Scum of the World

I could hear the cussing from inside the room and noted the awkward glances of nearby nurses and staff who turned to look and gawk. Even though I only sat a few feet outside the door, I ignored the increasingly loud litany of expletives and deliberately focused on the screen in front of me. He was my patient and I was doing my best to concentrate on his rapidly evolving list of medical problems, the electronic progress note already ballooning in front of me as I tried to prioritize multiple terminal conditions competing for attention. I scrolled through pages of old notes that were littered with repeating instances of phrases such as “lost to follow up,” “did not comply with therapy,” “uncooperative,” and the ever favored, “signed out against medical advice.” I paused and watched as a freshly berated specialist walked out of the room, sat down at a nearby computer, and dictated into his own note the word “belligerent.” The diction snob inside me was pleasantly surprised to hear a new and applicable word and so I inserted it into my note as well.

Last week my pastor asked me, “How do you keep from becoming cynical?” The question caught me off guard; it occurred in the context of a series of conversations on the struggles of caring for people in both spiritual as well as physical matters. My reply was somewhat flippant as I didn’t have a good response. The question was unintentionally pointed; Pastor Tom is a quick-witted man and one of the many reasons why I respect him so much is that even though he appreciates a dry and sardonic sense of humor, he intentionally suppresses it. By contrast, I relish in lengthy conversations about all things dark and cynical. In college I would rant about the evils of systems of poverty, child slave labor, sex trafficking. Nowadays I rant about urban violence, health disparities, child abuse, racism, Donald Trump. I am not shy about these views and justify vocalizing them as a mechanism for challenging injustice, but the genuine and curious nature of Pastor Tom’s question left me unexpectedly exposed to scrutiny. After all, what is justice and how does that apply in medicine? What is the root of cynicism and why are criticism and sarcasm so satisfying?

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Scum of the World

Cheap Justice, Cheap Grace

[Originally written for the ESN blog.]

Photo from the Boston Bombing
Photo from the Boston Bombing

In watching people die, I have come to better appreciate how much meaning people attach to a body and how death has a way of revealing our most elemental beliefs about what remains. I have talked to patients in their final moments, have shoved long needles into pulseless vessels, have held the hands of weeping mothers and wives and sons, have electrified bodies on hallway floors, have carried severed limbs and have watched blood and vomit and blood fly through the air during final resuscitation attempts. I have stayed in the room with these bodies after life has passed and have found this to be true: death is not always dignified.

However, this does not mean that a body can be divorced from meaning. It has been nearly a month since the Boston marathon bombings, and yet its bitter memory lingers in an unusually unsettling way. In remembering, we want to act in the right way, but how can we tell what that even means?

A desire for justice can easily become a thirst for vengeance. We are tempted to make exemptions to our own laws on civil liberties and justify a demand to judicate Dzokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant. We even foment controversy over the burial plot of the deceased bomber himself, to the point where a local police chief felt compelled to plead with and remind the public, “There is a need to do the right thing… We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.

And yet on the opposite end of the spectrum, a humanizing approach can seem equally disturbing. We struggle with the question of graciousness or even the audacity of forgiveness. An article on the Huffington Post expressed this hesitation well:

Look on the HuffPost Religion section, and you will see articles by reverends and professors extolling the virtues of forgiveness, even writing letters to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, telling him that they don’t blame him, he’s just a kid.

Go on Reddit and you’ll see that the most top-voted comments surrounding him are thoughts about how normal he was, and how he must have been manipulated by his brother, and wow, you have to feel bad for him. The comments under these extol those people for having “empathy.” The comments under those attack those who don’t have empathy. And it goes in a circle (I believe they have a term for that on Reddit).

And then it reached a head two nights ago, when Amanda Palmer, some singer, posted a poem for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. She tried to see the situation from his perspective, and wrote such special lines as:

You don’t know why you let that guy go without shooting him dead and stuffing him in some bushes between cambridge and watertown.

You don’t know where your friends went.

You don’t know how to dance but you give it a shot anyway.

Poor Amanda has started a firestorm on the web, but the truth is she’s only getting the heat because her poem was so over the top. This sympathizing with attackers, with murderers, with terrorists, has been sweeping our country for years now.

It seems that after every massacre, every school shooting, every terror attack, a segment of our country begs, cries, for a way to excuse the killers, and the Boston massacre has brought that segment out in spades.

It’s time that we drew a line. It’s time that we said enough.

We possess two reflexes in reacting to horrific sin. One is to isolate it by demonizing and marginalizing the human perpetrators, to remove them from the ordinary and proper ways of life. It is pacifying to our consciences to depict them as such wretched and immoral creatures that there is nothing human left about them. By portraying them as subhuman and alien, we make them disposable and can conveniently believe that the people and circumstances involved were so extraordinary and unusual that there is little statistical probability either could ever occur again. This is how we tend to think about genocide, child prostitution, drug trafficking, and war. We want to believe that Hitler was simply an incidentally powerful psychopath, that pedophiles are psychiatrically insane, that drug dealers are wolves in human flesh, and that enemy combatants are godless communists or hate-crazed jihadists. However, this ignores the reality that genocide is cyclical, that its participants are ordinary citizens who repeat its cycle somewhere on the globe every few years, that most brothel owners are profiteering women and mothers and family people, that most drug trafficking is done by young teenagers and adults in our local communities, and that the battle lines in war are often changed by a simple manipulation of doublespeak. If we mean to demonize evil, then demons are remarkably commonplace.

Our second reflex is to normalize and embrace the offendant. We reason that their behavior is not only common, but understandable and perhaps even excusable. In the most extreme cases, we even idolize it:

“Jahar” is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends and Twitter followers call him, and #FreeJahar is the hashtag banner around which thousands of people have rallied on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook to closely follow Tsarnaev’s case and share what they believe to be evidence of his innocence. I tracked Claire down (through her One Direction fan fiction page) and, over Twitter direct messages, asked her about her Tumblr. “I do believe he is very cute, but that’s not the reason I am personally involved in this movement,” she emailed me back. “I am in this because I don’t believe its right to put a totally innocent person in jail for the rest of his/her life or even death penalty. I don’t care who it is, it just isn’t fair.”

Whenever I read pieces of news on either extreme (the picketing of funerals or the placation of criminals), my first impulse is to become physically nauseous. I want to criticize and ridicule and argue with and reject them as idiotic and unbelievable. But I must realize that I too am guilty of such perversions.

My favorite verse from scripture is Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

What does this mean? It means reminding myself that righteousness is so sacred that it must be woven into daily action: commonplace deliberation in distinguishing right from wrong on a basis independent of my personal attachments and preferences. It means seeking civil, corporate, and social justice at its highest and greatest virtue, at whatever cost is necessary to achieve integrity. It means speaking truth to power and the diligent pursuit of moral ethic at the expense of personal gain and discomfort. And I will say that our collective discomfort with the trendiness of forgiveness is that it seems like cheap grace: a violation of our God-given desire for the integrity of justice, and consequently an implicit insult and demeaning of the virtue and value of what has been destroyed. This is why we instinctively feel that forgiveness can only be offered by those who have purchased the right by having suffered loss, and that only through such a transaction have we given due credibility to the integrity of our justice. To shortcut this process by failing to appreciate the full gravity of injustice is itself unjust.

But we are equally challenged to have a visceral and enduring affection for mercy. This means that once we have understood the weight of what is wrong, we seek the strength to set it down. According to Miroslav Volf, this does not mean we erase the distinction between victims and aggressors, but that we recognize that each of us is both victim and aggressor. Out of our indignation, anger, and hurt from being offended, we can compassionately recognize and understand the virtue of those we have done violence to. In loving mercy, we can convert our own pain into sorrow and remorse for our offenses towards others, and through that sense we generate the emotional capacity to pursue a systematic and methodologic pursuit of virtue.

The call from scripture is simple but it is not easy. How can we engage in the meticulous and daily pursuit of virtue without exhaustion or cynicism? How can we expect to live such a life without becoming embroiled in the argument over whose rights are right, whose justice will prevail, whose offenses are legitimate and whose are frivolous? After all, we fail daily over innumerable petty disagreements. We are always seeking our own vigilante justice, always indulging in our own self-pity, always eager to assert our own self-righteousness or to deny fault.

We do it through Jesus Christ, the humility of God who walked among us and still dwells in our midst:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. — Romans 5

In Christ, there is both the satisfaction of justice and the sweetness of grace. In Christ, there is the personal embodiment and example of otherwise abstract principles. In Christ, we uphold the word and bond of law while turning the other cheek and loving our enemies.

I have no easy answers for how we should approach the Tsarnaev brothers, mainly because the impact of what they have done is removed far enough from me that I feel unqualified to speak of appropriate retribution (and certainly unqualified to offer forgiveness). But what I do know is that it cannot be achieved outside of the person and divinity of Jesus Christ, who bore the full weight of injustice that we may receive immeasurable grace. To him, I submit both my rights and my affection.

Cheap Justice, Cheap Grace