Demonstrators in Italy with signs that say "We Stand With Women of Iran"

Protesters hold sign during a demonstration by Amnesty International Italy in defence of Iranian women and protestors in Iran in Piazza del Campidoglio on October 5, 2022 in Rome, Italy. Iranian Mahsa Amini fell into a coma and died after being arrested in Tehran by the "morality police" for allegedly violating the country's hijab rules. Amini's death has sparked days of violent protests across Iran and demonstrations in other major cities around the world. (Photo: Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

How Can We Transcend the "Morality Police"?

Morality is not something that can truly be “enforced” by violence. We must find it in our hearts.

I've been haunted by a phrase for almost a month now: "morality police."

The news has been global. A 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested as she was leaving a subway station in Tehran on September 13 by an Iranian police unit known as the Islamic guidance patrol, a.k.a., the morality police, because she was an inappropriately dressed female. Maybe her hair was showing. Who knows?

She was whisked, along with other illegally dressed women, to a guidance center for some re-education. Three days later, she collapsed in a room full of people and was taken to a hospital where, a short while later, she died. Authorities said the cause of her collapse, coma and death were pre-existing conditions. Mahsa's family said she was a healthy young woman; she had no pre-existing conditions. She was beaten to death.

You know, by the morality police.

In the wake of her death, the country has been rocked by protests--and the deaths haven't stopped. An astounding 76 people have been killed, according to the Iran Human Rights group, and more than 1,200 have been arrested. Oh, the morality!

So what is morality? Is it something that can truly be "enforced"? Clearly there's global outrage about Iran's morality police--outrage mixed with cynicism. An armed and empowered police unit enforcing a religion-based moral rule regarding a female dress code feels, to put it politely, like outdated ignorance. But is it really outdated? Violent self-righteousness has permeated and poisoned human history since the dawn of civilization. Consider the Crusades, or the Holocaust, or war in general. Consider racism -- from slavery to lynching to the murder of George Floyd (and so many others).

"Morality" may well be responsible for more death and horror through the ages than crime, selfishness or mental illness. Indeed, the concept--or maybe simply the word itself--can provoke a lethal certainty, especially if it comes with a certain amount of power, legal or otherwise. As I think about all this, it seems to me that morality--both the concept and the word--amount to what can only be called spiritual robbery: the reduction of the human social structure, the reduction of humanity itself and its evolving journey, to simple and superficial rules of right and wrong, externally proclaimed--perhaps by the state, perhaps by God--that require unrelenting and if necessary violent enforcement.

That's the point of St. Augustine's "just war" theory--a rollback of early Christianity's primary geopolitical nuisance: pacifism, a.k.a., "love thy enemy" and all that.

"Then Augustine formulated his theory of 'just war,' but his term effectively means 'holy war'" according to Christianity Today. "Augustine and the medieval world concluded that violence is not evil. Instead, violence is morally neutral. That makes a crusade possible."

Violence as morally neutral. Hmmm . . . I see the guy's point, sort of. What if everything we value--our whole social structure--is in danger, either because of counter-violence or, well, anything at all? Isn't defense of what we value necessary, and doesn't defense usually require fighting back, which is to say, violence?

Well, maybe. But a serious, unaddressed problem comes along with this: the fact that "what we value" is freed from moral judgment and simply taken for granted. What if we value . . . oh, let's say, whiteness? And along comes a nonwhite teenager who (allegedly) looks inappropriately at a white lady. Shouldn't we lynch him? What's to stop us? Violence is morally neutral.

Maybe we're simply stuck with an enormous paradox, what a Buddhist would call a Zen Koan. Violence is morally neutral and is necessary at times to protect what we value, but people whose values are questionable -- or simply wrong -- are going to use the same justification for their use of violence. How do we know we're right and they're wrong? Is the winner of a violent conflict, ipso facto, the one who's right? If so, violence is no longer morally neutral. And then, what about the misuse or overuse of violence, even in support of a righteous cause? Do we just shrug our shoulders about that (and keep preparing for war)?

Or have Iran's morality police shattered the sanctity of this paradox? Are they forcing us to think with transcendent seriousness about the true nature of morality, and rescue both word and concept from the forces that have been oversimplifying it for the past ten or so millennia?

I'd say yes. Morality has been reduced to an easily manipulable notion of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them, me vs. you. Let me suggest a way out of this social straitjacket: We must acknowledge that morality is complex and multi-directional; we can never simply be its empowered enforcers. Morality transcends our certainty. It's bigger than anything we know. We have to listen rather than condemn.

And violence may never work. Perhaps there have been a few exceptions over the millennia, but it is far more likely a corrupter of the cause of justice than its protector. The civil rights movement would not have succeeded as a violent revolt -- which raises a crucial point. Nonviolent does not mean disempowered; very much the opposite is true. Take a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge if you don't believe me.

This doesn't mean, by any means, that nonviolence is simple. Its complexity is what makes it unpopular among those in a hurry to win. I've written, over the years, about concepts such as Restorative Justice, which honors, values and listens to people who were injured by, and who committed, criminal acts. A decade ago I wrote about the documentary film, Fambul Tok (which means "Family Talk"), which looks at how that process worked in Sierra Leone in the wake of 11 years of civil war, which shattered people's lives and killed more than 50,000.

People on both sides of that war--people who were injured by it, people who were forced to take part in it--stood in organized circles around a bonfire and spoke their truth, rebuilding a broken tradition. A young woman who had been beaten and raped by 15 men talked of what happened to her, noting she remained in terror of the participants, including her uncle, who was present in the circle.

The uncle stepped forward, fell to his knees and begged forgiveness. He spoke of how he had been forced on pain of death to participate in the violence. He tore his heart open, asking for forgiveness. He said he would do anything she asked him.

"I forgive him," she said. Everyone present began to dance. Niece and uncle danced together. When I wrote about this, I called it the alchemy of forgiveness.

Morality can't be enforced. It's present in our hearts. It can only be welcomed.

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