Tuesday, April 24, 2007

strangers in a strange land

I have a solution to the unpredictable eruptions of violence by loners. It is at least as implementable as either taking every one's guns away or arming everyone with a working trigger finger. That is not saying much since neither works. Besides, since you will probably never meet me face to face and I blog anonymously, hypocrisy is an easy charge to lay on me here. Let me call my quixotic notion a suggestion. Suggestions that we could do better, in an ethical sense, than we commonly do are generally the stuff of sermons but at least its not politics. It won't require government to do or not do anything and only a slight change in our own culture and personalities. It is both faith-based and psychologically based so who could say they should not at least give it a try?

As truth is an early casualty of war, ( dying, in the case of the Republican war on Iraqis before the first shot was fired), so too our sense of proportion is an early casualty when wanton impersonal murder of innocent people rends a community. That is the objective of the terrorist: to alter a balance of power by distorting the judgement of the public. The April 16 killings in Blacksburg VA are crazy and unexpected but seven times as many innocent civilians met equally horrible deaths in the market places of Baghdad in the same day. More than damage to our sense of proportionality of which scales of death and risk are worse, both kinds of carnage share other characteristics. Wanting vengeance but feeling powerless to try other means, sneaking bombs among the innocent is how Iraqis seek to remove a threat by dissolving a pluralistic society and frustrating the Americans whose power is now invested in the tattered symbolic democratic unity of the country. Violence in Iraq is increasing in a deadly spiral of reprisal between rival sects. Wanting vengeance and powerless to get in touch with any means but killing, Cho's act of terror changes little because it was for a benefit that was pointless outside of his own mind. Acts of terror are impersonal. But they kill persons and always have horrific personal impacts that spatter more than blood on the bystanders. Killing strangers is apparently easy to us in certain states of mind. I will propose that we do something radical but harmless and unconstraining: get rid of strangers in a far better way than killing them.

All the good of any religion that ever soaked through my thick skull got there as a result of years of mostly congenial and at times wide ranging studies of the texts. But always, face to face study: we were swapping and alloying values faster than flowers are trading pollen. It was in such study that I became acquainted with the bible fact that the most repeated injunction in the Hebrew bible, stated 36 different places, is to not oppress the stranger. One of the most sensible tools of exegesis I was exposed to was that the more something is repeated in the text, the more attention one should pay to it. By that argument, "do not oppress the stranger" deserves at least as much prominence as the Decalogue.

Here's where it gets radical. We could interpret "do not oppress the stranger", which all history shows to be a commandment beyond typical human behavior, as "do not let any person among you remain a stranger".

Better than gun control or mind control, might be an effort to take that commandment a step beyond: if we can overcome our own self absorbed business and xenophobia and just watch our neighbors and stay in better contact with them, we might rescue some of them from the loneliness in which they stew. I have serious reservations of stating the suggestion in the negative or fear-based form: "You don't know who's going postal next unless you chat attentively with everyone you run into". That feels like an admission that we failed already and need to cover ourselves. If the intent is negative, the outcome will not be as good. I am after prevention, not remediation. We don't need to be shrinks, we just need to be better human beings. We won't salvage everyone but we might rescue a little of
their self esteem at no cost to our own and make sure the people who need help become known and get that help. Trying that couldn't hurt and it might save a few people from killing themselves too. While the deep isolation in which Cho lived would challenge a mental health professional, many suicidal persons develop a relationship to society that is similarly alienated though not to such a degree. Far more that 32 college kids take their own lives each year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.

Your inward groans of protest are audible to me. "We don't get in peoples face's, especially not violent losers!" I tell you to examine your need to see losers: even if someone is not operating as lucidly and adeptly as you, almost everyone has some gift to show. Where you need to see a loser, you will cast someone in that role. "We were all brought up not to talk to strangers!", you say "It avoids conflict and danger." I tell you every last one of you was born a stranger and nothing but care saved you. Pay it back. In response to "change in our own personalities", I hear you some of you smugly say "You can't change people". I agree. They change themselves. With opponents and tormentors, they change for the worse, with friends, they change for the better. Chicken and egg arguments about the social feedback that dooms awkward souls to be ostracized are a tacit admission that we lack the nerve or kindness to be the first to offer our hand or to persist when it is not taken.

Turn xenophobia inside out. Let no one among you be a stranger. Alienation is a two way street: the crowd often does as much to "other" the loner as the loner does to the crowd.

That concludes my suggestion. Masochists may read on.

There is a kind of alienation that I find particularly appalling. It does not have a name as far as I know so I will call it "Religion without humanity" though that is its effect and its cause is more like "Religion without community". I want to look into a few cases of homegrown US terrorism, many already categorized as "Christian terrorists" to see how things might have been different if a "leave no stranger alone" ethic were the norm.

I am sure that the number of Christians who really should be made to answer in front of a crowd, "what clinic would Jesus bomb?" is a small percentage. Maybe they are just the back row of pews at the fundamentalist churches. Maybe they use the label Christian and rarely set foot in a church. Maybe they have their own Church of the Fringe. And for the rest, the question is an irreverent taunt and an aggravation they have done nothing to deserve. Big tents, as I have said before, wind up including the freak show along with the best of the stunning athletics and daring. Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolf and James Kopp seem in fact to be only peripherally involved in their religions, remotely assuming and modeling the authority as the Army of God supporters, Rev. Bray and William Donahue project it rather than spending regular time in the pews and bible studies finding out what all the supposedly ancient and inspired words mean to their coreligionists. These loners use the words and the causes but lack even a trace of the compassion those religions claim to preach. As those Army of God quotes show, the sacred writings supply plenty of verbal cover for the conscience of assassins and mass murderers. In fact, the bible can be quote mined for whole pages of persecution imagery, misogyny, genocidal violence and fratricidal abuse. Cho, who was actually quite angry at organized religion along with much else, still responds by picking up the words and imagery
"Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and impaled upon the cross? Thanks to you I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenceless people,''

Only adults should ever study such dangerous stuff. Studying alone or just hearing the words on the radio is clearly a way toward twisted and unchecked interpretations. The unhinged can dip in to those words without a minute of ethical training or serious conversation with another person on what those words should mean in modern practice. Abetting the unhinged, there are the disturbed ignorant whose sociopathy extends only as far as talking up the fantasy of violence but, fortunately, not acting out their unschooled and unbalanced use of the "word of god".

Mass killings in religious contexts have other examples. Jonestown intrigues because while the community was presumably face to face with each other and in dialogue with itself, it was a cult and collectively isolated from the larger society. Could one outsider have tried to befriend a cult member and see what they were feeling? This is a problematical case for my suggestion.
The first killing that I remembered in the wake of the VT shootings was Charles Roberts attempting to kill all the girls at an Amish school. Among the little he had let be known was that he was mad at god. His past was not known and only came out in days before the killings. What if he had had some opportunity to unburden himself before he snapped? I am still struck by the amazing composure of the Amish community in dealing with that loss...there, finally, is the good of religion at work. I consider it no accident that the Amish live in a way that obliges most communication to be literally face to face. They have depression in their community as any community does and deal with it enough to even have a phrase for its presence:"Siss im blut". Roberts was not Amish.

Of course, there are a larger number of people who winnow the good from the good book and sometimes even manage to live up to the better insights we find there...I include myself and a few of my blogging friends in that number. We should not lose the good ideas that history has stored up just because they got warehoused with the bad. If you want to ignore that history for a fresh start and work up your own commandments from first principles you won't do any worse than the worst that has been done so far. The wrestling with the old words, if done in good company, is ultimately moderns picking and choosing by their own criteria...not a morally superior process to first-principle ethics and certainly, as the fundies would say [based on their interpretation that The Word is not to be interpreted] illegitimately placing ourselves above the texts. That wrestling is a great exercise but it takes time and requires companionship, fellows to study with and bounce your interpretations against. So there are plenty of good guys and I don't mean to slight them by not listing them all. I link a few of the bad guys as a reminder to those who refuse to admit they are the other face of religion in America and can't understand where reactions against the entire enterprise of religion are coming from. Good cop/bad cop stories are always about two methods used or at least intended toward the same good end, operating in the same framework. I want to suggest the schizophrenia of religion in America is not really about two ways of doing the same worship. It is not for me to sort out but it if it does not get sorted out, religion's leakage into American politics, such as this Creep Republic discussion, will leave permanent stains on both politics and religion. Despite this post looking like a swipe at religion, it is anything but. I want you to consider the possibility that the schizophrenic presentations of religion in America can better be understood as one label carelessly applied to two very different ethics:
  • openly and personally deliberated search for the roots of decency
  • drive-by appropriation of old words for old hatreds and fears, personal and collective.

The right ignores at least as much bible as the left. But on the left, the people do not ignore each other. Any "faith" that eventually requires one to chose between abandoning a belief or abandoning their reluctance to kill their neighbor needs to have its head examined.

[I wonder if the Amish mind me categorizing them as liberals?]

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

Cul links an execellent example today
of what I am NOT talking about in the use of personal connection in a religious context: