Free to Hurt: Guns, Refugees, and Choice

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Sometimes my 2 year old son hits his 1 year old sister.  Sometimes she retaliates (or anticipates) and hits him back.

In raising toddlers only a year apart there are moments when I seriously wish they just did what you asked the first time and never again repeated undesirable actions.  Hitting is particularly painful to deal with as a parent because who wants to see their child hurt another, let alone their own sibling? So in those moments I think that if I could only wave a magic wand and say, “no more hitting!” our problems would be solved. The lesson would be learned for good and we’d never have to revisit the consequences, pain, or difficulty of addressing their negative behavior.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Sometimes my 2 year old son jumps up from his playtime and gives his sister a big hug.  Sometimes she responds (or initiates) by giving him a big open mouth kiss.

In these moments of beautiful love I am reminded of the power of choice.  When my toddlers choose to show one another affection in such spontaneous, unprompted ways I realize how these moments are special precisely because they had a choice.  Yes, sometimes they hit and that is painful and ugly and hard.  But sometimes they hug.  They hug because they actively chose love over envy and anger.  The magic wand solution is no solution at all, for it takes away their power of choice and thereby the meaning of their love.

This love, even their child love, has a fullness of meaning because each time they express their love they choose it from among a whole range of emotions and responses.  If we enforced rules that trained them they could only ever hug, if hugs were mandatory or mere rituals, if hugs were magically enforced, then their actions wouldn’t express the same thing.  When my son could hit, but instead chooses hugs, that is love.

For those of you unsure of how to speak out on the social controversies of the moment, who want to strike a balance between naivety and fear, between the horror of violence without justice and the high price of ensuring safety, this one is for you.

Choice does not negate justice.  There seems to be confusion in our social and political discussions about the nature of justice.  For, it is argued, if someone can choose to do an act of evil then there is no justice in this world.  The problem is that this understanding of justice fully misunderstands the inherent connection between choice and evil. It is only because we have freedom, and we can choose to use our freedoms for good or ill, that justice even has a purpose to serve.  If we are only given one option then we create a society devoid of justice.  Choice necessitates justice.

In the case of guns and gun control I often hear people argue that the problem with our violent society is that guns are available to the general public in the first place.  If there were no guns, they claim, there would be no more tragic and needless deaths.  If only we took away the choice of how to use guns, and where and how and when to buy them, a great evil in our country would be wiped away.

I am hardly an advocate for the efficacy or need for guns in all of our homes or personal lives. For the record, it is highly unlikely I would ever seek out membership to the NRA or own a gun myself.  Still, I wonder if our knee jerk attempts to address the particular expressions of evil in which guns are involved, typically after they occur, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem before us.

Our problem as a society is not that we have access to guns.  Our problem is that we have access to evil.  Our problem is that we don’t value ourselves or others with the innate dignity that was gifted to us by our Creator.  We disrespect and devalue human life every day.  We do this with our words, with our actions, and through the media we consume.  And while we can most definitely do something to address the ways our culture discards and objectifies human life, and while we can opt to limit or take away legal access to guns, we will never be able to limit the potential in every heart to access and act upon evil.

This is why we have courts on earth, and this is why God sits on a judgment seat in heaven.  We all have a choice on how to use our lives.  Some people use their choices for good, but oh so many of us use our choices for ill.  When someone chooses evil over good it is painful and heartbreaking to watch or partake in.  Often, seeing others choose great evil is hard to understand.  But that is why justice exists.

Will the justice of the law or the justice of God satisfy or heal the pain and sorrow caused by evil in this world? No.  That is the role of Jesus: the sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement offered though His life, death, and resurrection.  Yet the justice afforded to us both on earth and in heaven grants us a pathway to address the true problem, the problem of evil, and how some people use their freedoms to choose to do evil things.

We overstep the purpose of justice when we believe that we can somehow prevent or erradicate evil by limiting our access to choice and taking away our freedoms. That is not attainable nor is it wise.  To do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature.

Gun control or no gun control, evil will exist, people will hurt and kill others, and life will continue to be filled with the cost of sin.  I’m not saying there isn’t place to debate public policy changes in how we handle guns in our country.  But I am saying that no matter  where we stand on this issue, we ought to respect that gun ownership, like so many other rights and responsibilities, comes with a choice to use it for evil or to use it for good.

Seems to me that when a mother uses a gun to shoot and ward off home intruders we collectively cheer.  Or when a private citizen protects an innocent life using their concealed carry gun in public we label them a hero.   In our efforts to limit the potential for evil, we may also prevent or limit good.  Justice is personified holding a scale for a reason.

We needn’t fear our choices, for with the choice to do evil comes the choice to do good.  Because we can choose both good or bad, we can punish evil.  Choice is the very bedrock of the justice that we all look for when faced with tragic displays of evil in this world.  Choice does not negate justice.

Lack of choice does not ensure safety. When we take away the ability for ourselves or others to choose, we take away the potential for good.  Liberty, the founding principle of our nation, demands the opportunity for certain abuses and dangers to exist alongside the opportunity for goodness or righteousness.

Take away a choice in the name of safety and you are often left only with coercion, not goodness.  Coercive societies are joyless societies.  Coercive societies lack imagination, creativity, and individuality.  We may find that the cost of any “guaranteed” safety we create when we overly limit our choices and options is far too high.

Think about the current debate regarding refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations.  In the name of safety many argue that we need to cut off access to our country for millions  of people around the world.  Is there perhaps a chance than some small percentage – likely less than 1 percent – of those seeking entrance to this country intend to use this privilege for harm? Yes.  But think of all that would be sacrificed in the name of protecting us against this hypothetical threat.

Think of all the good that could be done in helping hundreds of thousands of families in need of a home.  Of showing the world the courage and openness that America was once known for through our welcoming arms and our willingness to accept the huddled masses.  Think of the certain good that would come from embodying the powerful imagery of a city on a hill, shining light for those from far and wide in need of refuge and a hope for a new life.

Think of how many of those seeking entrance here might, for the first time in their lives, be gifted the opportunity to live in a land where freedom of religion is real and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in public.  In fact, not only might it be the first time they will have the opportunity to hear about the truth of Jesus, but it could offer them the first opportunity to consider following Him without fear of reprisal or violence at the hands of their own government.

Is it at times unsettling to know that potential terrorists might be dwelling in this country and seeking access to weapons? Yes.  But it is also unsettling to realize that in the name of protecting ourselves from this potential threat we would empower the government to decide, without recourse to justice through due process, who is and is not safe, who is and is not a threat, who does and does not have rights. Is it not also unsettling that we would ban a whole group of people from entry to our nation because of the faith or the place of their birth, regardless of the content of their character? For me, most certainly yes.

We can extend these powers to the government, we can limit ourselves and our society until our border is in lockdown and every building has a metal detector.  But no matter the laws passed or the precedent set we will never eradicate the evil that inspires terrorism or that leads mankind to kill.

However, we can choose to do good in the face of evil.  We can choose openness to protecting our choices and expanding our opportunities to heal and bless.  We can choose to hug and not hit, even if we were hit first.  That is how evil is vanquished in this world.

Evil wins each time we cower, we fear, and we stop living.  Evil wins when, in the name of safety, we close our arms and no longer extend them for the hurting and the broken.  Evil wins when we stop ministering to others or hide the words of the gospel for fear of rejection or misunderstanding.  Evil wins when we elect to take away our freedoms, not when we choose to defend or expand them.

Until the day of Christ’s return there will always be evil on this earth.  That is not a surprise, it is a promise.  Take away choice and not only does evil win, but it will find new paths for expression.  Increase the potential for light, increase the opportunities for good, and choose courage instead of fear.  That is how evil will be overcome, and oh how it shall be overcome one day!

We can be certain that so long as we are here on earth there will be sin and evil and pain.  Yet we are also certain that in the end goodness and beauty will win, that God shall render the ultimate justice, and that only His love shall remain.  Good shall conquer evil, that is a promise too.  Because we have this promise we have nothing to fear.

More choice means more paths for goodness to shine and justice to be rendered, not less.  We are safer when we more free, not the other way around.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.

We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.  We should be neither surprised by nor scared of the existence of evil in this world.  When confronted by the existence of evil we are called to choose love.  We can promote free choice as a society to act for evil or for good because we have recourse to justice, both human and divine.  Choice does not negate justice.

Take away our choices or our options on how to live and we merely limit the potential for goodness to shine in this very dark world.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.  If we severely limit ourselves as a nation, or as individuals, we will devalue any good we try to offer or create.  The power of love is found in the power of choice.  Forced love is no love at all.  We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.

 

Hummers, Terrorism, and Societal Sin

I wrote the following short essay for a class on National Security Affairs in a slightly modified form. It is a response to a very specific prompt regarding a possible connection between American Hummer owners and Saudi supported terrorism.

Some American champions for environmental and energy security posit a chain of logic that begins with Hummers and ends with terrorism. The basic argument goes as follows: Hummers, and other large fuel inefficient vehicles, require abnormally high amounts of gasoline to function. The refueling rate disproportionally increases US demand for petroleum, which reinforces US need for foreign oil. Inevitably, this sustained demand for petroleum imports secures continued American dealings with the Saudi oil market, which in turn increases Saudi wealth that is, at long last, used to finance terrorism.

Although vastly over simplified, there are a few claims in their argument that sound valid – if not compelling – and warrants further consideration.  To investigate the charged connection of Hummer owners to terrorism it must first be established whether the Saudi government, as the beneficiary of Saudi oil profits, financially supports terrorist acts or organizations.  Only then can we delve further into the potential guilt of an average gas guzzling American driver in aiding and abetting the very plague they so vociferously seek to vanquish.

While it is commonly held that Saudi funding of Wahhabist terrorism is a problematic roadblock to our counter-terrorist operations, it is difficult to prove that there is a direct relationship between the Saudi government (i.e. the Saudi oil market) and the subsequent funding of terrorist organizations by Saudi nationals.  As a rentier state, the wealth of the nation is managed through government control of their petroleum resources and the profits are then distributed among the citizenry.  The recipients with the largest share of these funds are the numerous members of the Saudi royal family, several of whom are known financial supporters of terrorist activity.  What cannot be proved outright, given the diffused – and somewhat confused – power structure of the Saudi government, is whether there are any official state ties to this illicit use of funds.

That said, is well established that the Saudi government directly funds Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world, several of which are known ideological training grounds for religious motivated terrorism.  In both cases the money generated by oil exports flows into the coffers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is channeled, either by high ranking citizens or through the financing of learning centers, to support terrorist organizations world wide.  Concluding, therefore, that Saudi government does – if only through demonstrably indirect means – use their wealth to support Wahhabist terrorism, we now return to the culpability of the average American motorist in enabling their behavior.

It is certainly true that without the pressing American need for petroleum Saudi Arabia and her people would, at least in the short term, have significantly fewer financial resources to apply to terrorist affiliated activity.  Also, there is a genuine hypocrisy in the loud protestations made by Americans against the financing of terrorism or the deplored reliance on foreign oil while they continue to drive large gas guzzling trucks and SUVs like the Hummer.  Yet a complete US rejection of Saudi oil, while posing a devastating blow to their market, would not cripple the industry.  The world is full of emerging economies eager to supply petroleum to a new class of drivers, most of whom would not give a second thought to the indirect support of terrorism these purchases will enable.  Still, this brutal geopolitical reality does not outright excuse the part of the American consumer in propping up Saudi success while knowing full well that the money they spend on imported gasoline furthers the cause of our self-described enemies.

At this juncture it is crucial note there exists an implicit claim in the opening argument that not all cars are created equal in the way of supporting terrorism via the Saudi oil market.  This premise begs the question: are some car consumers more virtuous or patriotic than others?  The ever so qualified answer is both yes and no.  Certain vehicles, like Hummers, are clearly higher consumers of gasoline per mile driven, but there are also more complex factors to consider when calculating the total impact of a single driver on the global petroleum industry.  For example, someone may own a Hummer as a luxury vehicle but seldom drive it do to the high cost of refueling or personal lifestyle habits.  Meanwhile, a conscientious Prius owner supposedly trying to do their patriotic duty to lessen our oil dependence, could drive hundreds of miles a week in long commutes and actually use more gas per month than their Hummer owning neighbor.  To be fair, it is far better for the commuter to drive a Prius than a Hummer, but the underlying reality is that ownership of large vehicles does not automatically equate to above average gas consumption.  The problem is not so much the size or efficiency a particular vehicle as it is our entire vehicular driven culture and industry.

It should be acknowledged that the issue of oil dependence and the resulting support of terrorism is a problem of systemic injustice.  We can rebel against or opt out of certain societal ills but others are so ingrained in the cultural mores of a particular era that they must be endured even as the upright work for eventual change.  Sometimes you have to take part in the system in order to change the system.  This does not justify the wrongs associated with a broken or unjust institution, but it may lessen the individual culpability of the people who, by necessity, comply with the broken social patterns of their day.  An element of God’s grace is forgiveness for the ways we are entangled in the societal sins of our specific place and time, as no civilization or era has ever been free from forms of systematic injustice.  However, if we see these problems within our society and choose to ignore them, stay silent, or deny the evil as evil, then a very direct wrong has been committed.

Our fault will lie not necessarily with driving gas-powered vehicles, but in willfully reveling in these luxuries while ignoring the darker consequences of our cultural indulgences.  Americans of conscience ought to buy fuel efficient vehicles not only because of the relief it will lend to their checkbooks but because of the benefits it will have to greater issues like decreasing our petroleum consumption and lowering our carbon footprint (personal views on anthropogenic global warming aside, ways to decrease airborne pollutants should appeal to all).  Efforts to diplomatically tackle direct or indirect financing of terrorism can be advocated though our political system, including concerted efforts to popularize policies like suspending foreign aid to Saudi Arabia.  Additionally, Americans ought to challenge the underlying causes of the gas driven society, perhaps through city planning that is more amenable to walking or widespread private investments in the innovation of new energy technology.

Is it morally wrong or unpatriotic to drive a gas-powered car? I don’t believe so.  However, it may be morally repugnant to see the harmful effects of America’s gas guzzling culture and choose to do nothing to change it for the better.