To Justify Without End

Last October it was revealed that the U.S. government knowingly and deliberately infected at least 696 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases between 1946 and 1948 without information or consent. The more astute historian might recognize those dates as the same approximate time the United States tried, convicted and sentenced a score of Nazi doctors for performing macabre experiments on thousands of Jews during World War II. The similarities of the experiments reek of hypocrisy.

There are two aspects of this story that are personally intriguing. First, I am a member of the healthcare community and, secondly, I have had the opportunity to administer care to the people of Guatemala. As I sit here and think about the warm reception I received in that country and the reverence visitors from the U.S. are provided, I am ashamed of our country’s history of blatant disregard for the sanctity of life and the lack of respect for those who were considered less than human.

Most of the experiments were performed on the mentally disabled, prisoners and even orphans. The very people Christ was referring to when he mentioned the “least of these”. As the story regarding these crimes against humanity have surfaced, coalitions and committees have formed to investigate how tragedies such as this could occur. Over the last few months, sources have revealed similar experiments performed on U.S. citizens. Some of those studies have been detailed in the following AP article.

I’m familiar with a few of these studies (including the Tuskegee syphilis study), but I was shocked at the normalcy with which physicians, and even the press of that day, viewed the manner in which the studies were performed. One individual was quoted as saying “There was definitely a sense – that we don’t have today – that sacrifice for the nation was important”.

I must admit the whole of the story has stayed with me over the past few weeks. But that one comment regarding a shifting sense of sacrifice and loyalty seems to replay over in my mind quite often. I began to think about how the most frightening reality of human nature is that when we look inside of ourselves to justify our thoughts and actions we only begin to scratch the surface of depravity. Ultimately, like minded individuals who grant themselves justification will form a nation of justified individuals willing to enforce ideas upon others under the pretense of what they consider right and wrong in their own minds. That, my friends, is a scary thought.

We have seen this same story repeated throughout history in slavery, genocide, and terrorism. The lens of history reveals the aberrations of entire societies. However, does it take history to define ethics? Is morality encrypted in a code that can only be interpreted by future generations? I hope not, but history seems to tell a different story. I can’t help but wonder what will be revealed as our generation’s hidden justification. I know I can think of a few candidates.

We have been working through the book of Genesis at The Crossing. The old stories of Abraham have been made new through the in-depth preparation and thoughtful teaching of our pastors. I have been reminded in hearing these stories how often the bible tells of humanity’s tendency to justify. Consider Sarah offering her maidservant to Abraham in order to “help” God fulfill His promise to make from Abraham a great nation. The years of waiting on God led Sarah to either forget or ignore that God’s promise was for her to conceive. She considered her actions justified.

The stark warnings in scripture indicate that self justification does not turn out well. It may very well be one of the most prominent themes within the story of the bible. One of the greatest opportunities we have through God’s word is the chance to break the cycle of self justification. Throughout the bible, God has clearly shown us the futility of our own tendencies, as well as the danger an entire society can inflict, when collectively ignoring the moral and ethical reality of how things are supposed to be.

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