Disruptive Christian Ethical Newsreading

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center subscribes to Inter Press Service’s “Gender Wire”, which reports on events around the world that affect women. This week, the news included the report that the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ruled against the United States in a human rights case, the case of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales). [full story here] Its ruling holds that a local police department’s failure to enforce a restraining order against an abusive ex-husband, and subsequent actions of US courts, constituted a violation of the plaintiff’s human rights. Domestic violence infringes a human right, and it is among “the duties of the State to respond to situations of domestic violence with diligent protection measures.” Ms. Gonzales and her children received no such protection.

The facts in the case are truly “horrible,” as acknowledged by Justice Scalia in the opinion of the US Supreme Court, which nevertheless denied Gonzales’ claim that her expectation of protection under her existing restraining order constituted an enforceable “property right.” They are outlined in the OAS report on the case’s merits, and can be summarized as follows: Jessica Gonzales, of Native American and Latina American descent, held a valid restraining order against her ex-husband, Simon Gonzales, due to his abuse of her and her daughters. She was unsuccessful in having Castle Rock Police Department officers enforce this order when she first learned that her daughters Leslie (7), Katheryn (8), and Rebecca (10) had disappeared, then learned that they were with their father at a Denver amusement park, and then again when they did not return home by bedtime. Simon Gonzales drove to the Castle Rock Police Department in the early hours of the next morning, opened fire on the building, and was shot dead by police. Officers discovered the dead bodies of the three girls in the back of Mr. Gonzales’ pick-up truck after the shoot-out. Mr. Gonzales had purchased a 9 mm. automatic weapon shortly before 8 p.m., after picking up the girls and before taking them to Denver, clearing an FBI background check. US Courts ruled that Jessica Gonzales’ restraining order did not require its enforcement by local law enforcement officers; this fact appears to have influenced the US Supreme Court’s decision to rule that, however tragic the outcome, the Castle Rock Police Department had not violated Ms. Gonzales’ civil rights by not doing more to intervene in the situation.

In its ruling on the merits of the case, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that

The restraining order was the only means available to Jessica Lenahan at the state level to protect herself and her children in a context of domestic violence, and the police did not effectively enforce it. The state apparatus was not duly organized, coordinated, and ready to protect these victims from domestic violence by adequately and effectively implementing the restraining order. These failures to protect constituted a form of discrimination in violation of the American Declaration, since they took place in a context where there has been a historical problem with the enforcement of protection orders; a problem that has disproportionately affected women since they constitute the majority of the restraining order holders.

All of this may seem like a summons to mutter “how awful,” and maybe to say a heartfelt prayer for the peace of women and girls everywhere. But while it would be wrong to discourage that prayer, and while we are no doubt right to recognize how awful the story is, the summons is really very different. It is, rather, a summons to recognize this story as a profoundly relevant source of moral knowledge and a call to ethical reflection; an appropriate response to such a summons is to notice the ways I, myself – or we, ourselves – are actually implicated in this episode of our public life, rather than to see it as something randomly and disconnectedly “out there.”

At least, I think that is what I have been learning from reading Rev. Dr. Traci C. West’s Disruptive Christian Ethics. One of Dr. West’s points is that most Christians need ways to develop understandings of our world that help us stop seeing manifestations of institutional callousness as having no connection with our own ethical lives, and to develop ways to stop tolerating institutionalized immorality that stems from tacit understandings that support the dismissal and oppression of the powerless. Her work focuses on the need to permit particular moral concerns – such as those encoded in the story of Jessica Gonzales/Lenahan’s ordeal – to inform and challenge the abstract, universal terms and categories we use in developing our ethical responses, and to cultivate an ability to see these particular moral concerns as connected both to our own “in general” ethical reasoning, and to our own particular practice of it.

A full and careful analysis of this case, in its embodied, raced, gendered, classed, institutionalized, nationalized and globalized complexity, is beyond the scope of this reflection. It seems clear that it cannot, or anyhow, should not, take the form of a consoling apportionment of blame to easy others — as if I were in a position to know how I, myself, could and would have done better a job for which I’ve never trained, under circumstances I have no appreciation for, and as if I’ve never experienced the stomach-churning realization that something I did an hour or a week ago more or less routinely, thinking I knew what I was doing, has suddenly revealed itself to be a human disaster that I would do anything to undo. But it does seem to call into question some of my assumptions about what ought to be or “realistically have to be” priorities in doing any kind of work. (How different would my own work look if care and justice were consistently my top professional concerns, instead of . . . well, instead of the other things that are sometimes, right then, more on my mind?) Just as it seems to call into question a collective willingness to let the knowledge that consistent commitment to care and justice is hard work function as a justification for official lapses, rather than as an impetus to change the conditions that make it so hard.

And then there is the heartbreaking detail that one of the Castle Rock Police Department officers, with whom the mother of three little girls spoke on their last night in life, said that he couldn’t do anything because the children were with their father. If the children had been with someone else, could someone have done something? Would it then have been more permissible to consider that they really might be in some kind of danger? How much does all that we Christians say to sentimentalize the relationship of parent to child, and to sanctify that relationship in our collective imagination, and to deify the relationship of father to child in our ritual symbolic life, even to the point sometimes of insisting that lethal violence can be a property of the most profound paternal love, contribute to how difficult it can be to perceive facts in evidence in a particular case (like the existence of a restraining order against an abusive husband/father) that do not fit the overriding picture in our cultural mind’s eye that assures us that, universally, “children who are with their fathers are OK”?

And then there is the fact that the anguish a reader feels in encountering the report of this case, and the knowledge that the reader’s anguish can only be a pale reflection of the anguish of the people most intimately involved in it, is a source of moral knowledge. We know, because of how we feel about this particular story, that “this is wrong” — and so are in a position to know that whatever made this story true is wrong. The challenge of moral knowledge like this is to hold fast to the uncomfortable threads by which we ourselves are tied to whatever that is, so as to be able to follow them to the place where they knot together – around something that we together could yet loosen, and thereby change. At least, I think that is part of the lesson, difficult but promising, of Disruptive Christian Ethics.

Rev. Dr. Traci C. West will deliver the 2011 Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture Sunday, September 18, 7:30 p.m., Gardencourt. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION.


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