Friday, October 06, 2006

If I only could/I'd make a deal with God/And I'd get him to swap places...

The mystery of the shooting at the Amish school deepens. This is one mystery:

On Tuesday, police said Roberts told his wife he molested young relatives 20 years ago and was dreaming about molesting children again. (Full story)

But police said Wednesday that they located two relatives Roberts allegedly molested when they were between ages 3 and 5, and both "are confident they were never assaulted by Roberts," said Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Linette Quinn.

"If there was a question of the fact that they could not remember because they were at a young age, I'm sure the investigation would look further, but I believe they are confident with the information they received," Quinn said.
And this is the other:

A grieving grandfather told young relatives not to hate the gunman who killed five girls in an Amish schoolhouse massacre, a pastor said on Wednesday.

"As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was making a point, just saying to the family, 'We must not think evil of this man,' " the Rev. Robert Schenck told CNN.

"It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry."
That one has already driven John Podhoretz and John Derbyshire around the bend, so to speak. The idea of "hating a child-killer," or rather, refusing to, seems to especially inflame Podhoretz, but I'm trying, purely on logical grounds, to understand why.

The common assumption about ethics (and on this ground I would make a distinction from morality) is that ethics is "backed up" by punishment. Without punishment we would presumably live in an Hobbesian state of nature, "red in tooth and claw." Which is funny, actually, because I don't really know of any animals in nature which behave unethically or are trained in proper behavior (pack animals, like canines) simply by fear of punishment. There are, of course, the "alpha males" who rise to the top by a show of force, but usually once that's over everyone accepts his rule until he's old and open to challenge. There's a great deal more passive acceptance of behavioral norms in pack animals (in whom all behavior does not appear to be "hard-wired") than seems to be true among humans.

Except, of course, humans learn behavior in much the same way, and punishment, or correction, depending on your definition and your effort in the matter, is usually only needed for a short time, not continually. We don't all act or restrain our acts based on fear of punishment, otherwise we would need a police state and one policeman for at least every two persons, if not more, just to make society function. So the idea that we behave correctly, or sanely, only because we will be punished if we don't, is ludicrous under even the simplest analysis.

Why do we cling to it, then? Because it justifies prisons, and we just work hard to justify imprisoning people, especially since, in the US, we imprison so many. It also justifies hatred. It is almost axiomatic that we "hate" prisoners. Perhaps you don't hate them; perhaps I don't, either. But we automatically mark "prisoners" as people who are "bad," and worthy of punishment, and deserving only our fear and our disdain. When Isaiah declares "release of the captive" we automatically hear "release of the unjustly imprisoned," like John the Baptist, or of the occupied, like Israel under Rome. We don't hear "release of the prisoner in our prisons." That's a whole other kettle of fish. We don't want them released. We want them punished. We want them punished because they are "bad."

And presumably we would be bad, too, but we don't want to "do the time." We don't want to "pay the price." But is it that simple? Do we fear punishment so much, or are we more aware of an internal compass, something that tells us this action is right, that one wrong, and we prefer the former to the latter? Without that internal compass, could society function at all? Doesn't society presume compliance with its laws, and then act to enforce compliance against the minority that prefer to break those laws? Is that enforcement really predicted on hatred? Do we have laws against murder because we hate murderers? Is that the way our justice system works? Or isn't it meant to dispassionatly dispense justice to law-breakers, thus ensuring order in society by requiring compliance with laws by force, when necessary? What makes hate essential to that equation?

The Amish apparently have a history of inviting family members of the murderer to the funeral, and have done so now. One has to ask, simply as a matter of reason if not religion, what is to be gained by hating the murderer now, or his family. Christianity teaches forgiveness not as a duty of God, but as a part of enjoying "life into the ages" (a more direct translation of the Greek phrase commonly used in the New Testament, usually translated as 'eternal life'). If you think about it for even a moment, hatred ties you futilely to the object of your hatred, a futility magnified by the fact your hatred will have no effect on them if they live, and is certainly pointless if they are dead. And it certainly makes you behave more like the one you hate, than like the person any system of morality would teach you to be. This much seems perfectly plain to me.

What, indeed, does hatred do to the other person? The best example I can come up with is Steve Allen's famous short story "The Public Hating," where people gather in a stadium to "hate" a convicted murderer. The effect, in Allen's story, is rather as if the criminal were being subjected to microwaves (not a widely understood concept when Allen published the story). The effect, also, is to make the protagonist sick at what his fellow citizens are capable of, especially considering the criminal is a stranger to them all, someone they are told to direct their hate towards. Only in science fiction does hatred truly and directly affect the object of hatred; but even there, it also affects those told to harness and use their hatred against the criminal.

So apart from directives to Christians to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, I'm left rather perplexed by people who profess that hatred is not only good but, in some cases, necessary. Religion is often opposed as unreasonable, but what is reasonable about this position? I can understand the religious connection: after all, the Amish are deeply spiritual people. Their spirituality directs their lives. And it provides for profound insights into the human heart:

One person who had had almost daily encounters with him said that she noted that he never looked into anyone's eyes, he never looked into anyone's faces, and she knew that there was something deeply troubling about him," Schenck said.

"Although she did say, she was very careful to say, that Charles Roberts was not an evil person. That he was a deeply troubled man, that he had, in her words -- the sort of modest words of the Amish -- that he had problems of the heart."
Kathleen Norris has reported the same thing among the monks to whose monastery she is an oblate; how clearly they see through the games and daily lives the rest of us live with and even function by. The monks are not critical, just insightful; they sometimes know better than we do, what we "mean." The monks attribute it to the close community of the monastery, but it is clear one comcomitant of that close life is spirituality, too. Maybe, in the end, it is that spirituality that perplexes Podhoretz.

(By the way, does anyone besides me see the irony of this story on the CNN webpage coming up with an advertisement for Victoria's Secret underwear alongside it? When I looked at it earlier, a model in bra and panties pops us alongside a story of young girls shot to death in an Amish school. Given the vagaries of the Internet, it may be gone by now. But it is an interesting unintended commentary on the story, too.)

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