Editor's Reflections | Winter 2014 (28.1) | CBE International

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Editor's Reflections | Winter 2014 (28.1)

This issue is about ideas having consequences, finally centering, as we always do, on our target area: making sense of gender relations. 

As all issues of Priscilla Papers, this present one has been pieced together over months (and sometimes years), and each editorial is written on a topic relevant to the issue. But, at the same time, each editorial is also written within a life context. In the present instance, the life context and the topic are certainly related, as I, and everyone else I know here in Massachusetts, continue trying to make sense of the macrocosmic events of the Boston Marathon bombing. The rest of the country and the rest of the world have long since moved on to other incidences and concerns, but not Boston. The commemorating phrase “Boston Strong” has become endemic, a regular fixture in the speeches of Massachusetts politicians and news commentators, painted on commuter trains, present in seemingly every home in magnets on refrigerators, given away or sold as fundraisers for the victims by local hardware stores, and on and on. This event was to Boston as the slaughtering of children was to Newtown, or the Twin Towers devastation to New York, or the subway poison gas attacks to Tokyo. A population does not simply move on from something like this—it becomes an inseparable part of its identity. Those living in Boston and its environs continue to revisit this confounding tragedy. For the victims, it was, of course, a life-changing catastrophe, but, for the perpetrators, it was a tragedy in the classic sense, the result of a character flaw that propelled two young men from a Muslim extremist-dominated section of Russia to kill four people, force the amputation of the limbs of seventeen others, maiming them for life, and wounding some 280 more, some of these critically—not one of whom they knew. What this devastation meant is that they took the life of a beloved eight-year-old boy, inflicted on his mother a brain injury, and destroyed his sister’s leg, though all of these members of a single family were complete strangers to them. Their thinking also compelled these men to murder a young male police officer only one year on the job, as well as two young women, one a 29-year-old restaurant worker renowned for her sunny disposition, the other, not even an American, but a 23-year-old Chinese graduate student who, we have been told, had been attending InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and was contemplating giving her life to Jesus.

Why would anybody do such a thing to strangers they might like or come to love, had they had the opportunity to meet them? After all, nobody wakes up one holiday morning and says, “My, what a beautiful day. What should I do today? Maybe something totally different: a real change of pace. I know! Why don’t I make up some bombs and slaughter hundreds of people peacefully attending a globally oriented event designed to bring people together? That’s something I’ve never done.”

Of course not. Such a wide-sweeping devastation takes weeks, even months, of planning. But, even more, a decision with such far-reaching ramifications (in this case, the plan included further bombing in New York’s Times Square at the inevitable risk of the death of both bombers) only comes about by a growing idea based on a set of increasingly accepted premises that make its monstrousness more and more conceivable as an ideal becomes more real in one’s perspective than the event itself, thereby replacing, with a mitigating motivation, the heinous reality of what is actually being inflicted on innocent others. 

In the case of these two siblings, a family member noted “a change in the older brother in 2000” with a “radicalization” that “had begun after he met a recent convert to Islam in the Boston area.” As a result, the Russian government warned “the F.B.I.’s legal attaché” at the American Embassy in Moscow that future bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev had “spent six months in Chechnya and Dagestan in 2012,” “both of which are predominantly Muslim Republics in the North Caucasus region of Russia,” which are considered “hotbeds of militant separatists.” The Russian concern was “based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.”1

But, between his radicalization and his trip to join the underground, Tamerlan already showed a tendency toward violence. In an interview after the bombing, his uncle reported that, in 2009, he was arrested on a “domestic violence complaint,” “because of his girlfriend.” “He hit her lightly.” “He was locked up for half an hour.” “There was jealousy there.” At the time he did the bombing, Tamerlan was married with a little child.2 The domestic violence was a sign of an increasing pattern that now moved outward from his home to the political realm, determining his mode of interaction with family and with strangers. He had become in his matter of relating a violent person.

Years ago, during a trip with Gordon-Conwell faculty to Turkey, I asked our tour guide, a moderate Muslim, how she interpreted the surah “Mohammed (The Battle)” in the Qur’an, which reads: “When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them; and bind them in bonds; and either give them a free dismission afterwards, or exact a ransom: until the war shall have laid down its arms. . . . And as to those who fight in defence of God’s true religion, God will not suffer their works to perish: he will guide them, and will dispose their heart aright; and he will lead them into paradise, of which he hath told them . . . but, as for the infidels, let them perish; and their works shall God render vain.”3 Our guide explained that Muslims these days took such words symbolically—that, to them, Muhammad meant struggling with evil thoughts inside oneself and subduing them with God’s help. 

Radicalization, however, apparently takes place when someone adopts a different idea that literalizes these words in the Qur’an and applies their outworking not to oneself, but to others. This is what happened in the case of the two young men who, according to the visual record, set their bombs down in places where women and children were mainly gathered, the idea apparently being, not to kill, but chiefly to maim, achieving the weakening of a society by forcing it to carry an extra economic burden of caring for lifelong invalids, while, at the same time, increasing the impact of fear by instituting a myriad of daily reminders of the power of the action. Such literalization of the idea of the Jihad, the “holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims,”4 is what allows terrorists to roar up on motorcycles in places like Pakistan and slaughter fellow Muslim guards, clearing a way for themselves to shoot harmless Christians in worship, who are reckoned along with New York’s Twin Towers’ two hundred innocent Muslim dead, the victimized commuters of the Spanish train bombing, and now Boston’s 8-year-old noncombatant, as well as countless others in similar atrocities, as necessary collateral in what is deemed the more important task of ushering in an ideal, namely what its perpetrators consider to be a better world. Ideas have consequences.

As it did with his older brother, the idea took hold and then took over the younger brother’s life. The New York Times’ Erica Goode and Serge F. Kovaleski report: 

At the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Dzhokhar began to struggle academically. According to a university transcript reviewed by The New York Times, he was failing many of his classes. The transcript shows him receiving seven failing grades over three semesters, including F’s in Principles of Modern Chemistry, Intro to American Politics and Chemistry and the Environment. According to the transcript, Dzhokhar received a B in Critical Writing and a D and D- in other courses.

They add, “A former classmate at the university” speculated, “he was a really smart kid, but having a little difficulty in college because going from high school to college is different.”5 

Dzhokhar’s subsequent actions, however, suggest a far different interpretation for his dismal performance in his classes: becoming preoccupied, then consumed, and finally lethally committed to an alternative identity from student to future killer. Bad ideas can have horrific consequences. 

And what is further disconcerting is that bad ideas are not an occasional occurrence. In varying degrees of impact, bad ideas are with us daily, not only in macrocosmic calamities, but in the microcosmic heartaches in our individual lives and the lives of individuals all around us. 

“Look at this!” said my wife, pointing out an article from the Salem (Massachusetts) Evening News, headlined “Man to serve 3–6 years for breaking girlfriend’s jaw.” I read, “according to court papers,” a man who “had been abusive . . . throughout their relationship” to a “young woman, with whom he had been living,” was caught by her texting another woman at a bar they were attending together. Angered, but careful, “she left, hoping to avoid a confrontation.”

The strategy did not work. At home they argued, and he broke her jaw. Reporter Julie Manganis explains, “She knew her jaw was broken because, when she tried to close her mouth, her teeth were in the wrong place.” 

Now the story follows an all-too-familiar pattern. The abuser takes her to the hospital, but on the way “the two agreed on a cover story—she would tell doctors that she was struck while trying to break up a fight.”

Here now is an injured 26-year-old victim reporting to work at her place of employment—a dentist’s office—obviously knowing the cover story she had used for the hospital was not going to go over with dental professionals, so, we are told, she “came up with another cover story for coworkers, telling them she fell on the stairs while doing laundry.”

The dentist sent her back to the hospital for an operation. Now the story drops into the bizarre abyss of so many similar accounts. To my sorrow, but, sadly, not to my surprise, I read: “Two days later, while still recovering and with her jaw wired shut, she agreed to see [the abuser] again, later explaining that she’d been with him a long time and believed that he loved her. An argument again ensued, however, and he punched her in the eye.”

Now she has a broken jaw and a black eye. Reporter Julie Manganis describes this situation so well with a terseness peppered with astutely selected evocative words that she brings a reader to only one logical response: “What is wrong with the thinking of this woman? A broken jaw wasn’t enough? Doesn’t she realize she could have ended up in an even worse state than temporarily sight impaired? She could have ended up dead?”

Easy for us to say, but the cycle of abuse creates its own reasoning. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “What shall I do with my life? What career track shall I follow? How about I become a lifelong victim?” Of course, nobody says that. Often, the preparation is earlier abuse, a toxic setting that knocks normality askew, allowing the acceptance of a deception, a pernicious idea that takes hold like mildew, spreading out into one’s inner being, polluting one’s self-image, subverting one’s will, dissipating one’s élan—the life force that keeps us resolved to live and fight or flee. 

In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great North American writer, tells of a young woman reared among poisonous plants and flowers. After a lifetime breathing their noxious fumes, she becomes dependent on them and cannot leave them, but any normal suitor who enters her environment to woo her is soon overpowered and begins to die. So it is with the inverted worldview of the enabling victim. One is imprisoned in a noxious idea. In this scenario, an abuser places the idea in the mind of the victim: this abuser needs me. He (in this case) really loves me. I need to be more understanding of his frailties. I need to work more diligently to be a better common-law wife. He says he’ll never do this again. How can I not believe him? The idea creates in the victim a new worldview that excuses the abuse by presenting it as normal, merited behavior, then promotes the fabrication of a series of customized explanations designed either to deceive or, if possible, even recruit subsequent audiences to regard the havoc wreaked as acceptable.6

The court, however, worked on the basis of a different idea that promoted a different, more communal worldview built on a just treatment of all, which drew a different conclusion. Rather than allowing itself to be deceived or recruited, the court’s perspective convicted this abuser of “assault and battery causing serious bodily injury, two counts of assault and battery, and witness intimidation,” sentencing him to jail, and mandating him, after serving his sentence, to “a batterer’s treatment program.”7 Hopefully, the court will also send the victim to a victim’s treatment program to learn a whole new perspective and a replacement set of ideas about what relationships are supposed to be like.

Comparing these two cases, one might speculate that the two young men who wreaked horror on nearly three hundred innocent children, women, and men are, themselves, also the victims of abusive ideas—not necessarily having themselves received corporal abuse from those closest to them, but still the victims of an abuse that comes from being reared in an environment of lethal thoughts whose end is death.

Jesus, on the other hand, said in John 10:10, “I came in order that they may have life and abundantly have [it].”8 Jesus’s good news puts positive thoughts that lead to life in the minds of all who encounter him, and this is what our present issue is about: examining the consequences of ideas and suggesting a better way to think and act to achieve the abundant life offered in Jesus both in our own lives and in the lives of those whom we seek to influence. 

Our issue begins with our CBE president, Mimi Haddad, expounding the truth that ideas have consequences, especially at the intersection of faith, gender, and social ethics. Next, psychologist Patricia Warford and clinical social worker Don Neufeld analyze the motivations, beliefs, and plight of men who abuse, while Pleroma Home for Girls founder Lily Lee reports on restoring victimized girls in China and Cambodia. Denver Seminary adjunct professor and CBE 2013 student contest winner Deirdre Brouer shows us the outrage against rape in Judges 19. Our book review is by former dean Woodrow Walton, and our poems on Mary are by our award-winning poet Hubert Edgar Hix to round out a thought-provoking issue. 

Every day we are bombarded with ideas seeking to change the way we look at ourselves and at our world. These seek to orient, and, thereby, control the way we act in order to bring about an outcome desired by others. But only one Other is the proper creator of worldviews whose ideas should be orienting our lives and guiding our actions, and that One is the One great Triune Lord God Almighty. May that God, through the guidance of the Bible, the Christian community present and past, and our own experience as guided by the Holy Spirit, order the way we think and act in regard to ourselves, each other, and this world that this same God is in the process of reconciling.

Blessings,

 

Notes

  1. Eric Schmmitt and Michael S. Schmidt, “Investigators Dig for Bomb Suspects’ Radicalization,” New York Times, Apr. 22, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/04/22/us/boston-marathon-bombing-suspects-hoped-to-..., accessed May 2, 2013.
  2. Erica Goode and Serge F. Kovaleski, “Boy at Home in U.S., Swayed by One Who Wasn’t,” New York Times, Apr. 20, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/04/20/us/details-of-tsarnaev-brothers-boston-suspec..., accessed May 2, 2013.
  3. The Koran, trans. George Sale (New York, NY: American Book Exchange, 1880), 390. 
  4. Random House, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (New York, NY: Random House, 2001), 1029, col. 2.
  5. Goode and Kovaleski, “Boy at Home.”
  6. In the opening story of my recent novel, Name in the Papers, I present just such a deception, where a charming abuser seeks to foster an inverted worldview in the minds of two women he has deceived.
  7. Julie Manganis, “Man to serve 3–6 years for breaking girlfriend’s jaw,” The Salem News, March 28, 2013, 4,col. 1–2. 
  8. Translation by present author.

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