Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lest we forget: The vanity of nations and the cult of military sacrifice

When a state has no gods, it deifies its own. For it has no sense of something greater, no limit to its imaginings, and so it must conceive them. This tendency is nowhere more prevalent than in late western democracies, since they eschew all religious partisanship, and construct an identity based on nationhood and citizenship. This is seen, not least, in attempts to reassure Americans in the wake of 9/11 that American Muslims were Americans first, Muslim second, a state of affairs that should at least raise the eyebrow.

In Australia today, it is the celebration of Anzac Day. While many nations have some similar remembrance of soldiers' sacrifices, Australia is perhaps unique in its celebration of an essentially disastrous and futile military action, directed by officers of another nation, that ended in no great gain yet great loss of life, as the marker of its 'birth of national identity' and the commemoration of war.

Anzac day, in recent years, has become the only truly sacred day in the civic calendar, and its tag line, "Lest we forget", encapsulates its purpose: to immortalise the memory of those who have died for the nation.

It is at this point, and I am sure some of you reading will take offence, we must turn aside. If Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who came into this world to redeem men and women from every tribe, language, people and nation, and unite them in himself as one body, and come again to judge the living and the dead, if He offered up his life as the true sacrifice, what truck are his disciples to have with war and its cultus?

For it is the vanity of nations that they are worth dying for, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that weighs its own citizens' lives as worth more than the enemies, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that makes of men professional killers then lauds them as heroes. It is the vanity of nations that thinks its brief glory will endure forever, when history is littered with the ruins of entire peoples, languages, civilisations, all of whom bled many more lives than we. So long as it is 'we', and not 'them', there will always be a justification, always a price for someone else to pay.

As a church, we should always call into question to absolutising tendencies of the state. For the church is, by the calling of Christ, an transnational body of people. It stretches across different nations, and declares that they are temporal not eternal, relative not absolute, man-made things not gods.

As a church, we ought not to immortalise those who killed and died for the nation. In fact, to do so is to be horribly 'muddled' in our thinking, schismaticising our own identity between Christ and the Nation. We remember, instead, the martyrs - men and women who died for something far greater, the good confession of our Lord Jesus Christ, who purchased them by his blood. What Christian today will remember not the sacrifices of soldiers, but those of the martyrs? I fear the answer is few.

Lest we forget - come, let us commemorate the dead, those lives lost fighting for a cause that cannot endure, those lives lost 'for king and country', those lives lost that can never be regained. Let us remember the great absurdity and tragedy of war, and refuse to give it its wanted place. Let us lament those who died too young to hear the good news, and those they slew bringing guns not gospel. It is the greatness of their sacrifice, heartfelt and 'heroic', that magnifies the folly of the cause, and leads us to memorialise not their victory, but only one more defeat.

And at the going down of the sun, perhaps we will recall these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

9 comments:

Nathan said...

"For it is the vanity of nations that they are worth dying for, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that weighs its own citizens' lives as worth more than the enemies, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that makes of men professional killers then lauds them as heroes. It is the vanity of nations that thinks its brief glory will endure forever, when history is littered with the ruins of entire peoples, languages, civilisations, all of whom bled many more lives than we. So long as it is 'we', and not 'them', there will always be a justification, always a price for someone else to pay."

At the risk of breaking Godwin's law so early in the piece - what do we do with a case like Hitler?

This is, in my opinion, the only flaw in the argument for pacifism - how does one protect the weak from a position of strength in situations where violence is the only solution (ie in response to a violent abuse of power)?

Phill said...

after prompting from a close friend, I have been wondering lately if there is any value at all in any sort of nationalism, whether we are talking about professional sports or something more serious like war

Seumas Macdonald said...

@Nathan

1. We have no idea what would have occured if WWII didn't play out the way it did. That is, there's a real sense in which counter-factual history, once you reach a moderate level of complexity, is difficult if not impossible to predict.

2. If one is otherwise convinced of pacifism, then it is a matter of faithfulness to God and trust in his sovereignty, over and against the need to effect the right outcome.

3. I'm unconvinced violence is ever the only solution. That's a proposition that seems common-sense, but only because the response of the strong *is* violence, and in some sense that works.

@Phill

I think there is. Peoples and languages and cultures are God-given gifts, though broken. The picture in Rev 7 is not of a homogenous group of worshippers, but an assembled, united group of worshippers from all nations. We just do well to frame any 'national' identity in a way subordinate to a Christocentric one.

Nathan said...

"We have no idea what would have occured if WWII didn't play out the way it did. That is, there's a real sense in which counter-factual history, once you reach a moderate level of complexity, is difficult if not impossible to predict."

That's a bit of a cop out in my opinion - I would have thought the invasion of Poland gave us a pretty clear picture of what Hitler's actions would have continued to look like had he been left unchallenged.

If we're talking total number of deaths, then sure, it's hard to predict. But surely the death of a combatant is somehow more satisfactory than the death of non combatants?

Seumas Macdonald said...

Sorry, I think you've mistaken my point. Let me tease out my points and implications.

1. The closer the view, the easier to extrapolate consequences from choices. So, for example, we can make all sorts of more or less accurate conjectures about what course the war might have taken if battle X turned out differently. We can be fairly confident about the kinds of actions Hitler might have pursued if things had gone better for him.

2. It doesn't take a great deal of complexity to make such conjectures highly unstable. What if a collocation of different factors all turned out differently in 1941? Suddenly calculating the kinds of events and actions that are even *possible* in 1943 becomes an order of complexity difficult to contemplate.

3. The test of non-violence's efficacy would be large-scale non-violent non-compliance with a Nazi-like regime. I would say we have rarely, if ever, approached something like that. Perhaps my friend Yoder has some more data in his posthumously published "History of Nonviolence". But, more importantly, I don't predicate the rightness of non-violence on its efficacy.

4. My argument is specifically *Christian*. If God wanted to stop Hitler by means of pagans and the nations, I see little difference between how his sovereignty works out in that instance than in the Old Testament. The question isn't, "Should we use violence to stop Hitler?", but "Should Christians use violence to stop Hitler?" Those two questions are not equivalents.

5. Are the deaths of combatants more satisfactory than the deaths of non-combatants? I don't even know how to approach that question, to be honest.

Nathan said...

"The question isn't, "Should we use violence to stop Hitler?", but "Should Christians use violence to stop Hitler?" Those two questions are not equivalents."

That was a pretty real equivalent for Bonhoeffer though, wasn't it?

Part of my problem with pacifism, as I grapple with it, is that it's like communism. It works in theory, and in the ideal... but throw a guy with a gun threatening my wife into the mix, and give me the power to stop it - and see how long that pacifism lasts.

I just feel like pacifism opens up a whole lot of sins of omission as we avoid commission.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Sure, for Bonhoeffer it was a real equivalent. What I'm trying to get at is that what human beings ask, and what Christians as a distinct subset of human beings ask, are different questions. By becoming Christians we surrender certain ways of controlling and influencing the world, as unbefitting of those who have been redeemed and who trust in an utterly Sovereign God.

Every time you construct a hypothetical like the one with your wife and a man with a gun, you construct a set of presuppositions to go with it. Why does 'the power to stop it' equate to 'use violence to stop it'? What if violence didn't stop it? What if some other course of action did? No pacifist I know is arguing that one should remain passive - that is not an atypical strawman of pacifism in general.

Nor is pacifism about personal purity at community cost: that I can abstain from violence to keep myself clean, but others must do so. In your hypothetical, we should never remove primary human agency and culpability from the man with the gun - he is the transgressor first and foremost. If you do nothing, then we can talk about sins of omission. The question the militant asks is, "You can nothing or use violence, do nothing and your wife dies, use violence and she lives, what should you do?" Everything about that question is wrong. It restricts all choices of action to violence vs. nothing, restricts all possible outcomes predeterminately, and presupposes the answer to the ethical question. The pacifist asks, "What legitimate means can I use to create a just and peaceable outcome?" The means determines the end, not the end justifies the means.

Nathan said...

Do you see a dichotomy between the "pacifist" and the "militant" - must we be one or the other?

Seumas Macdonald said...

No, not a dichotomy. I just find the "just war" advocates of whatever self-defence stripe, tend to be inconsistent in thought or practice. More christians are practical militants even if they don't articulate it.