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.



“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.



In all things, charity

I’ve often thought that the atmosphere of theological discourse on the internet is very similar to ages in the past. Others apparently agree…

Lutheran Insulter (or check out the original, Shakespearean Insulter)


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?”

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Smart Humor and Good Preaching

Last Friday night, thinking at first that it actually was Second City TV, I started streaming the The Second City: The First Family of Comedy, a three-part documentary on that comedy empire. It’s not a great documentary in terms of its production and it’s glaringly clear that they couldn’t get Bill Murray to have anything to do with it, but it has me enthralled. I’ve been studying comedy writing (meaning, watching a lot of TV) lately, and to see this doc and to learn where so much of the contemporary comedy landscape came from is captivating.

At about 22 minutes into the first segment, one bit really caught my attention. Harold Ramis is talking about how the second generation of Second City (many of whom became the first season casts of SNL and SCTV and then went on to define 1980s-and-beyond comedy) came into its own.

Ramis explains the difference between this second class and that original class (which, wow, included Alan freakin’ Arkin, who I am now convinced needs to be asked to host SNL, in a thoroughly non-ironic way). Here’s my own transcript from the documentary:

Harold Ramis: “Bernie Sahlins had a motto which was, ‘Always work from the top of your intelligence.’”

Joe Flaherty: “You have to assume that the audience is at least as smart as you are. When you play down to an audience, you know, when you start doing comedy that you think, ‘Well I wouldn’t like it, I don’t think it’s funny, it’s, you know, stupid, but they’ll like it,’ it doesn’t work. It just falls flat on its face.”

And now comes the 4G turn…this is how I think about the church and specifically about the state of preaching in American churches. One central temptation to the pastor or preacher or teacher or Christian writer (popular or academic) is to not work from the top of our intelligence.

In comedy, the reasons for working from the top of your intelligence are that if you don’t, (a) your comedy won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your audience by treating them as if they are stupid.

Likewise, in preaching and pastoral work, if you don’t work from the top of your intelligence, (a) your work won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your hearers, readers, or congregation. (If you’re wondering, insulting your congregation is worse than insulting your audience at a comedy club. Lowest common denominator preaching is a devaluing of people who we supposedly believe are created in the image of God.)

Worst of all, if you’re not preaching from the top of your intelligence, (c.) you are failing to help your fellow disciples to grow and mature. Life experience, the Christian tradition, and Scripture are clear: we don’t grow unless we are stretched and asked to push further. Ask any athlete, any good comic, any saint.

So far so good, perhaps, but the question which this all begs is what “smart” preaching is. I happen to have an intellectual bent, but intellectual or academic preaching is not what I’m talking about. At all.

To explain, I go back to good comedy. There are comics out there today and in history who have been inarguably smart and who love the dumb joke. The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the writers of the best Cary Grant films, Woody Allen, and on down to Futurama, 30 Rock, and Louis CK, have all recognized that being smart in their humor includes being dumb in their humor. Somehow the best comics have not just been about being smart, but they choose to be smart in service of being good.

That’s all I’m asking of preachers. Be smart, because that’s part of pursuing the Good in what you do.