Friday, May 6, 2016

Justice, You've Been Served!

On Monday Democracy Now! rebroadcast a 2006 interview with the late Daniel Berrigan.  It includes his account of an exchange with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1965 about the Vietnam war, with the unintentionally (I presume) funny aside that Berrigan had to ask a secretary at the magazine he was publishing to transcribe McNamara's response "in shorthand" -- he couldn't write it down himself?  Isn't a Christian supposed to serve rather than be served?

The part that prompted me to write, though, was this, at the end of the interview:
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve continued to get arrested. Do you think these arrests, what you have engaged in, protest, even when people are not being arrested or jailed, have an effect? I mean, you have gone through a number of wars now. Do you think things are getting better, or do you think they’re getting worse?
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No. No. This is the worst time of my long life, really. I’ve never seen such a base and cowardly violation of any kind of human bond that I can respect. These people appear on television, and the unwritten, unspoken motto seems to be something about "We despise you. We despise your law. We despise your order. We despise your Bible. We despise your conscience. And if necessary, we will kill you to say so." I’ve never really felt that deep contempt before for any kind of canon or tradition of the human.
 

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "We despise your Bible"? It is often said it’s done in the name of the Bible.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, yes, these people are—they’re making a scrapbook out of the Bible in their own favor. And they’re omitting all the passages that have to do with compassion and love of others, especially love of enemies, or the injunction to Peter, "Put up your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword"—all of that. All of that gets cut out in favor of, well, a god of vindictiveness, the god of the empire, the god who is a projection of our will to dominate.
I respect and honor Berrigan's tireless activism over many decades, but I could never really trust anyone so intellectually and morally dishonest as to say something like this.  Berrigan himself was "making a scrapbook out of the Bible in [his] own favor."  He omitted all the passages that have to do with the killing of those who worship the wrong gods or are living in the wrong territory or simply failed to meet the deity's high standards.  The "god of vindictiveness, the god of the empire, the god who is a projection of our will to dominate" is Yahweh, the god of the Bible, and his son and viceroy Jesus. While Berrigan was correct about others' selective use of the Bible, he himself was constructing a god who was a projection of his own will.  It was perhaps bad luck on Berrigan's part that he grew up in a tradition defined by the Christian Bible, a book full of violence and hatred as well as professions of love and compassion and peace, since in order to oppose war and empire he had to engage in the same cut-and-paste job he condemned (rather self-righteously, I must say) in others.

But at the same time it must be remembered that Berrigan chose to remain in the Christian, and specifically the Roman Catholic tradition, and hamstrung himself by using the fundamentalist assumption of biblical inerrancy: if you interpret the Bible correctly -- that is, if you agree with his interpretation -- it will be true, free from all error, and by remarkable coincidence will agree with Father Dan!  In order to sustain this belief he had to lie about his opponents, by implying that because they conveniently ignored the parts of the Bible that were inexpedient for them, they rejected it entirely.  But the same accusation could be made of him: If cherry-picking the Bible means that you "despise" it, then he despised the Bible no less than the warmakers do.  The difficult thing to do, with the Bible or any other scripture or authority, is to say forthrightly that it is not free from error, that it is wrong and you reject the parts that are wrong, while recognizing that they are there.  If I weren't prone to the same temptation, I'd be amazed that so many people find this non-fundamentalist approach so difficult.  It is difficult, but it can be done.  Once you admit the possibility, it becomes easier.  Instead Berrigan chose to present his own projection as if it were truth.

Even if Christians leave the Tanakh, with its divine commands to exterminate whole populations, out of the picture, they are still stuck with the Jesus of the gospels, whose vindictiveness deserves more attention than it usually gets.  Jesus not only threatened people with eternal torture, he was preaching in the apocalyptic tradition which expects Yahweh to establish his Kingdom on earth (as it is in Heaven) through a cataclysmic war between Good and Evil, reaching a climax as "the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses' bridles, for a distance of two hundred miles" (Revelation 14.20; the metaphors get tangled up there, but the meaning in context is clear).  Whether he liked it or not, whether he thought it through or not, this is the Jesus Dan Berrigan followed.

Some Christians I've talked to try to get around this problem by arguing that while God is of course a loving god, he also is a god of justice.  The answer to that is simple enough: punishment is not justice.  As the philosopher Antony Flew declared:
Now, if anything at all can be known to be wrong, it seems to me to be unshakably certain that it would be wrong to make any sentient being suffer eternally for any offense whatever.  Thus a religious commitment which must involved the glorification of such behavior as if it were a manifestation of perfect justice and goodness would be repugnant to ordinary decency and humanity; even if the facts were such that in prudence we had to trample down our generous impulses in a rat-race for salvation [The Presumption of Atheism, 1976, 64].
The fantasy of Hell can't have been invented out of a desire to teach people they've been doing wrong, since part of the fun is that if they do learn anything from their punishment, it's too late, because they're in Hell!  Forever!  Hahahaha!  The apologist C. S. Lewis tried to justify it in The Problem of Pain in 1940.  Imagine, he proposed, 
a man who has risen to wealth or power by a continued course of teachery and cruelty, by exploiting for purely selfish ends the noble motions of his victioms, laughing the while at their simplicity ... Suppose, further that he does all this, not (as we like to imagine) tormented by remorse or even misgiving, but eating like a schoolboy and sleeping like a healthy infant ....

We must be careful at this point.  The least indulgence of the passion for revenge is very deadly sin.  Christian charity counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man ... But that is not the point.  Supposing he will not be converted, what destiny in the eternal world can you regard as proper for him?  Can you really desire that such a man, remaining what he is (and he must be able to do that if he has free will) should be confirmed forever in his present happiness ...?  And if you cannot regard this as tolerable, is it only your wickedness -- only spite -- that prevents you from doing so? ... You are moved, not by a desire for the wretched creature's pain as such, by a truly ethical demand that, soon or late, the right should be asserted, the flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to folow.  In a sense, it is better for the creature to know itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake.  Even mercy can hardly wish to such a man his eternal, contented continuance in such ghastly illusion [122].
Of course Lewis made things too easy for himself by supposing that there were only two possible options: Heaven or Hell.  An infinitely wise and omnipotent Creator could do better than that.  But even accepting Lewis's terms, I would send his wicked man to Heaven.  I assume that Heaven is a place without suffering, so that he will be able to make no one else suffer.  If this will curtail his free will, everyone's free will must be curtailed in Heaven if there's to be no suffering there.  In Heaven the man's "continued course of treachery and cruelty" would give him no advantage, as it did on earth.  (Which raises the question why Lewis's god arranged his creation so that bad people can flourish.  In what sense, given that arrangement, is the wicked man's bad behavior "a failure, a mistake"?)  Since Lewis represents his complacency as based on his worldly success and happiness, which would mean nothing in Heaven, is it accurate to say that he could 'remain what he is'?  But even if he could, so what?  The important thing would be that he couldn't hurt anyone else.  Lewis assumed that the only way that "soon or late, the right should be asserted" is by stomping on it for all eternity; it never seems to have occurred to him that rebellion might be quelled by mercy as well as by punishment.  One thing we know is that punishment is not an effective way of changing people's behavior; if Yahweh has such a thing for punishment, why did he create us so that it would be ineffective?

I like to quote Michael Neumann's remark that "Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt."  I think this should be extended: you shouldn't do those things even to bad people.  I think that many people would disagree, even Christians who, according to orthodox teaching, believe that we are all bad people.  But then it's also orthodox teaching that God is entitled to beat or jail or torture all of humanity, and only tempers "justice" with mercy by letting some of us off; again, I deny that punishment is just in the first place. This is a matter of judgment, of course, not of fact or even of logical demonstration.  But the same is true of the mindset that demands infinite retaliation for "rebellion," and that indeed sees harm done to others are primarily an offense against a deity rather than against the people actually harmed.  And I ask what good is achieved (other than the "passion for vengeance" Lewis rejected while still clinging to it) by punishment at all.

Going back to Daniel Berrigan: I don't object to his rejection of the wrathful aspects of Christianity.  What I do object to is his pretense that those aspects aren't a core part of the religion, and of Jesus' teaching in particular.  It's not only dishonest to denounce those who believe in a "god who is a projection of our will to dominate" (though that is reason enough to reject his projection), but it will be ineffective as long as Christians refer to the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus believed in, and taught, a god of vindictiveness and empire and a projection of our will to dominate.  The only way to correct that teaching (assuming it is incorrect) is to confront it head-on, and reject it directly rather than by projecting it onto the bad Other, as Berrigan did, and so many other Christians do.