20 January 2011

Carrot from hell, again

A student asked me today, "How do you like our winters?" I decided not to mention my fear of falling on the incredibly slippery sidewalks, and truthfully answered that I love the snow and cold of an honest winter.

This evening as I walked to the fitness center, it was 5 degrees F. (it's getting warmer!) and a light powdery snow was falling. It glistened and twinkled on the ground like a million diamonds. Less romantically, the new snow also dramatically improved traction. I gave thanks that I was permitted to live at such a time and place as this.

Here are some cellphone photos from these frosty days: Waiting for the bus; the Institute's backyard; Tevosyan Square through our minibus window; City Hall.

Challenges to American security are apparently clustering all around us--Yemen, Iran, North Korea, instability in Tunisia, fuel supplies in Kyrgyzstan, carrier-killing missiles from China. What's a superpower to do? Whatever happens on any of these fronts, the national security apparatus must always react immediately, and an army of commentators waits to judge whether their reaction is adequate, and how it will affect the next elections.

No nation, no matter how clever or powerful, can sustain a reactionary control mode forever. This is one of the messages I take from the last column Robert Wright wrote in his year of "Opinionator" columns for the New York Times.

We’re getting drawn into a vicious circle. By declaring ourselves global cop, we direct so much of the world’s lethal animus toward us that increasingly it does seem to make sense to take the lead in policing the world. So we dig ourselves into an ever deeper hole with a policy that, in a perverse and ultimately catastrophic way, renders itself ever more plausible. So long as you don’t stop to think about it, at least.

The more we try to control everything even remotely affecting our "security," the more tripwires we install all over the world in the service of that control, the more others get irritated and trip our wires, and the more it looks like we have to redouble our efforts!

It doesn't help that our security criteria clash with our stated values. For example, we Americans see ourselves as a "city on a hill" for the gospel of democracy. However, if the citizens of Palestine democratically elect leaders we don't like, then security trumps democracy. The current crisis in Tunisia lays this dilemma bare: the value to the USA of the authoritarian regime in Tunisia that just collapsed was its perceived collaboration in the global war on terrorism. Now that the new Tunisia is forming, many of its citizens are demanding that restrictions on leftist and Islamist political parties be lifted. Is it possible that the future Tunisia will be far more to its own citizens' liking, and far less to ours?

Robert Wright correctly urges that Americans engage more broadly in the shared international mechanisms that increase peace and security globally. How likely is this to happen, in our hyper-polarized political scene, where many politicians sneer at the very idea that good ideas and effective mechanisms might not be 100% American? To put it another way, will we have to wait for an adult conversation until our economy actually crumbles under the weight of a military budget that is nearly half of what the whole planet spends?

Here are two possible wedges into a decent discussion. And they both have spiritual dimensions, which suggests to me that our evangelists as well as our journalists and politicians need to get involved in promoting these conversations.

First, what is security? I'd love to think that we might consider security in a more systemic way, involving what makes it more likely that anyone, anywhere, can live under his or her own vine and fig tree, unafraid. If I obtain my safety by making you afraid, won't I always have to do and spend whatever it takes to keep you in ignorance and as far away from me as possible? If I'm safe from your missiles but in danger from my armed neighbor, from polluted air, or from a crumbling infrastructure, am I really safe? Will I forever allow politicians to define what adequate security means for me, or will I go public with my own contributions to a definition?

(More on "safety and the 'nature of the world in which we live'" here.)

This conversation will not succeed if we don't go beyond those who already agree with us. This is another reason we need the evangelists engaged. Let's be honest: In the USA, some brothers and sisters in my own evangelical Christian community are among the strong supporters of an armed-to-the-teeth approach to security. They/we believe that the USA has been especially blessed, but I suspect we're not often enough challenged to examine this blessing in detail. If we have been blessed with an exceptional role in history, what exactly does that role mean for the rest of the world? Are we to be a blessing just for ourselves, and if so, are we truly evangelical?? Did Jesus die on the cross just for Americans? If not, doesn't it behoove us to look a little more closely at what the American "blessing" means for others, even for the reputation of the Gospel?

For example, we say that we stand for democracy. But what is the unspoken message we send out when we imprison people at Guantanamo and secretly put them in the hands of contract torturers, support coups in various countries, kill enemies and innocents by remote-control planes, fund dictators who support our policies but care little for their own people, and scandalously deny due process to immigrants? I believe it is time for American Christians to do a moral inventory and resolve to know more concretely what kind of blessing our country is to be in this world. Here's a simple step: ask the overseas missionaries your church supports to tell you frankly whether the USA enjoys the reputation of a blessing among the ordinary people of their host country.

(Friday PS: Some of the answers may shock people who are used to thinking of their country as world champions of goodness. The goodness is real: The high level of American private philanthropy, spontaneous and unforced, for mission and service overseas reveals much about our intentions. We may not literally be champions--if you combine private and public overseas assistance, plus remittances, the USA is in seventh place, not first place, measured by percentage of gross national income, according to the Hudson Institute (PDF)--but that is not my main point. Americans want to be a blessing; American private overseas development assistance substantially exceeds public assistance. But I suspect that we ordinary citizens are blissfully unaware of the ways our intentions are undercut by our official, often secret support of oppression elsewhere.)

A related second question: what is engagement? To our credit, the USA helped create almost all of the international mechanisms to which Robert Wright refers in his column. But the resources we devote to these channels is microscopic compared to what we give the Pentagon. Back in 2008, Nicholas Kristof quoted U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates in the New York Times:

"One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win," Mr. Gates said. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps — about 6,500 people — is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service.

"It simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs," Mr. Gates said. "As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators."

In the same column, Kristof goes on to make a fascinating comparison of the way different forms of engagement deal with terrorism:

A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.

"There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," the report declares. "Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended."

Part of the problem with military and other coercive forms of engagement, aside from their problematic morality and enormous expense, is that they are so often used reactively. Even when they anticipate an actual crisis, they respond to perceived threats. We need to increase those modes of engagement that build a whole new global constituency for peace--in part by making sure that our countries, races, professions, academies, businesses, and faith communities are so widely scattered and interlinked that future "enemies" really have to work hard for that designation. And when a politician says to us, "We need to defeat the enemy," it should become second nature for Christians to reply, "OK, what's the most effective way to love them?"

In the real world, real enemies--who, for whatever reason, are truly organized to do us harm--will appear. Evil is a reality; it will continue to take prisoners and subvert them into behaving in deadly ways, even though we know that the people who have fallen in this way are not themselves any less loved by God than we are. As we expand our understanding of "security" and "engagement" beyond the limited coercive alternatives we're usually presented, I'm particularly fascinated by the question of how the worldwide Body of Christ will rise up and respond in such situations. I cannot believe that hundreds of millions of people committed to prayer and to each other will be helpless in the face of organized evil. But we have a lot of conversations, a lot of redefinitions, and a lot of evangelistic work ahead of us before that day arrives. Time to get to work

The "carrot from hell" refers to a quotation from Mary Grunte that I mentioned in a blog post last summer: "The illusion of control is the carrot from hell."

Misha Roshchin, senior researcher in Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and longtime clerk of Moscow Meeting, was interviewed as part of Russia's First Channel network's coverage of the Tunisian crisis. Program transcript (Russian) and link to video here; Google translation of article here.

Is mainstream coverage of Tunisia biased in the direction of "Secular good, Muslim bad"?

MaryKate Morse: "How women plant churches."

Taizé offers a "Pilgrimage to Moscow."

Praying for Haiti--one year later.

Honoring Martin Luther King in Russian: Elena Preobrazhenskaya on "Martin Luther King's Nonviolent Resistance."

Don't count the cost!! "A most misunderstood parable."

Friends Girls School's arguably most famous alumna, Hanan Ashrawi, writes in the International Herald Tribune to remind us that those settlements so often caught up in diplomatic tugs-of-war are still illegal.

Buddy Guy in a particularly expansive mood--


Mindful Searcher said...

The demons we fight are largely of our own making, and we have failed to learn the lessons of the past. The only lasting peace is that which grows from mutual respect and justice tempered by mercy. Reliance on force of arms proves our weakness, not our strength. Thanks for your insightful post.

Micah Bales said...

Thank you for this post, Johan. I appreciate in particular your recognition that the role of the evangelist is not only to promote individual conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, but also to nurture a worldwide community where Christ's Reign exists as a tangible reality - peace and security grounded in God's self-sacrificial love, not in the sword.

Micah Bales
The Lamb's War

RantWoman said...

Friend speaks my mind.

THANK YOU for a global single standard of truth perspective.

Chris M. said...

Late to the party: Yes, yes, hear, hear!

How can we get YOUR columns in the NY Times (paper or blog)? :)