Friday, June 26, 2015

Proximate Causes

Mike, a longtime friend of Kathy and me, is a respected general contractor. Not long ago, he was finishing up a job for an Orange County family. Walking through their kitchen, he happened to notice one of their kids standing at the sink, rinsing backyard dirt and sand off a bucketful of LEGOs.

The next morning, Mike got a call from the homeowner, who asked, “What did you do to our garbage disposal?”

“It happens all the time,” Mike told me. “I add a spare room or a dig a hole for a Jacuzzi, something breaks anywhere in the house two hours, weeks, or months later, and they blame me.” In this case, the chagrined client called back and said he’d found a LEGO block right where Mike promised he would: Trapped in the frozen jaws of their garbage disposal.

At one time or another, each of us has indulged the temptation to assume that because A happened, then B did. The rational mind is on the lookout for what prosecutors and defense attorneys call the proximate cause – according to one online definition, “an act from which an injury results as a natural, direct, uninterrupted consequence and without which the injury would not have occurred.”

While identifying the proximate cause can help measure accountability and assess penalties, the work can be tricky, especially when both sides are pointing the finger. If my car is struck at an intersection by a truck whose driver was exceeding the speed limit, I may try to convince the traffic judge that I wasn’t at fault just because I happened to turn left into its path. If I get caught smacking my little brother, I’ll probably try to get out of trouble by saying that he hit me first, when mom wasn’t looking. In each case, while I may have a legitimate grievance, I’m still going to lose the argument, since my own action, not someone else’s, directly caused my predicament.

 In the public sphere, when politicians and media figures identify what they believe is the proximate cause of an event, it usually means they want to either mold public opinion or leverage or prevent some policy outcome. White supremacist Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans during a church Bible study in Charleston on June 17 was an especially striking example. Was his racism the proximate cause of the murders? Some said it was America’s institutional racism, including some people’s sentimental allegiance to the Old Confederacy. Others insisted that we have to consider Roof’s easy access to a handgun or the possibility of his being mentally ill. One presidential candidate said Roof was attacking religious liberty. Others made even more outlandish assertions.

Some talking heads accused others of politicizing the Emanuel AME Church massacre by stressing the wrong causes. In our polarized political and media worlds, these debates take on a wearyingly circular character. If I’m sure that I’m right, that I’m the one taking the morally superior stance, then I won’t necessarily be conscious of having political or tactical motives. When you disagree with my moral stance, I might be tempted to say that you’re the one who’s playing politics.

It would help if those raising their voices in such certitude would be more mindful of their prejudices and open about admitting them. This is not to argue that there’s never a correct answer in the search for proximate causes. It’s just that human affairs tend to be complicated, and those who have something to prove, or political capital or power to protect, are bound to be the enemies of nuance.

In Christian terms, of course, we might say that there is no nuance, only dark and light, death and life, evil and good. This frame of reference can lead to greater polarization when we insist that we are the ones on the side of the good. If we instead proceed out of humility, the Christian view promotes clarity and empowerment. June 17 was a day of ultimate darkness, an affront to the mind, heart, and spirit of God. Whatever we believe about its proximate causes, we can agree that it should never happen again. If we really want to do whatever it takes to prevent such horror, we should be willing to consider and work on multiple potential causes, even those that don’t match our predispositions. By definition, God’s love is wider than any horizon we may be able to glimpse. To see more of what God sees and desires, we may have to set out from the territory where we feel most at home.

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church