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Resisting reasonable atrocity

Why are we always surprised when reasonable, well-meaning people offer smart arguments for terrible acts?
By David R. Schwartz
Summer 2006 5.15.06

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A former South African paramilitary commander looks across his dining room table into the interviewer’s camera. He is in his early sixties, overweight, with short gray hair. He wears glasses and a polo shirt. He explains:

We were at war. We believed that if the blacks were organized they would rise up. They were trying to get weapons, and they would have used them on us. I had to do what I did to keep the country from descending into chaos. If we didn’t get them, they’d be shooting at us a few years later. So we found suspects and took care of them. I did what I had to do to keep our country together and protect us.

This is madness. He is talking about assassinating kids, a systematic program to find and kill teenagers who had committed no crime.

But did you hear the reasons? Did you note that the killings weren’t an act of madness or passion or blind hatred? He had reasons to do what he did, hard-headed, straightforward, pragmatic reasons.

When I first realized this, a crawling horror seized me—though the assassinations sicken me, the thought that they could be reasonable terrifies me. I can imagine those same words coming from politicians and pundits and editorial pages here, today. Or coming from my co-workers, my friends. Even from my own mouth.

That is the horror of what this commander had to say: that reasonable, well-meaning people could support reasonable, pragmatic assassination, or genocide, or ethnic cleansing. These acts are not the product of demagoguery, political trickery, or force—they are the product of bright, reasonable people making bright, reasonable arguments about how to best protect themselves.

This, more than anything else, convinces me of the need for a critical education that teaches how to recognize and resist the pernicious “commonsense” truths that lead us into calamity.

To resist, we need both to develop critical awareness and to trust our own voice. It takes courage to speak. Speaking out is hard to do—I don’t even mean speeches before thousands, I mean it can be downright difficult in a group of three people to speak out and stand firm. It’s a skill that takes practice, and takes a trust in one’s own power and a belief that you have something to offer and you can make a difference.

This faith in one’s voice is slowly built in a thousand tiny ways and continually eroded in a thousand ways, and the courage comes in part from practice. Our church community is such a community of practice. It is an environment where we can speak our minds and be taken seriously.

But this is hard work, and the strength to pursue it across all the years of our lives must spring from firm spiritual and ethical commitments.

We must keep ever vigilant against good people, with good, rational reasons trying to convince us of terrible things. Perhaps you’ve heard debate recently on the merits of torture (the merits of torture?).

Above all, we must attend diligently to our relationships with the Divine—the root that gives strength for the journey and courage to speak. Pray, meditate, and sing. Walk in the sun, and rest.

In this way, may we journey together from unknowing into awareness, from silence into speech, from acceptance into action, sending down deep roots to the Divine and aligning our lives with our deepest values.


Excerpted from one of the winning sermons in the 2006 Richard Borden Excellence in Sermons award. See sidebar for a link to all the winning sermons.

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