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The Problem is You

May 9, 2011
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This week, in case you missed it, Osama bin Laden was killed. In unrelated news, while I made my breakfast I was thinking about Sam Harris’ (a prominent figure in the New Atheism movement) ideas about preemptive nuclear strikes on Islamic countries. These are linked at the point of extremism: once again I found myself thinking not about the particular proposals of New Atheism but the extent to which many of its prominent members appear to be religious zealots whose chosen religion is non-religion (and whose acculturation prevents them from engaging in violence). I’m sure this isn’t what the New Atheists are going for since they want to draw a clear, bright line between religion and non-religion (a line I’ve attacked elsewhere) but what if it were true in even some cases? Is there any mode of thought that might be common amongst extremists of apparently opposite causes?

One immediate candidate sprung to mind: extremists (and the more civilized version, the extreme ideological jerk) all agree on a few things. First, there is a big problem with the world. Second, this problem is somebody else’s fault. Third, the problem is a straightforward matter that can be solved by obedience to clear external mandates. Take, for instance, a communist extremist. There’s a big problem in the world: inequitable distribution of wealth. The problem is the greed of other people, specifically the bourgeoisie. If these people obeyed some rules concerning the distribution of property the problem would be solved. Or, to take another example, let’s consider the Islamic radical. There’s a big problem in the world: many people are openly hostile to the brand of Islam the radical espouses. The problem is, rather obviously, these disobedient people. If these people obeyed the normally clear-cut, if strict, rules the radical believes in the problem would be solved. This pattern can be repeated for any ideology.

These three parts together create a monster. The problem is big which means that drastic action to solve it is justified. The problem is someone else and so the extremist can advocate for these drastic measures without worrying that they are advocating for their own destruction. Finally, because the problem could be solved so simply, there really isn’t an excuse for the problematic people not to immediately cease to be problematic. This is really part of the second problem. If the problem, whatever it was, was complex it would be hard for it to remain just someone else’s problem. The extremists themselves would have a task to do in making the solution accessible or in clearing up the confusion between different options. If we admitted that the solution was that complex we would immediately have to wonder if we were also getting things wrong and were part of the problem.

Of course, this sort of thinking is natural for humans. We all find it easier to regard ourselves as the center of the universe around which everyone else should move. This can crop up in Christianity as easily as it can crop up anywhere else. The strict, judgmental moralism of some Christians is simply this sort of thinking. Whether or not someone had to do some clean-up upon entry to the group, they are not the problem now. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they wear their hair and clothes correctly, they listen to the right sorts of music, and they say the right words. The problem is that mass of other people, the sinners.

I’ve heard sermons about this issue before. Lots of them, really. The one that sticks out to me was one about how Christians are liable to try and hide their problems to encourage social acceptance at the cost of personal growth. The danger is that once one starts hiding one’s problems from other people one rapidly moves to denying that one has problems. It’s simply a comfortable spot to be in. However, it’s also the position from which really crazy people come from and Christianity certainly has its share of crazy people. When I early stated that the ideological jerk was a civilized variant of an extremist I was immediately able to think of Christian examples of this sort of person. I can even think of instances in which these people have said things like, “The problem with America/the world is the liberals/atheists/homosexuals.” In fact, a lot of evangelism-by-being-a-jerk seems to come out of some variation of this worldview, although some of it also comes from a genuine desire to help people combined with a very poor idea of how to actually do this.

So well and good. I’ve made my case. The problem isn’t just those bad people out there. Christianity has always asserted that the problem of sin lives in us and must be dealt with within us. However, Christianity has also always asserted that the problem of sin lives in everyone else, too. Without proper balance my comments so far could be used to advocate a lifestyle of hiding in a cave seeking moral perfection, which is not what I generally hold up as the exemplary Christian life. (There’s a longer debate about the hermetic life here – I don’t have time for it so let me just say that no one advocates that all Christians should be hermits.) So what is the balance? I think the balance has to come from a sense of responsibility. We are most responsible for ourselves. When we look at the problems in the world, our first responsibility is to do right ourselves. We might also attempt to see justice done on a larger scale but this needs to be done with a sense of what that task actually looks like. Only those who confront sin in their own lives in a serious manner can really understand what it means for someone else to “leave a life of sin”. Quick-fixes come from people who have applied quick-fixes in their own lives and I’m quite sure that transforming oneself from a creature of the world into a creature of heaven involves more than a quick-fix.

Ultimately, personal transformation should lead outward. I am reminded of a famous quotation from Dom Hélder Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a communist.” Obviously, the outward motion of this inward transformation is not always well-received. However, Câmara was that much harder to argue against because he embodied the hard ideals he advocated. The challenge of a good person is implicit in their goodness and informed by their own experience struggling against the evil within themselves. It is this self-examination that prevents easy, externally-imposed answers.

It is at this juncture that I wish to return to the events of the past week. The moral question of the moment is whether or not it is appropriate to celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death. I’ve seen people argue that it is appropriate to do so, that it is unchristian to do so, and that it is time to shut up about the whole thing and stop casting judgments on what others choose to do. I find myself on the side of those who think we should not celebrate anyone’s death (along with all but one Christian leader whose response I have read). However, I think the perspective I have outlined above has something to add to this. Most of this debate seems to have been treated as a matter of sin as crime. Osama is dead. Celebrating his death does not impact him at all. Advancing the case that it is a sin to celebrate in a criminal sense looks like a hard road. Who, exactly, is the crime against? But if we examine ourselves we might get somewhere. What I know in my own life is that hatred is poison. I know this because I have confronted the sin of anger repeatedly in my life. I’m also well aware that celebrating Osama’s death could easily become a stamp of approval on hatred. So here’s my advice: don’t celebrate bin Laden’s death. While you’re at it, don’t drink the rat poison, either. This isn’t about whether you’re bin Laden’s problem. This is about whether you are your own problem and based out of the fact that you are your own responsibility.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Dunn permalink
    May 10, 2011 9:00 am

    I had some very similar thoughts, especially with regard to Harris’ remarks. I really like the way you wrote this out, Eric – that as Christians, we believe that “the problem” with the world isn’t you, or y’all, but me. Ironically, at its base, this realization is the essence of becoming a Christian… and yet it is not often kept in sight. Thanks, Eric!

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