Saturday, December 31, 2005

Morality, Nationality, and Paradox

George Orwell once wrote that Christianity is as weak as straw in the face of nationalism. A corollary might be that reason -- or even the notion that any sort of reasoned discourse should inform the fateful decision of whether to resort to violence -- often seems as weak as a twig in the face of violent, triumphalist nationalism.

Is this quantifiable? No, it’s just an impression formed from scores of conversations with pro-war types and way too much reading of sites like LGF. There’s also, of course, an enormous difference between imagining horrific punishment and actually carrying it out. And yes, there are many pro-war people who are genuinely horrified by violence and had hoped to avert war at all costs.

Still, there’s a rich irony here. Pro-war folks point to beheadings as the number one example of the irredeemable savagery of “the enemy” -- because it seems to reveal that they are in the grip of a pathology that no longer allows for any glint of reason or mercy to intrude on their lust for violence. And they’re right, of course. What’s amazing -- and ominous -- is how easily some of our colleagues and neighbors fall prey to the very same collapse of rationality they claimed to be appalled by in the first place.
-- Greg Sargent

Orwell was right; and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr recognized it. Nationalism is a function of a group. Morality, Niebuhr noted, is paradoxically inappropriate to a group. this produces what sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith call the "ethical paradox of group loyalty:"

At the individual level, selfishness is usually considered negative, but at the group level, it is considered moral and just. Indeed, at the group level, it is not called selfishness, but morality, service, sacrifice, or loyalty. Although we are selfish ifwe always look out for our own individual needs first it is considered wrong and immoral if we do not consider the needs of our family first, ahead of other families. We house our families first, and only if we can spare extra do we help house other families. To do otherwise is considered immoral or, at a minimum, a sad case of misplaced priorities.

The story of Elijah and the widow notwithstanding.
The paradox means that "members of a group cannot understand and feel the needs of another group as completely and deeply as those of their own group," so "reliance on love, compassion, and moral and rational suasion to overcome group divisions and inequalities is, in Niebuhr's words, 'practically an impossibility.'

For this reason, relations between groups are always mainly political rather than ethical or moral. As Niebuhr says, 'They will always be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group.' (quoted from Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press 2000), pp. 158-159.
So nations go to war, compete against each other, and can never, in any real sense, be considered "Christian."

Because they can never, in any real sense, be moral.

In the face of nationalism, Christianity can never be more than a straw in the wind. So while it is normal, even understandable, to be outraged by the lack of morality of the President, to be angered at the complete absence of any action that can be called Christian ethics in his justifications for his illegal, not to say incompetent, dealings as President, it is also perfectly useless.

Criticize George W. Bush all you want for not being the Christian he pretends to be; but the question of Christianity in guiding the nation, simply doesn't apply. It is inapplicable.

It is possible to resort to a "higher power" argument, to argue that all human governance is derived from authority that stands apart from even the consent of the governed. That was the argument of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement he spearheaded. Indeed, none of the changes that came about as a result of the civil rights movement are possible if one cannot consider and act on a transcendent authority that checks the power of even the majority in a representative democracy. But that argument has greater moral power in the arena of civil and voting rights. It is almost a piece of straw in the argument against the wiretapping of the NSA. The question there has to remain the authority, under Constitutional and statutory law, for the President to act without legal consequence. The "higher power" argument holds only against the ideal of the republic, and whether the consent of the governed can be persuaded to hold to that ideal, or whether it sees its own survival as a nation so threatened that even that ideal must give way to insure the nation continues.

Christianity is difficult, both in practice and in theory. Following in the Judaic tradition of valuing human reason, Christians treasure the mind as a gift of God, and the faithful are called to use his gifts to the fullest; to fail to do so is a sin. Every believer, says the author of the First Epistle of St. Peter, should "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you." The admonition is a good one, for it encourages the faithful to ask questions, and in asking questions, one enters the debate about God and man that began with the ancient pagans.

The suggestion that Christianity is a matter of both intellect and imagination, however, has fallen from popular favor. Many secularists see the whole business as fanciful, or, at best, as a comforting tale impossible to square with empirical truths. To literalist believers, imagination is beside the point: in their eyes, inerrant Scripture teaches humankind all it really needs to know.

--Jon Meacham

This is, I think, the central question of ecclesiology today, and ecclesiology is the central question of Christianity today. Ecclesiology is the subject and the discussion of what it means to be a church. And the Church Triumphant is a pale shadow of its former self, which perhaps is as it should be. That which you most oppose, you most come to resemble. This is the reality Greg Sargent has realized. The "pro-war folks" he discusses fear what Jung would call their shadow self. Seeking to expunge it, they will in fact destroy themselves, and stand amazed as they throw their enemy into the pit, to find they have hurled themselves there, too. It is a perilous time for Christians, who are called to be in the world but not of the world. It is this position that brought such calumny down on the head of Tom Fox and the three other Christians, still (so far as I know) being held captive for their witness and their efforts for peace. It is an identity issue: if someone can actually stand up for principles which are noble and unselfish, then what does that say for me? Better to vilify them as fools, than to recognize my own severe limitations.

Thomas Merton, writing about the desert fathers who fled collapsing civilization to live in the Egyptian deserts in the 4th century, said that there are times when it is every man and woman for him- or her-self, when the best you can do is to grab a piece of flotsam and hold on in the flood that is coming. Sometimes, in other words, the most Christian thing you can do is to save yourself, so that you can provide a witness to the world that will arise from the destruction. It may be we are in one of those times, again.

The gravest difficulty of Christianity is the one Jon Meacham recognizes: that reason is a necessity of faith, but that both reason and faith have their limits. At some point, as Jacques Derrida, we are left only with the mysterium tremendum, the deep secret that makes us tremble, without knowing what causes the trumbling, or even where it is coming from. The mysterium tremendum comes from outside of us, but it is the state of our being. It is, if we are attentive, part of the condition that prevails. It is also a sure cure for pride, about which Meacham is also right:

Pride is fueling an unhappy trend toward Christian self-satisfaction in the United States. Though roughly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, conservative evangelicals have long felt themselves under siege, particularly since the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning government-written prayer in public schools. In reaction they have spent the ensuing four decades becoming a major political force. Instead of reading Stark as an amicus brief for the faith, though, believers might be best off taking his case for an intellectually curious Christianity to heart.

Having become a political force, conservative evangelicals have, effectively, stopped being believers. They have stopped being Christians. There is no valid comparison to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was never a political force, certainly not in the way James Dobson or Jerry Falwell is. When King spoke out against the Vietnam War, he was vilified even by those who supported his civil rights movement, even though his stance was of a piece with his activism on that front. When he died, he was organizing an economic boycott for garbage workers. King never supported the status quo, he challenged it.

And that has become my bedrock position on Christianity: if it is not a challenge to the status quo, if it does not afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, it may be any number of things, but it is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. There is many a slip there, many ways to be afflicting and comforting, and certainly not all of them are harmonious with the stories of the Gospels, either.

Religion has one fundamental principle, however it is practiced: it calls the individual out of self and toward other. That is why, and how, religion is responsibility; and precisely why, if it is not that, it is nothing. "No one," note Emerson and Smith, "can opt out of commitment to some fundamental moral orientation or take a normative view 'from nowhere.'" (p. 142). A conclusion, I should note, that could have come from the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Religion serves to provide that orientation (among other sources), and that orientation always directs one toward others. And that direction is always a challenge to the status quo of: "what's in it for me."

But we never get far from that status quo; or never far enough. A matter I want to develop further, in consideration of certain matters of ecclesiology. We start here, however: with Christianity that is as weak as a straw; that is a product both of reason and imagination, in equal measures; that relies on faith and requires tradition (as Meacham points out, quoting Chesterton both times: "Reason itself is a matter of faith," G. K. Chesterton wrote. "It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all;" and "Tradition, Chesterton wrote during the Edwardian Age, 'means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. . . . We will have the dead at our councils.' " We start by recognizing the power of our powerlessness. And the paradox of Christianity, that it requires a group, a movement away from self and toward others.

The group establishes the identity for the individual, the normative orientation that must come from somewhere. But a nation does that as well as a congregation, and both are subject to the same pressure: to provide a place of meaning and belonging. The church, however, is called to be a place of sacrifice for meaning and belonging; and that is its greatest weakness, is in fact the source of weakness Orwell identified (although he didn't identify it as such). But it is its necessity, too, and its greatest strength. The only other problem is: we have to accept it, so that we do not become the enemy we seek to oppose.

Paradoxes abound.

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