Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Lone Ranger Diplomacy

Listening to exerpts of the President's speech from last night, this quote from Niebuhr I already had handy seemed apropos:

From the internal perspective the most moral act is one which is actuated by disinterested motives. The external observer may find good in selfishness. He may value it as natural to the constitution of human nature and as necessary to society. But from the viewpoint of the author of an action, unselfishness must remain the criterion of the highest morality. For only the agent of an action knows to what degree self-seeking corrupts his socially approved actions. Society, on the other hand, makes justice rather than unselfishness its highest moral ideal. Its aim must be to seek equality of opportunity for all life. If this equality and justice cannot be achieved without the assertion of interest against interest, and without restraint upon the self-assertion of those who infringe upon the rights of their neighbors, then society is compelled to sanction self-assertion and restraint. It may even, as we have seen, be forced to sanction social conflict and violence.

Historically the internal perspective has usually been cultivated by religion.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society..

One can make several uses of that. Applying it directly to the present political situation in America, we have the President of the United States saying that things are going well in Iraq because more and more Iraqis are becoming "battle hardened" and able to defend themselves. As if civil order was all a matter of carrying a gun and making the "criminals" (i.e., the "agents" of "chaos") fear your firepower, enough to leave you in peace. It's the dime novel version of "How The West Was Won." And it is utter nonsense. But it proceeds, or thinks it does, from Niebuhr's rump definition of justice as seeking equality of opportunity for all life. Such equality of opportunity, however, can be sought only after order is imposed; which is where the legend of the "Wild West" comes in. Like the legend of the Hollywood movies and 19th century dime novels, Bush thinks the world is a place where human civilization is imposed by force, where reason is forced onto disorder, where peace comes only through wielding the greater violence. It is the "chaos" theory applied to social order. It is the justificaiton for the Pax Romana.

What I find fascinating and appalling about the President's foreign policy, is his absolute conviction in the "chaos" theory of civilization. And, connected to that, his clear conviction about the depravity of human nature.

He clearly and fervently believes that human civilization is an imposition, by force, of reason on disorder, order on irrationality, peace on violence.

To call it "cowboy diplomacy" is to insult cowboys, who are working men, not gun-slinging anarchists. This government's foreign policy is the utter perversion of Hobbes' observation that the human condition without a government is a state of nature "red in tooth and claw." Even government does not assure against that condition, in Bush's vision. The only proof against chaos is an armed citizenry willing to fight day by day for its security. Only a people "battle hardened" and "able to defend themselves" is deserving, or can secure, the blessings of liberty. Chaos, in other words, must be opposed daily, regularly, and individually. Governments do not provide this protection. Only individuals do.

Which is, of course, a perversion of the notion of social order. In the Bush vision, social order is maintained only by the ceaseless and relentless application of power, because the "natural order" of human existence is nasty, brutish, and short, and is fended off only by the constant vigilance of violence. It is the Hollywood version of the "Old West," where merchants and women cower behind walls while hoodlums rampage, until the greater power of the sheriff or the "hero" comes to impose order once again: usually by killing every "outlaw" in town, and leaving it for the "decent folks," who soon learn that order comes not from good thoughts or middle class values, but from the willingness to wield a gun ruthlessly against the "bad guys."

What Bush is espousing, in short, is nothing less than "Every man for himself," with the assumption that no person wants anything less than the destruction of all those around him, unless a sufficient punishment be imposed to prevent us all from acting on our evil impulses. (Good middle class values are reserved for Americans and others who more naturally seek the "good things" in life. Is there more than a trace of racism in this worldview? Absolutely). Human nature, in this vision, is brutish, cruel, sadistic, selfish, and wholly destructive. Order is imposed only by power, and only power wielded in accord with reason is able to maintain order. And reason, as always, is next to Godliness; indeed, in classic Christian teachings, it is a gift from God. Chaos waits at every opportunity to break forth again, and only eternal effort and the exercise of this divine faculty, prevents chaos from succeeding.

That this sounds like a Christian view of world order is no accident. The "battle of good v. evil" is usually couched in terms taken from Hellenistic philosophies. Satan and his minions, as Milton himself described it, seek only to disrupt and undo Creation. Jealous at having lost Paradise, Milton's Satan is determined to disrupt and destroy the Creation as much as possible. But even Milton introduced Satan into Paradiese. The pervasiveness of evil is attributed to the "original sin." So, says George Bush, "they" hate us because of "our freedom." "They," of course, are the minions of Satan, those still unredeemed from "The Fall.". "We," of course, are the chosen of God, placed a little lower than the angels (and a little above everyone else, especially those who "hate our freedom."). Milton wanted to explain the ways of God to man. We have twisted his vision to justify the brutality of "this busy monster manunkind."

Is evil a presence in the world, constantly at work seeking opportunities for malevolence? The Greeks thought it was just the impersonal forces of the cosmos: chaos, subdued but never conquered by reason, would one day prevail again. The defeat was as inevitable as exhaustion. The Revelation to John is often seen as a Christian continuation of this theme, only with an inexhaustible God redeeming creation from chaos. But Revelation is a far subtler book than that, one written to fool the Roman censors sensitive to anything that threatened the Pax Romana. Just as many today, both opportunistic politicians and simple scared American citizens, fear the least discouraging word on the floor of the Senate, or an innocent photographer standing in the line of sight of a power station or a telephone line. Revelation is not about the defeat of evil, but about the presence and prevelance of good, of that which creates which upholds and undergirds that which thinks it can destroy. As Jesus said in Matthew, fear the one who can harm the soul, not the one who can harm the body.

Still, humanity is the only creature that seems to think aggression is necessary for survival. That is a learned, not an instinctual, attitude. And Christianity, among many other religions, teaches something wholly different. It teaches that survival is assured by God; that the Creation is good, and all that is in it is good. And it teaches us to choose life; to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves. You cannot do that, if you see your neighbor as an agent of chaos. You cannot do that, and see your neighbor as an agent of chaos. You cannot do that, and cling to the belief that your own survival is entirely, or even ultimately, in your hands.

We conflate survival and salvation. "Savior" was a political term in 1st century Rome. To proclam Jesus of Nazareth a "savior" was to put him on par with Caesar, the guarantor of the Pax Romana, the provider of the benefits of "civilization." Only later has it come to have metaphysical force. Still, the salvation Jesus taught had nothing to do with survival; it had to do with life. He said himself that he came to bring sight to the blind, freedom to the captive, health to the sick. His was not a metaphysical claim to redeem "souls" for the "sweet bye and bye." He was always (except for the late gospel of John) more focussed on this life than the next one. Jesus famously said: "If your right eye offends you, pluck it out." Better, he said, to go into the kingdom of God with one eye, than not at all. I don't think he was speaking metaphorically at that point; or if so, only just. He spoke so directly, and so physically, to get our attention, to focus us on what matters now: real life, right here, among all these other people.

Much of what George Bush espouses by his actions, can be traced to Christian doctrines of soteriology, or salvation. Based on the soteriology Bush probably accepts, humanity is not considered "good," but evil, corrupt, all but irredeemable. Salvation can come only through acceptance of the atonement of the sacrifice of the Son, and so only to those who can, or will, accept this doctrine. To the rest of humanity some adherents of this belief all too quickly assign damnation, both in this life, and the life to come. This is, and in fact must be, considered "Christianity," if only because no one can claim a true doctrine of Christianity against which all others must be measured. It is "Christian," but it is not solely, or even wholly, Christian. Indeed, I think it should be considered an abuse of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and indeed of the Scriptures.

And so we have Karl Rove, whose only interest is power. But power is not salvation; power is not deliverance. To wield power is to give yourself over to power, just as to accept salvation in God is to give yourself over to God. But what is the form of that salvation? To save your life, Jesus says, you must lose it. To save your life, you must trust God; and in trusting God, you must trust that God's creation is good. Is that possible, in running a country, in being responsible for the health and security and welfare of millions of people? Yes.

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