In On Stories Richard Kearney suggests, echoing Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities, that nations always seek to solidify their identity. There are many reasons – juridical, social, economic, etc. – for nations to do so, one being the legitimating of violence. In the contemporary Western world it is the nation that exercises the sole right to violence, and this right is based on the legitimacy of the nation as an internally solidified community of “the People”.
However, Kearney points out that national identities are constantly threatened by internal fractures: whether these are the conflicts between class, race, or religion when internal national unity is examined closely it reveals itself as little more than a vapor. This is especially true for the melting pot of endless opportunity, the United States. For here the nation is not only attempting to deal with current day underlying divisions, but has to live with the fact that its founding document, the Constitution, was “founded on the forgetfulness of originary violence – against native Indians and abducted slaves in particular.” (118)
One way that nations deal with their internal fractures, according to Kearney, is through creating an external threat. From the threat of the barbarous Indian other, to the crazed Communist, to the current obsession with Muslim terrorists the threat of the external enemy is used to cover over internal fractures and solidify our national identity. The most absurd example of this was seen not long ago in the Obama “birther controversy”. Many even believed that the external terrorist other was able to infiltrate us at our highest level.
Kearney suggests that this internal division is in reality what America’s (pace Hollywood) obsession with aliens is all about. The internal divisions being so strained that a terrestrial threat is no longer enough to cover over them. What is needed is an extra-terrestrial other. While Kearney’s thesis appears strange at first it is worth noting, as he does, that “it is along (the American/Mexican border where Latino immigrants and Pueblo Indians have had numerous immigration and legal conflicts, respectively, with the US government) that most sightings of extraterrestrials and UFOs have occurred. Roswell, Area 51, and other controversial sites of “alien” landings are located in this no mans land between America and its ‘other’.” (113)
If it is the external other that solidifies and legitimates our national identity, which in turn helps legitimate our nation’s violence, it is often the Big Other, i.e. God, who fills in the legitimation gap for our violence. In this way religion is used as a buttress for our national imaginations, the violence that they have been founded on, and the violence that they further perpetuate.
The supreme irony is that it is often Christians who see themselves as the most faithful to their own religion at the price of forsaking “the World” who fill this role. This is seen clearly in a recent article found on The Gospel Coalition’s (an incredibly conservative Evangelical group) website.
The article, entitled “Respecting the (Enemy) Dead”, is introduced with the blurb: “That the enemy observe no moral code does not mean we should abandon ours.”
In it Tom Neven seeks to address the recent out poring of commentary on, “the video circulated (sic) the Web that purportedly shows U.S. Marines urinating on dead men, presumably Taliban fighters killed by the Marines.” According to Neven he is qualified to comment on this because he, “served seven years as a Marine and recently returned after several months in Afghanistan serving as a Department of Defense civilian with special operations forces,” and because he was, “also shot at by the Taliban.”
Now my intent is neither to diminish Neven’s courage in battle (whatever it may have been), nor to demonize him as a person. Rather, it is to point out how the process that Kearney has highlighted is operating in Neven’s post, how the Christian religion is helping it do so, and the incredible irony in this.
(The following 7 paragraphs are an attempt to answer the question of whether or not I have any right to speak into this issue. If your not interested in this question, simply skip down to the point after the end of this digression.)
First, however, allow me a brief digression. For it is worth asking in what way, if any, I have a right to reflect on ethical issues touching on the hell of war while never having been in one. While my initial response was that I don’t have this right, after some reflection and conversations with friends who have served, I have come to think that I do, and that it may be this very location that allows me to do so in a way that those who have served in the hell of war may not be able to do, although they definitely still have the right and the need to do so as well.
In the first place, I am an American citizen and whether I believe in the war in Afghanistan or not I am being represented abroad by the US military. They are operating out of the taxes that I pay, and as a citizen within a representative-democracy (or a supposed one at least) they are ultimately responsible to me and all other citizens. As such, we as citizens have not only the right, but also the moral obligation to reflect upon the ways in which our military carries out its missions. Now, what has often ben the case is that instead of carrying out this reflection we find certain men, such as the marine urinators, and use them as a scapegoat.
What this scapegoating function does is allow us to have moral outrage at a certain select few for their gross moral lapses, while maintaining the illusion that we as a nation are ethical. We’re all good and fine with killing people, but for God’s sake don’t piss on them! Yet, this scapegoating logic, once it is seen for what it is – an attempt to cover over our own moral culpability – betrays the fact that we implicitly recognize the brutality that our national security depends on. Instead of leading to the symbolic national sacrificing of the scapegoat(s), what acts like this perpetrated by our trained soldiers should lead to is a collective reflection on the hell of war in the first place.
Why are we surprised that these marines have acted like this? We have trained them to be killers. In addition, we have all participated in a social discourse that speaks of terrorists as non-rational, hate-filled, killers who despise us for our democracy and love of frozen yogurt. Are we not all to blame for their actions?
The last point I want to make in this not-so-brief digression is that the hell of war obscures one’s ability to see. It was through talking with my friend’s roommate, who led a platoon on two tours in Afghanistan, that this became apparent to me. When I asked him what he thought about Afghanistan his initial response was that it was a shit hole: a God-forsaken wasteland filled with dirty people who couldn’t be trusted. Yet, when I pushed a bit, he admitted that he had met some nice people, and that there was a certain beauty to the desert.
However, there was one event in particular that had made it incredibly hard, if not impossible, for him to see the people as anything other than enemies. While stationed in Afghanistan a local man brought his unit the paper every morning. After weeks of morning encounters they began to trust this man, to exchange small talk in the morning, and to slowly build a relationship. However, this trusting relationship proved to illusory. One morning this man attempted to drive into the barracks with a bomb strapped to himself. While his suicide bombing ultimately failed to cause the damage intended, it damaged my friend’s trust in the Afghani people as a whole. And who can blame him? As Neven repeatedly points out in his article, war is hell.
Yet, while I can entirely understand why my friend’s vision of Afghanistan is bent in a particular direction, I must refuse to allow his sight to be the only one through which I view the Afghani people. I must allow the voices of journalists, aid workers, and most importantly the Afghani people themselves to be heard. I must attempt to see the world not only through my friend’s eyes, but also through the eye’s of the other, and even through the eye’s of my ethical-religious tradition, i.e. Christianity. End digression.
Now lets get back to Neven’s post and how the process that Kearney has highlighted is operating in it, how the Christian religion is helping it do so, and, as I suggested above, the incredible irony in this.
The first way this process is seen is in the blurb at the beginning, “That the enemy observe no moral code does not mean we should abandon ours.” (italics mine) While it is not clear whether this blurb was written by Neven or added on later (there is nothing in the article to suggest that this is necessarily Neven’s view), it is an obvious case of othering. For in saying that the enemy has no moral code the enemy becomes at best non-rational and at worst a non-human monster. Further, it is ridiculous to say that the enemy (the Taliban) has no moral code. Even if their moral code is one that Christians, or Westerners in general, find horrific (which I do!), and even if one could argue against it on purely philosophical, or even Islamic grounds (which one could), it is nevertheless a moral code. (The contrast between “our” moral code and that of the other’s is considerably less when one reflects on the fact that unmanned drones are fighting much of this very war.)
Of course, the irony runs deeper then this. The lacuna that becomes most apparent in the article is the complete inability of Neven to address the fact that he, as a Christian, was at war in the first place. For a man, Neven, who desires to represent a religion that claims fidelity to the teachings of a man, Jesus, who refused violence even to the point of death this is a lacuna that is unacceptable. While not all in the Christian tradition believe that their Christianity necessarily excludes all violence (in fact, there is a long, unfortunate history of violence that Christians are still trying to answer for), there is a long line of reasoning that attempts to understand the role of violence for Christian being in the world, namely just war theory.
However, this entire tradition fails to get even a head node from Neven. For Neven Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” amounts to little more than that you shouldn’t urinate on them after having killed them in battle. As Neven states, “we must not rationalize or excuse this act of desecration. Scripture tells us to love our enemies, as they are beings created in the sacred image of God. To desecrate is to de-consecrate, to make unsacred. In a way, to desecrate the dead is to attack God in effigy.” There is nothing in the article to suggest the possibility that when Jesus said to love your enemies he may have meant to not kill them!
Yet, the ultimate irony resides in this: conservative Evangelicals (and The Gospel Coalition is one of the worst offenders here) are constantly decrying the rest of Christendom for their capitulation to “the World”. Whether its other Christians who think that women are just as gifted and capable of leadership as men, or who believe that marriage has not been defined for all times and is thus open to liberating cultural shifts, or who think that theology extends beyond the confines of Calvin and Edwards one can be sure, according to The Gospel Coalition, that they have given into the contemporary cultural ethos, forsaking gospel fidelity.
Yet, what becomes blatantly apparent in this blog-post is the way in which these very decriers have capitulated to the violence of the nation, and its attempts to solidify its imagined identity by finding and fighting the external other. For, as we have seen, there is no questioning of the nation’s claim to violence, let alone any attempt to grapple with the reasons why we are fighting this war in the first place. It is simply taken for granted that we should be at war in Afghanistan, and that killing during war is nothing that requires Christian ethical reflection.
It is possible that the process that Kearney has suggested is operating at the level of religion as well. For Conservative Evangelicals the way to overcome their own internal fractures – the obvious homoerotic obsessions of a Mark Driscoll coupled with the use of “fagot” and “queer” when he speaks out against GLBT communities, the conflicts between their recent passion for justice and their unquestioned allegiance to American empire, and their obsession with “creating culture” when the culture they militantly inhabit is but a pathetic mimesis of the dominant one, to name only a few – is through creating a dividing line between the pure Christian saints and the external, threatening strangers. While, as a Christian myself, I am quite suspicious of how legitimate the nation’s use of violence is, I am quite happy that this legitimacy no longer belongs to the Church. If it did many others, possibly including myself, would find themselves, just as Michael Servetus did in John Calvin’s day, on the receiving end of the violence needed to maintain social coherence in a fractured imagined community.
 http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/01/31/respecting-the-enemy-dead/ accessed Tuesday, February 12, 2012.