Comment Of The Day: “An Ethics Quiz In An Ethics Quiz: Texas A.G. Ken Paxton’s Facile Remark”

As I hoped it would, the post about Texas AG Ken Paxton’s cliched response when asked what he would say to a parent of one of the children slain by Salvador Ramos in Uvalde (“I believe god always has a plan. Life is short, no matter what it is.”) prompted an excellent discussion, with many outstanding comments. I am highlighting John Paul‘s entry as a Comment of the Day, but the discussion itself is well worth reviewing.

For some reason, I am just now realizing that virtually all of the discussion, including my analysis in the original post, has focused on the first part of Paxton’s statement, and ignored the equally obnoxious second sentence, “Life is short, no matter what it is.” Let me quickly remedy that now.

While the first sentence is a cosmic assertion of dubious legitimacy, the second is a pure shrug. It is a rationalization, essentially following the infuriating logic of the worst on the Ethics Alarms list, the infamous #22, “It’s not the worst thing.” Paxton is saying that all deaths come too soon, so we shouldn’t over-rate the tragedy of any death, even in the violent murder of a child. It’s a stunningly callous and stupid thing to say, and it is also untrue. “Life is short” is meaningless, because “short” is a relative term. If Paxton means human life is too short, as I assume he does, that is also an infantile assertion. Compared to what? A mayfly (or an aborted fetus) would be profoundly envious of the life we find to be “too short.” H.P. Lovecraft wrote a famous horror story about a woman who wished for and was granted eternal life without eternal youth, and ended up as a centuries old , mad, twisted, monstrous thing chained to the wall of a dungeon. Her life, it’s fair to conclude, was too long. So were the lives of Ted Bundy and Salvador Ramos, as well as the lives of all of history’s monsters and murderers. Jacques Cousteau famously wrote that he thought he was going to drown when he was just a teenager, but had experienced so much that he felt like his life had been long enough, and was ready to perish content. My father had, in George Bailey’s terms, a wonderful life, but it ended exactly when he wanted it to, because he could no longer live it on his own terms. The fact is that a life snuffed out in childhood is genuinely too short, and the fact that George Bernard Shaw or, some day soon, Queen Elizabeth isn’t quite ready to go when the time comes is an offensive, disrespectful, inexcusable comparison.

Here is John Paul’s Comment of the Day on the post, “An Ethics Quiz In An Ethics Quiz: Texas A.G. Ken Paxton’s Facile Remark”:

***

” I have no idea how it would strike someone who is religious, which I am not, nor can I be certain how a parent of child who had died in the shooting would react to it.”

I know what I am about to say really isn’t an ethics argument, but mostly a Biblical response to this particular statement. As someone with some experience in this matter I can confidently say I and my peers rarely use this statement in lessons or in teachings for a few reasons, mostly because we don’t like it and its rarely used correctly.

First, let me establish some context. The verse people quote is in Jeremiah 29:11. It states depending on the translation you’re using something like this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” Declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The popularity of these words was spoken by the very unpopular Jeremiah in a time of judgment against Israel. At the time Israel was rampant in idolatry and Jeremiah told them that not only would they fail to overcome their situation of city under siege, but they would become captives to the Babylonians during the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. This exile would last roughly 70 years and end after the Babylonian Empire fell. By the time these words are spoken, these words are offered as comfort that God will get them though these tough times often with the experience making them better for it.

The problem with its usage is twofold. The first really isn’t germane to the discussion, but might offer some clarity to the second or speak to Paxton’s motives, so I will mention it anyway. People want to make this verse about them. It’s not. One could make the argument that God does have plans for them, but a majority of those plans include upholding their Christian values of faith, pray, repentance, and sharing the gospel. There are no secrets when it comes to those plans. They are outlined in the Bible.

The second is that God wants or allows bad things to happen. Based on the statement Paxton is making I can only assume he is applying some infantile argument of this: bad happens in the world, therefore God wants bad things to happen, therefore it’s his plan to make them happen. On the surface, this argument might make sense to someone like Paxton. It seems easy to say if God is who he says he is he could easy stop all the bad things that happen on earth. After all, an all-powerful and all-knowing God should be able to direct anything towards good, so why doesn’t he unless he wants those bad things to happen?

The obvious answer is free-will combined with a broken world. If God wanted servants, he could have easily accomplished that goal (and in a way he has through the creation of angels). The standard answer for free-will is that for love to be real, it must not be coerced. If we did not have the ability to reject God then we couldn’t truly come to him in love. To be a child of God you must first love him. There is some debate of whether or not this line of thinking is accepted in scripture, but I believe the idea is there. We might pray for divine intervention but we accept these prayers will rarely (if at all) change the outcome of free-will.

The broken world idea is more metaphysical. Romans 8:20-21 says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Paul here writes a bleak picture of a sin-ravaged world we all live in. Because one man sinned (Romans 5) all the world is subjected to that sin, not just the humans that occupy it. It’s clear from reading the rest of chapter 8 that God never intended for His creation to experience this corruption and futility into death forever. Therefore, God allowing anything to advance that death in any way is counter to Paul’s claim. God doesn’t allow it any more than he allows man to engage in sin in the first place.

I’m going to try to give Paxton some leeway here (at least from a Christian stand point). There are a few fundamental truths we as Christians do agree on which I think also might go into his thinking.

1. Bad things may happen in the world and to good people, but we see this world is not the end. This is illustrated in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

2. Whether or not God allows bad things to happen, he will use those bad things for good. This may be the point Paxton (and many others) are trying to make when they make statements like this. However, if this is the point he is trying to make, he should make it. We can condemn tragedy without having to justify it away. I feel people’s frustration on wanting to ‘do something’ but hiding behind bad logic and misinterpreted scripture isn’t it (though at the moment I’m at a loss of what ‘it’ could be).

3. Suffering can be a learning experience. As followers of Christ, we realize he suffered the ultimate suffering. I don’t want to make the ‘there are worst things’ argument, but I do want people to know there is a way to move forward and we have been doing it for thousands of years.

Our reaction is to all adversity is “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He makes your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).” However, we are also taught “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).” Paxton and Christians like him who engage in talk like the one above aren’t engaging in good apologetics, gentleness, or respect to the ones they are talking to. It would have been better for him to say nothing at all.

5 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “An Ethics Quiz In An Ethics Quiz: Texas A.G. Ken Paxton’s Facile Remark”

  1. Thank you John Paul. This coalesced all my reactions and thought into a cogent reply. I appreciate your breaking this down and why facile responses to tragedy are so hurtful.

  2. Hey Jack!

    It’s been a busy weekend for me, but I wanted to say thanks for this. I’m never sure how you will feel about something like this. Therefore when you said you didn’t know how religious people feel about this sort of thing, I kind of took it as a personal challenge.

    Anyway, I take turns writing for a religious column and I got my turn coming up. I think I’d like to share this there as well (or at least a variation, I’m only limited to 700 words). I hope you don’t mind.

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