Friday, March 05, 2010

Blessed are the Conflicted

As part of a recent assignment, I was required to write up short, snappy summaries of candidates who are running this election cycle for political office. In so doing, I had to make sure to showcase their legislative accomplishments as well as to provide a bit of the personal to ensure that they seemed human and approachable, rather than robotic policy wonks. In the course of my work, what I couldn't help but notice was that, regardless of how Progressive a candidate claimed to be, he or she was always very careful to highlight his/her strong support of the military and of those who either currently served or had served in times past. To back up this claim, close family members and other relatives who had served in combat were visibly invoked, as were the specific bills proposed to assist both veterans and military families. This deliberate posturing was true to a person, even candidates who were bold enough to promote themselves as peace-loving doves.

As a rule, Quakers are strict believers in pacifism. Though I was not born into the faith, I have often attempted to reconcile my original thoughts on war with those which I believe now. I find, as is sometimes the case, that the two of them are often in conflict. Those who have studied wars in much detail, as I have, know that there is something about them that translates well to stirring narrative and romantic retelling. In time, the horror of battle subsides, as well as its impact upon the civilians caught in the middle, and we are left with a sort of gloried nostalgia that any sports fan can understand as he or she recalls in conversation some past victory and close defeat. Perhaps this is what Robert E. Lee meant when he said, "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it."

Two choices lay before me. I could go out of my way to mention that this particular section of the work went against my religious beliefs, but doing so would draw attention to myself, perhaps unduly and to no good end. I would then be obligated to specify why I found it so objectionable, and while I have no doubt that my reservations would be noted and taken seriously, I'm not really sure that anyone would truly understand why I found the matter so odious and offensive. Or, instead, I could choose complete the task in full, not feeling especially good about it, and simply pass the baton to someone else so that it would no longer be my problem anymore. I regret to report that I chose the latter, since delegating an additional task to someone else already overburdened with work would cause delays and potentially result in resentment from whomever had to pick up where I left off.

Life, of course, is full of such compromises. I have no doubt that those of you reading this have run up against similar circumstances in your own lives. It may be a simple matter of, pardon the expression, knowing how and where to pick our battles. Few of us are fortunate enough to have the ability to be purists in all circumstances. In politics, only those fortunate few who run for office in cities, districts, or states overwhelmingly in support of one particular way of thinking ever truly get the ability to present a public face anything in line with their own private convictions. The game of politics as we know it states, in part, that one is only really indebted to one's last position statement, and moreover, anything said today can be compellingly rationalized away tomorrow if needed. It isn't just politicians who have a genius for rationalization. Humans have managed to become masters at the process.

Returning to the earlier point, my own inward leanings against war of any sort take me once again to the Sermon on the Mount and those old, familiar passages that many have committed to heart.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus doesn't equivocate here. He doesn't give us any wiggle room. He doesn't say, "Forgive your enemies, unless you're in danger of losing your job." He doesn't say, "Some of you were taught that if someone were to pluck out your eye, you have a right to pluck out theirs in retaliation, but don't do that, unless, of course, the laws on the books tell you otherwise." He doesn't say, "Love those who hate you, but I certainly concede that there are some people who simply aren't able to be loved without turning on you." Jesus wasn't exactly someone who practiced the art of Triangulation or who talked out of both sides of his mouth.

Emerson famously mentioned that to be great was to be misunderstood and I have always been uncomfortable with the phrasing and the sentiment. It can be easily construed as a justification for egotistical conduct and as a crutch to forgive deplorable behavior. I'd much rather put it another way alogether. To be a servant, putting yourself last and service to your fellow person first, is to be misunderstood. To live a spiritual life is to be misunderstood. To chart a course between pragmatism and idealism is to be misunderstood as well, but don't forget that to be fully misunderstood is to stick to your convictions even when others don't understand them. After all,

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
"Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.
"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

These words are as shocking now as they were then and just as applicable.

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