June 4, 2009
The Strange Beliefs of Leonard PittsBy Paul Shlichta
Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts has an irritating habit of adding two and two and getting seven. This time, in proclaiming the cruelty of Christians, he has taken two separate ideas, misinterpreted both of them, and then added them up to get something monstrous.
His recent column, "Why this tolerance for torture?", can be summarized as follows:
A. "The Christian church has ignored human suffering.
B. Christians are more tolerant of torture than the rest of us.
Therefore, A + B = Christians are a nasty cruel lot.
Let's take these propositions in order:
A. Mr. Pitts should have been a trial lawyer. He has a talent for making unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations that suit his case while conveniently forgetting the contrary evidence. Let's take his repeated refrain:
and do a little deconstructing:
"The Christian church": I didn't know there was only one of them. I thought there were hundreds. Which one is he talking about?
"with isolated exceptions": Because of this unfortunate diversity, there are nothing but isolated exceptions. Aside from some sort of belief in Jesus, almost the only thing that has united Christians in recent centuries has been protests against cruelty.
"watched in silence": Christians have neither been silent nor been content to just speak out: they have taken action. Who does Mr. Pitts think has been caring for refugees and the oppressed and deprived in the world? Until after WWII, the church-based organizations were virtually the only groups that did so.
Mr. Pitts seems to think that, before Christianity, the human race and its rulers were kind and humane. The cruelties he describes were trivial compared to the atrocities of non-Christian rulers, such as the genocide of the Jews by Titus-or for that matter, the past century's massacres by the Turks, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the Hutus, all of whom were militantly anti-Christian.
Mr. Pitts forgets that concepts such as democracy and compassion for the poor were conceived by Christian theologians and then slowly and grudgingly adopted by a habitually cruel Western world, whose power-hungry leaders only pretended to be Christian and who often used religion as an excuse for their secular conquests. At best, Christianity has only partly mitigated the innate selfish tendencies of humanity that theologians call 'original sin'. As Chesterton said, "Christianity hasn't failed; it's never been tried."
Mr. Pitts forgets-and considering his racial background, this is bizarre-the role of Christian churches in the abolition of slavery. In England and America, the driving force was almost entirely Christian clergymen and their flocks.
Of course, there were "isolated exceptions" who preached and practiced cruelty or oppression. One thinks of Cromwell's Puritans in Ireland, of the Afrikaan Reformed Church's upholding of apartheid, and, more recently, of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's persistent advocacy of racial hatred.
B. The issue of torture is a complex and tricky one that requires a more careful analysis than we can afford here. But let's look carefully at Mr. Pitts' allegation.
In ancient Rome, police interrogation was routinely done by torture. Since then, although torture is alive and well in Asia and Africa, we have tended to abandon the practice in the Western world. However, as Mr. Pitts points out about the Pew Research poll results:
Mr. Pitts doesn't seem to realize that this result may have a very different interpretation than the one he wants us to believe but doesn't dare state-that Christians are crueler than unbelievers.
For Christians and atheists alike, there is a strong case for, on rare occasions, inflicting pain or fear to obtain vital information. A heroic and tragic example was given by Lt. Col. Allen West, whose story is summarized here.
Col. West believed that the need to save the lives of his men outweighed his reluctance to inflict pain or fear. And he was willing to destroy his career to do it. To a Christian, this sounds like an echo of "greater love hath no man..."
I contend that the question is not whether inflicting pain is ever justifiable but rather how, in such cases, anyone could think differently. If your wife and children were in danger of death and the person who could tell you how to save them refused to do so, would you think differently?
This is where Mr. Pitts misses the point: why do so many present-day Americans think differently and why are they predominantly the irreligious ones? (I know what John Wayne would say, but let's not use the c-word.)
The sad answer is that, as a nation, we becoming increasingly vulnerable to algophobia, which is defined as " an anxiety disorder where the sufferer is fearful of experiencing pain or seeing others experiencing it."
We are also increasingly afraid of death, but we know we can't avoid that. But we can and do try to avoid pain as much as possible. We spend billions annually on pain killers. We can't bear to see the sufferings of the elderly or moribund, so we try to segregate them in special "homes" or "assist" them in leaving us quietly and painlessly.
Thus, the irreligious, seeing no point or purpose to pain, are horrified by the sight or thought of it and regard it as the ultimate evil-even worse than death. Therefore, they consider inflicting it to be the ultimate taboo.
Christians are made of sterner stuff. Following a Leader who suffered a great deal, they expect a certain amount of pain in this "vale of tears" and even extract some spiritual benefit from it. They are therefore less horrified about pain and more pragmatic about the grim necessity of, on rare occasions, having to inflict it on others.
I think that explanation fits the Pew results better than Mr. Pitts' interpretation. But then, he has a long track record of seeing only what he wants to see.