Friday, March 1, 2013

Random Thoughts on Saying Goodbye to Benedict as a Protestant [Jay Watts]

The other day my 10 year-old son asked me who Pope Benedict was and why it was a big deal he was retiring. After admonishing myself about not talking to my children about this, we discussed the ideals, principles, beliefs, and moral convictions that Protestants and Catholics share while emphasizing the need for charity in our areas of disagreement. Afterward I asked him, “So where did you hear about Pope Benedict, anyway?”

His response shocked me. “Well it's been on the news and the radio a lot, but mostly I've heard you talking about him.” I thought about the last couple of weeks and realized he was right. Pope Benedict stepping down impacted me emotionally and spiritually in ways that I failed to recognize but that my son clearly noticed. Pope Benedict spoke with grace, dignity, and strength to moral issues that concern me in the same way they concern him and that agreement fostered the comfort that those of us who share those concerns had a great ally in him. I am sad.

A friend recently expressed similar feelings on-line and was chastised by a commenter that understood the celebration of those common purposes as politically motivated and therefore (1) driving a further wedge between politically liberal Christians and those of us who – in their mind - equate politically right leaning agendas with Christian agendas and (2) is somehow indicative of a too narrow focus on the part of those who supposedly see abortion and gay marriage as the defining issues for politically active Christians.

It is a little perplexing when Christian critics hammer people like me for being insensitive and focused on abortion to the exclusion of other issues and then - in a moment of complete lack of self awareness - proclaim that unlike me they care about all sorts of other things. Unlike me and the monstrously obsessed and divisive conservative evangelicals like me, they care about war and sex slaves and poverty and are charitable to people that disagree with them. After all, I presumably support war mongering, pro sex slavery, poverty loving policies because of my callous focus on abortion.

Scott covered the difference between contingent evils and intrinsic evils (see here, here, and here), but even given a greater understanding in how we process the moral differences between actions like taking innocent life in abortion, taking innocent life in war, and taking life in capital punishment it is decidedly uncharitable to see another's efforts in one area as evidence of their lack of humane concern in other areas.

Lets take differing views on war as an example, though we could just as easily look at poverty or capital punishment. My personal views on war have changed more than once over the years. As an atheist, I tended toward a total war mentality. Early in my Christian walk I leaned more toward pacifism than I do now. Then (1) a consideration of Just War Theories and (2) a real concern about what kind of armies would wage wars if properly functioning moral people abstained entirely from warfare moved me away from pacifism. I am not pro-war by any stretch of the imagination, but the issue appears far more morally complex than some others seem to believe.

A passionate young man with absolute views recently told me that any military intervention on foreign soil is immoral even in cases of genocide. “You will never stop the killing, no matter what you do.”

I pointed out Lt. General Rome'o Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil about his experiences in Rwanda. A Canadian commander of UN forces states that if he could have simply re-tasked the military presence assigned for evacuation to peace keeping efforts he possibly could have stopped the killing that ended with 800,000 human lives being taken in 100 days. He wasn't advocating fighting a war but merely being there to deter mass murder till the situation could be stabilized. I then asked him to consider Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell on genocide in the 20th century and how the U.S. responds to it. Whatever your view of Ms. Power's politics, it is difficult to read that book and walk away with anything other than the impression that how to use our military in the face of great evil is NOT a cut and dried issue.

There is no obvious moral superiority in stating that one is more anti-war than others without a serious discussion about what you mean when you say that. I hate war as do my friends whose sons and daughters are in harms way. We just recognize that we hate other things worse than war. There is an argument to be had – in the best since of that word – but to declare one side superior to the other by nature prior to the argument is question begging at its worst. And assuming that a person focusing their efforts on one area is thoughtless toward other issues is simply wrongheaded. 

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman draws out distinctions between functional information – information “tied to the problems and decisions readers had to address in order to manage their personal and community affairs” and non-actionable information that became available to us originally through telegraphy and ultimately now available in massive quantities through world wide media and internet service. He argues in the following excerpt that this new glut of information evokes powerful emotional responses in us toward information that we can't really take meaningful action on in our lives:

“You may get a sense of what this means by asking yourselves another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: you plan to do nothing about them.”

This inability to take meaningful action is not a by product of lack of concern. Most people simply cannot do anything in their daily lives to impact issues of this magnitude. In this light, we are all faced with the task of sorting out what Postman calls the “information action ratio” when learning about evils. I cannot stop sex slavery. I cannot stop war. I cannot stop poverty. In my adult life I have never kidded myself that my voting for an elected official would greatly curtail these types of evils. Both Democrats and Republicans wage wars. Both Democrats and Republicans hate poverty and sex slavery, though they may differ in how to legislatively deal with the former.

Here is where I may be crazy. I think that we can impact abortion. I believe information on abortion is functional information and that educating people in our community about what abortion is, how we identify unborn human life, and what our moral responsibilities are to other people can change how our community behaves. Beautiful little hands of lives that were spared have often grabbed my fingers while their grateful mothers shared stories about the people that cared enough to reach out to them before they did something out of fear they would regret forever. It doesn't get more immediate or real than that.

I also believe that equipping people to understand their Christian worldview and to rationally, logically, and graciously explain and defend their beliefs to others helps the community. Both of these goals are meaningful to my life, I act on them daily, and see those actions produce results.

By necessity we must engage in the political process to achieve goals and it is obvious to all reasonable people that in this area the political parties are not equally committed to the same principles. Whatever the individual beliefs of those who comprise the parties, one party sees as a good to be preserved what another party sees as an evil to be curtailed.

What does all of this have to do with my being sad about the retirement of Pope Benedict? Those of us who share the conviction that abortion is a great evil and that the Christian worldview is both defensible and important to our world community are losing a great ally. Pope Benedict is a bold and outspoken ally. In an age dominated by what he termed the tyranny of relativism that often angrily shouts down dissent that is no small thing. His position offered a greater platform to meaningfully impact major issues than most people will ever enjoy, and he used that platform to express heartfelt and rationally defensible positions that often matched my own.

If you confuse the affection this fact evokes from Protestants cooperating in an effort driven by the mutual convictions on what is good and right and noble as political posturing that unnecessarily excludes left leaning Christians then it might not be me who is too politically minded.


  1. What? You can't solve every problem on the planet?

  2. "Scott covered the difference between contingent evils and intrinsic evils"

    But doesn't most people in the pro-life movement consider abortion to be a contingent evil (and all people in the pro-abortion movement)? They claim abortion is acceptable to save the life of the mother (such as an ectopic pregnancy). Some go further to include health of the mother, and cases of rape and incest. It's the minority of pro-lifers who say "abortion is always evil". Compare that to something like rape or child molestation, which most people agree are intrinsic evils.


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