Looking at the Julian Assange case over time, and particularly over the past 36 hours or so, I am reminded of a common “ethics” exercise: a story is told with five characters in it, each of which has arguably engaged in some sketchy behavior – and it is the job of the reader / student / test subject to rank the characters from most to least moral. I first ran onto this device in my high school Sunday school class, and it certainly led to some interesting discussions / arguments — until the day that one of us called into question the entire enterprise of trying to figure out who is “most right” in an impossible situation – which led to a discussion of life as an impossible situation generally. Apparently, the teacher was satisfied that we had finally grasped the point of these lessons, because we were onto a totally new curriculum the next Sunday.
In college, I learned that this sort of “rank the characters” story was used by some researchers as a test of the “level of moral reasoning” test subjects had attained. Which itself is arguably sketchy behavior on the part of the researchers. [If you prefer, for “sketchy” read “hubristic.”]
It was a tremendous relief, when I was nearly 30, to have the disconnect between my education to date and reality as I observed it articulated for me in the first week’s lectures of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Stanley Hauerwas told us that if we had taken “Ethics” as an undergraduate student, then our ethics were probably even more muddled than the average person, and what we were doing in his class would be not simply unrelated, but diametrically opposed to everything we had been taught about ethics before – because as Christians we make particular assertions about reality that form the foundation of our ethical thinking.
The Christian story goes more or less as follows: To all appearances, the world is FUBAR, so that moral behavior is impossible. However, we are convinced that Christ will return and finish the work of mending all creation, which is what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come…” As Christians, we are called to witness to the coming kingdom of God by living as if it were already here — even when it makes no apparent sense to do so. (This is where singing praises to God as the lions chow down on us comes in, to take the extreme example.) We are instructed in what it means to live into God’s desire for the universe in the Scriptures – particularly in that we are called to love God and love one another. And love requires getting your hands dirty; it is uncomfortable, even wrenching; it is done in close quarters – it is not even in the same neighborhood as “be nice.”
Loving up close (as most of us have experienced, whether in marriage or parenthood or caring for aging parents or sharing space with siblings or roommates or ….) means entering into the uniquely wonderful aspects of the beloved – which come as a package deal with their body odor and morning breath (etc.) Morally speaking, we all have our metaphorical body odor and morning breath – blind spots and willful disobedience that are so much a part of us that we cannot much change it. We can cover up those problems we notice (deodorant!); we can ameliorate some problems with daily ritual practices (flossing!); but we cannot make them go away forever. Spiritual dental floss and deodorant do not change the essential truth of our sinfulness, the distance between God’s best hopes for us and our innate tendency to do our own thing to our detriment. Similar to the way that my husband loves my whole person (I admittedly have wretched morning breath, he admittedly notices, but it is by no means anything like a deal-breaker,) God loves each of us in our totality, a “package deal” – but that doesn’t mean he is a fan of our covetous and deceitful behavior.
So – what does this have to do with the Assange case?
I’m getting there, but first, let’s talk a little more about Jesus –
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)
Jesus presses the man – when he calls Jesus “good,” does he say this because he knows who Jesus is? Or does he use the word carelessly?
We do not use the word “good” with enough care. This is a particular problem with funeral sermons, in which pastors may feel pressure to give an account of the “good man/woman” who died. None is good but God alone! We should rightly feel uncomfortable when someone says that we are a “good parent/teacher/pastor/etc.” or that we are “perfect” as a wife/husband/cook/etc.
From time to time, my mother says “you are such a good mother.” Who doesn’t want to hear this sort of thing from their Mom? Almost nothing makes me feel better than hearing that! However, it is necessary for my spiritual health to be honest with myself, and so I immediately translate that to something like, “I like how you demonstrate your love for Hannah most of the time. And I have noticed you setting some good boundaries with her. Etc.” Because it would be wrong for me to accept that I am absolutely a good mother – I am also a cranky mother, an inattentive mother, a fell asleep on the sofa while her preschooler watched two and a half straight hours of unsupervised television mother.
Compliments like the one my friend Will gave me not long ago require less translation. “I usually like what you cook,” he commented once on Facebook. I can admit that the food I make usually turns out well. Except for those rare occasions when I accidentally use cayenne in place of curry, say, for instance, and wind up with something utterly inedible. (Note: Most mortals cannot handle 3 Tablespoons of cayenne mixed into 2 servings of brown rice. Even if you do add pineapple and tahini.)
So, back to Assange. I have seen a lot of jockeying around on Twitter – even participated in it – trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong. What shall we make of Ecuador sheltering Assange? What shall we make of Assange not going to Sweden? What shall we make of the veiled threats made by some members of the British government against the Ecuadorean embassy? What shall we make of the not so veiled accusations of the U.S. government against Assange? What shall we make of the nearly global distrust of the U.S. in the wake of drone strikes and other political assassinations, not to mention legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens? What shall we make of the barely contested (even by Assange’s own lawyer) allegations of rape against Assange? And wouldn’t it be fantastic if Assange were not so fearful, but instead eager to stand trial in the United States, in order that we might have a drawn out public discussion of secrecy in global politics? But I can’t help suspecting that if Assange were to be brought here, that discussion might be so censored as to be stripped of all potency – if it ever saw the light of day at all.
I suggest that we will not get very far trying to figure out who is the hero of this story. In fact, if you still believe in the possibility of heroes, I would suggest the Biblical book of Judges as a particularly good corrective. Actually, you could keep on going through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. That 5 book cycle could be read as one long midrashic expansion on the idea that “no one is good but God alone.”
Perhaps the closest we can come to heroes in this story would be the women who have accused Assange of rape. It is always costly to make such an accusation – blaming the alleged victim is never far behind, and any of us would want to avoid people who don’t even know us writing comments about us such as “why was she even in bed with him in the first place?” as if that justifies any behavior on the part of the man that then follows. But it is clear that the case brought by these women is being cynically manipulated for political gain – because few men are pursued so aggressively when accused of sexual crimes – especially not to the point of talking about extradition for questioning.
Let me be clear – The only thing that would delight me more than rape finally being taken seriously (and Julian Assange’s treatment being a harbinger of a change in global, or even British policy to that effect) would be if MEN WOULD STOP RAPING PEOPLE. Seriously. Quit it. The circumstances are never important – you are not ENTITLED to the use of ANYONE else’s body. Never. Not for any reason. No matter who it is. Sex is a gift, every time. If it is not freely given, then you are a thief.
But I am well aware that though we may reduce the occurrence of rape, we will not eliminate it – not through human efforts. No one is good but God alone. And we may reduce political posturing, but not eliminate it. And we may reduce the use of publicity stunts in order to evade justice, but not eliminate them. No one is good but God alone.
This is a very muddled story – it is not something that we are going to sort out in bursts of 140 characters or less. The number of players getting caught up in this web is ever expanding. Like so many things in life, the deeper you dig, the more impossible the situation appears: FUBAR.
They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With God, no one is FUBAR.” (Mark 10:26-27) [A loose translation, I admit. But fundamentally accurate.]
Watching athletic contests, we have become too well accustomed to taking sides, to cheering on one group or person and tying our hopes exclusively to them. But we could easily learn another lesson from these contests – that our allegiances in such cases are arbitrary, even accidental. Why do I cheer for the Durham Bulls? Because they are the only professional team playing in my home town, and I can see their games most easily and affordably. They aren’t more virtuous than other baseball clubs, or more deserving in some way.
As we keep our eyes on the drama that has now moved to the Ecuadorean embassy, let us ask ourselves – to what extent are our allegiances arbitrary? To the extent that we identify with one or another player because of our social or cultural location, or because of our life experiences or education, at least to that extent we are unlike God in our judgments. We are unable to see into the human heart as God does – to love each individual as completely as God does – instead of people we see victims and villains. We may call them tossers, liars, cynics, power hungry, duped, blackmailed, blind, cowards, naive, traitors, rapists, murderers, untrustworthy, incomprehensible… God calls them beloved.
As you and I throw our stones, may we pause to remember that none is good but God alone.