Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Whitey" Bulger and the notion of honor

The trial of James (Whitey) Bulger, the infamous emperor of the Boston underworld in the 70s and 80s, is riveting Boston and the Northeast in general. (The odious character played by Jack Nicholson in Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed was based on Bulger.) Particularly noteworthy has been the testimony of John Martorano, aka the Executioner, who has confessed to 20+ murders. Except that he doesn't call them murders. He wants to be known as a man who lived strictly by a code of honor, which he claims he learned first from his father who always said, "Family and friends come first," and then from "the priests and the nuns I grew up with. They taught me that Judas was the worst person in the world." In other words, when it comes to defending "family and friends," killing enemies was not only permitted, it was required. The corollary of this was that anyone who snitched was a traitor, a Judas. Martorano was not in the least concerned about all the people that Bulger either killed personally or ordered killed. What bothers him and drove him to testify at the trial was the disclosure of Bulger's being an informer to the FBI. The sin of sins, in other words, is to snitch. No crime, however horrible, would ever be revealed if it was committed by one's "family" member.

All of this is based on a code of "honor." We have heard a good deal lately about the honor codes in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other cultures. I have always been interested in the idea of honor because I grew up with it in the South. To do something dishonorable was the worst of offenses ("death before dishonor"). As I remember it, a dishonorable act was not primarily one that brought shame on one's family. It was an act that offended the norms of the community at large. The community norms were not seen as local, however.  My own native culture (patrician Virginia) had some traits that have been variously described as Puritan, Victorian, or (horrors) bourgeois, but this is to miss the mark by a good deal. The rigor of the Southern concept of honor was not derived from those sources in any major way. It was derived from various other magisterial sources: republican Rome, medieval chivalry, military discipline, and not least Christianity. The famous honor system at the University of Virginia focuses on lying, cheating, and stealing; even today, shopkeepers at "The Corner" in Charlottesville report fewer infractions than would be the case in many other places. However, the system does not work unless the whole  community signs on to the understanding that violators will be reported by their peers, and then judged by their peers. It's proven to be difficult to continue that 170-year-old tradition at the University, what with diversity and the absence of universally accepted social norms.

The point here is that, in a strange reversal, "snitching," rather than dishonor, has somehow become the worst of the worst of unacceptable actions. This has pernicious results. To take an extreme case, I have personal knowledge of a murder of a teenager that took place in a small town.  Several other teenagers had knowledge of who the killer was but did not tell anyone. The choir director at the Methodist church also knew and did not tell. For years, the parents of the victim went on living in the same house in the same town knowing that someone knew; imagine their anguish! Only years later did the story begin to come out. Among the teenagers, "snitching" was viewed as more dishonorable than homicide. It was considered more important to protect the killer than to serve the cause of justice and truth.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus intructs his disciples in the procedure to be used in the community called by his name when there is an offense.
If your brother sins, go and point out his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won him over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he still refuses to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Shouldn't we be teaching something like this to our young people?