War: An American Pathology

“Old men start wars. Young men fight them. And everyone in the middle gets killed. War is natural. Peace is accidental. We’re animals.” I was recently thinking again about those words from Sylvester Stallone (talking to Joel Stein in Newsweek some years ago). Stallone wanted Rambo to say those words, about how he felt about war, in the new Rambo film. But he decided he would cut that dialogue, “because Rambo is a silent man, and blurting out your thesis is for college papers, not movies.”

“What I was trying to say,” Stallone said, when Stein pressed him, “is that the world will never come together and say we are one. Rocky represents the optimistic side of life, and Rambo represents purgatory. If you think people are inherently good, you get rid of the police for 24 hours – see what happens.”

Historically, Americans have gained a reputation for being an optimistic people. Having lived many decades as an American in America, I’d say that there’s a good deal of truth in that. Until lately. It doesn’t seem as if we Americans think very much about the optimistic side of life any more, at least not when we are looking abroad. Since September 11, 2001, and more so in recent years, our foreign policy seems intent on fulfilling Hobbes “war of all against all.”

After a little research I was startled to find that except for four years since 1961, we Americans have either been at war or participated in a war or a engaged in a some sort of military action overseas. Think about that. During the last 56 years there have only been four years (as far as I can calculate) when we have not been engaged in some sort of warfare in some way some where. There’s something wrong with us, people.

I am not suggesting that at times real evil does not arise evil in the world that needs excising. And I cannot speak for those who have fought in war, or for those who have had a family member killed or maimed in a war or one who suffers from painful memories that lie buried and then surface. But to those of us who have never been to war, etc., I want to ask: why have many of us in recent times endorsed wars that now seem questionable in the extreme. Maybe war is just an idea to us. Or maybe our own endorsement of war gives us a vicarious satisfaction about the itch for a fight that lies latent even in those of us who hate fighting. Twenty-seven hundred years ago a discerning man concluded that the heart is deceitful above all things; so, he then asks, who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Despite all the considerable good it does in the world, a nation with nearly sixty straight years of uninterrupted warfare looming large in its current international legacy surely must have a pathology of war in its midst. And there is this. As that pathology spreads in our foreign policy, could it not in no small degree be implicated in why we have become a people who are so much at each others throats here at home. In medical science, besides the known symptoms of a pathology, knowledge continues to expand to reveal effects previously unknown.

People, we need to wise up. The sages tell us there are ways wiser than war (Ecclesiastes 9:18; Proverbs 3:17). And from them we learn of the foolishness of the human arrogance that trusts in military might (Psalm 20:7-8; 33:16-17).

We Americans claim to be a nation that trusts in God. And today we are complaining incessantly about the bitter polemics that are dividing the nation. The Gospels are replete with teachings from God’s son to put others first. Do we want to take our hands from each other’s throats here at home? Perhaps if we start thinking and acting peaceably first toward the foreign other, God will shed mercy on us and we will start accruing peaceable fruit here at home.

We are not animals. We are human beings. And peace is not accidental. Peace is wrestled out of adversarial foreign relations by human beings through the tediously skilled moves of diplomacy, negotiations, and mediation to prevent war. The potential to listen to the better angels of our nature is part of who we remain, even in our tragic state. We must to listen to them much more that we currently do in our foreign affairs. An increasingly militaristic foreign policy is not the solution. A return to health at home begins abroad.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images: permissions via Creative Commons: guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launching a Tomahawk cruise missile; a doctor helping Afghan woman and child.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

 

America’s Quest for Happiness

little girl with balloon 2

“Happiness is desired by all; and moments of it are probably attained by most. Only moments of it can be attained because happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent. There is no simple harmony between our ambitions and achievements because our ambitions tend to outrun achievements….

“There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.

“The irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life ‘comfortable,’ only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones. Thus we tried too simply to make sense out of life, striving for harmonies between man and nature and man and society and man and his ultimate destiny, which have provisional but no ultimate validity. Our very success in this enterprise has hastened the exposure of its final limits. Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things. ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh’ (Psalm 2, 4).

He laughs because ‘the people imagine a vain thing.’ The Scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace can find a lodging place.”

Source: Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, chapter 3, “Prosperity and Virtue”

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Samuele Deiana, via flickr.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. And, hey, tell some friends! Thank you.

THE BIG PICTURE

jigsaw big picture“Thank you!” to all who replied to my informal poll, which asked you to name one or two post-9/11 issues and events that you would like to this blog take on during the months ahead. Some sent email, others replied in the Comments area. Thanks also to those I spoke to in person. The replies were thoughtful and identified significant areas of concern, although no consensus emerged. But now that I think about it, I should have known that would be the case.

Our post-9/11 world presents us with a wide array of consequential issues, events, and policies that we need to come to grips with, both in America and in the Middle East. And the reality continues to change dramatically, and at times dangerously. There are so many decisive areas of the post-9/11 big picture to tackle that it would be hard to find agreement any one or two. That was certainly true of my small poll, in which no two people expressed an interest about the same area.

There were also significant aspects of the big picture that were not mentioned by the responders. That was an interesting omission to me, because I thought these areas would certainly be mentioned. What the poll did for me, then, was to remind me that the post-9/11 big picture has many crucial pieces of different shapes and sizes. This was on my mind as I wrote the pool, and one of the email responders picked up on that. So in the next post I want to summarize the salient pieces of the post-9/11 big picture.

Following that post, we will begin to consider some of these areas in depth. I will take you behind the scenes, on a kind of crash course, to understand where are at (really at) and how we got here, and, importantly, to consider what some wiser ways ahead might be. What I have to say is not going to be some rehash of you have learned from the evening news or talk radio or the blogosphere.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why that is, really why, then wiser ways ahead cannot be formulated and implemented.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Lynette Cook & NASA

THE ODDITY OF ANOTHER WAY

problems solvingPolitics, science, education, economics, society, and every other basic aspect of a nation’s life – in the long run these are not neutral subjects. The way in which these areas develop in the minds of individuals or communities is determined by the kind of god that governs the thinking of those individuals or communities. And that determines how collective problems are analyzed and solutions enacted.

This is vitally important to get into our heads, at least for anyone who wants to see a nation directed by a gospel-shaped wisdom: because the way the gospel thinks is different from other ways of thinking about sociology and politics and economics and foreign policy and so forth. A gospel-shaped wisdom is going to have different ways of analyzing such problems and offering solutions for them.

The difficulty is that a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom for a nation’s problems may seem terribly odd to both individuals and communities. The reason for this is because the gospel doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere; it is different than the ways people are used to thinking about problems and solving them. (For an introduction to this phenomenon, refer to the series on Jesus as a Teacher of Wisdom in Ancient Palestine.)

Here I want to note some apt examples from theologian and philosopher John Peck, whom, I should add, was also my tutor. From a lecture many years ago, Peck’s observations about the oddity of gospel answers to the collective problems of a nation remains pertinent today:

“We are in a society which, since Freud, has been pleading increasingly diminished responsibility. Well, that makes the gospel assumption of human guilt seem pretty silly. And our politics is torn between individualism and collectivism and a lot of uneasy compromises in between. That makes the concept of the Trinity – a God of individuality in community – one God – an unbelievable God. puzzledIt makes the God-man Jesus an impossibility, logically anyway. And our economics is obsessed by the two alternatives of breakneck progress or stagnation. So that the idea of slowing up for the sake of the helpless seems an unrealistic idealism. It hasn’t got any space. And our education is so devoted to scientific measurables, that faith and hope and love sound a bit daft – because you can’t mark them on a dial.”

This is equally true in areas of interest to this blog, such as diplomacy, international relations, and foreign policy. In the U.S., foreign policy analysis and decision making, for instance, is deeply rooted in ideological thinking. This makes the idea of constructing international relations based on what the gospel would have to say about peace and human mutuality seem ridiculous.

If a nation is not run on a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom, it is by default run on some other wisdom, on some other way of seeing national life and expressing it, on some other way of trying to analyze and solve its problems.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Boy image by Daniel (Permission via Creative Commons)

RELIGION: A HIDDEN WORD

search for Chr AmerA nation’s conception of itself and of the way it should be run is derived from its faith. In other words, there is a direct link between a nation’s ultimate conception if itself and the utterly practical ways in which it get things done. Consider a common slogan: “America is a Christian nation.” Many people deploy it to mean: “America has to get back to being a Christian nation.” That is, America’s founding faith was Christian, the country has let that slip, and so the answer to its ills is to recover Christianity as the nation’s guiding light.

Reputable, patient, historical scholarship, however, has shown that it is a misleading reading of the history of the United States to conclude that it was founded as a Christian nation. See, for example, The Search for Christian America (Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) or the more recent Founding Faith (Steven Waldman). No one, of course, can honestly deny the Christian influences, which were many, widespread, and deep, in the early American narrative. Puritan, Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic settlements, for instance, all confessed Christianity and exemplified variants of it. However, these were settlements and colonies. They were not about the founding of a nation, of the United States. The distinction is significant.

The founding document of a nation is its constitution. If, for instance, you read the constitutions of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan you will immediately see that they are “Islamic republics.” This can leave no question in anyone’s mind about the ultimate religious faith of those nations – their conception of themselves – which then directly influences the practical ways in which they go about their business. As Pakistan’s constitution puts it: “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed” (my emphasis).

Now there is no such overt faith or religious statement in the constitution of the United States of America, or even in the Declaration of Independence, about Christianity. It is true the Declaration gives a nod to “God” and to “divine Providence,” each once. But the Declaration is not the Constitution. It did not found the nation. It declared the thirteen colonies to be independent from the British empire. Twelve years later the Constitution was written and signed, and there is no mention of Christianity in it, nor any God-language either. The closest the Constitution gets to God-language is the Preamble’s ambiguous phrase “to secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

So is American a Christian nation? Not according to its founding, legal document. This is not to suggest that there were no Christian ethical, social, economic, political, and other insights contributing to the founding. But it is much closer to the actual reality, I believe, to sum up the founding faith of the United States of America as an admixture of Puritan Calvinism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Virginia deism.

These sources play huge roles in America’s ultimate conception of itself, that is, its faith. They informed the thinking that went in to U.S. Constitution. They account for the way the nation goes about its business today, such as its social, political, economic problems, as well as its analyses of and responses to its foreign relations headaches.

In the next post I will conclude these thoughts on “religion” by considering why a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom seems an odd way to address America’s collective problems.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer