11 June 2009

Biblical realism and perpetual war

Lots of smart people have been busy redefining the word "war." Maybe it once referred to lethal combat between nations or sharply-defined groups, with declarations and surrenders, truces and treaties. We Quakers were taught by our elders and our books of Christian discipline that war, and preparations for war, were inconsistent with discipleship. Sane citizens of all political persuasions at least united on wanting peace for ourselves and our children, imagining and working for the day that the country's war would end.

Now, things have become fuzzy. In particular, guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, low-intensity warfare, and the so-called stateless actors have changed the nature of warfare. In these bizarre times, a wealthy power like the USA can actually pay people not to shoot at our forces--and take political credit for the resulting reduction in violence--and at the same time define many detainees at bases abroad as implacable enemies and hold them for years without effective due process.

It's a crazy world, and it presents urgent challenges for believers.

The challenges of wartime faithfulness to the Prince of Peace may be increasing, but at root those challenges are not new. They are still extensions of the same old patterns of human sin, about which the Bible has always been refreshingly realistic:
  • In 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the Hebrew people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them, so they can be like other nations. God tells Samuel to respond to the people with an explicit warning as to what this means: (verses 11-18)
    He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.
  • Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"
  • Psalm 14:2-3 (The Message):
    God sticks his head out of heaven.
    He looks around.
    He's looking for someone not stupid—
    one man, even, God-expectant,
    just one God-ready woman.

    He comes up empty. A string
    of zeros. Useless, unshepherded
    Sheep, taking turns pretending
    to be Shepherd.
    The ninety and nine
    follow their fellow.
  • More realism: Ecclesiastes 5:8: "If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still."
  • Romans 3:10-17:
    As it is written:
    "There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands,
    no one who seeks God.
    All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one."
    "Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit."
    "The poison of vipers is on their lips."
    "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
    "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    ruin and misery mark their ways,
    and the way of peace they do not know."
    "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
  • Ephesians 5:11-14a: "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible...."
  • Ephesians 6:10-18:
    Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
  • James 4:1-2: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God."
Biblical realism not only prepares us for the prospect of perpetual war, it equips us to confront some of its specific features.

Back in 1961, Eisenhower warned about the increasing power of the military-industrial complex. "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry," he said, "can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." But part of today's challenge is that it is extremely difficult for citizens to stay "alert and knowledgeable." Here are some of the reasons:
  • The policies of permanent war are rarely discussed in accessible public forums. If Tom Hayden is correct, military thinkers are focusing on a "long war" with a fifty-year time horizon. When have you heard a congressional debate about this? "The way of peace they do not know."
  • Some of the specific methods used in this long war are even less likely to be discussed openly--everything linked to "torture," to the "dark side" ("for it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret"), to the methods that made Gen. Stanley McChrystal's reputation as a can-do commander for the Afghanistan-Pakistan front.
  • We routinely forget our Biblical realism when we recount American history. Over and over again, we put our trust in glib experts whose collective reputation for accurate forecasting and sound management stands at near zero. We are overawed by the nesting bureaucracies and crisp technocratic orgnames of the Pentagon, as if the new cult of the Zen Warrior armed with a PhD, precision drone airplanes operated from Colorado, along with the naive goodwill of Americans who have entrusted their sons and daughters to this machine, can make up for fatal levels of hubris and lack of a shared moral center.
  • "National security" has been raised to cult status; it justifies everything from rude treatment of airline passengers to pre-emptive warfare. However, a super-nation that has established military and economic trip-wires all over the globe cannot help but hear alarms constantly. Only genocidal civil wars in central Africa, apparently, do not trip loud enough alarms, but a self-serving politician in the country of Georgia can summon billions of dollars of US weapons to aim at Russians. When do we discuss the "national security" of a just world, and of health care, educational reform, and environmental sanity within our own borders? "You yourselves have become his slaves."
Biblical realism allows us to confront perpetual war by reminding us that the hearts of nations as well as individuals are inclined toward deceit, and the Bible doesn't make an exception for us. This is why it is so important for us to demand clear definitions of loaded terms such as torture, enemy, national security, bases, experts, extremism, terrorism, and patriotism. Yes, it's hard to keep up with Eisenhower's expectation of an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry," but it should not be for lack of trying.

Biblical realism allows conservatives to make common cause with progressives, as long as both sides are willing to have some of their favorite oxes gored. For example, progressives might have to be willing to see what conservatives see, looking around the world--evil exists, sworn enemies exist, and a sentimental, mindless isolationism provides no security for anyone by any definition. Imperialism and an unceasing search for geopolitical and economic advantage is an unsustainable policy (progressives are right about that) but, what ARE sustainable policies? Are there some among us who would be able to work on that question, confronting the realities of a fragile, unstable, angry, and often ecologically oblivious set of global actors? Christian conservatives are beginning to realize that they can't only be conservative when it is convenient. If you believe in biblical inerrancy, for example, doesn't that cover the Bible's teachings on wealth and poverty? Immigration? Peace? Loving one's enemies?

The same skepticism that conservatives like to train on bleeding-heart idealists might also help create a more critical and careful examination of wealth, power, the possibility of structural injustice, and the possibility that some enemies might even become friends--and at less expense than it would take to kill them.

Both progressives and conservatives, unfortunately, get too caught up in their own identities, rather than using their philosophies as analytical disciplines and sources of inspiration. Checking to see if someone puts out the right cultural signals, shares the same visceral dislikes of certain politicians ("who makes you hear the dog whistle?"), and laughs at the usual stereotypical jokes about nutcases--all that builds false community, not true national security.

Biblical realism challenges liberals and progressives alike with thousands of years of evidence that its diagnosis of the human condition is absolutely right. Power corrupts, period. When people try to go it alone without God (with or without a religious cover--see Jeremiah), disaster results. Here's where we can start a conversation that crosses the divisions: Conservatives have years of experience with the protection of individual rights and promotion of individual responsibilities; progressives have years of experience promoting a vision of sustainable interdependence. Together, we face a new challenge--a system of undeclared perpetual warfare that arguably poses a spiritual, economic, and political danger to all our children, and our global neighbors' children. What can we tell our children together--or will we keep the walls up, conspire to give them only half the picture?

Right now, if I look at the momentum that's already been built up for the "long war," a more or less permanent state of imperial armed vigilance in some of the world's most troubled regions, it's hard to feel much optimism. In part, that's what makes this a spiritual issue. For Friends, especially, I hope and pray for a new burst of creativity and (humble) confidence. We have progressives and conservatives already in close quarters in our tiny global family; we have political scientists, mystics, evangelists, social critics, libertarians, economists, poets, scientists, even veterans and a Quakers' colonel! .... I'd love to believe we could rehearse and model what a biblically-rooted, ethically-shaped, prayer-driven revival might look like--one that not only transforms individuals, revealing Jesus to many people and communities without hope--but also equips us to confront and replace the vision of perpetual warfare.

Alice Yaxley asks, "Why not call yourself a Christian, like Lucretia?" I love the open and kind spirit of her question, and was fascinated by the responses. I see no reason to change my belief that the word "Quaker" covers at least two different religions with important historical roots in common. Those of us who cherish spiritual unity will value honesty about this, even as we also value those common roots and the urgent ethical drive that we all share. A few Friends will have a valuable bridge ministry, able to span the gap, but I don't think this will or should be the vocation of most Friends. And, what is more awkward, I believe that a Quakerism without Jesus at the center is, to put it as diplomatically as I can, incomplete. (Related thoughts here.)

Perpetual war watch: Engelhardt on "six ways the Af-Pak war is expanding; and Alfred McCoy, "Back to the future in torture policy." ~~ An experiment in crossing ideological lines for Christ's sake: Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. ~~ Video of Eisenhower's military-industrial-complex warning. ~~ Sent to Hell from Ann Arbor: A College Student's World War One...Rosalie Grafe's book is out! ~~ "Europe is Shaking"--24-7Prayercast. If any Friends have been involved directly in 24-7 Prayer, please let me know! ~~ Christian Peacemakers are reporting from Hebron again, after a year-long closure of CPT work there. ~~ Christopher Priest on the latest Star Trek. ~~ Need a quick course in energy and climate issues? Severin Borenstein presents a well-organized video introduction to the economic, geopolitical, and ecological issues. Click on the link at A Musing Environment. ~~ Remembering Ralph Winter. A news story. Recognition in Time. And another memory. I never met him but loved reading his editorials and articles. He had that wonderful combination of spiritual and intellectual devotion to the missio Dei with no fear or false piety.

The Roadhouse Moscow Blues Club presents Vladimir Rusinov, Kseniya Dubrovskaya, Mikhail Belov--the Jumping Cats!

The Jumping Cats! live from Andrey Belyaev on Vimeo.


Diane said...

Good post. 1 Samuel 8 is a key passage that imho we need to keep returning to.

"from Göring:

Why, of course, people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war… That is understood. But it is the leaders of the country who determine policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

There are endless debates about whether leaders “drag the people along” or whether they are puppets of forces which exist outside of themselves. This is the substance of Tolstoy’s theory of history outlined in “War and Peace” — the general’s delusion (it could be Göring’s or Napoleon’s) that he is in control of history when he is but a pawn. [31] History, when all is said and done, is enacted by all of us, not by a select few ..."

From Errol Morrs's series the NYTImes, "Bamboozling Ourselves," part 5. http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/02/bamboozling-ourselves-part-5/?scp=3&sq=morris&st=cse

forrest said...

"a sentimental, mindless isolationism" is precisely the policy you're led to when you apply the Hippocratic principle of "Do no harm" to international relations.

The overwhelming bulk of US interventions in the governing of other nations (and, probably, those of most other governments most of the time) are aimed at extracting their resources for foreign profit at the expense and ruination of their own economies and people. Local compliance in this needs to be secured by bribes to local elites, with force and violence as a last resort. (This is a familiar pattern from the Bible, ie the typical Roman methods for dominating neighboring states like Judea in Jesus' day. The main difference from American practice is that 'we' take our tribute by our corporations' power to set terms of trade, wages, and 'investment'.)

If you take away their various attempts to disguise their purposes, the only "individual rights' that "Conservatives" have any practice in defending turn out to be privileged rights to maintain afflictions and heap further afflictions on those already afflicted. The concept of "Individual Responsibility" leaves out the fact that each individual develops in some particular social and material environment, not neccessarily one where appropriate food, shelter, or mental/emotional nutrients can be found.

The chief American religion seems to Middlism. Whatever notions one takes as the endpoints -- It is likely that an American will come down firmly on the side of the midpoint between them. Depending on what menu of acceptable notions has been established... This can be a pretty inadequate & misleading assumption as to where to find the truth of a matter.