Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dehumanizing the Enemy: The Cross-Fire of the Culture War

Yesterday a friend of mine sent out a paper in which he very strongly criticized the method of scriptural interpretation that I use. It was not a personal attack against me, as he wrote it to condemn not me, or my method, but a method of scriptural interpretation which I happen (perhaps unbeknownst to him) to use.

I could say that this friend - one of my oldest and dearest friends - is a conservative pastor. And that would be a true statement, since he is theologically conservative, and is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. But my friend cannot be reduced to that label, conservative, which we liberals so often use to discredit others, as they use liberal against us.

If I read the paper my friend sent out yesterday without knowing who wrote it, I would probably post here some kind of rhetoric against it. I could go through it piece by piece and draw out each reach, each stretch, each logical fallacy or historical misrepresentation. If I read it without knowing who wrote it, or without being so close to the author, I could use what one reader has called my "philosophy major tricks" to make the piece look like the work of a total moron.

But this paper, which powerfully attacks and condemns the method of scriptural interpretation which I use, was written by one of my closest friends in the world. So, what should I do?

A few years ago a good friend of mine went off to fight in the war in Iraq. While he was on ship he wrote this, in a letter to me:

[T]he guys all talk about killing ragheads. To them its like a game, just another training exercise, except the targets are shooting back. The targets don't have names or faces or families or friends who love them and want them to come home. They're just part of that "evil regime" that must be overthrown.

My Marine friend was concerned that part of fighting a war necessarily involves dehumanizing the enemy. This is true whether or not the cause or conduct of the war is just. This is true because, in order to kill another human being without hesitation, you must be able to look at them as only a target, rather than a person with rights and attachments just like you.

We say that we are now involved in a Culture War, in which we fight (generally) with words rather than rounds of ammunition, with rhetoric rather than mortars. But do we not here too experience the same temptation to dehumanize our enemy in the name of efficiently advancing our own "just" cause?

My friend's paper bothered me, not because I couldn't handle his arguments (I could), but because of the way in which I wanted to handle his arguments. I wanted to use logic and rhetoric to discredit his position, without mercy or hesitation.

Should we, in this war, lay waste to our own friends, to our own family? And, if the answer is "no" (and I suspect that it is), then are we justified in laying waste to anyone at all? Are not all of us God's children? Are not all of us who claim the name Christian united by the redeeming blood of Christ, which is washing away our sinful natures?

I am concerned about the level of rhetoric in this Culture War. And I am more concerned about my participation in it. I do not repudiate either my positions or my methods, but perhaps I do repudiate the spirit with which I fight this "good" fight.


Ewtdawg said...

Hey that was a great article and nice connection with how we see our "enemies" despite the battlefield. Did I write that quote? That was very poetic. If I didn't know you were quoting me, I wouldn't have guessed that I was capable of writing like that. On a sheer sidenote, how do you keep your profile column on the right from being pushed down to the bottom of the page?

Sandalstraps said...

Yea, you wrote that, all right! In fact, that letter is full of all kinds of gems like that. The war brought out the poet in you, evidently. I have another letter from you which you wrote in the desert in the tone of the Desert Fathers. I think you were reading Merton at the time. One of the many reasons I want you to write more.

As for the profile column, I don't know. I'm not very good with the HTML, and I'm having a hard time picturing what you're talking about. You might want to ask Tom.

Brian Cubbage said...

I haven't experienced any display problems with the profile column. I use Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, and I am quite satisfied with it.

To the substance of your post: I firmly believe in the distinction between persons and the arguments they make. If your friend is making an argument that fails to persuade, there should be a way of specifying what about it fails to be persuasive without calling your friend's sincerity, integrity, intelligence, etc. into question. Your friend might be thin-skinned about even constructive criticism, but if that's the case, this is a problem with your friend, not with you.

As someone who works in the "argument industry," I much prefer to get criticisms from my friends, because this helps me fix the problems with my arguments before people who aren't my friends have a chance to do so!

Sandalstraps said...

I think you're right, Brian. But I also think that religious differences between friends (and that's really what this is) must be handled with extreme care, for reasons which are obvious.

My point with this post was to take issue with the way in which I usually handle religious differences. In this case the issue needs to be a private one, not a public one. (I know, by alluding to it here I have already made it more public than it ought to be.) I don't need to use my blog to call out a friend, even if in "calling him out" I am really only addressing errors in his argument apart from his personality.

Also, in religion we often do not really build arguments like you do in philosophy. Religious arguments tend to be appeals to authority - often the authority of the one making the argument and the religious insitution which they represent. When you challenge the substance of the argument you inadvertently challenge the authority of the one making the argument and the institution which they represent. This is one of the many dangers of dogmatism in religion: it fails to make that distinction between person and argument. When the argument in some way depends on the person, the distinction is blurred.

I'm not saying that's the way it ought to be, nor am I saying that I should be bound to respect that, but I am saying that too often that is the case. And when that is the case, if you value the friendship you must tread lightly when dealing with the argument, understanding that something unnecessary and nasty could erupt.

My friend is not so thin skinned. He has been skewered many times over, and survived. But he's never been skewered by me. Not in a public forum. The point is twofold:

1. Is the disagreement important enough to me that I should engage in a kind of debate which could (due more to the nature of this sort of debate in religion than the personalities involved) harm our friendship? And,

2. If so, should the debate be held first in private rather than public?

These are questions I don't ask when someone I don't know personally makes a flawed argument which challenges something I hold dear.

Do the ethics of a situation change when friendship is involved?

Tom said...


Apparently you are poetic. Who knew?

It's good to see you blogging again. As far as the formatting issues you are having with your sidebar- I don't know what's wrong. I viewed the source HTML and nothing jumped out to me as to why all the sidebar info is appearing at the bottom of the screen. Usually that would happen because something in the sidebar is too large to fit there, but that did not appear to be the case. I'm flummoxed. Sorry

Brian Cubbage said...

Chris-- I agree that when persons who represent religious institutions make theological arguments, the stakes are higher and the more carefully one must tread. But your real concerns do appear to be with the ethics of friendship apart from the niceties of theological argument.

I can honestly see both sides of the issue you raise. But in the final analysis, it seems to me from how you have described the situation that you shouldn't "go public" with your criticisms. After all, it sounds like your friend sent you the paper privately and in confidence. If you feel that your friend has taken positions that he might want to rethink, it's not as if he himself has gone public and so it's now your job to try to get another side out there alongside his. If I were you, I wouldn't make the disagreements between you any more public than they already have been by this thread in your blog until such time as your friend should make his views more public. That might change things a little bit. Maybe.

In answer to your broader question, I think that friendship does create moral obligations that don't exist between persons who aren't friends. (Don't ask me to produce an overarching theory about that, though!) One of the things about friendship, though, is that friendships differ widely among themselves; some friends share common interests, whereas others have few interests in common but nevertheless share some less obvious connection. As a religious person myself, I would hope that friendship between Christians could exist based upon a shared faith that runs deeper than the content of our theological beliefs. (I even have good friendships with religious non-Christians that are like this.) One thing I wish the world could see more of is people who can say in public, "I disagree strongly with your theological beliefs, but we share bonds of friendship that are stronger than our disagreements."

Sandalstraps said...

Well said (or written), Brian, and wholly appropriate given that today is Christian Unity Day.

Oddly enough I often feel a deeper connection to religious people who are not fellow Christians than I do to fellow Christians because of the emphasis that Christians put on doctrine and dogma. When I am with Jews or Buddhists or any number of other religious groups we are bonded by a common emphasis on religious experience. But when I am with other Christians - particularly Christians with differing doctrinal approaches - we often focus less on the enormous common ground we share and more on the petty differences.

But today is a day to focus on that common ground we all share as members of the body of Christ. The challenge is not to love each other in spite of our differences, but even to love each other because of our differences. In our differences we provide a fuller description of the God who can not be reduced to a single set of beliefs.