Sticking with Moral Complexity


It’s been a hard week for moral complexity, huh?

The Democratic Republic of Congo found footage (note that this link takes you to a story in The Guardian, not footage) of the murder of Michael (MJ) Sharp, a Mennonite who was working with the UN to investigate violence in the DRC, and his colleagues.

Fourteen people were hurt in a hit-and-run in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most of the injured–including two people critically hurt–were children riding a bus to a local Mennonite school. The driver of the car has not yet been found.

The KKK apparently had a rally in my hometown. The thought that people I grew up with are participating in a cross burning makes me ill.

Times SquareTampa..Bangkok... The Philippines... Manchester… Close to home and far away, people are awful.

We talked this week about Nazi punching–narrowly, the ethics of cheering on attacks on Richard Spencer and, more broadly, what we lose when we lose faith in debating ideas. As you wrote, “I’d rather keep testing ideas and debating them than see which side has the best set of punchers.” I agree–just not to the extent of bringing Richard Spencer an ice pack, at least not when there are many, many other people who are facing violence or government-led restrictions on their First Amendment rights.

At least some of our readers would go farther: that it’s perfectly ok to hurt modern-day Nazis because Nazism killed perhaps as many as 20 million people. 

Of course, there are ways to oppose hate that don’t involve fists, and they tend to work better anyway. So there is a pragmatic reason to not punch Nazis. It could be that if we suppress such speech, it just goes underground–where it is much harder to track. It could be that when we allow people space to say hateful things, we reduce the likelihood that they will act on that hate, seeing their speech as sufficient proof of their loyalty to their racist ideas. (I say, “It could be” because these are things we are still studying.) On occasion, when we talk instead of hit, we are heard.

There is another problem with punching Nazis: there are just too many of them.

Not Nazis narrowly, though even one of them is too many. On the hierarchy of who is the worst, we tend to put Nazis as the top. They were our enemies, after all! It’s much harder to put, say, Christopher Columbus, on that list. But let’s be nuanced: modern-day Nazis don’t deserve to be punched because they admire a movement that systematically killed millions of people. They deserve it because they admire a movement that killed even one. And even if none had died, they advocated for the inferiority of Jews, non-whites, people with disabilities, and gay people. That itself deserves a punch.

And if that is the criteria–that we should be able to whup on the alt-right because they are taking up an ideology that is cruel–then we have to consider who else deserves to get it. The list is long: defenders of slavery and Indian removal, those who carted Japanese Americans off to camps, murderers, rapists, child pornographers…

Don’t get me wrong: I wish that the Holy Spirit would sweep down over the US like in Egypt and kill every single person who has deliberately harmed a child. (Remember, I’m not a natural-born pacifist.)  That’s just one of the many reasons why it’s good that I’m not God.

Your call for us to us to rest in and wrestle with moral complexity is a good one. There is too much evil in the world for us to punch its lights out–and, anyway, that strategy doesn’t work.

So let’s not be discouraged in doing good.

***Update: The driver of the car that caused the bus accident has been identified and charged with a felony. The last child remaining in the hospital is now breathing on his own and speaking..






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