23 June 2010

The absence of mercy

"The absence of mercy." This phrase has haunted me ever since I saw it as part of the title of an article on Kyrgyzstan by Natalia Leshchenko and David Hayes. The authors point out that the violence, potential for regional instability, and humanitarian crisis, would all seem to make Kyrgyzstan a candidate for urgent official assistance, but it's not happening. Nobody wants to get involved.

The absence of mercy as a factor in human affairs is nothing new. Conventional wisdom dictates unhesitatingly leveraging even the slightest advantage--in the corporate world, in politics, in sports, and in international relations. Human tragedy can make us push "pause" for a season, for emergencies such as tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. (Even then, political calculations are factored in; remember how commentators remarked that Pacific tsunami aid would allow us to build good public relations with Muslim countries?) But soon we're back to business as usual, as in the sorry case of post-Katrina assistance to New Orleans.

Sometimes the desire for righteous revenge makes us just plain stupid. Consider the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11. What have we accomplished in these nine years beyond the dispersal of terrorist training facilities and recruitment into other locations, the revival of the drug economy, the deaths of numerous soldiers and civilians, and the construction of a set of enormous expensive new American political-military facilities in Afghanistan and neighboring countries?

Mercy is a value claimed to be at the core of all the major religions represented in that region. Either nobody in power actually believes in it, or those brave leaders are all too scared to try it.

Most Americans probably would not associate the word "ruthless" with our country. There are several reasons for this. Our founding political DNA includes a huge dose of idealism and egalitarianism, some of which is reflected in the functional mercy of "due process," a principle at the very heart of the American experiment. The sheer beauty of these founding ideals can divert our attention from their limited application over our history--first applying only to property-owning white males. Today, we are doing better; we "only" deny these ideals' full application to those accused of terrorism, to immigrants and those who look like they might be immigrants, to those listed rightly or wrongly on various security databases, and to anyone held by us or our allies outside the USA. In the meantime, we Americans are "protected" by over 700 military bases all over the world, and by overt and covert military operations and political maneuverings, by which we seek to advance the politicians we like (or think we can control) and eliminate the ones we don't in a ceaseless effort to shape the global political ecology to our liking.

It seems to me that, taken all together, these efforts have become so complex, and involve so many interlocking interests, that we Americans have lost effective control over our own government. This is part of the "tea party" message, and it may be right; too bad the tea party people, co-opted by big-party operatives and demagogues, are hunting for "socialist" villains instead of identifying the true demons--the military-industrial-financial complex and its cloak of pious fear.

We face an extraordinarily complex dilemma. The world both suffers from and benefits from Pax Americana. Our power gets us the energy resources and consumer goodies we want, but in its clumsy way it also holds some of the world's potential chaos in check. If the USA suddenly abandoned its superpower pretensions, closed its 700-plus bases, and ended all interventions, the world would not suddenly become a better place. Eventually, the global political ecology would readjust, but the adjustment period would likely be ugly.

We peace-church Christians are constantly urging the way of mercy--and I can't think of a single instance in which we are wrong to do so. As the Richmond Declaration of Faith says, "...All war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, 'Love your enemies.'" But what can we say to our politicians and political scientists in the face of their bondage to this dense global tissue of security arrangements? Do we truly think that a period of international chaos and criminality would either not happen or would be an acceptable price for laying down Pax Americana?

I'd love to know if Christian political scientists in the USA and elsewhere are working on ways out of this dilemma. In the meantime, the Body of Christ is not helpless. If we chose, and asked the Holy Spirit for empowerment, couldn't we become a persistent and nearly ubiquitous advocate for mercy? Could it not become a more prominent part of our evangelism, our lobbying, our activism? (Not to mention our way of operating church!)

General McChrystal is out but his policies are still in... (Jim Fine, Friends Committee on National Legislation.)

Rules for war vex the warriors. A colonel asks, "Right now we’re losing the tactical-level fight in the chase for a strategic victory. How long can that be sustained?" And while we're on this site: Finally, someone (Thomas Friedman) says publicly what I've often wondered about U.S. "training" missions: "Why do we have to recruit and train our allies, the Afghan Army, to fight? ... If there is one thing Afghan males should not need to be trained to do, it’s to engage in warfare."

From a British Friend: The Ethnicisation of Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan.

What are we to learn from the oil spill?

The Peace Trail at North Valley Friends Church.

How did I miss this two years ago?: Heavy theological dude (N.T. Wright) mistakenly talks to The Wittenburg Door.

UPDATE: This Metro station is now open.

Delta Moon, "Electric Chair"


Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. It reminds me that the core practice of Quakerism is (should be?) listening for instructions. But . . . do I do it? Once in a while, on First Day morning.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Mary Ellen--and thank you! In my piece, I stopped short of meditating on when I do and don't show mercy, or receive it. For me, "have mercy" is the part of the Jesus prayer that lets me keep breathing, or makes me shiver sometimes.

Nancy said...

Thank you, Johan, for this thoughtful commentary on the inherent contradictions of American idealism and American "ruthlessness." And the photos of the museum were both beautiful and chilling.