Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Resistance to Evil

The last offering of Cinema Catechism for the Winter/Spring 2011 series is Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, about the courageous young woman who, as part of the White Rose resistance group, sought to awaken the conscience of the German people to turn against the Nazi regime. In helping to form the White Rose, Sophie had been highly influenced by Blessed John Henry Newman and his "theology of conscience," as well as the "Lion of Münster," Blessed Clemens August von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Münster who forcefully spoke out against Nazi policies.

While in law school at The Catholic University of America, lo these many years ago, I wrote a paper entitled Christian Social Protest, which discusses many of the issues that are involved when a person of good will is faced with having to interact with evil, taking into consideration the moral obligation to submit to lawful authority (see CCC 2238-41), giving unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but at the same time, giving to God what is God's (Mt 22:21). The paper dealt with Christian martyrs, some contemporary examples of non-violent protest, such as Martin Luther King, and the obligations of moral truth and "higher law," but did not include Sophie Scholl (I did not know about her at the time). Still, some of the thoughts and questions are pertinent to the issue -- What does one do, what should one do, what can one do, when faced with evil?

These are not purely theoretical or academic questions. Evil abounds in our present-day society, not the least of which is the culture of death, including the on-going legally-protected (and even publicly financed) slaughter of the innocents, as well as other societal-government assaults on the sanctity and dignity of human life.

Christianity has always been a religion at odds with the existing social and government structures. Despite the admonition from St. Paul and others to submit to authority, the Judeo-Christian tradition has often been one of defying authority when it is perceived that it has gone too far. While man should give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, Christians have occasionally restricted the scope of Caesar's power and militantly resisted.

The most striking examples, of course, are the martyrs. From Maccabees to St. Stephen to Polycarp to St. Thomas More, Christians have oft been willing to accept worldly death, rather than submit to a government power that is perceived to be oppressive, evil, or offensive to the teachings of the Church.

The martyrs gave their lives, often in gory, gruesome, and violent ways. Dismemberment, stoning, set on fire, beheaded, scourged, roasted on a spit, and fed to wild beasts, the martyrs have for two thousand years been an inspiration to those faithful who believe that their cross is too much to bear. If they can endure, then those facing lesser threats surely can.

Of course, many, many more faithful were never martyred, or even threatened with martyrdom, but they did suffer persecution, either directly, or indirectly through oppression. But these saints are no less worthy of imitation or inspiration to those facing trials and the need to defend the faith, and the faithful.

Recent times have seen the rise of modern social protest. . . . Many of the participants in these movements have thought of themselves, if only in a spirit of humility, as carrying on the work of the persecuted and martyred. Many of these protesters do so, not by free choice, but because they believe they have a penitential duty to do so. Thus, they often seek to imitate the perseverance of the martyrs, and proclaim themselves willing to endure any hardship to promote the teachings of Christ, that is, justice, truth, the obligation to do good and avoid evil, and the protection of the intrinsic dignity of the human person, upon which society depends.

Are these groups justified in basing their actions on the Christian thought, in light of the martyrs? After all, martyrdom is not something one is supposed to go out and seek. Are they acting in a Christian way? Is their way, or the Christian way justified in today's pluralistic civil society? Or are these groups an instrument of evil? Do they make people turn away from truth, despite their "good" intentions? . . .

Those who resort to extralegal direct action generally do so, not out of disrespect for the law, but because they value true law and true justice above all else. But they cannot be idle bystanders, witnesses to injustice without acting to avert it. That acting may violate some earthly law is of no import to these persons, since the they do not justify their acts in mere positive law. As St. Augustine said in Free Choice of the Will, "Do you think that, for men who are eager not only to believe but also to understand, we must fall back on the authority of the law?"

Indeed, it was recognized by all the world at Nuremberg that occasionally, one has a duty to resist unjust laws which violate inalienable human rights, claims of constitutional supremacy notwithstanding. The ruling of the International Military Tribunal was clear, even if the positive law of the nation legalized certain practices, one could not complain of his later prosecution for acts which were nonetheless mala in se, "Individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state." United States v. Goering et al., 6 F.R.D. 69, 110 (1946). Crimes against humanity are punishable "whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated." Charter of the International Tribunal, 59 Stat. 1544, 82 U.N.T.S. 279, 287-88.

Martin Luther King, in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, answered those who supported his cause, but opposed his methods, believing that the oppressed Blacks should go on obeying the "laws" no matter what. In their doing so, however, they clearly had a poor conception of what law is. Borrowing from Catholic teaching, King pointed out that an unjust law was no law at all and that one who values the true eternal law, may in good conscience resist the positive civil law to help raise the conscience of the community and is really showing the highest respect for the law.

"[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.' . . . Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. . . .

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over it injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

To be sure, Christians have a duty to admonish other Christians when they go astray and to help them in the formation of their conscience. (cf. Ezekiel 3:18-20; Galatians 6:1)

The teachings of the martyrs are "intended to encourage Christians to stand firm against Satan's wiles in the knowledge that God's will is being done." (The Martyrdom of Polycarp) The examples of the early Christians involved "passive submission to the State where necessary, indifference where possible, and nonviolent resistance where the State made demands that would compromise the Christians prime allegiance to God." (Christian Ethics 49 (Beach and Niebuhr eds., 2d ed., 1973))

The Catholic Church teaches that there is obviously a proper place for morality in society and the law. But when society fails in this, then it is no longer legitimate. [In Donum Vitae, then-Cardinal Ratzinger writes],

"The task of the civil law is to ensure the common good of people through the recognition of and the defense of fundamental rights and through the promotion of peace and of public morality. In no sphere of life can the civil law take the place of conscience or dictate norms concerning things which are outside its competence. It must sometimes tolerate, for the sake of public order, things which it cannot forbid without a greater evil resulting. However, the inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the State: they pertain to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his of her origin. . . . the moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation must accord them, the State is denying the equality of all before the law. When the State does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a State based on law are undermined."

Indeed, in its teaching on respect for human life in its origin, the Church has taken note of resistance to those laws and practices which violate the inherent dignity of the human person, and has seemingly given its tacit approval.

The civil legislation of many states confers an undue legitimation upon certain practices in the eyes of many today; it is seen to be incapable of guaranteeing that morality which is in conformity with the natural exigencies of the human person and with the "unwritten laws" etched by the Creator upon the human heart. All men of good will must commit themselves, particularly within their professional field and in the exercise of their civil rights, to ensuring the reform of morally unacceptable civil laws and the correction of illicit practices. In addition, "conscientious objection" vis-à-vis such laws must be supported and recognized. A movement of passive resistance to the legitimation of practices contrary to human life and dignity is beginning to make an ever sharper impression upon the moral conscience of many, especially among specialists in the biomedical sciences. (Donum Vitae)

Whether social protest in a given situation is justified or not, the mere fact that it violates existing positive civil law is not in itself evidence of wrongfulness. As St. Augustine pointed out in Free Choice of the Will, the history of the Christian church is one of resistance to putative civil authority.* To look at an action and to say it is wrong because it violates some civil law is to get the problem backwards. An act is not wrong because the law forbids it; rather the law forbids (or rather should forbid) it because it is are wrong. . . .

The Church has always taught that each human life is infinitely valuable and that man must love his neighbor as himself. . . . lack of resistance in many cases only adds to the problem and has the effect of causing others to be apathetic and to simply go along with evil. [And simply acquiescing in evil by not resisting it has gravely negative effects.]

St. Augustine teaches that evil results from freely choosing to be ignorant and by turning away from Truth. Those that choose to turn away from this truth, must then live in darkness and slavery to error.

Society today asks man to embrace moral relativism, just as Polycarp was asked, "'what is wrong with saying 'Caesar is Lord,' and sacrificing, and so forth, and thus being saved?'" Since the time of modernity, positivism, existentialism, and utilitarianism, it has been claimed that "God is dead." Anyone giving only a cursory look at society today cannot help but note that, whether God is dead or not, contemporary society has abandoned concepts of God, morality and truth, in favor of moral relativism, pluralistic truth, and situational ethics. Many in society today have embraced materialism, hedonism and decadence, through their own free choice. And that, of course, is the catch-phrase of the abortion rights movement, "freedom of choice."

However, this choice can lead only to misery when the choice is ignorance, as St. Augustine points out in Free Choice of the Will, "when we say that men are unhappy by their own choice, we are not saying they want to be unhappy but that their will is such that unhappiness results of necessity and even against their will."

It is clear from looking at society today, with [50] million abortions since 1973, millions of children born out of wedlock, millions of broken families, unheard of sexual promiscuity, perversion and excess, as well as rampant divorce, drug use, sexually transmitted disease, that man is reaping what he has sown. It is a just punishment, St. Augustine says, for man has chosen evil.** . . .

As is clear from the above discussion, social order has broken down. This lack of order is evidence of turning away from the eternal law, from which whatever is just and lawful in the temporal law is derived, and which is impressed upon man's nature. . . . As such, social protest would be necessary to restore that order to man's intrinsic nature. . . .

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Footnotes -

* "Ev. I think it is wrong for the reason that I have often seen men condemned for such a crime.
"Aug. What of the fact that men have often been condemned for good deeds? Without sending you to other books, examine that history which owes its excellence to divine authority. You will find what a bad opinion we should have of the Apostles and all the martyrs if we agree that being condemned is a sure indication of wrongdoing, for they were all judged as deserving of condemnation for having confessed their faith. Consequently, if whatever is condemned is evil, then it was evil at that time to believe in Christ and to confess the faith itself." St. Augustine, Free Choice of the Will.

** "Aug. [W]hatever that nature is which rightfully excels a mind adorned with virtue, it cannot possibly be unjust. Consequently, though it were within its power to do so, not even this nature will force the mind to become a slave to passion. . . . where passion lords it over the mind, dragging it about, poor and needy, in different directions, stripped of its wealth of virtue, now mistaking the false for the true, even defending something vigorously at one time only to reject at another what it had previously demonstrated, while all the while it rushes headlong into other false judgment; now withholding all assent, while fearful for the most part of the clearest demonstrations; no in despair of the whole business of finding the truth while it clings tenaciously to the darkness of its folly; now at pains to see the light and understand, and again falling back out of weariness to the darkness? And all the while, the cruel tyranny of evil desire holds sway, disrupting the entire soul and life of man by various and conflicting surges of passion; here by fear, there by desire, here by anxiety, there by empty and spurious delights; here by torment over the loss of a loved object, there by a burning desire to acquire something not possessed; here by pain for an injury received, there by the urge to revenge an injury. On every possible side, the mind is shriveled up by greed, wasted away by sensuality, a slave to ambition, is inflated by pride, tortured by envy, deadened by sloth, kept in turmoil by obstinacy, and distressed by its condition of subjugation. And so with other countless impulses that surround and plague the rule of passion. How could we ever think that this is not a punishment when, as you see, it is something that all have to suffer who do not hold fast to wisdom?
"Ev. I do indeed consider this a heavy penalty and one that is absolutely just, if a man, who once occupied the summit of wisdom, should choose to descend therefrom and become the slave of passion. . . . [but] man was so perfectly created by God and established in happiness that it was only by his own will that he fell from this state into the miseries of this mortal life." Free Choice of the Will

Sophie Scholl and the White Rose confronted the great evil that was National Socialism. Despite the cries of "never again" after World War II, there are some who seem to think that Hitler and the Nazis so epitomized evil that if a situation does not rise to the level of exterminating six million Jews and millions of others, then it is not really so great an evil. As such, they acquiesce in any number of horrors and "never again" becomes "once again."

It might be true that the United States will never face a regime bent on genocidal extermination and totalitarian rule, but that really is not the standard for resistance, is it? How many must be denied basic human dignity (or even be denied their very humanity in law) before a person's conscience is awakened and he is spurred to act against the evil and for the good?

While the question of how to act might be difficult to answer, the questions of whether to act, whether to resist should not be. We have an obligation, written as law upon our hearts, to do good and avoid evil. One cannot stand idly by in the face of evil. (See CCC 2242 and Evangelium Vitae 70 et seq.) To simply go along and avoid having to confront evil can quickly become cooperation with evil, especially since evil often will not leave you alone, but will demand your involvement and approval. And one cannot simply say, "let God take care of it." God has already taken care of much of it -- Jesus has commissioned us to go out and be a light to a dark world -- God takes care of it through us.

At the very least, we have an obligation in charity to first admit the truth, and then to speak the truth, in opposition to evil. Here in the United States we probably will never face a totalitarian regime such as that in Nazi Germany. But if Sophie Scholl was willing risk her life, and ultimately give it, to speak the truth so as to awake the conscience of the German people, should not we at least be willing to speak the truth when we are faced with "lesser" evils?

This much is certain: Doing nothing in the face of evil is not an option.
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1 comment:

The Tame Lion said...

True, very true!