What’s Wrong With Teaching 9 Year Olds To Murder?

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I recently watched the movie “The Beasts of No Nation” on Netflix. The movie was recommended on several critic top movie lists and so I was lured in. The film is about child soldiers in Africa. It is extremely violent, very graphic, and vulgar language seeps throughout the script like water from a clogged toilet. It is absolutely not for children, and in general I cannot recommend it. I had to turn my eyes away several times. For instance there is a scene in which a child is pressured to kill an unarmed prisoner with a machete while he begs for mercy.  It frustrates me when directors make movies this way. There seems to be a loss of subtlety and no concern for the imagination of the audience.

Why would the film’s creators make the movie this way? Why would they produce a film with so much gore and graphic bloodshed? I do have a little sympathy in this case because I think they were trying to reveal something of the depravity of a situation that has been hidden out of site. They were trying to open the door for the rest of the world to see what is actually happening. Simply put, armies in Africa are recruiting orphans to become members of death squads.

I spend a lot of time in my life thinking about morality and ethics. Movies like this can be a challenge for Christians because it brings up the problem of evil. How could a good God allow such things? And in my opinion this is an important question that has compelling answers. My intent is not to provide answers here, but to suggest that the people that use such questions to dismiss Christianity need to provide an explanation as well.  In my experience people of faith are the only ones that blush when faced with such questions.   But they shouldn’t be.

The atheist that uses the problem of evil to undermine Christianity (or any other religion) is also in a difficult spot. In order to shoot at theists like this he has to walk out on the quicksand. I say this because they have to assume that evil actually exists in order to use it as an argument against God. Then after they “win” the argument and the embarrassed Christian goes home, the honest atheist must face the world he has tried to articulate. It is a world in which there is no consistent reason to believe in the existence of good or evil as anything other than a cultural construct. That means that good an evil don’t really exist in the world. They are a matter of human perception much like our hatred of brussel sprouts.

I don’t mean to suggest that atheists don’t really believe in good and evil. They do. In fact they get angry if you suggest that there is any problem with their morality.  Further, they behave in ways that are often moral and virtuous, and I applaud this. I don’t mean to imply that every atheist is a monster. My point here is more subtle. At the risk of over simplifying things (I realize there is a broad spectrum of beliefs out there), the atheist narrative provides no compelling reason to believe in the existence of evil. It says there is nothing but matter in the universe. We are nothing more than complex systems of electrons colliding according to the laws of physics. From the standpoint of physics, the murder of children is no different from the killing of a rhino or a rose bush.  Just matter in motion.  A world without an absolute, immaterial standard of ethics provides a weak protest against the kind of evil in the “Beasts of No Nation.”

I remember my first day of college chemistry class.  My professor stood up and pointed to the periodic table of elements on the wall. He said, “Everything that exists is on that table. Can anyone name anything that exists that is not on that table?” The class was silent (except for me).  But if he is right, then our actions are just a bunch of chemical reactions from the periodic table. Our thoughts are just the chemical depolarization of neurons in the brain. This is true for all thoughts. Bloodthirsty ones as much as altruistic ones.  Evil and good are the same thing: matter in motion. Nothing more than that. And when we logically analyze the common atheist protests against injustice (things like wealth inequality, rape culture, or the recruitment of children into death squads) the logic sounds a lot like, “I don’t like it,” or “we don’t like it.”  Or maybe, “the brain isn’t wired to work that way.” Which of course is not true, the brains of those child soldiers and their recruiters definitely ARE wired that way. But that point aside, for a system of ethics to be meaningful it must provide a compelling reason for people to live in a certain way. It must tell the bad person why they MUST not be bad. It must tell the person that wants to rebel against the moral conventions of our society why they MUST conform.  What in the universe compels the killer not to kill? Especially when the darker dimensions of human psychology and culture seem to be compelling them to kill and rewarding them for it?

The movie was obviously intended to create outrage. And that is exactly what it has done. There is nothing quite like staring directly in the face of evil at close range to bring out our inner moralist. How could anyone teach children to be so violent and bloodthirsty?   It is hard to watch a movie like this and then conclude that your revulsion is nothing more than a personal or cultural preference.

The great question for the atheist is this: What is wrong with teaching nine-year-olds to maim and murder? If we are just animals, and there is no absolute moral authority, if there is no objective ethical standard that applies to everyone… Then what is wrong with that?

If we are simply the product of time and chance acting on matter… if we are nothing more than biology, what is wrong with people acting like animals?  This is the significance of the movie’s title. The main actor makes a statement at the end of the movie that he has become like an animal. And he’s right. Most of us don’t like it. But what is wrong with it in any absolute sense? Isn’t our outrage just an example of a ethnocentric perspective that wants to tell other people how to live?

In a material world isn’t all of this just a matter of cause and effect? Aren’t we just reactants in a global test tube? If a poor child watches his family murdered by an invading army, isn’t it predictable that he will get snatched up by a violent militia looking for recruits? Isn’t this predictable? If it is nothing more than cause and effect at work, how could we protest? Dogs hate cats. Lions kill hyenas. Humans hate other tribes of humans.  It’s all the result of DNA at work in an unfeeling and uncaring world. It can be nothing more, because nothing more exists.

We could say that people shouldn’t act like animals, that human societies have evolved social norms and mores to control our behavior.  But if we mean by that, that there are no human beings that act like animals, we would be wrong. In fact the truth is exactly the opposite.  The real problem is that a great many humans very frequently act like animals in just this sense.  And its not just Africa. Arguably, European history is far more beastly than anyone other. But why should it be any different?  To say that these things threaten our existence, or cause  psychological pain really begs the question. Of course animals engage in behavior that threatens their own existence, and causes them harm?   The history of the world is a history of extinction.

What is wrong with herds, and packs, and tribes fighting against one another for resources? What is wrong with one organism killing another organism in order to survive? Watch any nature show, this is the way of the world.  And no one ever watches animal behavior and then makes a moral protest.  We don’t say, “sharks shouldn’t kill fish.” To the contrary, in the evolutionary/atheist view of the world it is precisely that kind violence which has helped successful species (like humans) adapt and unsuccessful ones to evolve or become extinct. That kind of behavior has actually helped us to survive.

Social pundits, college professors, and cultural revolutionaries like to tell us that there is no such thing as morality. They often do this in an attempt to normalize their own deviant sexual behavior. When they say, “there are no rules,”  too often they mean “there are no rules for me.”  But if they are right, they have proven too much. “Normal” isn’t a concept that only applies to their preferred version of wickedness, it applies to all behavior. It applies to child abuse and child nurture.  Freedom and tyranny.  Gay marriage and gay bashing.  It is all common and normal.  Of course, there are a few statistical anomalies. But isn’t that the way of nature as well?

Sadly there aren’t enough voices to point out the failings of this kind of moral relativism. These ideas are only seen for what they are in the face of extreme wickedness.  And a movie like “The Beasts of No Nation” has once again reminded me of this. Christians may have trouble finding an answer for why God would allow such evil and suffering in the world.  But the atheist or philosophical materialist has a much greater problem in my opinion.

What is wrong with teaching nine year-olds to murder?

Making of a Murderer- A Good Documentary About An Ugly Problem

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This week my wife and I watched the Netflix documentary “Making of a Murderer.”  In telling you this, I feel a little like I am at an AA meeting.  Yes we binge-watched all 10 episodes in 2 days.  That is a long documentary. But I was thoroughly engrossed in the story in spite of a several slow moments.  The account was so engaging, and even outrageous, that I experienced some of those rare and precious moments of self-forgetfulness. Those moments when a story is so gripping that you are carried to a place where you forget that you are tired, hungry, or even broke.

In short, the documentary is the story of how Steven Avery was sent to prison for 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. This conviction happened in the face of ample evidence that the real bad guy was still out on the street. Eventually Avery was released after DNA evidence revealed the real criminal.  The story highlights the antagonism between the small town sheriff’s department and the Avery family. I think “bad blood” is the proper term for all this.

Sadly, several years later during a law suit against the sheriff’s department Avery is investigated and convicted of a heinous murder. I will avoid ruining the show with spoilers. But suffice it to say the story exposes MAJOR problems with the justice system, which is on display in large screen, full color, HD, stereo surround, screw-up mode.

I would recommend watching it (not for kids as it has some graphic language and content- it involves trials for murder and rape). It felt like a crime novel unfolding in real life.  The documentary footage seemed to come from live footage of the events that were recorded for some kind of court TV special.

Here are a two thoughts.

First, Our justice system has major problems. I think it is still one of the best in the world at offering protections for the innocent. But we have big problems to solve.  The fact that once someone has entered the criminal justice system they become a target for future law enforcement harassment is disturbing and in the long run counter productive. I realize that there are many career criminals, and that law enforcement efforts will need to investigate and prosecute repeat offenders. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with a system that goes too far in this respect. And honestly I don’t know the answer. I just have a deep gut feeling that the machine needs an overhaul. I hope that some brilliant and informed minds will address this problem. We also do not have enough qualified defense attorneys.  I also don’t like the fact that prosecution decisions are made with elections in mind. The plea bargain system very often has little to do with guilt or innocence, but with an accused person making a decision to plead because they cannot mount a good legal defense. I have mentioned this elsewhere.

Second, I realized (once more) how much I HATE the way the news media exploits people and tragedy for ratings.  There is such an utter disregard for personal space, polite attempts to avoid the spotlight, and basic manners. The truth is treated with outright contempt. The intersection of our culture and the criminal justice system seems to be this huge dysfunctional mess where people in power manipulate the lurid desires of media consumers through the willing help of journalists without a passing regard for what is true or ultimately helpful. The film shows that this cancer has more than a passing impact on viewers, it has the potential to corrupt the court system and destroy the lives of innocent people. In effect, the media becomes a court room from hell. It becomes a nightmare where there are no rules, no protections, and no court of appeal. And this goes into full effect when anyone experiences a tragedy that can be turned into grist for the ratings mill.

Update 1/6/15

I should add that I am aware that this documentary only provides one side of the story. Some reports are coming out presenting additional info. I have left out my thoughts on this to avoid spoilers. But I do understand there another side to this, and still think this reveals problems in the criminal justice system. 

A Worthwhile Documentary on Netflix: The Green Prince (2014) – IMDb

I have an interest in international affairs and understanding how intelligence agencies do their work. So I was taken in by the description of the film on this list of 50 best documentaries on Netflix. I also watched Happy Valley about the Penn State Child Abuse scandal. That is worth watching as well if you like the cultural side of football.

Last night we watched the documentary “The Green Prince” which is currently available to stream on Netflix. The show is mostly the dialogue of 2 individuals: The son of the leader of Hamas who became an informant for Israeli intelligence, and his Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency, something like our FBI) handler. The dialogue is peppered with photos, video footage, and news stories concerning the events. It won a ton of awards, and for good reason. It is a fascinating first hand look into the world of the Palestinian struggle and the intelligence world behind it.

Source: The Green Prince (2014) – IMDb

Fifty Shades of Grey: Pornography and Normalizing the Bizarre

Fifty Shades of Grey: Pornography and Normalizing the Bizarre | Canon and Culture.

Bart Barber has done a good job of going beyond “rules” while discussing 50 Shades of Grey.  When asking the question whether anyone, and especially Christians, should see this movie we need beyond a simple rule-based evaluation. We need to see what is behind the best rules.  God has given us a world full of truth, beauty and goodness.  And this includes sexuality. We cannot abandon beauty without loosing goodness.  The article is worth reading.

I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, and I plan on NOT doing either. But from what I have read about the content, I am absolutely perplexed how a culture obsessed with talking about the abuse of women can make this a bestseller.

“This is the true price of pornography. Yes, pornography normalizes the bizarre, but the flipside of the coin may be the darkest aspect of it at all: It bizarrifies the normal.”

A few highlights:

“This is the true price of pornography. Yes, pornography normalizes the bizarre, but the flipside of the coin may be the darkest aspect of it at all: It bizarrifies the normal. If one were to create a pornographic website that featured average couples who had been married twenty years or more engaging in sex as the average married couple experiences it, who would watch it? And yet study after study has shown that the greatest satisfaction in romance comes to people in just that kind of a relationship. There is beauty there; our culture just doesn’t condition us to see it. What would we see if married men and women described their marriages to a sketch artist? What would we see if their friends described their marriages? When it comes to beauty, something about us has gone wrong.”

“Are you open to seeing this in another way? Each time you choose to read a book, choose to watch a film, or choose to DVR a television show, you are revealing something about what you find to be beautiful. Rather than imposing a set of shackles, God is trying to free you to crawl out of the muck and mire and to learn beauty.”

12 Angry Men

The 1957 movie “12 Angry Men” is an old black and white move with Henry Fonda. Almost the entire movie takes place in a jury room, and is really all about courage and reason. Fonda plays a juror who wants to take seriously the act of casting a guilty verdict that will send a man to the electric chair. It is thought provoking and tame for the family, though some kids might not want to sit through it. It is all dialog and drama. But definitely a good movie, with lots of fodder for discussion.