Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Entanglement of Right

            The ancient Greek king, Agamemnon, is most known for his role in the destruction of Troy during the Trojan War.  Less well known are the dynamics in his family history which make him a tragic figure.  The ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, tells Agamemnon’s story in the three tragedies known as the Oresteia.  Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus come to their thrones largely through the atrocities committed by their father against their uncle and cousins.  When Menelaus’ wife, Helen, is seduced and taken to Troy, the brothers seek to punish the Trojans for the act. Like his father, Agamemnon also commits atrocities.  He sacrifices his daughter in order to incur the favor of the gods in the war.  Instead of merely punishing Helen’s lover, he destroys the entire city.  While he is away, the one remaining cousin whom his father hadn’t killed seduces his wife and gains control of his throne.  Upon Agamemnon’s return, his wife murders him along with the mistress he brought back with him from the war.  In turn their son avenges his father’s death by killing his mother and Agamemnon’s cousin.  Each atrocity is justified as the just punishment for the previous act.  The author of an introduction to Aeschylus’ work concludes that he is not describing right versus wrong, but right versus right.  But although each person defends his actions as being appropriate for the situation, although each claims to be in the right, things escalate and get out of hand.  They are caught up in entanglements.  In the end “Every correction is a blood-bath which calls for new correction.”  The Oresteia points out the folly of accepting the viewpoint that the end justifies the means.
            Today we live in a world which is much like Agamemnon’s world.  Our society is also caught up in entanglements.  We focus upon rights to a large degree.  We use them to justify our actions.  We falsely assume that actions performed for the right reasons are acceptable, even if they are morally wrong; whether it was the bombing of ROTC centers on campuses by anti war protestors in the Vietnam era of the 1960s, or the bombing of abortion centers by anti abortionists in the 1980s and 1990s, or the shady practices committed by our political parties in most elections.  Similar to the actions described by the Greek playwright, basing our actions on the philosophy that the end justifies the means is wrong.
            As we have moved into the twenty-first century, society’s focus on narcissistic rights has come to the forefront, whether it is women’s rights, gay rights, illegal alien’s rights, animal rights, etc.  While the issues involving rights are complex, and some of the concerns are legitimate, many of the proffered solutions are troublesome.  They have many of the same problems that Aeschylus describes in his plays.  We can become so caught up in our own rights that we attempt to legitimize all of our actions, moral or not.
            Self legitimization is dangerous precisely because it feeds upon the view that the end justifies the means.  When we accept this view, it becomes easy to believe that as long as our purposes are achieved, it makes no difference whether our actions are morally right or wrong. 
It is also tragic when this viewpoint occurs in the church, for it destroys Christ’s body.  Sin is legitimatized if it has achieved the desired end.  In each case the desired end has been used to justify the means used to achieve it.  It is important to remember that in God’s eyes the end never justifies the means.  Do you find yourself in agreement?

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