States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.~ Noam Chomsky
States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.~ Noam Chomsky
Here is a lecture from Binghamton University on April 2, 2008.
>Consider this post to be like one of those emails with a subject line something like “Fwd: Fdw: Fdw: YOU MUST SEE THIS.” You know the one you think you are going to delete but then end up reading and then are glad you did.
I offer a slight warning: If you are an American – meaning a citizen of the U.S.A. (as I am) and not the many millions of others living in the Americas – don’t be put off by the fact that the video comes from the Socialism 2009 conference. I say this not merely because you shouldn’t be afraid (a tendency in this country) of political/economic ideologies that are both more democratically minded as well as more committed to social justice & equality than our own current system, but because John Pilger is one of the finest journalists in the world today and has been for many years. His take on Obama, American exceptionalism, propaganda, and current trends is wonderful and, I think, hits the nail of the head.
It is difficult for me to listen to Pilger because he describes exactly what I knew I was going to get when I voted for Obama. I voted with my pragmatist’s hat on, voting against McCain and excited to see change. But I knew in my heart I would not see real change. I knew all that was fundamentally wrong with our current military industrial system, our socioeconomic structures, and our hierarchies of power within and without the borders of this country would remain the same and probably reinforced. That is what we have in Obama, a better politician and president than we have had the previous eight years, but also the same. On the other hand I love hearing Pilger say what needs to be said and to do so in a way U.S. journalists rarely can.
One of the truest clichés is that war is hell.
Today is 65 years since Operation Overlord began – also known as D-Day. This day stands as one of the great moments of triumph in the wars of good versus evil that are seared into our consciousness. I have always viewed the actions of the soldiers who landed on the beaches to be nothing short of heroic, and I still do, but I am burdened by the casualties from the event. I wrote a post recently on my attitude towards war and I must confess I have difficulties bringing together my hatred of war and my thanks for the heroes of D-Day.
Consider the casualties from Operation Overlord. This is taken directly from Wikipedia and it bears reading and pondering:
The cost of the Normandy campaign had been high for both sides. From D-Day to 21 August the Allies had landed 2,052,299 men in northern France. The Allies lost around 209,672 casualties from June 6 to the end of August, around 10 % of the forces landed in France. The casualties breaks down to 36,976 killed, 153,475 wounded and 19,221 missing. Split between the Army-Groups; the Anglo-Canadian Army-Group suffered 16,138 killed, 58,594 wounded and 9,093 missing for a total of 83,825 casualties. The American Army-Group suffered 20,838 killed, 94,881 wounded and 10,128 missing for a total of 125,847 casualties. To these casualties it should be added that no less then 4,101 aircrafts were lost and 16,714 airmen were killed in direct connection to Operation Overlord. Thus total Allied casualties rises to 226,386 men. 78 Free French SAS (Special Air Service) killed, 195 wounded in Brittany from 5 June to the beginning of August. For Allied tank losses there are no direct number. A fair estimate is that around 4,000 tanks were destroyed, of which 2,000 were fighting in American units.
The German casualties remains unclear. The estimates of the German casualties stretches from 288,000 men to 450,000 men. Just in the Falaise Gap the Germans lost around 60,000 men in killed, wounded and captured. The majority of the German casualties contained of POWs as nearly 200,000 were captured during the closure of the battle. The Germans committed around 2,300 tanks and assault guns to the battle in Normandy, and only around 100 to 120 were brought back across the Seine. The overwhelming majority of the German tanks destroyed were put out of action by the Allied airforce, while very few of the Allied tank losses were inflicted by the Luftwaffe.
19,860 French civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy, and an even greater number were wounded. The number excludes the 15,000 civilians killed and the 19,000 wounded in the bombings of Normandy in preparation of the invasion. Many cities and towns in Normandy and northern France were totally devastated by the fighting and the bombings. As many as 70,000 French civilians may have been killed during the liberation of France in 1944.
These numbers are staggering. Keep in ming that is for less than two months of fighting and such losses are entirely unbelievable by today’s expectations.
D-Day is considered a great triumph. It was the first major stake through the heart of European fascism and Nazi ambitions. We use the words “saved the world from fascism” and “liberated Europe” when we talk about D-Day and its heroes. I have always had strong emotions about WWII and D-Day. The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan truly chokes me up. I spent hundreds of hours as a kid pouring over my WWII book collection, closely examining photographs, reading the stories, and wishing I had been there. However, D-Day can also be seen a part of a huge failure. A failure not merely because there where many political options not exercised by the Europeans and Americans all through the 1930s that could have dealt with the rise of Hitler and fascism and avoided war altogether, and not merely because one source of WWII was the WWI (the war to end all wars) which also could have been avoided but was entered into with relish by all sides, but D-Day is a failure because all war is failure. War is a powerful and profound testament of human evil. To seek war, whether from selfish ambition, glory, or even from a felt obligation is, to use an old but still valid term, sinful.
More than ever on days like this one, where we appropriately remember the sacrifices of so many human lives for causes that we believe in, I am in conflict. Should those soldiers have stormed the beaches in Normandy 65 years ago to save the world? Maybe not, for war is wrong. And yet they did and I am grateful they did. So today I will remember what those soldiers did and what they gave (in fact I am in awe of their service), but I will also remember and grieve the casualties on all sides, including the civilian casualties, and I will remember that the human tendency to war and glorify war is my tendency too because I am a sinner.
42 million people died as a result of war in the 20th century. 42 million. And that’s only military deaths.*
War is evidence of something else. That something else has everything to do with what was in the heart of Cain as he slew his brother. That thing that war is, that indivisible characteristic, is the deeply felt need to use violence, even murder, as a means to achieve ends – certain or uncertain. War is the violent extension of the human heart’s corruption – a corruption that produces pride, envy, condemnation, selfishness, self loathing, and a host of other sins. Intrinsic to that characteristic is the justification of war. Possibly to oversimplify, violence and its justification is war.
As a Christ follower I cannot support war. Nor can I fully support any government that uses violence to achieve its ends, even if those ends may somehow benefit me. And I cannot celebrate with that government and participate in it nationalistic liturgies in glorifying the deaths of those who died carrying out such violence. But I can remind myself of how much people have suffered under the brutal hand of war. And I can still be amazed at the personal sacrifices so many individual soldiers have made.** I wrote about this last year.
A survey of history shows the human tendency to make war. Not only that, but to glory in war. Not only that, but to love war – and then be shocked at its brutality. When God points to Jesus on the cross and says that’s my attitude toward sin (just to throw in a little Christian theology here) it’s as if humankind said alright we’ll do that – and then set about to recreate that bloody crucifixion and kill and torture as many people as possible. When Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these you do to me, humanity seems to have largely shrugged its shoulders and gone on to other things – like justifying war and creating war heroes.
There is nothing good about war. Even victory is a tragedy. In deeply profound and unavoidable ways all wars throughout all of history have been grave failures. War is truly good for nothing.
Of course we are always looking for ways to find nobility in war making. We have our war heroes and give them medals, even if we often refuse to look directly at what they did to get those honors, and then go on to ignore many of their long lasting war-related troubles (physical, mental, spiritual). But there is no nobility in war. When we celebrate such “holidays” as memorial day (formerly known as decoration day) we must keep in mind the tragic nature of those days. Memorial day is not a day of celebration but of grieving. If you take the time to remember the fallen this memorial day, if you put out a flag as we do, do so not to praise but to weep.
We know blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, But also, blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Let us stop praising war and the war makers and start being people of peace.
* The number is much higher, closer to 200 million, if we consider any deaths by mass unpleasantness including genocide, tyranny, civilian deaths in war, and man made famines – all of which can be considered war.
** I have always been someone drawn to war and its stories. I love good war movies and novels. As a child I was fascinated with the machines of war. If a fighter jet flies overhead I cannot help but stare in awe. I also have relatives who fought in wars and relatives who are currently in the military. To not praise war and to not celebrate those who wage war is an unnatural act for me, but it is and act I am obligated to make.
In this debate I side with the pacifists, although I might prefer the term “active non-violence” rather than pacifism – though they are two sides of the same coin.
I have been thinking a great deal about non-violence, pacifism, the example of Jesus (and many of the things he said), and the idea/reality of the Kingdom of God. I am haunted by the idea that I should be living a life entirely committed to such things. That I should be living peacefully, non-violently, lovingly, and mercifully. I am to love my neighbor. I am to love my enemy. I am to lay down my life for others. I am to seek God’s kingdom and live in light of what that kingdom stands for.
So what do I do with the fact that I live in a flag-waving, war loving, gun toting, patriotic nation that is supposedly built on biblical principles and calls professional soldiers heroes but underfunds education and healthcare, while maintaining the world’s most powerful and advanced military industrial complex? Should my money go to such a system? I don’t know. I want to be wise and not foolish. Ironically, I started out more or less conservative in my youth and am now becoming more and more “radical” in my middle age. I say radical because I want to avoid strictly politicized terms. I am not specifically liberal or conservative. I think the truth hovers above such dichotomies. The call of Jesus is far more radical than any political system can accommodate.
Christianity in the U.S. is rather varied, but one faction gets a lot of attention – the conservative evangelical fundamentalists. They are outspoken, politically to the right, and flag waving – sometimes with really big flags. They are also typically in support of the current war on terror and the wars against the Iraqi and Afghan peoples. They also, generally, support torture when used to ensure the uninterrupted continuation their own quiet suburban neighborhoods (read “keep America safe”). But they are not the only Christians who support war and soldiering. The U.S. is a war loving culture and most Christians support, yea even glorify, war and soldiers. Frequently the Bible is brought in to support the this position.
One of the scriptural foundations for supporting the U.S. military and its mythologies is a biblical passage in which some soldiers come to that famous Palestinian, John the Baptist and ask what they should do and John doesn’t say “leave the army.” Many Christians would say that John is merely counseling these soldiers to be good, moral soldiers while they do their soldiering because being a soldier is still a fine, even noble profession. That is an interpretation that fits nicely with our own mythological understanding of the soldier as the duty bound exemplar of personal sacrifice for the sake of a higher good.
But John is, in fact, not saying be a good soldier, or even a righteous soldier. He is calling for repentance and fundamental righteousness – not a righteousness filtered and conformed to the needs of a profession. What John tells these soldiers fundamentally contradicts what their particular soldiering is all about. If they do as he says they will face a contradiction that will force them to chose Christ or soldiering. But that contradiction does not emerge from a conflict of piety versus profession, rather it emerges from a convicted heart in the midst of a fallen world.
The Bible passage is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3:12-14 in the New American Standard translation:
And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
The scene is of John the Baptist preaching and baptizing seekers and converts coming to him at the Jordan river. He is calling for their repentance and with that in view the tax collectors and the soldiers ask the above questions. Keep that in mind, John has just called for repentance and it’s the tax collectors and soldiers that are the ones who, as distinctly identified groups in the text, are mentioned. Why?
The tax collectors and the soldiers worked for the imperial/colonial power. They worked for Rome. The tax collectors took the taxes on behalf of Caesar, which is one of the reasons to have an empire in the first place, and the soldiers were the brutal military presence required for empire. The tax collectors were required to collect whatever Rome demanded and then made their living by demanding more. It was a perk of the job and many tax collectors could get quite wealthy. If they did not demand more than what was required they would live very meager existences. Soldiers, who were officially paid a very meager yearly salary (some say $45 per annum, which was extremely low even in those days) made their fortunes by claiming the spoils of war. Typically the spoils were given to the commander who then evenly distributed them to his troops. In both cases tax collectors and Roman soldiers made their living by taking more than what they were either ordered to take or by dividing up what was taken by force. This was the accepted system that both provided their living and supported the domination of the region and its people. This system was endemic to the very nature of Roman imperialism.
We know that Rome was a mean ruler of its empire. Judging by our recent history (as well as from the British Empire, the French in Algeria & Indochina, the U.S. in Latin America, but especially now in Iraq) we can surmise the tax collectors and soldiers of Rome were critical elements in keeping the colonized subdued and oppressed enough so as to cut to the quick any attempts at insurrection. Life was hard under Roman rule and the tax collector and soldiers made sure it would stay that way, but in order for tax collecting and soldiering to be viable professions then tax collectors and soldiers would have to take more than they were required to take and to do so by force.
I believe there were at least three reasons why tax collectors and soldiers were called out as distinct groups in the passage above. 1) To Luke’s readers the repentance of these groups would have been particularly significant. 2) The members of these groups would have been particularly convicted by John’s message of repentance. 3) John’s specific messages to these two groups calls them to live righteously which, by implication, challenges the very existence of their professions and the empire which they serve.
John does not directly say all tax collecting or all soldiering is wrong (at least at first glance and with our modern assumptions). But he also does not say anything in support of either. Rather than say to quit their jobs he merely says don’t do those things in your job you rationalize but know are immoral. Of course that’s like telling a politician not to lie. At some point a crisis will emerge and one will have to decide to choose the status quo or what is right. A politician who refuses to lie will eventually be crucified on the altar of politics.
Tax collecting and soldiering for Rome had at their very roots in rationalizations of immorality. John was not interested in followers who made surface choices only to regret them later. He wanted heart changes that would then have more visible and social evidences as a natural consequence of the heart change. He focused on the heart of his listeners because he knew the rest would follow. He did not have to say don’t collude with Rome or don’t work for the empire. All he had to say was repent and be committed to righteousness.
One could then draw a conclusion: To be either a tax collector or a soldier in support of an empire is ultimately a choice for unrighteousness. If this is what John is saying then we can also draw the conclusion that the ministry and message of John was both spiritual (of the inner person) and political (of the social relations we create and inhabit). For the Christian this has great significance. The implication is that there are many things we will have to give up if we are to truly repent – truly repent as the most existential of all radical, life changing, loving choices we make – precisely because we find there are no other possible choices. We may have to give up our professions, our security, our apparent good standing in society, and much of what we cling to. But there is no formula for sorting it out. If we follow John’s command then we begin with repentance. What this leaves us with is the difficult fact that there are no easy answers, or maybe it’s better to say there are no easy choices – something John’s tax collectors and soldiers were just finding out.
As a final note I must say that I have not sorted all this out for myself either. I have not gone so far as to stop paying taxes or to stand in protest outside the federal building. I also still love a good war movie, I am still amazed at the courage of many soldiers, and I still get emotional when I hear the Star Spangled Banner. But I don’t like saying the pledge of allegiance very much or saluting the flag. I find being a U.S. citizen to be rife with contradictions. But I find the same thing within myself as well.
The other night I introduced my daughters to the film version of West Side Story (1961). In so many ways this is a great film, not least of all because it is a great American sociological document of sorts. The story revolves around the big gang fight, or rumble. Everything leads up to it and then reacts to it. The rumble is not only the central event, but it also contains the key defining moment. That moment is the movement from wanting peace to using violence – the quintessential movement that produces the “how could this have happened” scenario.
Here’s how it plays out: The two gangs, Sharks & Jets, meet under the overpass to fight it out. What they are fighting about is really anyone’s guess – territory, honor, hormones, it’s hard to tell. Tony (a.k.a. Romeo), the former leader of the Jets, but now a guy with a job and a love interest (Maria, a.k.a. Juliet), shows up just as the rumble is getting started. He tries to stop the fight. He pleads, pushes gang member apart, gets mocked and hit, but to no avail.
Here he pleads with Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, to stop the rumble:
Bernardo has no interest in not fighting. He is there to fight. He calls Tony chicken. Tony is not phased by this. He lets the others mock him, but he cannot let them fight. But then, as Tony tries to keep Ice from fighting Bernardo, Riff strikes Bernardo in the face. The knives come out. Then Riff gets stabbed and killed by Bernardo. Tony, in a moment of rage, picks up the knife and lunges at Bernardo.
With almost identical angle and framing we go from an image moments earlier (the shot above) of attempted reconciliation to this moment on rage and murder:
Practicing peace is a conscious effort to form new habits as well as to engage one’s mind towards peaceful solutions. We not only live in a violent world, but we Americans are trained by our culture to think and behave violently. Our culture provides us with constant justifications for using violent means to “solve” our problems and deal with our enemies. Our country was formed through bloodshed, slavery was overcome through bloodshed, the Westward expansion was accomplished through bloodshed, and it goes on and on. We call heavily armed soldiers paroling the streets of other people’s countries “peacekeepers.” Our nuclear arms policy is “mutually assured destruction.” We believe we can establish democracy in various parts of the world at the end of a gun. These things are reported daily by our popular news outlets and rarely do we cringe. To live in such a world will inevitably train us into people who consider violence a normative option for achieving our goals. Violence is always “on the table” as our politicians are fond of saying – and it’s as old as Cain and Able. It doesn’t take much to encourage and reinforce the violence that is already in our hearts.
Peace is not a state of being as much as it is a way of life. Peace takes courage and creativity. The tragedy for so many people is that peace is something one hopes for after the dust has settled. But peace is not some languid, passionless rest. Peace is the activity of loving our neighbors as ourselves, of loving our enemies, of being servants, and of holding each other accountable. In a violent world peace requires thinking out of the box, out of bounds, charting unfamiliar territory, and being willing to keep asking questions that seem to have already been answered. Peace is something we need to practice everyday, both for today and for tomorrow. Tony did not practice peace and was unprepared at the moment he most needed a creative solution. More than that, he had not been working toward peace in his neighborhood all along. He had no foundation, no authority.
There is a moment late in the film when Doc asks the Jets, “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy.” And one of the Jets replies, “We didn’t make it, Doc.”
This line could be seen as an indictment of our society. In other words, how else could or should these kids behave when the world given to them is so lousy? But Doc, rather than being silent at that moment, could have answered, “No, we all make this world. With every choice and every action you are making this world just like the rest of us in this neighborhood. You can choose peace or violence, love or hate, but whatever you choose and whatever you do, you are making this world too.” Doc’s lack of a proper response indicts him as well in this mess. The real tragedy of West Side Story is the profound lack of wisdom from every character.
Using West Side Story to discuss the concept of practicing peace may seem a bit strange. West Side Story is a big , colorful, sappy, song and dance spectacle. It is nearly fifty years old and in many ways it is dated, though still a great evening of entertainment. However, sometimes watching films that are outside our own period make it easier to see what is going on. Storytellers rely on conflict to drive a story forward. In fact, I cannot think of a single film that does not have conflict somewhere in the story. Audiences lose interest quickly if there is no conflict. More than that, if there is great conflict with stunning violence and massive destruction, audience flock to the theaters. In West Side Story it is easy to think these characters should just get over it, move on, get jobs. It is easy to ask what is wrong with these kids, why don’t they stop fighting? But in films of our own period (think of all the blockbusters of the last ten years) it can be more difficult to see because we are enjoying them so much.