zaterdag 31 mei 2014

What would YOU do in the ultimate situation?

The fascination with the ultimate situation is big. That will always have been the case, but at this remembrance-and-freedom-celebrating time of the year our thoughts tend to dwell at the ultimate situations that the Second World War presented to people. And at the questions that since then have been the moral benchmarks of our culture such as: Would you have put your life at risk to save others lives? Would you at the right time have made the right choice? Would you have recognized the ultimate situation anyway?

I hear that fascination reflected in the responses to the violent death in Syria of the nice Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt. For example when the Dutch vicar Leegte believes that Van der Lugt is rightfully placed on a pedestal. Especially his willingness to remain faithful to his convictions, up to the ultimate consequence of death, commands respect. It reminds him, Leegte says, to previous martyrs in history who by their own death “had the intention to be present to Jesus’ death”.

nd I recognize that fascination with writer Willem Jan Otten in his discussion following the film 12 Years a Slave . He believes that the film has an essential idea in common with the Christian Easter story. Namely that ‘surviving’ is inferior compared to ‘living’, and always implies guilt and shame, and that therefore ‘giving your life’, may be preferable. “Something is put upside down in a terrible way, and yet it is just right”, thus he then cites what G.K. Chesterton defined as the essence of the Easter story. Whereby the ‘terrible’ again refers to the ultimate situation, with – apparently – a special appeal.

It is true, Christianity does not seek death as a Japanese kamikaze pilot does or an Islamic suicide bomber. And the bloody Filipino and Spanish passion rituals can be seen as an aberration, and not as representative of Christianity.

But those blood-processions do not completely fall out of the blue, the fascination with the ultimate situation has a lot to do with it. This is also evident from the pedagogical questions that, in line with the scheme of the imitatio Christi, are directly linked to it in the comments on Van der Lugt’s death. “Is his example applicable in the Netherlands?” Leegte asks, “He has given an example to follow”, clergyman Peter Nissen says.

But precisely from a pedagogical point of view I think the fascination with the ultimate situation is not a good idea. First, because that orientation discourages people. Peter Nissen rightly argues that the greatness of stories of sacrifice and holiness can block the listener. “Then the feeling gets you that you do not even need to start” And how stimulating is Leegte’s statement that the ultimate martyr’s act makes us aware of “our own shortcomings, our cowardice”? To me all this seems to lead up to disengagement rather than engagement. Anyway, I feel myself collaps already from cowardice.

But secondly – and most importantly – because that fascination blocks a clear view on ordinary, everyday situations of reversal and modesty. Rightly Nissen says in his commentary: “What matters is that there are things that can weigh heavier than self-interest”,  and those things do not necessarily have to have ultimate consequences. When subsequently Nissen adds: “…even if they weigh more than their own lives”, then I also know understand what he means. But I want to emphasize that, if you actually want to experience the described reversals and want to practice them, then you better focus on everyday situations rather than - what happens collectively – on ultimate situations.

To get back to Chesterton: “Something is put upside down in a terrible way, and yet it is just right”, this can also be said without using the word ‘terrible’.

Indeed, that’s what Levinas designates in completely everyday situations as moments of reversal in which suddenly other things can weigh heavier than self-interest. Because that’s what happens if, in the middle of an impassioned self-complacent argument, I let myself be commanded by the regard of another who feels overrun by my complacency. That command feels like absurd and like a complete reversal of values. In a penetrating way something is put on its head, and yet it stands just right. But now without the word ‘terrible’ added.

In this non-ultimate way, the reversal of values may become somewhat more real and better to swallow.

Also see Badiou, Levinas and Differences