Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Loyal priorities…

My fraternity used to hold our annual initiation ceremony in a nearby cave. The setting proved moving to each initiate. We’d begin before sunrise, so newbies walked into the ritual cloaked in darkness. The cave was a tourist site, so it had lighting along the walkways and walls, which we used to dramatic effect. The facility’s caretaker had been a fraternity brother during college, hence our use of that cave. And we loved it! It’s added gravitas and perspective, plus a big helping of cheesy melodrama, but hey, it was college…

After my junior year, however, we stopped using that cave after its owners informed us we were no longer welcome. The reason was simple. During our ceremony that year, one brother arrived intoxicated and caused problems. While everyone else got organized, he stumbled around sections we’d been told were off-limits. He broke a precious stalagmite. He defecated on the floor. The caretaker who’d vouched for us was justifiably furious. We were embarrassed. What happened next, however, has remained with me as an incredible lesson in ethics. My fraternity had a decision to make: What should we do about this brother- and friend- who’d cost us so dearly?

Some immediately demanded he be expelled from the fraternity. It was a serious moral failure, they said, not to mention misconduct covered by our by-laws. Others, however, believed we had a deeper commitment- loyalty to our brother- and that priority trumped all. “Make him pay a fine,” they said. “Or do community service. He’s apologized, after all. Isn’t that enough? Plus, he’s our brother. We can’t be disloyal.”

This popped to mind recently for several reasons. First, the US Senate produced a report detailing America’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. Some were horrified and outraged by that behavior. Others said we shouldn’t disparage CIA patriots just trying to keep us safe. That would be disloyal, they claimed, and in the face of continued threats by brutal lunatics like the (so-called) Islamic State, we must remain staunchly, unmovably loyal. Whatever moral failure this torture represented- this thinking goes- is secondary to loyalty.

In roughly similar fashion, the (to my mind) more repulsive behavior of those in the (so-called) Islamic State- sex slavery, beheadings- is often done in Islam’s name, an ethically demanding religion that historically condemns such acts. Nevertheless, IS fighters do it, explicitly targeting folk they consider threatening, yet described as apostate or heathen, aka “not in my tribe.” Thus, they’re being loyal to “their own” by terrorizing others “not like them.” And so they justify practices that, in other contexts, even they would deem morally abhorrent.

The point is that in those, and other diverse situations, a tension develops between loyalty and other virtues, with loyalty competing among goodness, respect or compassion for top billing. Use that idea to reflect on the behavior of some police and protestors in recent stories about Ferguson, Staten Island or other killings of unarmed black men, and it helps explain many strident responses. Loyalty is powerful, and for some it’s the highest- or only- moral priority. Always.

My fraternity, ultimately, decided to forgive our brother, and expel him permanently. I lived with him off-campus my senior year, but never advocated his return. He was wrong, after all, in both his cave behavior and his argument that loyalty should be our chief concern. There’s another standard of goodness beyond that, we believed, and I still affirm, however difficult sometimes to discern, or hold ourselves accountable to. It’s even what makes forgiveness possible. Without a higher moral priority, only those most power win, along with whomever they deem most loyal.

What does that mean regarding recent news? Well, you’ll surely decide for yourself! But as you do, consider asking yourself the following: Would I hold myself- or my child’s attacker/torturer- to the same standard I’m holding others to now? Or am I simply being loyal to people who look like me, vote like me, or post on facebook like me? If the latter- and that’s a temptation Everyone faces!- remember there’s a beautiful place in God’s Kingdom for loyalty, but it’s not first place.

Grace and Peace,
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