Unlovable Monsters, Social Security, and the Future of Christian Love

So any programme to overcome violence must contain at least two objectives: (1) build […] ordered democratic polities; (2) try to make their benefits spread as wide as possible, e.g., by preventing the formation of desperate, excluded groups; particularly young men. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Ezra Klein, working the n + 1 meme, says the following:

Yang does not suggest that there was really a way to save Cho, as the essay faces up to the fact that Cho was, from what we can tell, a deeply unpleasant, unlikable, person. What Yang does suggest is that there are many people not entirely dissimilar from Cho, folks who aren’t sociopaths, but who’ve been twisted by rejection, and who now carry wounds and grudges that make continuing marginalization a certainty — it is the only rational choice on the part of society.

Yang’s is not a prescriptive piece, and there’s no five-point plan for ending this alienation and despair. The essay, though beautifully done, is remarkable not for its perceptiveness so much as its honesty. Not a word of it comes as a surprise. It’s more a series of truths that you knew, but were shying away from, because their implications were too saddening and unsettling to admit. We can separate ourselves from Cho’s crimes by understanding them as an interplay of mental illness and personal aberration, but we know of others who share his despair, and most of us know we want little to do with their worlds, because once trapped, we will never escape.

The ‘rational’ conclusion to draw from this is the establishment of public management regimes that administer preemptive therapeutics to ‘at risk’ cases throughout the country and on condition of admission. But this practical little exercise in dystopia won’t go to the root of the problem, as Ezra and a lot of other smart people commenting on this know. Will religion?

For Taylor, at least, there are two root/radical options: “totally overcoming the religious dimension in our existence,” or “the Gospel picture of a Christian counter-violence”:

…some non-religious theory, like modern humanism, doesn’t really do the trick. The religious forms seem to reconstitute themselves. So we would have to fight for a real, thoroughgoing disenchantment, a total escape from religion. [But] the religious dimension is inescapable.

Thus we can point to the Gospel picture of a Christian counter-violence: a transformation of the energy which ususally goes into scapegoat purification; transformation which reaches to overcome the fear of violence not by becoming lord of it, by directing it as an annihilating force against evil, but which aims rather to overcome fear by offering oneself to it; responding with love and forgiveness, thereby tapping a source of goodness, and healing.

Beyond channeling Dostoyevski’s Spanish-Inquisitor story, Taylor points toward something seemingly at profound odds with the current culture: loving those of us among us who seem, by all earthly evidence, unlovable. Some pomos among us think this is simply a matter of accrediting their radical otherness, but other pomos realize the situation is a little more serious. There may be, as Nietzsche understood, simply no reason to love particular people, even masses of people, without a divine command to do so. And even if you don’t agree, you’re faced with the daunting task of somehow enforcing your opinion without simply deepening the violence and dissipating the love.

The tension here plays up what Taylor himself recognizes in quoting Peguy:

Morality was invented by sickly people. Christian life was invented by Jesus Christ.

Namely, that Christianity deepened the divine commands by supervening them. The old law was suddenly ‘fulfilled’ — not replaced, but revealed as a true but partial prefiguration of the full truth. The Christian left — from Saint-Simon and Comte and Proudhon through Wilde and into the present day — has always longed to make the transformative character of Christ definitive for man as the path whereby the subjectivity of self-love could become the intersubjectivity of collective love. But powerful elements on the right as well as the left have wanted, since the beginning, to deny the Jewishness of Jesus, the better to elevate the Son at the expense of the Father. A tremendous transgressive ethos, coming from all sides, has long maintained internal pressure on the authority of Christianity; ascetic Protestants have sought direct, unmediated communion with Christ and God, voluptuous Protestants a far less mediated physical communion with one another, and late bourgeois erotic Christians of several denominations a way to define divinity by love among any human beings rather than the other way around. In all instances the push has been democratizing and equalizing.

I mention all this because it seems to me the security challenge posed by the radically unlovable — deeply intensified nowadays by technological asymmetries in favor of offensive weaponry and the cultural pressures of freedom under equality — presses secularists and faithful alike toward a grim recognition that curing our society of the problem is impossible and coping alone is an option. As a result, it seems to me that a therapy of pragmatic spirituality, combining the ‘erotic transcendence’ of secular humanism and the ‘creative personality’ of counter-Jewish Christianity, will become increasingly popular as the stricter disciplines of both atheism and theism seem to fail both a social cost-benefit analysis and the nervous stirrings of the democratic soul. So rather than Cho and his ilk pushing us toward an intensifying showdown between godless and godly solutions to the problem of the unlovable, I expect our reaction to the monsters in our midst to actually strengthen the therapeutic logic so prevalent today. The very terms of that logic make it impossible to assess the successful outcomes it might generate in terms of good or bad.