Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Violence and Catholics

After admitting I am a hypocrite the other day, I planned to give a rest to Catholic stuff for awhile.  Because why should you all listen to me when I'm an admitted doubter?

However, one of the things I have never doubted, not even been tempted to doubt, is Catholic moral teaching.  I don't know if this is a grace, the way I was brought up, or just my temperament, but I have never looked at a moral teaching of the Church and thought, "The Church says x is bad, but I feel deep down that it's good."  There are things about which my conscience is a little stricter than the Church's teaching, but none where it's too lax. 

I just think it's a work of genius, no matter how you look at it.  Sin is objective -- guilt is subjective.  What a clever way to work it out that is neither relativistic nor unfair!  And I suppose it's what you would expect of an organization that's been pondering these issues for two millennia.  You get good answers.

Now I'm talking about what the Church teaches today.  The stuff in the Catechism.  There's lots of things the medieval church did and people believed back then which I disagree strongly with -- burning heretics, anyone?  But I put that down to just not having had as much time to think about it as they've had now.  Looking back to the very beginning, to Jesus, you can see that mercy is right in there.  But for a long time the Church didn't quite unpack that, because it's made up of humans and the pagan culture they were coming from was just not ready to deal with the idea of radical forgiveness.

I probably would be a total pacifist, except I can see, in the way the Church has formulated the three exceptions (the death penalty, self-defense, and just war), that same level of genius.  For those cases, those incredibly tough cases, where the innocent are being killed and it's not going to get better unless you meet force with force ... the church has developed rules for using force.  It has to be proportional.  It can only be used against an aggressor, not innocent bystanders or people you think might later do something bad.  (I.e.  You may not go back in time to kill Hitler back in art school.)  If you have another option available that is not deadly, you should use that instead.

Unfortunately, when you have exceptions, you have people pushing at them.  I have heard it said that the mere fact that there are exceptions makes the whole teaching optional.  "It's a matter of prudence," they say, which is Catholic code for "we don't have to listen."  But the Church has put down some very firm rules which you do have to listen to.  You look at your situation and see if it fits; that part is up to you, but you don't get to choose your rubric, because the Church has already given you that.

You see, I will agree that a person who has attacked a fellow human and has taken or is threatening to take their life forfeits their own right to life.  It is no longer intrinsically evil to take their life, because they've given up the right to it when they failed to respect that right in others.  But their life still has value.  If they are alive, it is because God sustains their life.  He keeps them in being, because if he thought they had no value, they would no longer exist.  He even loves them!  He loves axe murderers and rapists and genocidal dictators.  He died for them.  Do you believe that?

Of course we want them to repent.  I don't buy the idea that they are more likely to repent if they know they're getting killed.  I say better to give them more time; time can do what few other things can.  But anyway I think that's not our place; the moment of a person's death is God's choice, not ours.  If we can preserve their life without risking the lives of innocents, I think we should.

And anyway, consider: for a person to be put to death, another human being has to kill them.  Is it good for a human to get used to killing other humans?  Is it good for a doctor to have to administer a lethal injection?  How are they going to take their hippocratic oath seriously when we just ordered them, by law, to break it?  We have a strong natural revulsion against killing people.  Because of this, we train police and soldiers to lose that revulsion, by getting them to use human-looking cutouts for target practice and visualize killing people beforehand.  Do you think this is good for them as humans?  Will it make them more kind to their spouses, more gentle with their children?  Will it make them sleep easier at night and less likely to rationalize violence in cases where they could avoid it?

It does not appear to me that it does.  When I see yet another story about a police officer shooting someone who turned out not to be a threat, I see the excuses rolling in right after.  But the cop was scared.  But the person could have been a threat.  But cops are sometimes shot by criminals.  And it's all true.  But when it comes down to it, you or I would not have drawn and fired a gun because we wouldn't have been carrying one.  And if we had, we would have hesitated.  Because we've never killed anyone, never imagined killing anyone, don't want to kill anyone.

We, as a society, have sacrificed that hesitation in the minds of our soldiers, our police, and yes, some of our doctors.  We have chosen to make them the ones who don't hesitate.  Sometimes that goes wrong, of course.  It's the price we pay.

The price for killing someone, anyone, is high.  We should only do it when there is no other choice.  In the case of the death penalty, in America today, there always is another choice.  That's why I'm against it.

And I'd go further and say that, as a culture, we need to stop glorifying violence so much.  Guns don't make you tough, and they're not a guarantee of safety.  Too many times a gun is treated like a security blanket -- that just having one means that someone won't break into your house and shoot you.  I have chosen not to own or use a gun, because I am aware that I would hesitate, and any attacker could easily overpower me.  Now I could spend time training, visualize killing an attacker, overcome my natural hesitation to use violence.  But why would I do that, when it's already a struggle not to lose my temper with my own kids and hit them?  I have to be a mother 365 days a year, for eighteen years per kid.  I might have to shoot an intruder one time.  And that motherhood job is much harder.  It requires me to always, always stop myself before acting aggressively or even defensively, because I could hurt my children.  It requires me to have my defenses down and be soft ... which, I'll be honest, is a daily battle.

And when I hear the shouts for blood -- for the blood of terrorists, for the blood of ISIS members, for the blood of the guy who shot a cop recently -- I think, who are we?  What does it say about us, that we want this so badly?  Can we possibly be seeing a person with God's eyes and loving him with God's heart, if we want revenge on him so badly?

Humans are wonderfully adaptable creatures.  We can adapt to violent circumstances and become more aggressive, or we can adapt to safety by becoming gentle.  But we can't adapt ourselves to hate without hurting our capacity to love.  That's why, in Doctor Who, the Doctor doesn't carry a gun.  Not because he never kills -- sometimes he has to.  But he knows that to carry a gun means that you are always carrying with you the possibility of killing, the readiness to kill.  For a man with that much power, if he let himself be changed that far, he would become a monster.  The gun would become the solution for everything.

I think that, in the way we talk in America, especially on the more conservative side, we have let the gun become the solution for everything.  No one can seem to think of another solution.  We don't think of the possibility of peaceful resistance, or diplomacy, or rehabilitation.  Just of fighting back.  And the one thing no one even gives a moment's thought is that sometimes, it could be better to die than to resist.  Isn't that exactly what Jesus did?

Well, that's what I think anyway.  You don't have to listen to me.  Just throwing that out there.


Charlemagne said...

"And the one thing no one even gives a moment's thought is that sometimes, it could be better to die than to resist."

And how many have to die, and for how long?

Sheila said...

That seems like the wrong question. At least unless you are a utilitarian, where human lives matter *numerically.*

The only life you have the right to sacrifice, when other moral options are available, is your own. That was what I meant.

But it is also true that it doesn't matter how many people are dying if you don't have a licit way of stopping it. I wouldn't kill a single innocent human to save the whole world. I am sure there are people who find this morally repugnant, but imagine how you'd feel if that one innocent person were *you*? You might find yourself thankful for my inconvenient morals.

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