Thursday, June 4, 2009

Culpability, an Addendum

Back here I made the argument that the type of Christians with whom I used to spend my time are at least partially responsible for the death of Dr. George Tiller. This is not an accusation that should be made or accepted lightly. Therefore, I feel the need to examine the issue in greater detail. First of all, a distinction must be drawn between legal and moral culpability. I would never suggest bringing my old church in to a courtroom and accuse the membership of being complicit in Dr. Tiller’s murder. That would be the same thing as saying that a gun shop owner in Florida is legally responsible for a robbery/murder in Wyoming performed by a criminal who bought a gun from a dealer in Texas. It’s completely absurd on every level. Legal culpability is, therefore, completely out the window. Moral culpability, however, is still on the table. Ed Brayton wrote about this issue and drew basically the exact opposite conclusion to the one I’m about to argue. He has drawn a perfectly apt conclusion and I present it here in case you want to find a way to disagree with me. However, bear in mind that Ed didn’t live amongst the fundies like I have. I’m not saying this makes me right, I’m just saying it gives me a different level of insight. There’s also the issue of what kind of culpability I’m calling for. Again, it’s hard to say that any group of people that did not pull a trigger or advocate for the pulling of a trigger are culpable for a murder. I wouldn’t make that argument (look to the gun shop owner example above). What I am talking about, instead, is the culpability of the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian community in creating the sort of environment where a man like Scott Roeder thinks its his Christian duty to walk in to a church on a Sunday morning and shoot another Christian over a political issue. First, three stories: 1. Several years ago the college ministry at my old church was in a state of flux. My old high school pastor, who I respected as much as anyone I’d ever met, kinda-sorta took over for a while. He delivered a sermon one Sunday morning that he’d also delivered at the high school’s service. The entire sermon can be summed up in one sentence: “You’re not a good Christian if you’re not doing everything you can to try to stop abortion.” The next day I sent him a strongly worded email expressing my dissatisfaction with his message. Sadly, I was still firmly on the pro-life side at the time, but I believe I got my grievance across pretty well within that frame work. I basically asked, “Where does it say that the only thing a Christian should focus on is the abortion issue?” To his credit the pastor took my challenge and engaged me. The following week he issued a partial retraction of his message, but only about the part where he conflated “Christianity” and “anti-abortion.” To the best of my knowledge he only did this in the college group and I was the only one who questioned him. 2. When I decided to leave my old church for good I told a pastor I’d worked with for a few years that my plan was to attend my parents’ Presbyterian church. His response was, “Well you won’t find the Bible there.” He later told me he was joking. After I basically called him a judgmental ass. I’m still not sure I believe him. 3. During the last Presidential campaign I posted something random in support of Obama on my Facebook page. Someone I knew from college replied with something to the effect of, “Yeah, but he’s a baby killer.” I played dumb and said something like, “Really? I don’t remember hearing about Obama killing babies.” She then informed me that since he is pro-choice that means he’s pro-abortion and, therefore, the blood of every aborted baby is on Obama’s hands. Okay, wait, why am I trying to offer a quarter not given by the other side and draw lines around legal and moral culpability again? Seriously… Anyway, I’m obviously offering anecdotes here which don’t amount to evidence. I would, in fact, assume that everyone in my old church, including the pastor from the first story, is horrified at the news of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Unless I hear otherwise I would assume that there is no gloating and there probably isn’t even a vocal attitude of, “Well, he’s in hell now and got what he deserved.” I cannot make that assumption. For when I think of the anti-abortion movement I don’t just see signs, I see faces. These are my (in most cases former) friends, people I shared meals with, people I worked with, people I shared laughter with, people I knew in grade school, junior high, high school, and beyond. These were people I loved. But since I grew up with many of them, that also means that I know where they came from. It means I know a lot of their experiences and conditioning because I shared those experiences. It means I have a certain amount of authority to speak of them on this topic. You’ll notice, too, that I’m rhetorically distancing myself from them. It is no longer us, it’s “me” and “them.” I have, in many respects, completed my journey away from Christianity. Christians are no longer my people and, as such, I risk the dangers of painting with a wide brush and saying, “Every one of ‘them’ is like ‘this.’” So, please, take anything I say here with a grain of salt. The middle story I put in here, the one that has nothing whatsoever to do with abortion, is the central story. The fact that I could say, “I’m leaving this church for a different church,” and be told, basically, “You’ll like it, they don’t have the Bible there,” with a completely straight face is the biggest problem in the Christianity I once subscribed to. The fact that I’m pretty sure the pastor who said it to me probably didn’t see anything wrong until I called him on it is a bigger problem. Add that to the prescriptive idea from the first story that you’re not a good Christian unless you’re out fighting abortion for all you’re worth. We have the crux of a problem and the beginning of a massive cultural issue. The fact is, too, that even though my stories are merely anecdote, I know that they are repeated in some way all over the country and, at least with story number two, have been repeated for as long as there has been a Christianity to argue over. This is the place where the message gets muddled. Scott Roeder shot a man who performed late-term abortions in a church. This is not a Christian thing to do. Yet I would be willing to bet that somewhere down the line Scott Roeder heard a message that you’re not a good Christian unless you’re doing everything you can to stop abortion and put two and two together. What greater sacrifice could there be, after all, than life imprisonment or even the electric chair? This is the limit of the logic of fanatical religion. One Sunday morning a pastor I loved and respected spent the better part of an hour preaching a fanatical anti-abortion message. He didn’t directly advocate murder or even violence, but he did promote fanaticism. This is a root of the problem. One Sunday evening a pastor I loved and respected told me Presbyterians aren’t real Christians. This is a root of the problem. One day a former classmate of mine told me that being pro-choice was the exact same as being a baby killer. This is a root of the problem. The Christianity to which I once subscribed puts a great deal of thought and effort in to making binary decisions about the world. It separates everything in to “us” and “them.” There are the good Christians and the bad Christians. There are the Christians and the non-Christians. In each case “we” is good and right no matter what and “they” are bad and untrustworthy and possibly downright evil. Disagreeing with “us” is scary, too, because it might result in the person in disagreement becoming a “them.” Being outcast is scary. You don’t just lose friends, you might actually lose god. After all, if “we” are the chosen people who get it right then “they” must not get it right and “they” might fall under god’s wrath. Meanwhile, it’s interesting to realize who “they” are. When I take shots at the Left Behind crowd or the Young Earth Creationists I am, in a sense, taking cheap shots. Not everybody from my old religious background believed in the crap spewed by Tim LaHaye or Ken Ham. Many, if not most, probably agree with neither. Others might think one has it more or less dead on but the other is an idiot (and, for the record, those points of intersection and divergence are always interesting). Christians, even of the pretty far-right fundagelical variety, will often point to a Tim LaHaye or a Pat Robertson and say, “They’re not like us. They totally get it wrong.” I also occasionally hear from Christians who knew me when who tell me it’s too bad some Christians just don’t get it and I should try to find real Christianity. Since these are largely Christians with whom I used to attend church I’m always amused by the implicit admission that “we” were actually a “they.” The true lesson, of course, is that there is no “real” Christianity and that anyone who thinks there is lives in a world of intense cognitive dissonance. What’s really happening in Christianity is the creation of a sort of modified Overton Window. They throw crazies like Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye out as public voices so they can say, “Hey, look, we’re not as bad as those guys,” and pretend that Christianity is actually a pretty radically transformative religion that’s willing to accept anyone. But what they’re really doing is keeping Christianity well on (for the sake of argument what I’ll call) the conservative side of the line by also saying that groups like the Presbyterians are just too damn far on the other side with their liturgy and tradition and apparent lack of Bible use. Same goes for the apparently ultra-liberal ECLA. And don’t even get them started on the United Church of Christ. The Christian Overton Window allows them to be constantly used by right-wing politicians in the United States. We’re not supposed to, say, take Mike Huckabee seriously or consider him a serious contender. But, when compared to Huckabee, McCain looked moderate in the 2008 election and Barack Obama looked like a Communist. Hell, even Sarah Palin was slightly more liberal than Mike Huckabee. This constant tug to the right combined with alienation and fear of the left then allows Christians to engage in the wailings of what Fred Clark calls the “Persecuted Hegemon.” We’re constantly told that we live in a Christian Nation. The Founders, we’re told, wanted it that way. The Republican Party constantly panders to Christians. We’re also told that we live in a thoroughly secularized nation and that Christians are endangered and about to be wiped out of existence. This conveniently ignores the fact that our President, who is apparently the most radical left-winger since Lenin, is a practicing Christian with a better church attendance rate than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney combined. Oh, yeah, Bill Clinton is in that same boat. But they aren’t the good Christians, you see. They’re part of the ever-advancing horde of Christ haters who want to drive Christianity straight out of this country. We know that there’s a huge anti-Christian movement in America because gays stubbornly refuse to stop existing, abortion stubbornly refuses to make itself illegal, and non-Christians stubbornly refuse to stop making up somewhere in the neighborhood of one-quarter of the nation’s population. The whole thing is, of course, utter bullshit. It’s all grandstanding on the part of politicians who want to keep the money and power flowing. The worst part about it is, though, most of the people I went to church with would tell you that exact same thing. You have to be tremendously unaware to not realize you’re not being railroaded by politicians (although, for the record, the person from my third story probably was that unaware. She was no intellectual giant). But where, after all I’ve said here, does the issue of culpability come in? There are three things: First, the politicization of Christianity has been tremendously bad both for the country and for Christianity. Many Christians now believe it is the job of our nation’s government to legislate morality, specifically Christian morality, and usher in an era of Christian utopia. This is bad for the country for what I think are obvious reasons. It’s also bad for Christianity because it creates a sense of entitlement and an attitude that any changes to law that don’t fit with Biblical teaching are inherently an attack on the religion. Second, the self-imposed isolationism and polarization of Christianity makes it far more likely that whack jobs will be bred in the vast array of tiny Petri dishes of Christian thought all over the nation. Scott Roeder was not mainstream (at least I hope not), but the anti-abortion rhetoric that permeates all of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity and the “us” v. “them” mentality undoubtedly allowed him and anyone who agreed with him to believe he was. Third, that same self-imposed isolationism and polarization makes it far easier to de-humanize anyone who disagrees, avoid learning anything about the opponent, and create a false sense of moral superiority. Most of the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from the fundamentalist/evangelical camp can be summed up by saying, “Yeah, that shouldn’t have happened, but Tiller was still a monster and is probably in hell.” That’s not exactly a strong condemnation of the murder. Roeder did not create this situation, but the situation allowed him and his fellow hate-filled bigots to survive and thrive. There’s little doubt in my mind that the lack of strong condemnation of the tactics of the anti-abortion crowd by people who were standing up and saying that abortion is the main issue, the only issue, and that anyone who engaged in abortion was an inhuman monster created a powder keg and lit the fuse. The fact that very few Christians had the awareness to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, why would you say such a thing?” to those who preach hate means that the responsibility belongs to everyone in that world, whether they were preaching hate or merely silently absorbing hate. So that’s that. I hope it makes sense to someone out there who isn’t me.


PersonalFailure said...

Thank you for that. I truly enjoy your perspective on these matters. Mine is always somewhere between wtf?! and wtf?! because I lack the necessary background.

I would like to add a couple of links here. Framing the issue, i.e., if you're prochoice, you've the got the blood of a million babies on your hands.

And . . .

The only moral abortion is my abortion.

jessa said...

My view on the Tiller thing is pretty much right on par with yours.

I find it interesting that people can know me, know me well, think I'm a kind person, think I'm some kind of super-holy person because I actually felt desperation for God. But when they found out I was pro-choice, even while in that Evangelical crowd, all of the sudden I'm a baby-killer, my faith needs to be questioned, maybe I'm not a real Christian and all that jazz. So you are having a faith-competition with someone whose faith is apparently a sham, than?

Like you said, the cognitive dissonance is alarming. It isn't thoughtful, it is an unexamined knee-jerk reaction. We call that ideology. (Which is not to say that knee-jerk reactions can't be well thought-out ones. I have plenty that I've noticed, thought about, and then decided I was right about and continued with. On the other hand, I also have some that I thought about and decided were wrong. I still knee-jerk, but now I have a knee-jerk reaction to those knee-jerkings, one of apology and tempering the first reaction. I think it is possible that some Evangelicals have examined their knee-jerk reaction and decided it was right, but it is so ubiquitous that I doubt this is the case for all of them.)

I wonder if that pastor's message (and of course I know who, but I don't remember that particular message) was meant as what I tend to call didactic hyperbole. Exaggerating something when you are teaching it so that if they don't get it completely, there is a buffer, room for error. For example, when I taught figure skating, I told my kids that they had to hold a one-foot glide for 2 whole minutes and they had tho hold their foot all the way up to their knee in order to pass. This wasn't true and few of them ever actually managed to do this, but it meant that they held their foot higher for longer than they otherwise would have. Didactic hyperbole has its place, but it can be dangerous as you have pointed out here. It is also something that reminds me of the pharisees and what I call the "pharisaic buffer", which is the gap between what the Jewish law actually said and what the Pharisees said. If you broke the Pharisees rules, you still might be in the clear with the Jewish Law. Ironic with all their railing against legalism.

jessa said...

Also, Republicans seem perfectly willing to accept the prospect of legislating morality when it comes to abortion and gay marriage, but when it comes to feeding the poor, something that is taught much more clearly and unequivocally in the Bible, they cry "socialism!"

Bush was voted in for his second term while I was at Bible college. At some point, there was a student recruiting for the GOP. When they asked another student if he wanted to register as a Republican, he said, "sorry, wrong party," to which the recruiter said, "sorry, wrong school." The implication clearly being that real Christians are only Republicans. There was some hubbub about, but the only thing that the recruiter was ever chastised for was being rude and insensitive, the idea that Christians are only Republicans was not openly challenged.

The Woeful Budgie said...

The fact that I’m pretty sure the pastor who said it to me probably didn’t see anything wrong until I called him on it is a bigger problem.

Call me cynical, but I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't see any problem with it at all, and was just backpedaling to save face. But then, that's based upon my general experience, I don't know this pastor in particular, so I could be wrong.

She then informed me that since he is pro-choice that means he’s pro-abortion and, therefore, the blood of every aborted baby is on Obama’s hands.

Urgh. Yes. I had the pleasure of hearing a friend of mine semi-jokingly threaten to disown her mother because she'd mentioned she'd voted for Obama, because, of course, "Obama kills babies". I wish I'd had the courage (or maybe at least the rhetorical skill) to challenge her on it...but I don't know that it would have made any difference. (After all, who am I compared to Lou Engle, who clearly speaks for God because delivers his messages with raspy shouting and catatonic rocking?) But I did talk to the mother later, just to let her know she's not alone and not everyone thinks like that, which seemed to make her feel better.

Disagreeing with “us” is scary, too, because it might result in the person in disagreement becoming a “them.”

Yes. This.

PersonalFailure said...

thought you might be interested:

la familia and eldridge