Ready-mix moralism + bland generalizations = ethical tofu

By Charles Redfern

One of bin Laden's many victims

A question: Do three fingers still point back at me when I wag at society’s I-told-you-so finger-waggers?  We hear their scolds when they crawl from the think-tank lair in times of strife and doubt.  They know nothing of the Freudian id’s dark elation.  All borders are black lines; all days are bright; there is no moral murk and fog.  Their memories are cleansed of New York’s volcano-like plumes, which I saw from the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Garden State Parkway on September 11, 2001, and they feel no ambivalence over the death of a mass murderer and a self-made symbol.  Even worse, they’re blind to their own insensitivity as they argue for compassion: “No joy even for this killing,” they tell us. “Not a peep.” They haul out their favorite Bible verses (Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”), but neglect Scripture’s vacillation (Proverbs 11:10: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness.”).  Their lack of empathy swallows the merits of their arguments.

The reprimands serve as a reminder: All can become smug. Our labels become clichés, barriers to genuine affinity — and so-called “progressives” are no more immune than conservatives. Fortunately, Cathleen Falsani showed the benefits of listening.

The gathering storm

The waggers swarmed when we celebrated, albeit briefly and with relative civility, on the night of bin Laden’s death (there were no burning effigies; no “death to fill-in-the-blank”).  I, for one, confessed: My id (or, per the Bible, my flesh) was with the chanting crowds and cheered our guys, the Navy Seals.  I even enjoyed his ignominious demise: The supposed self-sacrificing warrior dwelled in a million-dollar compound while his minions dodged drones in the cold mountains.  Just a wild guess, but I’m thinking no virgin harem met him on the flip side.  How’s your new digs, Osama?  A little warm?  Bummer about those long-term air conditioner backorders …

But my Superego (the Bible: my spiritual nature) muted my joy: our “guys” are trained assassins – necessary, but assassins nevertheless; bin Laden was human, and rejoicing over a human death brings me one step closer to inhumanity.  So I buried myself in Proverbs 24:17 while joining Paul Brandeis Raushenbush:  “It is a strange and conflicting emotion to celebrate a death. My professed beliefs include the redemption of evil and the potential good in all humanity. Yet I felt a sense of exhilaration when I read the headline ‘DEAD’ about Osama bin Laden …”

Raushenbush knew this was no time for finger-wagging.  Our emotional journey had just begun, and we were struggling with the dual realities of bin Laden the symbol and bin Laden the man.  We had planted our flag when we destroyed the symbol (the crowd chants); we had killed a human being and left several women widows (the crowd ponders).

A tasteful, tactful, lackluster summons

But then came the moralistic calls, not all of them inconsiderate.  One sample: The Vatican acknowledged the terrorist’s culpability: “Osama bin Laden, as well all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end,” but it added, “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”

It was good as far as it went: good theology; good doctrine; good advice.  But I now wish for more.  Be our pastor, Holy Father.  Walk with us through the ambiguity.   Help us grapple with the symbol versus the man – whom, it now seems, still held his fingers on Al Qaeda’s pulse and was plotting other mass killings.  Can we rejoice over the symbol’s overthrow?  Swing with us between Proverbs 24:17 and 11:10.  Is the former prescriptive and the latter descriptive?  Yes?  No? … Hello?  Anyone out there?


The descent

David Gushee, a progressive evangelical whom I deeply respect, offered no help either and descended into outright wagging.  He barely mentioned bin Ladden’s terror in his call to halt to the celebrations, then cited “opportunities” for foreign policy reform.  It was blatant, academic moralism, standing aloof from the 9-11 widow and orphan.  Perhaps his generalizations were “right,” but they were ill-timed and, frankly, not helpful (generalizations rarely are).  I wonder: Is this why progressive evangelicalism repeatedly trips on the path from the academy to the local church and slinks back to the seminary?  It needs the pastor’s touch.  Veteran clerics know there’s more to ministry than being “right,” so we don’t race to Exodus 20:13 when wives vow to “kill” their adulterous husbands and we don’t tell parents that their murdered gang-leader son could be in Hell.  We walk with them, weep with them, and let them scream.  We tell the parents their child is “in the hands of God.”

Americans didn’t need ready-mix moralism and policy lectures – not a day after the event.

Clichés from a human development expert

Pamela Gerloff, founder of the Possibility Project, descended into finger-wagging at impossible depths.  She decried an apparent orgy of American celebration: “We are not a peaceful species.  Nor are we a peaceful nation.  The public celebrations of this killing throughout the country draw attention to these facts.”

Go ahead, Pam.  Tell a rape victim to “act natural” when her assailant is sentenced — and rattle off statistics proving how rapes diminish when governments implement urban renewal programs.  That’ll help.

Are you really shocked that New Yorkers and Washingtonians celebrated?  Isn’t their civility the real surprise given their September 11 rape and horror?  Can’t you grapple with bin Laden the symbol versus bin Laden the man?  Are you more enlightened if you can’t?  Yield to the wisdom of one of your blog’s commentators: “I respectful­ly request that you give us all a break. The monster is dead and we are glad. It will run its course.”

Ah, Falsani

Cathleen Falsani steered a far more constructive path.  She monitored the nation’s psychological twists and turns on Facebook and wrote about it in “Osama Bin Laden Is Dead, Discuss.”  She saw prayers, relief, jubilation, anger, worry, “and a certain mournfulness that left more than a few people struggling to find the ‘proper’ context for what was happening.”  Names of the dead were listed “in a sort of litany of remembrance … There were also variations of ‘Got him!’ ‘Good riddance!’ ‘Hallelujah!’ and ‘Payback’s a bitch!’ … Soon after, though, more nuanced and thoughtful comments began appearing.”  She saw quotes from Martin Luther King and allusions to Proverbs 24:17 and 11:10.  She observed: “More than a shouting match or purely intellectual exchange of opinion about bin Laden’s demise, Facebook became a forum for authentic spiritual examination. It was fascinating — and heartening — to watch hearts and minds transform in real time as they responded to the shared thoughts of friends and acquaintances on Facebook.”  The social network became “hallowed ground,” a “third place,” a “virtual gathering place where everyone knows our name and our story.  It’s a place where we create, for better or for worse, an ongoing story together.”

Falsani listened and saw how we groped in the darkness and found our way to redemptive ambivalence – which, given the nature of this event, is exactly where we should be.  No wagging fingers.  No instant moralism. We pastored each other and arrived at the right spot.

Perhaps the finger-waggers will withhold their judgments next time and listen to those they think need a lecture.  Perhaps they’ll learn something – and perhaps we’ll listen to their advice when they show more humility.  After all, they too were wrestling in ambiguity; they too were walking in gray shadows and dark choices; they too were confused.  We all were – and there is nothing wrong with that.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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