Tag Archives: America

America’s Unjust War

As I’ve detailed before, there are two major ways of thinking about wars.

Realists believe that war is a simple necessity, and must be handled realistically.  You will try to minimize civilian casualties, and try to obey international treaties, but you will do these things for realistic reasons: to minimize blowback and the creation of new terrorist groups, and to ensure further cooperation with world governments.  Henry Kissinger was very prominent and straightforward in aligning himself with this way of thinking.  If you watch movies like The Bourne Identity you will see this kind of thinking exemplified.

Idealists, on the other hand, hold that certain ideals are more important than these “realistic” concerns, whether these ideals are matters of tradition, religious belief, morality or hopes for the future.  These ideals will mediate the wartime activities the idealist will engage in, even when those activities would be advantageous from a realist perspective.  In the Christian tradition in particular, two forms of idealism have emerged: pacifism and the just-war tradition.

Christian just-war theorists hold to the ideal that God has revealed a moral code that applies not only to Christians but to all mankind, easily summarized as “love God, love others.”  Loving other can mean using force to defend victims from aggression, but also means loving the attacker in the process.  So where the just-war doctrine has flourished, the church has developed a tradition to make concrete what that means: it means things such as not intentionally killing non-combatants, making terms of surrender clearly known, using proportional force, using all possible means prior to using force, caring for surrendered and imprisoned enemy combatants, and so on.  Just-war theorists do not believe these concepts apply only to Christians, but that they are moral laws that apply to all humans, so just-war theorists have tried to persuade governments to adopt these as military policy, and to see these concepts embedding in laws and international treaties so that even realists will follow them, even though they do not share the Christian’s ideals.

Christian pacifists agree with all of the above ideals (that killing non-combatants is wrong, etc.) but in addition hold an ideal that Christians are called to imitate Christ specifically in his refusal to utilize violence against the injustice of the world, and rather to suffer on behalf of the world.  Christians pacifists will join with just-war theorists to call on their national governments to use just force, but do not see the nation as a force called to be pacifist in its own right.  From the pacifist perspective, only the church is a community capable of living nonviolently, because only the church recognizes that Christ is Lord.

All of this I take to be uncontroversial, though it is admittedly oversimplified. (John Howard Yoder wrote a short book entitled Nevertheless: Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism that identified and critiqued around thirty different forms of Christian pacifism; there is no way to speak for all at once.)  I take it to be uncontroversial that Christians, when confronted with the choice of participating in an unjust war or unjust action in war (even where the policy is not embedded in national or international law) has the duty to refuse that service.  What should be uncontroversial but is not is that the United States is currently ideologically committed to an unjust war: the so-called war on terror.

In the last two weeks a bill passed the Congress permitting the government to imprison U.S. citizens detained on U.S. soil indefinitely without trial if that person is suspected of being a terrorist.  Radical conservatives like Rand Paul and radical liberals like Denis Kucinich spoke out against the bill, but it passed overwhelmingly.  The language of the bill allows suspected terrorists to be held in military prisons without charges or trial, as enemy combatants, “until hostilities end.”  Meaning, until the “war on terror” is won.  So this is not merely a metaphor, like the war on drugs or the war on poverty.  This is an actual war with actual military agendas and actual wartime legislation.

And a war on terror cannot possibly be a just war.  A just war requires that the enemy be given terms they can meet in order to surrender, requires the possibility of surrender in the first place (who could surrender on behalf of “terror”?), requires proportional force, requires the capacity to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.  For these reasons, from a Christian moral perspective, terrorism has to be dealt with as a criminal issue, not a military one.  That could be justified, but this cannot.

As such, I feel that all Christians at this time are called to lay down arms and refuse to fight this unjust war.  Further, I feel that all Christians are called to come together to witness to the state the injustice of its actions, its ideology, its framing of this war.  This recent bit of legislation is just one example, but one that even realists can oppose for its realistically frightening implications.

What do you think?  Is the war on terror a war?  Can it be a just war?  At what point are Christians expected to allow their morals to dictate their loyalty to the nation?

Book Review: Migrations of the Holy by William T. Cavanaugh

I have read a staggering number of books that claim the subject “political theology.”  Many of these books fail at a fundamental level.  In attempting to allow Christians a voice in the public square, they “translate” particular Christian beliefs into a supposedly more “universal” language that all reasonable people should be able to attend to.  The reason such a move is considered necessary is because the nation-state is viewed as the agent through whom politics is done.  For many,  “to be political” means  to engage with the government.  For the church “to be political,” therefore, means for the church to attempt to influence elections and the actions of elected officials.

For some time many of us, and many authors of books categorized as political theology, have suspected that this is not quite right, but have been unable to put words to it.  Many books on political theology fail fundamentally because while they attempt to articulate a vision of the political relevance of the church, they are unable to break free from the assumption that at the end of the day the church is relevant – or not – insofar as she can influence secular government.

This is the myth that William T. Cavanaugh’s book Migrations of the Holy confronts and shatters.  The central argument of the book is that the apparent secularization of Western society is only apparent.  He says

In important ways, the United States has not really secularized at all.  What has happened instead is that in the modern era the holy has migrated from the church to the state. By this I do not mean that Christian evangelicals have an inordinate influence in the current administration. I mean that faith in the United States and in “secular” Western values can take on the status of a religious conviction, and the United States has assembled the largest military in history to propagate it. (112)

Cavanaugh pursues this central argument through a series of interconnected essays, examining a host of issues: American exceptionalism and America/democracy/freedom as an object of worship, relocating the just-war doctrine within the church rather than the state, the church’s perspective on national borders, the problem of the sinfulness of the church, the problem of the church’s history involving torture, and the best account I’ve seen yet of Augustine’s City of God in its application to contemporary political theology.

As a writer, Cavanaugh is visibly improving with each book he publishes, and I would confidently say that this is his best book yet from the standpoint of clarity and accessibility.  It ought to be satisfying to trained theologians, while 90% of the book is easily understandable to the average lay person.  And unlike some of his heavy-hitting books in the past, this one comes in at a quite achievable 198 pages.

If I have any criticisms of this book, I can only do so only because Cavanaugh raises both expectations and possibilities in the area of political theology with this book, but does not quite manage to achieve them.  It is without a doubt the best introduction to thinking politically about the church on the market.  That said, this is a collection of essays, and in a couple of places that shows.  The book lack a concluding essay or afterward, and feels like it just stops.  And while Cavanaugh offers some very tantalizing practical applications at points during the book, the implied promise never quite materializes, and the reader is left wondering, “So what now?” (The book I am tentatively outlining now is my proposed answer to that question.)

With all that said, I thank God for this book.  It is the book I will recommend to all of my friends when they ask for help understanding the political implications of the gospel.  I am eagerly awaiting critical reviews, and I can confidently predict that no theologian will be able to ignore the contents and presentation of this book.

Watch for it over the next couple of weeks as I plan to summarize each chapter critically here and push back a bit about the practical implications of Bill Cavanaugh’s ideas.

Why Does The National Anthem Matter?

A lot of folks in the U.S. are upset with Christina Aguilera for missing a step in singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl last Sunday.  As she was singing, she replaced one line with an earlier line, apparently realized it halfway through and changed the verb in the earlier line to the correct verb.  In short, not a difficult mistake to make.

But why is it so important?  American typically watch videos of celebrities screwing things up so they can laugh at them.  Celebrities screw things up all the time and we love it.  Why is it so different to screw up the national anthem?

Well, one difference is that the National Anthem is a ritual.  That is is a ritual is inarguable, however you interpret the ritual.  It is a ritual because it is enshrined in law how to act during the ritual.  The U.S. Flag Code states:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there. (src)

There are a number of ways this ritual can be understood.  I am convinced, following Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, that it is a totemic ritual.  In the imagery of the anthem, the flag stands as a totem or talisman of power, the presence of which guarantees that the British (in this case) cannot overcome the Americans.  As Marvin and Ingle put it in their Blood Sacrifice and the Nation,

During the British bombardment of 1814, Francis Scott Key was moved to model in poetry the flag’s endurance under fire. The battle for the death defying Star-Spangled Banner was ritualized as a creation-sacrifice guaranteeing the nation for eternity and illuminated by the regenerative dawn.

Now, I think Marvin and Ingle go too far, and rely too much on Weber’s account of a sociology of religion.  They argue not that Key meant this, historically, but that sociologically this is what his lyrics must have meant.  I reject that kind of social science.   Nevertheless, I do think their basic reading of the ritual is right: “The patriotic statement that Americans are an unconquerable people, common at times of totem peril, is a deadly serious statement of totem faith. The totem wards off evil and protects from harm.”

That is why it is a grave sacrilege for Christina Aguilera to flub a line.

As an iconoclastic Christian, I of course do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem.  But looking at the legal structure of the ritual, I wonder if standing is not as much a part of the ritual as singing.  Many of my fellow iconoclasts and “Jesus Radicals” say that they stand, not out of fidelity to the nation but out of respect to those around them, but now I am rethinking that.

What do you think?  Is the performance of the national anthem a ritual Christians should distance themselves from?  If so, is standing an important part of the ritual?  What do you do?  If not, how do you understand the ritual of the national anthem in a way that is not problematic for Christians?