Monday, September 19, 2005

Obadiah and Gloating Nations

The sermon yesterday was from Obadiah, and the theme was about personal betrayal. I spent much of the sermon, however, thinking about what Obadiah has to say about national schadenfreude. [In this post, I shall endeavor to use the word schadenfreude as much as possible, because my friend Nick likes it so much]

In daily usage (in English, anyway), we generally think of schadenfreude as an emotion felt by individuals and applied to individuals. Schadenfreude can be national, though. Consider, for example, Europe's current wallow in schadenfreude over the destruction of New Orleans. Or, in a situation in which it was my country goring the oxen of others, consider just how much pleasure Americans took when Europeans allowed tens of thousands of elderly to die in a mild heatwave a few years ago. Schadenfreude toward an enemy is understandable if not excusable; Schadenfreude toward one's friends is vile.

Consider the relationship between Edom and Israel. They had engaged in sibling rivalry -- both literal and figurative -- since the days of Jacob and Esau. Though the prophet denounces violence between the two, he also denounces schadenfreude. Consider verses 11-13:

On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble. You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor look down on them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster.

I find this position fascinating. Not only do we see the standard that murdering someone in your mind is tantamount to murder itself (a standard examined in the much-underestimated Minority Report), but we also see that looking down on those in misfortune, rejoicing over their trouble, or boasting about it is enough of a sin that it calls for national destruction.

In other words, when we feel secret pleasure (for the right) over famine in North Korea or not-so-secret pleasure (for the left) over terrorism in Iraq -- well, we'd better think again. Obadiah makes the claim that when we stand aloof from tragedy elsewhere, "you were like one of them [the enemies]. Think Hurricane Katrina is a funny black eye on on America? You are culpable as if you yourself killed people and robbed them of their possessions. Think thousands of French elderly dying is a just result of their snotty attitude and over-reliance on the state? You yourself allowed them to die. Are you glad to score cheap political points over terror attacks? You yourself are like a terrorist.

Etc, etc... I find the implications of this sobering. Often we are not in a position to help others; that is just the nature of living in the material world. When we delight in their misfortunes, however, we become culpable for them regardless of whether we caused them or could have avoided them. Time for me to adjust my attitude.

1 comment:

  1. One of the reasons I continue to attend High Holiday services at Temple, despite being a non-observant Jew (for the most part) is that the soul of the service speaks to this concept.

    One of my favorite prayers roughly translates as asking God to send an Angel to sit on one's tongue. Not only are evil deeds a sin, but also evil speech, particularly what we would characterize as 'gossip'. There is a lot of rejoicing in other's misfortunes hiding at the root of gossip.

    Interesting post.