Religion, Empires, and War


The current issue of Sojourners magazine contains an article that begins with the sentence: "History does not tend to be kind to Christian theologians who demand war."

Discussing the unfortunate example of Catholic neocon George Weigel, who vociferously supported the Iraq war in 2003, the author points out that Weigel still doesn't offer any regrets for this position, instead blaming the current morass in Iraq on poor post-war planning and a bizarrely bigoted and patronizing assertion of "the Arab Islamic political culture whose 'irresponsibility, authoritarian brutality, rage, and self-delusion' has caused them to refuse 'the foreigner's gift' of political freedom that we have brought them."

It would be easy to dismiss Weigel as a right wing lunatic, but his justifications for the war in the first place demonstrate how easily religion can be seduced into an unholy alliance with Empire. Weigel's argument boiled down to this: whenever the President decides to go to war, then the war is justified and the church should support it. You might think I am caricaturing his position, but I am not. His 2003 justification for the war essentially came down to these two points:

1) the president has access to privileged information, and 2) the president, by virtue of his office, exercises a "charism of political discernment" not shared by leaders of the church.
We of course now know just how much the President lied in justifying the war. The "privileged information" argument is, and always has been, a canard. Cavanaugh puts it this way:
If the church does not have an independent process of discernment to bring the gospel to bear on matters of war and peace, then any hope that the Prince of Peace will be heard over the din of self-interest and fear will be lost. History is already littered with the wreckage caused by Christian capitulation to reasons of state.
Christian capitulation to reasons of state goes way back, all the way back to Constantine. But I think it is important for people of faith, regardless of whether one is a pacifist or a subscriber to a doctrine of "Just War", to consider Clauswitz's famous dictum that war is an extension of politics by other means. If we focus just on war, and war alone, without looking at the underlying politics that leads to wars like this taking place, then we can never really prevent war. There was an underlying political and economic culture that led to the US invasion of Iraq. It is a culture based on Empire and on corporate interests, and as long as these twin pillars of American and global political culture continue to thrive unabated, the sickness and evil of wars like the one in Iraq will continue.

I would argue that the twin pillars of Empire and corporate interests are ingrained in the American political landscape. The solution to the problems that led to the Iraq war are not found in giving us a kinder, gentler Emperor, but in dismantling the Empire system altogether. I am reminded of some recent comments by blogger and antiwar activist Bruce Gagnon, who answers the question of which Democratic candidate he supports, using a series of rhetorical questions of his own:

My answer is quite simple. Listen closely to them and tell me which of them are talking about the permanent war economy.

No, I'm not saying which of them want to bring the troops home from Iraq. I'm saying which of them are mentioning that we've been taken over by the military industrial complex.

Which of the Democratic Party presidential candidates are calling for substantial cuts in military spending (say maybe 50%)? Which of them is offering a plan for the conversion of the military industrial complex to environmentally sustainable production?

Which of the candidates is putting the pieces together and telling the public about Pentagon plans to permanently occupy the Middle East, invade Iran, fight in Africa to control their oil, and militarily surround China?

Which of the candidates is laying out the weapons industry's plan to move the arms race into space - what the Pentagon says will be the largest industrial project in the history of the planet Earth? Which of the candidates for president has been critical of Bush's deployments of "missile defense" systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that will be used to help create a U.S. encirclement of Russia and will likely lead to a new arms race?

Which of the candidates is mentioning that military satellites in space are used to spy on the people of the U.S. and around the world?

Which of the candidates for president has said anything critical about the Navy's new plan to convert their ships to nuclear propulsion due to the rising cost and increasing scarcity of fossil fuels? Which of the candidates is telling us that this plan will cost more than $800 million to convert one ship to nuclear power?

Which of the candidates is talking about the fact that the U.S. military is the biggest polluter in the world?
These are rhetorical questions simply because none of the candidates are talking about these issues. Bearing in mind that the leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton, voted for the war, and that she is now lying about her reasons for having supported it, it seems clear to me that the culture of Empire infects both parties. As for the other pillar of American political culture, corporate interests, just remember that Clinton was on the Board of Directors for Wal-mart for several years before her husband entered the White House.

Jim Wallis, in response to Jerry Falwell's death, has written
Ralph Reed said that Jerry Falwell presided over the “marriage ceremony” between religious fundamentalists and the Republican Party. That’s still a concern about the Religious Right for many of us, and should be a warning for the relationship of any so-called religious left with the Democrats. But perhaps in the overly partisan mistakes that Jerry Falwell made - and actually pioneered - we can all be instructed in how to forge a faith that is principled but not ideological, political but not partisan, engaged but not used.
I think Wallis is sort of right and sort of wrong on this. In criticizing Falwell's marriage with the Republican Party, Wallis says that religion should be principled but not ideological. I think he might be confusing being ideological with being attached to a particular party in the American Empire. I think you can be strongly ideological, have a strong faith, and stand outside the political culture of Empire and corporate interests as an independent voice that speaks truth to power. Speaking truth to power does not mean you aren't ideological; Martin Luther King , Gandhi, Cindy Sheehan, and Abbie Hoffman, each in their own ways, spoke truth to power, but did not sacrifice their principles by hitching their wagons to the forces that exercised political power--and they were deeply ideological.

In the Cavanaugh quote that I cited earlier, he argued that the church should offer an "independent process of discernment". The key word here is "independent". As long as Empires and ruling classes dominate the political landscape, I believe that followers of Jesus must remain true to Jesus's message and life--a life that he sacrificed because of his nonviolent resistance to the Empire of his day.