In a recent live stream, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez managed once again to inflame an already volatile political issue with her trademark brash assertiveness. America is running concentration camps on the southern border. Then AOC doubled down on her earlier assertion that the detention centers were in fact concentration camps by comparing them to the use of “extraordinary rendition” to describe waterboarding when we should have just called it torture. Not wanting to back down, AOC demanded that she was on the side of truth and would not mince words about the death camps that America is now operating. How should one respond to these claims?
The danger in our current situation is not cynicism nor callousness to problems of the world, be they the immigration crisis on the southern border or war in Yemen, though those temptations are real and present, but a blinding self-righteousness that can only see our opponents as irredeemably cruel and wicked. It is the inability to be personally guilty or at fault because the other side is so wicked that almost any metaphor or tactic is justifiable as a means of opposition. It’s not a scorched earth policy of the conflicted but the slaying of the wicked by those of angelic purity.
The fact that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is making a not-so-veiled reference to the Holocaust seems to be the least of my concerns, though that is concerning. Appeal to this most blackhole of moral events is commonplace in politics, even if it is entirely objectionable and inappropriate. I wish it were not so. Invoking Hitler, Nazis, and the death camps is ludicrous, even when it comes to issues of human suffering that we are witnessing on our southern border.
I wish the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulags were left alone. They should instruct us as to the capabilities of humans at their worst. But as metaphors or grist for the political mill for our contemporary political debate, they only cheapen the human suffering and horror that were experienced by those who died and endured them and distort the truth of what is happening now. Yes, there is human suffering, but almost no instance of human suffering should be compared to Auschwitz, unless of course there are actual death camps.
Lest we forget, these are people who are trying to get into the US. That fact alone should debunk the ridiculous claim that we are somehow on par with Nazi death camps.
It also stands as a grotesque act of hubris to claim that our opponents are the moral equivalent of the SS and, by implication, that we are the righteous children of light who stand on the side of the victims of the Holocaust. Politics is not for the children of light because the pure kingdom of light and truth which they imagine they are bringing does not exist, at least not in politics and not at the disposal of human beings. There is no good against evil in a strict sense. We are all flawed creatures, and our causes, even when they stand on the side of right, are not perfect nor without guilt. Pride, as Augustine constantly reminded us, is aspiring to God-likeness.
Reinhold Niebuhr, ever the adept political psychologist, diagnosed this phenomenon in the American psyche better than anyone. The “children of light,” as he referred to them, were sentimental because they tended to view the world simply and in terms of binaries, between the righteous children of light and the children of darkness. But the children of light are naïve and foolish not because they don’t understand the nature of evil in the world, though that is true, but because they don’t understand it in themselves. Niebuhr writes, “It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.”
Though we should want politicians who strive with moral purpose and high ideals, we do not want politicians who imagine they are leading a righteous cause to vanquish children of darkness. Such binaries exist in the world, for sure, but all men, as the Apostle Paul declares, “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Our current politicians seem incapable of exhibiting the least awareness that their moral purity may in fact be a façade.
The recent example of Cory Booker’s demand for an apology from Joe Biden for his comments about working with senators who supported segregation is another example. While personally we may not want to associate or even talk to people who hold such blatantly racist views, politics is different. It requires that we work with people whom we may find morally repugnant in order to advance a policy that we support, or at least try to find some common ground. The essence of democratic politics is compromise. But in the church of purity, there can be no sinners and no compromise with impurity.
The other effect of the disease of self-righteousness that has worked its way into our politics is the inability to appreciate nuance and complexity. The crisis at the border is a complex issue that has been with us for decades. Our immigration policy is broken. The solutions that are politically plausible are not popular. Both sides are using this issue as a political weapon. Democrats are the party of open borders, and Republicans are just cruel and heartless. In reality, though there are profoundly important moral questions at stake, this is basically a political question about how to solve some very serious and complicated questions about our immigration system. But we don’t hear that from the politicians. It’s good versus evil, right versus wrong.
What Christianity should bring to politics and society as a whole is an overwhelming conviction that inordinate self-love may corrupt both ourselves and the broader society. In fact, it does and will continue. But it must start with the individual before we move out into changing the world. People acting to rid the world of injustice without knowing the darkness of their own hearts are dangerous, because they are blind to their own propensity toward injustice.
Daniel Strand, PhD, is a faculty member in the Air War College. He serves as an assistant professor of ethics in Department of Leadership and Warfighting. Prior to his appointment, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University (2015-19) in the History Department and the Program in Political History and Leadership. At the Air War College, he teaches courses on the just war tradition, ethics and leadership, and contemporary political ethics. Strand’s research interests include the political and moral theology of Augustine of Hippo and the Augustinian tradition, ethics and foreign policy, the just war tradition, bioethics, and moral theory. He is the author of the forthcoming Gods of the Nations (Cambridge University Press), a historical study of Augustine’s political theology in City of God. He has published articles and book chapters on Augustine of Hippo, Hannah Arendt, and the ethics of euthanasia. He is a contributing editor at Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. He received his BA from the University of Minnesota, MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and PhD in religion and ethics from the University of Chicago.
Photo Credit: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at SXSW on March 10, 2019. By nrkbeta, via Flickr.