03 July 2008

"Support our troops" and other incomplete sentiments

  (But first, proof--above--that we made it to Maine! Next stop, Russia.)

Two days ago I sat on a bench outside Aubuchon Hardware, Raymond, Maine, looking at the cars parked in front of me. A fair proportion of them had "Support our troops" stickers. I used to have a "Support our troops--bring them home" sticker on our car until someone pried it off.

In this USA election season, and in particular on this Independence Day weekend, it would be great to add more content to these laudable sentiments. Just as there is "cheap grace," there is "cheap support," and I suppose the "Support" sticker itself is the cheapest.

So here is the American Christian pacifist's manual on supporting our troops, version one:

1. Support our Constitution. Believe it or not, the U.S. Constitution gives authority to declare war to the Congress, not the President. So: elect wise congresspeople and give them political cover to apply their wisdom in times of national hysteria. If necessary, run for Congress yourself! Promote conversations about what a sustainable national stewardship might look like in a dangerous world. The neo-cons argue that we can only thrive as a nation by dominating the world and its resources. Too often, peace people fall back on platitudes, but our politicians need us to step up to the challenge of looking at the same dangers that the neo-cons see, and offering another path--one that competently reframes human survival and well-being in realistic, unsentimental terms. This should not be an impossible task: how "realistic" has our leaders' unquestioned faith in aggressive militarism turned out to be?

2. Hold the President accountable. Whoever approves military action, the President is commander-in-chief and the embodiment of elected civilian political control over the military. Don't let the power go to his/her head!! Nobody's life (whether American life or the supposed enemy's) is worth cheap bravado, impulsiveness, imperial arrogance, unwillingness to negotiate, bad planning, corruption of any kind. And so on. In a democracy, "support our troops" cannot and must not mean "let our leaders do our thinking for us."

3. Remember: Troops are not symbols on legs, they are people. To support a soldier means to care about his or her well-being, to pray for him or her, to think about that person as a member of the human race, as someone's child, someone's sibling or parent, rather than simply a representative of a specific country. We should be prayerfully vigilant that the troops' willingness to risk their necks on our behalf would never be exploited by politicians, and particularly not in the service of imperial goals that are never publicly discussed. (See "Why We Fight.")

4. Love and pray for our enemies. Whether or not you personally (as, say, a disciple of the Prince of Peace) acknowledge having enemies, the community known as the USA has enemies--people dedicated to various programs of doing us harm. It doesn't do the cause of peace much good to deny this reality by spiritualizing it beyond the ability of our common-sense friends and neighbors to track our meaning. Often our troops are supposed to be in between us and those enemies, so how we regard these enemies may have a direct bearing on the welfare of our troops. So, here are some thoughts about loving our enemies:
  • We should use the word "enemies" cautiously, only in its technical sense of nations or groups that intend harm and are organizing to carry out that intent. Experienced military people understand this use, and understand the importance of knowing enemies well, respecting them, and understanding their motivations.
  • We know from history that enemies seldom remain enemies permanently, and can within a lifetime become close allies! How will we know when the designation "enemy" is simply wrong?
  • How did they become our enemies? What responsibility do we have for creating antagonists through insults and injuries caused by us, whether intentionally or not? How do we correct this situation?
  • How do we publicly talk about our enemies, as citizens and as politicians? Even our cruelest, most ruthless enemies have to operate with some attention to public relations--do we make it easier for them to whip up grievances by talking about them in simplistic or dehumanizing terms? What does that kind of behavior do to fence-sitters in the global audience?
5. Support excellent Veterans Administration and military mental health programs. Demand care for soldiers with any and all kinds of injuries. Soldiers are part of our national community who suffer unusual traumas compared to most civilians; it does not compromise our peace witness to insist that those traumas be treated.

6. Practice intelligent patriotism. Understand the legitimate affection and loyalty behind most people's patriotism, even as we all strive to resist the cynical manipulation of those values by some politicians. Many, if not most, soldiers come from patriotic families; how can we support troops if we don't understand the idealism behind healthy patriotism? Many of the peace people I know are deeply conflicted about patriotism in general, but it is important to continue communicating with people who haven't experienced those conflicts.

For a citizen of a democracy to support the troops means to understand the national and global context within which the national leadership argues for the use of troops. With that in mind, Rick Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We? (judging by this excerpt) must be depressing reading. However, one of the statistics in the excerpt frustrated me, and maybe someone reading this can help out. Shenkman cites a survey that reveals that "About 1 in 4 Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.) But more than half of Americans can name at least two members of the fictional [Simpsons] cartoon family...." According to the survey, only 1 in 1000 can list all five freedoms in the First Amendment. But what if the question had simply concerned freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights, rather than specifying the First Amendment? I wouldn't be surprised if more than one in a thousand people knew five freedoms in the Bill of Rights, without necessarily knowing where in the Bill of Rights they were listed.

Another exhortation I agree with ... mostly: Read the Bible well. Arthur O. Roberts' latest reflections on the Northwest Yearly Meeting Web site, "Reading the Bible in Public Worship," struck me in contradictory ways.

Before reading my reservations, please read Arthur's original article. Having read the Bible in public worship many times, and been involved in the preparation and leadership of hundreds of meetings for worship in which the Bible was read out loud, I agree on some level with everything he says. I also remember my own recent remembrance in this blog about the comments of Meshak Mudamba and Eileen Malova after their tour of Friends meetings in North America--they were concerned with the lack of reverence among too many of us.

On the NWYM pastors' list, Howard Macy responded positively to Arthur's column, and added an important thought: "...I think that Scripture is likely to be the most important thing said in a worship gathering, so it ought to be read clearly and well." In fact I agree that this might well be very true--a healthy reminder in a self-centered age. We might believe (if we dared let the thought surface) that our own inspired comments outrank a reading from the Bible, but we ought to have a built-in skepticism about any such claim.

I'm an advocate for the authoritative and crucial role of the Bible in forming us as a people and empowering our discernment, as well as furnishing the language, images, and essential doctrines of our worshipping lives. In this I'm very sure I'm in agreement with the founding generations of Quakers as well as probably the majority of Friends worldwide to this day. So why do I feel an inward resistance even as I nod in agreement with Arthur and Howard?

My concerns may simply be the leftover static of an adult convert brought up by atheist parents. Because of this, perhaps you should read no further! Just stick with Arthur. But I cannot deny an inward rebellion against ritual, or against any practice in public worship that may become ritualized. Arthur eloquently warns: "There is no 'religious way' of reading. Sing-song, unctuous intonation, and other forms of affected speech rob the Scripture of its power to speak to ordinary folks through ordinary voices." But I think that 75% of the time I hear the Bible read in public worship, it sounds affected to me. And no matter how it is read, I can feel the secular ghost of my past switching into ceremonial mode: this is not meant to be real life, I'm now audience for someone else's performance. This passage may be urgent, prophetic, passionate, but I'm supposed to be listening with piety and awe. And in this state of piety, the text itself slips by like skates on ice.

Just to prove how inconsistent I am, I usually don't have these feelings when I'm listening to (or reading) Scripture as part of a sermon, whether in programmed or unprogrammed context. The Bible is then meshing explicitly with the community's task of discernment. (I love this description of the new Berean believers in Acts 17:10-12.)

When we gather, we intend to meet with the sovereign God, however variably we experience that meeting, or its apparent absence, during the time of worship. I vividly remember when I had no such expectation or hope, and didn't even know that people such as Quakers existed, or that Christians had a deeper reality than the pious culture that my parents made fun of. Despite their atheism, my parents did own a Bible--it was in a zippered leather cover with a glass marble zipper pull that contained a mustard seed. As far as I know, they never opened it. Now that I cannot do without frequent exposure to this amazing book, I don't want the leather, the zipper, the marble, or anything else that smells like ritual or magic. I want the urgent, ecstatic, despairing, instructing, inspiring, recounting, correcting, singing, often rough voice of our family's book to be unmediated by polite convention.

But I'm just one person. For everyone who finds the public reading of Scripture consistently helpful, please be sure to take Arthur's good advice into account, and ignore my reservations. And, in fact, the more you do that, the more likely I'll finally get sold on the practice.

PS: One time at Ohio Yearly Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio, I was told that conservative Friends traditionally do not take the Bible to meeting for worship, much less have pew Bibles in the meetinghouse. They expected that Friends would read the Bible daily in individual and family devotions, and be so steeped in the Scriptures that the quotations and references they might need in vocal ministry would arise from that deep knowledge, without reference to a printed text. How much of this is true today? How much was ever true?

Righteous links:

Russia Today reports that space tourism will soon be more affordable: $200,000. Gratuities not included?

Judy and I went to 20 different churches on 20 Sundays earlier this year, but here's a book about going to a different church every Sunday for a year.

Why not?--"Obama courting evangelicals once loyal to Bush."

Christian Peacemakers witness and suffer trauma, too. Where is accountability here?

Dessert: Muddy Waters' concert at Molde, Norway, 1977.


Bill Samuel said...

On reading the Bible in public worship:

1. I think it can have a certain value standing alone. A good Catholic church reads each portion of the lectionary at a different point in the mass, and allows a period of silence after each one so people can reflect on it. Such a practice can help immerse us in scripture, though it by no means obviates the need to read it daily in private devotions.

2. Conservative Friends have a practice of public Bible Reading. It is like a normal worship service in that it is grounded in holy silence and people speak as led. But the speaking is all directly from scripture (Friends do bring their Bibles to these services), without commentary. It can be very powerful.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, Bill. I think that if many people are helped by reading the Bible in public, it is perfectly OK to tell others, like me, to defer to the experience-tested benefits that others receive, while still remembering to avoid routinizing a precious resource that should be sharpening us rather than dulling us.

Johan Maurer said...

All this helps me understand why different communities have different worship cultures.

Another testimony to my own inconsistencies.... I love Taize singing. Also: When I'm thinking about worship, I can have strong preferences against ceremony or anything that seems to be setting a mood or sculpting holiness or awe. But when I am IN worship, I'm in a zone where such critical thoughts don't seem to intrude.

There does seem to be an audience for studies and statistics that "prove" how ignorant we Americans are. But some of those studies need to be taken seriously. In my work with a couple of state bars, I've seen studies that demonstrate our lack of knowledge of (and support for) the U.S. Constitution, jury service, etc. It's possible to exaggerate the knowledge gap, but it is not possible to exaggerate how important it is for Americans to do better in advocating Constitutional due process and good civics education.

Maybe I'll get to this in another blog post.

Bill Samuel said...

Our Lord told us we needed to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. He never specified the style or form of worship, despite the attempts by some (including some Quakers) to make it into that. Worship of just about any style can either be true worship or false worship.

Anonymous said...

Johan, my thanks for your commentary on scripture from the starting place of an adult convert from an atheist family... my experience also. "...urgent, ecstatic, despairing, instructing, inspiring..." Thank you. A menu of excellence in this weeks blog.