Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Convenient Excuses

This is the first of two posts inspired by something my father shared on Facebook the other day:*

Guns, for or against, is not the issue. Sin is the issue. Jesus is the answer for all of us. He is the Prince of Peace!
"Put simply, today’s liberalism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So liberals inveigh against the instruments the evil use rather than the evil that motivates them." – WILLIAM MCGURN, The Liberal Theology of Gun Control, Guns are what you talk about to avoid having to talk about Islamist terrorism., The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2015

As a counter (and for the purposes of this argument), we could also say, "Simply put, today's conservatism cannot deal with the reality of evil. So conservatives inveigh against specific types of people rather than the evil that lies within each of us."

These are equally accurate and equally inaccurate. Accurate insomuch that they describe real positions real people hold, but, of course, inaccurate because they fail to describe the real motivations of everyone a speaker might term conservative or liberal. In short, they're convenient excuses - half-truths we tell ourselves to prevent us from challenging our own comfortable feelings.

I can hear Peter Rollins in the back of my head right now, maybe because I've been reading and hearing too much of him lately or maybe because he's right, but he'd be saying, "of course none of us is comfortable with these strongly held beliefs, but we cling to them strongly in order to avoid the real uncertainty of unbelief."

What he's saying is that many gun control advocates really do respect and covet the notion of personal security, recognize the importance of personal freedom, but don't see an easy compromise, so they cling to an intracted position as a means of avoiding the messy compromise of reality. In the same way, gun control opponents really do recognize the damage guns do in society and struggle with the tension between freedom and safety, but holding to a definitive position is simply easier for the brain to handle, at least on the surface and in the short term.

We use convenient excuses to avoid uncertainty.

Rollins always uses the example of religious belief. Some people believe deeply in faith healing, but will take their grandmother to the hospital when she's having a heart attack, because, despite their genuine and sincerely held belief, there's enough unbelief to act more rationally when the situation calls for it. He argues that the real danger in these groups is not from those who overtly challenge core beliefs, but those who really do believe them without question. It's not the person who laughs at faith healing who's the enemy; the doubter merely helps to bring the faithful closer together. The real enemy is the person who will let grandma die while they pray over here, when there's an ER right down the street. Those people possess no unbelief at all, and they're dangerous.

This also proves the benefit and the danger of convenient excuses. The line above is certainly true of some people - those are the true believers, right? But it put the "other" in a Catch-22. If someone defending gun control as a core belief is faced with this accusation, they likely agree, but can't rightly say, "you're right, this describes some people in our movement," because then they're recognizing the very irrational, true believers, who pose a threat to their position, the ones who might expose it for the horror it is.

Similarly, someone from the gun rights movement can't rightly say "true, this scapegoating is wrong and an easy way out," without betraying the loyalty they have to the underlying message, without exposing the true believers as a problem to the position.

We're seeing this in our political process right now. We've got Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, each of whom may or may not be true believers, but two men who are certainly convincing others of the fidelity of their ideologies. They representing the true believers that those in the establishment can't rightly denounce and can't rightly support. Most people in both parties recognize the ideological comfort Sanders and Trump provide, but also recognize the untenable reality of either actually becoming President.

The convenient excuses are, at the same time, being embodied like never before, yet are also being unmasked in uniquely real and uncomfortable ways.

I think about how this plays out in my own faith tradition. Despite our best theological efforts to do otherwise, the Church of the Nazarene still largely paints an expectation of perfection in its teaching and preaching. We're at least expected to be getting better as people over the years. This manifests itself in genuine difficulty dealing with regression. An alcoholic is welcome to be a part of the church, even as they are still dealing with their disease, but once they have conquered it (however that's described) and gained sort of full membership in the eyes and inner-workings of the community, any relapse or recurrence creates existential problems. Our learned theology doesn't have a way with dealing well with such relapse. Once a sin is defeated, it's supposed to stay dead.

Now that bears out in reality with the allowance of some sins to remain. If things are unspoken, or the individual in question doesn't take too prominent a role, things can be overlooked. Lots of Nazarene congregations have ashtrays by the back door and lots of people smoke, despite its denunciation. Part of the reason is that we have grace, which is real and genuine, part of the reason is because it's easy to allow some "smaller" problems as a trade off for dealing with big ones.

Now, of course this isn't universal - there are lots of communities who find awesome and graceful ways of handling even the most difficult challenges, but it would be tough to argue they are the majority. At the very least, that argument is a convenient excuse - partly true in fact, but indicative of a larger problem.

I'm sure it stems from our primitive brain functions that want to reduce everything to black and white, right and wrong. We want categorization. This is a good person, that is a bad person. This is a moral act, that is an immoral act. Convenient excuses allow us to do that, because they're clothed in real, actual, undeniable truth. We fight over them because admitting any real truth in someone else's convenient excuse forces us to throw away the convenient excuses we're using to avoid our own messy situations.

Rollins talks about unmasking these convenient excuses (although I'm not sure he uses that term) and how doing so creates high levels of anxiety. Our natural reaction is do push down the anxiety, usually by denying the problem, fighting to defend a convenient excuse (either as right or wrong). He suggests and I'd like to find (help create) a community of people who feel safe enough with each other to get beyond the convenient excuses, who form a supportive enough community that we can faithfully live in the mess of uncertainty and healthily deal with the anxiety it produces rather than running from it.

*This should in no way imply I am accusing my father or anything other than having good taste in quotes. I've seen a lot of people use the quote to make various inferences about policy and beliefs that I'm not sure are implicit in the quoted statement above. We all sort of have to deal with our reactions to it honestly.

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