Friday, September 07, 2012

A link from over at the Boar's Head Tavern: Tutu, Blair and the Sexing Up of Guilt

You might think that the war was horrible. I do.
You might wish that we had never gone there. I do.
You might feel sickened by every fruitless injury or death or displacement. I do.
You might feel that the 45-minute “sexing up” of the WMD threat was regrettable. I do.
You might wish that Tony Blair had been more of his own man vis-a-vis Bush. I do.
You might wish that Tony Blair had insisted on buying the weapons inspectors more time.
You might wish that Tony Blair had been more open about his desire for regime change.
You might feel angry about, and ashamed of, the whole thing.

But there is no evidence that Tony Blair lied about the suspected presence of WMD. Is there?

Minghella adds more.

When politicians do things in our name with which we violently disagree; when they do it despite clear and overwhelming lack of popular support; when they do it anyway and it all goes wrong in the most horrific way, we want to express our shame, frustration and anger.

We want to show that we are good, loving members of Tutu’s human brotherhood. Built, as he says, for goodness. We want to put a distance between ourselves and what went wrong. We want to show our credentials as well-meaning pacifists. We want to show, especially if we are on the left, that we don’t automatically and naively accept everything that was done by a left-wing party. We’re better, cleverer, and, above all, sorrier than that.

So fierce is the shame, so repellent is the human cost, that it feels easy and uncontroversial to go the next step and call the man in the middle of the mess a liar.

To scream for vengeance, court and criminality.

It’s certainly therapeutic.

But to go down this path without solid evidence – the sexing up of guilt – is not the action of caring, thoughtful, built-for-goodness folk.

The sexing up of guilt is something that has been on my mind a lot over the last six years.  Longtime readers won't have to wonder very long as to why.  What I am getting at particularly is what I have called a practice of imputing comprehensive guilt by tangential association.  If something angers you then anyone and everyone who doesn't explicitly oppose that thing in the terms you would prefer has to approve of what has gone on that you disapprove of or, worse, been an active supporter or conspirator in the thing.

The trouble with that is that is that there are times when, as certain prophets used to put it, no one has clean hands.  When Christians cite biblical texts that say "All we, like sheep, have gone astray" or "There is none that is righteous, not even one." we seem to mean that in some abstract sort of way in which we academically acknowledge that this would be true about us, too, but not in the particular situation in which we found ourselves and opted to exercise our moral indignation.  One person's legitimate advocacy can be perceived as another person's cronyism.  One person's legitimate exercise of authority for the benefit of a community gets perceived as another person's abuse of illegitimate authority.  One person's desire to defend due process and review gets described by another person as defiantly working against the interests of an organization.  One person's desire to have serious discussion of problems in proposed structural changes gets, somewhat notoriously, described as "sinning through questioning".

One substantial reason the bromide of "there are two sides to every story" rings so hollow for me this year is that if we appreciate the warnings of scripture as being as significant as they are then we should  know better than to automatically put ourselves on the side of the righteous.  The sliding scale version of the law will always exonerate us if we choose to only measure ourselves on a curve while measuring everyone else by the unadjusted standard. I've seen more than a few cases in which people who were upset about injustice through cronyism, weight-throwing, judgment, and exclusion were themselves remarkably prone to these things themselves.  It was a problem in me, too, it took me a while to understand it.

The temptation to sex up guilt is very real and it's easy to fall sway to.  We want, some of us, to give in to this because if we sex up the guilt then, we like to tell ourselves, we're being prophetic.  But this would be to misrepresent the nature of the prophetic office or activity, something that's easy for Christians to do because the prophets are difficult to read and easily understand.  Many invectives penned by prophets deal with scathing criticisms of policies and people in power where it's not immediately clear what's going on.  Adding still further possibility for confusion is the fact that flesh and blood men who were the targets of these criticisms tend to be missed in a rush to make sure the Bible is "all about Jesus" (which is still true) without having established a more basic exegetical and historical background for who was the initial and literal subject of a couple of famous prophetic passages.  I don't intend to digress on the Light-bearer or the rulers of Tyre just here, though.

But you may notice from that pair of references that prophetic denunciation often begins from a point of understanding that the abuse of power is criticized through an understanding of the proper domain and use of power.  What is also frequently forgotten in a hermeneutic of interpreting all prophecy as fulfilled in Jesus is that the aim of prophetic criticism in its time was to invite and incite repentance.  Yes, we know the propehts got ignored and killed but the invitation to repent was still on offer (though the book of Jeremiah may be considered the giant exception that proves the rather broad rule).  There were times when propehts declared that God's people had been so cavalier in presuming upon the mercy of God, presuming on divine favor through having institutions like the Temple or the Law that they needed to be told that their sacrifices were injustices and that their scribes had perverted even the scriptures themselves into lies.

In another simplification of biblical categories that I mean to write on some more it can be easy to think of a few roles in grossly simplified terms.  Here I speak of prophets, priests and kings.  That I prefer to save for some other posts.

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