Archive for February, 2010

I’ve just read “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” and here are my brief responses. I realize the following does not necessarily summarize that to which it refers. Niebuhr is a dense writer, so I’d encourage you to read the actual text if you want to know more. Here are my almost-stream-of-consciousness thoughts:

Niebuhr seems to emphasize the power of sin over the power of love. This was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s critiques when he read Niebuhr’s work.

As in Moral Man & Immoral Society, Niebuhr attacks a kind of Enlightenment idea about the perfectibility of man in the course of his assault on pacifism as a Christian norm such that one has a hard time differentiating between the lines of attack. The result is that his attack on pacifism proceeds from his assumptions about the premises of pacifism about human nature and destiny which many pacifists, including myself, do not hold.

Just as Niebuhr attacks a particular brand of pacifism that fails to reckon with sin (although I’ve never come into contact with this sort of pacifism), he himself has constructed a “realism” that fails to grapple with revelation, or at least to take it seriously. Christian realism should be called Christian pragmatism in a way that includes all of pragmatism’s negative connotations.

Niebuhr here assaults Christian pacifist sectarian withdrawal, whereas in Moral Man & Immoral Society, he assaults it Christian principled nonviolent activism. Niebuhr seems only willing to entertain a Christian emulation of Christ’s rejection of violence if it is paired with disengagement with society. Compare this with the life and activity of Christ. For Niebuhr, conflict and violence are conflated, and he’s unwilling to entertain the idea that Christ urged people into conflict with hatred and injustice and evil but gave limits and examples for how that conflict should be waged. In all three of the seminal examples for Christian behavior in the Sermon on the Mount (turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving the undergarment when the outer garment is asked for), conflict is an issue. Even Paul understood this – that the response of love can be a form of resistance (“heap coals of shame upon their heads”). Ironically, Niebuhr attacks pacifists who reject Pauline accretions but fails to note this problematic outlook for his thesis.

Niebuhr accepts a form of individual sectarian pacifism as a legitimate Christian calling when it’s involved in a dialectic with the norms of society. What’s not clear is why, if this were true, it would not be basic to the Christian faith. While the New Testament calls for the respect of the different roles of the members of the church body, it doesn’t call for different norms of ethical behavior.  In addition, his assertion of pacifist sectarian withdrawal as the realization of the law of love seems out of kilter with what we read of Jesus in the New Testament. This form of withdrawal was a political and theological option in Christ’s historical context and his mentor, John, may have been part of such a movement. Christ, however, was not.

“It is important to recognize this lack of conformity to the facts of experience as a criterion for heresy.”

Interesting. In Moral Man & Immoral Society, Niebuhr defends violence undertaken by disinherited people for the sake of justice. Yet historical experience in the course of the 20th century shows that violent means are less effective than nonviolent resistance in these situations. Using his own reasoning, Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” might need to be rejected as a heretical admonition to the Christian body.

“If we believe that the only reason men do not love each other perfectly is because the law of love has not been preached persuasively enough, we believe something to which experience does not conform. If we believe that if Britain had only been fortunate enough to have produced 30 percent instead of 2 percent of conscientious objectors to military service, Hitler’s heart would have been softened and he would not have dared to attack Poland, we hold a faith which no historic reality justifies.”

Note that here, Niebuhr’s community of reference is the nation, not the transnational church. His dismissal does not reckon with the Christian church preaching the law of love or even a simple, uncompromising rejection of violence in Germany as well as in Britain. And, once we reject his interpretation of Jesus’ call for nonviolent engagement as one of nonresistance, we can see that there were in fact several promising examples of nonviolent resistance that worked to thwart Hitler’s aim, notably at Rosenstrasse in Berlin and at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France (with the Le Chambon example being an action specifically motivated by a French pastor’s reading of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent engagement and the “law of love.”). To be charitable, though, these incidents remain widely unknown even today, and Niebuhr may not have known about them.

Niebuhr critiques pacifists for making “Christ into the symbol of their faith in man.” But  the word “faith” also has another meaning, more relevant to the context of Jesus’ time: one of loyalty. Ironically, it is Niebuhr who has become an enabler for the rejection of loyalty to Christ and to his means and teachings versus loyalty to the teaching and means of Caesar and the state.

Much of the remainder of Niebuhr’s critique hinges on a debating opponent who thinks that conflict can be eliminated in human life. I do not. I believe he is largely correct that our particularity and limited experience of the universe and of others’ needs makes the perception of total truth and perfect empathy impossible. That’s what Gandhi means when he says “Each of us holds a piece of the truth.” However, whereas for Niebuhr this inevitable conflict makes violence justifiable, for Gandhi it makes it impermissible because destroying another and their particular perspective cuts us off from the fuller knowledge of truth. Conflict with a competing view of the world is a good thing, for Gandhi, because it allows us access to wider truth.

To sum up, Niebuhr:

  • Doesn’t take revelation as seriously as the faculty of reason, which he ironically spends considerable time attacking.
  • Attacks an anachronistic form of pacifism in a way that makes his argument reliant on a critique of liberal social gospel ideology.
  • Elevates an ill-defined “responsibility” above faithfulness to Christ’s teachings and example.
  • Misinterprets Christ’s injunctions against violence as injunctions against conflict and resistance.
  • Launches attacks without the benefit of relevant information about the feasibility of nonviolent resistance.

I just finished reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man & Immoral Society, a work that greatly influenced President Obama’s formulation of the role of his faith in his foreign policy. This book contains much of Niebuhr’s thought about pacifism, nonviolence, conflict and violence. Here are my initial responses to his arguments:

  1. Niebuhr’s critique, along with many others’, rests on a strange distinction between individual and social morality. Many of the moral teachings in the New Testament deal with interactions between two or more people. There’s an implicit complaint in this sort of reasoning – that Jesus didn’t offer guidance for those in positions of executive or military power. This complaint proceeds from a bad assumption – that Jesus wanted his followers to seek or retain executive or military power. The record seems to indicate that early Christians certainly did not believe this. Niebuhr seems to think that when individuals are de-individuated into opposing social groups in conflict, Jesus’ teachings are not applicable to the interactions between the individual components of those social groups, or, rather, that we must incur the guilt of violating Jesus’ commands in these situations to be “responsible” and rely on God’s grace. Aside from the absurdity of asserting that a good Christian will violate Jesus’ commands to serve a value Jesus never much elevated in his teachings, here’s my response to this: it is the job of the Christian in situations of conflict, especially among opposing social/political groups, to remind themselves and others that they are individuals to whom the commands of Christ apply, and that the claims of Christ on us must take priority over claims of a state or other social or political group. It is the duty of the Christian to break violent unanimity.
  2. Niebuhr’s critique is premised on Jesus having called for nonresistance versus nonviolent resistance. If this is not true, Niebuhr’s criticism loses much of its energy. Walter Wink’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, to name just one example, almost completely demolishes this assumption.
  3. Related to #2, Niebuhr often conflates violence, injustice and coercion.
  4. Related to #3, he proceeds from an untrue (and certainly unproven) assumption that violence is not viewed as inherently unethical in the teachings of Christ.
  5. He endorses class loyalty as a corrective to nationalism and imbues the proletarians with a redemptive mission to modern society, but it is not clear why he does not imbue the church with a similar mission. (p. 229) He asserts the irrationality of choosing national loyalty over class loyalty because such a choice “makes for a premature internal peace and for unnecessary war.” But, to capitulate to the demands of violent nationalism is also to prefer international conflict to the struggle against the spirit of domination itself.
  6. Niebuhr is involved in an intramural conflict with liberal pacifist theologians of his day, but his controversy with them leads him to improperly critique all proponents of nonviolence based on the social strata of origin for his immediate opponents’ views. He seems to critique pacifism as a phenomenon that arises from middle class naivete. This totally ignores the context for the injunctions against violence and military service within the early church, and it certainly ignores the social and class situation of the original followers of Christ, to say nothing of Christ himself. Niebuhr’s critique in Moral Man & Immoral Society is almost impossible to isolate from a critique of Enlightenment thinking in the 20th century Social Gospel.

A few days ago a commenter on my blog took issue with my post, “Fallujah, New Orleans and Marjah“. Part of our disagreement focused on whether the Marines could precisely target their munitions. The commenter said in part:

What do you know about Marine Corps military operations? What do you know about the accuracy of any of the weapons in their arsenal? We are not talking about the CIA lobbing missiles at some Taliban bad guys from a UAV. We are talking about precision guided weapons.

I don’t often call out commenters like this, but at least 10 people including 5 children were butchered today because someone bought this kind of thinking in Marjah, Afghanistan:

An errant American rocket strike on Sunday hit a compound crowded with Afghan civilians in the last Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, killing at least 10 people, including 5 children, military officials said.

…Officers said the barrage had been fired from Camp Bastion, a large British and American base to the northeast, by a weapons system known as Himars, an acronym for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Its munitions are GPS-guided and advertised as being accurate enough to strike within a yard of their intended targets.

The hype surrounding so-called “smart bombs” and “precision guided munitions” is one of the reasons Americans feel so free to go to war in civilian areas, and it’s one of the most pernicious pieces of misinformation spread by the pro-war crowd. These devices may be more precise than, say, a World-War-II-era blockbuster, but, as February 14th’s outrage shows, they are anything but foolproof. In fact, of the first 50 “precision” air strikes launched at the opening of the Iraq War, “All were unsuccessful.”

The public’s mistaken perception that the U.S. military can fire munitions into a civilian area without harming noncombatants makes many Americans much more willing to back the use of military force. For example, this war-industry hype helped convince the Society of Christian Ethics to declare the Afghanistan war a “just war” in 2002.

There is no such thing as a humane war, and our inability to admit this to ourselves just butchered more than 10 noncombatants, including 5 children.

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Military officials say that civilian casualties in Marjah, Afghanistan are “inevitable” as U.S. and allied forces launch Operation Moshtarak, the largest military action since the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Thanks in part to conflicting messages from ISAF and in part due to some residents’ inability to flee, many civilians remain in Marjah, in the crossfire.

Statements from Brig. Gen. Nicholson, commander of the operation, indicate that he feels he has leeway to use airstrikes in the civilian area, and that he intends to use fast, furious attacks to try to overwhelm the Taliban. The problem: airstrikes in support of troops in contact are the leading cause of U.S.-caused civilian deaths.

All of this is very, very bad news for civilians in Marjah. And it’s bad news for the troops in the fight as well.

Cross-posted at Rethink Afghanistan.

The media is buzzing in anticipation of the impending launch of Operation Moshtarak in Marja, Afghanistan. It will be the biggest military operation of the war so far, and, in many ways, the first fruit of President Obama’s repeated choices to add more troops and firepower to the mess that is the Afghanistan war. Marja is fairly densely populated area in Afghanistan: 85,000 in Marja proper and about 45,000 in the surrounding region. Missteps or neglegence on the part of the military could be tragic, to say the least. U.S. commanders are talking out of both sides of their mouths, promising the revelation of the oft-promised humane war while promising to rain death on our enemies.

What’s got me the most worried is the spadework being done for some sickeningly familiar hand-washing. One could announce one is about to attack a given location to reduce civilian casualties. One can also give said announcement if one plans on taking the gloves off–that way when innocent people die, you can say, “They were warned. They should have left when they had the chance.” The most vulnerable victims can fall into your trap of moral exculpation.

Marja. Fallujah. New Orleans.

Recall Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004:

Before the second Fallujah offensive, Willingham remembers seeing American planes drop flyers ordering citizens to leave the city.

“The flyers let them know we were getting ready to start bombing the city, (and) anyone who stayed we assumed was an insurgent,” Willingham said.

The Fallujah attacks created more than 200,000 internally displaced people and thousands of civilians were killed (predictable, considering that everyone remaining inside the city was treated as an insurgent). Estimates of the dead vary widely. Some exceed 6,000 people. Dispute the exact numbers if you like. The Fallujah operations were a fiasco. The coalition forces devastated the city. They killed many innocent people. Remember that. That’s what happens when you give an evacuation order to a populated area and then treat those left behind as if it’s their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Remember New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Remember that residents were warned to flee. Remember that despite notice of the oncoming storm, some couldn’t leave.

While some blamed public officials for not responding soon enough, others blamed the victims for not evacuating when they knew the hurricane’s arrival was imminent. One fundamental insight of social science is to understand the illogic of blaming the victim (Ryan 1976)…

New Orleans is a city in which 27.9 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 11.7 percent are age 65 or older, only 74.7 percent are high school graduates and 27.3 percent of households do not have cars. Furthermore, a larger than average percentage of residents have disabilities: 10.3 percent of 5-20 year olds, 23.6 percent of 21-64 year olds, and 50.1 percent of those age 65 and older have disabilities according to the 2000 U.S. census. In addition, 77.4 percent of New Orleans residents were born in Louisiana and have lived most of their lives there. These statistics alone go far to explain why tens of thousands of the 500,000 residents of New Orleans did not evacuate; in so many ways they were more rooted in place than the average American.

…New Orleanians’ plans for evacuation were strongly shaped by their income-level, age, access to information, access to private transportation, their physical mobility and health, their occupations and their social networks outside of the city. These social characteristics translated into distinct evacuation strategies for different sectors of the population.

Low-income residents had fewer choices with respect to how to prepare for the imminent arrival of Katrina. Since the storm was at the end of the month and many low-income residents of New Orleans live from paycheck to paycheck, economic resources for evacuating were particularly scarce. …[L]ow-income New Orleanians are those who are least likely to own vehicles, making voluntary evacuation more costly and logistically more difficult.

…Not everyone can evacuate the city, even in a mandatory evacuation. Doctors, nurses, hospital employees, police officers, and other essential city and state employees remained in the city to perform their jobs. …Accounts from this group of people are harrowing and heroic and go far to explain why a total evacuation of the city was impossible.

…People living in social isolation and poverty, especially the elderly, the disabled, and those with chronic diseases, have scarce economic resources and social networks that are more locally concentrated and connect them to people in similar socioeconomic circumstances. Therefore, they are less able to use these social networks to evacuate before a hurricane or recuperate their losses after such an event.

Now, consider the poverty and state of social networks in Afghanistan. The country is one of the ten poorest in the world. GDP per capita is about $425 per year, and more than a third of that meager sum is consumed by corrupt officials demanding bribes, to say nothing of the illicit taxes the Taliban levy on goods. The adult literacy rate is just over 28 percent. We like to say Afghanistan is a “tribal” society, but in reality it is an atomized society, with geographically isolated social networks having been pulverized by decades of war. If many in New Orleans found it hard to evacuate, the residents of Marja will find it doubly so.

Judging by the L.A. Times article on the upcoming operation in Marja, the U.S. commander is saying all the right words when it comes to the issue of insulating the non-combatants from the carnage:

…[I]n the weeks leading up to the imminent offensive to take the Helmand River Valley town of Marja in southern Afghanistan, the Marines’ commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, sat with dozens of Afghan tribal elders, drinking endless cups of sweet tea and offering reassurances that his top priority will be the safety of Afghan civilians.

“In counterinsurgency, the people are the prize,” Nicholson said

That would be reassuring if Nicholson weren’t talking out of both sides of his mouth:

US Second Marine Expeditionary Force commander Larry Nicholson said that the evacuation of most civilians would give commanders leeway to use air-to-ground missiles, declaring that he was “not looking for a fair fight.”

ABC News quotes Nicholson explaining some truly worrisome logic:

Nicholson underscored the point saying a heavy handed approach will reduce the chance for civilian casualties.

“Our feeling is if you go big, strong and fast, you lessen the possibility of civilian casualties as opposed to a slow methodical rolling assault. You go in and you dominate. You overwhelm the enemy,” he said.

Okay, let’s put these two things together. Nicholson is telegraphing he’s letting the air strikes off the chain and that he intends to use rapid, furious attacks in Marja, and somehow that is supposed to lead to reduced civilian casualties. Well, that would be great if we didn’t already know that the single greatest cause of U.S.-caused civilian casualties was airstrikes in support of troops involved in intense firefights.

Now, one should give people the benefit of the doubt. Nicholson is gearing up for a fight, and when he speaks, he’s got at least two audiences: the Afghan public and his troops. So, one could just write this off as (pardon my French) a little bit of dick-swinging machismo meant to get his troops fired up and his enemies scared. But the problem is that he’s talking trash about using the tactic most responsible for U.S.-caused civilian casualties in a densely populated area, and if he follows through on his swagger, lots of people not a party to the conflict will be torn to pieces by U.S. munitions.

Oh, and “leaflets have been dropped in the Marja district, urging residents to get out of the area.” In a country with 28 percent literacy rates.

As residents flee Marja in advance of this operation, some that remain behind will be members of armed opposition groups like the Taliban. They will be mixed, however, with the poor, the elderly, the sick and the heroic who stay behind to help them.

Members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, for God’s sake, remember Fallujah. Remember New Orleans. Remember who is really in those buildings. Remember that many of them are trapped, and that many of the trapped got there through a life of misery. Love your neighbor as yourself. Remember the least of these. And as for your enemies, remember, with God watching you, that you must love them, too.

For those of us here in the United States – remember those who are in the path of the hurricane. And remember that the hurricane is us.