Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell Returns to his Faith

Malcolm Gladwell was raised Mennonite but then fell away from the faith. Now, he says, he has returned to it. In his account of his re-conversion, he says it happened while he was writing about the story of David and Goliath and got to thinking about spiritual power:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Gladwell also cites two more recent events that impressed him. One was the story of Le Chambon, a French town where the Huguenot citizens, long practiced in ignoring the commands of the state, refused to cooperate with the Nazis and actively worked to help Jews escape from France. The other concerns the Mennonite parents of Candace Derksen, who was kidnapped and murdered by a stranger:
Wilma and her husband Cliff were called in to the local police station and told the news. Candace’s funeral was the next day, followed by a news conference. Virtually every news outlet in the province was there because Candace’s disappearance had gripped the city. “How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.

“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.

Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
Gladwell was moved by these stories to reconsider what power means:
The Huguenots of Le Chambon were not the only committed Christians in France in 1941. There were millions of committed believers in France in those years. They believed in God just as the people of Le Chambon did. So why did so few Christians follow the lead of the people in Le Chambon? The way that story is often told, the people of Le Chambon are made out to be heroic figures. But they were no more heroic than the Derksens. They were simply people whose experience had taught them where true power lies.

The other Christians of France were not so fortunate. They made the mistake that so many of us make. They estimated the dangers of action by looking on outward appearances—when they needed to look on the heart. If they had, how many other French Jews might have been saved from the Holocaust?
I have to say that I find all of this puzzling. Not that I don't see the appeal of Gladwell's heroes, and I have often written here about my admiration for the Christian ethic of forgiveness. But when I look at history I see the opposite of what Gladwell sees. Sometimes David defeats Goliath, but generally the big guys win. Sometimes brave people are able to save victims from their persecutors, but often they fail and sometimes they just add their own bodies to the pile. Accounts of the Ukrainian famine say that most of those who shared their food with others died, as millions of others did, and only the most selfish made it through. Stalin, meanwhile, died in his sleep of old age. Who had the true power? I am not saying that Stalin obviously did, and I think that there can be great power in dying for one's beliefs. But most stories of resistance to tyranny are not as happy as the one Gladwell tells of Le Champon. Many more are like Masada. Speaking of which, who was wiser, the zealots who died at Masada or the more moderate Jews who laid down their arms and moved on, continuing their tradition in Babylon and other places?

What's more, I find Gladwell's notion of spiritual weapons downright dangerous. It smacks to me of saying that God fights on the side of the righteous, a pernicious doctrine that has often been used to justify conquest and excuse the persecution of nonconformists. Some American preacher says every day that our nation's problems are the result of tolerating homosexuality; many Israelis think that their victory in the 67 war was a sign that God wanted them to re-occupy the West Bank. If you invite divine power into worldly affairs, how can you know when God's will is being done and when it is not? Is every brave believer on God's side? Does God have a side?

I see no evidence that, on average, people of strong faith are better than skeptics. Perhaps people with strong beliefs are more likely to resist tyranny, but they are also more likely to impose it. St. Francis was, I am sure, highly devout, but so was Torquemada. The Huguenots of Le Champon helped a few Jews escape the Nazis because of their faith, but Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara saved more than 6,000, for no reason that anyone has ever been able to figure out. He later wrote,
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives....The spirit of humanity, philanthropy...neighborly friendship...with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.
Did he see where true power lies, or was he just an upright man who saw a chance to do something good and took it?

If returning to his faith helps Gladwell put his priorities in order and find meaning in life, good for him. But I think he has a very strange view of the world.

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