Wednesday, December 12, 2007

American Heresies, Again

As the revelations about destroyed CIA torture tapes continue to unfold here in the heart of the empire we are being told again, by those in power, that Americans don't torture. "We're not like that," the powerful say -- and, one imagines, they want to believe it.
How are we, really? Many at home and abroad paint with too broad a brush in considering the torturers, the administration that guided their actions and the Democratic leadership that turned a blind eye on it all. While all of them stand complicit, much of the rhetoric of condemnation sounds a bit like Bruce Cockburn's haunting Rocket Launcher, from the 1980s Latin American war experience. Cockburn's words -- "if I had a rocket launcher, some son-of-a-bitch would die" -- stand as a signal expression of a perspective grounded on a fundamental theological error.
The heresy, shared by critics and defenders of American practices in the war on terror, denies both that all of us are created in the image of a loving God and also that all of us are broken.
The truth is, as the Biblical image of humanity makes clear, that each of us is some strange and volatile mixture of the angels of our better natures and our own profound brokenness.
We may not know anything about the spies who tortured or the officials who authorized them. Truth be told, we don't know that much about the President or the House Speaker, either. But about all of us, we do well to recall the words of the psalmist, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51: 3-5). While in the very same moment we must remember also that the psalmist says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
All of us, are both of these things: those who transgress, and those who are wonderfully made. And we live, all of us, somewhere east of Eden.
Dr. King said that we must develop the capacity to forgive, for without that we cannot claim the power to love. Forgiveness begins, he said, when we recognize that the evil actions of our enemies do not express all that our enemies are. “This simply means,” he said, “that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
That vision, which seeks as its goal forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, stands in stark contrast with the notion, given voice by the leader of our nation, that we are engaged in a war to “rid the world of evil.”
Alas, as James Carroll said, “evil, whatever its primal source, resides, like a virus in its niche, in the human self. There is no ridding the world of evil for the simple fact that, shy of history’s end, there is no ridding the self of it.”
Indeed, the notion that this nation, or any nation – no matter how nobly conceived or dedicated – could of its own actions rid the world of evil is perhaps the fundamental heresy upon which so much of our current foreign policy rests.
We cannot rid the world of evil when we so clearly participate in it ourselves. We cannot; any more than we can bring justice to the world by means of an unjust war; any more than we can bring democracy to the world by means of a war that the vast majority of the world’s people oppose. And the further into the morass of this war we go, the more we become like the very thing we hate.
Some 35 years ago, Martin Luther King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Lost amidst the news of destroyed videos and secret briefings is the spiraling cost of occupation.
It is not the job of the church to correct the state’s political and military strategies, but it is most certainly our job to correct errors of theology. It is also quite clearly our role to warn of the approach of spiritual death.
For, in this case, the two are so closely related. We lie and deceive ourselves at peril to our souls. We follow the false gods of power and security, and develop theologies of nationalism to honor them, and we wonder how it is that we become the very thing that we hate.
Theology matters. Show me your image of God, and I will show you your image of humanity. From those images of God and humanity grow the strategies of nations. And when those images are skewed by heresies, and those strategies perverted by false premises, from them develop the images that now dominate our news.
The church’s complacency in the midst of this is shattered – or should be – as we realize that amidst the howls of protest rising in response to recent revelations nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “love one another as I have loved you.” Nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Nowhere do we hear the voice of the one who said, “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).
It seems that in this season, the voice of the Prince of Peace should be heard again.

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