Monday, October 31, 2011

How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

For the past several weeks now, I’ve been slogging through Unholy Trinity, a book by Mark Aarons and John Loftus that was originally published as Ratlines, that documents the role of the Vatican in helping thousands of Nazi and Ustaše genocidal killers escape to South America after the war.

I want to save a review of the book, and the whole story of the church’s role in fighting (or not fighting) first the fascists, then the communists, for another day. For now I just want to tie it together with two other pieces of information that caught my attention this morning. One is a review by Glenn C. Altschuler of Alan Wolfe’s latest book, Political Evil: What it is and how to combat it. The other is a blog entry on Alice Walker, by theologian Bill Lindsey.

Wolfe’s point in Political Evil, if I’ve understood it right, and if the reviewer has done the book justice, is that our inclination to set the world up in absolute black-and-white terms leads us away from justice and keeps us from finding political solutions to conflict. By his frequent labeling of America’s enemies as “evil doers,” George W. Bush got us nowhere. And in a separate example (not Wolfe’s), our demonization of Milošević in Serbia blinded us to the genocidal policies of the Croatians against the Serbians, which we ought to have considered more carefully in understanding the recent breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Or, to say it more plainly, the war crimes of the Croatian Ustaše are not cancelled out by the war crimes of Serbians under Milošević.

The importance of context should not be minimized, if the ultimate goal is reconciliation, not blame. One needs to know the whole story, in all its detail, in order to know what we have to work with in building a solution. And “if we're not careful…” Wolfe is suggesting according to the review, “…and we don't temper moral absolutism with ethical realism, we're likely to become smug and self-righteous. We may well forget that foreign policy ‘is always about politics and that politics demands flexibility.’”

Ah...but, I want to add, is “flexibility” just another word for moral cowardice?

Because my mind is still filled with the claims made in Unholy Trinity – namely that Pius XII and the official church remained largely silent while the Holocaust was going on, and then further abused the memory of Jewish victims of the Nazis by arguing the utilitarian ethical argument that letting the killers go free (nay, helping the killers go free) was necessary in the fight against communism, the purportedly greater evil – because those events are still fresh in my mind, I can’t help but filter Wolfe’s argument in favor of “flexibility” through the more black-and-white lens used to judge the church (and other institutions) in Unholy Trinity.

The problem with political institutions is that they cannot act as moral agents, since they inevitably find they have a higher obligation to self-preservation. Israel is an apartheid state with a brutal policy toward the Palestinians, and it’s not the racists among the Israelis one gets angry at, but the “good folk” – those who have built the only democracy (for Jews, anyway) in the Middle East, because they have let the tribe (and the rest of us) down. Jews taught the world about justice. If Israel is being held to a higher standard than its neighbors, it’s because one remembers that fact, and feels let down to see it betrayed.

In similar fashion, one knows that the church not only claims to be the embodiment of the love of Christ, the builder of schools and hospitals, an agent of charity, compassion, generosity and kindness, but actually is, in many of its manifestations. It is also a vicious institution governed by a Realpolitik which led it to support the fascists of Croatia, merely because they were catholic, against the orthodox Serbians, their neighbors. The church was behind the Intermarium movement, a force that wanted to build a third political reality among the catholic nations of Eastern Europe, to stand between fascist Germany on one side and Stalinist Russia on the other. An arguably worthy political goal. But one that would require moral compromise. And just as Palestinians feel a sour taste in their mouths when they hear Israel tout itself as a democracy, Jews and others may feel disgusted when they hear the cherry-picked information about how Pius aided the Jews of Rome – as if Klaus Barbie, and Adolf Eichmann got to South America entirely on their own power and resources, and if the thousands who escaped justice were of no concern anymore.

So what is the “real story,” one wants to know. Were the pope and his bishops the bad guys or weren’t they? The point is that in any great ethical dilemma involving large numbers of people, there is almost never going to be a line drawn beneath the list of good deeds and bad, so that one may add up the columns and reach a conclusion “the church (or any other entity) is innocent” or “the church is guilty.” In a court of law, one reaches a verdict of guilt or innocence, but in real life it’s always going to be a mixed bag and we’re going to be talking more about degrees of guilt or innocence and whether there is responsibility to begin with. There are no bottom lines.

Which brings me to Alice Walker and her book, The Color Purple.

When I read Bill Lindsey’s account of the role the book played in his life, I wanted to tell him that the book (the film, actually) had had a powerful impact on me, as well. I had heard somewhere that when she was criticized for being so hard on black men, in The Color Purple and elsewhere, her response was “You tell your story, and I’ll tell mine.” I seized upon it as an excellent rule to live by, especially when people try to simplify complex moral situations with bottom-line conclusions that would force you to say what you don't believe - that in the end, if there's more good than bad, then we'll call it good. I had included that quotation without attribution in two of my own blog postings, one in 2004 and one in 2005.

In preparing to write this article this morning I googled the quotation to tie down the attribution, and, to my chagrin, the only articles that came up in response to the quotation were my own. Either Alice Walker never made that remark, or the book or film review I took it from is not accessible without digging deeper. I’m confident I have not misquoted her – it fits her work perfectly as a womanist writer and her courage in telling her story, damn the torpedos. But if anybody knows where it came from, I’d appreciate being made an honest man.

My point is only that in struggling in my assessment of Unholy Trinity and the church’s guilt in letting/helping genocidal killers go free, I have reached the same conclusion here that I came to in teaching a university seminar in ethics for a dozen years or so, when students would invariably ask me, “Well, which one of these many systems you’ve told us about – religious (Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas), Kantian, utilitarian, virtue ethics, Rawles’ theory of justice, situational ethics - which one do you hold to?

My answer was that right and wrong, in my view, is neither absolute, nor relative, but negotiated. I hold that while one has to make decisions for practical reasons in politics and law on the basis of codes carefully worked out over time, one never stops the consideration and reconsideration of those codes as time and new information and changes in cultural values come to play in giving us lenses to see the world through. That may sound relativist and postmodernist. It may sound like one value is as good as another and there is no objective position from which to make form a final conclusion. But that would be a misinterpretation. What it does mean is that our moral conclusions should be guided by the greatest possible inclusion of life narratives. We’re well on the way toward making that a universal starting point. A mere couple hundred years ago most of the world lived by the divine right of kings. Today we see the world moving slowly but surely toward universal democracy and the goals expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The church's claim of infallibility is one of the great absurdities of history. The case against it is simply too strong. Its errors have been too numerous and of such enormity as to be unforgivable. It can have the credit it deserves when it lives out its mission of charity, but the majority of its own followers have come to reject its claim to exclusivity in matters of truth and morality. It was not merely wrong during the ages of the Crusades and the Inquisition. It was wrong when it kidnapped Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family after his catholic nurse had him baptized and refused to give him back. It was wrong more recently when there was active participation by some of its clergy and failure to speak out on the part of the rest, when war criminals made their way on funds laundered by the Vatican Bank to places where they would not have to face justice. And when it repeated that pattern of criminality on the part of some and cover-up on the part of others in the child-abuse scandal. And it is still wrong today in other ways, such as in its destructive take on human sexuality and the place of women in the world.

People persuaded that life is “nasty, brutish and short” can take heart. As long as there are people to tell their stories, as long as we have people to remember the Holocaust, and people like Alice Walker to remind black men that while they have just cause to rage against racism, they do not have cause to foster sexism, as long as we have books like Alan Wolfe’s Political Evil to remind the George W. Bushes of the world that the assumption of self-righteousness does possibly as much harm in the long run as do the workings of allegedly evil people, as long as we have journalists with magnificent obsessions pointing out the clay feet of our hallowed institutions – that’s how long we need not surrender to total cynicism.

My friend Harriet once told me she hated documentaries because they were invariably about what’s wrong with the world. She preferred comedies and escape literature. We shared so much, but parted company on this issue. I take heart from books and films about the miseries of the world because they demonstrate there are people who have not sold out or gone to sleep. As long as they are on the job, and as long as people tell their stories, no matter how horrific, I thought – still do – we have reason to look forward to better times. If the whole world some day starts dancing to “Look on the Bright Side of Life,” that’s when I’ll cash in my chips.


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