Did Snowden do the Right Thing?

One of the best books of the last fifty years or so–and certainly one of the best about the Nazis and the Holocaust is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil.  It details her coverage of his trial [Adolf Eichmann was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust machine], and her conclusion that evil is actually quite “banal” [hence the subtitle of the book].  Her point is basically that while we usually think of evil as something inhuman, extreme and beyond the pale of regular human experience, in reality, evil typically is perpetrated by “normal” people [not sociopaths and nutjobs] who rationalize what they are doing by seeing themselves as fulfilling a role in a larger system, whose basic organization and rules they accept, and therefore acting in a “normal” manner. [Let me say that the book is widely discussed and there are differing views about her conclusion.]

Anyway, in this op-ed piece in The New York Times, the author cites this book in the course of his opinion that Edward Snowden DID do the right thing in exposing the NSA’s surveillance activities:  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/the-banality-of-systemic-evil/?_r=0.  One of the things that makes this piece so interesting is that he notes how opinions about Snowden’s actions seem to break down by age.  He writes, “Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden ‘did a good thing’ in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program;” the mainstream media and politicians/officially seem generally dismayed by this, wondering whether or not this younger generation has “lost its moral compass.”

This whole issues points to the tension between one’s willing participation in a given system and one’s own independence; and what is implied in the article is that the younger generation privileges their autonomy, and the corresponding right to make their own decisions about right and wrong–particularly when they see ambiguity or even contradiction and hypocrisy in said system.

I can’t help but think that this might have some ramifications for the mainline church, which certainly counts as a “system” or “structure” that expects people’s willing participation.  It seems pretty clear that many in the 18-34 generation have rejected what they see as a “sick” system, and can no longer go along with beliefs/practices/teachings that may well not be “evil,” but certainly seem to be detrimental at worst [moral rigidity, judgment of those outside the church] and irrelevant at best [come to church so you can go to heaven].  I wonder if we don’t need more authenticity and less complicity, more interrogation and less indoctrination–and a greater sense of accountability for our own actions/teachings within the church.  

I think about that every time I stand before my students in the classroom, every time I write an article, or make a public presentation.  I want to both represent the church faithfully, and also demonstrate my own critical engagement with it, so that I can show forth an authentic, reflective, dynamic participation in the church that goes beyond a slavish, unexamined rehashing of “the party line,” so to speak.  I don’t think I always get it right, but I think the attempt is important–not just for those of us who do this for a living, but for all of us who believe the church is more than just a “system” that demands compliance, but is, in fact, a life-giving witness to the God of freedom, justice and peace.

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