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Starfish Stories

August 18th, 2021 | 14 min read

By Matthew Loftus

At the climax of the recent wannabe-blockbuster film The Suicide Squad[1], a giant mind-controlling starfish is wreaking havoc across a nondescript non-American city when the team of super-villains (who are, from a story perspective, the heroes of the movie) must make a decision. Having completed their assigned mission, they are ordered by their cold, calculating, and utterly consequentialist supervisor to walk away and leave the innocent people of this foreign land to be massacred by an interstellar invertebrate, presumably because it would be good for America. The team is warned that disobedience will result in their immediate deaths, but they turn around in an existentialist blaze of glory and decide to go kill everyone in sight who is against peace. Mostly, that’s the starfish and his mind-controlled zombie army.

There’s another story about starfish that you’ve probably heard before; I remember it getting passed around unattributed as an email forward back in the days before retweeting was invented. A man is throwing starfish that have been stranded on the beach back into the ocean, simply tossing one after another after another while still thousands of starfish remain. An interlocutor asks how these actions could possibly make a difference, and the starfish thrower simply replies that “it made a difference for that one.”

One more story, I promise, and then some actual reflections: the quintessential motive of public health is often described with a story about pulling drowning people out of a river. A passerby sees someone drowning, pulls them out, and has barely gotten back to his feet before he sees another drowning person and then another and another and another. Eventually he realizes that he has to “go upstream” to find out where all of these drowning people are coming from and do something about the slippery bank or the broken bridge.[2] The work of individual healthcare practitioners is to pull drowning people out of the water, while public health practitioners are the ones working upstream.

Against “Orthopraxy”

I have told three different stories about water and starfish because I want to talk about action in the world, or what the more erudite might call “praxis.” Any cursory or intensive reading of the Bible will lead its reader to conclude that if we are indeed saved by God through Christ, we are called to love others. Christians are very specifically told by Christ to love others who hate and harm you (Matthew 5:38-42), those who cannot repay you (Luke 14:12-14), and those that are most vulnerable among us (Matthew 25:31-46). The Church, from before Christians were called Christians until the modern day, has taken this injunctive very seriously.

However, those of us who wish to love others encounter a large set of problems. There are some obvious needs for food, shelter, or immediate medical care that can and should be met, but outside of disaster situations where people are otherwise helpless, there is a persistent debate about how meeting immediate needs ought to be balanced alongside developing the structures and virtues necessary to keep that need from arising again. While I think it is clear that there are some basic needs that everyone ought to be guaranteed, Christians of good faith disagree strongly on how those needs ought to be met and even those who agree on how those needs ought to be met disagree even more vehemently about how to advocate for the political and social structures of provision and security.

Those disagreements are complex and cannot be easily dismissed with an appeal to ideology; even if one truly believes that Full Communism or the Free Market or “more people just believing in Jesus” is the answer that truly addresses “root causes,” there is still a complicated web of institutions and structures that must be influenced towards human flourishing. Full Communism will not prevent domestic abuse, the Free Market will not preserve natural spaces as they ought to be, and mass conversion will not create a more just healthcare system. There are needs that must be met for people in a variety of ways, many of which are resistant to simple solutions.

These needs are often endless, unevenly distributed, and often feel impossible in scale even if the problem could be fixed simply by throwing money at it.[3] There are several billion people in the world who would have their basic needs met far more reliably if they could reach the station that the poor in most Western countries occupy. Yet it goes against all moral intuition to tell a homeless woman whose pimp started giving her drugs when she was a preteen that she should be content that she is not an African peasant farmer who makes $5 a day and sits with his loving family in church every Sunday. Comparing suffering between sufferers only makes sense in an ethical schema that presupposes suffering can be measured, and in any case it is so naturally unpopular that it’s hardly worth mentioning.

Yet people who want to help others often find themselves overwhelmed with different venues by which to help. How does one choose which causes, charities, organizations, and institutions to lend themselves to? Call it the Starfish Thrower’s Dilemma.

Simultaneously, once you get past the more obvious, easily ameliorated needs, you find that there are lots of structures and systems that have been established to fortify evil for the sake of the people who gain profit or pleasure from harming others. The devil does not fight fair. If you find yourself working against people whose greed and malice animate their entrenchment in evil, how can you fight against them in a way that adheres to the ethical imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount? Call it the Starfish Killer’s Dilemma.

And then lastly, how one goes about doing good (except in a few rare circumstances) is always fraught with questions of efficacy, efficiency, and even futility. An ample literature has grown up discussing how trying to help can not only be a waste of time, but it can truly make things worse. The river story illustrates these dilemmas.

For a while, the trend of contrasting “orthodoxy” with “orthopraxy” was popular in certain Christian circles; the terminology is mercifully decreasing but the ideas still loom large in evangelical, post-evangelical, and exvangelical discourse. There is an assumption inherent in this terminology that some sort of praxis or action could be comparable to the specific doctrines of the Church in terms of moral action, which is nonsensical and dangerous. What is even more dangerous is when this idea of “orthopraxy” gets tied to a specific cause, cultural effort, or political program — that a Christian who is acting rightly must vote a certain way or support a particular campaign. Progressive and conservative Christians go about these arguments in different ways, but neither provide a true sense of moral guidance as they bind consciences in favor of one program or another.

Unless the moral question is, “Should I commit this act which I know Scripture proscribes?”, there is rarely a simple and clear moral answer. There is an abundance of moral guidance in Scripture and plenty of wisdom that we can learn from nature, but those of us who have been reborn by the Holy Spirit must now rely heavily on His guidance for the decisions we make day-to-day and the commitments that shape our life.

The lack of straightforward, simple prescriptions doesn’t let us off the hook, though. We are stuck with all of the previously mentioned dilemmas, but the Bible was not given to us to blast through each moral quandary we face with the simplicity of a shotgun. The unanimous testimony of Scripture and our forefathers in the faith, rather, pushes us towards the need to act, but not in a way that ever lets us rest easy on our scruples.

The good news about how there is no such thing as orthopraxy is that there are often many right ways to go about doing things. The bad news is that virtually every action is tainted in some way. The Starfish Thrower is always neglecting one issue or another and the Starfish Killer is always wondering whether they have chosen the right compromises to make.

It is within this space of uncertainty and over-certainty that some ugly tendencies have arisen. The black-and-white thinkers on all sides — whether one thinks that certain immigration policies are the apotheosis or the antithesis of Christian love or one knows exactly how poverty ought to be alleviated — rise quickly to problematize or be problematized. Once anyone has committed themselves to a course of moral action, there are necessarily values that have been neglected or compromised and other avenues that have not been explored. A culture of critics forms people who can always find a downside, an Achilles heel for a failed program or a wounded casualty of a successful one.

The only perfect praxis is theoretical, which is why people who like their moral actions unassailable tend to do very little except that which they can control without risk. This gives problematizers a sense of false purity; they like to think that by constantly identifying the flaws they may somehow guide a more perfect action but their unwillingness to accept the necessity of weighing different guiding values (or their insistence on absolutizing values that have to be weighed against others) makes them impotent.

Paradoxically, as the field of action narrows to a space of symbolic language, defining terms and representative images become the source of controversy. If building a system of true equity feels too difficult, one can always get their rocks off by tearing down a symbol of inequity and going out for a celebratory drink. If forming a culture of invitation to the Gospel that upholds the tensions of Biblical truth is too messy, one can always go nuts drafting statements about Christians with certain adjectives in front of their names. When stopping actual violence is too hard, language and symbolism must become violence in order to maintain the same feeling of satisfaction for fighting them.

Go Slow, Don’t Stop

Everything is problematic, as some say: one cannot do good in the world without necessarily compromising. The more drastic the problem, the more compromise is usually required. If there is a Christian ministry that you support, chances are that there are probably decisions being made behind the scenes that you’d wince at. In a world without infinite funds or perfectly virtuous subjects, people who are out there making policy, writing statements, delivering needed goods, training others, building institutions are constantly choosing some values over others.

Of course, it is not just a zeal for moral purity that has increased the strength of our urges to problematize everything. Institutions that have chosen their own self-preservation over protecting victims of abuse or organizations that have chosen rapid growth over accountability can make talk of compromise feel like a smokescreen for moral midgetry. Christian enthusiasm for slavery and eugenics in centuries prior should humble every one of us who aspires to public discourse on moral issues, because if you cannot imagine being on the wrong side of either issue then you are probably not as mature in moral reflection as you think you are. Problematizing is popular in no small part because of a lack of prudence: our nitpicky, point-scoring tendency to find a disqualifying problem with everything has filled the void that careful consideration ought to have occupied.taken place. Churches that choose not to practice discernment are going to find themselves full of deconstructors — or worse — very quickly.

At the same time, we have to avoid a careless attitude towards the inevitability of imperfection.[4] There are some who hear that we are always “praying with dirty hands” (as Allan Verhey puts it) and take that as an invitation to start flinging fecal matter at their nearest enemy, or, sadly, their nearest Christian brother or sister. This is a false freedom. The omnipresence of compromise is not an invitation to consequentialism; it is an invitation to humility and prayer as we recognize that we are trusting God to take our fragile and imperfect efforts and communicate His love to others through us.

I don’t wish to overread the doctrine of total depravity into the fact that The Suicide Squad is a story about supervillains who also happen to be heroes,[5] but any traditional Christian doctrine of sin acknowledges that none is truly righteous in the way that Christ is and a frank appraisal of Scripture reminds us that God gives us moral imperatives without prescriptive blueprints. In the film, each of the main characters has to decide how they will work towards what is good, with those whose consciences have been formed by relationships with one another winning out against those who can only think of means and ends.

In medicine, I try to encourage my students and trainees with a phrase I learned in residency: “Don’t just do something; stand there.” It is the luxury of Christian moral action that in virtually all circumstances we have the time to sit and be with those who are suffering before we act. If God intends for someone to be saved or something to be done, He will do it without making you rush to imprudent action. Modern compassion demands that we must do something, and everything in the wake of the Baconian Project insists that suffering must be relieved or minimized (or else the sufferer should be eliminated or allowed to eliminate themselves). Faithful Christian theology has always emphasized that Christians can and should simply suffer with those who are hurting, and our willingness to experience pain with and among the vulnerable is directly proportional to the coherence of our message to the world.

It is in that place of suffering and silence that we can reflect and discern, and from that reflection we can then act with prudence. A progressive emphasis on solidarity with the poor may sound cloying, but it is impossible to read Scripture without seeing God’s commitment to being with the weak and vulnerable and the calling for us to imitate him. Just as Christ was “made perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), so we are formed as moral actors through pain. Suffering, vulnerability, and solidarity give us eyes to look at Scripture and nature as God meant for them to be seen.

Once we have stood still and reflected, it is from there that we can reject false urgency, false purity, and false freedom as we move ahead, slowly. Throw good starfish, kill evil starfish, write an evil-starfish-reduction bill, pull people out of the river, or go work on fixing the bridge. No decision will be untainted, but many different decisions are good. If all Christians are willing to run towards the pain, give themselves until it hurts, and spread out, there is a lot of good that can be done. The more Christians that are willing to sacrifice and suffer, the less any one individual has to suffer and the less painful the compromises have to be.

Yet there is one thing more to the Christian story. The great thing about our participation in God’s story of redemption is that we are the starfish thrown back into the sea, we are the helpless drowner pulled from the river, and we are even, yes, the innocent civilian saved from an evil starfish. “There to an ocean fullness / His mercy doth expand” goes the old hymn, and that truth both animates and impels us to moral action. We are freed from a need to do, give, serve, and suffer in order to be made righteous and good, and then we are freed to do, give, serve, and suffer within that same love. Whatever wisdom we long for in making difficult moral choices is there in Christ. Whatever balm we need for the pain that comes when we accompany the vulnerable is there in Christ. Whatever comfort we need when we deal with the inevitable consequences of inevitable compromises is there in Christ. We love others because He first loved us.

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  1. I do not recommend this movie, for a variety of reasons: it is uneven in tone, it is indecisive in its character development, it displays the most deaths on screen in a movie that I think I have ever seen, there is gratuitous sex and nudity, and the plot is incoherent at its most important moments. My discussion of the film’s merits in the body of this essay is me dodging the responsibility of writing a full review of the film. Also, if you are concerned about spoilers I hope you read this note first because I am going to spoil most of the film in the next few sentences.
  2. Or, I suppose, the starfish thrower’s evil doppelganger or an evil psychic starfish. Either or both could be worked into the analogy quite easily.
  3. Examples of things that simply need more money thrown at them include providing basic maternity care for every woman in the world and drug treatment for every person in America who wanted it.
  4. There is another scene from The Suicide Squad found in many trailers that illustrates this point, but it is too vulgar for me to include here.
  5. It is, at least, a refreshing break from the world of Batman comics and movies wherein a man with knives on his gauntlets who deals out more concussions than a career linebacker constantly gets wrapped around the axle about not killing people.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at