Friday, January 6, 2012

"I Had No Choice"? Agency and Martyrdom

I've discussed the existentialist notion of mauvaise foi or "bad faith" a couple times before. The idea that many people have a tendency to disown their own agency, and thus responsibility, by (self-deceptively) constructing their decisions as a matter of their hand being forced or of being constrained when really they are not.

In truth, we are free. We always have choices, and our freedom is a major source of our human dignity (really what constitutes us in the Image of God). To deny one's own agency and to think of oneself as at the mercy of external forces is ultimately contemptible. Even on just a gut level people know this; it's why the Nazi plea of "I was just following orders! I would have been killed myself otherwise!" disgusts us so much.

This notion of human freedom is also at the heart of the Christian imperative (yes, I say imperative) of martyrdom. We must be ready to die rather than to deny Christ, rather than to mortally sin. If anything, even the threat of death, "excused" us from our own agency, then there would have been no reason for the martyrs to not sacrifice to the emperor; otherwise they just could have said, "I had no choice, I had to, they were going to kill me." But even if someone is holding a gun to our head, we still have our agency, we are still free, we do have a choice: we can choose death. And death is preferable to sin.

Of course, we know that a variety of forces can reduce culpability. If an external threat translates, internally, into such great fear that free will really is impaired, personal responsibility can be mitigated. But, though it should remind us not to judge others, we shouldn't depend on this "loophole" ourselves or embrace it anyway, lest we put ourselves in bad faith. And we certainly shouldn't think of it as a good thing; sometimes our freedom may be reduced so that we are not culpable, but lacking freedom like this is, in itself, a very bad thing.

Virtue and holiness are ultimately about internal freedom from any such coercion or constraint, which is why it truly is a process of liberation from the enslavement to ourselves that sin and vice represent. The holiest person (which is to say, the freest person) will not be beholden to any enticement or any fear, because they have set their desire on God, beyond this life. Such a person is very dangerous and subversive to This World, because there is nothing The World can offer them, and nothing The World can take away from them. They are beyond the satanic dominion of the Prince of This World.

In this context, perhaps, we can more easily understand the message being sent by the Church in the stories of virgin-martyr Saints, such as Maria Goretti and Pelagia of Antioch, who resisted their would-be rapists to the death rather than succumb (the latter jumping from a rooftop in a manner that was not suicide, because death was willed neither as an ends or a means presumably, even if foreseen).

Some people are disturbed by this, perceiving a message something like "raped women are at fault if they don't stop their attacker." I don't think that is exactly the message; if someone is truly physically forced, there is no culpability. If someone stronger literally grabbed a Christian, kicking and screaming, and physically forced their hand to place some incense on the imperial altar against their will...obviously, no culpability. Likewise, the Church has always taught that women who are truly raped against their will do not forfeit
virginity in the theological sense.

However, I think the point of martyrdom, as I started this post saying, is that "against our will" is a lot stricter a standard than some people might like to imagine. Like I said, if someone is holding a gun to my head or threatening to kill me...I still have a choice: I can choose death. If I relent or give-in, I can't disown my agency for it, cannot truly claim "I had no choice." Now, overwhelming fear or something of the sort may indeed mitigate culpability internally, but only at the price of our own freedom (which is not a desirable state of affairs either).

To some this may sound insensitive to all the various victims of various forms of oppression around the world, but the message is actually liberating: it is a returning of agency to victims rather than seeing them just as helpless passive automatons at the mercy of outside forces. This is in some ways why, though I sympathize with certain elements of Marxist analysis, I cannot ultimately accept its conclusions (nor, of course, its rejection of God).

While claiming to discuss human freedom and alienation, the materialist view of the world also ultimately seems to imply that people really are simply at the mercy of grand structural oppressing forces. Sure, the idea is that we could rise up and overthrow them, and that this would be the triumph of the human spirit, but even that is portrayed as the playing-out of some inevitable historical process. The way Marxists talk about human behavior, it is always so fatalistic.

It is implied, like in the position refuted by my favorite Thomas Merton quote, that we can blame society or the world for whom we've become. "Here's why I am the way I am, and only some massive socio-political restructuring [which isn't going to happen] could change it! So, there, it's not my fault, I'm not to blame! But at least I'm aware!" is what so many "academic" Marxists sound like; their philosophy is not really about economic justice, it's about whining to justify their own soft uselessness to themselves (while sounding smart and smug in the process). But this, of course, is simply mauvaise foi.

This is not to dismiss structural evil and exploitation in the world (which certainly exists), nor that structural evil has an effect on the spiritual outlook of the population as a whole. But, at the end of the day, oppression and alienation are still a matter spiritual and ultimately individual; to the person who is holy, no one can truly oppress them; and, to the person who is not, no revolution, in itself, is going to free them (though it may distract them).

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