Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Stalin, Calvin, Pope Benedict and the Cross

Joseph Stalin said that a single death was a tragedy, but the death of millions was a statistic. There are a lot of ways to describe that comment—cynical, evil, sobering, and all the worse because it’s true. We hear a story about a single death from illness or accident and our humanity feels the pain. We react as people who value life, who empathize with those who grieve, and who mourn the loss of an individual person, never to be repeated. But when something huge happens that causes death in quantity, we will see it as an abstraction—a trend, a catastrophe, or something we can’t begin to comprehend. I say all of that because I read something in the paper today that shook me up.

A hundred Palestinians have died in the last five days.

Hamas-led individuals have been firing rockets into Israeli communities from Gaza, and Israel has counterattacked with airstrikes. I can sympathize with them. Those rocket attacks are cowardly and cynical acts themselves—painted as defensive actions from otherwise peace-loving freedom fighters, they are really attempts to provoke Israel into doing something stupid and further eroding the world’s support for their right to exist. Unfortunately the attacks have worked precisely as planned. Israel has overreacted and—taking one of the darker pages from the Hamas playbook—disregarded the distinction between terrorist and civilian targets.

Now I have friends and family members who read this blog who are supporters of Israel, some so strongly that nothing Israel does can ever be seen as wrong or in error. That’s too bad, because the inability to criticize your friends (or yourself) functions as a rather large fan on the flames of too many conflicts in the world right now. Israel had a reasonable right to defend itself, but exercised that right poorly and indiscriminately. And so in retaliation for sporadic (and inexcusable) rocket attacks, a hundred Palestinians, among them many children, have been killed.

John Calvin wrote that when conducting military action, leaders were to “guard against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree.” They should not, he continued, “be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity. (Bk. 4, Ch. 20:12)” Now it’s important to remember here that Calvin was no pacifist. This teaching on restraint, very honestly, comes within a longer section devoted to making the case for war when necessary. But the call to restraint is critical—Calvin set the bar very high for validating the use of force. In the same essay Calvin warns against allowing “private affection,” our personal dislikes and prejudices, to start or guide the prosecution of war. Leaders who allow their personal biases to dehumanize their enemies will “wickedly abuse their power, which has been given them not for their own advantage, but for the benefit and service of others.” Indeed they will.

I write this because on Sunday, as various condemnations of Israel were flying in from all over the world, Pope Benedict made this statement in a sermon: “Only by showing absolute respect for human life, even if it is that of your enemy, can one hope to give a future of peace and coexistence to both of those peoples who have their roots in the Holy Land.”

It simply can’t be said any better than that.

While governments threw around official statements which made it clear which side they supported in the present conflict, the Pope reminded us that there’s a higher value, a better way than that. Christ called us to love our enemies, as much as I wish he hadn’t, and if that’s the case then we have to take seriously the call to show “absolute respect for human life.” The irony here (that’s what we call contradictions when we’re trying to be polite), is that the people who are most likely to champion the rights of the unborn are also the least likely to value the lives of those born into cultures we now call enemies. That’s too bad, because there’s an opportunity here to model and teach Christ’s way, to show the world that forgiven people behave differently toward one another, born or not, and also toward their enemies.

The Jewish faith, which is the cultural foundation of the modern Israeli state, lacks a central story of sacrificial love for the enemy. The promised Messiah has typically been seen as one who would wield power, crush enemies, and re-establish Israel’s place at the top of the cultural food chain. The day we celebrate as Palm Sunday is the marker for the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity on this specific point. More than Christmas, Good Friday and Easter put together, Palm Sunday, when Jesus marched into Jerusalem and decided not to take over, is when Judaism decided to reject Jesus as the Messiah. The lack of a sacrificial story means that modern Israel continues to be driven by the need to extract an eye for an eye, to avenge every wrong no matter what.

I suppose that’s what struck me about what Calvin and the Pope had to say about the current situation. Calvin set the bar so high that only the most careful and even-tempered among us would ever presume to wage war—the vast majority of us are far too prone to “headlong anger” and “implacable severity.” The Pope, though, recognizing the difficulty of waging war with restraint, set the bar—as Jesus did—out of sight. Showing “absolute respect for human life, even if it is that of your enemy,” is the radical inheritance we have received because of the sacrificial love story we tell every year at this time.

Christ on the cross changes everything, from how we live and spend and worship, to how we treat our enemies. Christ on the cross was meant for the handful of Israelis who died from Hamas rockets, and also for the hundred or so Palestinians who died as a result. Christ on the cross—one tragic death—calls us to keep from seeing deaths by the batch as abstractions.

Christ on the cross changes everything.

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