Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Imitators of Pilate?

At Slate, Kathryn Schulz interviews Josh Stieber, a man who entered the military as a militaristic Christian and became a conscientious objector. What his conscience objected to was actions like this:

There's really no way to defend yourself against a sniper shot or a roadside bomb, so some of our leaders felt that the only way we could defend ourselves was to intimidate the local population into preventing the violence in the first place. So our battalion commanders gave the order that every time a bomb went off, we were entitled to open fire on whoever was standing around. The way I interpreted that was that we were told to out-terrorize the terrorists.

Stieber is far from abandoning his Christian values. He takes them seriously, so seriously that he can't ignore or rationalize the contradictions between military action and Christian ethics. That makes Stieber a rare bird. One of his hometown buddies, in the same unit in Iraq, shocked him by describing the abuse he wanted to perpetrate on an Iraqi prisoner. When Stieber challenged him on the the contradiction to American principles, his friend replied, "No, he's Iraqi, he's part of the problem, he's guilty," and reaffirmed his desire to torture the man. Stieber escalated his critique - what about the Christian values of loving one's enemy and returning good for evil? "My friend said, 'I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.' "

It's as fine an example of cognitive dissonance as you'll ever see. Jesus, who allowed himself to be arrested, rebuked the disciple who tried to defend him, offered no defense during his trial, and allowed himself to be crucified even though innocent*, is now a tough guy who'll show a little token patience and then deliver the hammer. Yes, it's easier to redefine Jesus and contradict his clear representation in the Bible than to admit that you're contradicting your (stated, not felt) morality. Even if you have to turn Jesus into a Pontius Pilate. Alas, Stieber is the exception and his friend is the rule, as he discovered when he explained himself to his family:

I think a lot of what I've done has been a manifestation of those values, and to see the people who taught them to me enact them in such different ways, or at times it seems other things have taken priority over those values -- that can be challenging. Of all the people in the world who should see things the same way I do, who should be passionate about the same things I am and offended by the same things I am, it would make sense that it would be the people who taught me to think this way. When that's not the case, that can be very hard.

To their credit, his family accepted Stieber's decision, but they don't understand it -- even though it's the logical, perhaps inevitable, consequence of taking New Testament ethics seriously. For a certain strain of Christian, imitating Christ is literally incomprehensible. Fortunately, there are a few serious people like Josh Stieber who take ethics seriously, who understand morality as something to govern their own actions and not as just a club to compel obedience from others.

* Innocent by our lights, anyhow. By the standards of the Roman Empire, Jesus had indeed committed a capital offense: he was a no-account yokel who was disturbing respectable folks. Which makes him somewhat comparable to, say, illegal immigrants or Muslims in certain American municipalities today.

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