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Sunday Night Journal — April 15, 2007

Pacifism in the War of Words

I found the Marcotte-Edwards controversy of a few weeks ago extremely disheartening. In case you have a very short memory, here’s a synopsis: John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte, impresario of a left-wing blog called Pandagon, to run web operations for his presidential campaign; Christians in general and Catholics in particular objected on the grounds of Marcotte’s apparent hatred of them and their faith; Edwards, after shuffling around for a bit, accepted Marcotte’s resignation.

Pandagon is one of those blogs which gives one the impression that its contributors’ normal state of mind is a combination of burning rage and icy contempt. I had visited it a few times before this controversy because Dawn Eden, irrepressible controversialist that she is, sometimes links to it in the course of arguing with opinions stated there. I’ve never spent much time there because I find the hostility oppressive, to put it mildly. I was appalled that Edwards, a man who wants to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, would hire its most visible writer to manage his image on the web. As many a commenter pointed out, he looked equally bad whether one believed that he understood what he was doing, or that he did not.

Marcotte was, of course, vigorously and sometimes viciously denounced by Christians. Reportedly she received a number of physical threats, including graphically vicious threats of rape and death. Even if we dismiss these as the work of the anonymous nuts who always come out of the woodwork in any bitter controversy (right-wing bloggers get these kind of threats, too), the Christian response tended to answering malice with malice, which can achieve nothing except a momentary and unsatisfying pleasure of release not unlike that of lust, and made sure that the controversy left no one clean.

A few years ago my friend Reuben, a Mennonite minister, and I were discussing the notorious Westboro Baptist Church which seems mainly devoted to expressing its hatred of homosexuals. This was when the group had first appeared on the national scene and when they still seemed merely obnoxious, not entirely unhinged (“Pray For More Dead Soldiers” is one of their current slogans). Although we agreed that homosexual activity, like any other extra-marital sexual activity, is wrong, we were appalled by Westboro’s tactics. Reuben observed that in any encounter with someone estranged from or hostile to the Christian faith, as is generally going to be the case with a practicing homosexual, one ought to say and do nothing that cannot stand the light of the question How can I bring this person closer to Christ?

One didn’t get much sense that this question was much on the minds of the Christians who denounced Marcotte. The anger was natural, of course; I certainly shared it and probably would have expressed it if I had taken the time to comment. But to respond in kind to anti-Christian insults is not only ineffective—what are the chances that Marcotte’s hostility to Christianity was lessened by any of this?—but in contradiction to the Lord’s instructions: …but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The Church does not hold that this admonition denies the right of self-defense against physical violence. Yet surely if there is any situation in which it ought to be taken as literal and binding it’s the response to a verbal attack. One might argue that an insult to the faith justifies or at least allows a more vigorous response than insult to oneself, but even there we should be guided by the question above—How can I bring this person closer to Christ? If a stern response is required, it should be delivered with dignity and respect and without personal animosity or insult. We should be guided by the hope that the person we’re addressing will come to understand the offense he or she has committed, which is not least an injury to himself, and not by the desire to inflict injury in response.

And if the attack is upon oneself, there seems to me no question but that we must turn the other cheek. If someone calls me a wicked fool, I have no right to say the same to him in return; if this is not true, then Matthew 5:38-48 is just pleasant poetry. I’m within my rights to deny the false accusation of a specific act. If someone says I robbed a bank, I can and should deny it, and disprove it if I can. But I’m not justified in assassinating his character in response. If he says he finds me loathsome and despicable, I don’t see how I can justify a response in kind. Is Matthew 5:44 meant seriously or not?—But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

None of this should be taken as a desire to impose upon us all a bland “civility” which would preclude or discourage the utterance of any difficult truth. Genuine civility (to say nothing of Christian teaching) does not require suppressing the truth; quite the contrary. But one can tell the truth without rancor and hatred. Indeed, we’re obligated to do so. It’s a question of the salvation of souls, both our own and those of our enemies. Ferocious anti-Christians like Amanda Marcotte often seem to be in some obscure pain, and of course hatred itself is a kind of pain. When I face God I don’t want to have to explain why I saw fit to increase the pain of a person already suffering.



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