Features and Bugs

“Sheep might have to put on wolves’ clothing, to fight as wolves do; of course, the innocent may risk bloodying their own jaws–captured by discourses they should have known were predatory.” — Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2007)


According to Rene Girard in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), what’s right with the world is that our current age enjoys an unprecedented care for victims. Unlike past ages, which were content to unload their violence on suddenly and unanimously-selected victims, our world is no longer content with the selection of scapegoats. Indiscriminate violence against the innocent can no longer serve as a placeholder for justice. Such, according to Girard, is the power of the Gospel.

This is something I want to make sure I think on in light of my last post. I’ll be honest, “movements” scare me. Whether it be #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or the reaction of #AllLivesMatter anything (those are simply the most visible right now), no matter the source, part of me is always worried that someone is out for blood and that movements for “justice” are actually veiled coups, about-faces disguised as cries for equality which will go suspiciously silent the moment power changes hands. I went through the process of articulating this discomfort with a few people recently and got one particularly interesting response:

I will gently suggest that your discomfort […] should be examined, as they say in tech, as a feature not a bug.

What strikes me about this is the double edge to it. On the one hand, this is absolutely true: my discomfort, insofar as it is sourced in my own unexamined privilege and prejudices, is definitely “a feature not a bug.” Insofar as I am worried that “justice” means I might have to change the way in which I interface with the world, then I am on the wrong side of things — I am complicit, in need of forgiveness, repentance and patience.

But it turns out there is a darker side to this phrase: in the tech industry, when one tries to argue that something is a “feature not a bug,” there may actually be a con going on. When something goes wrong with a line of code for instance, or a program fails to work properly or efficiently, this may be used (jokingly) as an excuse. The argument that “it’s a feature not a bug” is in fact the programmer’s way of avoiding responsibility for a defective product that needed way more care and attention.

So, ironically, perhaps the single most true thing that could be said of any and all social movements is that “Discomfort is a feature, not a bug,” with all the implications of its rampant double-meaning. On the one hand, such discomfort needs to be accepted as a reality of having one’s privilege challenged; on the other, it can also be used to abdicate responsibility under the attitude that the ends justify the means.

The very ideas of justice and revolution, then, contain within themselves the promise of their success as well as their potential for a new kind of tyranny. And this ought to scare us, I think, because we are human creatures. We have a long history of piling up victims, as Girard argues. All special-interest groups have the deck stacked against them from the beginning because they cannot demand justice without reminding humanity of the mob mentality that all human culture is based on. There are two discomforts which must be held in tension, and the challengers and the challenged alike are responsible to one another in producing an actual event of justice: the ending of victimization without producing more victims.

What should encourage us, in the times ahead, is that such justice is a real possibility. If we believe, as Girard does, that we really have developed an attention to victims as well as a distaste for collective violence, then we can bank on that lesson, an instinct which does not come naturally but has been disclosed to us and to which we have failed to attend, even actively struggling against it. If our fear of retaliatory violence is real, or if we fear the inevitable and inexcusable justification of violence in the name of “justice,” then we have at least as much ability — even responsibility — to imagine an event of justice without violence, without the further accumulation of victims.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t still real, or what Girard would call “Satanic,” potential here — Under the worst of conditions, victimhood can cease being something to rectify and can instead become something to celebrate. Just as our culture has a unique and unprecedented potential for justice through our attention to victims, so it carries the odd potential in which weakness and victimhood can themselves become just as much justifications for violence and prejudice as can privilege and power. The longer privilege and power–comfortable as they are with themselves–go without recognizing themselves as such, the more likely such a scenario becomes in which “justice” simply becomes an act of oppression changing hands.

But if we remember this potential exclusively, we lose the courage to enact the other. This is what I’m learning, anyway. Non-violent justice is not a thing to be wished for but a thing to be performed. It must be demonstrated as a real, imaginable possibility in daily life and lived experience — it must be a way of being-in-the-world. To “imagine that things might be otherwise” requires intentional dedication to a number of things which our culture isn’t exactly hospitable towards: applied humility, slowness, patience, meaningful speech always balanced by the practice of fertile silence.

This, in any case, is the space which I want to occupy.

ēthikē dramatikos

Be beautiful, therefore…

I want to expand a bit on something I only mentioned in passing in my last post: the idea of a dramatic ethics.

Hans Urs von Balthasar argues, in The Glory of the Lord, that aesthetics, when properly understood, should have ethical implications and aftershocks. In other words, morality is an effect of beauty. This is an instance of, as I mentioned before, “the beautiful” having a reciprocal and interdependent relationship with the true and the good.

This, certainly, is not typically the way we think about ethics or morality. The Old Testament, for instance, we boil down to a long litany of “do this” or “don’t do that.” Morality, in our public consciousness, is a set of black-and-white prohibitions which are either tyrannically repressive, or just enough to keep us from killing each other. In order to ensure social order, we codify our morality and yield it up to the jurisdiction of the State so as to ensure that everyone keeps the bare minimum code of behavior to get along, but not enough to infringe on our individual rights to do whatever the hell we want. In fact, this is even how we diet.

This, certainly, is the only outcome when morality is understood in purely juridical terms; when aesthetics has been evicted from our set of concerns.

Perhaps the most well-known and gag-inducing example of this attitude is the pithy phrase “What would Jesus do?”, made popular by evangelicals in the 1990s. Self-contained in this phrase is the assumption that the key to a moral life lies in taking every single action and decision, running it through the heuristic of Christ’s own behavior in the Gospels, doing a quick cross-reference and then acting accordingly.

The problem is, in my Bible at least, I’ve got about a hundred-ish pages of Jesus actually doing anything, most of it is repeat material and, as if this were the least of my concerns, Rabboni didn’t exactly make the clarity of his words or behavior a top priority (Matthew 13:10ff).

So what does this mean for the Imitatio Christi?

I truly think the answer lies in drama.

For Balthasar, drama is ultimately the very form of Being itself, and the dramatic action of the Gospel narrative is the definitive disclosure of the way in which the world works. The self-emptying, saving God-in-Christ reveals himself to be the form of all creation, and so morality becomes a matter of participating in that form in a way that gestures to it, does justice to it, calls attention to it.

But how does this interface with ethics? If morality is fundamentally dramatic, then dramatic logic should apply to our ethics, including one of the oldest forms of drama: tragedy. Tragedy, it seems, throws a wrench into even the most confident ethical systems. I’ve been preoccupied with this question ever since an old highschool teacher of mine told the story of his wife going into labor, with severe complications. Ultimately, the doctors approached him with the decision to save either his wife, or his unborn son. He chose the former.

In fact, this scenario is very similar to that encountered by the Jesuit priest Rodriguez in Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence (1966). Forced by the Japanese shogunate to either publicly apostatize or thus be responsible for the murder of hundreds of villagers. Meanwhile, the aged and enfeebled Alice Bell in Pat Barker’s Union Street (1987) wanders out of her room and into the freezing cold, not because of any overwhelming desire to die but because the people on whose care she depends have institutionalized her, abdicating their responsibility so thoroughly that she is left with the choice of either dying on her own terms or dying slowly of neglect.

Modern Christian morality is going to immediately pose the question, did they do something wrong? There will be the ardent stance that unproblematically says, yes, your teacher should have saved the unborn child. That, or he should have made no decision and left it in God’s hands. Or, yes, Rodriguez should have given the people over to death and left the rest up to God, if he truly believed in him. Similarly, Alice had no right to seek death on her own terms. Perhaps something in these claims is true. But I think that tragedy ruins us for decisions like this, forces the reminder that our easy groupings of “do this, not that” fail to do any kind of justice to the reality of what Martin Heidegger calls the fallenness of being-in-the-world, or Paul Ricoeur’s fundamental view of the human being as the acting and suffering person.

Tragedy produces situations in which the only appropriate ethical response is to find a way to participate in the dramatic life which weeps despite knowing itself to be the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:21-35). Whatever the outcome, whatever the “right” answer, I feel the really important thing here is that we are forced to account for something lying far afield of our moral systems. We are forced to imagine, as Philip Yancey does, “the Jesus who speaks from the fumie, whose love extends to apostasy and beyond,” held in impossible tension with the Jesus who makes it very clear that he will disown those who disown him (Matthew 10).

“Be perfect, therefore, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. I feel it becomes even harder, not easier, when we divest ourselves of our expectations of moral perfection and instead read, “Be beautiful, therefore, just as your Father in Heaven is beautiful.”