Some blood-drenched history

“It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.” — Mark Twain, Letters From the Earth

I did a disservice to Richard Beck’s chapel lecture on Judges 19 by linking to it the other day without more context. Thanks to Dr. Beck for providing some of that missing context and engaging in a friendly discussion here in comments.

Beck’s take on the Gospels’ shaping of “the Christian imagination” reminds me — yes, again — of George Orwell’s comment on Charles Dickens:

Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.

For Orwell, as for Beck, the claim isn’t that this “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed” is exclusively a Christian trait or a matter of Christian exceptionalism. Orwell shared the same instinct himself, and he was certainly not a religious man. But Orwell regarded it as a trait that is or it ought to be a characteristic of Christians.

“Siding with the oppressed” is part of what I mean when I argue for reading the entire Bible with a Jesus-based or “Christocentric” hermeneutic. That’s how I want to read that monstrous story in Judges 19 as well as all such texts of terror or clobber-verses or blood-drenched obscenities — whether in Joshua, in Ezekiel, or in Paul’s epistles.

The complain some of my fellow evangelicals have with such an approach is that it elevates some parts of the Bible above others. Yes. Yes, it does, and yes, it should. That’s what “you have heard that it was said … But I say to you” means.

Beck and Tony Jones have both recently written interesting and thought-provoking things about René Girard’s ideas about the scapegoat theory of atonement. This is having the annoying effect of nudging me toward actually reading Girard, who seems fascinating but not exactly like light reading. Anyone else want to nudge me further in that direction? If so, where would you recommend starting?

Jones has a whole series of recent posts discussing theories of atonement — a topic he’s making more interesting than I usually find it. It’s one of those topics on which people tend to present speculation with an angry certainty. The various competing theories don’t tend to be viewed as fragmentary or complementary, but as exclusive — if it’s partly this, then it cannot also be partly that. So when I wind up agreeing with several different competing theories, the proponents of those theories tend to get mad at me.

They also seem to forget that it doesn’t really matter if any of us understands the mechanics of atonement. I don’t need to know how it works, just that it works. Kind of like my Mac.

That’s not to say that I don’t have any interest in such theories — just that I don’t think Christians’ discussions of them ought to be as urgent and as fraught as they tend to be.

The one such theory I don’t much care for is the one most emphasized at the church and Christian school I grew up in. It’s the idea of “penal substitutionary atonement.” Jones doesn’t seem to like it much either. This post from Brian McLaren offers a good summary of why I think it’s a harmful insult to God:

It posits that God is planning eternal conscious torment for all human beings, except those who gain an exemption through some facet of the Christian religion (including, for some, believing in this theory). God cannot forgive, the theory (in at least some of its versions) posits, without inflicting pain on someone. When you believe that the greatest existential threat to a human being is God venting God’s wrath on that human being — whether that wrath is deemed just or not — you put human beings in two categories: the saved and the damned, the beloved and the hated. …

How different if we believe that the greatest existential threat to human beings is human evil … violence, greed, lust, fear, pride, anger, superiority, hate, malice, apathy, haste, rage, etc. If that’s the case, then God enters the picture as the one trying to save us from the destructive effects of our own evil. God is not our greatest threat, but rather our greatest hope. God is not violent in nature and does not inflict harm … but rather is the model of nonviolence, forgiveness, reconciliation, pardon, grace, and kindness, inviting our imitation.

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  • Anonymous

    The complain some of my fellow evangelicals have with such an approach is that it elevates some parts of the Bible above others. Yes. Yes, it does, and yes, it should. That’s what “you have heard that it was said … But I say to you” means.

    I have to disagree there. In that passage, Jesus isn’t saying, These are the rules that are still valid, and these are the ones you can safely ignore. He uses the phrase to say that he is adding more requirements, upgrading from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery, but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This fits the general pattern of “I come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” Or similarly, “Moses allowed you to write a certificate of divorce because of your hardness of heart, but…”

  • walden

    Part of what makes me pretty sure that I’m not an “evangelical” (anymore?) is that I don’t think I still feel convinced by the substitutionary atonement syllogism. But then, what do I think Good Friday and Easter are about?  There still seems to be a lot of truth in (“Ah holy Jesus, how has thou offended…”) and that the righteous man “lays down his life for his friends”.   I suppose it’s possible to understand self sacrifice, humility, suffering, etc., along with forgiveness and fresh start, without making this into a theological bankruptcy proceeding discharged in blood.

  • Nicanthiel Hrafnhild

    I am no longer a Christian, but when I was, I always liked to view it as Jesus died, not to save us from sin brought about from something outside our control, or a vengeful God, or Satan, or Hell, or any of the other popular reasons in much of evangelical culture, but to show us the way to save us from ourselves – our darkest, cruelest and most fucked up parts.

    But then, that’s probably why I’m no longer a Christian…

  • Tonio

    Good point. The interpretations I’ve encountered in the past described “sin” as though believers were trying to disown their unwanted impulses, like these were given to them against their will. These also tried to whip guilt onto everyone, saying “Jesus died for you!” in the same tone that 1960s reactionaries would use in saying “Guys died at Iwo Jima for punks like you!”

  • Tonio

    Good point. The interpretations I’ve encountered in the past described “sin” as though believers were trying to disown their unwanted impulses, like these were given to them against their will. These also tried to whip guilt onto everyone, saying “Jesus died for you!” in the same tone that 1960s reactionaries would use in saying “Guys died at Iwo Jima for punks like you!”

  • Mike

    For what it’s worth, when I read or hear references to demons or the devil, I automatically assume the terms are in reference to my “darkest, cruelest and most fucked up parts”; or, as my new church friends would say, my worldly self.

    I am utterly grateful for my Lord Jesus who has saved me from the worst parts of myself.

  • Mike

    For what it’s worth, when I read or hear references to demons or the devil, I automatically assume the terms are in reference to my “darkest, cruelest and most fucked up parts”; or, as my new church friends would say, my worldly self.

    I am utterly grateful for my Lord Jesus who has saved me from the worst parts of myself.

  • Nicanthiel Hrafnhild

    I am no longer a Christian, but when I was, I always liked to view it as Jesus died, not to save us from sin brought about from something outside our control, or a vengeful God, or Satan, or Hell, or any of the other popular reasons in much of evangelical culture, but to show us the way to save us from ourselves – our darkest, cruelest and most fucked up parts.

    But then, that’s probably why I’m no longer a Christian…

  • Tonio

    What McLaren describes in the first paragraph sounds like a child of an abusive alcoholic, terrified that a sibling will enrage the abusive parent.

    “Atonement” doesn’t make sense to me. It suggests the claim found in some Christian theologies that Adam and Eve’s descendants carry the guilt from their forebearers’ crime even though they did not commit it themselves. Probably the same thinking that says that Jews carry the guilt over the execution of Jesus.

  • Tonio

    What McLaren describes in the first paragraph sounds like a child of an abusive alcoholic, terrified that a sibling will enrage the abusive parent.

    “Atonement” doesn’t make sense to me. It suggests the claim found in some Christian theologies that Adam and Eve’s descendants carry the guilt from their forebearers’ crime even though they did not commit it themselves. Probably the same thinking that says that Jews carry the guilt over the execution of Jesus.

  • Richard

    For my part, Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice is the most accessible introduction to a Girardian reading of the bible, Old and New Testament.

    http://www.amazon.com/Saved-Sacrifice-Theology-Mark-Heim/dp/0802832156

  • Richard

    For my part, Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice is the most accessible introduction to a Girardian reading of the bible, Old and New Testament.

    http://www.amazon.com/Saved-Sacrifice-Theology-Mark-Heim/dp/0802832156

  • Anonymous

    I find theories of atonement interesting as well, which is odd since I’m a nonbeliever; then again, I’m not interested enough to wade through dry, academic discourse to glean the mechanics of the various theories of the various sects. Flowcharts, however, I would be all over. Or better yet, D&D-style tables. Let’s say you need to roll an 00 to be saved, what are the modifiers? Or maybe, everyone starts with a 100% chance of being saved, but suffers a penalty for sins they’ve committed, for perhaps for not-yet-atoned sins. (In Zen Buddhism, all beings are already saved (most being just don’t know it yet), so you don’t need to roll at all.)

    Oh, wait, I see I’m conflating being “saved,” however that is defined in a particular religion, with “atonement.” Or am I? What’s the relationship between the two concepts?

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    d100 tables based theology would KICK ASS!

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    d100 tables based theology would KICK ASS!

  • Anonymous

    I find theories of atonement interesting as well, which is odd since I’m a nonbeliever; then again, I’m not interested enough to wade through dry, academic discourse to glean the mechanics of the various theories of the various sects. Flowcharts, however, I would be all over. Or better yet, D&D-style tables. Let’s say you need to roll an 00 to be saved, what are the modifiers? Or maybe, everyone starts with a 100% chance of being saved, but suffers a penalty for sins they’ve committed, for perhaps for not-yet-atoned sins. (In Zen Buddhism, all beings are already saved (most being just don’t know it yet), so you don’t need to roll at all.)

    Oh, wait, I see I’m conflating being “saved,” however that is defined in a particular religion, with “atonement.” Or am I? What’s the relationship between the two concepts?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

    Honestly, I found Beck’s commentary on Judges 19 (which I had missed previously) to be quite offensive. He says: “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a Christian. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.
    And because of that you are rightly horrified and outraged.”
    To which I respond: Horseshit! It is arrogant and presumptuous to suggest that only a Christian would be horrified by this monstrous tale, particularly since it was the Christian God who mandated the social strictures that forced the concubine to return home to her disgusting and abusive husband and who later sent thousands of Israelites to their deaths in order to avenge her death but who at no point enacts any sort of punishment against the ghoul who sent her to her death and then dismembered her corpse as some kind of deranged political statement! It is particularly nauseating to read Beck’s praise for “Christians who naturally and instinctively empathize with the victim” at a time when Christians of all kinds in this country seem bent on turning every single woman of child-bearing years into just one more “unnamed concubine.”

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Yep. The commentary also assumes the reader is a man. A woman is very likely to identify with the woman in the story — but I guess we don’t count. We’re the acted-upon, the victims, the objects, never the subjects reading and thinking about and deciding upon things on our own. 

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Yep. The commentary also assumes the reader is a man. A woman is very likely to identify with the woman in the story — but I guess we don’t count. We’re the acted-upon, the victims, the objects, never the subjects reading and thinking about and deciding upon things on our own. 

  • Kogo

    Right on. This right here:

    *”Christians who naturally and instinctively empathize with the victim”*

    Has never actually yet happened in any age of man. Ever.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    *”Christians who naturally and instinctively empathize with the victim”*

    Has never actually yet happened in any age of man. Ever.

    Gosh. Thanks.

  • Kogo

    Right on. This right here:

    *”Christians who naturally and instinctively empathize with the victim”*

    Has never actually yet happened in any age of man. Ever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alan-Alexander/502988241 Alan Alexander

    Honestly, I found Beck’s commentary on Judges 19 (which I had missed previously) to be quite offensive. He says: “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a Christian. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.
    And because of that you are rightly horrified and outraged.”
    To which I respond: Horseshit! It is arrogant and presumptuous to suggest that only a Christian would be horrified by this monstrous tale, particularly since it was the Christian God who mandated the social strictures that forced the concubine to return home to her disgusting and abusive husband and who later sent thousands of Israelites to their deaths in order to avenge her death but who at no point enacts any sort of punishment against the ghoul who sent her to her death and then dismembered her corpse as some kind of deranged political statement! It is particularly nauseating to read Beck’s praise for “Christians who naturally and instinctively empathize with the victim” at a time when Christians of all kinds in this country seem bent on turning every single woman of child-bearing years into just one more “unnamed concubine.”

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I’ve never seen “haste” called a sin before. Add one more to the long, long list of “sins”, I guess. And lust is not a sin. It’s a natural thing, and can be a wonderful thing. Asexuals are not inherently better people than non-asexuals. Until Christianity gets over its hatred of sexual feelings, it will forever be bogged down with dirty old men screeching at women who dare to control our own sexuality. 

    The idea that humanity is inherently bad bad bad and needs some supposedly superior being to save us is something I find kind of appalling. And that supposedly superior being supposedly created us! While the idea of God as loving is better than the idea of God as punitive, it still makes me think of a child looking to a parent for approval that is withheld. “I suppose you did the best you could, dear…. sigh.” God as cosmic guilt-tripper.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I’ve never seen “haste” called a sin before. Add one more to the long, long list of “sins”, I guess. And lust is not a sin. It’s a natural thing, and can be a wonderful thing. Asexuals are not inherently better people than non-asexuals. Until Christianity gets over its hatred of sexual feelings, it will forever be bogged down with dirty old men screeching at women who dare to control our own sexuality. 

    The idea that humanity is inherently bad bad bad and needs some supposedly superior being to save us is something I find kind of appalling. And that supposedly superior being supposedly created us! While the idea of God as loving is better than the idea of God as punitive, it still makes me think of a child looking to a parent for approval that is withheld. “I suppose you did the best you could, dear…. sigh.” God as cosmic guilt-tripper.

  • Richard

    The part of my chapel talk that seems to be causing the most offense is this part:

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a Christian. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”

    Let’s say someone else gave this talk to a group of atheists and had said this:

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are an atheist. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”

    As a Christian, I’d not describe such a sentiment as horseshit. In fact, I’d stand and cheer. If that’s how someone defined their atheism I’d see them as a friend and partner. May your tribe increase.

    Let’s say someone else gave this talk to a group of women and had said this:

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a woman. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”

    As a man I wouldn’t feel excluded by that statement. Nor would I think the person is saying that men can’t naturally and instinctively see the victim in the story.

    But if I, as a Christian, try to connect my faith to empathy, more, try to define my faith as empathy, then I’m the one full of horseshit?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I can’t speak for anyone else. But for myself, the way you wrote it was very problematic. You seemed to be claiming that Christians always empathize with the victim. You know that’s not true. You also claimed that people who empathized did so because they were Christian, and that sentence holds the implication, intended or not, that only Christians empathize with victims.

    As for your changes, I would be offended at both of them, as an atheist and particularly as a woman. Neither atheists nor women instinctively empathize with victims. Imo, women are more likely to empathize with the women in a story, whether or not they’re victims. And in a story like this, we are likely to become angry (not a sin), and also thankful that we do not live in a society that makes us all sex slaves. 

    Saying that we’re more likely to empathize with victims, period, sounds like the writer is saying two things. First, that all women are victims, which could be argued on some level, since society is sexist, but when you’ve just related a story of a woman who was so horribly victimized by her utterly misogynistic society, it’s offensive. I have certainly suffered from misogyny, but not like that, thank the Invisible Pink Unicorn! I can exercise agency in my life, I can choose with whom to become involved sexually, and if someone tries to force me into a sexual relationship, they are doing something illegal. 

    Second, it sounds something like “women are from Venus”. That is sexist and, being sexist, untrue. Who showed more empathy, Ayn Rand or J.R.R. Tolkein? The idea that women are naturally more empathetic is of a piece with the idea that women are too emotional and naturally suited to stay home and raise babies. 

    As for the atheist alteration — I honestly laughed out loud when I read it. Not because I’m laughing at you, but because of the idea of what would happen if one said that to a group of atheists who are like the atheists I’ve known. “Are you high?” would be one likely response. 

  • Richard

    I can see the problems in how I worded it. Let me try to explain the wording in another way.

    When I was growing up my parents tried to connect various virtues to the family identity. They would say things like, “You don’t keep your mouth shut when someone is being picked on. Why? Because you’re a Beck.” Or “You stand up to bullies. Why? Because you’re a Beck.”

    When my parents were saying stuff like this I didn’t assume they were saying that these virtues were exclusive to the Becks. Nor did I assume that they were saying that the Becks always do these things, that we were moral exemplars.

    No, what they were trying to do was to fuse my identity–my name–to a set of ideals, a set of particular virtues. I was trying to do the same thing in my chapel talk. I wasn’t assuming these virtues were exclusive to Christians. Nor was I saying that Christians, as a whole, are moral exemplars. My talk was about identity and self-definition, connecting the name Christian to a set of virtues. To say, in essence, when you self-describe as a Christian this is what you should mean.

    So, yes, while my examples below about atheists or women can seem odd or strained, I’m simply pointing out that when a group tries to self-define in this way I don’t take offense and applaud those attempts when I agree with the ideals in question.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    When my parents were saying stuff like this I didn’t assume they were saying that these virtues were exclusive to the Becks.

    When your parents were saying stuff like that, they were saying only to you! It was an “in-group” remark, said by one member of the group to another.

    Imagine the same speech (“You stand up to bullies. Why? Because you’re a Beck!”) delivered not at home or in the car or in the parkling lot without others around, but at a wedding reception, or a cafeteria, or dance. Imagine that same speech being delivered right at the teachable moment, in front of a whole crowd of other people who you would hope would have the same values, but who aren’t Becks.

    Better still, imagine yourself in that crowd, and someone else being given that speech while you stood watching. Imagine it: there’s a bully, and a victim. You’re neither, and neither is the person being spoken to, but you hear someone with authority say “You stand up to bullies. Why? Because you’re a Doggett! I’m not talking about anyone else here, but you’re a Doggett, and you stand up for what’s right!”

    You’re on the internet, sharing your words with everyone who stops by, and when those words are interesting, you may get guests you weren’t intending. Intent is not magical.

  • Richard

    “Better still, imagine yourself in that crowd, and someone
    else being given that speech while you stood watching. Imagine it:
    there’s a bully, and a victim. You’re neither, and neither is the person
    being spoken to, but you hear someone with authority say “You stand up
    to bullies. Why? Because you’re a Doggett! I’m not talking about anyone
    else here, but you’re a Doggett, and you stand up for what’s right!”

    You’re on the internet, sharing your words with everyone who stops
    by, and when those words are interesting, you may get guests you weren’t
    intending. Intent is not magical”

    Hi Chris,
    Here’s where I’d quibble. I wouldn’t feel marginalized or offended by the Doggett’s. I’d say, “Good on the Doggett’s!” What I’d hear in the conversation is what is valued by the Doggett’s and, in sharing those values with the Doggett’s, would feel that they are my sorts of people.

    It goes to issues of charity. As an outsider I could read the Doggett exchange charitably and feel a warmth of affection and kinship. Or I can read the Doggett exchange cynically and walk way saying, “Who the hell do the Doggett’s think they are that they and only they stand up to bullies? We Becks do that as well!”

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    What I’d hear in the conversation is what is valued by the Doggett’s and, in sharing those values with the Doggett’s, would feel that they are my sorts of people.

    Maybe you would feel that way… the first time you heard it. Now imagine you’ve heard that bit, and variations of it dozens of times, said loud enough not just to be heard by the intended recipient, but by all within earshot:
    “Good for you son, for giving that beggar a dollar! Doggetts are charitable people, not like some others!”
    “You’re right to help that lady across the street. We Doggetts, at least, are noble, decent folk!”
    “I’m glad you enlisted, my boy. We Doggetts are always on the side of justice and patriotism!”

    As an outsider I could read the Doggett exchange charitably and feel a warmth of affection and kinship.

    …right up until one of us walked up to you and said “Why don’t you give up your ignorant Beck ways, and join the Doggetts on the path to salvation and happiness?”
    “Oh, you’re a Beck! I didn’t know. I myself am a Doggett, virtious and noble. I can only imagine what Becks are like. I mean, I can see that you know how to dress and groom yourself, but I can’t imagine what goes on in your mind.”

  • Richard

    “…right up until one of us walked up to you and said “Why don’t you
    give up your ignorant Beck ways, and join the Doggetts on the path to
    salvation and happiness?”
    “Oh, you’re a Beck! I didn’t
    know. I myself am a Doggett, virtious and noble. I can only imagine what
    Becks are like. I mean, I can see that you know how to dress and groom
    yourself, but I can’t imagine what goes on in your mind.”

    I can see that. Really, that’s a powerful point. I’m thinking here of Luke 18.9-14.

    All I can say is that I wasn’t being congratulatory or triumphant with the students. I was trying to persuade them of something that they hadn’t really been convinced of, or even thought of. So the Doggett conversation would look more like this: “You stand up to bullies because you’re a Doggett!” “Really, that’s what Doggett’s care about?” “Yes, that’s what Doggett’s care about.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.”

    If I heard that conversation over and over I’d hear something less self-congratulatory and something closer to the tone of a chapel talk in West Texas to a group of Christian college students….

  • Richard

    “…right up until one of us walked up to you and said “Why don’t you
    give up your ignorant Beck ways, and join the Doggetts on the path to
    salvation and happiness?”
    “Oh, you’re a Beck! I didn’t
    know. I myself am a Doggett, virtious and noble. I can only imagine what
    Becks are like. I mean, I can see that you know how to dress and groom
    yourself, but I can’t imagine what goes on in your mind.”

    I can see that. Really, that’s a powerful point. I’m thinking here of Luke 18.9-14.

    All I can say is that I wasn’t being congratulatory or triumphant with the students. I was trying to persuade them of something that they hadn’t really been convinced of, or even thought of. So the Doggett conversation would look more like this: “You stand up to bullies because you’re a Doggett!” “Really, that’s what Doggett’s care about?” “Yes, that’s what Doggett’s care about.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.”

    If I heard that conversation over and over I’d hear something less self-congratulatory and something closer to the tone of a chapel talk in West Texas to a group of Christian college students….

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    What I’d hear in the conversation is what is valued by the Doggett’s and, in sharing those values with the Doggett’s, would feel that they are my sorts of people.

    Maybe you would feel that way… the first time you heard it. Now imagine you’ve heard that bit, and variations of it dozens of times, said loud enough not just to be heard by the intended recipient, but by all within earshot:
    “Good for you son, for giving that beggar a dollar! Doggetts are charitable people, not like some others!”
    “You’re right to help that lady across the street. We Doggetts, at least, are noble, decent folk!”
    “I’m glad you enlisted, my boy. We Doggetts are always on the side of justice and patriotism!”

    As an outsider I could read the Doggett exchange charitably and feel a warmth of affection and kinship.

    …right up until one of us walked up to you and said “Why don’t you give up your ignorant Beck ways, and join the Doggetts on the path to salvation and happiness?”
    “Oh, you’re a Beck! I didn’t know. I myself am a Doggett, virtious and noble. I can only imagine what Becks are like. I mean, I can see that you know how to dress and groom yourself, but I can’t imagine what goes on in your mind.”

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Wait. It does not go to “issues of charity.” 

    If someone says, “we’re brave because we’re men,” it would be beyond charitable to think they did not mean to exclude women — it would be ignorant. When someone says, “we do the right thing because we’re white/Christian/Doggets” it is necessarily exclusionary

    You are doing something that many of us have been subjected to before: calling us “cynical” for saying, “wait a minute, that ain’t right.” I’ve even seen people do this in relation to those who say the murder of Trayvon Martin was motivated by racism! I, for one, do not appreciate being told what my motivations are by someone else. 

  • Richard

    “it is necessarily exclusionary”

    All I can say is that I don’t see it that way. Maybe I’m blind here, and likely am. I wasn’t questioning motives. I was simply saying that if I was looking in on that Doggett conversation I could read that as either inclusive, because we shared values, or exclusive, that they were necessarily trying to exclude me, a Beck. And reading it as “necessarily exclusionary” would, in my opinion, be both strange and sort of cynical. The Mom was just trying to get her kid to shape up and wasn’t trying to make comments about the virtues of others.

    Applying all this to a response to my own chapel talk I’d say that one could read it this way, “Here’s a guy trying to convince a group of largely evangelical Christian students to see standing up for victims as central to their Christian commitments” versus “Here’s a guy who thinks Christians are better than non-Christians.” I’d like to describe the former reading as more charitable and the latter reading as more cynical. Why? Because I’m assuming we all agree that standing up for victims is the right thing to do and that Christians, by and large, do a piss poor job of it. Thus, given that we’re all working on the same task one would either applaud or cut some slack to the guy trying to leverage the religious commitments of a group to get them to own and live up to that vision.

    I mean, goodness gracious, yes it could have been worded better. But it was a chapel talk worth giving.

  • Richard

    “it is necessarily exclusionary”

    All I can say is that I don’t see it that way. Maybe I’m blind here, and likely am. I wasn’t questioning motives. I was simply saying that if I was looking in on that Doggett conversation I could read that as either inclusive, because we shared values, or exclusive, that they were necessarily trying to exclude me, a Beck. And reading it as “necessarily exclusionary” would, in my opinion, be both strange and sort of cynical. The Mom was just trying to get her kid to shape up and wasn’t trying to make comments about the virtues of others.

    Applying all this to a response to my own chapel talk I’d say that one could read it this way, “Here’s a guy trying to convince a group of largely evangelical Christian students to see standing up for victims as central to their Christian commitments” versus “Here’s a guy who thinks Christians are better than non-Christians.” I’d like to describe the former reading as more charitable and the latter reading as more cynical. Why? Because I’m assuming we all agree that standing up for victims is the right thing to do and that Christians, by and large, do a piss poor job of it. Thus, given that we’re all working on the same task one would either applaud or cut some slack to the guy trying to leverage the religious commitments of a group to get them to own and live up to that vision.

    I mean, goodness gracious, yes it could have been worded better. But it was a chapel talk worth giving.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    If someone says, “we’re brave because we’re men,” it would be beyond
    charitable to think they did not mean to exclude women — it would be
    ignorant. When someone says, “we do the right thing because we’re
    white/Christian/Doggets” it is necessarily exclusionary.

    Hm.

    If someone says “I got a good science and math undergraduate education because I went to MIT” I am not inclined to think they mean that there are no other universities that provide good science and math undergraduate educations. I think that’s charity on my part, not ignorance. A charitable reading would be, instead, that there are colleges other than MIT that don’t provide good science and math undergraduate educations.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m male,” on the other hand, it’s harder to be charitable in that sense. Granted, “there are genders other than male that aren’t brave” is, technically, a different statement from “there are no genders other than male that are brave,” but it’s a fair bet that the speaker is operating in the context of two genders. So to reject the “females aren’t brave” reading takes more than just charity.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m a man,” though… I dunno. It’s possible that they meant to contrast themselves to boys, for example, who are not expected to be brave. Is it likely? It depends a lot on the context. There are certainly contexts where “I’m a man” and “I’m a woman” both mean that I’m a responsible adult, not an immature child. There are also contexts where they both mean that I have a particular gender, and not some other gender. Depending on context, charity might be sufficient grounds to reject the “women aren’t brave” reading.

    None of this is to in any way make an assertion about your motives, merely to reject an assertion about other people’s ignorance.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Going to MIT is a thing you do, not a thing you are. “I got a good education” does not work as a substitute for “I have empathy.” If someone said, “I went to MIT, therefore I am a good person,” that would be parallel.

    Further, considering I’ve read things like “I’m brave because I’m a man” that were most definitely excluding women — excluding me — over and over and over again, ever since I was a small child, please excuse me for not first thinking that maybe this time someone didn’t mean it that way. It is not the job of the group that is not privileged to give “charity” to the group that is privileged. I don’t expect black people to think I’m well-meaning right off the bat and not remember all the things white people have said about and done to them. I have to prove that I am well-meaning, and for very good reasons. And no matter how well-meaning I am, because I am white I cannot know certain things that they have to know because they are black. 

    And if I said a phrase that had been used over and over and over again to exclude, demean, and insult black people? And expect them to read it “charitably”? And accuse them of “cynicism” for not doing so? No. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    You don’t need me to excuse you for inferring that the speaker was being exclusive. It’s an entirely plausible inference, and even if it weren’t it’s hardly my place to excuse you or not excuse you.

    I don’t believe you’re obligated to think the speaker meant anything in particular, or to not-think they did. And even if I did believe that, my beliefs on the matter would not constitute any sort of obligation on your part.

    I don’t believe it’s your job to give charity to anyone, especially not people more privileged than you. 

    I don’t think I said any of those things, or even suggested them, but clearly I didn’t do a good enough job of expressing myself in a way that made it clear that I don’t believe those things. I apologize for not having been clearer. Hopefully I’m clearer here.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    If someone says, “we’re brave because we’re men,” it would be beyond
    charitable to think they did not mean to exclude women — it would be
    ignorant. When someone says, “we do the right thing because we’re
    white/Christian/Doggets” it is necessarily exclusionary.

    Hm.

    If someone says “I got a good science and math undergraduate education because I went to MIT” I am not inclined to think they mean that there are no other universities that provide good science and math undergraduate educations. I think that’s charity on my part, not ignorance. A charitable reading would be, instead, that there are colleges other than MIT that don’t provide good science and math undergraduate educations.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m male,” on the other hand, it’s harder to be charitable in that sense. Granted, “there are genders other than male that aren’t brave” is, technically, a different statement from “there are no genders other than male that are brave,” but it’s a fair bet that the speaker is operating in the context of two genders. So to reject the “females aren’t brave” reading takes more than just charity.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m a man,” though… I dunno. It’s possible that they meant to contrast themselves to boys, for example, who are not expected to be brave. Is it likely? It depends a lot on the context. There are certainly contexts where “I’m a man” and “I’m a woman” both mean that I’m a responsible adult, not an immature child. There are also contexts where they both mean that I have a particular gender, and not some other gender. Depending on context, charity might be sufficient grounds to reject the “women aren’t brave” reading.

    None of this is to in any way make an assertion about your motives, merely to reject an assertion about other people’s ignorance.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    But there are inherent problems with trying to self-define a group like that. The most obvious is that it’s, well, horse hockey. Untruths do not set people free.

    “We do this good thing because we have stars on our bellies.” No. The reason you do a good thing is because you believe it to be good, not because you belong to the group with stars on their bellies. Perhaps having a star on your belly inspired you or helped you in some way, but once you claim that the star is the reason you do good things, you exclude the people without stars upon thars.

    And then you get people thinking that having stars on their bellies is a sign of virtue. The only sign of virtue, in fact. All that is good and beautiful and right and holy in the world resides with the people who have stars on their bellies. Or “white” (pink to my eyes) skin. Or money. Or penises (penii?). Or a certain religion. This happens in human history all the time. So often, in fact, that I would argue it’s an inevitability as soon as you start down that road. 

    If you want to say “Christianity helped me become more empathetic, and I believe it can help other people too, and this is why,” I might argue with your reasons or I might not, but I would not be offended. 

  • Richard

    “The reason you do a good thing is because you believe it to be good, not because you belong to the group with stars on their bellies.”

    That’s true. I agree totally. But I think you’re still missing the context of the talk. Here’s the deal: Given the demographics of these students standing with the victim isn’t assumed. That is, the status of “believe it to be good” is very much in doubt with them. Thus my attempt to use the gospel story, something they agree is authoritative for them, to argue that 1) it very much is the right thing to do to stand up for victims and 2) this good should be the central feature of their Christian identity. In short, I was doing a couple of different things in the talk: Trying to convince about this being “the right thing to do” and aligning that with their Christian self-identity.

  • Richard

    I can see the problems in how I worded it. Let me try to explain the wording in another way.

    When I was growing up my parents tried to connect various virtues to the family identity. They would say things like, “You don’t keep your mouth shut when someone is being picked on. Why? Because you’re a Beck.” Or “You stand up to bullies. Why? Because you’re a Beck.”

    When my parents were saying stuff like this I didn’t assume they were saying that these virtues were exclusive to the Becks. Nor did I assume that they were saying that the Becks always do these things, that we were moral exemplars.

    No, what they were trying to do was to fuse my identity–my name–to a set of ideals, a set of particular virtues. I was trying to do the same thing in my chapel talk. I wasn’t assuming these virtues were exclusive to Christians. Nor was I saying that Christians, as a whole, are moral exemplars. My talk was about identity and self-definition, connecting the name Christian to a set of virtues. To say, in essence, when you self-describe as a Christian this is what you should mean.

    So, yes, while my examples below about atheists or women can seem odd or strained, I’m simply pointing out that when a group tries to self-define in this way I don’t take offense and applaud those attempts when I agree with the ideals in question.

  • Anonymous

     

    Who showed more empathy, Ayn Rand or J.R.R. Tolkein?

    Tolkien, hands down.  Even if you’re making an equivalence between the two (I can’t really tell), any amount is greater than zero.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I can’t speak for anyone else. But for myself, the way you wrote it was very problematic. You seemed to be claiming that Christians always empathize with the victim. You know that’s not true. You also claimed that people who empathized did so because they were Christian, and that sentence holds the implication, intended or not, that only Christians empathize with victims.

    As for your changes, I would be offended at both of them, as an atheist and particularly as a woman. Neither atheists nor women instinctively empathize with victims. Imo, women are more likely to empathize with the women in a story, whether or not they’re victims. And in a story like this, we are likely to become angry (not a sin), and also thankful that we do not live in a society that makes us all sex slaves. 

    Saying that we’re more likely to empathize with victims, period, sounds like the writer is saying two things. First, that all women are victims, which could be argued on some level, since society is sexist, but when you’ve just related a story of a woman who was so horribly victimized by her utterly misogynistic society, it’s offensive. I have certainly suffered from misogyny, but not like that, thank the Invisible Pink Unicorn! I can exercise agency in my life, I can choose with whom to become involved sexually, and if someone tries to force me into a sexual relationship, they are doing something illegal. 

    Second, it sounds something like “women are from Venus”. That is sexist and, being sexist, untrue. Who showed more empathy, Ayn Rand or J.R.R. Tolkein? The idea that women are naturally more empathetic is of a piece with the idea that women are too emotional and naturally suited to stay home and raise babies. 

    As for the atheist alteration — I honestly laughed out loud when I read it. Not because I’m laughing at you, but because of the idea of what would happen if one said that to a group of atheists who are like the atheists I’ve known. “Are you high?” would be one likely response. 

  • Russell

    Your confusion regarding the response you got is, I suspect, due to the natural blindness that goes along with privelege. Were your atheist and women statements truly interchangeable in your mind you would simply have said “it’s because you are human” or “it’s because you are a good person” or even just left that qualifier out.

  • Russell

    Your confusion regarding the response you got is, I suspect, due to the natural blindness that goes along with privelege. Were your atheist and women statements truly interchangeable in your mind you would simply have said “it’s because you are human” or “it’s because you are a good person” or even just left that qualifier out.

  • Anonymous

     Richard, it sounds to me like you are doing your best to use the term “Christian” because it is a term (and a tribe) that is in general accepted, as opposed to the more specific term one would use for someone who empathizes with the victim instinctively, whether believer or atheist. We’re called liberals. Hide the women and children! ;)

  • Anonymous

     Richard, it sounds to me like you are doing your best to use the term “Christian” because it is a term (and a tribe) that is in general accepted, as opposed to the more specific term one would use for someone who empathizes with the victim instinctively, whether believer or atheist. We’re called liberals. Hide the women and children! ;)

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    For what it’s worth, I know where you’re coming from; you were giving an in-group talk, and it’s being viewed and discussed by out-of-group folks. You probably wouldn’t have used the same language for a larger audience consisting of folks outside your own beliefs.

    Of course, if you’re using one set of language for “your people” and another when you’re “in public”, that just might be evidence of a problem…

    Let’s say someone else gave this talk to a group of atheists and had said this:
    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are an atheist. You readthe story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”
    As a Christian, I’d not describe such a sentiment as horseshit.

    As an atheist, I would! The perspective of an atheist isn’t “instinctively” or “naturally” anything. Atheists are sadly just as prone to sexism, racism, and other forms of nastiness and short-sightedness as any other “ists”. (though we do often lack the historical, institutionalized aspects of those nasty things…)

    Part of the problem is tying the phrase “naturally and instinctively” to a set of learned beliefs and values.  If it really was “natural and instinctive”, that would apply to every person, not just “Christians/Atheists/Feminists/Whatever”.

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a woman. You readthe story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”
    As a man I wouldn’t feel excluded by that statement. Nor would I think the person is saying that men can’t naturally and instinctively see the victim in the story.

    Really? What if I said this:
    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but think about it rationally. Why is that? Because you’re a man.”
    Hmm… do you think that might make women feel excluded, or imply men are more rational than women?

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    For what it’s worth, I know where you’re coming from; you were giving an in-group talk, and it’s being viewed and discussed by out-of-group folks. You probably wouldn’t have used the same language for a larger audience consisting of folks outside your own beliefs.

    Of course, if you’re using one set of language for “your people” and another when you’re “in public”, that just might be evidence of a problem…

    Let’s say someone else gave this talk to a group of atheists and had said this:
    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are an atheist. You readthe story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”
    As a Christian, I’d not describe such a sentiment as horseshit.

    As an atheist, I would! The perspective of an atheist isn’t “instinctively” or “naturally” anything. Atheists are sadly just as prone to sexism, racism, and other forms of nastiness and short-sightedness as any other “ists”. (though we do often lack the historical, institutionalized aspects of those nasty things…)

    Part of the problem is tying the phrase “naturally and instinctively” to a set of learned beliefs and values.  If it really was “natural and instinctive”, that would apply to every person, not just “Christians/Atheists/Feminists/Whatever”.

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a woman. You readthe story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”
    As a man I wouldn’t feel excluded by that statement. Nor would I think the person is saying that men can’t naturally and instinctively see the victim in the story.

    Really? What if I said this:
    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but think about it rationally. Why is that? Because you’re a man.”
    Hmm… do you think that might make women feel excluded, or imply men are more rational than women?

  • Richard

    The part of my chapel talk that seems to be causing the most offense is this part:

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a Christian. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”

    Let’s say someone else gave this talk to a group of atheists and had said this:

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are an atheist. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”

    As a Christian, I’d not describe such a sentiment as horseshit. In fact, I’d stand and cheer. If that’s how someone defined their atheism I’d see them as a friend and partner. May your tribe increase.

    Let’s say someone else gave this talk to a group of women and had said this:

    “When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her
    perspective. And why is that? It’s because you are a woman. You read
    the story from the victim’s perspective naturally and instinctively.”

    As a man I wouldn’t feel excluded by that statement. Nor would I think the person is saying that men can’t naturally and instinctively see the victim in the story.

    But if I, as a Christian, try to connect my faith to empathy, more, try to define my faith as empathy, then I’m the one full of horseshit?

  • Mary Kaye

    I think the key point is that hardly anyone *naturally* empathizes with the victim.  It’s not a survival trait.  If you show compassion for victims it can lead you to be victimized yourself; you’re almost always safer walking away.  When people do show empathy with victims, it is not natural, it is not instinctive, it is not automatic:  it is a sign of moral character, which has to be developed and nurtured both by the individual and by his/her surroundings.

    Saying that, for your in-group, it’s natural and automatic and instinctive is a lie, a base piece of flattery, and an implicit smear of the out-group.  I don’t care what in-group is involved.  If you said that Pagans instinctively empathize with the victim I’d be equally annoyed.  (I’ve seen enough witch-wars to know better.)  I also learned in junior high that girls and women do not necessarily or naturally side with a female victim against a female aggressor.

    Let’s call this good behavior what it is:  a virtue, something to be prized and celebrated and trained up so that it flourishes.  If you can help guide Christianity to the point where it’s really true that Christians naturally root for the underdog, that’ll have been a great deed indeed.  But saying that they do now makes you look like a fool and a flatterer.

  • Mary Kaye

    I think the key point is that hardly anyone *naturally* empathizes with the victim.  It’s not a survival trait.  If you show compassion for victims it can lead you to be victimized yourself; you’re almost always safer walking away.  When people do show empathy with victims, it is not natural, it is not instinctive, it is not automatic:  it is a sign of moral character, which has to be developed and nurtured both by the individual and by his/her surroundings.

    Saying that, for your in-group, it’s natural and automatic and instinctive is a lie, a base piece of flattery, and an implicit smear of the out-group.  I don’t care what in-group is involved.  If you said that Pagans instinctively empathize with the victim I’d be equally annoyed.  (I’ve seen enough witch-wars to know better.)  I also learned in junior high that girls and women do not necessarily or naturally side with a female victim against a female aggressor.

    Let’s call this good behavior what it is:  a virtue, something to be prized and celebrated and trained up so that it flourishes.  If you can help guide Christianity to the point where it’s really true that Christians naturally root for the underdog, that’ll have been a great deed indeed.  But saying that they do now makes you look like a fool and a flatterer.

  • Mary Kaye

    Richard, I belong to a school of aikido which emphasizes “natural movement” (not using fancy stances, not tensing or contorting any part of the body, having a harmoniously good posture).  The problem is, that’s not how any of us move unless we really work hard to retrain ourselves.  We like to tease sensei when she says “It’s natural movement” by answering, in chorus, “and in 25 years you’ll think so too.”

    Some authors praise small children as having this “natural movement”.  But I teach aikido to small children, and generally speaking they are floppy uncoordinated little blighters who either have to be taught to be more coordinated or have to learn it themselves the hard way (by falling down a lot).  The difference between a trained and experienced small child and a newbie is blatant, and that’s true at any age we’ve ever tried.  (I had a wonderful six year old student once, a fast learner who quickly grasped what he was supposed to be doing–but it wasn’t where he started.)

    There’s a style of movement which is harmonious with what our bodies can do effectively and without injury.  I hope that our aikido style approaches this optimum.  But in calling it “natural” my teachers bring in the false ideas that it is easy and spontaneous–and then they spend years combating this false impression.  It’s particularly difficult when they want us to do something that is viscerally *unnatural* for us–in my case, standing up much straighter than I’m used to, which takes a lot of effort and feels anything but natural.  My back gets tired and wants to slump back into what it considers its natural (if undesirable) configuration.

    I’d get rid of this word “natural” if I were you.  The virtuous life may suit our best nature, but it doesn’t come naturally–it takes an effort.  That’s true whether you are a Christian or not.  I’d also get rid of “instinctive.”  As you note, your parents trained you into these qualities.  They are not instincts by any reasonable definition; you no more know how to empathize with victims instinctively than you know how to speak English instinctively, even if both are now trained to the point where you needn’t think about them anymore.

  • Heartfout

    I think the piece would be better if, rather than saying `When I read that story you couldn’t help but read the story from her perspective`, but, rather, ` When I read that story you shouldn’t have been able to help but read the story from her perspective`, as a call for what people should be doing, rather than a claim about what they do.

    Another problem comes out of this, which is, combined with statements about what people do, the exclusionary language used (even by accident) becomes dangerously close to other claims that only Christians can feel empathy, an interpretation not helped by your arguments that empathy came from the gospels.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Am I the only one here who can read “You thnk that because you are christian” and not take it to mean “Only christians could possibly think that”?

  • Heartfout

     Actually, the lines that got me thinking that were ”
    The gospels have taught us to read the story from the victim’s perspective” and “We’ve been trained to read that story from Jesus’s perspective, from the victim’s perspective”, although as I have stated, if it weren’t for the lack of words like `should` used, I wouldn’t have come to that.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Nope, I’m there with you too.  As Dave said, unless there are only two groups I tend not to take “X is/does…” statements to mean “Not-X is not/does not…”.

  • Michael Pullmann

     No, you are not. I got it from Fred’s piece, too. It’s not exclusive to the group, but it is (or should be; we are, after all, talking ideals) intrinsic to it.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Am I the only one here who can read “You thnk that because you are christian” and not take it to mean “Only christians could possibly think that”?

  • Richard

    Hi Everyone,
    It’s Spring Break here in Texas so I’ve been able to spend a lot of time on the threads these last two days. However, I’m going be away from the computer for a while from this evening on.

    So, thanks for all the conversation. I’ve learned a great deal. It is probably cold comfort to hear, for those I offended, that my heart (as best I can tell) was in the right place. As ill-executed and myopic as my post/talk might have been, I was trying to do the right thing.

    Peace.

  • Russell

    Richard- thanks for stopping by and having the conversation. I cannot improve on Lliira’s comment-it really hits the nail on the head and I commend at least one or two more reads of it to you over the next couple of days (after the tension of the conversation has settled).

    I’ll just offer a couple more brief points:

    – the context of your talk is important, but please recognize that we do not share that context and that we read and interpret it in a different context, and will always necessarily do that. So claiming context as a rationale is really just an excuse. I say that advisedly as a member of several groups that both frequently speak in a special context and are (rightly) called to task for it when our comments escape that context.

    – along the same lines, please consider how your words, spoken in the intended context and to the intended audience, colors their view of the out group. Clearly you did not mean to offend, but you probably did reinforce a view of the other amongst your intended audience: that outsiders are not as virtuous

  • Anonymous

    Well… I obviously can’t speak for anyone, but I don’t think the commenters here especially doubted your intention. I think it wasn’t really made clear, since it’s sort of a base-level assumption in the community unless explicitly stated otherwise, but I’d hazard that people do largely believe that you sincerely did not intend for your talk to be exclusionary or boastful, even if a sizeable chunk of the comments have been pretty harsh. 

    Thing is, while you’ve been defending your wording by explaining that you wouldn’t feel excluded or annoyed by the “You do X because you’re a Y” setup, regardless (well, mostly) of the contents of X or Y, you aren’t your audience. I mean, absolutely, your audience does and will contain people of various beliefs who feel the same way you do, and they’ll readily agree that they did not see anything really problematic about your talk, and that they understood your intention from the start. This is true. 

    But it also contains people who don’t feel that way. It contains non-Christians who have heard similar words from many arrogant and self-aggrandising Christians, and are too tired of the same old rhetoric to give you the benefit of the doubt; it contains Christians who are disgusted with the culture of Christian superiority cultivated by so many intolerant churches, and are uncomfortable with how easily some of your words could be used to bully others, simply by reading them in a different tone of voice; it contains people who confidently identify as Christian, regardless of how valid you might think that is, and do believe that Christians are more moral, more empathetic, that Christians are naturally better people, and may happily read your words as an encouragement and endorsement of their self-righteous pride. 

    Yes, your intention was good. You wanted people to draw a deep connection between their Christian identity and their empathy, and that’s not a bad thing. I think the point was that yes, if read charitably, with a good understanding of the kind of person you are, then a reader can definitely find your intended message in your talk, and come away happy that someone out there is trying to make Christians feel good about doing good. But the context and understanding that makes this interpretation the most likely one is not something you can assume that everyone in your audience has; even if they appear to be pleased by what you’ve said, you can’t assume that the message they heard is the one you meant to convey. 

    Obviously, you can’t guarantee against misunderstandings 100% of the time, but in this case, I think it’s safe to say that your intended meaning was not self-evidently the most likely one, and I think there are things that could’ve been added to your talk that would’ve made your genuine message stand out a lot more, without making it sound any more mechanically formal. For me, simply the understanding and acceptance that the “You do X because you’re a Y” setup means different things to different people seems like it would naturally lead to you trying to be more explicit about your meaning. And maybe that would’ve been enough. 

    O’course, “This may mean different things to different people; have I provided enough context within the piece itself to strongly suggest what I mean when I say it” seems like a pretty good general-purpose idea to remember when writing all sorts of things, but your mileage may vary on that front. 

    Sorry this got so long. 

  • WingedBeast

    Remember, Richard, your statement wasn’t prescriptive.  “You are to empathize with the victim because (among other things) that is in line with the requirements of Christianity.”  It was descriptive, you had asked if they had identified with the unnamed woman who, in this story, was victim, and when they had, you said their empathy was because they were Christians.

    In other words “Your Christianness explains your meeting this minimal standard of decency.”  Was that your intent?  Maybe, maybe not.  But, to use a statement that I learned from a related website, “intent is not magic”.

    With that claim of explanatory power of Christianity with regards to the basic repulsion at a woman getting killed, not only by a city full of people, but by the callous use of her as a thing by a man that she served, you are insulting… everybody involved.

    Your notion that “You stand up to bullies because you’re a Beck” was a different matter.  It was a statement that, because you are a Beck, you have certain responsibilities… which, again, was not your statement.

    Even within an “in group”, that’s insulting.  You are saying “You don’t meet this minimal basic decency standard because you, on your own, can be trusted to meet even so low a standard, but because Christianity made you that way.”  And, that is a disgusting thing to say.

    What’s more, it does real damage to any intended effort to encourage empathy for victims.  That suggestion that Christianness is an explanation for empathy is less an encouragement to empathy with victims, but an encouragement to deny empathy to non-Christians.

    Even within that in-group setting, the claim is still insulting for two reasons.  A.  Non Christians still exist.  B. So do Christians.

  • Anonymous

    As an Atheist- I’m with Richard on this one. 

    Look- inclusivity is excellent. But that isn’t the only good thing. Some things are, yes, exclusive.  I’d find it odd if Richard commented on something I wrote from an atheist perspective and started trying to put it in a Christian context.

    Look- sometimes we’re all jes’ people, and sometimes we’re groups.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with groups- Richard is a Christian, I’m an atheist. We are part of very different groups with very different beliefs.   

    Actually, lets make it something less controversial.  Richard is a Star Trek fan. I’m a Doctor Who fan. Neither of us cares much for the others preference. 

    If Richard writes a paper talking to a bunch of Trekkies about how all morality can be derived from Jean-Luc Picard, and I write one about how all morality can be derived from the Doctor, neither one of us is insulting the other. Neither one of us is even THINKING about the other. I’m talking about my thing, he’s talking about his thing. 

    And if we’re on the street and see someone being bullied, and I jump up and say to my people “C’mon! We’re WHOVIANS! THIS IS WHAT WE DO, THIS IS WHAT THE DOCTOR WOULD WANT!”  and he yells “C’mon! WE’RE TREKKIES AND THIS IS WHAT JEAN-LUC WOULD WANT US TO DO!”….then all we’re doing is motivating our various groups with things that are personally meaningful to them. 

    If Richard was talking to me, I expect he would use different language- the Christ story doesn’t resonate with me.  But he was talking to people for whom the Christ story had incredible meaning. If he was telling this story to me, he might’ve said “you read this story and instinctively sympathize with the victim because that’s what your grandfather taught you.”

    That doesn’t mean mine was the only grandfather that passed on that sort of wisedom, it doesn’t mean that people without grandfathers are incapable of morality. It means that to get a point across to ME he used something meaningful to ME just as when he talked to THEM he used something meaningful to THEM. 

    TL;DR:  Ultimately, this wasn’t addressed to us. Richard (obviously) doesn’t mind us reading it, but we are not the audience. It was intended to move and inspire and change a group of young people with one giant factor in common, and so he used that giant factor as leverage. 

  • Anonymous

    Russell- I really have to disagree. There are many, many times in our lives when we will be addressing one specific group. Addressing that groups motivations and beliefs will of necessity involve ignoring all the other motivations and beliefs. That doesn’t mean those aren’t valid viewpoints, those just aren’t OUR viewpoints.  

    A Christian sermon might have a great deal that is edifying and useful to an atheist. Certainly I cannot see anyone complaining that an atheist read their sermon. But trying to pretend it wasn’t a sermon is silly. This was a religious piece on a religious subject presented to a religious group for the purpose of challenging and shaping their faith. 

    Since I am not religious and I do not have faith, that entire aspect of the talk was directed at someone who is by definition, not at ALL like me. Thats fine- not everyone is or should be like me.   But just because he’s talking to those people over there doesn’t mean he hates these people over here- just…thats who he’s talking to right now.  Notably, Richard hasn’t come in here swinging defensively, but has engaged with us in our own way. He didn’t try to quote the Bible at you, or use it as the ultimate argument. He engaged with you in your way, in your context, and he engaged with them their way, in their context.

    Context and intent are not magical pills that fix anything. But neither should they be totally ignored. 

  • Anonymous-Sam

    To paraphrase the Tao te Ching, “If you want to divide people, try to unite them.” You can’t designate a group of people without highlighting the differences between them and others. Praise that group, and by association, you insult everyone not belonging to it.

    You know what saddens me? How quickly racism enters the Bible.

  • Ursula L

    There is certainly a valid argument that (some forms of) Christianity teach one to look at any given situation with empathy towards the victims.

    But that isn’t the same as saying that one looks at a situation with empathy for the victim (only) because one is Christian.

    In teaching that being Christian requires looking at situations with empathy for a victim, it’s very important not to teach that one only can look at a situation with empathy for the victim through a Christian lens.  

    Because it is really, really easy for someone to interpret that teaching as meaning that only Christians can be properly empathetic towards victims. And that is particularly true when you’re teaching the lesson in a specifically Christian situation such as a chapel.  

    Teaching Christians, in a closed Christian environment such as a chapel sermon, that they look at a situation with empathy because of Christianity is deeply damaging, because it denies and ignores the empathy that every decent non-Christians feels towards victims in these types of situations.  

    You can’t encourage empathy while also teaching the non-empathy of believing that empathy is a special quality of your own in-group.

  • Anonymous

    Also, I think you’re neglecting the Bayesian point here: we’re all used to hearing “Christian” used in the public discourse as an exclusive category — even a synonym — for “decent human being”, so we have a strong prior probability on “You sympathise with the underdog because you’re a Christian” being meant that way. If you-all Christians want to change that, I wish you the best of luck; converting the common use of such a construction from a magic get-out-of-jail-free word into a statement of responsibility would be wonderful. I can’t really help, because I’m not a Christian and never have been, and thus am totally unqualified for that job.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never really been anything but the atheist I was born, and I still have to remind myself forcefully that there actually are people who DON’T sympathise instinctively with the victim.

  • Anonymous

    This is having the annoying effect of nudging me toward actually reading
    Girard, who seems fascinating but not exactly like light reading.
    Anyone else want to nudge me further in that direction? If so, where
    would you recommend starting?

    I’m not remotely an expert on Girard, but Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World seems to read pretty quickly.  It’s rambly and inexplicably transcribed entirely from interviews, but that very fact keeps the writing from getting too impenetrable.

    As for critiques of Girard, you might try this article by Richard Landes, or this one by Robert M. Price.  Mind, neither of those directly addresses the big question of whether there actually is much evidence that early Western religion was all about scapegoating.  My impression is that the answer is no, and so obviously no that few working historians and anthropologists are even thinking about Girard’s argument on that front.  But again, not an expert.


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