Osama and the policing of joy

In the late winter of 1953, my mother was a 15 year-old student at the International School in Geneva. One day, the entire student body was gathered for an unscheduled assembly, at which it was announced that Joseph Stalin had just died. The students (who came from all over the world) spontaneously cheered. The headmaster then gave them all a firm dressing down, reminding them that while some human beings are genuinely evil, no death is ever a cause for celebration.

I thought of that story last night when I heard the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. And I’ve read with interest on Facebook, Twitter, and progressive blog sites an unfolding debate about what sorts of responses are appropriate. At times, it seems as if the debate over whether feminists could celebrate the royal wedding had simply morphed into a nearly identical bout of navel-gazing about whether progressives could rejoice (and if so, how much rejoicing was appropriate) in the aftermath of this American military operation in the heart of Pakistan.

I recall a similar debate on the left after Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007. In this thread at Feministe, disagreement broke out over how much celebration was appropriate following the passing of the arch-fundamentalist pastor turned right-wing activist. I made the mistake of saying “shame on” those who were jubilant, and was quickly reminded that Falwell himself had been an agent of shame in the lives of millions, particularly gays and lesbians. Those who had suffered more than I had because of that Baptist preacher didn’t need my moralizing about self-restraint. I learned an important lesson about scripting other people’s responses. My mother’s Swiss headmaster may have been right, but those of us who aren’t in his position need to be awfully careful not to prescribe (or proscribe) particular modes of grief or exultation.

My youngest students were only eight or nine when the Twin Towers fell nearly a decade ago. Osama Bin Laden has been a bogeyman figure for them, the man behind the plot that made their world (and that of their parents) so much less safe. The years and years in which he eluded justice became a symbol, at least for some, of the limits of American power. While television, movies, and video games featured heroes who could always get the bad guys, in real life the baddest guy alive continued to be out of reach, a phantom reminder of our vulnerability. It’s not surprising that the most impassioned and excited reactions I saw on Facebook and Twitter last night were from my youngest acquaintances. For many of my students, Bin Laden’s death ends a story that has been going on over half their lives.

Even if he was less in the news in recent years, even if he had been largely neutralized as a danger — he existed as a spectre, especially for the young. Little wonder that it was those who would have been in elementary school on September 11, 2001 who seemed most visible in the streets last night, shouting their patriotism and releasing a generational demon.

As for me, I’m glad he’s gone. I’m not heading out into the streets to wrap myself in Old Glory and chant “USA!”, but won’t begrudge those who did react with glee their celebration. I’ll think of my mother’s story about Stalin, about Ezekiel 33:11, and about the billions spent and the countless other lives lost in the wars that have unfolded since 2001. And I’ll not tell anyone how to respond to this news.

On Dick Winters and “grandfather hunger”

Dick Winters has died. Winters, an American major with the 101st Airborne Division in the Second World War, was the central figure in the 2001 HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers. Portrayed by the English actor Damian Lewis, Winters played a key role in almost every episode as the series told the story of the 506th Parachute Regiment, Easy Company, from 1943 to 1945.

I’m not a war movie buff, and wouldn’t have watched the show at all were it not for my third ex-wife, Elizabeth, who had grown up in a military family, the daughter and granddaughter of career Air Force and Army officers. Elizabeth was very close to her grandfather, a World War Two veteran and former Lt. Colonel who died in the summer of 2001, just before the HBO series debuted. Hungry to connect to the stories around men like her beloved Grandpa Lane, she was eager to watch Band of Brothers. I quickly got hooked on the series as well, and particularly on the remarkable figure of Dick Winters, whose modesty and decency and courage were exemplary without ever straining credulity.

The 9/11 attacks took place not long after the series went on the air, and as the story unfolded on Sunday nights throughout the autumn of 2001, the aftermath of what had happened on that terrible Tuesday brought an immediacy and an urgency to the show that might not otherwise have been there. Headed into a new war in Afghanistan, a show about what most regard as the most necessary war in living memory was particularly relevant.

But what struck me about Band of Brothers was less my reaction than that of so many of my students at Pasadena City College and the kids in my high school group at All Saints Church. That fall, a dozen or more — all but one boys — came up to me to talk about the series and how much it resonated with them. Some loved the graphic combat action, but more were drawn to the character of the young men of Easy Company. Neither sanitized nor overly sentimental, there was something undeniably heroic about the “band of brothers.” Yet their heroism was only part of the appeal to the young men I worked with; they were enchanted by the cameraderie, by the sense of purpose. And they bought into what historians know is one part reality, four parts myth: the notion that this was the “Greatest Generation” that paid a higher price than perhaps any other since at least the Civil War.

A lot of them, I came to realize, had “grandfather hunger”: the longing for a man in their lives like Major Winters, strong and certain and dignified.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, not least because it tends to gloss over the problematic aspects of the past and overemphasize the problems of the present. And as an historian who teaches courses on gender, I was both impressed and troubled by the deep attachment so many guys I taught had to “Band of Brothers.” I was impressed because of the fundamental decency (though a complex decency) of Lewis’ portrayal of Major Winters, and was glad that the boys I knew found that so compelling. I was troubled because, of course, it’s so easy to lionize men who go to combat and so difficult to conceive of true heroism that isn’t intimately connected to killing.

I was troubled too because of what occurred to a lot of us when “Saving Private Ryan” came out: the fascination with the Second World War in particular is not just linked to the passing of the so-called greatest generation, but also to a campaign to idealize a time when gender roles were more rigidly defined. “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” are noteworthy for almost the complete absence of female characters. These are all-male spaces, exclusive (if extremely dangerous) boys’ clubs — unlike today’s military, into which women are increasingly integrated. (And inevitably, that integration will include combat, as a report just this week confirms.) The more uneasy and uncertain we become about the growing fluidity of gender roles, the more we tend to idealize the most recent time and place where male and female spheres were radically separate. (This is, of course, part of the great appeal of “Mad Men.”)

By the late 1990s, the aging World War Two veterans were septuagenarians or octogenarians whose contemporary fragility only served to enhance the memory of their handsome, heroic youth. We were fascinated with them because they had fought in a war that was (to all but the most determined of pacifists) perhaps the last truly just conflict. Not for them the moral anguish of Vietnam or Iraq. And they had fought in racially and sexually segregated units, allowing us to watch an uncomplicated world of all-white, all-male heroes, something that had undeniable appeal to those discomfited by gender and ethnic pluralism. There was more to the show’s appeal than that, but that simple vision was surely part of it.

But perhaps most importantly, the men of Easy Company — and Dick Winters in particular, apparently in real life as well as in the hands of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Damian Lewis et al — were grown-ups while still very young. In a world in which middle-class American male adolescence has turned into a quarter-century project, there’s something immensely appealing about seeing such clarity of purpose, such maturity, and even such grace in so many twenty-something men. Of course, we looked at the dignity our elderly grandfathers (or the men we wished were our grandfathers) and projected onto their youthful selves that same gravitas, unwilling to see that they might have been as unsure and as impulsive and as frightened as ourselves. That says more about our psychological hunger than about the men who actually fought the Second World War.

No generation is greater than any other. But in each generation, a few individuals are clear exemplars of the kind of heroic virtue that we all acknowledge is desperately needed. Dick Winters didn’t need Hollywood to lionize him; he was evidently an exceptional and remarkable man. In the end, I’m not sorry that so many young people were captivated by his story. I give thanks for his service and for his good fortune to live a long and happy life of service. I wish him a joyous reunion with those whom he left behind so long ago.

Harry Patch, 1898-2009

Harry Patch died today at 111, the last British World War One combat veteran and the last man to see action on the Western Front. Last year, the former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, offered “The Five Acts of Harry Patch” as a tribute; it is reprinted below the fold.

Three known veterans of the Great War still live: an American, a Canadian, and a Briton who has lived in Australia for years. None were in trench combat; Patch, who fought at Passchendaele in 1917, was the last one to “go over the top.” It scarcely seems possible that any are alive, or lived so long to have seen so much. And none of the last survivors had a name quite like Harry Patch. Continue reading

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Gazing at Gaza and watching “the Wrestler”: some thoughts on when to look and when to turn away

I’ve avoided blogging about the Israeli incursion into Gaza for the relatively sensible reason that I have very little original to contribute. I’ve been heartsick at the violence, at the images I see online and on television. I follow my usual rule for looking at images of violence and war: I set aside a few minutes when I feel I’m in a reasonably reflective space, and I spend a short while (never more than half an hour) absorbing what I’m seeing. I know that compared to so many, I lead a life of tremendous privilege and safety; I cannot presume to understand fully what goes through the mind of a child in Gaza or a young soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. I can imagine, however, and visual images serve as catalysts for that imagining. Because before I can do anything else that might be remotely helpful, I’ve got to do the first task of the global bystander: I’ve got to acknowledge, I’ve got to witness, I’ve got — to the best of my ability — look.

One of the reasons I find pornography so problematic (even as I grow less doctrinaire on the subject of how to deal with sex work from a feminist perspective) is because of this sense that what we gaze at matters. If there’s one thing that’s caused me to be more of a jerk than anything else in my life, it’s the failure to empathize. And for me — and I’m willing to admit this is not a universal response at all — repeatedly using pornography did impact my ability to empathize with my real, flesh-and-blood sexual partners. For me, and again, only for me, connecting my arousal to a one-dimensional image rather than an actual human being made it much harder to connect with girlfriends, wives and lovers. My anti-pornography feelings are, on a gut level, derived from my own admittedly compulsive use of sexually explicit imagery in my younger years. One of the many ways in which I honor not only my marriage but my sense of what I want sex to be is by avoiding looking at porn.

I’ve learned, however, to distinguish between “using” an image for my sexual arousal (which, in my singular experience, damages my empathy) and “witnessing” an image for the sake of creating greater empathy. That sounds like so much psychobabble, so let me offer an example. The best film I’ve seen this awards season so far is the captivating Mickey Rourke vehicle, The Wrestler. It’s a graphic film; several of the wrestling scenes are barbaric. I had to force myself to keep my eyes on the screen at times, trusting that in this context, taking in the brutality was a necessary part of understanding the life the central character lived. I can’t speak to the realism of the scenes, as I have no brief for professional wrestling, but can say that my own discomfort at the violence helped raise compassion for the protagonist. Similarly, Marisa Tomei’s character in the film portrays a stripper; in one or two scenes, she dances nude. I haven’t gone to a strip club in more than a decade; staring at a performer’s breasts is not something I do anymore. But in this film, the nudity worked perfectly — it was connected to one of the film’s larger themes, about the way in which bodies are commodified and the way in which those who make their living with their flesh hold on to sovereignty despite being brutalized, despite being ogled.

I wasn’t aroused by Tomei, but I was moved. In this case, it was good and right for me to look. (That doesn’t mean I’m positing arousal as the enemy; it’s not. The enemy is the failure of empathy, and it is true that for some of us, broken as we are, sexual arousal, like anger, makes empathy more difficult. That’s what makes insisting on one’s right to sex in a relationship so toxic — another topic that comes up ’round here a lot). The husband who demands his wife have sex against her will to satisfy his needs is offering an obvious example. Though the story in “The Wrestler” was fictional, the realism was undeniable — and at least for me and my wife, the effect of that realism was deeply moving. I’m not any more intrigued by professional wrestling and strip clubs, but I came out of the film in a reflective mood. What I had seen, what I had taken in, had touched me. And though my compassion was directed towards fictional characters (though there was admiration, too, for Rourke and Tomei), it was genuine. And anything that makes me feel more of that compassion for other people is probably a good thing. Continue reading

Veteran’s Day

It’s Veteran’s Day, and I’ve got a great many things to do on this day off, blogging not one of them. (And I like the use of the possessive to describe the day – and yeah, I know it’s not the official way.)

In regards to the holiday itself: I am not a veteran of the armed services. Few in my family are. But in my capacity as a teacher, I’ve known veterans of every conflict since World War Two. In many of my evening courses, it’s not uncommon to have older students taking classes “for pleasure’. Though I haven’t had a WWII vet in class in a decade or more, I had several take my course in my first few years at Pasadena City College. My mother, who taught for nearly thirty years at Monterey Peninsula College, recalls having had a few older students who were First World War veterans when she was first teaching. Today, I have at least a dozen young people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan enrolled. My veterans tend to be excellent students, with the work habits one might expect to see.

I teach the build-up to World War One in my modern European history course; indeed, the Great War remains the topic that generates the most interest among students in that class. Though their numbers have dwindled to a precious few — so few that I can name most of them — I am struck that on this 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, a handful of Great War veterans are still alive. Frank Buckles is the last surviving US combat veteran; he is 107. Harry Patch and Henry Allingham (110 and 112 respectively) are the last two British combat veterans; Patch, along with Fernand Goux of France, are the last living persons to have fought in the trenches. I am awed by their longevity, and by the hand of fate that took so many millions of young men – and chose a select few of their comrades to live in three separate centuries.

May this Armistice Day not be their last.

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s Five Acts of Harry Patch is very fine. My favorite bit:

…life is like that now, suddenly and gradually
everyone you know dies and still comes to visit
or you head back to them, it’s not clear which…

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George considers the Army: some thoughts on the similarity between pre-marital sex and joining the military

I don’t have much time for a post, but this has been on my mind.

About two weeks ago, I had a very polite argument with a fellow All Saints youth leader. One of our boys, a splendid young man nearing graduation from high school, is considering enlisting in the Army. “George” is attracted to the idea of service, he doesn’t feel ready for college, and he likes the financial benefits.

My fellow youth leader came to me and said “Hugo, you’ve got to talk George out of this.” (I have a great relationship with George, probably closer than the other youth pastors do.) I told my colleague that I would talk with George and explore his reasons for considering the military, but I had no intention of automatically discouraging him from Army service.

My classes at Pasadena City College are filled with young men and women who are veterans. I have several students this semester who’ve done time in Iraq. In conversations with a few of them, I know that they hold a widely divergent set of views about American policy over there. But virtually all — Army or Marines, as I rarely get Navy or Air Force vets — view their service as a positive. And while I have no hard evidence to support this theory, I note that my ex-service members (including many who are still in the reserves) have far better work and study habits than their peers of the same age. They aren’t necessarily any brighter, but my goodness, they have considerably more focus and initiative.

I still remain committed to the essential tenets of Christian pacifism. I am not a naturally peaceful person, mind you; my instinctive response to many of the worlds’ grossest injustices is to suggest a swift and violent solution. My heart and my soul are convinced that we are called as individuals and as citizens to “turn the other cheek”; I believe theologically that Jesus’ call to nonviolence is binding on Christians in both their private lives and in their public service. But my head tells me that sometimes violence, while never redemptive, can protect the vulnerable. As someone who teaches the young, and who longs to be a father, that protectiveness butts up against my pacifism more and more these days.

Despite my pacifism, I don’t have a knee-jerk disposition against military service. I’ve only had the chance to have one conversation with George, and I look forward to more. But I am eager to find out more about his reasons for wanting to join the Army, just as I am eager to know why one of his good friends considers UC Riverside a better fit than, say, UC Davis. I am committed to the basic notion that “my kids” are unique individuals with different paths to follow. And though I worship and volunteer in a community that is often reflexiviely anti-military, I am convinced that for some young men and women, the Army may well be the best possible option.

In April 2005, I posted this brief piece about teaching sex ed at All Saints. I took a lot of heat in the comments section, especially from many of my fellow evangelicals, for my reply to one question that the kids asked. One child asked “What do you think about us having sex at our age?” And I answered:

You guys, when I look at you, it isn’t possible for me to see you as a group of generic teenagers. When I look at this room, I don’t just see fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen year-olds. I see people whose individual stories I know. Some of you I’ve known just a little while. Some of you I’ve known since you were bratty little sixth-graders five or six years ago. When I look at you (pointing around the room), I see (names changed) Michael, not a sophomore boy. I see Marie, not a senior girl; I see Janae and Brent and Alexa and Rick, not just four random kids sitting on a couch. And though you are all alike in so many countless ways, you’re also fundamentally different people with different needs and different histories. Honestly, the more I work with you, the less I feel comfortable handing out a one-size-fits-all moral agenda with any confidence. In truth, while I think in general it is better to wait before taking on the enormous responsibilities and consequences of sex, I know full well that some of you are simply “readier” than others. I’m not going to name names, of course! But I can’t help but see you as individuals with different desires and different levels of maturity, faith, and emotional preparedness.

Many of my more liberal commenters applauded that sentiment; the conservatives considered it hopelessly wishy-washy.

But my feelings about college versus military service are more or less exactly the same! Just as I am convinced that some kids in high school are more emotionally and spiritually prepared for healthy sexual activity than others, I am equally convinced that not all are called to go directly to a four-year college. For any number of reasons, I think that a stint in the Army might be the absolute best thing for a young man or woman hungry for a very particular kind of public service, hungry to have the fast-forward button pushed on their transition into full adulthood. I’ve seen too many disaffected, directionless young men (and one or two young women) sign up for military service and come back transformed — deeper, more confident, more capable, and to my own very great surprise, more compassionate and committed to others. It’s not for everyone, but it may well be the right choice for a few. And my desire to see my kids grow and transform as individuals is greater than my own pacifist politics; my longing to see them “find themselves” trumps my own very grave misgivings about American military policy.

George hasn’t signed up yet. I hope we’ll have a chance to talk again before he does. But when we do, my thoughts will be first and foremost on what is truly good for George. Yes, I worry about him being sent to Iraq; I worry about his safety. But he’s leaving childhood behind. His parents and youth leaders must accept that part of his growth narrative will be the acceptance of great, even lethal risk. I can pray that God watches over him, as I pray for all the All Saints kids. But I won’t pray that God redirects his heart towards, say, the community college after high school. I don’t get to write the scripts my kids follow. I just get to love them through whatever they choose, and I get to give a little advice and a lot of encouragement.

Pacifism and the siren song of liberal internationalism

I’ve been blogging for over three years, and in all that time, have not produced a single post about our war in Iraq. My cyber-silence on the subject is not due to a lack of strong personal feeling, but rather to the sense that others (far better informed than I) have said most of what there is to say and said it better.

This week, I’ve been listening a lot to to the “speechifying” of the pro-war right. As I listen to folks like the Christian conservative Hugh Hewitt (who, compared to many of his ilk, has a surprising degree of eloquence, even in the service of a bad cause), I’m struck by how tempted I am to agree whenever someone stresses that America has a duty to keep fighting in order to save the Iraqi people.

This is not a post about the actual merits of staying in Iraq. Rather, I’m struck this week by my own inner conflict — one that I sense from conversations with friends is not unique to me. I’m a cradle liberal, anti-war almost from birth. My pram (I am old enough that folks didn’t speak of “strollers”) was pushed in anti-Vietnam protests through the streets of Santa Barbara in 1968. The last time I committed an act of outraged civil disobedience was seventeen years ago, when the first Gulf War began. And heck, I supported the solidly anti-war Dennis Kucinich in the last presidential campaign, and am tentatively doing so again for oh-eight.

But two different voices compete inside my head. (Only two?) One is the voice of the secular, liberal, internationalist. This voice believes military intervention has a place, particularly in order to forestall humanitarian disasters. This is the voice that is informed by Lincoln’s remark that America is the “last best hope of earth”. This voice is stirred by the King James Version of Luke 12:48, and this voice thinks that our Lord’s words might apply to us:

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.

Obviously, noblesse oblige has an instant and powerful appeal on my psyche, both in terms of my personal responsibility and in terms of my sense of how this most powerful of nations ought to act. This is the voice that tells me we ought to send troops to Darfur, and that we were right to send soldiers into the former Yugoslavia. And this is the voice that is seduced by those on the right who invoke the language of humanitarian relief and duty (rather than American capitalist hegemony) in the service of the current war. I’ve read my Pericles, and I know how easily words like “duty” and “burden” can get twisted — but while my head regards calls to battle with a high degree of suspicion, my heart beats faster when I hear that rhetoric employed.

The other strain that informs me comes out of Christian pacifism. I’ve read my Yoder, I’ve read my Hauerwas. I’ve worshipped, prayed, and marched with the Mennonites. The disagreements I had with the Mennonites — the ones that led me back to the Anglicans — were over issues of sexuality and liturgy, not theology or geopolitics. And the Mennonite pacifist view, the one that enchants me still, is the view that tells me that the Christian witness is always, always, a radically peaceful one. While the fallen world insists that only Caesar’s tanks can liberate the oppressed, the Christian pacifist is humbly certain that it is only through the renunciation of all forms of violence, even for a good cause, that peace can happen. Christian pacifism is not a theology of cowardice; true pacifism is always willing to die for a cause, just never willing to kill for one. The story of the cross is the story of how the death of a nonviolent man can change the world for the better, after all. Pacifism makes the claim that the blood of those who die without guns in their hands does more to save the world than the blood of those who do. That claim only makes sense in the context of the Gospel, of course, and is a “stumbling block and foolishness” to most.

My liberal internationalism feels desperately sympathetic to Tony Blair, whose rhetoric about the need for Iraqi liberation has always seemed kinder and gentler than what I hear from the American president. Part of me still believes that those of us who have power ought to exercise it for good in the world, intervening with force to protect the weak from the bullies who prey on them. The rhetoric that suggests we ought to act in our own self-interest has little hold on me, mind you; the suggestion that we ought to “take up the white man’s burden” and “send forth the best ye breed” does. I love poetry, and confess — with burning shame — to finding Kipling periodically compelling. Hell, I can recite “If” without a trace of irony, a revelation that makes me wince!

My pacifism, however, is stronger. What changed the world for good forever happened about 2000 years ago on Calvary and in a nearby tomb. John Howard Yoder was fond of saying vicit agnus noster eum sequamur: “Our Lamb has conquered, him let us follow.” The death of the Lamb is what liberates us, not our tanks and our missiles and our Cobra helicopters. It is the Good News of His message of peace, of justice, of mercy, of salvation that saves the world. And that message can only be carried effectively by those who use the methods He did: tears and prayers, a willingness to face death with courage, and a refusal to shed blod.

My faith in Christ and a life beyond this one trumps my liberal internationalism. It leads me to oppose this war — and every other one. It tells me that causes don’t matter nearly as much as methods do. It tells me that if you want peace, you must use peace; ends and means must be radically congruent. To my non-pacifist friends, this is incomprehensible, suicidal, self-indulgent, irresponsible, even nihilistic. But this is the heart of my faith, and all the eloquent speeches and terrorist attacks will not shake it.

“Our lamb has conquered”: A defense of pacifism in the aftermath of the Amish school shooting

First off, a confession.  A few weeks ago, I made the pledge that I would not get on the scale again until the end of 2006.  Yesterday afternoon at the gym, I "fell off the wagon" and weighed myself.  It’s a good comeuppance, for me, I suppose; I post so often on this blog about making commitments and redirecting impulses.  I’ve had so much success in so many areas of my life, but resisting the urge to climb on the scale is tougher than I imagined.  Just thought I’d share my slip…

It’s a busy day, and I suspect I will have time for only one post.  Both here and elsewhere, there’s been discussion of Monday’s shooting at an Amish school in Pennsylvania.  Thanks to my friend Jonathan Dresner, I read this particularly nasty piece from Judith Klinghoffer at my own History News Network.  Klinghoffer opines:

How low can one sink? No. I am not talking about the murderer, may his name be erased. I am talking about those who saved themselves by leaving the little girls at his mercy. Consider: 

"They found the suspect dead on the floor," Col Miller said. "Three other students between the age of six and 13 had been killed." He said that when Roberts, a non-Amish, first entered the school he apparently showed the handgun to the children and was "having some discussion in the class". "He told the kids to line up in front of the blackboard. Then, using wire ties and flex cuffs, he began to tie the females’ feet together. It appears that when he shot them he shot them execution-style in the head.

And they LET him. I have yet to hear about a single person who did anything to stop him. By doing nothing, they permitted a deranged man to fulfill his sick revenge fantasy.

This is the ultimate result of Amish pacifism. All evil needs to flourish is for good people to do nothing. Evil flourished in that schoolroom.

Bold is mine.  And here on my blog, thechief weighs in:

There’s something we need to realize about pacifists in general, including the Amish: They can afford to be pacifists because somebody else is holding a gun for them. They can afford not to raise their hand against evil because somebody else–a police officer, a soldier–is standing between them and true evil. Somebody else will do the dirty work of keeping them safe, except for those awful situations where the system somehow breaks down, like yesterday in Pennsylvania. Then the pacifists are going to be toast.

Let me be clear that I am an aspiring pacifist.  As Stanley Hauerwas always says of himself, I am a violent man trying to become peaceful.  When I read about stories like this one, my first thought is always "I wish I could have been there with a gun to blow the s.o.b. away."     That’s my first response, but happily, as a Christian, not my second.

Both Klinghoffer and thechief have a tortured, twisted view of what pacifism really is.  First off, most Christian pacifists don’t live in the United States.  The largest Christian pacifist communities are Anabaptists living in war-torn places like Indonesia, Nigeria, and Colombia.  The notion that pacifists are comfortable, middle-class white folks who are protected by a wise government willing to wield the sword is ludicrous and ahistorical.   Christian pacifism traces its modern roots to the blood-soaked Central Europe of the sixteenth century.    The pacifism of the peace churches (to which Mennonites, the Amish, the Quakers, and others belong) was a response to appalling violence by people who experienced that violence first hand.  The great lie that both Klinghoffer and thechief perpetuate is that pacifists are ignorant of the realities of human brutality; the historic truth is that pacifism was birthed by men and women who had infinitely more knowledge of the realities of violence than your average Marine in Iraq has today.

The other great lie is more simple: they equate pacifism with passivity.  A Latin lesson, girls and boys: pacifism comes from pax facere, to  "make peace"; it does not, contrary to popular misconception, derive from passus sum, to "suffer."  In other words, authentic pacifism is an active response to violence, not a passive one!   From the sixteenth century onward, pacifists have insisted that the goal of Christian witness is not to run and hide but "to get in the way."  Jesus saysGreater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  Soldiers quote that all the time, but wrongly.  Jesus calls us to the cross, He calls us to come and die, but He never calls us to kill.    From a theological standpoint, there is all the difference in the world between being willing to die for one’s friends and being willing to kill for them.  For soldiers, both may be true.   For cowards, neither is true.  For Christian pacifists, only the former is true!

The third lie about pacifism is that it is hopelessly idealistic and has no efficacy.  Once we convince our opponents that we aren’t cowards (after all, Christian pacifists are dying in places like Colombia and Iraq all the time), we usually get dismissed as "fanatics."   I mentioned in my post on Monday that I hoped that if it came to it, I would be willing to take a bullet for "my kids."  But I would not be willing to fire a bullet, even to protect the lives of my students or youth groupers.  That always strikes folks as irresponsible and prideful; I seem to be putting my theological convictions ahead of my obligation to protect the lambs.

But as a Christian, I know that there is more to our story than our life on this earth.  I love life, I love this planet, I love God’s incredible creation.  But my story — our story — doesn’t end here.  This is not my final home.  I am a "resident alien" in a beautiful, violent, scary, wonderful place.  I know that while death is overwhelming and terrifying, it is not the end.  Not only do I have an even truer home elsewhere, so too do those lambs I am called to feed.  They are Christ’s lambs, not mine.  Their lives are precious, but so too are their eternal souls.  Crazed gunmen can kill the bodies of the young and the innocent; crazed gunmen can break the hearts of a community.  But crazed gunmen don’t get to write the final chapter of the story.  After the tears, there will be rejoicing, no matter what, no matter what, no matter what.

It is with the certainty that death does not separate us from each other or from God that I can claim my pacifism. If I thought death was the end of the story, I’d probably be packing heat in the glove compartment of my Toyota Solara.  To prolong the short lives of my loved ones here on earth, I would do anything and everything.  But I know that love endures past the end.  I know that I am called to follow Christ first and foremost.  Thanks to Him, I already know how the story turns out in the end. Those of us who are true pacifists are not cowards who run in fear, muttering prayers of thanksgiving for the protection offered us by violent men. We are people who have seen the end of the book.  We know that after the crucifixion, comes the resurrection.  After the bullets and the terror comes the peace and the joyous new life.  With that certainty, we can offer up our lives non-violently.  It’s not that we seek death, or value life any less.  It’s that we are quietly, absolutely, peacefully certain that our Lamb conquered death for all of us 2000 years ago — and with fear, trembling, and yes, joyful certainty, we will follow Him.  No matter what.

Reprint: “Never allow our youngsters to die in vain”

I’m on hiatus — at least from substantive blogging — until August 28.  Until then, I’m reprinting favorite posts from 2004 and 2005.

I watched the tail end of the presidential press conference yesterday, and was struck by these words (the full transcript is here):

One of the things that’s very important, Judy, at least as far as I’m concerned, is to never allow our youngsters to die in vain. And I made that pledge to their parents. Withdrawing from the battlefield of Iraq would be just that, and it’s not going to happen under my watch.

That phrase "die in vain" is an old one, and one with an interesting history. A little playtime on the Internet revealed the following:

In particular, I would like to say a word to some of the bravest people I have ever met-the wives, the children, the families of our prisoners of war and the missing in action. When others called on us to settle on any terms, you had the courage to stand for the right kind of peace so that those who died and those who suffered would not have died and suffered in vain, and so that, where this generation knew war, the next generation would know peace.

Richard Nixon, January 1973

Ten years earlier, in a very different context:

"And so my friends, they did not die in vain."

— Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at the funeral of the young victims of a church bombing, 1963

And exactly one century earlier, the most famous use of the phrase to most Americans (one hopes):

It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

— Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Lincoln probably got the phrase from the King James Version of Galatians 2:21:

"I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain."

Someone will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I am assuming that that is the earliest use of the phrase in English. The phrase is never used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to anyone else’s death, only Christ’s. It seems to me that it’s a heck of a jump that Lincoln made — to go from Christ’s death on the cross as not being "in vain" (a phrase the literate and faithful Lincoln knew likely by heart) to the deaths of soldiers. It’s clear what Paul means — Christ’s death is liberating for the world. It is clear to my emotions what Lincoln meant, what King meant, what Nixon meant, and what Bush meant. It sounds good — largely because it sounds so comfortingly familiar.

I’m not here to judge the merits of our War between the States, the Vietnam War, the deaths of the Civil Rights Movement, or Iraq. I am here to question the real meaning of the phrase. If "dying in vain" refers to Christ’s efficacious death on the Cross, then to use the same words to describe the deaths of other folks borders on the sacriligious.

Trying to honor the dead by giving meaning to their deaths precedes Paul, of course. One thinks instantly of Pericles’ funeral oration. But it’s the repeated and theologically problematic overuse of the phrase "in vain" — the one thing that jumped out at me from Bush’s words last night — that sticks with me today.

Originally posted April 14, 2004

Colombia gets safer, and Hugo gets over romantic illusions about insurgents

It’s been an exhausting but happy couple of weeks.  Since I was last on campus, my wife and I have flown through seven different airports,spent quality time with both our families, and surprisingly enough, had the chance to sleep eight hours straight several nights in a row. 

We spent the past week with my wife’s mother’s family on their remote, rural finca (ranch) in Cesar province in northwest Colombia.  It was our third visit to Colombia together, and our first as a married couple.  Since I’m tired and lightheaded this morning, I’ll offer some random thoughts.  I hope to have photos up by the end of the week!

First off, almost as much as a good lefty likes me hates to admit it, even I can see how much Colombia has improved in recent years under the leadership of President Bush’s only true friend in South America, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.  The right-wing Uribe was elected in 2002 on a hardline platform of no compromise with Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers.  Many feared a dramatic escalation of violence in what was already one of the most dangerous countries (if not the most dangerous) in the Western Hemisphere.  But in many regions, security has clearly markedly improved.

My wife, my mother-in-law, and I all agree that things had improved noticeably in the mere 20 months since we were last in Colombia.  The main highway that leads from Bucaramanga (the city with the nearest airport) north to the finca had been repaved and cleaned up.  Most of the potholes that we saw in 2004 were filled in.  The number of army checkpoints in Santander, Norte de Santander, and Cesar (the three provinces in which we spend most of our time on our Colombia trips) had been clearly reduced.  Last time, we were ordered out of the car several times to have our papers checked and to be frisked for weapons.  That didn’t happen once on this visit.

The small towns near my wife’s family’s finca all showed signs of increasing stability and prosperity.  In Pelaya, Costilla, Aguachica, we saw new streetlights up, new paved roads, and fewer soldiers.   We saw more new cars.  (Speaking of cars, almost everyone in this region of Colombia drives Renaults; for years, they were the only brand available in the northwest provinces, and even now, they retain considerable loyalty.)  We discovered too that people were more willing to discuss politics than they had been in the past; there was a clear reduction in the amount of palpable fear that folks seem to have.  In the poor and simple farming communities in which we spent our time, we found surprising (to me) support for the hardline, conservative policies of Alvaro Uribe.  Everyone in my wife’s family is planning to support him in his reelection bid next month, grateful as they are for his refusal to compromise with the narco-traffickers and the guerrillas who have tormented them.

I confess I grew up romanticizing left-wing revolutionaries and guerrilla groups.   In the 1980s, as a teenage socialist, I became enchanted with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  (It all started, of course, with a sublimely good Clash album).  I became a fan of Fidel and Daniel Ortega and the FMLN; I had the ubiquitous ratty Che Guevara t-shirt.  I loved the idea that not so far away from my comfortable home on the California coast, men and women were marching through the jungle, fighting the capitalist oppressors and liberating the poor campesinos.  In more recent years, my adolescent radicalism faded into limousine liberalism, but I still made appreciative noises about armed Marxist insurgencies wherever they were in the Third World.

While I had daydreams of revolution, my wife’s family had many very real and very brutal experiences with the FARC (the left-wing guerrilla army that has been trying to take over Colombia for decades) and with the right-wing paramilitaries who combated them.  For years, my wife’s uncle (who owns the little finca) was forced to pay protection money to the guerrillas.  Indeed, when we visited in August 2004, the FARC was still quite active in the hills very near the family place.  In order to guarantee our protection, my wife’s uncle paid the guerrillas a substantial "head tax" (in cattle) for each of us.  This was to ensure our safety during our visit; had he not paid it, the guerrillas made it clear that we would risk being kidnapped.   My wife’s family only told us about this head tax after we returned to the States — it was a sobering realization, and one of many that put an end to my fantasies about the moral superiority of armed insurgents.

And then there was Matteo, a skinny and lovable mutt who looked a lot like a lab/doberman/retriever mix.  Matteo has been guarding the finca for years, and he has the bullet wound and the machete slashes to show for it.  It’s funny how dense and sentimental we privileged types can be!  I can listen to stories of people I’ve never met getting abducted and killed and be unfazed — but show me very real wounds on a very real animal and I become instantly enraged!   Listening to the story of how Matteo survived a brutal slashing a year of two ago at the hands of the FARC left me shaking with anger and close to tears.  And any last shred of sympathy for the cause or the tactics of the guerrillas vanished last week.  And even more bizarrely, I come home rooting lustily for President Uribe to win a second term in office! 

You see, since the president stepped up his military campaign against the insurgents (a campaign backed by considerable infusions of cash from the USA), my wife’s family — my family — has felt safer.   No one asked for a head tax this time.  No one has shot at Matteo in over a year.  We walked the streets in broad daylight fearlessly, and my uncle-in-law didn’t have to sell a dozen cows to give us the right to do so.  That’s worth something.  Yes, I understand that Uribe’s human rights record is less than perfect; yes, I understand that the left-wing press on which I normally rely to form my world-view is deeply hostile towards him for a variety of reasons.  But I’ve been to Colombia three times now, and I’ve seen very, very real progress for a great many very vulnerable and poor people — and whether the press in this country reports it or not, I’m going to believe what I’ve seen and experienced more than what I read.

Colombia is still not a safe country by the standards of the prosperous global North.  It still has a high murder rate, and the guerrillas and narco-traffickers remain active in certain parts of the country.  But it is clearly getting safer, and is starting to become the sort of place adventurous  American tourists could consider visiting more often.  Last night, we flew home on COPA Airlines, flying from Bogota to Panama City and then home to LAX.  Very few Americans on the first leg of the flight leaving Colombia, but tons on the second leg back from Central America; lots of sunburned folks heading home from a week in Panama or Costa Rica or on the islands of the southern Caribbean.  Colombia, of course, is the closest South American country to the West Coast of the USA — it’s only an hour’s worth of flying time beyond Costa Rica.  It also offers infinitely more biological and anthropological and cultural diversity than the small Central American nations that have become popular with US tourists; Colombia has the mountains, the beaches, the lowlands and the dazzling metropolises.  What it doesn’t have is a reputation as a top tourist destination (outside, perhaps, of the walled city of Cartagena.)   If things keep getting safer and more secure, that might change.