10 May 2018

Iran, biblical realism, and perpetual war (old posts remixed)


A new day, a new crop of ominous headlines. Iran, Israel, and Syria are featured prominently, not for the first time. We get a glimpse into U.S. involvement in Niger. (By the way, what other country has an "Africa Command"?) Saudi Arabian air strikes hit central Sana'a, Yemen. The world waits to see how North Korea will play its nuclear chips in upcoming negotiations. (Will they really agree to an honest denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and will the USA also agree to the exact same condition?)

The first time I offered the following Bible study on perpetual war, it was early in Barack Obama's presidency, but I saw little to change as I checked it over for today's post. As a case study, I've drawn from another post -- this time on Iran -- still within Obama's first term. It's all for one purpose: to remind us that the powers and principalities seem organized around perpetual war. Followers of the Prince of Peace need to continue our prayerful vigilance. We need to learn to live, worship, testify, play, resist, create, heal, and celebrate in the unsentimental assurance and joy of biblical realism.

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.

The case of Iran 
(from "Idealism and realism: the case of Iran")

It's hard to imagine a crazier policy proposal for the U.S. government than to initiate or support an attack on Iran, but some Israeli sources say that their country has already been given a tacit go-ahead by U.S. president Obama. Others, while skeptical of success, feel that hot rhetoric is fueling a war-momentum that may become hard to resist. Our own Friends lobby in the USA, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, is urging us to help legislators resist this rhetoric and support legislation that prioritizes diplomacy.

With all the enthusiasm for war that features prominently in U.S. political life these days, it took a comedian and his fake news program (Daily Show [updated] link) to expose the opportunism behind so much of this truculence on all sides, and to call on everyone to calm down. A calmer atmosphere might help us all to consider some of the complex sides of the concern about Iran:
  1. Hawks! Remember Robert McNamara's first lesson of war ("Empathize with your enemy") and ask yourself what the world looks like from Iran's perspective. The nations that have the power to destroy Iran have (a) nuclear weapons, and (b) pre-emptive-strike defense doctrines. Furthermore, Americans and Israelis don't even question that we and our nuclear weapons and angry politicians are self-evidently on the side of the angels. In other words, no other country can justify having the kind of defenses against us that we maintain against them. Is our use of drone assassin airplanes, our falsely-hyped war against Iraq, our support for dictators whenever convenient, and Israel's peremptory and often lethal occupation policies, consistent with this angelic assessment of ourselves? Аre we as trustworthy as we want our adversaries to be? If not, why should Iran be weaker or more angelic than us -- simply because might makes right?
  2. Doves! The case is not at all clear that Iran wants nuclear weapons, even though its main proclaimed enemy, Israel, already has them. Nuclear weapons are hard to build, hard to deploy, hard to store, and extremely hard to deliver! -- and that's not even considering the political cost of having them. However, what if it's true? What if Iran's leaders don't simply want to get the theoretical capacity to develop weapons eventually (something every medium-sized power in a hostile neighborhood would probably like, rightly or wrongly) -- what if they actually want the weapons and are crazy enough to deploy them? Our analysis as disciples of the Prince of Peace can certainly be based on nonviolence, but it should never be based on wishful thinking. What do idealists concretely do in the actual presence of evil?
  3. Presidential nominee candidates say that the time for talk is over. Is it, however, true (as the FCNL FAQ sheet for Iran asserts) that "U.S. and Iranian officials have reportedly spent a grand total of 45 minutes in direct, one-on-one talks in more than 30 years"? [Update: recent FCNL statement.] There is a strange political and intellectual laziness -- or maybe it is cowardice -- in official U.S. circles about vigorously pursuing high-level contacts with Iran in favor of trying to guess what their official pronouncements really mean. (See "The first rule of gracious correspondence.") Maybe there are secret communications all the time, but communication that does not influence public perceptions and rhetoric eventually is useless.
I'd like to see more proposals along the lines of Thomas Buonomo's "green energy" proposal for Iran -- offering a blessing to Iran that has the added advantage of offsetting (or challenging) Iran's nuclear-fuel option. This proposal alone is hardly enough to calm down war fever, but it is the sort of proposal that can remind us what's at stake and that we're not trapped! The search for alternatives to war should get as much enthusiasm and resources as are devoted to promoting war--in fact, more.

This post has grown far too long. Instead of my usual batch of righteous links, I'd like to recommend one site that has been a reliable resource for my permanent war watch: Tomdispatch.com.

With that, let's go directly to music ... another repost.

"Clothes Line" is a song we'll probably never use for a classroom gap-fill exercise! (Historical background on this song here, but Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have made it their own; I've never seen them not perform this song.)


Greg Robie said...

"…what you mean, jelly bean. Your credit didn't go through."

In addition to all that is encompassed in this "mix", considering that trade between societies is functionally non-violent warfare, i.e., that we cannot NOT be perpetually at war [with the doing of justice, lovingly mercy, and walking humbly in the name of good]. Doesn't limited liability law enabled CapitalismFail with the systemic debt-slavey of its credit-based currencies pre-ordain such social dynamics? I have found this insight an opening that constitutes a better lens for seeing the truth of our condition regarding our devotion to total warfare.

Looking afresh with this as our condition, doesn't our trust in GREED-as-go[]d become less hidden in plain sight? Doesn't a pursued and comforting privileged piety become less deniable as, through a glass darkly, we are confronted by the view that Apostate-R-Us?

Peak conventional oil is peak credit. We are on the cusp of the [irresponsible] privileged going through a death of god experience … and, isn't this just?

Johan Maurer said...

"Wrap it up, while you got it here on hand."

I guess I'm not sure that trade is always warfare, even between groups. However, I can see that the tendency to gain advantage through concealment and espionage increases the chances of conflict even in an ostensibly fair exchange.

In a trustworthy governance environment, limited liability doesn't prevent redress of grievances; it presumably encourages a deliberate distribution of risk. Without corporations, individual tycoons would limit risk in other ways -- through corruption and intimidation, for example. The threshold of success would be higher, maybe, but no less risky for society as a whole.

In the current unstable situation, maybe there's a silver lining. The imperial system was always unsustainable in the long run; maybe Trump is subjecting the system to unexpected stresses sooner than might otherwise have happened. The USA has played a stabilizing role in the global ecology, both as enforcer and as scapegoat. (Some countries used us in both roles simultaneously.) Trump's private letter to Middle East leaders may have helped expose this role and all the pretensions supporting it. However, I expect that the USA's demotion will be gradual and messy. The networks that made global trade fairer and less warlike are being disrupted, and there's almost no global actor other than, arguably, Pope Francis, arguing effectively for humane values.