I’ll start with an observation about human beings:
It is always easier to characterize groups than to relate to real people. And so we can feel bad for “the poor” or we can sympathize with “the Amish” or we can fear “the terrorists” or we can condemn “the gays” or we can vote against “the Republicans” or root against “the Broncos” and on and on and on. All of this without risk, without any thought of giving yourself up to the other, of sacrificing something for the sake of love, of offering to serve another child of God with a spirit of compassion and grace, in short, without any of that messiness that we would call a real relationship.
And this detached state feeds directly into the ethics of the lowest common denominator (the LCD ethic, if you will), the prevalent ethic that says one needs to act only slightly better than the group or the person who acts the worst. Consider the case study of terrorism and the treatment of detainees. Good or bad, why should we be concerned with how they are being treated? After all, terrorists have killed thousands of people over the decades, using deplorable techniques, and continue to wreak havoc around the world daily. The LCD ethic would say that the standard for the treatment of terrorism detainees is set by the terrorists themselves, the whole group of them lumped together as one evil blob.
However, Christian ethics start with incarnation, which is the most intimate expression of relationship that God could ever offer. The holy mystery of the trinity, itself an intricate interplay of relationship and unity, is made flesh in Christ Jesus in order to be real, in a reach-out-and-touch relationship by which God yearns to save creation. In the incarnation, God shows up for us so that our relationship with God is no longer an abstraction, but a tangible reality. Jesus gave himself up for the world, sacrificed his everything for the sake of love, knelt down to wash each individual disciple’s feet in the last moments of his life on earth, and made the messiness of human relationship more fully real than any of us ever could.
A “what if” comment last time asked what you would do if one person in your control knew the location of a nuclear weapon that would kill millions – would you torture them? Actually, I cannot ever picture myself in that position, and I’m highly skeptical that anyone but a TV character ever would, and so it is really hard to answer. The question is actually not responsive to the observations I am trying to make in this little dyad of posts. It falls into the category of a neat Youth Group conversation starter, but is not my point.
Mostly, I’m just trying to point out that when we start assessing our behavior by comparing it to a behavior that is truly horrible, we are in pretty big trouble. And further, that our tendency to do so is compounded by our equally sinful tendency to lump individuals together into large groups that we then characterize with broad, sweeping brushstrokes. Again, I’m not talking about the actual treatment of Guantanamo detainees. In fact, in a variation on the LCD ethic, the assertion that they are being treated well as a group is just as antithetical to Christian ethics as the assertion that they are being mistreated as a group.
Rather, a Christian ethic would demand to know how each one is being treated as a child of God, and insist that the sacred worth of every person be realized and respected. And that goes for detainees, guards, support staff, administrators – everybody – which is hard to do. But thank God Christ calls us to a higher standard, and may God give us the strength we need to attain it.