Thursday, May 5, 2011

Somber Is The Price We Pay: Christianity, Ethics, And The Response To All Things Bin Laden

The first thing that must be said in this essay is simple: I'm a coward.

I'm a coward because I don't have the guts to be as good as Jesus of Nazareth. I'm a coward because I don't have the moral courage of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Dorothy Day, my main role models as a person of faith and as someone who knows that human beings are not meant to kill each other. I'm a coward for not going as far as the best souls who have ever guided us when they were robed in human flesh and feelings.

I'm a coward. Let that reality - and it is a reality - frame the rest of this essay and how it is processed on moral and ethical levels.

It's been quite a week for Americans, as we wrestle with the reality and aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's death. Everything about this seminal moment in world history - and it is a seminal moment, even if you believe that Bin Laden was no longer the same threat he was in 2001 - has generated necessary discussions about the human condition.

Questions of how we conduct policy, how we deal with mass-murderers, how we treat inconvenient kinds of lives in manifestly threatening situations are daunting enough. The Bin Laden death has forced us to go even deeper, though: How should we react to the death of a person who committed supremely evil and vile acts? How should we speak of a person who didn't just end roughly 3,000 lives in horrifying fashion, but shattered the hundreds of thousands of lives connected to the unfortunate souls who worked in the upper reaches of the Twin Towers on that September 11 morning?

Nearly 10 full years after 9/11, how should we react - it's a necessary question because it's a matter of heart and soul, the stuff of life at its deepest, truest core, the stuff by which people of faith align their lives and - for the nonbeliever - the internal energy that shapes the society we live in. Maybe the first 24 hours after Osama's death painted a picture in which emotions were too raw and the catharsis was too fresh. Now, though, a full four days after Sunday's "where-were-you-when-you-heard?" moment, we should be able to wrestle with these tensions in earnest so that we can be our best selves and show as much to the world when our inner fiber is tested on a grand scale.

The most basic thing to say about the nation's response to Bin Laden's death - and your own response, whatever it was - is that we all draw a line somewhere. As we swim through life, millions of little experiences over many decades come together to form a larger moral canvas, a fully-laid-out, whole-cloth expression of everything we believe to be good, true, necessary, and paramount in our lives. Decades of encounters, perceived in our own unique way and weighed against the stories we hear from others around us, create a larger flow of life and frame the way we've come to understand the great truths of existence.

There is a finite point I wish to make about all of this, but before getting to that point, one must ask questions on the path to deeper understanding of oneself as a person. We all draw lines in different places, but before talking about those lines, let's at least make sure we're considering all the angles when we start drawing:

Where do you draw the line on war, on special ops, on drones, and on aiding rebel groups or ruling governments in foreign countries? What are the criteria that should (or do, or must) guide these actions?

What is a reasonable cost of war or select missions to take out specific individuals such as Osama Bin Laden? What's the cost in lives that's reasonable? The cost in money? The cost in emotional strain, the divorces of military families, the mental health of soldiers, the spiritual consequence of being given a professional/military assignment to kill another human being?

These questions are not asked in a partisan manner, but in a coldly dispassionate and analytical way. Costs are not just monetary; some things in life ARE worth the great holistic cost. The point is to make sure that we account for the full cost of actions; that's the only way in which we can confidently say that some things are worth doing in any circumstance.

Continuing the questions that must be asked this week: How many other people are there like Bin Laden who should be taken out? What guides that specific kind of decision?

Should these kinds of missions ever be undertaken at all (i.e., should we consider pacifism or not)?

Can torture or extreme methods of attempted coercion (i.e., waterboarding) ever be condoned in an attempt to gain information?

When something like the killing of Osama Bin Laden is successfully carried out, how should it then be seen - as an achievement, a grim but necessary duty, a satisfying triumph over evil, or as another distinct reality not expressed in the three previous options?

Should photos of the dead person (Bin Laden) be posted? What criteria should guide the posting of the photos? How should we view the photos themselves and the decision of whether to post them or not?

These questions are not meant to steer you to one way of being or one course of action, but to merely get all of us to make sure that we all draw our own lines based on highly-developed and fully fleshed-out criteria.

Whether you're a liberal or a conservative or a libertarian; an anti-war advocate or a strong believer in the need for an interventionist foreign policy; a supporter of soft power or hard power; or, lastly, a supporter of defense spending or defense cuts, these are the kinds of questions that have to be wrestled with. Human beings can, do and always will possess different ways of viewing a given issue, but what's unallowable is to arrive at views without a clear, coherent and layered ethical architecture, a finely-developed framework created by decades of living, decades of wrestling with life's most difficult challenges on a soul level or - for the nonbeliever - a deeply internal level of heart and mind. Arriving at a viewpoint through careful work doesn't guarantee correctness or accuracy, but views gained without much forethought do indeed guarantee chaos before too long.

It should be clear that the process of asking so many questions (and they're just a few of the many queries that could be presented to anyone grappling with the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by "Osama Week") is designed to achieve one simple thing: The formation of well-developed criteria for the moral and ethical lines we draw in our lives, lines that - when taken to the policy level and adopted by leaders - form the stance of the United States Government in front of its people and the larger world beyond its borders.

With that having been established, this essay now moves to the person whose life and teachings are supposed to hold primacy for a great many Americans: Jesus of Nazareth.

Cast aside the longstanding debates about whether America is a “Christian nation” by charter and, in a different vein, if America is Christian or secular on a cultural level. What is still beyond dispute is that of religious adherents in America, most profess to be Christian by a wide margin. Moreover, it’s also beyond dispute that some general adherence to Christian religious faith is seen as a general asset in presidential and national American politics. Of course, Jeremiah Wright proved to be thorny for Barack Obama, but that drama from the 2008 campaign was more a matter of casting a cloud over the perceived legitimacy of Obama’s Christianity. It was not an instance in which perceived authentic Christianity was suddenly a weakness.

The point is plain: Being Christian is seen as important in America’s political arena, even though there are large blocks of voters on the Left who are passionately, enduringly atheist, agnostic, secularist, or a combination thereof. Because Christian identity owns such centrality and primacy in our nation’s national life (not necessarily its culture at large, but certainly in politics writ large), it is therefore relevant and necessary to constantly keep the life, example and teachings of Jesus in prominent public view.

Theology is its own sticky wicket, and there are many debates about the divinity of Jesus that will never die (the word choice is not intentional, by the way). However, what’s great about the life of Jesus is that – while immensely layered, paradoxical and mysterious on some levels – he left behind some decidedly unambiguous statements and examples on matters of life and death.

“Those who live by the sword shall also perish by it” – this, mind you, just hours before he would die at the hands of Roman imperial power.

“Turn the other cheek” – no, not a statement of completely passive submission to violence at the hands of another person, but a very intentional and genuinely nonviolent way of aggressively resisting oppression and mistreatment.

“Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you” – this is Jesus’s most difficult teaching by far, but it is a core part of the human Jesus’s message and therefore something every Christian person has to grapple with. It certainly can’t be exempted from the Christian call.

To be clear, “loving one’s enemies” does not mean approving of their actions. Similarly, forgiveness does not mean immediately, reflexively extending absolution or consolation to an evildoer. The repentance of the evildoer and a mutual acknowledgment of the hurt caused by one party to the other are parts of necessary forgiveness. Nevertheless, the call does remain to love the other person, no matter how unattractive or evil that person might in fact be. Jesus sets the bar very high; it’s why he’s Jesus, the only sinless person who ever lived, despite inhabiting the same human flesh and the same biological impulses all of us have.

Realizing the clarity and completeness of Jesus’s identity as an exemplar of vigorous and aggressive nonviolent resistance to the oppression he endured on Good Friday, we – especially those of us who claim the mantle of Christian faith but also those who view Jesus as a great teacher or role model on a solely human level – must at least attempt to square our lives with the life of Jesus. This is when an event such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden brings us in touch with very difficult and messy realities of human life in a context of mass civilization, not the primitive hunter-gatherer societies of prehistoric times when finely-crafted systems of governance had not yet emerged.

Once human beings developed and grew to their present levels of cognitive and moral awareness, we – as a species - generated moral codes, laws, and various standards for the regulation of peaceable behavior on a massive scale. What Jesus did and taught offers an imposing challenge to the fragile balance of human life in cities and clustered communities. What is under discussion in “Osama Week” is nothing less than a revisiting of all that it means to exist as a global community of almost (now) seven billion persons, on our way to 8, 9, and 10 billion in the very near future. Just how are we to act – and think, and feel, and outwardly emote – on a planet with multiple hundreds of countries, dozens of different races, and an accordingly vast range of languages and lifestyles? This is what it means to be human, and on these bewildering questions, Jesus established his own clear standard.

Because Jesus sets the bar so high, we must then realize – and this is part of why I am indeed a profound moral coward – that almost all of us fall short when comparing ourselves to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

The difficult thing to realize about the Jesus Standard and the human standard – including Matt Zemek’s standard – is that on a planet with billions of people and many bad actors, the ideal of complete nonviolence is almost impossible to realistically uphold. Let’s play along with this hypothetical: If an attacker broke into Jesus’s home today, Jesus would aggressively pursue active nonviolent resistance. He would project complete serenity in bearing and appearance but demonstrate moral authority and emotional control of the entire situation. He would express empathy with his attacker yet shed light on the smallness and weakness of what the attacker was doing. The man who exposed Pontius Pilate’s doublespeak and moral cowardice while not insulting the Roman governor would take a similar tack with a would-be assailant. The exact words would be unique to the situation, but the fundamental approach would not waver… not from the one who was supremely righteous (righteous in a human sense; believers would add a divine layer of spiritual truth to Jesus, but again, even for the nonbeliever, Jesus offers the ultimate standard of human conduct) but yet did not resist his death with a show of physical force.

In response to the example and teachings of Jesus, I can only say that I fall short of them. I can only say that any attempt to do violence against another human being falls short of the Jesus Standard. Yet, I do intellectually embrace a way of being that falls short of the Jesus Standard; it’s the gap between pure teaching and realpolitik, between the vision Jesus had for humanity and the realism of living in the midst of a complicated world.

I cannot deny or run away from this: When defending oneself in a house or defending one’s country against a mass-murderer who constantly loomed as a terrorist threat, I can’t say that I’m a full-on pacifist. I can’t. That’s what makes me a moral coward. It’s where I choose to draw the line in my outlook on the world and how to conduct myself as an individual citizen. It’s also where I draw the line in my view of what the United States can and can’t do. Nevertheless, it puts me below the Jesus Standard; it leaves me short of Jesus’s teachings in full.

Where do I draw the line on the questions raised above? Jesus would want me to view every single killing of another person as deficient; at least, that’s true if I take the passion and crucifixion narratives at face value (which, as a Christian, I darn well should). However, I fall short of the Jesus Standard when I say that there are a few people who should be killed. Hitler was one, Bin Laden another, Joe Stalin another, Saddam Hussein another, Pol Pot another. Unrepentant mass murderers who – moreover – are not likely to be replaced by anything or anyone worse than them are the people on this planet (there are only a select few of them) whose deaths would generally benefit their local populations and/or people in other lands who live under the threat of terrorism or death by violent means.

On a matter that’s somewhat (but not completely) related to the killing of terrorists, I oppose the death penalty but believe, as an example, that Jeffery Dahmer was an exception, a person who – without repentance – needed to be put to death because of his…. uhhh… his choice in meats. I hold that there are a few occasions in which it is necessary to do something that fails to meet the Jesus Standard of moral and ethical conduct. These kinds of actions – and the realities attached to them – are called “necessary evils.” They are, in short, the kinds of actions that reflect the gap between the ideal Jesus Standard and, on the other hand, Life In A Complicated, Messy, Violent And Difficult Mass Society On Planet Earth. A helpful way of illustrating this concept is that conservatives are much more pronounced in making divisions between the Jesus Standard and Life In A Complicated World – that’s not wrong or immoral or unethical or anything of the sort; I’m merely saying that’s where conservatives generally draw their lines. My line – like the lines of other generally antiwar liberals – is drawn with a much greater internal insistence on the primacy of nonviolence, even if I know that 100 percent nonviolence is not quite attainable.

I realize there are many other questions and standards to be raised on these issues: For instance, just how does one assess a “mass murderer unlikely to be replaced by anyone worse?” Does the number of people murdered matter, or does the savagery of the deaths caused hold a greater degree of primacy? How does one determine that a person is “unlikely to be replaced by anyone worse?” That’s the detail work we all must do in surveying various situations and making tough ethical and moral choices. The point is that we should wrestle with these things far more deeply than we do; another core point is that Jesus, fully human (whether or not you believe that he is divine), has left us with his own clear way of handling these kinds of problems.

We now arrive at the final portion of this essay, in which – having presented the questions we must wrestle with and then laying down the Jesus Standard – I will attempt to establish the one point I want all of you to retain in some form or fashion: When necessary evils are involved – and Osama Week is nothing if not an extended drama in which we are all forced to confront necessary evils – what we feel is as important as what we do (and what we approve of doing).

Here’s the basic explanation/unpacking of that statement:

When choosing between a clear moral good and a clear moral evil, it is only the act that matters, at least in an immediate sense. Jesus, in fact, taught the Apostles about the person who said he would not do the right thing but then went out and did it, balanced against the person who said he would do the right thing but then failed to actually do it. When a given moral or ethical choice is clear and not that difficult, we can feel torn-up and conflicted inside, battered and buffeted by desires to have an affair or punch an irritating stranger in the face. We can feel hurt, horny or restless. That’s okay, because on that level, feelings are undeniable and unavoidable. We all feel the surge of blood in our veins at times, the desire to gain revenge or satisfy a bodily craving. As long as we don’t act on those urges, we’re morally and ethically fine.

When necessary evils enter the picture, that’s when things get very complicated very quickly.

When killing someone with a weapon… or having an abortion for anything less than the threat to your own life as a biological mother… or divorcing a spouse… or telling a bald-faced lie on a matter of appreciable significance, or something of like nature, one is participating in a necessary evil. The person doing so is not evil as a result, but the person is part of a larger reality of evil. It’s not an evil act for a scared young woman to have an abortion out of fear that she can’t support her child (conservatives might disagree, and I would understand why; however, that’s another discussion for another day…), but the reality of a nascent womb-held life being ended? That’s an evil reality. (Would that we could distinguish between evilness inside human persons and evil realities; evil is a reality or condition more than a characteristic of individuals. People who sincerely try to do good often contribute to evil; this doesn’t make the person evil, but it magnifies the presence of evil in the world.)

Accordingly, when pondering what to do – and what official U.S. Government policy should be – on the matters of extrajudicial killings, torture (waterboarding in particular), the waging of war, and the posting of photos (among many other things), we need to realize that one of our core responsibilities is to make sure that while participating in a necessarily evil reality, we do not become the evil we claim to oppose and despise. Osama Bin Laden was an evil man, not just a person who sincerely tried to do good but wound up adding to the evil of (and in) the world as it is. That’s precisely why I felt he needed to be killed. However, the fact that I supported his killing puts a profound moral weight at my feet, and this is what connects feelings with actions.

Why does it matter how we Americans felt – and how we emoted – in the aftermath of the announcement of Osama’s death? It matters because we participated in a necessary evil. We, the United States, participated in an act that would be unquestionably immoral if done to a 9-year-old girl on a street corner, but which attained a certain measure of morality because the person was instead Osama Bin Laden, mastermind/funder of the 9/11 attacks. That mixture of situational morality and underlying immorality (at least relative to the Jesus Standard) defines a classically necessary evil.

Tough stuff, yes? Here’s the kicker: Because it’s difficult, and because it falls short of the Jesus Standard, such an action needs to complemented by a very specific emotional and spiritual response in order for its most moral dimensions to be magnified while allowing its least moral dimensions to recede in size and influence.

To illustrate this point, I bring you Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As you might know, Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister who actively resisted Hitler. There is still debate about the specific details of his involvements in anti-Hitler activity, but Bonhoeffer’s words – presented here – illustrate the proper, honorable, noble, moral, and ethical way to handle the realm of necessary evils, actions that are deemed to be necessary for the planet while falling short of the Jesus Standard. Read the above link for a fuller unpacking of Bonhoeffer’s views, but they boil down to this: When performing or participating in a necessary evil, one should not be exultant or regard one’s actions as the height of morality. The words of the just-beatified Pope John Paul II give ballast to Bonhoeffer’s position and stance: “War is always a defeat for humanity.”

War might be necessary – it helped Karol Wojtyla’s native Poland for a time, and World War II, though not supported by everyone (Dorothy Day, one of my spiritual heroes, protested it), did stop the spread of Nazism. However, war's death-bearing reality in itself is never a positive for humanity. World War II’s undeniable success on a fundamental level does not obscure - and must not be allowed to obscure - the fact that a broken world is what gave rise to it. The failure for humanity is not that a bloody war stopped Hitler; it’s that Hitler was able to gain enough of a global foothold in 1938 and 1939 that he and Mussolini (and Hirohito) became such large-scale threats to other nations and continents.

The point is plain: War, even when necessary, is part of the evil of reality. Participating in war or doing war-like things is not the summit of Christian virtue – Jesus submitted to death rather than lash out at his oppressors with physical force and violence. Therefore, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about killing Hitler, he did not ascribe supreme morality to his intentions. We might not match the Jesus Standard, so the price we pay – the price which Bonhoeffer insisted on paying – was, at the very least, not being joyful in the process of participating in a necessary evil.

We don’t get to gloat. We don’t get to cheer. Not when falling short of the Jesus Standard as we make the necessary calculation that We Live In A Complicated, Messy And Broken World.

We can kill a select few people, yes, but we don’t get to regard such actions as the height of morality or virtue. Not when a necessary evil is involved.

We can say that Osama Bin Laden’s death is a net-plus for the planet, as President Barack Obama basically did in his Sunday night address, but no, we don’t get to regard the event as an achievement, a sign of something to be PROUD of, as Obama then did with these words:

Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.

Those words strongly suggest – if not outrightly indicate - the kind of occasion that is worth celebrating, like a space shuttle launch or the attainment of some new frontier, some higher vista, of human accomplishment. No, when one participates in a necessary evil, that kind of language is not allowed. Falling short of the Jesus Standard – in the best of the moral tradition affirmed by Bonhoeffer – can be viewed as necessary when life becomes wrenchingly complicated and messy, but it cannot be viewed as party-time or an occasion for joy.

You might think that we should kill even more people than Osama or just a literal handful of people; I can respect that view even though I would disagree with it.

You might think that torture should be allowed if it can deliver high-value targets or information. I understand that view, even though I would even more vigorously disagree with it.

You might – heck, you almost certainly do – draw your line of morality and ethics in a place different from mine. There’s nothing wrong or problematic about that. We’re different, each and every one of us, and while we strive for consistency in the application of our principles, we will always make certain exceptions here and there. The disagreements between conservatives and liberals or (as has been shown during Osama Week on matters of national security) between pro-Obama and anti-Obama factions are nothing other than a product of the fact that people draw lines and locate points of emphasis in different places. That’s fine, and that will always be the case. However, regardless of where you stand on these and any other issues (foreign or domestic) that involve necessary evils, it is incumbent upon you – upon all of us – to realize that we must be somber, sober and distinctly non-celebratory as we participate in, support, or react to such actions.

Somber is the price we pay for doing necessary things that are part of the evil of reality. That’s what it means to be a human person who wrestles with matters of morality and ethics, especially from a Christian standpoint and especially as a citizen who has to think through the implications of his actions, positions, AND personal emotional responses to events. That’s the one thing I want to leave you with.

Now, a brief postscript on the above point as I conclude this essay:

Why does this matter, beyond any reasons that have already been stated?

If a nation – a larger community of people represented by its government and, most centrally, President Obama - is truly sober and somber in response to the killing of Osama Bin Laden or another person with a similarly blood-stained record, the rest of the world takes notice. Not the fervent anti-Americans, but most of the world. That stuff matters in terms of national security and creating a better balance of life on this planet.

It matters for this reason too: If our leaders – who do have to participate in necessary evils – regarded their actions with the moral temperance and seriousness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they would, first of all, commit far fewer atrocities because of a dogged insistence on not creating any more evil-in-reality than absolutely necessary. If one claims to view war as something that should only be used as a last resort, or if one similarly claims that torture is allowable only in a few select circumstances, one is accordingly forced to create standards for the use of each of those necessary evils and, as a result, ensure that they are viewed as tactics/measures that need to be carefully limited so as to not produce any more evil than necessary.

Therefore, if one displays happiness or overt satisfaction in the aftermath of sanctioning war or torture (which, solely for the sake of argument, MIGHT be deemed acceptable under certain circumstances in the eyes of some persons), one is thereby expressing – not just within one’s being but to the outside world as well – an enjoyment of such actions that is not consistent with a desire to limit their use/frequency/prevalence to the fullest possible extent. There’s a reason we get upset when we see other people in other nations cheering a given death. There’s a reason why select targeted killings aren’t viewed as moral progress by other antiwar advocates: The killings for which the U.S. Government is responsible are more than select; they’re more than just the three or five or seven people (no more than 10 on the planet if we applied a strict standard) who might deserve “mass-murderer-take-him-out-now” status.

If our society – and the leaders our society produces – possessed a Bonhoeffer-based acknowledgment of the impoverished nature of necessary evils in comparison with the Jesus Standard, we would not allow necessary evils to spill into unnecessary (and therefore morally unacceptable) evils. If we, like Bonhoeffer, acknowledged that even necessary actions will fall short of the Jesus Standard and therefore should not be viewed as the summit of virtue, we – as a collective society – could release the photo of a dead Osama Bin Laden knowing that said release was not an act of “spiking the football” or “holding up a trophy” but, in complete contrast, an act of owning our necessary evil and grimly accepting the cost of our action: the killing – necessary, but unfortunate – of another human being.

Somber is the price we pay. Sober is the response to the human cost when necessary evils are involved. No, this is not concern-trollism or thought-policing or emotional nannying. This is the stuff of life at its deepest core, of human grappling at its most complicated spiritual and emotional centers.

As a Christian, I end by wishing that the peace of the Crucified And Nonviolent Christ be with you all.

Matt Zemek

Verily and Undeniably A Moral Coward Who Falls Short Of The Jesus Standard By Miles