Monday, August 22, 2011

Law School: A New Call to Ministry

My admissions essay to Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law:

“You shouldn’t say that in church!” The elder said it to me with a sneering kind of condescension that was half amusement and half judgment. “Why not?” I replied with the kind of na├»ve enthusiasm that could only come from a new convert. “Because it’s too political. People don’t want to hear about politics in church!”

That conversation happened on Sunday, January 30th, 1994 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. That is a date I will never forget. I was nineteen, had only been a Christian for two months, and was watching history unfold rather messily as my home country seemed to teeter on the brink of a racially charged civil war. We didn’t expect that only three months later, Nelson Mandela would assume the presidency in a peaceful election that some heralded as “miraculous.” Pre “Truth and Reconciliation,” we fully expected chaos and violence.

For reasons I still do not fully understand, I was asked to deliver the sermon at my home church. The message that I prepared was one of reconciliation, but more specifically, that it was the church’s responsibility, as Christ’s ambassadors, to be stewards of peace and to be fully engaged in ushering in a new era of justice in our country. Those who heard my sermon that night were kind to me, but the elder was right, my message was deemed “too political,” and therefore, by definition, not spiritual enough.

The following month I left my home in South Africa to make a new life for myself in the United States. Part of that new life was responding to the call of ministry. I pursued a theological education with the same rigorous enthusiasm that had characterized other challenges in my life. I was a young, foreign student with little money to spare, yet knowing that I was serving a much higher purpose, I found great joy in the life of the mind. After graduating from Dallas Christian College, I went to graduate school at Baylor University, and then Seminary at Abilene Christian University. Though I had served with churches since 1998, I was ordained to the ministry in 2005, when I received the Master of Divinity degree.

Over the course of my ministry I found that the church tends to talk about salvation as a future expectation for individual people – almost as a means of escaping this world. I heard Christians jokingly refer to baptism as “fire insurance.” I began to struggle with this understanding of the church’s role as a harbinger of some future spiritual reality, rather than engaging in the struggle for peace and justice here and now. In a sense, Christianity has become too spiritual. That is, the concerns of the church have become otherworldly, with Christians focusing their attention on the afterlife. While the pursuit of utopianism is also dangerous, such a focus tends to miss the political, social, and economic implications of God’s Kingdom breaking in here and now. The church I grew up in regarded the phrase, “Social Gospel” as near heresy, and today’s Evangelicals have the same reaction to the phrase, “Social Justice.”

As a means of broadening my experiences, I joined the Acton Institute’s Free and Virtuous Society in 2004. This is an organization that seeks to integrate a Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person with moral truths and free market economic principles. In 2005 I received certification as a mediator after studying at Abilene Christian University’s school of Conflict Resolution. My involvement in these programs brought me into close contact with several lawyers. It was refreshing to be around these men and women. They had an excitement about their profession and about making an impact for good that I hadn’t seen or felt in a long time. I think that was the genesis of my fascination with the study of law. But life was comfortable in the recesses of the church - as long as I didn’t rock the boat too much! So I buried myself in my work as a minister, fully believing that I could do more, and that I could make changes where others had failed.

In the summer of 2008, the toll became too much to bear. My wife and I separated, and were subsequently divorced in May 2009. (I won’t go into all the details of our failed marriage here because many of those details are, and should remain, private.) For a host of personal and professional reasons, I could no longer lead the church that I dearly loved, and resigned my ministry in August 2008. You’re only a leader if others are following! A whirlwind of loss and hopelessness took everything I had spent the better part of a decade building up. I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, or what to do with my life. Worst of all, I felt abandoned by the church.

And then, while sitting in Starbucks one afternoon, I gazed at my coffee cup, and read the following “The Way I See It” quote by Scott Turow:The law, for all its failings, has a noble goal - to make the little bit of life that people can actually control more just. We can’t end disease or natural disasters, but we can devise rules for our dealings with one another that fairly weigh the rights and needs of everyone, and which, therefore, reflect our best vision of ourselves.” 

After reflecting on that sentiment, it struck me that the study of law and a career as a lawyer was not leaving the ministry, but a new way to be faithful to my call to ministry. That may seem odd to some people, but in my way of thinking, both lawyers and ministers are supposed to promote and fight for a better world here and now. When people are at their weakest, it is either a lawyer or a minister that takes them by the arm, stands shoulder to shoulder with them, and gives them the greatest thing a person can have – hope! That ideological conviction is my primary reason for pursuing the study of law.

There are practical, career oriented reasons as well. Since receiving certification as a mediator in 2005, I have offered my services as a mediator and conflict resolution coach. However, it is difficult to establish one’s self in this field without having studied law. I believe that a law degree will give me the necessary credentials and professional clarity to effectively work as a peacemaker in our society.

Since March 2009 I have worked for Christian Relief Partners as their “Liaison for African Projects.” This aid organization is assisting with the development of a community in South Sudan. We are developing a sustainable model tied to the local community, including skills training, economic development, education, and agricultural programs. South Sudan has just voted to secede from the North, and establish their own country. I have traveled to the Sudan on two occasions now, and as I continue to invest myself in building up the new nation of South Sudan, I believe that a law degree will grant me the credentials that will open many doors.

In short, my desire to study law is born out of the same conviction that allowed me to answer the call to ministry. Or better stated, Christian Relief Partners has a simple, one sentence vision: “We believe that the world can be a better place.”

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Banality of Evil

“The plan was to kill people." That is what Jeremy Morlock told an army judge after he participated in a "kill team" of soldiers in Afghanistan who brutally targeted civilians and then staged the bodies to look like dead insurgents. The soldiers took humiliating photos of the murdered civilians, and some even kept body parts as mementos. Morlock has been sentenced to 24 years in prison.

The above paragraph (as mild as it is) describes evil. It also describes abject stupidity, but let’s stay serious with “evil.” Admittedly, the word has been overused to the point of exhaustion. What do I mean when I refer to an action as evil? By the word “evil,” I refer to human behavior that is intentionally harmful to others.

But even with neat definitions and parameters, it is difficult to reconcile the image of a clean-shaven, all-American Morlock with the Morlock who sat so calmly in a courtroom and described the vicious murder of innocent people for sport. And how can you explain the actions of the other soldiers in the kill team, or those who actively covered up for them?

Grappling with the issue of evil is frustrating for me because oftentimes “good” or “normal” people commit the worst kinds of evil. Two writers have been valuable: Hannah Arendt and Henry David Thoreau.

Hannah Arendt
In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (1963) the political theorist Hannah Arendt opened a unique window through which to gaze upon evil. Jewish by birth, Arendt escaped Nazi Europe in 1941 and later became a naturalized American. In 1961, on behalf of the New Yorker magazine, Arendt reported on the Jerusalem trial of Adolph Eichmann, who had been instrumental in administering the Nazi death camps.

She opened the trial's transcript in order to examine a sadistic monster, but she closed it without finding one. Like his fellow Nazi Heinrich Himmler, who went from being a chicken farmer to heading the notoriously brutal SS, Eichmann seemed to be an ordinary man simply carrying out orders. Arendt coined a term - the "banality of evil” - partly as a way to describe Eichmann's demeanor during the trial, in which he denied all responsibility for the holocaust on the grounds that he was just following orders; he was obeying the law.

Eichmann showed no guilt, malice, or insanity. The most remarkable emotion he displayed was a tendency to brag. Arendt called this bragging, “the vice that was Eichmann's undoing” because it led him to speak of atrocities that he had not been ordered to commit. To Arendt, it seemed Eichmann would rather die as a war criminal than live as a nobody.

Arendt continued to elaborate on how seemingly ordinary people can commit terrible acts simply because those acts were performed in a systematic manner and within a sanctioned context - a context that discouraged accountability by rewarding obedience. A reviewer of Arendt's book observed that the Nazis had "normalized the unthinkable."

Arendt's insights also applied to the more mundane atrocities. For example, the seizure of Jewish property ceased to be theft if it was done through proper paperwork, stamped, and filled out in triplicate by a government clerk. Those who processed the forms or inventoried the goods were simply doing paperwork and inventory; they were "honest" people just doing their jobs. (How many times have you heard that line?)

The same was true (then and now) of prison guards, special police forces, and an obedient judiciary. They obeyed laws or orders without questioning. The law assumed the role that conscience played in other people.

People obey for many reasons. Some see it as a path to success. Others fear the consequences of disobedience. Many, like those who do the paperwork to facilitate theft or murder, view their jobs as routine and boring - as far from evil as imaginable. They simply want to collect a paycheck or acquire a pension, and they give no thought to the content or consequences of their actions.

Arendt's complex explanation of “the banality of evil” offers us insight into Morlock and his kill team in Afghanistan. They were in an environment that systematically dehumanized Afghans. The military culture also dehumanized the individual's moral conscience and erased personal responsibility. (Ever seen “A Few Good Men”?) Despite the parallels, however, Morlock does not fit neatly into Arendt's paradigm. For one thing, he cannot fall back on “obeying orders” as an exculpatory argument. Of course he tried this argument, suggesting that a superior officer in his unit had suggested the kill team, but no one receive official orders. Their repeated cover-ups reveal that they knew their actions were wrong by some standard.

And now to one of my favorite authors:

Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau offers further insight. In his work, On Civil Disobedience, Thoreau objected to majority rule because the views of the majority do not always coincide with what is morally correct. Every human being has a fundamental obligation to discover for himself what is just and then to act according to his conscience, which is inviolable, even if it contradicts the majority or the law. It is precisely moral conscience that makes us fully human.

It is within the military that Thoreau saw the greatest relinquishment of moral conscience. Thoreau contemplated soldiers who would march off to die and to kill strangers in a conflict they know is unjust. He asked whether those soldiers retained or relinquished their humanity when they replaced their own moral judgment with the dictates of others. Thoreau concluded that once a man abandons his moral judgment, he becomes a machine; his body becomes a mere tool to be used by those in power.

Thoreau wrote,
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others - as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men--serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”

Many consider service to their country to be an automatic virtue, but it is a dehumanizing vice whenever it involves the abandonment of conscience. Soldiers like Jeremy Morlock point guns at strangers who have done them no harm. When you systematically strip away a man's conscience and then give him a gun with little accountability, the worst within his humanity is likely to surface. Or perhaps Thoreau is correct - his humanity itself may disappear.

Arendt stated, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” If so, then the first step toward evil for most people is agreeing to shut down the mind. And that is precisely why, like Jefferson, “I have sworn, upon the Altar of God, eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”