Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thought For The Day: The Human Face of "The Axis of Evil"

From BBC Radio 4, 2nd July:

The columnist Jonathan Freedland, writing about the recent riots and upheavals in Iran, made a very interesting observation in yesterday's Guardian. "Seven years ago" he wrote "Bush cast Iran as the axis of evil, a faraway, abstract place clothed in black and bent on destruction. Now the world's people have seen that Iranians have a human face." Freedland goes on to argue that, having seen the human face of the Iranian people, the old style belligerence of the United States has become all but impossible.

This connection between moral obligation and the human face is one that was extensively explored by that great twentieth century philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas. Famously, Levinas argued that: "To see a face is already to hear: 'Thou shalt not kill." For Levinas, the concrete human encounter with the face of the other is the basis for all moral obligation. Simply put, in its nakedness and vulnerability, the human face cries out not be be harmed.

It might be assumed that behind Levinas's moral philosophy is that thought that the face of the other introduces moral responsibility because it reveals that the other is, at base, just like us. That, in terms of Freedland's article, a war between Iran and the US is less likely because the US people now recognize how much they have in common with the people of Iran. This may be Freedland's point, but it's not what Levinas is saying.

On the contrary, Levinas argues that the face of the other is indeed other, that it has an irreducible mystery, a certain something that cannot be collapsed back to me or stuff about me. Too much of the time, Levinas argues, we try to reduce uncomfortable difference back into things that we understand and feel comfortable with, forever translating difference into familiar sameness. In the Bible our moral obligations are supremely to the stranger, to the person who is different to me. What is so challenging about Levinas is that he demands we take seriously the sheer otherness of the other.

And indeed, for Levinas, this is just as important when thinking about God. For with God we are constantly seeking to retranslate God's otherness back into comfortable immanence, making God all about me and my life. But the inscrutible God who appears in the burning bush or the cloudy mountain top ought not to be so easily requisitioned by my own needs. Against the tide of popular assumptions for which everything is returned to the familiar, always defined in terms that centre my culture and my understanding, Levinas posits the enigmatic and the mysterious, the genuinely different and supremely other. This is the face of the stranger. And this is the face that cries out and pleads: 'do not harm me'.

Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser