Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beyond good and evil

Throughout my life, I have met some amazing yet enigmatic people whose very existence has challenged the puerile and immature notions of black and white, of good and evil, that I once held . Some of these people have been, during their lives, murderers, thieves, and sinners, who have committed horrible crimes of various sorts. Some of them have worked for themselves - called, by society, common criminals - while others have worked for the government - simply called heroes. But all these people have, at the time that I knew them, been model and upstanding citizens. Some have repented for their former lives publicly, some privately, while others have not repented at all, but have lived in society in total isolation from their former lives. Some have even been decorated for their former deeds; others have merely pushed them under the proverbial rug, as merely unpleasant parts of their youth, necessities of an ill nature. Some of them were murderers in other countries, or in times when they had no rules to guide them or when none of these applied to them. But all of these folk have been exceedingly kind to me, and several I have even considered to be friends. This has caused me to rethink how we categorize people simply as good or bad. Nevertheless, as a scholar and a citizen of conscience, what is my responsibility toward them? It is said that only a true friend will tell you when you are wrong. Consequently, do I shake my finger at them? For I have not walked in their shoes. Do I cast aside all rules and propriety and punish them myself, as a vigilante would? Would that not make me as bad as those I seek to punish? Do I preach to them, as did Christ to the souls that were in Sheol (1 Peter 3:19)? Do I raise the public’s ire against them so as to bring down righteous indignation upon them to reflect God’s wrath?

One thing that I have come to believe in my life is that there is no person that is truly evil. No human being, living or dead, embodies - inherently, innately, the trait that may be called evil. I have learned this from people much smarter than myself - saints and holy men whose teachings I am not worthy to question or challenge, but whose teachings have borne out correctly in my life in every way, when I have investigated and explored them. Men such as Thich Nhat Hanh, who witnessed his country destroyed by those from without as well as those from within - by greed, hatred, apathy and fear - have taught time and again to love, to have compassion, to see the underlying causes of evil acts, as did Jesus Christ also teach us, along with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others, and not to hate the person but to hate the act. For every murderer begins life as a helpless, innocent child. Notwithstanding the doctrine of original sin held by some Christians, no scientist has yet been able to identify the biochemical causes that create a sociopath. All attempts to link crime to genetics or biology or race or even the shape of the head (this was once a pseudoscience, called physiognomy!) have failed. It is most likely that abuse and training are what create murderers. As such, I can only hate the acts committed by the people of whom I speak. I cannot hate or judge them. For I have not walked in their shoes. Had I done so, perhaps I would have killed and done the same. I cannot say.

But what I can do is to continue to pass along the message of love - ruthless and unconditional love, given freely and at all costs. This is the message taught to us by Jesus Christ and by those having come after him, teaching a similar message. We cannot afford to claim ignorance of this message; we cannot afford to ignore it, making excuses that he is God and that we are mortal, thereby exonerating us from our everyday deeds of hatred and greed. We must hold ourselves to the same standard as we would hold him, a savior, an exemplar, a saint. Everyday, we must ask ourselves if we are indeed still “the good guys”. Everyday, we must challenge ourselves to live better and more perfect lives, for each other, for God, for the world. In everything we do, we must increase peace and increase love. Every unkind moment toward our loved ones, our neighbors, the strangers on the freeway, strangers in the market, even those we call enemies - those that have wronged us and continually wrong us. We must take the high road, challenging them to act better toward us and others, refraining from doing anything that would embarrass ourselves or cause us to be seen as hypocritical. We must continue to give love to those whom we hate, even if it is uncomfortable or painful to us. By this I do not mean that we must put ourselves drastically in harm’s way - for that is a difficult thing to do that often is unwise and lacking discretion. But we must go the extra mile to be kind and to show love to our enemies and those whom we care nothing about in everyday life, as well as those whom we care everything about.

With this in mind, we as a society must encourage those who do wrong to do right. We must teach them that it is unacceptable to maim, torture, steal, lie, cheat and murder, be it for their own benefit or be it proclaimed to be on our behalf - for our liberty and our protection. For I would rather suffer injustice than to commit or support injustice - at any cost, even unto death.

What do we do when our leaders lie to us and tell us that they act on our behalf, using the loyalty of young, brave, selfless soldiers to do their bidding? Do we reject and cast blame upon the soldiers who were doing as they were trained and told - as America did in the 1960s and 70s, when Vietnam veterans returned home? Hell, no! For a generation of loyal Americans were brutalized by the very deeds they were forced to commit in a foreign land, entreated to carry out wicked and unholy acts against fellow children of God, commanded to do so by the rich, powerful and greedy. And after this, they were brutalized by the countrymen and women that stood idly by, benefitting from the deeds done in their stead, left with the sole blame for atrocities that we all took part in by our complicity, our agency, our indirect volition. So, indeed, what must we do? We must tell our so-called “leaders” that we do not want them to endorse, authorize, or command murder, rape, brutality, theft and wickedness for any reason, on any account, in our name or theirs. We must tell and teach them that they are not to do so ever. We must tell them in no uncertain terms that there is indeed a better way, that democracy can only work when all are free, when there is no one oppressed, enslaved, or prevented from taking part in government. And when they sin and transgress against these laws, our leaders must be punished, not with hatred or feelings of revenge, but with love and compassion, as would a father to a child. The medieval Jewish teacher Maimonides taught us, interpreting the Torah, that we must rebuke our neighbor gently and tenderly, so that we do not bear hatred toward them, nor that we should sit silently by and cause ourselves to be complicit in the sin and thereby effectively deprive our neighbor of good advice (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Book One: Knowledge, 6:6,7).

So, we are held accountable by God if we do not speak up. But we are also held accountable if we hate and judge and blame our neighbor, as if we had the right to cast judgment. What is the bottom line? What am I saying, after all of this verbiage? Do not stand in the way of justice, nor allow it to be watered down by preferential treatment or fear of standing up and being counted. But also do not hate or seek revenge when seeking to maintain justice. Love the murderer, but do not let him continue to murder. Whatever laws our society has to curtail injustice and wickedness, these must be enforced. But we should never do it with hatred in our hearts. For if we hold hatred in our hearts, then this is sin, this is injustice, this is murder. As the Apostle Paul counseled us, echoing Jesus Christ’s commandments, we must do all things with love.

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