Monday, November 19, 2012

"Sacrifice, Law and the Catholic Faith": Law (Part III)

More from this wonderful 2006 lecture by James Alison; here are Parts I, II, IV, and V.

Mockingbirds will like this section!

Another way of looking at the same dynamic is to look at Law. One of the first pieces of evidence that the Happening had happened was that it became possible to detect that systems of goodness are terribly dangerous things. This was Paul’s great insight concerning the Law. He wasn’t being anti-semitic. The space created by his own relationship to Torah was merely the particular barn within which the bullet marks of the Happening had happened. He had perceived something about all sacred systems of goodness. And this is that they are traps. A system of goodness works by having rules which determine who is in and who is out. If some of the rules are hard to keep so much the better, since that gives the impression that what is in fact a tragically easy form of goodness is, rather, heroically difficult. Paul’s insight is that systems of goodness do not counteract people’s desires which are run according to the familiar mechanism of gathering people into unanimity against an evil one to be expelled. On the contrary, systems of goodness depend on that mechanism, and tragically easily they fall prey to it, so that the most “virtuous” within systems of goodness become those clearest about who is in and who is out.

What Paul understood from this is that in practice systems of goodness which give the impression of being chosen voluntarily do not really work that way. Their adherents are driven by them and become functions of the crystallized group violence which underlies them. So you get people who want to be good, and know that goodness looks like loving your neighbour as yourself, but because they are trapped in a system of goodness, they become unable to see their neighbour as themselves, and end up in fact hating their neighbour and perceiving them as something unclean, or outside, or not quite human, so as to be able not to love them as themselves. This is how you end up with people who are convinced that their religion is a religion of peace, yet who are quite unaware of how completely the system of goodness of which they are part jerks them about. This system makes them, in fact, incapable of creating peace. Paul discovered this very clearly (Rom 7,19):
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Here he is talking quite specifically about how the system of goodness runs people, and also about how the only way out of it is the realisation that because God had occupied the place of one “cursed by the Law” by undergoing the death of a despised criminal, the system of goodness has been rendered moot for ever. From now on the shape of goodness is the slow learning how to live without being dependent on a system of goodness. It involves instead our becoming aware of how much we have been loved by someone who is our victim. Because of that we can become good as we are loved in our most vulnerable places, rather than by forcing ourselves to cover up our vulnerability and be good so as to be loved. This means that the only sort of goodness we know is that of the penitent. It is only as undergoing being forgiven that we can possibly start to be good. And that means being daringly patient about forgiving others, not holding things against them, seeing them as the same as us before offering to put them right and so on. This means that over time we can actually learn that some things that seemed to us to be good and holy and just are not so, and some things that seemed to us to be impure and evil and profane are not so. And this is because the question of whether we are allowing ourselves to be forgiven by our victim, and whether, in the light of that forgiveness, we are learning to treat our neighbour as though we are the same as they are, this question gradually comes to supersede all other questions of morality which a system of goodness would impose on us.

Let me give you both an ancient and a modern example. It might surprise you to know that the first written records we have in European history of people standing out against, and questioning Witch trials came not from enlightened sceptics but from people whose religious understanding led them to be highly sceptical of the craziness of the systems of goodness which were leading people to the pyre. Of the first four voices, two (1549 and 1612) were Spanish Inquisitors who understood perfectly well that their job was to introduce the boring secularism of due process into areas which would otherwise have tended to exciting lynch deaths. These Inquisitors would have been considered “not sufficiently religious” by those at the time who were run by systems of goodness. Those for whom belief in the real evil of the witches was at that time what belief in the magical capacity of gay people to destroy the fabric of society is now: the dividing line between “true believers” and the advancing secularity offered by the due processes inspired by Catholic faith. The truth was that the Inquisitors knew, within all the limitations of their time, that goodness after Christ’s sacrifice looks like introducing boring intermediary forms of process and protection, and insisting on rules of evidence other than what is derived from torture, given how easy it is for us to ignore that Christ’s sacrifice has happened and instead to recreate it in a dangerous bid for goodness.

For a more modern example, look at the pictures recently published in the US media of José Padilla [5]. This man, a full US citizen who is a Muslim, has been arrested, held without proper charge or trial for several years in a US prison, tortured, incarcerated, and treated as though he were toxic waste by the American legal system, at the instigation of that champion of a system of goodness John Ashcroft. All the evidence which was produced against him has been revealed to have been fabricated so as to give the Administration the electorally convenient weapon of “a Muslim manufacturing a dirty bomb”. So much has the balance of his mind been altered by the torture and deprivation that he has suffered that although it is clear that none of the evidence against him has stood up, it is not at all clear that he will ever be able to tell his own story or mount a defence. The reason I ask you to look at a picture of him, going back to websites in order to do so, is that of the pictures of him that have been released, one stands out. It shows him chained, handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit, with goggles on (apparently so that he can’t blink some signal in code to his alleged Al Quaeda colleagues). It shows him being pushed around by some quite extraordinarily overdressed and overarmed military figures, who look as though they have just rushed into a scene of extreme danger. In fact they are about to escort a totally helpless, mentally unstable, rather small man towards a visit to the dentist in a prison in South Carolina. But what leaps out about the photograph is that it is exactly the same picture as a mediaeval representation of Christ being blindfolded, tortured, and beaten by the Roman soldiers in Pilate’s palace.

Anyone who sees that, knows what is going on: a terrible system of goodness is torturing and destroying someone for whom Christ died, yet it is the cursed one to whom we must reach out. It doesn’t matter whether he is a Muslim, or a Jew, a Hindu, a Christian, a Communist. He is the one who is our neighbour because he is ourself. It doesn’t matter whether he would do the same to us if he had the chance. It matters terribly that we recognise that all systems of goodness have been interrupted by Christ, and that the apparent secularity, the boring due process, of the justice system seems to have been suspended by those who, thinking themselves good, are in fact being run by the evil of a sacred system of goodness to produce the usual, lethal, sacred results. And it matters not only for Mr Padilla, but it matters for all of us: for as long as we continue to find, torture and blame people like him, just so long will we remain in ignorance of what the real threats and dangers to any of our societies might be, and unable to take the small scale, rational, proper precautionary measures to protect ourselves and others.

So, please remember this, the Catholic faith is not a system of goodness. It is the introduction into the world of a constant undoing of all and any systems of goodness such that a genuine, difficult, tentative goodness can begin to be elaborated by those who are becoming aware of how terribly dangerous “goodness” and our need for it is. But the perception that systems of goodness are terribly dangerous, and our very proper modern suspicion of them: these are not enlightened, sceptical positions. They are the working out, over the time in which we have learned to suspend easy sacred solutions, of a quite specific divinely-given tradition: the Catholic faith.

[5] Hose Padilla In Chains, The Smoking Gun, [04.12.2006].


DZ said...

Wowza! You weren't joking. Hook, line and sinker! Thanks, B.

bls said...

Thought you'd like that....