Sunday, 8 May 2011

Moral relativism is not enough...

Everyone will, like the Dalai Lama, find the death of Osama Bin Ladenunderstandable.” They will think his demise broadly desirable, and hope it draws a line under a particular strand of Fundamentalist militancy. But the manner of it, which is not entirely clear, raises disturbing questions for many people alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Given that Osama was more effective and dangerous totemically than operationally, have we, in fact, seen the last of him? Treating him as a warrior rather than a criminal could play dangerously into his followers’ fantasies about him. In a world where people deny the moon landings, 9/11, and the death of the Princess of Wales, we can look forward to a rich flourishing of conspiracy theories about it.

Nobody who was not in Osama’s bunker this time last week knows exactly what actually happened — indeed those who were present must have been in a state of mind very different from judge and jury. The troops themselves had to calculate their risks in real time, reacting to all the circumstances they found. The rest of us will be profoundly grateful we didn't have to make that call.

What the debate about Osama's death has revealed is a startling moral relativism in many reactionary journalists and a few of the politicians they phoned around as they strung together a story out of this.

We must respect humanity because it is an absolute created by God. He made human beings in his image and likeness.
Humanity is not a privilege accorded by other creatures, but the Maker's Mark. My own sense of moral reference is a basic way of honouring God. My respect for the humanity of someone else is not a privilege for me to play God and give them, nor a reward for good behaviour. Furthermore, people are capable of all kinds of evil, all of us, Christians (Adam and Eve) believe. The Church calls realism about this the doctrine of the Fall, and it is the context of all human behaviour to a greater or lesser extent. This doctrine carefully preserves the truth that nobody is, in any simple sense, evil, although they can do massively evil things. God saw all that he had made and it was good.

It follows from this basic theology from page 1 of the Bible, that if I commit an act, like a lynching, that denies the image of God in another human being I not only act out my own fallen nature (thus losing the moral high ground), but I also behave in a way that compromises my own humanity — thank God he gave it as an absolute that no human being can take away, not even me.

The moral relativism of some journalists about this (“Normally, of course, we should respect life, but he didn't so we don't have to”) is a real slippery slope, morally. It betokens not Conservatism, but Pelagianism — one of the oldest heresies in the book. They must not be surprised if bishops, including the Archbishop, do not collude with their Pelagian views.


UKViewer said...

I actually find it difficult to see past some of the baggage attached to the OBL death. I agree that we should not rejoice in the death of a human being, who was killed without any opportunity to repent. (Whether he thought that he had anything to repent is another subject entirely).

I can see that those had the job of capturing or killing him had to rely on their own sense of the threat he posed? To my mind, they made a choice for better or worse, which resulted in his death. They were doing their duty and I am unable to fault them for that. As you say the conspiracy theorists will speculate for years to come on whether he was armed or unarmed, whether he was wearing an explosives vest etc etc. These must have been some of the risks that were racing through their minds when they actually met him. I hope that they did not operate on the basis of 'shoot first, ask questions later?.

There is real mixed coverage that I have seen. From the US media initial jubilation and celebration to a later, more measured, reflective approach. But their consensus seems to be it needed doing, and it was better that we did it then he being allowed to live on.

My other issue is the decision by the USA to go it alone and to ignore National Sovereignty and to attack him in a foreign country. This appears to have been accepted by the UN as a justified intrusion into Pakistan. I wonder if the Pakistani authorities see it in that light?

It seems to me that the morality of feeling able to carry out political assassination is one that takes us down a slippery slope towards arbitary justice and a breakdown of the rule of law. Where will it all end?

Ray Barnes said...

While I detest and deplore all that Bin Laden stood for and the fanaticism which is the creed of fundamentalists of all complexions, I take no pleasure in his death nor in the manner of it.
Since it is certainly true that "the evil that men do lives after them" I cannot help but wonder what affect cutting the head off the Hydra will have.
He should have stood trial.

Joseph W said...

I'm sorry, but I don't see it. The death of Bin Laden was ultimately necessary, because it sent a powerful message to Al Qaeda's leadership, and told mass-murderers that you cannot murder on an international scale and expect to get away with it.

Justice was meted out justly.

That is not saying that we are less sinful, because Bin Laden was so very sinful.

It is merely recognising the fact that, if you deliberately plot to take the lives of innocents and carry through your plans, you are playing with fire, and you will likely get burnt.

It is not Pelagian. It is logical and fair, and human, to be at least relieved at the death of Bin Laden, a mass-murderer who thrived on hate, and taught others to hate.

We do not display hatred when we express gratitude to the US armed forces for eliminating Bin Laden.

Rather, we reflect God's justice and anger against evil, whilst turning to Jesus and asking him - in fear and reverence - to show us how we can be more Christ-like even though we are sinners too.

Joseph W said...

That said, I agree 100% that we should not rejoice over the death of anyone evil. God doesn't.

Believing a death was justified is not the same as celebrating it, which I think is an important distinction.

At the same time, we can understand the relief of those impacted by 9/11, when they heard of the news that Bin Laden had died.

John C said...

A brief note that the 'before and after' image included in this (as usual) thought provoking post is infact a Photoshopped forgery.

With Regards


Anonymous said...

VG here. I am not sure that the consequences of leaving OBL alone have been as fully thought out as they might have been, but I would need to reread more from the ABC - and understand it better for I am slow of study - to have a good sense of the full range of arguments. We live in a shockingly naughty world, the worst of which manifests itself in a seemingly endless round of dom-n-sub games played at the end of a rifle; and in this world, bringing OBL to court is a fantasy. The press, the security issues, the lack of legitimacy oft he process in the eyes of the radicals on all kinds of sides - it would have been a travesty. The situation is not analogous with the postwar Nuremburg trials, which were held by a victorious alliance of powers with near-universal agreement on the legitimacy of the process. Does it solve the problem of Al Qua'eda? No, probably not; but in a world of men for whom tactical killing is an art and a form of communication as well as an act of aggression, it's a message, and one which would be a bit of a facer.

If OBL had been killed in a fair fight would we be grateful for his passing and even more grateful that his blood was on someone else's hands? Would we say it was "God's will" and that those who live by the sword must die by the sword?

War is repugnant. I'm not pleased by OBL's death or the way it came about, but I am not sure that any other set of options would necessarily have been more moral or more palatable, either. For him to die quietly in his bed, possibly; *then* we could ascribe his death to God's will, unequivocally.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for commend. UKV, I share your sense of what may have happened last Sunday, and disquiet about what has followed. The whole question of how International Law relates to US actions since 9/11 is a legal and moral nightmare.

Ray, I incline t agree with you, certainly going on UK experience of terrorism. Joseph, I do not see how it can ever be just to execute anyone without due process — necessary perhaps, but not just. Milosevic was dealt with by law and has not become a dead hero. There was a time the UK went in for shooting terrorists in the streets of Gibraltar. No IRA terrorist leader decided, on that basis, to give up being a terrorist and re-train for a new career. Indeed the injustice of what had been done fuelled a new and violent phase of the troubles in which a thousand innocent people died. The danger is all the greater with Bin Laden in that his significance was more symbolic than operational by the time of his death.

John, many thanks for identifying the fact. I will leave it up, on the argument that it does represent an image that has gone around the world, phoney or not, and invites emotional responses on a fraudulent basis. The beginning of exactly the opposite reaction to the one Joseph was hoping for among Bin Laden's followers.

Joseph W said...

Hi Alan, many thanks for your response.

You say:

John, many thanks for identifying the fact. I will leave it up, on the argument that it does represent an image that has gone around the world, phoney or not, and invites emotional responses on a fraudulent basis. The beginning of exactly the opposite reaction to the one Joseph was hoping for among Bin Laden's followers.

I'm not sure what you mean.

I definitely don't hope that people react to a photo of Bin Laden that isn't actually Bin Laden.

Alan, I think it was necessary so I guess we agree there, I think it was ultimately just as Bin Laden was an unrepentant mass-murderer who inspired other people to hate and murder.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

VG, thanks for your take. I don't see a trial as impossible. It wasn't with Milosevic or Saddam Hussein. It's arguable that the US was too morally slimed for a trial by Guantanamo and the responsibility for having started war in Iraq in which tens of thousands, actually probably nearer 150,000 innocent civilians were killed as collateral damage, quite apart from military casualties. What has been done will almost certainly add potency to Al Qaeda. Within minutes of being told the world was now a safer place, our terrorist alert was raised — how crazy is that? Another reason people here have suggested there could never have been a trial was that his family were great hugglebuddies of the Bushes and others and he was armed and set up by the US against the Russians in his Mujahadeen days. Had evidence come to trial he could have embarrassed all sorts of people in undpredictable ways.

Joseph, it may have been necessary, and as I am friendly disposed towards the US, I think it probably was. It doesn't matter to em how repentant Bin Laden was or wasn't. He was a criminal, albeit a war criminal, and should have gone down in history as that, and not a war hero, which now he will.

Mark Byron said...

"He was a criminal, albeit a war criminal, and should have gone down in history as that, and not a war hero, which now he will. "

The two aren't mutually exclusive. In the US Civil War, Sherman was a hero for the Union cause, but his scorched-earth march through Georgia would have him up at the Hague on war crimes charges.

I'm interested in how you see that moral relativism as Pelagian. What I understand of Pelagian thought is their take that we're responsible for our own sins and not just inheriting that original sin from Adam. I don't see where that would justify a military take-out of a terrorist mastermind any more than Augustinian total depravity take would.

Anonymous said...

VG here. Alan, I giess I'm too cynical. I think Saddam Hussein's trial, and Milosevic's trial, were very different kettles of fish from a notional trial of OBL. The first two men were heads of state and therefore put themselves within a notional legal framework admitting of the possibility of a legal trial. OBL was operating entirely extrajudicially, representing himself as the defender of a "pure" form of a religious totalitarian social order. His followers - unlike Hussein's or Milosevic's - are ill-defined and international; Milosevic died after five years of spinning out his trial and nobody was going to stand up for Saddam Hussein. When I go back to the questioning of the legitimacy of the Milosevic trial and transpose that into the key of OBL the cacaphony is tremendous.

If you keep up with the skinny in the US press, very few people would be truly surprised by the corporatist alliances between the House of Sa'ud and the Bushes. An OBL trial wouldn't really embarass any of them because it would only reveal "bid'ness as use-you-all".

I grew up in a military family, and the high alert state immediately after OBL's death is what I'd expect: if you do something you know may arouse severe repercussions you don't hang around on a "wait and see" basis, you get defensive as soon as operationally possible.

The second Gulf War isn't defensible. Guantanamo isn't defensible. Personally, I don't think most wars are defensible. That said, we are all up for trial, and I go back to my earlier questions: would it make us all feel more moral if someone else had killed OBL? Or if he had died in his bed at 90?

Erika Baker said...

you seem to be very certain that moral relativism is always wrong.
Was Bonhoeffer wrong when he participated in the attempt to assasinate Hitler?
And if you believe that he was, would you agree that it is just as Christian and honourable for him to have come to a different view?

Jonathan Jennings said...

I think, having acknowledged that the image is faked, you should now take it down.

I say this for two reasons arising out of journalistic ethics and in the interests of integrity and a third out of pastoral concern.

First, the effect you originally intended cannot now be established and it is misleading to leave the image in context without explaining at the point at which it appears that it isn't a genuine image. The juxtaposition of the image with the mention of the unease and disturbance of the Archbishop of Canterbury, mentioned in the previous par is certainly accelerated, especially as the point you make relates to the manner of his death, which this image purports to illustrate.

Second, because you contribute to the continuing deception by using it at all, unless primary point you make is about the existence of such images.

But there is a third and more pressing pastoral reason: respect for the other person who is featured.

Looking at it closely, it appears to show a scene in which someone who is being / has been worked on by a medical team; the presence of a first field dressing on the shoulder and the tape and wadding around a serious head wound and indicate a real attempt to treat injury and to save life. I guess from the photograph that the attempt has probably failed.

Onto this person's image - whose head and forehead we can partly see - part of the face of Bin Laden has been superimposed to generate the effect that you describe.

This other victim, whether alive or dead, and about whose identity we can only conjecture, needs proper respect. We don't know which side he was on or which side treated him - and it wouldn't matter if we did.

I'm uneasy that a journalist, let alone a pastor and one who is a bishop of the church, would be acquiescing in and furthering the photographic abuse of his plight.

It should come down.

TonyTheProf said...

Do we have rule of law, or rules that can be torn up when we please?
I am reminded of that speech in "A Man for All Seasons":

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

In addition to Erika's comments, I'd say once you have an argument to say 'That's Pelagian, the worst of heresies' you are starting to lose the argument, and relying on your own tribal doctrine.

The argument is political leaders are put on trial, so are military leaders, so are criminals. But there are practicalities with this one, given the appeal he'd make alive to terrorists, and another practicality was burial at sea so there was no grave for idiots to visit (and he doesn't deserve to face Makkah).

Ethics are always situational, heresy or otherwise. We are all heretics these days, at least to someone.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Really interesting comments for which many thanks. Mark, I see what you mean about war heroes and war criminals being the same people sometimes — later this year I'm in Dresden. Pelagianism seems to have been a holiness movement, which started from the pietistic but sustainable suggestion that we collaborate in the working out of our own salvation, but carried with it the notion that we become recipients of grace not on the basis of divine mercy alone, but by virtue of our behaviour. I see a strong echo of that in the many suggestions that have been made that human beings are entitled to decide who deserves or does not deserve respect accorded to their humanity. For me presuming to make that call both compromises our own humanity (we treat the worst with respect not only for their sake, but for our own) and implies we sinners (whoever we are) are somehow entitled to judge other sinners' human worth. I have some difficulty with Calvinist Total Depravity as a fully worked out style of doing theology, but the Augustinian model it's based on says that says we are all sinners is healthy insofar as it undermines our instinct to play god over other peoples' lives, even the worst other people.
VG, I see what you mean. The whole idea of a war on terrorism distorts OBL into a war leader, rather than criminal. Haven't followed the Bush/Bin Laden links carefully, but they sound really depressing! No war would make me more feel more moral, because my Augustinian bias informs me that although I can have moral intuitions about other people and act on them, I can have no ultimate higher moral standing on which to judge them. I think. Agree about particular wars, strongly.
Erika, the key for me is that the lesser of two evils is still an evil. Bonhoeffer did not decide to go and take Hitler out like a Skunk; he agonised for years over an action he realised was evil, but the lesser of two evils. As a good Lutheran (even more obsessional about Augustine than me) I believe he would have seen the ground of any justice as God-given not his own actions — always a sinner, always justified, always rejoicing. That's very different from presuming to judge someone else on pelagian grounds.
Jonathan. You're right. Thanks for your corrective help deciding the pic needed to come down. So I've removed it and replaced with an even more obscene one, but it's real.
Tony, thank you for your reminder of a very key component in this debate. Adrian, I wasn't (just?) name calling; I was trying to describe the righteous indignation around in theological terms. Strongly agree with your last sentence — but the fact rocks and hard places have to be situated somewhere real doesn't stop them being rocky or hard...? I believe there are moral calls we should view as absolute. With my middle European origins, I am aware of many dreadful instances of the dire consequences of losing hold on them in the last century, and that certainly colours my view.

Erika Baker said...

thank you.
So you're not really arguing that killing Bin Laden was wrong, but that the motive and the different approach between the US and what Bonhoeffer had done is the key?

I struggle with that, because on the one hand we have a man whose grapplings and deliberations we can follow through his writing and whose ultimate courage is known to all.
On the other, we have politicians and military men whose processes follow different lines. But we still know very little about the internal struggles and motives of each of those individuals. Who is to say that, by the nature of their jobs, some haven't spent years grappling with just that question?

The legitimacy of killing a mass murderer who is plotting to reoffend on a large scale has to be answered on its own merit. I don't see how it can depend on the motives and approaches of all the many individuals involved in the process.

That we don’t cheer the killing goes without saying!

On a different note, I read an interesting article in a German weekly newspaper (Die Zeit), which argues that the death of Bin Laden is a throwback to 2001 politics, providing some kind of closure, but that it will otherwise have little effect because the world has changed so much since then, in particular the Arab world.
The author argues that America's military actions since 9/11 have shown the people of dictatorially ruled Arab countries that their rulers are not immune and that the recent "Arab spring" is a consequence of this. Many Muslim countries are no longer the countries they were 10 years ago, their people are engaged in their own internal political process, which in itself has weakened Al Quaeda and will increasingly marginalise it.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Erika, thanks for your help teasing this out! I think I am, in a rather Ur-Lutheran way arguing it was wrong, but less of an evil than letting him carry on. The lesser of two evils remains an evil, a la Augustine, because otherwise we are taking responsibility for making violence redemptive, opening a whole Rene Girard can of worms about scapegoating, absolving ourselves (which we are in no position to do, not being God).
I am very much looking forward to being in Dresden for this year's Kirchentag. Even though the saturation bombing there was in a good cause, I can't se it as anything but morally questionable. The destruction of the Frauenkirche did not become morally right in a way the destruction of the Great Synagogue by the locals was morally wrong, just because it was (arguably, contentiously) more necessary or in a different cause. The Zeit article sounds fascinating — I'll try and search it out. I strongly agree the best answer to Al Qaeda and all its works is the Arab Spring, not the US military. All I'd add is a hope that a more enriched and aware Islam would gazump the Fundamentalism behind its views among potential followers and make them better Muslims, as a Muslim friend put it to me...

Erika Baker said...

Ah yes, yet another one of those instances in life where there is no black and white, only shades of grey, everyone necessarily getting it wrong but still having to find a way through the moral maze.
That's the definition of original sin for me! We have to live it our own lives and we have to live it in our corporate lives.
So, yes, to that extent I agree with you 100%. Killing Bin Landen is neither right nor just.

But we do have to accept that no single possible outcome for Bin Laden, including him dying in his bed, would have been right or just.

Genuine justice just isn't ours to give.

Jonathan Jennings said...

Bonhoeffer is the perfect example: he understood the necessity of certain kinds of action with true recognition of, for want of a better concept, the 'want of good' involved.

He said in 1932 ‘ …the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness’ and he is said to have accepted that one price of having been active and complicit in the plots would be that he could never again be a pastor.

I wonder what might have happened had President Obama announced the death of Bin Laden with that sentiment rather than the one he used; if he had refused to celebrate as a good thing that which was only a dire necessity.

Unknown said...

I very much agree with your analysis of the media coverage. Were these actions writ large justice (summary justice!) would default to the strong. It's also interest to note that amongst the non-relativist commentators there is similar disagreement. My 'absolute' pacifism did not exatly engender a meeting of minds with one hyper-calvinist that accused me of 'Anabaptist handwringing'. At the point where he defended 'U.S.A., U.S.A.' i realised we were not likely to have a rational debate. In the end my blog post was short ( The outcome of all of this is too uncertain and atrocities (such as what happened today in Pakistan) will serve to blur the lines further.

Anonymous said...

Obviously you don't know what Pelagian means; it certainly is not moral relativism. Augustinianism is moral relativism: "As long as I believe in Jesus, what I DO DOES NOT MATTER." So much for morals. Pelagianism is the opposite of moral relativism: "What I DO MATTERS, not necessarily what I believe."

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