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.

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(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.



A Theological Twanscript

Please follow James K.A. Smith and me, but know first that we don’t actually know each other.



“O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!”: A Eucharistic Prayer of St. Francis
Let the whole of mankind tremble
     the whole world shake
     and the heavens exult
when Christ, the son of the living God,
     is [present] on the altar
     in the hands of a priest.
O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
That the Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself
that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!
Look, brothers, at the humility of God
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves, as well,
     that you may be exalted by Him.
Therefore,
     hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves
so that
He Who gives Himself totally to you
     may receive you totally.

from “A Letter to the Entire Order” in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (Paulist Press: The Classics of Western Spirituality), trans. by Regis J. Armstrong, OFM and Ignatius C. Brady, OFM



I Pray that You Will Fall Out of Love

M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, doesn’t believe that “falling” in or out of love is really love at all. And he’s convincing (although it didn’t take much for me). Here, he makes an analogy between a couple continuing in love and a young child’s slow developmental discovery that it and the world are separate beings:

Just as reality intrudes upon the two-year-old’s fantasy of omnipotence so does reality intrude upon the fantastic unity of the couple who have fallen in love. Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reassert itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher. She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his. She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begins to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from the other’s. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving.

To me, although it might be depressing to some, it is incredibly hopeful that “falling in love” is not love, and that “falling out of love” is actually a requirement along the way to “real loving.” This makes love about growing up, not about being “young [and stupid] at heart.” It also makes love about taking personal responsibility. If love just “happens,” then we bear no responsibility, take no ownership, and neither are we responsible if we never love or fail to love. But if love is work, a taking up of responsibility, a part of maturation and growth and human adulthood, then it is the greatest work of our lives, worth every ounce of sweat and tears along the way.

If you are in a relationship right now, I hope and even pray that you fall out of love soon.

Finally, what about that “ego boundaries snap back into place” line? Surely (you may be thinking) the ego is exactly what’s getting in the way of so many relationships, with self-centeredness and all that. While selfishness is indeed a problem, the reality is also that you cannot love someone until you recognize them as an other. If you do not recognize their otherness, then you are not loving them as yourself, but only as if they were yourself, and you will inevitably try to control them, to assert your power over them. That is, you will be “loving” a lie; to see the other as yourself is an unreality. The other person is an other person, and only when you see the space between you can you embrace.

Ten out of ten people agree, sex with someone-not-yourself is just better.



My own emptiness to report

I am not able to distill from either my
mother’s encounter with death or my own exposure to desert-mountain terrain any universal insights about the wonder-evoking power of fierce landscapes. I am left, ultimately, at an end of language, having nothing more than my own emptiness to report, although gradually coming to recognize emptiness itself as a profound and wonderful gift.

-Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes



“Progress,” “Civilization,” and Etiquette

<<You are now reading yet another post in a series on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Orient yourself here first if this is your entry point.>>

Thus far, Taylor has been laying out various pieces in the development of society that made our secular age (an age in which believing in no god is a widely available conception of the world for the first time in human history) possible. Among those pieces is the growth of “civility.”

The first reason for sharing the following is that it is amazingly interesting. The second reason for sharing it is that we cannot understand Taylor’s project in A Secular Age until we recognize (not just cognitively but viscerally) that our conceptions and assumptions about the world around us are vastly different than people in ages before us. Our “common” sense is not common, historically speaking.

Elias has noted and recorded the tremendous shift in manners which accompanies the developing ideal of civility, and later civilization. This starts off among the elites, of course, but then spreads during the nineteenth century virtually to the whole society. The shift involves a steady raising of the threshold of embarrassment, one might even say, disgust, which is quite remarkable. It is with surprise, and not a little shock, that we discover how things were back in 1500.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth…A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit”, when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell…People are told not to defecate in public places…Clearly we are in an age whose standards in this regard are far removed from our own.

Elias traces, not an abrupt change, but a gradual raising of the thresholds. Where earlier the standard books advise against blowing your nose in the table-cloth, later ones demand the use of handkerchiefs, tell you not to blow at table, etc. Where at one point you are asked not to defecate in the hallways, by the end of the process, it would be an indelicacy even to mention such a thing in a book of etiquette….

Elias sees [a] dynamic at work…The demands of refinement serve to distinguish upper strata from their inferiors; and these become the more necessary as nobles are being forced into a courtly, urban way of life where their resources and the powers at their disposal no longer clearly mark them off from bourgeois.

Taylor continues on to argue that what is at work in the creation of etiquette is creating boundaries of intimacy. At first, social “superiors” are bounded off more tightly from their “inferiors” (for instance, it’s okay for the king to hold court while he sits on the toilet, because he is in that way showing his superiority, but the reverse would be extreme disrespect to the king and his office), but eventually these consciously created boundaries become the disgust that we know today when we think about the actions described above.

A movement that began fully consciously became our unconsidered assumptions.