"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Roots of Hope

At the root of hope is the sense not just that our world can get better in a quantitative way, i.e. that we can obtain more of the things that currently seem to satisfy us, but that there are fulfillments that we cannot imagine that wait for us to become worthy of. Often it is our own lack of imagination that limits our ability to achieve this worthiness. Conservatives tend to view hope as hope for more of the things of this world - Christians see hope as hatred of this world in favor of an as-yet-unimaginable fulfillment that makes these seem petty and worthless.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hope and Fantasy

Even by their own admission, conservatives, both in religion and politics, offer no hope for a just social future. What they offer, and suggest we should trim our expectations within, are endless doses of more of what we have today. Let our eyes be turned to another world if we want true satisfaction. This world can offer nothing but further refinements and variations on what we see before us at this instant. In the words of Ecclesiastes: "I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and what vanity it all is, what chasing of the wind! What is twisted cannot be straightened, what is not there cannot be counted."

Yet there is a voice in us that cannot be silenced. Much as we might acknowledge the "tragic wisdom" of conservatism, and as heavy as it is with signs of ultimacy, we cannot accept it as ultimate and remain living creatures of a living God. "If Paul calls death the 'last enemy', then the opposite is also true: that the risen Christ, and with him the resurrection hope, must be declared to be the enemy of death and of a world that puts up with death. Faith takes up this contradiction and thus becomes itself a contradiction to the world of death. That is why faith, where it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It doesn not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present." Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope.

Those who tell us we must accept violence and war, "traditional" Christians as they may be, stumble into telling us that the world as it is cannot be changed fundamentally, that there is nothing to hang our hope from this unfulfilled present on. In fact, they are at home in a world whose violence does not affect them, or so they believe. This "acceptance" is actually assigned to the victims of our violence who must quell their hopes as the Iraqis have been forced to do. If they are surrounded by barbarians on all sides, do we not all share complicity in their fate?

The recent speech by Barack Obama encapsulates the hidden hopelessness that animates this "traditionalism": "The problem is not that the philosophy of this administration is not working the way it's supposed to work; the problem is that it is working the way it's supposed to work. They don't believe -- they don't believe that government has a role in solving national problems because they think government is the problem. They think that we're better off if we just dismantle government; if, in the form of tax breaks, we make sure that everybody's responsible for buying your own health care and your own retirement security and your own child care and your own schools, your own private security forces, your own roads, your own levees."

They don't believe in the common good, the notion that we must hope not only for our individual futures, but that there is a social dimension to our hope which we cannot detach anymore than we can detach our skins. This relates directly to the war in Iraq since so much of the criticism of the war is not based on compassion for the Iraqi people - one of the rarest sentiments available in media today - but on the loss of the sense of obligation to others. If we can't be immediately successful in bringing the blessings of flat-tax "democracy" to Iraq, then we quit. Whatever is not instantly successful in creating economic wealth for individuals and corporations is a failure that should be abandoned. We have universal obligations, but an administration such as this can't even conceive of the true nature of such obligations, much less carry them out effectively. The world they would create has individual hope, but no social hope. Were their policy to succeed, that would be the real tragedy because it would imply that they are right to destroy our hope in a just social order. Our opposition to these policies and to the war must lay on a deeper basis. We must base our opposition not on hopelessness, but on hope. "That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope." Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope. Let us pray that hope never dies in the heart of the Iraqi people.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Kingdom of Heaven

The kingdom of heaven grows from the soil of our hope. Christians have often been told that true humility is the acceptance of things as they are, that to aspire to change the world is to despise the gifts of God. In fact, true love of the gift means to love what one has been given so much that one wishes to eliminate what mars it and to see so deeply into it that one sees more than what lies fixed within our undeveloped perceptions of it. To love what is without faith is to try to love the frozen expanse that sin has etched on the face of God's creation. To say with the marketers of savage capitalism that human nature cannot be weaned from its slavery to greed, that violence is endemic to technological progress, or that oppression is the price of comfort, is not to be content with one's lot. It is a cry of despair that no technological marvel will ever compensate, no multi-million dollar home ever solace.

War is the illusion of despair that whispers to us with aweful finality that violence can never be quelled except by more violence. Of course, we must be "realistic". Ultimately, the serpent whispers, it is the only way to stop the works of evil and depraved people.

The current episode in Iraq will one day be told from the perspective of a world which saw beyond the fearful clinging to "realism" which has resulted in the agonizing deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. That world will unfold the cynical hypocrisy of lust, which leads to the degradation of women in that country, both by the U.S. military and by Islamist rigidities which cling more desperately to the past the more dead it becomes. That world will uncover the desire for revenge writhing beneath the smirks of soldiers stamping on the faces of those unfortunate enough to be born Arab and Muslim. Again, the serpent whispers, the depraved understand only violence and torture - you must learn the universal language.

What lurks behind the fundamentalist Christian drive to believe in a fixed, unalterable and utterly depraved human nature, a world order that makes irrational slaves subject to a spiritual dictator, makes literalist orthodoxy more important that the spirit of life that breathes through everything that God has made - is it not clear? We want a God that looks like us, that we can control, who stays within the boundaries we have made.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Rejoice Not in the Death of Anyone

Should your enemy fall, do not rejoice,
When he stumbles do not let your heart exult;
For fear that at the the sight Yahweh will be displeased
And turn his anger away from him.

Proverbs 24:17

State Terrorism

"These attacks on the homes of civilians in Iraq ... are designed to terrorize Iraqis into opposing the insurgency. Since the main activity of the occupation military in Iraq is to patrol hostile cities looking for a firefight, or enter homes to capture suspected insurgents, the policy of firing into people's homes is the centerpiece of that policy. Sadly, terrorism is the linchpin of U.S. military policy in Iraq." - What is the Significance of the Haditha Massacre? Michael Schwartz, ZNET, June 11, 2006.

It is time for Christians to take a larger and less naive perspective on events such as the massacre at Haditha. We have been bemoaning such atrocities since the first Indian massacres took place in the sixteenth century, though without the volume that such crimes deserved. However, with each act of cruelty and slaughter, the memory of the last one is erased, and attempts to draw connections between them is denounced as "conspiracy theories." In fact, the conspiracy is quite open - even a cursory review of military statements reveal that terrorizing civilians in Iraq is government policy, yet somehow Christians seem incapable of drawing the necessary conclusions - that we are faced with structural sin, not merely individual sin. Structural sin doesn't have the same dramatic flair or the immediate sense of personal identification that individual sin has. It requires a different perspective and careful analysis, which most Christians do not see their faith calling them to.

The media strategy with regard to Haditha for the moment seems to be to incant the phrase "the jury is still out", or "let the investigation run its course". Their purpose is to keep our attention focused on the legal process rather than the moral issue involved in sending troops to violently occupy a country. By keeping our attention on the inconclusiveness of the investigation, they accomplish two goals: 1) To dull the impact of the killings by placing them within a cloud of legal uncertainty. The attention span for most atrocities currently is around three or four news days. The investigation will obviously not reach a conclusion before attention has moved to other subjects. This is the same strategy they used successfully with Abu Ghraib. 2) To remove the story from the political/moral realm to the realm of the legal. This is done so that questions about the power and legitimacy of the military agents that would undermine the administration's role are displaced by procedural questions about the acts themselves. This allows them to diffuse the moral outrage provoked by these acts by diverting inquiry into legal ambiguities that substitute for the moral inquiry we should be conducting.

The result will be that the state's legitimacy in carrying out the occupation will be reinforced. The dues of moral outrage will be paid, but the massacre's impact diffused by constantly focusing on the legal procedures of investigation. Since only the state can guarantee the legitimacy of the investigative process, it's authority will be increased and the requirement that it remain in Iraq sustained. The most important mission of the media is to ensure that questions about whether the occupation itself inevitably leads to "atrocity-producing situations" are successfully repressed.

In the next few weeks, attention will focus on the question of whether the soldiers followed the "rules of engagement." The media will convoke round tables and discussion to keep the legal issue firmly at the center of public attention. The same rules that allow women and children to be killed by the tens of thousands in Iraq will be manipulated to enhance the authority of the murderers.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Mystery of Haditha

Over the past five days I have been meditating on Haditha and reliving the war crimes of Vietnam in the just re-released "Winter Soldier", in which Vietnam veterans recount the war crimes they participated in and witnessed. Soldiers in both Iraq and Vietnam were driven by the same overwhelming powers, powers which require that the human soul be degraded in order to justify its conquest. Since it is the purpose of this blog to situate the events of the U.S. war in the Middle East within a larger political and spiritual perspective, I'd like to begin this week's meditation with a quote from Roger Williams in the 1600s, reflecting on the systematic massacre of the Indians by the Puritans, where he described the motivating force as "... a depraved appetite after the great vanities, dreams and shadows of the this vanishing life, great portions of land, land in this wilderness, as if men were in as great necessity and danger for want of great portions of land, as poor, hungry, thirsty seamen have, after a sick and stormy, a long and starving passage. This is one of the gods of New England, which the living and most high Eternal will destroy and famish."

The spirit of this blog, at its best, is, I hope, the spirit that spoke through Roger Williams in this passage. The true Christian voice has always been here in America, even as the massacres were being carried out while "praising God" and bearing his cross around the neck. What was so striking about the testimony of the soldiers in "Winter Soldier" was the palpable sense of spiritual cleansing that radiated from them as they confessed the crimes that they had committed and been conditioned into committing. Once we admit who and what we have become, then we are free to receive Christ's healing grace. That is why this voice is here - it is the constant cry of confession of our internal and external violence. Those who have tried to justify the Haditha massacre, which in reality represents a whole series of depredations on the Iraqi people, have stifled the healing that might have taken place. A great healing is on the way, but there must first be a wave of repentance, a renunciation of the hunger for the "great vanities" and a recognition that it is by our own hands that much of the earth remains engrossed in the vanities of our creation.

This spiritual cleansing can release the oppressor from his oppression, a part of God's compassion for the sinner that rarely gets mentioned by either the right-wing that strives to excuse murder or the left that concentrates exclusively on the victim. In the words of Jurgen Moltmann, "Guilt without the experience of atonement leads to the repression of guilt, to the compounding of injustice, and to the compulsion to repeat the injust act. Unless his guilt is forgiven the guilty person cannot live...Since no one can live with guilt over injustice and violence, because it is unendurable, and since it cannot be got rid of through repression, or by pushing it off on to someone or something else, the person concerned 'has forfeited the right to live', as people use to say. Even if the person is never punished, he never finds the strength to affirm a life that has personally been so negated."

So how is soldier who gave way in a moment of unendurable frustration and constant dehumanization and murdered women and children to be healed? Again Moltmann: "God suffers injustice and violence as an injury to his love because, and in so far as, he holds fast to his love for the unjust and the person who commits violence. So his love must overcome his anger by 'reconciling itself' to the pain it has caused. This is what happens when God 'carries' or 'bears' the sins of his people." The soldiers who committed this massacre can only receive Christ's healing power if we allow them to face their guilt. The cruelest possible act for Iraqis and Americans alike is to deny their (and our) responsibility - to pretend that it was only a mistake or an isolated psychological aberration. Such denial of responsibility ends the healing process and encases the perpetrators in their lifeless guilt.