The Taser's Edge


The Distillation of War

Last night, NBC released a 16-page document from the Justice Department, which laid out the legal arguments for killing a US citizen who has connections to Al-Qa’ida. As NBC’s Michael Isikoff reported it:

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S….

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration  officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s  Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence.

And from the DOJ white paper itself:

Under the traditional due process balancing analysis of Mathews v. Eldridge [Ed.: see here or here], we recognize there is no private interest more weighty than a person’s interest in his life. But that interest must be balanced against the United States’ interest in forestalling the threat of violence and death to other Americans that arises from an individual who is a senior operational leader of al-Q’aida or an associated force of al-Q’aida and who is engaged in plotting against the United States.

In the past, President Obama has given an overtly theological vision of how he approaches statecraft, going so far as to name the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. So here is Reinhold Niebuhr, from his 1937 Beyond Tragedy (with the quotation and a bit of the immediately following analysis drawn from Mac McCorkle’s “Why the Left Needs to Read Up on Reinhold Niebuhr”): “Without the statesman who uses power to correct the injustices of power, we might allow the vision of the Kingdom of Christ to become a luxury of those who can afford to acquiesce in present injustice because they do not suffer from it.”

The problem, even when holding to Niebuhr, is that Niebuhr’s vision of the statesman’s use of power is balanced by his vision of the prophet who continually calls for the just use of the state’s power. Today, Obama has no prophets who actually have his ear, although he does have several who do not have his ear (as Cornel West well knows, and as others–both libertarians and progressives finding themselves in the same boat, if they are honest–could also tell you).

My own wondering, however, is not whether Obama will ever listen to his prophets. Stranger things have happened, and they have always been miracles of grace unforeseen (although not unhoped and unprayed for).

I wonder, instead, whether in this present war of technology, in which we often conceive of the rise of drone and other remote warfare as the dehumanization of war, it might actually be the re-humanization of war.

Might war actually be being purified by the use of  a list of names of particular human individuals which cross the president’s desk so he can personally decide who to spare and who to kill? Might war be being distilled when the drone operator is given not just a set of coordinates on which to drop a bomb from 9,000 feet (about as low as a B-29 ever regularly flew) but a home address or a description of a personal vehicle or a description of a single human being?

Perhaps alongside calling this a distillation or purification of war, we could also call it an unmasking of war. War is one individual and particular human being personally deciding on a good enough reason to kill another individual and particular human being.

War’s beginning to feel a lot like murder.



(Yet) A(nother) Response to Ross Douthat

Part I: A Furious Few Days in One Small Corner of the Interwebs:

The article that kicked it off:

The responses that rolled in:

And finally, far less Facebook-ed:

 

Part II: My Own Response

The worst of the responses to Douthat have failed to hear his argument. To be clear, contra Uffman and Butler Bass, he is NOT making the decades-old evangelical argument that the American mainline churches’ drop in attendance since the Cold War era is due to those churches’ lack of Christian conviction, values, faithfulness, etc. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention (shrinking symbol of American evangelicalism) leads with that argument any more.

The heart of Douthat’s op-ed instead comes at its end:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.

The only response that I have read that really hears this final point is AKM Adams. And it’s on this point that Douthat is completely right.

Part III: An Oddly Illustrative Juxtaposition

During my time at Duke Divinity, I served a year-long internship at a rural North Carolina United Methodist Church. Other populations have their Rotary or Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, but rural North Carolinians have the Ruritan Club. Members get together a couple times or more each month, eat well, raise funds for various causes, sometimes join together in volunteer opportunities.

Almost every active member of the church was a Ruritan (or the spouse of a Ruritan), and almost every active Ruritan was an active member of one of the local churches. The two populations were virtually interchangeable, but what this meant is that the church could have no discipleship-oriented activities, service projects, classes, small groups, Bible studies, or worship services while the Ruritans were meeting or having an event.

For the lay and previous pastoral leadership of this particular congregation, this was not a problem. My own read is that this was not a conflation (as one might want to assume unfairly of rural North Carolinians) of being a good American and being a Christian. The conflation was between being a person who cared for others and being a Christian.

They are not the same.

Part IV: An Old Hope
The Episcopal Church in particular, but also other mainline denominations such as the UCC, as well as parts of the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ELCA (and sorry if I’m leaving out any) are just like the Ruritans. There are plenty of good things to be said about Ruritans, and there were plenty of good reasons for liberal Christians to be a non-violent witness at the Chicago G-8 Summit this year.

But because I’m a Christian, I am fool enough to believe that by the Holy Spirit, when a Ruritan serves a pint of Brunswick stew to another Ruritan, it can be Christ serving Brunswick stew. And when an Anabaptist Catholic Worker refuses to return the blows of an overzealous riot policeman, that can be Christ loving the world once again.

There is a difference in the Christian’s way of being in the world, because of what we believe about the triune God in the world, and because of the particular way that particular God has sought out our particular selves. This particularity is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God help us if we lose it, no matter how much our churches may shrink or grow.



Secularism and Me

I’m someone who would like theologians to stop pretending that all theology is not also autobiography, and so I’ll embark on a long trip with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in this way…

I have traveled and lived and still travel and still live in circles where secularism is a problem, and a scary one. There are theological aspects, spiritual aspects, sociological aspects, political aspects to this, and to draw a Venn diagram would not work. But I can outline some of them.

In case any of the following beliefs sound fringe-y, they are not. You have your lawn mowed, your mail delivered, your water meter read, your hair cut, your latte made, your paycheck signed by people who hold these beliefs. You are biologically related to and in many cases descended from people who hold these beliefs.

Yes, I do know and love and am loved by people who believe that it is illegal to pray in United States public schools in 2012. Some of these folks also believe that it is important to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that United States money is printed with “In God We Trust,” and that the central statement of the Pledge of Allegiance is “under God.”

The secularization of society for these groups of people is the transitioning of the United States into a post-Christian nation, a descent into godlessness and chaos. A secularized United States is terrifying, because there is no order without God’s order, which is Christian (or at least North Atlantic, Judeo-Christian-inspired) order.

There is a more critically considered version of this, which I’ll call the First Things-ian view of secularism. First Things is the magazine founded by John Richard Neuhaus, who marched with MLK, who authored one of the most brilliant books ever written on being a pastor (Freedom for Ministry), and whose last days were spent as a neo-con (or not quite that). First Things is basically the magazine through which well-considered conservative (and/or traditional) Judeo-Christian political thought travels. It’s a magazine that helps you think better, but which you might also find yourself throwing across the room in anger/mystification.

The First Things-ian argument is that secularization is the corroding of the traditional values which aid all human fluorishing. These values are shared and universal. (For a First Things thought from earlier today to illustrate this, click here. For a problematizing of the universal claims that the Christian religion makes and has made, click here.)

For me, discussing how I relate to secularism and secularization is one of those (many) areas where I feel my lack of a coherent and contiguous narrative of history. But here is my understanding, embedded in my sense of history: the United States is much more accurately described as a pagan culture than as a secular culture (or as “pre-pagan” rather than “post-Christian”). God and gods have not been removed from public discussion and society at all. Christianity was one among many cults in the religious marketplace at its beginning, and it is so today. This “new” world is not something to fear (as both groups described above would tend to believe, although the latter hides it better), but it is still God’s world, populated by God’s children, all of us in need of conversion by God’s love through Jesus Christ.

There are some differences between these worlds, 1st and 21st centuries, of course…

Charles Taylor argues that having no god is an option for large masses of people in a way that it has never been in human history. Or, as he puts it in his Introduction:

[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.




The Church vs. Christ (Muddled Thoughts on Muddled Thoughts, via Mark Galli)

Two comments on Mark Galli’s recently posted “The Confidence of the Evangelical“:

-Comment I————————————————–

In describing why he is an evangelical, and why the “tug” of Catholicism has never drawn him out of evangelicalism, Mark Galli focuses in on his issues with the Magisterium as a source of authority for the Church. In doing so, he provides a wonderful view of history in which the Spirit is dynamically leading the church into truth gradually and through the passage of time and history:

We mustn’t forget that for a couple of hundred years, most Christians were not Trinitarians in the way we understand the Trinity today, but the Holy Spirit slowly led the church into a fully Trinitarian faith. At one time, Arianism was the majority option in the church, and yet the Holy Spirit led the church to reject that heresy and reaffirm the full divinity of Christ.

This, however, is a strong argument for the validity of the (or at least, a) magisterium. The orthodox teachings of the Trinity and Christ were and are examples of the Church discerning the Spirit, and the Church’s teaching office is in imitation of Christ in His proclamation by His call and in His authority.   Beyond that, contrary to Galli’s claims, there is no reason that an evangelical can’t say, “The Church teaches…” or “The Fathers said…” or “We believe…”

Why does the lack of a magisterium make those things any less true? Why does the presence of a magisterium change them? In fact, Galli seems to have more problems with what the Roman Magisterium teaches then the existence of a magisterium in general. (In some ways and for many people, Galli and other evangelical leaders are themselves a magisterium or a set of competing magisteria.)

-Comment II————————————————–

Here’s another quote, from the conclusion (actually, the second to last paragraph):

The common critique of evangelicalism is that “the center will not hold.” Bah. Humbug. Of course the center will hold, because at the center is not a doctrine, nor some human authority figure, nor a complete and inerrant statement of faith. There is only the Center, Jesus Christ. We don’t need a magisterium.

Galli’s article recalls and renews tensions between evangelicals and Catholics that do not need to exist. It’s disappointing because Galli has been a huge part of helping evangelicals (who, for as long as they have called themselves ‘evangelicals,’ have isolated themselves from the majority of Christians in space and time) to realize that the Christian faith is not our inheritance alone, and not our possession at all.

There is evidence, from very early on, that the article could have gone in the right direction:

We’d love to be able to say, “The church believes X,” and then back it up with a papal encyclical. We want “evangelical” to have clear and firm boundaries, so that when someone says they believe something outside of those boundaries, we can tell them definitively and assuredly that they are no longer evangelicals. We’re tired of arguing, of having to prove our point through the careful examination of Scripture and patient deliberation. Frankly, we’ve given up depending on prayer to change hearts and minds. We want to be able to say, “The church teaches …” or “The Holy Father says …” or “All biblical scholars believe …” in a way that separates the sheep from the goats.

These words are, at their heart, a confession. Being “tired…of having to prove our point through the careful examination of Scripture and patient deliberation” is a failure to love our neighbor and to love God. It would be beautiful if Galli had stayed there.

Here is my hypothesis: Galli fears that true Christianity is getting lost, diluted, led astray. Even if that’s true (and Galli is positioned well to see that it might be), acting from fear is not the right response. Fear leads to (less importantly) the muddied thinking of this article and (more importantly) the regression to un-Christian factional loyalties within the Church.

Galli sets evangelical against Catholic, Spirit against institution, and then Christ against Church, all terribly false dichotomies. The exclusivism that Galli recognizes as wrong in the quote above is the same exclusivism that led him to dash off a book against Rob Bell as well as to write this article.



OWS, Bank Transfer Day, and Christian Discipleship

Today, as you may already be aware, is Bank Transfer Day, a day to organize people to move their money from the mega-banks to local banks and especially to credit unions, with the hope that it spurs financial reforms in those big banks. The actual “day” parallels the Occupy Wall Street movement, but there are plenty of people fed up with American banking-as-usual who have no sympathy for OWS protesters.

For me, having moved from Bank of America to Central Illinois Credit Union here in Champaigna couple months ago, I am glad it’s happening. I indeed hope that there is enough momentum away from the big five banks to force some self-regulation, as the government continues to show little interest in enforcing existing regulations or in crafting smarter regulations. At the same time, statistically speaking (in terms of both numbers of accounts and especially in terms of the amount of capital shifting) there is no reason that an unbelievably popular Bank Transfer Day will have any effect, unless it makes the big banks feel “guilty,” and by “guilty” I mean “scrutinized” or at least “in the spotlight.”

Bank Transfer Day was designed to be a populist event where even people who would never march with a sign might finally follow through on doing something about their annoyance with talking to telephone-answering-robots about little-published fees on their bank statements. However, it will have no long-term impact on the economic systems which caused the current global recession.

That is, it will have no impact in itself. It must be part of a larger reformation, and, as yet, there is no evidence that there is a reformation to come.

For Christians, there is a larger context for understanding Bank Transfer Day and larger economic reforms: the life of God in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom which Christ proclaimed. The Christian God has Justice as a quality of character. Justice, therefore, is not and cannot be an abstraction for Christians to talk about in philosophy classes or election seasons or populist movements or angry Facebook back-and-forths alone. This is because the question, “What is justice?” is one way of asking, “Who is God?”

Continue reading



The Trip (2011)
October 30, 2011, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Film, Food, In the News, Video | Tags: , , , ,

It is as good as you had hoped. Better than I had hoped, even.

And just because…

and, even though it’s not accurate…

The Trip is on Netflix streaming, by the way. It’s not just comedy. It has heartfelt drama as well. (Thank you, Michael Winterbottom, for your ever-excellence.)