ne of the more interesting issues raised by the Amish killings this week is the proper role of anger (or, more precisely, hatred) when reacting to this horror, as illustrated in a fascinating exchange in NRO's The Corner. Unfortunately, I think this is something that raises more questions than answers, so don't expect much in the way of definitive conclusions from me.
It actually begins outside The Corner, with Rod Dreher's comments about the now-famous grandfather of one of the victims, urging others "not to hate" the killer. Dreher describes himself as one who is not at the level of forgiveness exhibited by the grandfather but, "Please God, make me into the sort of man who could."
NRO's John Podhoretz picks up on this and starts the discussion. Podhoretz is a self-described "moderately observant Jew," which I note not as some kind of neocon jag (this isn't The Wanderer or New Oxford Review, after all) but as a background to the moral footing from which he comes. Podhoretz notes that while
I can certainly see the beauty and the moral seriousness that would follow from attempting to hew as closely as possible to Christ's example of unconditional love and forgiveness. All the same, this story disturbs me deeply — because there can be no question that anger can be as righteous as forgiveness. I'm not sure I would want to be someone who succeeded in rising above hatred of those who murder children.
I suspect this is a comment that most of us can identify with. Like Dreher, we fall short of such an elevated level of forgiveness, and like Podhoretz we share a concern as to whether we really should aspire to that level. So, agree with Podhoretz or not, we know where he's coming from.
John Derbyshire next chimes in on the discussion:
Back in the Bronze Age, when folk knew what was what, Hate—personified as the goddess Eris (after whom we have just named a new Solar System object)—played a key role in civilizational survival. . . Christian meekness certainly has its place in human affairs. So does Homeric ferocity.
As Derb elicidates in a further post, he does not mean to suggest that we should emulate everything from the Bronze Age (female slavery, for example). But, he adds, "I do believe it is foolish to attempt to deny essential human nature, of which the propensity to hate those who wrong us is an invariant component, today just as much as in the Bronze Age." And he concludes, in what I think is the most relevant sentence in the discussion,
A civilization that can't summon up some pretty widespread hatred for a man who lines up little girs and shoots them in their heads, after having been foiled in an attempt to molest them, is a civilization with a spring broken somewhere.
No question that hatred has been around for a long time, and is an essential part of human nature. But did Christ come to us to transcend those motivations which drove us in the past, and in the process to transform us from our baser human nature to a higher level of understanding and love? You could get a headache just thinking it over.
Some of Derb's loyal readers did think it over, and came up with more compelling thoughts. One, citing Piper's The Four Cardinal Virtues, offers this analysis:
You will find, under 'Temperance,' a discussion of The Power Of Wrath. It focuses on, among other things, a question that Aquinas asks in De Malo (On Evil) 'whether all wrath is evil?' Later on, Pieper continues: 'Lack of sensuality is not chastity; and incapacity for wrath has nothing to do with gentleness. Such incapacity not only is not a virtue, but, as St Thomas says, a fault: peccatum and vitium. ... Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and
Podhoretz returns to the discussion with a link to a thoughtful story from First Things by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, on the different ways in which Christians and Jews view the role of hatred. Soloveichik, in recounting the story of Saul's hesitation in killing Agag, looks at the mischief performed by Agag, and sees in it a lesson similar to that noted by Derb's correspondent:
The message is that hate allows us to keep our guard up, to protect us. When we are facing those who seek nothing but our destruction, our hate reminds us who we are dealing with. When hate is appropriate, then it is not only virtuous, but essential for Jewish well–being.
Rabbi Soloveichik may be referring specifically to the survival of Israel in the Middle East tinderbox, but certainly in its broader sense he poses a question we all have to deal with, the same one that Podhoretz raises: what is the role of hate?
We dismiss the idea of vengeance as a suitable motivation for our actions (unless, of course, you're Mickey Spillane.) Indeed, those who defend capital punishment (as I do) often take pains to emphasize that the vengeance sought is not a desire to "settle the score" with the condemned on a personal level, but rather to express the collective outrage of the society toward the reprehensible actions which the condemned has taken. In doing so, we return once again to the concept of righteous anger, as a good and proper motivation for the actions of the state. It emphasizes the idea that intent is a key part of the discussion - that we must avoid the idea of the right action being taken for the wrong reason. Life often insists that we do things which we may find distasteful or unpleasant, but that when we do so our motives, as always, must be pure.
It has been argued, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that the Christian duty to forgive is tempered somewhat by the need for the accused to seek forgiveness. Such forgiveness, when accompanied by true contrition and remorse, demands our forgiveness as a just and proper response. But what happens when, as is the case in the Amish killings (and in so many other cases in our modern world) those conditions are not met? Soloveichik cites C.S. Lewis, who "detested" the idea that one could be eternally damned, "yet anyone who refuses to submit to salvation cannot ultimately be saved." Therefore, is our granting of forgiveness to one who does not seek it a sign of true charity, or a mocking of God's laws? And if it be the later, than what are we to do?
Maybe the closest thing we can come to in the form of an answer to these questions lies in another of the comments from the Amish community. In one of Get Religion's many fine pieces on the story, Mollie quotes a carpenter who offered, for my money, the most touching quote of the week: “I wish someone could have helped him out, poor soul. It’s obvious that something was troubling him.”
In his article, Rabbi Soloveichik returns to a quote from C.S. Lewis: “Christian charity,” he stresses, “counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely.” While we acknowledge the existence of Hell, we pray that all might be spared, even those for whom Hell appears a certainty.
In His last moments on the Cross, Christ forgave the Good Thief; He did not, however, spare his mortal life. The punishment, the thief noted, was a just one. And so perhaps hatred and vengeance are the wrong words to use after all, for they imply something eternal, unchangeable, irredeemible. Maybe anger was the right word, for in our righteous anger can be a just emotion, a display of God's justice and laws, much as the anger Christ displayed toward the moneychangers in the Temple. As the maxim goes, hate the sin, love the sinner. Our anger over the sinner's actions unites with our love for the sinner in a prayer for the sinner's repentance and redemption. And so we pray for the strength to forgive those who seek it; we pray for the conversation and salvation of the wicked; we pray for the fortitude to confront evil in a moral and just way. For us, prayer is the only answer to an issue that appears to offer only questions. If we're willing to accept it, most likely, it is enough.
Originally published October 6, 2006