by Robert Shetterly
We humans constantly are telling ourselves stories about moral and immoral behavior. Many of the most memorable -- if only because of repetition -- are from the Bible. From them we learn about moral courage and cowardice, about wisdom and folly, about when to obey and when to rebel. And, of course, most Bible stories tell us to believe in God. But God -- He/She/It -- is so many things at once: God is Love, God is Nature, God is Truth. How can I believe in all these things at the same time? I’m more comfortable with each of those declarations about what God IS when the formula is reversed. For example, I prefer Nature is God. If that identifies me as a pagan, so be it. But the Bible stories still move me profoundly, especially when I try to apply them to the world around me.
For instance, remember the story of King Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents? Herod, in an attempt to protect his crown from being supplanted by the rumored birth of the King of the Jews, ordered the execution of all male children in Nazareth under the age of two. He cannot identify which child might be Jesus, so he decides to kill them all. We are expected to think about this monstrous crime as the work of a paranoid maniac, which it is. And we may be expected to learn that totalitarian leadership can lead to this sort of barbarity. That is also correct.
But couldn´t we also interpret Herod´s actions as the use of rational and necessary collateral damage to ensure the continued integrity of the state? If the sanctity of the state is the foremost good, then security has to trump justice and the right to life of any individual. In fact, security then becomes justice. It’s the same political and philosophical excuse used for drone warfare by our government today. If children are killed as a by-product of killing terrorists, then the killing is justified. Herod feared Jesus wanted to overthrow his state. Our government fears the terrorists do. Are all actions that advance the security of the state de facto ethical? Should our drones be called Herod? (Image: Giotto's 'Massacre of the Innocents')
Take a look at Giotto’s masterful 14th Century fresco of the Massacre of the Innocents. Above the town square, where his soldiers are lancing and decapitating children, Herod stands calmly giving his orders, pointing out the next victim as calmly as a US president ordering a drone strike. In neither case is any consideration given to law or to morality, or to what we might quaintly call “due process.” We witness the paranoid justice of security.
What lesson is this behavior meant to teach our children? I am reminded of how Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled in the late 1960s to answer young black men in the ghetto when they asked him why they should not use violence to achieve their rights. They reminded Dr. King that the US government claimed the use of extreme violence in Vietnam as justified and necessary to promote democracy, so why shouldn’t they use the same method to achieve equality at home? King’s only answer was to condemn the war as immoral, a war that was racist, imperialist, and for the benefit of the military-industrial complex at the expense of the poor.
Another instructive Bible story is the Wisdom of Solomon parable. King Solomon is approached by two women both claiming to be the mother of the same child. How can he know who is telling the truth? DNA tests were still a ways off. So, he suggests a compromise. Compromises are good. He raises his sharp sword intending to slice the baby in half.
One woman objects and gives up her claim in order to protect the child. Solomon in his wisdom now knows who the mother is and hands her the intact child.
But our Solomon today is CEO of Terrible Swift Sword, Inc. His “compromise” has a special interest. What an opportunity to demonstrate superior sword performance! This shareholder Solomon asks us to accept the damage done to our children by gun violence, by contamination, by poor education, by fast food, by climate change, by absurd drug laws, by continual war funding, by the necessities of Empire -- on & on -- as “compromises” so that profits may be enhanced and markets expanded. The wisdom of capitalism. The lives of our children are being sliced in half.
When the rights of money become part of the process of ethical compromise, wisdom is lost. When we allow our justice to be derived from our fears for security, ethics are lost. We are not then wise kings with wise swords, but armed and frightened barbarians with bottom lines. Every would-be Solomon becomes a Herod.
How do I know this? The Bible tells me so.
- Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine. He is has created the series of portraits called Americans Who Tell the Truth