Inhumanity in the Church, 1 of 3
pt. 1: Moral Obligation
In high school lit. courses we read several books, of which one of the themes was ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Or, as reformed students, we could think of some of these as explorations of original sin and even total depravity. As I cogitate, trying to produce examples, several very different works come to mind: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies; George Orwell’s 1984; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (in my opinion, this should always be read in conjunction with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Crime of the Congo); books about the Nazi movement and the Holocaust, an example of which it is now very timely to mention Elie Wiesel’s Night; others on the degrading and maddening effect of—particularly the Vietnam—war on those in combat, such as Myers’ Fallen Angels and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; then of course there are the books by political prisoners of Soviet gulags, which we didn’t read in high school, and books about past religious persecution under the USSR (e.g., Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ), and that yet ongoing in North Korea (e.g., Soon Ok Lee’s Eyes of the Tailless Animals).
All of these examples were written after 1900, and those books inspired by or based on events of the last century’s major political movements or wars will necessarily resonate as quite contemporary; many people are still alive who survived Nazi concentration camps; many are still alive, though old, who as Allied soldiers walked through those newly liberated camps and saw what so many refused to believe was true; in the scope of human history the Iron Curtain came down but yesterday; and today, people in nations the world over are persecuted for their professed faith. It is most timely to reference the literature by Holocaust survivors, the world having just recently lost Elie Wiesel, from whose pen came incisive observations on responsibility and powerful admonitions to act against injustice.
Positive moral examples can be found in fiction as well as in history. I guess I grew up inculcated with an idealizing set of entertainment forms. The TV shows I grew up watching feature characters regularly putting themselves to inconvenience or at risk for the sake of another person or people—often strangers to them—who are being questionably or badly used. In such stories the character as well as the moral conviction of these players are unequivocally demonstrated. I will cite one episode from several different shows as examples: ‘The Fear Merchants’ (Bonanza) finds the Cartwright men standing shoulder to shoulder with Chinese friends and neighbors against a surge of local and recent—but violent—racism, risking both relationships with old friends, and great bodily harm, over an issue of right and wrong (clearly asserted by the episode’s script).
Several members of the Enterprise crew, Captain Kirk in particular, put their lives on the line trying to prevent the destruction of the pacifist civilization of the Halkans by the hostile Empire of the parallel universe in ‘Mirror, Mirror’ (Star Trek: TOS). This was in addition to that fact that they are more than busy trying to find a way home before their true identities are discovered. Chloe O’Brian of 24 again and again puts her friends before her career and before her personal safety, often choosing with them to serve the truth rather than political advantage (see for example season 8–spoilers in the Wikipedia page!).
One story deserves a particularly long moment in the limelight. Jarrod Barkley in ‘Hazard’ (The Big Valley) makes a trek to a town to get to the bottom of a warrant which has driven a stranger—Anders—to the Barkley ranch. The man has been shot by duly-appointed deputies by the authority of a ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ poster. They claim Anders is wanted for murder, and seem very anxious to carry out the mandate by killing him. Further aspersions are cast on Anders when Heath—whom Anders came to Stockton seeking—declares he knows Anders, and was almost killed by him a few years before: travelling in the desert and short on water, Anders fled in the night with the sole canteen among the trio, leaving Heath and their third companion to fend for themselves. The young man remaining with Heath died as a result.
The Barkleys are nevertheless suspicious both of the deputies’ attitude and their hurry to take charge of Anders. Jarrod heads to Coreyville, the place of the crime, which is run by a local despot who owns the marshall, and everyone else. The marshall had jailed Anders on the charge of murder, and upon his escape, issued the ‘dead or alive’ order—without so much as a witness to the crime. This is among the series’ best: Victoria drinks a straight whisky while challenging Heath to have some pity; Jarrod on his quest for the truth inspires a weak and corrupt lawman to stand up to the tyrant, wearing his badge in the cause of justice; the murder victim’s friend at last takes heart and a stand, testifying to what really happened (Anders is not the perp); Heath hears Anders out, putting grace before his grudge; Anders finds redemption when Heath believes that Anders would give his life to go back and change what he had done three years before.
I close with a different sort of example: in ‘Magnificat’ (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Detective Goren is determined to hold the husband of a woman responsible for her predicament after he discovers that the man was well aware of his wife’s depression-driven downward spiral, at the end of which she killed three of their four children in a murder-suicide attempt with a car bomb: “All she wanted to be was a good mother. But you designed a trap for her—that she was bound to fail. And when she was at the edge of that precipice, you did nothing. You let her fall.”
He and his partner Eames have an exchange with District Attorney Carver over the legal nature of the situation:
Goren: “You heard him admit that he knew she was a threat to herself. You heard him say that he didn’t care.”
Carver: “But he didn’t aid or cause her suicide attempt.”
Goren: “He made her—he made her feel guilty about her son’s learning disability.’
Carver: “That does not constitute a crime.”
Eames: “No, but it makes me wish he was driving that car!”
Goren: “He could have prevented this crime, but he won’t take responsibility for that! Mr. Carver!” (Goren holds up a copy of Penal Law & Criminal Procedure Law NYS) “Isn’t there something in this book that can make him take responsibility for that?”
Carver: “There wasn’t when I checked this morning. I’m sorry, detective. Please send Mr. Whitlock home.”
There may not exist charges to be filed against such a person, but his moral culpability is clear, as is that of all people who hear a cry for help and refuse to act, who choose to look the other way.
In Christianity, we know what our obligations are from Scripture; they needn’t be written in our home state’s legal code for us to hold one another, or indeed ourselves, accountable.