Wednesday, December 09, 2015

we prefer our victims of injustice and our saints to be perfectly sinless

There's not going to be a whole ton of backstory setting this one up. This is more for those who already have the background.

It's been striking how differently a man can be perceived based on what is and isn't known about him.  From being a prisoner to being described as a spouse abuser, sympathies have shifted. 

And perhaps in various respects sympathies should shift.

Still ... we like our symbolic victims to be sinless, or at least sinless in the sense that we can't hold anything against them.

It's easy to quote someone from the past for as long as we tie them to a sufficiently righteous cause.  Gandhi, for instance.  Sure, it could turn out some writers highlight that Gandhi could be misogynistic and racist but Gandhi's usefulness to the cause of Indian independence doesn't change. Blacks in America may not approve of Martin Luther King's history of womanizing and plagiarism but his advocacy for civil rights is not categorically jeapordized on philosophical grounds just for that ... is it?

The possibility that people can be both truly heroic and truly monstrous may be the least acceptable premise on the internet. Still less acceptable may be the possibility that someone can be a victim of one kind of injustice while having perpetrated other kinds of injustice; that someone might be heroic in one respect but utterly villainous in another.

So, obviously, we can come to the biblical narrative literature.  Saints described in the Bible have some grisly histories.  I've struggled for years with Hebrews 11 mentioning Jephthah as a hero of the faith.  No, I don't for one second accept the claim that he did not immolate his daughter as a holocaust. The Hebrew word leaves no wiggle room for that when you see it show up all over Leviticus.  Barry Webb's commentary on Judges fielded this issue and he laid it to rest.  Jephthah burned his only child as an offering.

William Lane's commentary on Hebrews mentioned, if I recall correctly, that considering the level of ostracism Jephthah faced as the illegitimate son of a prostitute, disinherited from any of his relatives' estates and functionally driven out of Israelite society, he could have chosen to not call upon Yahweh and not even bother to go help the people who spurned him.  He decided to fight to defend the people that spurned him, in exchange for getting to rule them, of course. He also opted to make a calculated vow that wasn't necessary and then when it boomeranged on him in the worst possible way blamed his daughter rather than himself for his cagey promise. It might be helpful to point out that Hebrews 11 directs us to a list of those who trusted in Yahweh and that the hall of faith, so to speak, should be considered a list of those who trusted in God rather than those who through their words and conduct merited unqualified praise.
But there's a flip side to this dynamic of wanting sinless perfection in our publicly identifiable victims and saints, it can be that once we've labeled someone as being in the right cause we'll excuse just about anything in them ... that could lead to another slippery thing ...

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