Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Feast of Stephen and universalism

If you worship at the North Pole or the shopping mall, the Feast of Stephen might be a bit of a mystery to you. In popular culture it gets a brief mention at the start of the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas"
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
on the Feast of Stephen
If you wonder enough to look it up, you'll find that means December 26.

Even good Bible-believing Christians don't spend a lot of time thinking about Stephen. For most he shows up as a footnote in the story of Paul.  In Acts, we learn that Paul, still called Saul at this point, approves of the stoning of Stephen. The way the story gets spelled out, that tends to become the proof that Paul/Saul really was a bad guy before becoming Paul the Apostle, who is a certified good guy.

But what of Stephen himself who was stoned to death?

We were discussing mental illness and suicide here the other day in the comments. The popular view that all suicides are mentally ill came up. It is a view without much evidence to back it up. There are, of course, suicides who suffer from mental illness such as depression or bipolar syndrome. There are many more people, however, who show no signs of mental illness and commit suicide. In fact, the majority of suicides show no signs of mental illness before killing themselves.

The popular retort to that, which I heard for the first time way back in Grade 6, is that only someone who was mentally ill would commit suicide and that, therefore, the suicide itself was all the proof we need. You can't argue with someone who pushes that kind of circular logic. That said, a few reminders are due.

The first is to point out that the argument really is circular and, therefore, invalid. The claim is that suicide is the result of mental illness and the proof that suicides were mentally ill is that they committed suicide. This is no argument at all. People who make this claim are really only saying that they really, really want to believe that all suicides are the result of mental illness.

From that flows the second reminder. For if we ask ourselves, "Why are they so determined to believe this?"  the answer is pretty clear. Everyone can see that suicide is an awful thing. To kill yourself because you see no hope is the ultimate sin of despair. Thus the desperate need to believe that the people who do this are mentally ill. And if there is no outward evidence of mental illness, they'll invent it claiming that there must have been something, perhaps only a temporary bout of it at the moment of suicide.

What is happening here is a desire to avoid the existence of real moral evil in ourselves. These days we have no trouble imagining real moral evil in those with who we disagree politically. My friends and family bombarded Facebook with moral denunciations of Wayne Lapierre in the days leading up to Christmas. To read what they wrote you would think that Lapierre was like Hitler. But that there is real moral evil in anyone else outside these cartoonish effigies (Lapierre the man bears no resemblance at all to the straw man all my friends and family hate with such passion) is something no one wants to face.

And it is telling that we describe Hitler as a "madman" after all—evil that needs to be diagnosed isn't really evil.

That belief, that real people aren't really evil, is called universalism. It comes out in the claim that perhaps no one is in hell or that we can at least hope that no one is there but it is really rooted in a deep fear of confronting evil in our own hearts. The need to have cartoonish effigies to hate goes hand in hand with this fear.

It's worth considering, in that regard, that the Church makes a point of remembering Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on the day immediately following the day it celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus. The people who stoned Stephen to death were scared of him because of what he believed.

And they stoned him. In the modern world we have sanitized the death penalty. Whether we approve of or reject capital punishment, we see it simply as a matter of whether a person deserves death for what he has done. For most of human history, simply being killed would have been seen as getting off easy. Punishments like stoning and crucifixion were not meant merely to kill the person. They were meant to humiliate and destroy him, to quite literally dehumanize him, in front of others. That is still the way it is done in large parts of, for example, the Muslim world.

The point of making the death as horrible as possible was to win the moral battle and not just to kill one person. It was to create a horrible moral drama that would put the person killed even further into the wrong as you killed him. When the Elizabethan English killed Catholics, for example, they would slowly strangle them on a rope until they were just short of death and then pull them down and do further cruel things to them such as disembowelment. They sought to destroy all hope in the mind of the person they were killing, as well as in any of his supporters who might be watching.

(It's worth noting, by the way, that no human instinct more closely related to this than the hatred of Lapierre that swamped Twitter last week.)

Is there a hell and are there people in it? Well, if it was up to human beings, the answer is "yes". We've made it and we have put people through it. But would God do this? For all eternity?

It seems to me that it is enough to know that I might end up there and that the only thing standing between me and the gates of hell is God. I don't have an argument for that. It is what I want to believe.

In any case, we celebrate today, the death of a man whose killers did everything they could to send him to hell.


  1. You make a couple of good points here, and in so doing you validate your family and friends who despise LaPierre.
    "In fact, the majority of suicides show no signs of mental illness before killing themselves."
    That might be true, I don't know that it is but it might be. One reason could be that these people are undiagnosed. Unless someone is looking closely, its very possible to have a mental illness these days and suffer through it alone. There are many who stay below the radar, live their lives of quiet desperation, go to work and come home, and no one is any the wiser. You don't have to hear voices or see things that aren't there to be mentally ill. Those who are diagnosed receive therapy and/or medication which can help them deal with thoughts of suicide, though that often isn't enough.
    So, Mr. LaPierre's remedy that we compile a database to prevent people who are mentally ill from acquiring weapons is folly, precisely because so many mentally ill people are undiagnosed and would never get on a database.

    1. As I say, all you're doing here is asserting that you really want to believe something for which there is no evidence.

      Second, point, suppose Lapierre is wrong and his suggestions won't work, how does that justify despising the man? Is being wrong about public policy reason reason to be hated?

  2. This is something that, because of its very nature and all the variables, is very difficult to gather empirical evidence to support or refute. The lack of evidence is not because someone did a study that supports what you're saying, its because its virtually impossible to do a real study. If you want to call suicide a form of evil, then are those who commit suicide possessed by demons? Its a way of making sense or rationalizing something that defies rationalization or explanation. Even the Church gives a proper burial to victims of suicide, and yes I believe they are victims. There are no provable answers here, suicide is a tragedy that makes us recoil.

    The people who despise Lapierre believe that his public policies--and the gun manufacturers who have profitted from them--are directly responsible for the massacre at Newtown. They're looking at the effect of those public policies on real people in the real world.

    1. The Church buries suicides for reasons of humility and charity. Humility because we cannot know how God will judge. Charity because we will always hope that this act was not the result of despair. To go to the other extreme and give a blanket exemption on the grounds that everyone who commits suicide is a victim of mental illness is neither humble nor charitable.

      Speaking of a lack of charity:

      "The people who despise Lapierre believe that his public policies--and the gun manufacturers who have profitted from them--are directly responsible for the massacre at Newtown."

      If we insist on vilifying people who disagree with us, democracy will cease to be possible.

  3. I think people reach a point where they say "enough is enough." I just heard on C-Span this morning the little known fact that there are actually very strict laws prohibiting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and other government agencies from tracking and maintaining data on who buys guns and who is prohibited from buying a gun. This, by the way, includes people on the terrorist watch list. If you buy a gun the longest they can hold whatever information you might have given them about you is 24 hrs. This, according to the speaker, was the result of unrelenting lobbying efforts by Mr. Lapierre who, the speaker said, terrorized legislators into passing these laws. So even if we wanted to, there is no legal way at the present time to prevent mentally ill people from buying guns. So Mr. Lapierre goes on TV and argues we should be doing this, but neglects to mention that he and his organization is part the reason we're not doing it. Mr. Lapierre should be vilified, I think democracy will survive--thrive even--as a result of people rising up and saying "Enough!"

    1. "Enough is enough." In other words, anything goes if we're really convinced we're right and that "they" are wrong.

  4. People aren't stupid, and they don't get to these watershed moments en masse lightly or on a whim. The innocent slaughter of 20 6 year olds and 7 caring adults pushed people over the edge because it was so beyond the pale, enough where they now demand change. To suggest that its simply a matter of being really conviced that we're right and they're wrong is insulting, and a)does a disservice to the seriousness of this issue and b)fails to recognize that this is democracy in action. The political influence of the NRA is undisputed, even by them. If that influence had been used for a good end, if they had even pretended to have some sense of social responsibility and knew when to moderate their positions, people wouldn't be reacting this way. But in today's world anything short of "getting what I want when I want it" regardless of anyone else is seen as failure. Now its come back to bite them in the ass. I will grant you that the NRA might be taking the fall for all the corporations and industries that exert as much political influence as they do because people are tired of how shamelessly influence is pedaled in Washington, but I can live with that. It doesn't minimize one iota the damage of the work Mr. Lapierre has done. The NRA brought this on themselves, at the very least they were imprudent and way overplayed their hand. It was bound to catch up with them.

    1. In other words, you hate him because you hate him and your hatred is justified because you hate him and you're going to keep repeating the same and logic free claims forever because you really hate him and don't forget that you hate him.

  5. I don't know what you're reading, but its nothing I wrote. For some reason you need to dismiss the outcry against the NRA as circular logic, which it isn't. I don't hate Lapierre, many do, but I think people can hate those they disagree with on public policy issues if the matter is grave enough.
    I would consider the slaughter of innocent children a grave matter. I would probably have hated Hitler because of his public policy regarding Jews.

    1. As a general rule, and it's a good one, if you find yourself invoking Hitler as an example or analogy, you can be certain your argument is weak.

  6. LOL, who's general rule! I think your priorities are a little out of whack, you don't seem able to see the bigger issue here. Wayne Lapierre will do just fine, I'm sure the only concern he has about the vitriol directed at him is the degree to which it might make it more difficult for him to do his job. Maybe time to retire, get a new spokesperson who can present a younger fresh face of the NRA.

  7. This comment is only obliquely related to your post (and also has nothing to do with the comments above). I was wondering about how you think evil fits in with virtue ethics. I’ll explain what I mean. I read McIntyre and Aristotle, some time ago, though I think I read them with an odd and maybe immature attitude, in search of rules that would make immediate sense and would give me a “secret” new way of thinking. Your writing on this blog, especially the application of virtue ethics / moral judgment to stuff like Mad Men or Brideshead, made me understand better what virtue ethics was really about, and actually changed my attitude towards fiction a lot (thanks!). However, I sometimes feel that there is a disconnect between morality as regards a person’s character, and morality regarding the question of good and evil. It seems to me that if a very virtuous person is excellent, a person totally lacking in virtue is just mediocre and weak. In other words a virtue-less person is more like Betty Draper than like a person who carries out massacres. I’m not really sure what virtue ethics can say about a person like that. I’d be interested to hear your comments.

    1. It's a tough issue and I'm not 100 percent sure how I'd answer it.

      My first move would be to make the question even more complicated by recalling the notion Plato into the mouth of Socrates in The Republic: that the person best positioned to do good is also the person best positioned to do harm. When you put yourself into the hands of a doctor, for example, you are also putting yourself into the hands of the person who, if God forbid she wanted to, could most easily kill you and probably most easily get away with it.

      From there, it seems to me we have two choices. We could treat the decision to be good instead of evil as some sort of fundamental choice a person makes. This is the view we get in the world of graphic novels. Batman and The Joker are relatively similar in terms of their "virtue", the difference between them is that Batman has made some fundamental choice to fight on the side of good and The Joker on the side of evil.

      The other avenue we might take is to think of evil in the same terms that the Catholic church thinks of a depraved conscience. That is to say that every time we willing choose to do what we know is wrong or choose not to do good we degrade ourselves. Do this long enough and I will reach a state where I am so depraved that it would make sense to call me evil.

      But that would be just the beginning ....

      What are your thoughts?

    2. Well I have been trying to write out a reply for a while now and I can't come up with a really satisfying answer despite writing hundreds of words. I'll try later...

    3. Evil is hard, comedy is easy. I never know what to say about evil. I look forward to anything you might have to say.