Monday’s not only the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for Atonement, but it’s the day on which I’d committed to leading an afternoon discussion group at my Reform Temple. The discussion leader has about ten minutes to present the topic and she can pick her topic. So I picked —
What the heck. That can’t be bad. Should draw the big crowds.
In my ten minutes, I figured I’d shovel two obstacles out of the way, which block people nowadays from taking a fresh look at this topic.
The first obstacle is the “nonjudgmental” mindset. Note that it never means refusing to judge that this shoe is a size too small or that the light’s turned green so I can cross now. In practice, the prohibition applies fairly narrowly to judgments of right and wrong.
Since my co-congregants tend to be liberal, they’re avowedly nonjudgmental. At the same time, they are Jews. So I thought to cite a book, Mission at Nuremberg, where Tim Townsend, an American army chaplain, ministers to Nazi war criminals sentenced to hang. He gets four or five of them to return to the (Lutheran) church and, by his lights, find forgiveness for their sins and restoration to the grace of God.
I don’t fault the good Lutheran chaplain. He may well have worked some inner transformations on his doomed parishioners. For myself however, I find the Jewish doctrine of atonement more credible. (Sins against other people call for confession of the specific wrong to the one wronged, repair of the actual injury where feasible, and evidence that – faced with the same tempting circumstances — the wrongdoer would resist next time.) Under the genocidal circumstances, these remedies would not all be available. If the genocidaire asked me, and I thought he really felt bad about it, I might advise him to get started on the long road back, but I sure wouldn’t tell him not to worry because it’s all okay now that he’s heaven-bound.
Anyway, however you set about repairing a wrong, the example shows that the judgment of its being wrong can’t easily be dodged!
The second obstacle to taking sin seriously is cultural relativism. It was brought into our culture by influential twentieth-century anthropologists. Professionally committed to treating good and evil as nothing but what is approved or disapproved by any given culture, and finding that different cultures held different moral values, the earliest cohort of anthropologists would typically discover far-off tribes whose values differed from our own and then report their findings.
In her widely-read book, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict described the Kwakiutl, an indigenous tribe living in the Pacific Northwest. Their potlatch ceremony included a competition between tribesmen to see who could destroy more of his own goods! In Benedict’s value-neutral report, the reader might also detect a subliminally ironic comparison with the conspicuous consumption seen in the United States.
I read that book in college. Years later, reading Slavery and Social Death by the African-American Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, I noticed Patterson’s more detailed account of the potlatch ceremony. It seems that … among “the goods” that the Kwakiutl destroyed … were slaves.
If Patterson’s right, why did Benedict omit that detail? Was it because she knew that slavery was wrong and killing slaves more wrong still? She omitted it because the intrusion of objective wrong into her narrative would undermine her case for cultural relativism.
Supposing that good and evil have a standing independent of cultures opens up questions that seemed closed and settled. It also allows us look more searchingly at the topic of sin – whether there is such a thing and whether it differs in some way from mere wrongdoing.
There was another book I read in preparation for my ten minutes: Elie Wiesel’s Night. It’s a short book, a memoir of his boyhood experience as a victim and survivor of the Holocaust. It’s quite a shattering read and, up till now, I’d deliberately refrained from getting near it. I’d read trial transcripts, memoirs, historians’ accounts, but always instinctively avoided Wiesel’s Night.
As he reports, the victims marked for being murdered always refused to believe – until the very last – that anything so inconceivably horrible as putting people in ovens would be possible in our civilized world. This stubborn optimism-of-the-sane persisted as, in each step and stage, another layer of human worth and dignity would be peeled away. Privacy, any ability to put a good face on anything about oneself, most of the strength for emotional continuing – all this was peeled away –
layer by layer.
I tend to understand history and personal life erotically. Normally people are motivated by their ability to focus and sustain desire and desirability.
So when you reduce and peel away, maliciously and gratuitously, every last skin that allows for desire – so that nothing is left but the after-trace of the human being to whom the worst has been done – what meaning can we assign to such a reduction?
The cynics and those who take the tragic view will answer at once:
There is no meaning left.
The sky goes dark.
I decided to try to take up residence in the mind of the man or woman who has been (for cruel purposes) reduced to the sub-erotic level:
What I saw and felt was that there, in the absolute center of the worst that can be done to a human being, is one clear metric:
We can measure evil.
If there is such a thing as evil, then we can also take the measure of good in all its degrees. Good is what takes the other direction from evil.
So, without wishing to, the people of the covenant, in whom (Gen. 12:3) God promised Abraham that “all the families of the earth [shall] be blessed,” have rendered a great service. By suffering an evil so terrible that even its deniers acknowledge it by their denial, they have made our otherwise opaque and unreadable time
transparent and legible in moral terms.