Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Reply to a comment

Please illuminate me...You wrote:

I do not presume to answer [why I am opposed to capital punishment] for anyone other than myself. But my own stand remains unchanged.

Is your stand a scientific stand, an ethical stand, or a religious stand? Does that makes sense to you?
I note that you earlier make it clear that you feel it is needful to differentiate between the legal and the moral. Where does legalism and moralism belong? In the scientific realm, the ethical realm, or the religious realm?
Best Regards,

[This comment appears in the comments section of a post regarding the Australian precursor to the US Patriot Act. It quotes, however, from the preceding post regarding my opposition to capital punishment.]

Here is my response to Bob's comment:

I attempted to clarify my “stand” by repeating a couple of paragraphs previously composed in another post.

An execution creates a population of perpetrators which includes you and me. It is morally repugnant, not because of what it does to the criminal, but because of what it does to us. Early Christians (including Jesus, incidentally) were the victims of capital punishment, not the executioners. [It is noteworthy that according to Luke one of the others who died on Golgotha allowed as how he and the other bandit deserved to die, although Matthew and Mark state that both of the others being crucified taunted Him.].

There will always be a poster child for capital punishment. Our responsibility as Christians is to resist our most atavistic impulses and struggle with how, under disagreeable and humanly irrational conditions, we can possibly follow the Lord's command to love. When we say to hate the sin and love the sinner, this is where the rubber meets the road. The is no loving way to take a person's life, even if he seems to have it coming.

Whether this -- call it what you may: position, feeling, stand, notion, idea, whatever – is scientific, religious or moral is not anything that I have felt a need to define further. There is a serious volume of apologetics and analyses about the subject so large that I have not plowed through it. In the same way that I am able to receive and follow without human understanding a good many of life’s mysteries, I am also able to receive and accept what in my heart I know is one of the most compelling truths of the Christian faith, beginning with the example of Jesus and his teaching, that we are commanded to love one another. I see no way to reconcile that command with the intentional taking of human life.

Is your stand a scientific stand, an ethical stand, or a religious stand? Does that makes sense to you?

A: Taking the second question first, no, it doesn’t make sense to me.

Science has to do with measurements and experiments. Science starts with questions and ends with more questions. In between there may be some agreements about what has been demonstrated, but in the end there is always yet another question. I suppose there might be some kind of altruistic social contract hypothesis that addresses the question of capital punishment, like the notion of food-sharing among primitive people dealing with scarcity. But analytical discussions about that don’t interest me.

Ethics is a subject that I don’t know much about. It involves philosophical precepts, truth tables, rhetoric, rules of logic and a long string of abstract thinking running all the way back to pre-history with the arguments of Plato and before. There was a time that I thought about such things, but like music and astronomy there was too much for my mind to ingest. In the realm of ethics, I am just an observer. To the extent that I try to be a player, I am like the handicapped kid who loves the sport of baseball but only has what it takes to be a bat-boy. I have struggled manfully with the likes of Descartes, Sartre, Aquinas, and others, always coming back to the cliff notes and summaries of others. I lack the discipline to ingest the meat of their best commentaries.

Religion is even more convoluted than ethics. I have looked at religion from every angle and found it to be mostly a matter of habit and repetition. You know what I mean. Preachers regularly criticize religion as a barrier to faith.

I guess the word faith best describes my “stand.”
Mark Twain said the “faith is believing what you know isn’t true.” As ugly as that sounds, it carries with it a kernel of truth. Faith is where we go when there is no other place. Faith is how we act when all the rest of human understanding, science, math, ethics, law and everything else has run out. Faith, as Paul said, is the knowledge of things hoped for, the certainty of things not seen. See Hebrews 11. It remains a mystery to me. And I thank God for its assurance.

Q: I note that you earlier make it clear that you feel it is needful to differentiate between the legal and the moral. Where does legalism and moralism belong? In the scientific realm, the ethical realm, or the religious realm?

A: What I said was what is legal and what is moral are not congruent. I neither need nor approve of this state of affairs. It is simply an observation.

It is legal to get drunk, or gamble to excess, or patronize a licensed whorehouse in Nevada, but those are not what I would consider morally responsible actions. Their being legal does not make them moral.

On the other hand it is illegal to hire undocumented aliens, or share confidential medical information with unauthorized people who may be closer to a patient than his or her own “authorized” family members, or drive while intoxicated, but I can advance an argument in each case that will demonstrate a compelling moral justification for violating the law. The case of interfering with an abortion to save the life of an unborn child is probably the most easily understood example of morality in tension with what is legal. Civil disobedience is another example of a moral response to laws which are immoral. See Shadrack, Mechack and Abednego as early examples.

As for legalism and moralism I don’t have anything to say.
When something becomes an “ism” it takes on a more concrete being. It accumulates power. That is something that I don’t like. Legalism suggests to me the conclusive power of law. Moralism sounds like a conclusive power of morality that disregards everything else, which would be wonderful if we all could stand in agreement about what is moral, but we do not. Each person’s “morality” is as compelling as the next, but when the two fall into conflict we must rely upon politics, and its bastard child, the law, to mediate our disagreement.

How messy this becomes.
I cannot understand morality or law in any of the “realms” that you offer: science, ethics or religion.
There are “laws” in science, but they have to do with physics, chemistry and such.
Morality is involved, but only in the same way that morality is involved with a hammer. If we use it to put nails into a habitat house, then we are acting morally. If we use it to nail shut a box in which someone is about to be buried alive, or, God forbid, kill someone by hitting him in the head, then we have used the same hammer immorally.
The same kinds of games can be played with ethics and religion. All we have to do is shuffle the tools about to select scalpels or anesthetics (like marijuana?), or icons, or alcoholic beverages at the Eucharist and we arrive at similar conundrums.

I don’t expect that this explanation will satisfy you.
I certainly don’t expect it to change anyone's mind. Long ago I gave up the notion that the faith that sustains me would ever be widespread. That is not to say that I dearly wish that it could, but I have seen too many people in my life who are so far along a different road that it is past my imagination to know how they might ever be led into another direction.

It would be like teaching another language to an older adult who really didn’t want to know one anyway. When first generation immigrants bring their parents to America speaking only their mother tongues, be it form Asia or Africa or Eastern Europe, those parents are content to simply smile and nod at English-speaking gatherings. They may pick up a word here or there, but in the end they will go to their graves with only the language they already had when they came to America.

Like those foreigners in a strange land, all I can do is live my life in the faith I know, hoping and praying that if those who know me can accept and love me with all my shortcomings. For anyone who wants to listen I will explain myself as best I can. I hope not to pull the underpinnings from under anyone else’s faith, in the hope and expectation that they can afford me the same courtesy.


bob (a.) said...

Dear Friend -

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

I must be frank however, in that it seems like a total punt to me.

Here is the issue. You took a stand. I requested a defense of your stand. Perhaps I missed it, but I don't see one.

The root of the issue and where you need to point: On what authority do you stand?

Without authority, your stand is powerless, in my opinion. Why even bother taking a stand if it can be blow away with a mere question?

Here is my issue: morality, legality, ethics, science etc are all things which flow from academia out of the application of Aristolean thinking - metaphysics.

There is but one authority witnessed in my testimony - Jesus. What He says is the basis for my reality, since in all things He is preeminent and He is one with the Father, abba papa the Creator of all things.

He became incarnate for us so that we could hear from Him directly. He had already spoken to us directly through patriarchs and through Moses the Holy Mountain.

If your only authority were to be what is in your mind, that is no authority at all. If your authority is your faith, and your faith does not start with Jesus in your heart, that is an empty faith because Jesus is the only answer. He said so and He is my reality. I know in my knower where the true power and authority comes from. I can't have trouble with authority without rejecting Jesus:

Daniel 7:13 "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.


Hoots said...

Thanks for your patience, Bob. Repeating, I am also able to receive and accept what in my heart I know is one of the most compelling truths of the Christian faith, beginning with the example of Jesus and his teaching, that we are commanded to love one another. In your reply you felt the need to point out that if my faith does not begin with Jesus in my heart, then it is an empty faity. It seems I am just pretending to be Christian, basing my life's deciaions on an empty faith.

IMO, this our very public treatment of faith and my failure to use exactly the right language stains any efforts either of us may have made toward advancing The Great Commission. It illustrates one of the main reasons that new Christians have abandoned the faith and potential converts are reluctant to join.

I agree with your premise that if faith is not based on Jesus, then it is an empty faith.
I agree that if faith is based solely on Aristotelian metaphysics, then that faith is a product of the mind, not the heart.
I agree that if one's only authority is what is in the mind, then that is no authority at all.
I agree that if that authority is one's faith, and that faith does not start with Jesus in one's heart, then that is an empty faith because Jesus is the only answer.
If that string of (Aristotelian...your language, not mine) syllogisms agreeing with your logic is an inadequate "defense," then I stand defenseless.

There has been no reference yet to the civil public square. In that (i.e. this) forum, faith is is not required to offer any defense. Actions and consequences of actions, yes. But not faith.
That is the only way I have found to live peacefully among infidels.

Meantime, I have read nothing to make me change my mind or heart on the issue of capital punishment. In fact, my mind tells me that the perpetrator deserves to die a slow and painful death as a just punishment for his crimes. It is my heart, dammit, that dictates otherwise.