Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"I don't care who started it..."

As a parent of several children, I have to do a lot of disciplining (though not as much as my wife, who stays home with them all day long). If it has been a rough day or the kids are extraordinarily naughty, sometimes I get lazy with my discipline. It often happens that I hear the kids screaming and fighting in the back room, and I run in to take care of the problem. I am confornted with a cacaphony of blame. "I had it first...she started, she started it...I was doing this, then she took it from, you took it from me..." After a few moments, I will get exasperated listening to this din and just yell out something akin to, "I don't care who started it, I'm going to finish it!" Then I just ground them both or get them both equally in trouble.

I think many parents take this approach to ending disputes. I know my parents did with me, particularly my dad. The thing I noticed upon reflecting on this "I don't care who started it" approach is that it totally misses the point of discipline and actually undermines the virtue of justice. A just motive for punishment is to redress the wrong. This implies that the wrong party has to be identified. When I get angry and need to discipline, it ought to be the wrong done that provokes me to anger and merits the discipline.

Now, when I say "I don't care who started it, I'm going to finish it," I say that I no longer care about the wrong committed. I am more concerned with being annoyed by the inconvenience or distraction subsequent to the wrong. In the above example, it was not the wrong done, but the noise of my kids fighting that irritated me and caused me to discipline them. My children sense this injustice when they try to plead their case, the "she did this/I had it first" routine. They are appealing to justice. What I ought to have done is listen and to the best of my ability determine who was actually in the wrong in this case and punish only the offender. And they ought to be punished because they truly did wrong, not because their whining annoyed me. If I do otherwise, I am kind of saying, "Look kids, I don't care about your petty squabbles. I'm just sick of your whining, so shut up, or I'm going to punish you all." This is neither just, nor charitable, nor true discipline.

Yet is this not the mentality behind the modern interreligious dialogue movement? This is the "Can't we all just get along" approach. We are just all so sick of religious quarreling over all these centuries that we need to come together. It doesn't matter who started it. It doesn't matter who has legitimate grievances. It doesn't matter who is in the right and who is in the wrong. It doesn't matter if Turks, within the living memory of some, massacred one million Armenians. It doesn't matter that Constantinople belongs to the Greeks. It doesn't matter that almost all terrorist attacks carried out in the world today are done by Muslim extremists. All that matters is that the fighting stop and that we come together. If we don't, "religion" will be discredited in the eyes of the world.

Do you see the connection here? If we can see it is so dumb in the case of parental discipline, why not apply the same reasoning to this problem, when instead of two siblings we have two religions? First of all, it always matters who did what. We could rightly say that Jews and Nazis had "grievances" against each other. But is manifestly obvious that one sides grievances were monumentally more important than those of the other side, and that the Germans were clearly in the wrong. Can you imagine, after the Holocaust, telling Jews to sit down with members of the NSDAP and telling them, "Look, I don't care who started this argument. Just come to an agreement so we can have peace."

Temporal peace is not an ultimate good (which is the error upheld by those who still defend the Assisi prayer gatherings). Furthermore, I really do not care if "religion" as such is discredited. I don't. In fact, I hope other religions are discredited by their violence or vileness. I only care about the Catholic Church. This idea of "religious" people having to come together to make an alliance against secularism is silly. The Church stands completely and utterly alone against all enemies and does not need to make allies against lesser foes to beat greater ones. This is actually explicitly condemned in the Scriptures (see here).

People who see all religions as having a mandate to put differences aside and just get along are really saying they are offended by the search for truth. When a Muslim and a Christian get in an argument, even if it is an argument that leads to the sword, they are in a sense arguing about the truth. It is a pity that there is violence, and we know that most violence is suffered by us (not perpetrated by us), but at least the point in dispute is worth fighting about. This is the message in GK Chesterton's book The Ball and the Cross: people say it is not worth it to argue over religion; on the contrary, religion is the only thing really worth arguing about. Persons who say otherwise are not so much upset by the positions of either side, or the deeds done in what god's name, but by the simple fact of the disputation, like me getting more upset by my kids' noise than by their naughtiness.

Justice and charity and Catholic discipline demand that in our contacts with other religions, we actually place our value in the right place: on the truth of the Person we are preaching about, and not just in the fact that we are talking. There is a time for talk, but there is a time to keep silent. Let's make sure our innate human desire for peaceful lives does not trump our spiritual duty to preach the truth fearlessly to all men, even if it means they will hate and kill us.


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that, in some cases, not only are our parents guilty of this but those who spent time in boot camp surely remember the one guy who messed up and the rest of us paid for it. Government intervention is much the same way. You don't have to be involved, just be in the wrong place and you're guilty until proven innocent (and I don't want to hear all of the self proclaimed know it alls that will counter this. Like we used to say, "if you ain't been there then shutup.").

In the past with my children I had found that individual question and answer was effective. Kids see things from their own little part of the world (like some adults who haven't grown up yet) and with a bit of guidance the truth can be found. Most cases are just kids being kids and not understanding that asking politely can result in better reactions. Patience and listening helps a lot. When kids feel you will listen to them they begin to listen to you and respond more truthfully.

But if all else fails you will see why lions eat their young.

Kate said...

My mother has cautioned me NOT to make myself the judge in inter-sibling squabbles because it is SO DARN DIFFICULT to apportion blame among children. Invariably the squeaky wheel gets the grease (or parental prejudices come into place) and not only is justice not done but serious resentment can build up. The theory behind punishing equally is that the innocent will put pressure on the guilty to fess up, or all parties will have greater incentive to learn to work out their differences better in the future.

And there might be a lesson there too for the really deep rooted world conflicts as well, where there is no obvious just answer since the bad blood goes back so far...

Of course, my oldest is only 3, and (thankfully!) I have no say in any international efforts, so my opinion is as yet untested in these things.