Friday, December 19, 2008

Aye, there's the rub

The Rick Warren Problem in a nutshell:

HANNITY: Can you talk to rogue dictators? Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, wants to wipe Israel off the map, is seeking nuclear weapons.


HANNITY: I think we need to take him out.


HANNITY: Am I advocating something dark, evil or something righteous?

WARREN: Well, actually, the Bible says that evil cannot be negotiated with. It has to just be stopped. And I believe…

HANNITY: By force?

WARREN: Well, if necessary. In fact, that is the legitimate role of government. The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers. Not good-doers. Evildoers.
All right, two problems, really. One is that nagging problem all Christians have, the "turn the other cheek" thing that Jesus taught us. I've heard explanations running from: to turn the other cheek is to require the person slapping you to offer his open palm, which is used for endearment (we only offer the "back of the hand" in anger or repudiation) to "Well, that only applies to friends!" Or some such. Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrestled with the question, and his answer didn't exactly satisfy his even more theologically sophisticated brother Richard. Warren, of course, betrays no such subtlety or sophistication. He knows what evil is. He knows government is empowered to stop it.

Even when the evil is in the government. No mention of the methods used to thwart that evil, methods now exposed as evil themselves, and worthless. But Warren is a "big picture" guy; he can't be bothered with the details. After all, gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet, am I right?

So now we're at the fringes of the second problem, and this one is much bigger, if only because people take it more seriously than any talk about "loving your enemy." I mean, who ever tries to seriously do that, even at Christmas? The larger problem is this: what do we do with that even more blanket directive from Jesus: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged."

As Dom Crossan and others have pointed out, this is a very simple statement with a very radical and disruptive telos: if you do not judge, you step outside the cycle of judgment and punishment, and are not yourself subject to judgment. Again, Niebuhr recognized the problem here, and he condemned the pacifists and Social Gospel advocates of his day who thought that simply abandoning the system of judgment would bring about the basilea tou theou. Reinhold was the practical one, but Richard was the better theologian. And both wrestled with this problem, while Warren just seeks to reinforce a status quo which has made him a wealthy and influential man. He's got a lot to lose if he doesn't play the system's game.

But that's Warren's problem, and I leave him to it. I am no better than he, and in no position to judge him. I only pause to point out how easy judgment is, how hard it is to remove ourselves from the cycle of judgment and declaration of guilt or innocence. No, the real "Rick Warren problem" is ours, not his, because what he declares we as good assume. And like him, we assume for ourselves the right of judgment, and the "right" judgment, and the authority to enforce "our" righteous judgments.

Let's start with the easy one: evil. Do you know what it is? Probably better than you know what art is; but in both cases, we are quite certain we know it when we see it. Fine; you see the splinter in your brother's eye, but do you see the log in your own?

Here, of course, is where the first distinction gets made. Rick Warren is not my "brother." Because he compares gay marriage to pedophilia, or incest, or bigamy. Because he says things I strongly disagree with. Because he supports the use of force to defeat "evil." Because he's James Dobson-lite. Pick your reason; there's a quiver full of arrows for this particular Bartholomew. We can pin-cushion a figurine of Rick Warren with the arrows of our calumny, and all of it aimed at separating ourselves from this particular "other" so we can, well: stand in judgment over him. Which is precisely what he wants to do, to people we like or agree with or accept or even love. So tell me again how we are different from Rick Warren. Because we are right, and he's not?

And what part of this judgment is specifically, or particularly, or even vaguely, Christian? But now push it a little further: Rick Warren asserts that the Bible, and specifically his interpretation of the Scriptures, his understanding and use of the Bible, authorizes him to both discern and define evil, and to oppose it. Isn't that the authority we claim when we condemn Rick Warren for his theology, or ideology, or politics? Isn't that the very same authority we assert when we condemn Rick Warren as a man unworthy of the high honor of offering the invocation at probably the most historical Presidential Inauguration since that of George Washington?

Which of us has the beam in his eye, and which the splinter? Which of us gets to judge, and which of us can only be judged?

But the problem is worse than that, at least for those of us who profess to be Christians. This is the other problem: if Rick Warren isn't my "brother," then who is? If I can start making exclusions so I can determine who can be subject to my righteous judgment, where do I stop? When can I not exclude you? If I must oppose evil, where do I start? With you? Or with me?

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