Don’t laugh, but I’ve been watching a lot of the show JAG lately. Beyond the hokey characters and soap-opera drama, there are a lot of interesting clashes going on: the tension between loyalty and objectivity, between diplomatic concerns and military strategy, and between justice and realpolitik. The episode “Defensive Action” (filmed in 1996) follows the story of a pilot, “the CAG,” who is caught in a no-fly zone by a Serbian helicopter. When the plane he is flying with malfunctions and its pilot is forced to eject, the CAG sees the Serbian helicopter shooting at the defenseless parachuter, and destroys it. But because no one else saw the helicopter attack, the CAG’s actions are seen as a pre-emptive breach of the peace treaty, and he is court-martialed.
Everyone–even the prosecuting attorney–believe that the CAG was in the right; but because there is no proof, and because of the tenuous nature of the peace treaty, they encourage him to testify that he made a mistake. As a naval officer, the attorney argues, his duty to the men under his command would be served best by resigning; after all, if he holds his ground and war breaks out, it’s the servicemen who will suffer for it. The CAG is willing to accept this–“I’d lay down my life for my men. Why not my career?”–but his lawyers advise against it. In the end, his honesty on the stand compels the jury to acquit him, and all’s well that ends well. The episode conveniently runs out of time for following up on the very real possibility that the CAG’s virtue has indirectly caused a bloody war.
I’m not sure what I think about this. His original decision, to accept a dishonorable end to his career, actually feels like the better option to me; it seems to be a humble decision to bear slander for the sake of others. Things get more complicated when you consider the fact that this noble act would actually involve lying, because the attorney is urging him not to justify his actions, but to say that he made a mistake. It’s a bit hard to tell whether the CAG refuses to go along with this because he is dedicated to honesty itself, or because he’s dedicated to a somewhat vain esteem of his own integrity.
The story made me think about the ethics of refusing to defend yourself from slander. It is certainly Christ-like to sacrifice your reputation or career for the greater good; but what if you have to lie in the process? I suppose that’s not okay, but I’m not quite sure. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that’s required of a virtuous man, but I can imagine a certain kind of radical, like St. Francis, being so eager at the opportunity for self-sacrifice that he’d jump at the opportunity.
Either way, this makes me rethink my ideas about standing on my rights. I often daydream about putting offensive co-workers, rude shoppers, or idiots on the internet in their place with a zinger of righteous anger. I’m too shy and slow-reacting to make this happen in real life, but the high I get from thinking about it is not healthy. Even if I do have the right to get angry about being treated uncharitably (which is debatable, because, as a sinner like every other human being, I don’t really have a leg to stand on), it doesn’t follow that acting on that right is the best thing to do. Yelling at a co-worker probably isn’t going to solve any problems, but it will almost definitely make us both feel bad. And worst of all, it’s treating him like a punching bag. Instead of remaining silent out of awareness of my own faults, or giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m using his mistake to set myself up as morally superior.
I certainly don’t mean to say that it’s wrong to stand up for yourself, especially when we’re talking about fundamental rights being violated. I’m not sure if this idea of being silent in the face of slander is something that Christ requires of us, or something that’s only for certain charisms or vocations. Next time I’m at work, though, I’m going to try a little harder to remain silent when someone steps on my toes.