The following conversation took place between two friends of mine at a Piggly-Wiggly in Pumpkin Center (just north of Baptist), Louisiana.
For the longest time, whenever I’d drive down I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, I’d see the green road sign that said “Pumpkin Center” over “Baptist,” which stuck in my mind as the strangest name for a place of worship since Hazel Motes’s Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified. When I’d drive in the other direction, the sign would seem to read “Baptist Pumpkin Center,” which sparked in my mind exactly what I’m sure it has in yours: The prospect of a wealthy old Protestant pumpkin farmer, who drew up his last will and testament such that a trunk full of ripe, fresh pumpkins — in season — are offered free to anyone who appears at the Baptist Pumpkin Center, so long as he presents his credentials as a Baptist in good standing. In fact, whenever I think of Baptists now, I visualize pyramids of pumpkins — and contrarily, the sight of a single pumpkin evokes for me tottering pyramids of Baptists.
My old friends Franz and Rayne were making an early spring jaunt together through south Louisiana when they heard the news, late at night, of the death of Osama bin Laden. They accepted it first in silence, as a kind of anticlimax, but the next day got into a full-on debate about how we, as Catholics, should greet such news — especially in the wake of the spontaneous patriotic street demonstrations that erupted across our country at the news. Here’s a fair transcript of their conversation:
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Franz: My first reaction, of course, is disappointment.
Rayne: Why’s that?
Franz: He died too quick and too clean, and he got a respectful Muslim burial at sea. As a native New Yorker who was in the City on September 11, 2001, with a close friend who came within 10 minutes of dying in one of the Towers, I wish at least that his corpse had been flown to a Christian-owned pig farm — in Israel — ground up into bits, and mixed up into their slop.
Rayne: Feeling really merciful today, are we?
Franz: That’s my inner Thor talking. Arguing with him is my internal Immanuel Kant, which tells me that even the life of Osama bin Laden had infinite dignity. Our troops should have wielded tranquillizer guns to capture him — even if it meant putting their own lives at greater risk — so that he could be transported to Geneva for a trial before the International Court. Of course, there would be no question of the death penalty; we’re beyond such medieval barbarisms. The hope would be that, over time, bin Laden could be rehabilitated and turned into a productive member of society. Maybe he could teach Middle Eastern Studies at Georgetown.
Rayne: I’m glad I’m not trapped inside your head to listen to that debate. I find your Thor kind of scary, but your Kant just makes my skin crawl. It reminds me of Cardinal Martino, who greeted the arrest of Saddam Hussein with complaints that he wasn’t being treated with the dignity he deserved. I’m so glad that nitwit isn’t representing the Church at the U.N. anymore — although when you think about it, he’s exactly what the U.N. deserves.
Franz: I remember thinking at the time: “If that were Christianity, I’d persecute it myself. People like that really should be fed to the lions.”
Rayne: Cut it out, Franz. That isn’t right. They’d just make the poor lions sick.
Franz: But I really don’t know what to make of bin Laden’s death. You read the Vatican statement, saying we shouldn’t rejoice at anyone’s death?
Rayne: Which I think was very intelligent — considering how many helpless, unarmed Christians are living as hostages in intolerant Muslim countries like Pakistan and Indonesia. When some tub-thumping American like Pastor Terry Jones exercises his constitutional right to burn a Koran, it’s those people who are targeted for revenge. And who does the media blame? The American, for burning a book — instead of the Muslims, for burning churches and shooting real, live people. As if the Muslims were robots without human agency, and Westerners are to blame for pushing their buttons.
Franz: The Vatican statement was very canny. But I don’t have to agree with it. Look, when a vicious criminal is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a cage, it’s perfectly legitimate for us to be happy and relieved. What’s more, the traditional Catholic teaching on the death penalty — which the new Catechism tactfully didn’t mention, but also didn’t condemn because it couldn’t — was that the State acts as the executor of God’s justice on earth. If imprisoning people isn’t kidnapping, then executing them isn’t murder.
Rayne: I’ve always been a little bit creeped out by our new position on the death penalty — that we aren’t doing it because it’s just, but only as the last resort to protect society. That misses the point, I think: If it’s just to execute someone, then that’s why we should do it. If it isn’t just, then we shouldn’t be doing it — no matter if it’s absolutely necessary to save society. If the decision to execute someone hinges on a practical issue like the best interests of society, instead of justice, that seems to me to feed straight into our modern, brutal utilitarianism. Maybe it will turn out that using embryonic stem cells is crucial to curing AIDS — and people are already perfectly willing to do it. Instead of trying to get them to have an absolute respect for the sanctity of life — in every form, ranging from the embryo’s to bin Laden’s — what we need to restore is a basic sense of justice. When we defend innocent life, the emphasis should be on “innocent” instead of “life.”
Franz: Offer people a “seamless garment,” which says every life is equally sacred — from an unborn baby with Down Syndrome who awaits the abortionist’s knife, to a mass-murdering terrorist who gloats about his crimes — and they know in their gut that there’s something profoundly wrong there. Make them an all-or-nothing offer like that, and most people (even Christians) will say, “Okay, nothing. Maybe life isn’t really that sacred after all.” You’ll get to enjoy that warm fuzzy feeling that your thoughts are somehow purer and better, but they won’t be convinced, and nothing will change. The innocent will die, because you’ve insisted on lumping them in with the guilty.
Rayne: Maybe our language is wrong. We’re caught up in the terminology of individual rights, which we say are sacred and inalienable. Like the right to life.
Franz: What’s the problem with that?
Rayne:Well, if anyone honors what’s sacred, I’d think it would be God. Right? You’d think that He would be the last one to violate our rights.
Franz: You’d think. Job might not agree.
Rayne: Precisely. When God allows a tornado to rip through a town, and dozens of people are killed, has He violated their rights? Has He shown a lack of respect for the sanctity of life?
Franz: Maybe we need to let Him know about the Seamless Garment…
Rayne: Our “rights” to life, liberty, and property only apply when we’re talking about other human beings. They’re really just a secular way of restating the Ten Commandments. By asserting the right to life or property, we’re just using post-Christian language to say, in a different way, “Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal.” These rights don’t bind God — who in fact declared in Genesis that each of us had forfeited his right to life (in His eyes) when Adam sinned. And Christ didn’t come to give it back — we still suffer all the effects of Original Sin. Redemption and resurrection are new things we are promised, an improvement over (not a restoration of) what Adam lost.
Franz: So you’re saying that modern liberalism, and the religious theories that end up infected by it, are really just…
Rayne: Sneaky attempts to reenter the Garden of Eden using merely human technology — by which I include ideology, which is simply the machinery of persuasion.
Franz: We don’t want to be like Tertullian, who fantasized about Christians watching their Roman persecutors torn apart in hell by lions. I don’t think the Saved will indulge in such small-souled, vulgar passions. But I think we can take a cool, restrained satisfaction in the death of a mass murderer, just as St. Thomas says that the saved in heaven will watch divine justice take its course with unrepentant sinners — and be pleased, instead of grieved.
Rayne: Which sounds pretty cold-hearted. But let’s get down to specifics: Do we really think that Our Lady crowned with glory has her eternity tainted by sympathy for the devil? Does she interrupt her hymns to God to spend time weeping for Judas?
Franz: I’ve heard liberal Christians say that they couldn’t imagine accepting the gift of heaven if a single soul suffered in hell.
Rayne: I’m sure they felt very good about themselves for saying that. They have their reward.
Franz: I don’t need another coffee. Want to try scoring some pumpkins? I think you could pass for a Baptist…
Rayne: Sweetie, your bumper sticker would give us away.
Franz chuckled to himself, and walked her back to the car. On the back bumper was the bright blue slogan: “This Vehicle Brakes for Apparitions of Mary.”