This Police statement appeared online in my news feed this morning.
“West Yorkshire Police said a police firearm was discharged at about 18:00 GMT on Monday in Huddersfield. A man later died in hospital.”
I took me a minute or two to realise it meant the police had shot and killed a man. The statement ingeniously removes all agency from the event. Firearms, even when they belong to the police, have an unfortunate habit of being discharged. Police may or may not have been present when their firearm was discharged. A man later died in Huddersfield which is after all an everyday occurrance even in a nice place like Huddersfield.
As George Washington is reported to have said, “An axe was deployed upon the trunk of a tree. The tree was later observed to be severed from its roots.”
As the Bible recounts, “A stone was discharged from a sling in a battle yesterday. A Mr. Goliath of Gath was later found to be dead and minus his head.”
As a press release of the Third Reich notes, “Gas chambers at a number of locations, including Auchswitz have been operational over a period of some years. 6 million Jews, and some millions of Gypsies and homosexuals, are reported missing, presumed dead.”
Theologians have noted that all these unfortunate events go back to an original and shocking accident in the Garden of Eden, where “two sets of teeth were munching an apple. A man and a woman, clad only in fig leaves, were later found to be homeless.”
Such statements are very different from those that describe the behaviour of those not in authority:
“In Tiannanmen Square yesterday a violent anti- Government dissident thug, armed with dangerous bare fists, launched an unprovoked attack on a tank belonging to our heroic armed forces. A body was later discovered to be flat.”
I don’t need to labour the point. As the Adam and Eve story in Genesis shows, if you have been caught out doing something dodgy, deny agency or at least pass the buck:
Adam: The woman you gave to be beside me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I ate.
Eve: The snake enticed me, and I ate.
These are ways of saying, as is traditional in Scotland, “It wisnae me. A big boy did it and ran away.”
These denials of agency fit neatly into what we will call (for the sake of squeamish readers) the S Happens philosophy. Nobody S’s, or causes S or throws S, it simply happens. Tough if it happens to you, buddy, but it might be me tomorrow.
I think I prefer a world where people do things, even if sometimes these things are bad, and even if sometimes it’s me that does them. Yes, there may be forms of compulsion, there may be extenuating circumstances, there may be irrestible temptation, all of these, but human action or inaction and responsibility for these, seem preferable to any kind of vague and haphazard S that descends upon you for no reason. At least when a human being does something bad I can hope that he/ she may be persuaded not to do it again, or that I may find out how to stop them doing it to me.
If passive acceptance of S is bad, passive expectation of Good is no better; G does not just happen any more than S, it has to be done. i think a lot a decent people believe that individual good actions may be done. Their acts of kindness, care, justice and peace, prevent communal life from becoming completely S-ty. Fewer people have confidence in communal acts of goodness, and fewer still in governmental goodness. Perhaps if government isn’t actually evil, Goodness will happen.
The Christian Bible Old Testament is full of the expectation that rulers can do good or evil, and that their choice brings either blessing or disaster to their people. The New Testament is full of the confidence that small assemblies of people who follow Jesus’ way, can do good for each other and the societies in which they live. Those who hunger and thirst for justice, and do it, will be filled. Of course God also does good, but there is no goodness of God in the Bible that is not done in and through creation. All human beings in the Bible are sinners but they are at least wrong- doers; nor are they bystanders in God’s battle against evil: God counts on their help.