Wednesday, February 3, 2010

You're welcome, Part II

"Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted into nominal Christians, than disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth."  (Herman Melville, Typee)

"We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world." (Herman Melville, White Jacket)
 * * * * * * * * *

A group of American missionaries goes to Haiti in search of orphans to save (with every connotation that little verb can muster). They pick up thirty-three children and head to the Dominican Republic, but are arrested at the border for having taken the children without documentation or without verifying that the children were even orphans. Are these folks kidnappers? (see story here)

Well, to put it plainly, to evaluate the situation based on the act itself rather than on the internal world of these missionaries' thoughts, yes. Yes, they are kidnappers. But what of the world in which they fancy themselves God's elves? What of their belief that they were on a mission ordained by Christ, that they never had any intentions of trafficking children, that they were actually doing good? Must this be taken into account? Again, I say yes; but maybe not in the way Idaho's Central Valley Baptist Church would like.

For the record, I fully buy the story of the missionaries. I do believe that they acted with the best of intentions, and that their enthusiasm and naivete blinded them rather than that their Christian mission is a cover-up for some nefarious plot. And maybe the children had a darker future awaiting them in Haiti than they did in a Baptist-run orphanage in the Dominican Republic or in the custody of adoptive parents in the U.S. This viewpoint was partially validated when it emerged that some of the kids actually were not orphans, but were handed over to the missionaries by their own parents, who were promised that their children would be educated in America and placed in loving homes with swimming pools. So this will not be a commentary on if or how these people should be punished, because frankly I don't have an opinion. What they did was illegal, but was done with the best of intentions. You can't take children out of a country without proper documentation, but some of them were handed over by their own parents. So it's all criminal and beneficent and bad and good and on and on and on...we have courts to address those questions.

What bothers me is not the difficulty of finding an answer to these legal and ethical questions, but the mindset that would justify such actions in the first place. What bothers me is that the real problem resides in the very term thrown around in an attempt to exonerate these do-gooders for their do-gooding: Faith.

Understand, when I criticize faith I don't mean to criticize people of faith (though I think that label is unfortunate for reasons I'll soon disclose) or religion per se, but rather a particular brand of faith that subordinates ethical coexistence to unethical but well-intentioned behavior, and opens the door to a form of imperialism that can always revert back to an ethical standard derived from a plane unavailable for assessment by non-believers.

It's a deficient version of the paradoxical faith of Abraham as conceived by Kierkegaard. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard describes the faith paradox as being predicated on the "strength of the absurd." After decades of barrenness, God has not only granted Abraham a son, but promised that this seed shall give rise to a great nation. Since Abraham has absolute faith in the word of God, he doesn't question the order to kill his son, but, on the strength of the absurd, believes that he can both obey the order and get his son back in some undisclosed way. Furthermore, in obeying the word of God, Abraham here must disregard the ethical--he must reject the social world and exist only to obey God. He can't explain his actions, since they are justifiable only on the strength of the absurd and are simply unjustifiable to the world at large. To the earthly world beyond himself, Abraham is, at the moment he reaches the top of Mount Moriah, no more than a premeditated murderer. That God stops him at the last second does not justify the silent preparation and intended execution (for it had to be intended, otherwise it wouldn't constitute an act of faith and then Abraham would just be some guy).

Kierkegaard calls this rejection of ethics in the service of the absolute the "teleological suspension of the ethical," and if you don't have God whispering in your ear or thundering down at you from the mountaintops you can still teleologically suspend the ethical if you really think you're working toward a godly end. And therein lies the problem with those religious factions who value blind faith over less nihilistic versions of religious observance, like piety, for example. Any post-biblical version of blind faith must be deficient for two reasons: first, Abraham is an example that can't be emulated--otherwise, again, he wouldn't matter. Second, the "knight of faith" (as Kierkegaard refers to Abraham) is not viewed as such by his contemporaries, because of his suspension of the ethical--the very thing that makes him an exemplar of godly action would render him a criminal in his own age. To commend or excuse unethical behavior based on the faith of the transgressor makes no sense, since we don't have access to his revelation, and if we did, his actions wouldn't be exceptional.

So what does this have to do with these missionaries in Haiti? The problem is not that these individuals conceived of themselves as having received orders directly from God (although some have made statements eerily close to such a claim), but that the U.S. as a whole operates with this City on a Hill mentality that always justifies itself based on some hazy endpoint by which we consider ourselves essentially better than others. How is it even debatable that taking thirty-three children from their home country without documentation, without verifying whether they're all actually orphans, without getting permission from any of the three nations involved, would be a case of child trafficking? It's really only debatable if there's some essential difference between these kidnappers and real kidnappers. So when they say "we are not kidnappers," they can't possibly mean that they didn't take children without permission; what they can mean is that they aren't Ukrainian pornographers, Thai pimps, Mauritanian slave drivers, etc. What they mean is "we are Americans," and that's supposed to be a valid defense. Still, no one in their right mind would deny that such actions--even if committed with the best of intentions--have massive potential for now giving the green light to "real" traffickers. And yet every day on every channel defenders of these people's actions are taken seriously when they defend them not on the grounds that their violation of the law was a mistake, an idiotic and arrogant move that they regret, but that they didn't violate the law because they acted in good faith.
By this absurd logic a surgeon could retroactively excuse operating with blunt instruments if he just claimed belief that those instruments were somehow better than whatever else was available. And that's exactly the mentality with which we so often excuse our actions*. Take the horrors of Blackwater (whose CEO, by the way, saw himself as a Christian crusader) in Iraq and how they're so often handled by defenders of the Bush administration. They're not murderers, they just made some mistakes. That those mistakes actually include murder doesn't make them murderers. Why? Because they had the right idea, and so did we when we hired them. So although I'll reiterate that I believe the Central Valley Baptists acted with the best of intentions, I'd also add that those intentions are only any good within an all-too-prevalent ideology which dictates that the job of charitable Americans is not just to help the less fortunate survive and get back on their feet, but to save them from themselves and to do so by converting them to our clearly superior ways.

*Of course, this situation in Haiti is an isolated and highly unique incident; this kidnapping isn't part of American policy in that region, nor is it the modus operandi of the vast majority of Christian missionaries. However, it is indicative of an underlying sense of entitlement drawn from the popular (and almost exclusively Christian) notion of American exceptionalism. Would the conversation about this issue be so polite and receptive to their defenders if the missionaries had been Venezuelan? What if they represented a mosque instead of a church? I don't think it would.


anna said...

catching up on your blog, bjg. really really nice post.

BJG. said...

Hey anna, thanks! I hope all's well with you these days.