choose dispositional explanations to judge the errors of our opponents...[conversely, we] are likely to see the successes of [our allies] as dispositional – reflecting [their] innate nature...[but] likely to see the success of [our opponents] as situational – thus depriving [them] of credit."

This sheds additional light on how “demonization” fits a common psychological proclivity: our perception of the inherent evil of the opponent and our ability to reject explanations that would mitigate or justify his actions reinforce one another. They are what enable us to justify actions of our own that would normally be considered beyond the pale. Situationally, we can condone torture or indiscriminate bombing, because dispositionally we are virtuous, and he -- the Other -- is not. Yet U.S. Senator Frank Church reminded us in 1975, “The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy; each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength that makes us free, is lessened.”

Equally instructive is this quotation from an earlier political leader:

"Why, of course the people don't want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?...it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship...All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." (Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy)

St. Akakios
We see an example of the kind of compassion that can counterbalance this antagonistic urge, in the behavior of St. Akakios, Armenian bishop of 5th century Amida (now known as Diyarbakir, Turkey). In the years 421 and 422 C.E., during war between Rome (when it was under a Christian Byzantine emperor) and the Persian Empire, some seven thousand Persians had been taken prisoners and were being kept under harsh conditions. Summoning his clergy to discuss the plight of the starving captives, he said: “Our God needs neither dishes nor cups, for He neither eats nor drinks...Since our Church possesses many gold and silver vessels, which derive from the generosity of the faithful, it is our duty to ransom the prisoners with these and to feed them.” And so it was done. (from Ecclesiological History, by Socrates Scholastikos, Volume VII, Chapter 21).

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