Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Everyday, Ordinary Nature of Legalism

I'm still pecking away at my book, Wrestling With God.  Here's a small section I wrote today about what makes some people tyrannize God's flock, and makes most people go along with that:

I learned recently about Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt.  Hearing that Adolf Eichmann, a key figure in organizing and overseeing the extermination of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, was on trial in Israel in the 60s, she travelled to see the trial.  And she got to meet him.  Of course, like anyone might, she expected to meet a sneering, cruel, insane Nazi man who seemed “evil.”  Like in a cartoon or horror movie. She expected a cruel, smug genius.  She expected a psychopath with clear psychological problems.
     And the man she met was a quiet, sensible, boring, blank little pencil pusher.  A desk jockey.  Middle management.  Someone who followed the rules.  Did what he was told he must do.  Avoided thinking about or listening to anything that might tempt him to question What We Are Doing. 
     She found him not so much terribly stupid, as simply unthinking.  He had been part of an atrocity we’re still talking about today, and in the twenty years since it had happened, he simply hadn’t thought much about it. At all.  Hadn’t come to any conclusions.  Hadn’t tried to learn anything.  Had looked to “just live his life” and “move on.”  Carefully avoiding any lessons that might have presented themselves. 
     When on trial, Eichmann spoke almost entirely in clichés, in jargon and in quoting of his superiors.  Groupthink and groupspeak.  He excused every single horrific thing he’d made possible by saying he was an ordinary person who “did his duty.”  He felt like, if he was being asked to take responsibility for executing human beings, all he had to do was report that he’d been expected to do that by someone else and it was no longer his fault.  He was bowing to Nazi decisions. 
     His whole life, he’d been unable to function as an individual.  He’d always and only been a joiner of things, and someone who had trouble, and objected to being asked to, think for himself.   His biggest problem with the Second World War being over, was that now he no longer knew what group to follow along with. He needed to belong to something that told him who he was and what his role should be.
     Six psychiatrists checked him out and decided that Eichmann was very, very sane, and exhibited no emotional or mental problems whatsoever.  In fact, he was a very ordinary, simple person.  Extraordinarily ordinary.  Not remotely complex.  No childhood trauma. Nothing really to comment on besides a normal, unsociopathic lack of empathy.  More of a lazy unwillingness to bother worrying about others, rather than a clinical inability to view them as human. In Christian terms, Eichmann was not extraordinarily sinful, inside.  He was just a run of the mill follower. Interesting to contrast him with the Jesus presented in the gospels.
     Eichmann didn’t love his job, though he loved belonging to something.  He was just someone who had ways to make sure he never really contemplated the real horrors of what he was doing on a daily basis.  Things he was a central planner for.  Just didn’t think about bulldozers shoving heaps of emaciated corpses into pits. About ceiling-high heaps of dolls taking from children who would never need them again.  All this was a coping mechanism.  And it made him very able to fit in and function and get along in the regime he lived under.  Control-based regimes require followers, and are threatened by thinkers.  And followers have trouble following if they think too much.
     After publishing The Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt faced a vicious backlash from the Jewish community, who were asserting that Nazis were specially evil, specially psychopathic human beings.  They were insisting on being anti-Germanic.  Bigoted.  Xenophobic.  But Hannah Arendt’s view was that Germans were typical human beings. That the possibility for evil exists everywhere and in everyone, and that we choose how evil to be by how unthinking and uncaring about others we choose to be.  How unloving.  How controlling.  On a daily basis.  She talks about those choices, writing:
...under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
Controversially, Arendt believed that the Holocaust really could have happened anywhere in the world.  But that it had happened in Europe under the Nazi party.  Just like, there had to be a Judas figure in the Jesus story, but woe betide Judas Iscariot for letting it be him.
    Now, my church group wasn’t the Nazi party, exterminating Jews.  It also wasn’t Rwanda in 1992, with two factions of Africans fighting to exterminate one another and leaving heaps of machete-hewn corpses strewn across the countryside.  But learning about these things has helped me a lot to understand how exactly the authors and architects of our silly, spiteful little divisions could make so many Christians hurt so many people.  And how, afterward, so many Christians who I know to be genuine human beings, can be induced to forever “go along” with shunning and otherwise sidelining and socially sanctioning innocent people. 
     Like Eichmann, they always make sure they don’t know any more than they need to, in order to excuse themselves from responsibility.  And if they know, they make sure they don’t think about it, or draw any conclusions or realize anything that might lead to repentance or change.  They make sure not to connect those dots. In fact, in talking to people under the power of (while personally wielding the power to enforce) legalistic systems, I have consistently seen two things:
1.      They are scared.  It’s in their eyes.  Fear keeps them from thinking, doing or feeling any number of things that would drive them to risk their reputations, status and say by connecting those aforementioned dots. Fear drives the mental gymnastics required for them to not have to change.  It keeps them from speaking with their own words. It keeps them from being anything like themselves. It pushes them to need to censor, control and correct all manner of people and things.
2.      They do not take personal responsibility for much of anything, no matter what their role is in their church culture.  It’s always that someone else (or the System itself) is making them do things they don’t really want to do.  Censoring, controlling and correcting things, normally.  They’re being bad people for the good of others.  They’re hurting good people because they themselves are dutiful people.  They are doing dubious things to keep the System together, because we need the System, right? Just as much as it needs us?  You can’t make an omelette without occasionally drowning some kittens?
To watch the mental gymnastics involved in all of this fearful dodging of personal responsibility is quite something.  I have frequently spoken to the one person who is inarguably the “power” in a tiny, tiny legalistic group, and seen this happen.  I’ve even seen it when talking to abusive husbands and parents.  As one makes inarguable, simple statements of fact regarding concrete, universally known events, about the continuation of legalistic tyranny, immediately the squirming and wriggling start.  I have seen their eyes beseech me not to make them think.  Suggestions that we “both know,” but not to make them discuss who they are and what they’re doing.  That it’s cruel to “bring up” the cruelty that’s going on.  I’ve seen an unspoken appeal for pity and forgiveness. 
     And, usually, anger.  That someone is making them think about who they are and what they’re doing.  When it’s not their fault.  When they’re not free, and are as much the victims as anyone they’re personally hurting.  They’re being made to hurt.  And they’re just doing what’s expected of them.  By a Thing that scripture does not instruct us to construct in the first place. By a Thing that people who are connected to Christ have no need of.
     But it’s hard to think about stuff, especially when one is scared, and is serving a Thing.  Easier to just do what’s expected. Hannah Arendt points out that:
    Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think.
Arendt also notes how people who are serving a controlling system don’t even speak with their own words.  What’s coming out of their mouths isn’t self-expression at all.  She writes:
Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.
A much less academic sounding source this reminds me of is Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” from their seminal Dark Side of the Moon album. On the subject of letting other people adjust your thinking until you conform to a system, Roger Water writes:
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me 'til I'm sane.
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There's someone in my head but it's not me.
Arendt’s work makes one notice how much focus on “victims” there is, in situations that involve abuses of power.  Though this seems perfectly natural, it is also very clear that something else is being passed over: what kind of people are these leaders, deep down?  What are their weaknesses and vices?
     Leaders tend, at first, to be judged on their persona, their charm, and how nice they make us feel. On how impressed we can be with them. But, eventually, as in the case of a U.S. president in the closing months of his second term, one starts to want to talk about exactly what he did and didn’t do, while in power.  What exactly he did and did not manage to accomplish. Any mess he is leaving for everyone.

      It’s far easier to mock and scoff at leaders than actually understand them, good and bad, as real people.  Easier to view them as saints or devils than as men.  But that’s a love fail.  It allows us to act other than how we would toward someone we had any brotherly love for whatsoever.  A saint or devil isn’t someone we can love as a brother or sister.  They are above or below it, so we don’t have to.  But a leader who takes power and bad stuff happens?  That’s another human being.  How to connect to, relate to and understand them?  A leader may well insist upon a disconnected, “higher” place beyond our influence, but really, in the eyes of God, we’re human beings.  We’re supposed to love each other and act accordingly.  So there’s no getting out of that for either of us, no matter what the other decides to do.
     In the case of ecclesiastical leaders, it might be better to judge their worth, not based on a book they wrote, or how kind and gracious people thought they were.  Not even on how eloquent or informed or smart they were.  It might be better to look at the state of the group that was under their shepherding, toward the end of their tenure, and see in what condition they are leaving it.  Well fed, sensible, close-knit, solid and strong?  A safe place to bring new folks just learning about Jesus?  A place better than it was before they took power?  Or a shattered wasteland, with most people fled and a few survivors combing the ruins, trying to get by?  A place one wouldn’t feel right about sending a new convert to worship?
     And, ultimately, I think it’s always good to differentiate between what a leader of a group does, and what the group itself does.  And to wonder how much leadership actually went on, and how much of it was necessary.
     So, I think whenever people with membership and status in my birth culture exclude my parents or my friends (and their own friends and relatives) from worshipping God in their own birth culture, and being treated like regular folks in it, they aren’t Nazis.  They aren’t crazy. There are no horns.  There is no cackling delight in causing mayhem.  Not at all.  They are just thoughtless and scared and purposely in denial.  I think they can sense the present necessity for change, for repentance, approaching like a tsunami.  And I think they try to stave it off any way they can.  And hope to die before it arrives fully.  But it is already here.  And we’re staving it off with pushing people away and refusing to think about things and reach epiphanies which are standing outside our front doors.
     I have seen many Brethren people, as they become old men and women, kind of “racing toward the grave,” hoping to reach it without ever needing to object and be punished, or speak out and lose status.  Often they are used as figureheads while they do this.  They just need to keep their seats at that Table, for a couple more decades at most.  They know the consequences for not fitting in and going along with legalistic systems.  They know that repentance requires change, and they know what people think of change.  They know what has already happened to so many people who changed. 
     So their defence mechanism, their method of coping, is to be thoughtless about it.  To refuse to discuss the matter.  To shut down discussions of these things.  To try to “keep on keeping on” until death. To live in the past.  To stomp on growth. To discredit anyone who wants to consider any of it. To try to keep any deeper awareness from spreading throughout the ranks of the young.  Just as if the Truth will wreck everything, rather than set us free.  Just as if Christ is about loving darkness and doubt rather than shining a light.  Hannah Arendt writes:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
What good does it do to “dwell on” the past errors?  It alerts us to present dangers.  It gives us the chance to not repeat the past.  It leads us toward growth.  It gives hope for younger people who are coming after us.  Arendt writes that:
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world
The people who try to shut down examinations of legalism, and ensure no lessons about it are learned aren’t Nazis.  But they are bureaucrats.  They are enablers. They are perpetuators of the legalistic systems.  These systems could not go on without them.
     These folks would never have chosen that the systems operate the way they do, and they wish things could be otherwise, but they’re not going to risk their own position, reputation, status and say to act according to their own best thoughts and feelings.  Nor are they going to risk upsetting everything. No rocking the sinking boat.
    And it isn’t hard at all to get the facilitators of present day legalism to admit a vague, collective error.  You can get that, but no owning up to any personal responsibility over past, present or future excesses of control.  Hannah Arendt wrote that:
When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing.
I’ve even seen some start to speak out and take a stand, get warned, and then fall right back into line. I’ve seen how they have been made to grovel, in some specific cases.  Really grovel. I’ve seen people sent to sit in the back row until they retract their honest views of local matters.  I’ve seen people’s impending marriages interfered with, until they take back what they’ve said.  I’ve seen people’s missionary work suddenly lose all funding and sanction, until some very innocuous letters are retracted and repented of.
     Characteristically, perpetuators of legalism speak of expediency, rather than ideology.  Of “what works and what is” rather than what should and shouldn’t be.  They speak of being realistic and being practical.  They speak of the folly of being idealistic and naive.  They claim to be serving others and not wanting to upset them.  They claim to be simplifying matters for simple people.

    These are the spiritual descendants of men and women who gave their very lives rather than say they believed things they did not.  Of people who were tortured and executed for not taking back what they believed. Of people who felt honoured to be able to sacrifice themselves for what they believed in. 
     During the Holocaust, there was a German man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was not of Jewish descent, and shouldn’t have had to fear for his life.  Hitler was “fixing” the Great Depression in Germany for people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There was a place for him in Hitler’s new Germany.   Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian and writer.  He could have escaped to America or Europe, and never had to worry about the Nazis.  He could have quietly sided with the Nazis, as most of his countrymen had done.  Or he could have stayed in Germany and simply shut his mouth.  What good could he do?  But he believed as a Christian he had to do and say more about the extermination of the Jews, and it ended up getting him killed.  Bonhoeffer wrote:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
Bonhoeffer lived what he wrote, and he died because of it.  Because he didn’t fit in, and wasn’t quiet.  As a result, we still have his words, and they mean something.  I have to think Dietrich Bonhoeffer shows us a bit about what it would be like to live more like Jesus did.
     We aren’t made of the same solid stuff as those people who went before us.  We give in.  We take back true things we said.  We apologize for being who God made us.  We sacrifice the needs of our children to protect our personal, familial and church reputations.  We support people who are doing harm and silence those who would bring things to light.  We vilify and punish people with good intentions who need our support. We make choices based on how things might seem, rather than on what is.  On what people will think, rather than what people need. We have victims. The answer to all of this is love. We need to start taking it more seriously.  Loving more and fearing less.
    We aren’t Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. But too often we are Adolf Eichmann.