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Friday, March 9, 2012

Desperation in the Driver’s Seat

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Once in undergraduate school in a Human Behavior class I saw a movie entitled The Eye of the Perceiver.  This film taught a very important lesson, one’s perception is greatly influenced by one’s inclinations and prejudices.  The last two Friday’s I have attended jumu'ah with my Muslim son Nurideen.  After the khutbah and prayers, the service is followed by lunch in a dining area.  Today I had an interesting and for me broadening conversation with a faithful member of the Mosque.  We were discussing the unfortunate often negative news coverage of Islam.  The extremists, the killers of innocents, often seem equated with Islam itself.  The member informed me that the killing of innocents is specifically prohibited by Islam so people who do so are outside the mainstream of the faith.  I responded that sometimes hate groups go under the moniker of Christianity.  My friend winced when I said this and said he would not go so far as to label Islamic extremists as hate groups.  Rather, they are people who have been pushed to a corner.  I replied, “Oh so it is not hate so much as desperation.”  He agreed.

After thinking about this, I have considered that desperation can too often be used as an excuse.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. could have justified all sorts of violence in segregated America and claimed justification based on desperation.  Actually MLK was a faithful Christian in a special context.  He was in a land where passive resistance had some hope of success.  He was confident that he could appeal to the consciences of the American people and that a significant number of them would respond.  They in fact did so, and the country now honors him with a national holiday.  Yet, I must ask, what if MLK had wished to have peaceful protest in Nazi Germany.  Would he have survived the night?  Would passive resistance really been an option?  I think of the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who worked to further an assassination plot against Hitler. Was the situation then one in which the notion of passive resistance would have been a farce?  Was killing Hitler out of desperation the only option?

These thoughts only serve to open up dangerous territory.  I consider the many atrocities America has carried out under the name of desperation.  Untold numbers of innocents were killed during the firebombing of Germany and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.  During the Vietnam War inconceivable things were committed against man and nature under the banner of desperation during our fear of falling dominoes.  We always have justified this by saying we are only responding to dire threats.  We picture willful and deliberate acts against us and thus justify almost anything in response.  Cannot we understand then the perpetrators of 9/11?  From their point of view, they saw their culture under daily and direct attack by the chief perpetrator of Western values.  But why attack the World Trade Center?  Why not?  Influence destructive to their culture had a thousand sources, one being untold thousands of expansionist decisions by American business.

I am not offering up excuses for man’s inhumanity to man.  But I am asking us to look coldly at human behavior during times of desperation.  If we can relieve this sense of desperation, we can do much to attenuate nightmares and horrors.  Religion—especially Christianity—it would seem should be able to help.  Jesus trusted in his Heavenly Father even to the point of death.  But clearly his followers, as in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of betrayal, found it a continuing challenge to do so.  We are confronted with an important question—is self-defense without limits an inherent right of man?  If we think so, we had best work extra hard to alleviate feelings of desperation on an international and local level—both of which provide fitting settings for desperation and tragedy.  

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