“I knew enough to do more than I did.”
This was the conclusion of celebrated filmmaker Quentin Tarantino in an October 2017 interview with The New York Times about his longtime associate Harvey Weinstein. The two enjoyed tremendous success together over the years, creating a string of popular, award-winning films. But as allegations of Weinstein’s pattern of sexual harassment and assault came to light, Tarantino was forced to reflect on his own complicity in his colleague’s predatory behavior.
“I wish I had taken responsibility for what I heard,” Tarantino said in the interview. “If I had done the work I should have done then, I would have had to not work with him.”
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
The accounts of Weinstein’s behavior and the impact it had on his victims are nauseating. He used his power to damage them in ways beyond the terrible trauma of the acts themselves, creating within them a complex web of confusion, rationalization, regret, shame, and other emotions. Tarantino was far from the only one who should have done more to stop the abuse, which would have protected future victims. But for him, like so many others in the film industry, it was easier to push the questions aside while reaping the benefits of collaborating with the influential executive producer.
Thoughtlessness and Implication
Thoughtlessness is the term Hannah Arendt used for this kind of semiconscious enablement in her work “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” During his trial in 1961, Eichmann — one of the chief architects of the Holocaust — defended himself by pointing out that he was merely obeying orders without knowing the results, and besides, he never personally killed anyone. Unlike the court, which concluded Eichmann was lying and sentenced him to death, Arendt took him at his word. But for her, this was precisely the problem: Eichmann, like millions of other Europeans of the time, perpetrated great evil by thoughtlessly following laws, willfully turning their thoughts away from what this meant for their Jewish neighbors. In their own minds, they refused to be implicated. But to Arendt, this did not make them innocent.
That such thoughtlessness runs contra the Christian calling to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world should be obvious. Seek justice. Correct oppression. It is disquieting to consider the subtler ways believers might be complicit in the world’s injustices. Can we be complicit in abortion, for example, based on how we vote? In purchasing Apple products, are we complicit in the questionable labor practices in which their global suppliers might be engaging? Should we vet the investments in our retirement accounts to avoid alignment with gambling, tobacco, predatory financial institutions, and other vices? Should we abstain from eating meat because modern farming methods abuse God’s creatures?
The question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar can be read in part as a question about complicity with fallen institutions: Is it right to support such a regime — with all the evil it entails — through taxation, or ought we to resist with civil disobedience? Jesus’ answer, while profound, does not provide all the clarity we might desire. On the one hand, the kingdom of God is clearly not of this world, and temporal politics should not be regarded as ultimate. But on the other, simply withdrawing from earthly society in the name of seeking God’s kingdom cannot be in view while rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
“The idea of salt and light from Matthew 5 is one I’ve been thinking about for several months,” says Jemar Tisby, co-founder and president of the The Witness: A Black Christian Collective (formerly called “Reformed African American Network”). “We cannot effectively be salt if we are not near something that is in threat of decay. And we cannot be light if we are not near darkness.”
To Tisby, “This is motivation to get out of the holy huddle and into places where good news is needed most, where people are suffering and looking for light and hope that only Jesus can provide.”
This aligns with Jesus’ pronouncement of woe on the Pharisees for neglecting justice while claiming to pursue personal holiness through behaviors such as tithing. The point is paradoxical: God’s people do not grow in sanctification by isolating themselves from the world and its problems, but by engaging with them while remaining unstained. Holiness and social justice are inextricably linked. By extension, Christians are implicated when injustice is present. We are not, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented of the white moderates of the 1960s in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
The Cost of Complicity
Racism is a tragically persistent case in point of the Christian call to seek positive peace. The Witness’s mission includes mutually beneficial engagement between the Reformed and African-American theological traditions. This naturally includes addressing the historical fact of the isolation between the two, enabled by the complicity of white American Christians in racialized divisions among believers. As with most social problems within and without the church, individual repentance may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to bring about a just solution. For Tisby, tackling this particular example of complicity maintains a high priority for the sake of the Gospel.
The point is paradoxical: God’s people do not grow in sanctification by isolating themselves from the world and its problems, but by engaging with them while remaining unstained.
Because the American white evangelical church has had such a painful history with racism, there are non-Christians, Tisby believes, who have a dim view of the church. “The failure to confront it with urgency has compromised our witness and perpetuated this.”
Winning a just peace will require bold confrontation, and it will not be comfortable. “Concretely, it will mean church discipline and even excommunication,” Tisby explains. “And it will not do for the church to support racial justice [only] behind closed doors. We have to do it in public. We have to be notorious in a good way.”
Signaling vs. Substance
In his 2014 book “Visions of Vocation” Steven Garber repeatedly poses the same question to the Christian who is willing to be implicated: Knowing what I know, what will I do? If remaining quiet in the face of the world’s problems is not a defensible response for the church as a whole, humble silence may be an appropriate starting point, especially for individual believers.
Being silent for a time lessens the danger of mere virtue signaling — the practice of expressing the correct point of view or the proper level of concern in a highly public manner, without necessarily undertaking the effort required to ameliorate the problem. The aim — whether conscious or not — is to be seen as virtuous and thus receive the praise of others. And while new media have enabled meme sharing and hashtag activism (#PuertoRicoStrong, for example, in “support” of hurricane relief efforts there), the phenomenon is not new. Rather, it is precisely what Jesus enjoined His followers against in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
A period of silence in avoidance of showy religion should not become a permanent silence of complicity, however. Instead, it should be put to use so that when we speak (or “share”), it is from a place not only of conviction, but also of sensitivity and knowledge. “The principle of loving one’s neighbor is simple,” reminds Tisby, recalling the parable of the Good Samaritan. “But simple and easy are different. These issues are complicated, and we need to be mature believers, developing our wisdom muscles by being steeped in the Word and in Christian community.”
In the Church
One answer to Garber’s question, then, is that knowing what I know, I will first seek to know more before I speak. This might mean listening to new, unfamiliar voices — and amplifying those with keen insight on the topic at hand. It may also mean a willingness to have illusions of “negative peace” shattered, an unnerving prospect. Sorrow and repentance from complicity done in ignorance may be required. What better place to process this new knowledge and emotion than the church?
“The local church should be a place where nothing is off limits for conversation,” Tisby says, lamenting that the issues that divide us most are too often the ones we discuss least: politics, racism, sexuality, and others. Perhaps a fear of implication is what lurks beneath this reluctance. But church leaders should not have to fear their congregants will depart or withhold offerings because of disagreement, nor should members fear the threat of retaliation. “We are wrong to think that because these issues elicit strong reactions, the solution is not to talk about them. It is a matter of discipleship to have healthy, informed, biblically-based conversations where believers may not see eye to eye, but talk as brothers and sisters.”
Aside from serving as a safe place for hearts to be softened, the church provides the necessary resources to act when the time for silent reflection has run its course. Tisby counsels that we should not lose sight of the obvious: We are finite individuals whose capacity to work for justice will be limited to a few areas in the best of circumstances. But the body of Christ offers more, both in breadth and in depth. “What we are all called to do is prayerfully consider the ways we can work,” Tisby notes. “Collectively, we can address more issues.”
In the World
Even so, there is wisdom in focusing passion and resources in the pursuit of justice. “The Lord burdens us in a few areas, and they will be different for different people,” Tisby explains. “Part of it is reading your own community well and being attuned to its needs. Being present at the city council, the school board, or the local 5K run develops relationships, and this makes it easier to take on the burdens of those you come to know and love.” His hope is that churches would be well known even among those who do not attend because they are a visible part of the social fabric, gaining credibility and seeking opportunities to serve with Word and deed.
In one small New England town, for example, it was impossible in the fall of 2017 to drive more than a mile or two without seeing a familiar theme spelled out in church signs: Opioid Support. The nearby city of Manchester, New Hampshire, has become the center of a fentanyl epidemic, a drug that can be up to twice as powerful as heroin. Recently, even more potent opioids have appeared, along with an accompanying spike in overdoses. Faced with such a high-impact local issue, it is encouraging that local congregations have targeted their involvement accordingly.
The Empathy Gap
Yet a danger remains to those seeking justice in tailored, locally-relevant ways. It is all too easy to allow investment in one just cause to lead to a sense of superiority over those pursuing another. According to Jemar Tisby, the analogy of the church as the body of Christ can be misconstrued such that believers excuse themselves from concern over problems outside the sphere of their pet issues. It is right and good to follow Spirit-led passion, but “there is a way that Christians should empathize with others’ burdens without discounting them.”
At its worst, a preference for one cause over another uncovers a third problem of injustice, and the opioid epidemic provides an example. Vann R. Newkirk II of The Atlantic pointed out a marked difference in media coverage of the current crisis as compared to the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s. Newkirk is far from the only observer to note the softer tone evident toward today’s opioid users, who are overwhelmingly white. The face of crack addiction 30 years ago, on the other hand, was largely inner-city and black. The empathy gap is obvious, and it reveals a bias that is no less insidious for being unconscious (if we are to be charitable in assuming it is so). It also underscores how important it is for Christians to approach issues of justice with humility and grace.
Knowing Enough to Do More
Knowing what we know, what will we do? Our sins of omission are great, and our complicity grows greater still as our knowledge of evil increases. To whom much is given, much will be required. We must cry with the psalmist: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3). It is well for us that this is so — that we are free from the burden of earning our place in God’s kingdom.
But because we are in His kingdom, He has given us responsibility to season and illuminate His world. This is a high calling, even an overwhelming one. It is tempting to turn away thoughtlessly from the ugly, painful troubles around us and strive instead to conserve the bits of beauty we try to gather around us. But, like Quentin Tarantino, we know enough to do more, to seek the positive peace of God’s shalom.
Phil Mobley is a writer and consultant living in the Boston area.