Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A movie to see

I don't ordinarily like "message" movies, particularly religious ones, and generally avoid them. Ordinarily they are moralistic, simplistic, weak on context, lacking in subtlety and nuance, mediocre in production values. That's probably the reason that the 1989 biopic Romero sat unwatched on my shelf of DVDs for several years.

For some unaccountable reason I decided recently to take it down and watch it. At first I thought, here we go again. But thanks largely to a refined, dignified performance by the late, charismatic Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia, I found it deeply moving.

For years I have kept a file on the atrocities in El Salvador during the 1980s, when many priests and nuns were murdered by government death squads. Even so, I did not realize quite how much the responsibility was located among just a very few military leaders. This week, on April 11, The New York Times ran an article about General José Guillermo García, who escaped prosecution in El Salvador by receiving protection to move to Florida. (The US was deeply involved in supporting the military regime during the Cold War.) Better late than never, El Salvador has asked for his extradition. Here is an excerpt from the Times article:

[The Salvadoran judge] found “clear and convincing evidence” that General García “assisted or otherwise participated” in 11 violent episodes that scarred the Central American country, including the 1980 murder of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero as he was saying Mass in the capital, San Salvador.
The judge also found that General García helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen later that year. He “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in December 1981, Judge Horn ruled.
In an unusually expansive and scalding 66-page decision, Judge Horn wrote that “these atrocities formed part of General García’s deliberate military policy as minister of defense.” He added that the general “fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran armed forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives.”

For three decades, these three atrocities in particular have haunted everyone who cares about justice. The El Mozote massacre, in particular, was described thirteen years later in a remarkable piece of journalism. In 1993, The New Yorker, for only the second time in its history, devoted its entire issue to just one article (John Hersey's "Hiroshima" was the first). In the 1993 article, Mark Danner gave a full account of the atrocity at El Mozote. He described the horrors witnessed by a woman named Rufina:

Through the window she saw soldiers leading groups of men from the little whitewashed church—blindfolded men whose hands were bound behind them. Each pair of soldiers led five or six men past the house of Alfredo Márquez and took them out of the hamlet in various directions. After a time, she saw her husband in one group, and as she watched, along with young Cristino, who had climbed up next to her, eager to see what was happening, they both saw him—Domingo Claros, twenty-nine-year-old woodcutter, husband of Rufina and father of Cristino, Maria Dolores, Marta Lilián, and María Isabel—bolt forward, together with another man, in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. But there was nowhere to run. The men of the Atlacatl leveled their M16s and brought both men down with short bursts of fire. Then the soldiers strode forward to where the men lay gasping on the ground, and, unsheathing their machetes, they bent over them, grasped their hair, jerked their heads back sharply, and beheaded them with strong blows to the backs of their necks.

The El Salvadoran government denied that the massacre had happened, and U.S. representatives were never able to confirm that it had actually taken place, so for many years Rufina was one of the only witnesses to the crime. Then, in 1992, a group of forensic experts was allowed to excavate the scene:

Finally, in October, the experts began to dig. And there, on the third day, in the silence of the ruined hamlet of El Mozote, all the words and claims and counterclaims that had been loudly made for eleven years abruptly gave way before the mute force of material fact. The bones were there, the cartridges were there; the sleeping reality of El Mozote had finally been awoken.

This Holy Week, it is not just the sins of individuals that need to be confessed, but the sin of entire societies including our own, and the grip of the power of Sin on the whole human family. The film about Archbishop Romero barely scratches the surface, but it may impress you enough to want to learn more. Romero is one of the 20th century martyrs whose statue was placed above the entrance to Westminster Abbey in 1997.

From the Gallery of 20th-century martyrs at Westminster Abbey- 
Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Rev. Martin Luther King, Archbishop Óscar Romero and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friday, April 04, 2014

"Moral injury" and St. Paul's anthropology

An arresting long interview was held on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC this morning (for those not in the NYC area, this is by far the most popular, most respected deep-analysis radio broadcast in our region). The interviewee was David Woods, a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior military correspondent for Huffington Post. He has become interested in what has been called "moral injury," which is not the same thing as "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD). It's complicated (you can follow the discussion on Huff Po and Brian's WNYC website) but the jist of it is that moral injury suffered in the theater of war leaves a person with a disabling inability to figure out the lines between right and wrong, particularly in regard to themselves. It's encapsulated in the quotation from a young veteran: "I'm a good person but I've done bad things." People who suffer from this have a great deal of difficulty relocating themselves in relation to their formerly held values.

During the entire discussion all I could think about was Paul's letter to the Roman Christians, chapters 5-8 in particular. A person raised with this biblical understanding of human being would be free (relatively free, anyway, human nature being what it is) from anxiety about being a "good person." "Even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags," says Isaiah (64:6). If we are biblical people, we know ourselves as those who are in bondage to Sin and Death and as incapable of being "good people." In a very important sense, there is no such thing as a "good person." We are all "Adam," as Romans 5 teaches, incapable of pure goodness because of our captivity to the Power of Sin. All of us are a bundle of contradictions ("I do not understand my own actions. The good I would do is not what I do; I do the very thing I hate"-- Romans 7:15).

Shall we then cheerfully continue in sin that grace may abound? Absolutely not! (Romans 6:1-2) Through baptism we have died with Christ and become new creatures by his action in us through the Spirit (6:3-23). We are being shaped by Christ and are enabled to participate in his life. That does not mean that we can rest on our laurels, but it does mean that we can trust the Spirit of Christ to be at work "in all our doings begun, continued, and ended in Thee" and quit worrying about how we are performing on a scale of goodness and badness. When we do "bad things," we will agonize about them, as we should, and yet at the same time we are comforted by knowing that the God who raises the dead will make it right not only for ourselves but for those whom we have hurt. Paul calls this making-right "justification," or, better, "rectification."

So is there such a thing as a "bad person"?  Maybe. There do seem to have been certain exceptional people in history who do not seem to have been human beings at all, so solely bent on evil they were. Hitler is not the only one; Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others come to mind. They seem to have had no conscience at all. But these anomalies we must leave to the judgment of God. The overwhelming majority of so-called "bad people" have human traits like all the rest of us. Even some serial killers can be shown to have human traits (Jeffrey Dahmer is a conspicuous example). The most important thing to understand as a Christian is that we are freed from being tied up in knots worrying about whether we are "good people" or not. God is "already preparing good works for us to walk in" (Ephesians 2:10).

It is a serious problem within the church that so few people have grown up thinking this way, because it is no longer taught as it used to be. Both on the conservative right and the liberal left, there are various tests we administer to one another to see if we measure up, and we are failures even before we begin. The soldier who has lost his moral compass is trying to fit himself into a category of this sort, and he also is doomed to fail in this endeavor. The really good news lifts us clear of all this moral computation. The good news is that "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of Sin and Death" (Romans 8:1-2).