Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: April 2007

Washing our hands in blood

I sit down to write this reflection on April 17, 2007, the day after the deadliest school shooting in American history. The initial inspiration for what I write here, however, is something much less heinous and now several years old.

Pilate washes his handsWhen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, it generated a lot of conflict and debate for various reasons. For some it was anti-semitic, or poorly researched, a propaganda piece etc… But, in the midst of all this criticism, one in particular stood out to me: The antipathy of many people toward the way Gibson’s film portrayed Pontius Pilate. Some even argued that Gibson made Pilate into a hero. At first I found this criticism startling and wondered if somehow these people had seen a different version of the film than I had. It turns out it was just a different take on anthropology.

You see, while I saw in Pilate a weak and indecisive man who refused to take responsibility for his decisions, others were observing what they perceived to be a consummate politician doing what a politician should–his actions were even praise worthy. The root, it seemed, of people’s problems with Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate was not so much that he was portrayed in such a way as to make him look “good,” but rather, that he seems so like our own politicians. The problem with Pilate is that he is us, and the only portrayal that would have been sufficient would have been the one that made Pilate into a monster so grotesque that we could never see ourselves in his place.

John O’Sullivan addressed the issue of how people were responding to the portrayal of Pilate in the National Review. The core of his argument is what follows:

…there is also a less admirable reason why the modern world finds Pilate sympathetic. He is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue — or at least as a mark of sophistication in the face of certainties with which we happen to disagree, whether they are the certainties of the religious right, or of fundamentalist Moslems, or of political ideologies. Many intellectuals, academics and (generally liberal) politicians have come to see doubt in these modestly heroic terms.

I think that O’Sullivan is certainly on to something, but I’m not sure it’s really the primary thing. I believe that many people were, on the deepest level, made uncomfortable with how easily the actions of a villain sit in the conscience. But rather than question the state of their conscience, they question the presentation of the villain. Surely Pilate must be heinously evil, and yet I can understand his actions, and I may even find them sympathetic–such a portrayal, especially in film, makes us uncomfortable and brings us face to face with our own duplicitous and sinful natures. As Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (and much of the rest of her work) demonstrates, and contrary to way it is often portrayed in our movies and media, evil is not strictly alien or thrust upon us by some hideous outside force. Instead, evil is more often than not, banal and very clearly a part of us as human beings, a sick malfunction fueled by sin.

So what does all of this have to do with the VA Tech shooting? As Anna and I watched the news right after this tragedy occurred, we couldn’t help but talk about the words journalists were using to describe Cho Seung Hui, the man who perpetrated the killings. False emotion has always irritated me, and there was certainly plenty of that on display from some commentators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the people who were impacted by this, who were connected with the victims and their families, but rather commentators on national TV who could barely contain their falsified rage and seemed intent on completely dehumanizing the murderer through their use of language. Evil was used a lot–and this shooting was undeniably that–but that wasn’t the only term thrown about. Monster was another one we heard a lot, as was sick–but monster sticks in my mind. As I watched the news come out, and the commentary become more detailed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t only watching the news about the aftermath of the actions of a very sick and indeed a very evil human being, but also the process of a society hardening itself against any intimation that each and every one of us is, in our heart of hearts, capable of doing something heinously evil.

As Arendt brings to light, Eichmann and most other Nazis were “ordinary men” before the rise of the Third Reich… Eichmann, for instance was a vacuum cleaner salesman. And yet, people want to create a mythology of monstrosity, put people who do horrible things in a separate category from “us,” not to punish them, but to soothe our consciences, and to help us continue to live the lie that “people are basically good.”

I realize that there are those who dislike Arendt’s characterization of evil as banal, just as many dislike Augustine’s understanding of it as a privation of the good. But in my limited experience, this is the only understanding of evil, and of humanity, that allows us to both judge evil in others and guard for it in ourselves. To do otherwise, and to accept the easy cultural assumption that anyone who does an evil thing must not be “like us” is really to do the same thing Pilate did, to wash our hands of all responsibility… if we attempt this, we may find that we’re only washing our hands in blood.

Bishop Jenkins: "The Clarity and Charity of a Self-differentiating act"

The Lambeth Conference of 1998 was a clear demonstration to all in the Communion who had eyes to see that the traditional connections and relationships of the Anglican Communion were under great challenge as insufficient for the future of the Communion. The traditional axis of the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia was not alone representative of the future of the Church. I think the great adventure for us as Anglican Christians is to seek prayerfully the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern humbly where God would have us grow as Communion. The opportunity to avoid fusion and herding as well as separation and schism, is the exciting adventure that is sidetracked by the Bishops’ rigid appeal to our polity. Episcopal Bishops have said repeatedly that brothers and sisters from around the world do not understand the polity of The Episcopal Church. Such a statement seems to suggest that if our brothers and sisters did understand our Episcopal polity, they would accept it. I am not willing to make such an imperialistic assumption. I think many outside of the Episcopal Church do understand our polity. They just do not buy it. I assume that to engage a great adventure of where the Holy Spirit would lead us does not necessarily mean that we know the answer before we even bend our knees in prayer.

{read it all}

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Update woes

Well, the upgrade is complete (mostly), but in the process I lost all my static pages, my links, and my categories. Ahh well, so it goes with technology. I hope you’ll all bear with me over the next few weeks as I pull everything back together. Also, if anyone knows why I have this thing at the top of my page, “?>” let me know so I can get rid of it.

Elizabeth Edwards puts American moral utilitarianism on display

I don’t make predictions, but I have no doubt that if the Edwards campaign pushes on issues like this, even if they are able to win the Democratic nomination for president, they will not win the State of North Carolina in a general election. Maybe they don’t care, but they should have seen from the Gore campaign how embarrassing it is to not carry your home state. I just read the following statement from Elizabeth Edwards, from her first speech since she announced the return of her cancer. She has chosen to address the subject of fetal stem cell research. Here’s a bit of what she said:

“We’re talking about using something to save ourselves and our children,” she said. “Instead of throwing it away, don’t we want to use it in a way that’s productive?”

Some opponents of the work believe that life begins at conception and that using stem cells is tantamount to killing a human.

But Edwards said opponents will not be able to halt the work, whatever their beliefs. “You’re not going to stop it by saying there is no federal funding,” she said. “You’re just going to stop it from happening here.”

[read it all]

To quote one of my favorite theologians Stan “the man” Hauerwas, in regards to fetal tissue experimentation: “What if it were discovered that fetal tissue were a delicacy. Could you eat it?” While shocking–intentionally so–Hauerwas’ statement illustrates one of the foundational beliefs of Christian ethics: no good can come of an evil, therefore the ends never justify the means. In this comment, Mrs. Edwards reveals her ethical foundation to be largely that of the general sort of American utilitarianism that flourishes in the absence of any sort of solid moral teaching. Rather than taking the time to wrestle with moral implications, this system finds it much easier to run a moral calculus and base decisions on a cost-benefit analysis.

I can’t condemn Mrs. Edward’s too harshly, but I would hope that in one of her stays in the Triangle area, she and her hubby might sit in on a basic ethics course at Duke. I would also say that this sort of thinking is why I feel alienated from not just the Democratic Party, but the Republican party also–for each has some major issues that prevent me as a Christian from supporting them. That’s one reason I will always register as an independent. Too many Christians have come to associate their faith with one party or the other, and this is at least a terrible mistake, if not a form of idolatry.

Here’s a related essay I wrote comparing how a Christian would face a sticky moral decision vs. a utilitarian, entitled “The Christian apprehension of Tragedy.”

From Touchstone: a Poem

The following poem is by a Jesuit named Fr. Donahgy, and was posted on Touchstone’s Mere Comments in the post “L’Etat, C’est Dieu,” I share it here for your reflection as we prepare to enter Holy Week:

1. He Is Condemned

Pilate must heed the public pulse and poll,
As every politician quickly learns;
The multitude that smiles, as quickly spurns,
And so he shrugs his shoulders and his soul;
His fingers flutter in the brazen bowl;
The guilt is off his hands and head; he turns
To take the spotless towel; in him burns
A doubt — but Caesar’s favour is his goal.

“Sub Pontio Pilato”–down the years
Before a man may truly live, reborn
Of water and the Holy Ghost, he hears
Caught in the Creed, those words of pitying scorn
For him whose heart was meagre, not malign,
Who used ironic water for a sign.

Touchstone– “Filthy Rich: The Unnoticed Gift of Trickle-Down Decadence”

I was catching up on my periodical reading recently, when I came across this little gem from Anthony Esolen in the editorial section of Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity. The basic thrust of Esolen’s editorial–more observation than argumentative essay–is that societies, whatever their time or location, structure themselves so that the filth that the upper-classes wade through (nearly) unscathed, or that they produce, is foisted upon the lower classes and results in their struggle and demise. The first, highly illustrative example he gives is of the ancient Roman sewer system which emptied at the Esquiline gate. “I’m not sure” he says “whether the Roman’s arranged it so that the end of the sewer wold be located in the poor quarter. More likely, it became the poor quarter because people don’t wan’t to live near a sewer, and will spend money to avoid it.” Later, he mentions that “…in Dickens we have the miserable corpse-robbing thieves at Old Joe’s pawn-shop, and they are but Scrooge himself, and his money-hungry class, shorn of top hat and watch fob and man-of-business etiquette.”

This little editorial struck me not only because of its truth–the poor do often suffer more for the sins they learn from the wealthy–but because of the situations I have seen that bear this out. When a woman comes into my office in need of help with groceries for the final few days before her disability or welfare check comes because she or her husband drink alcohol or smoke, it becomes clear that the simple vices the more well-heeled among us take for granted have become more immediately deadly. On the other side, in attending Sewanee, I often described the University itself as in large part a padded play-pen for wealthy southern elite. While parts of this identity may be fading (the Southern part is enduring a campaign of whitewashing and title changing) it is still amazing to see the lengths to which the institution goes to create a safe environment for wealthy adolescents to engage in behavior that would leave their less well-off contemporaries injured, sick, in jail or worse.

All this is to say that we need to take more notice of the “trickle-down effect” of decadence, and the impact it has on those without the means to mitigate the effects of the vice they mimic from their “betters.” As Esolen says:

The rich can afford their vices, for a time anyway; the poor have no such margin for comfort. They are, in fact, endangered by the vices of the rich.

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