Click Map for Details

Flag Counter

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Sanctity of the Individual

Biff & Willy Loman  - Death of a Salesman

NIV Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Jesus said the above as part of the Sermon on the Mount.  In an escalating list Jesus specifies types of offenses—from anger to contempt to the ultimate insult—that of calling someone a fool.  For me the ultimate insult is to conclude one is foolish, that they are being irrational and unreasonable.  This is a stunning observation by Jesus, for surely it is true that virtually all human behavior is rational at the time to the doer.  To assume anything else is being appallingly dismissive of the individual.  Take, for example, the actions of a thief.  While it is possible to become very angry with a thief and hold them in contempt, we should never determine that they are fools.  What they do is has a rational underpinning.

I ask, what would make me a thief—say at work?  What would make me steal from my employer?  What would be my state of mind at the time?  The Robin Hood justification would be the most direct explanation.  For whatever reason (say a low wage or repeated requirements that I work unpaid through lunch or that I work an hour late without pay or that I am daily humiliated by a dictatorial boss) I would feel victimized—that the employer “owed me something” and deserved my “getting even.”  With this frame of mind, I could be tempted to fill up my gas tank at the company pump.  Like Robin Hood, I would just be righting the scale of injustice in a way available to me.  Thus, when someone breaks into my house and steals my flat screen TV, I should not call the perpetrator a fool.  I had best assume that to him his actions were rational—that he was “getting even” with society in some way.  On can counter, “But the thief’s actions are not Christian.”  The thief can answer perhaps with some validity—“As a Christian are you not concerned with justice?  Even property rights must give way to wider aspects of justice.” 

Today I watched Death of a Salesman.  In this play Willie Loman’s son Biff “steals because he wants evidence of success” (Source). Theft as a short-cut to appearing successful has fundamental rationality.  Here again, one must not call such a person a fool.  One can be carefully taught as a youngster that the appearance of a thing is of more importance than its reality—that reputation is more important than substance.  With this upbringing, theft as an end run in a bind makes perfect sense.  Once again, we see that the behavior has a rational aspect.

Why is it so serious a sin to call someone a fool?  Because in doing so we rob the person of their humanity—of their rational aspect.  We should never do this because behavior however undesirable and wrong maintains a rational foundation.  Even the bizarre behavior of the mentally unstable makes perfect sense to the unstable mind.  The better course is to try to identify determining factors in the mindset of the individual—to identify the underlying configuration of their rationality.  

Print Page