Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Best ammunition (sorry about that) for the gun debate

Joe Nocera, the distinguished business editor and writer, now writes an excellent column in The New York Times. More often than not, he has something really significant to say about a number of issues, not just business. Today's column presents inarguable and incontrovertible evidence of the American problem with guns. Whatever one's position on what we should do (and there is need for dispassionate discussion about that) the facts that Mr. Nocera has collected speak for themselves. I highly recommend careful reading and widespread circulation of this piece.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Child abuse scandals: the importance of curiosity and courage

An article in today's NYTimes Sunday Review does the best job of analyzing the silence surrounding pedophilia that I have ever seen. Here is the link:

It is striking that the writer has been able, in retrospect, to assess his own silence, understand it, and judge it. Most people do not appear to have that sort of moral commitment to self-examination and to truth. The degree to which misdoing --alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual predation, cruelty of all sorts--is allowed to continue in plain sight boggles the mind, and yet it is part and parcel of our sinful human condition. Although the writer doesn't name it as sin, he sees this ckearly.

After the crimes of the former "legendary" football coach at Brooklyn Poly Prep were very belatedly exposed, one of the author's contemporaries wrote, “I am heartbroken that I lacked the wits and guts to comprehend what was happening to classmates, friends, and the guys that followed me.”

The author of the article continues:

"...there is little doubt that senior administrators were told about the abuse on multiple occasions. The lawsuit recounts specific meetings between boys, their parents, the headmaster and the athletic director. That athletic director, who went on to become dean of students and assistant headmaster, reportedly witnessed abuse in the showers and walked away. In 1991, the headmaster allegedly told one of the victims that Coach was a bitter, sick old man who should be left alone. Coach Phil was powerful, intimidating, successful, not to be trifled with. And so for a quarter-century, he freely abused vulnerable boys, virtually in plain sight.
"What should we [the students] have done? We should have told our parents and teachers and other school officials that Coach was hanging out by the showers and it made us feel weird. Maybe we should have reached out to the boys who were riding off in the Impala and warned them away. We were just kids, of course, but in retrospect our lack of curiosity, our lack of action and our lack of courage were inexcusable." (italics added)
The linking of curiosity with courage ("wits and guts") is an important insight. It is heartbreaking to see a child's curiosity stifled: "Shhh.... we don't talk about that." Not only is curiosity indispensable to intellectual development, it is morally indispensable in conditions such as those we have seen in the church, at Penn State, and at Poly Prep. And not just in cases of child abuse, either; a little healthy curiosity might have led to the exposure of Bernie Madoff before it was too late, and Goldman Sachs and Abu Ghraib....take it from there. Whistle-blowing takes both curiosity and courage, for many craven souls are ready to punish the person who seeks to uncover the truth.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

"A signpost in the wilderness"

There will be a lot of talk about Paul Tullis' article about "restorative justice" in The New York Times Magazine for January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. What a remarkable article it is. The title is "Forgiven" (evoking Eastwood's Unforgiven?) The principal characters are Conor, who shot his girlfriend Ann in the face, killing her; Conor's parents; Ann's parents; the director of a restorative-justice project, and some others including a prosecutor and an Episcopal chaplain.

Here's what I just wrote Mr. Tullis:

Dear Mr. Tullis,
No doubt I have read your pieces before, but this one about Conor and restorative justice knocked me out to such a degree that I will never forget your name again. I am wondering where you got the theological depth from. That may (or may not) surprise you. I have been working for years on the thesis that "forgiveness is not enough" and you have somehow captured two things at once: forgiveness is necessary and transformative, but it is also not enough. You've gotten that perfectly. It's an extraordinary piece of work.

My only comment would be that forgiveness as the Buddhists understand it is not the same as true Christian forgiveness. The overall thrust of your article illustrates the latter, beautifully...taking the lead from the "strong, protective, powerful father." The story is, indeed, a "signpost in the wilderness," a phrase that echoes the theologian Karl Barth.

Admiringly yours,


(The reference to Buddhism is in regards to the encounter that the restorative-justice project leader, Sujatha Baliga, the daughter of Indian immigrants, had with the Dalai Lama which enabled her to forgive her abusive father.)
Speaking of fathers, the restorative-justice leader made a striking observation about Andy Grosmaire, the father of the murdered girl, who is a devout Roman Catholic: "Andy is a very gentle person, but...There was just this incredible force of the strong, protective, powerful father coursing through him." I haven't heard a better description of fatherhood in some time. When we talk of the fatherhood of God, that's, in part, what we mean.
Among many remarkable things in the article are 1) the obvious point that if Conor's father had not possessed a shotgun, Ann would not have died; 2) a nuanced and discerning distinction between sentimental, bogus forgiveness and the enormously costly real thing; 3) the way that the Grosmaires' forgiveness of Conor was transformative by depriving him of any ability to transfer responsibility by hating and feeling abandoned; and 4) the lasting pain that the parents will always live with.

And one more thing. I was very impressed, years ago, by The Killing of Bonnie Garland, by the famous psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. He was particularly incensed that the criminal trial of a Yale student who murdered his ex-girlfriend, also from Yale, failed to bring a living Bonnie into the courtroom, as though her killer was the only person worthy of attention. By participating in a restorative-justice process, the Grosmaires were able to bring their daughter Ann into the discussion almost as though she were there. She was no longer "that murdered girl"; she was Ann.

In conclusion: the difference between Christian forgiveness and forgiveness in other contexts is that we are able to put our trust in a Lord who has promised to make all things right in the End. As Martin Luther King loved to say, "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Our strong, protective, powerful Father in Heaven is able to consummate his purpose with perfect justice and perfect love.

Read the article here: