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Violent “American Empire” Decried at Pacifist MeetingEric LeMastersFebruary 07, 2011
Audio of last year’s conference, which featured pacifist luminaries like Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas and “emergent” guru Brian McLaren, just recently became available. The event helped prepare for an upcoming International Ecumenical Peace Convocation sponsored by the World Council of Churches in Jamaica.The United States is a pathologically violent nation that is nearing the end of its imperial dominance, according to speakers at an interdenominational pacifist gathering at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana.
The “Peace Among the Peoples” conference from July last year – sponsored by the National Council of Churches and Mennonite Church USA, among others – attracted a wide array of outspoken critics of American “imperialism”, including Hauerwas, McLaren, and pacifist activist Mary Jo Leddy. Participants gathered to “discern and strategize next steps for creating a more unified peace witness in North America,” according to a statement released by the World Council of Churches.
As part of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) initiative, the conference was touted as a “preparatory meeting” for the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation to be set in Kingston, Jamaica in May 2011. The DOV initiative began in 2001 in tandem with the United Nations’ “International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.” As reported by IRD in the past, many of the events surrounding the initiative – especially those sponsored by the NCC – have taken on a noticeably left-leaning tone.
One of the more prominent speakers at the gathering, Hauerwas targeted what he considers to be an American culture that has subsisted on bloody engagements since the Civil War. His discussion pulled largely from his 2008 critique of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “just war” criteria, in which Hauerwas disparaged philosophers’ realist attempts at building a moral case for armed resistance.
“The problem with Just War is it always starts too late,” he said. “‘Oh, we’ve got a war – let’s see if it meets five out of six – that’s pretty good, okay.’ If you’re going to start Just War reflection, you’ve got to start with the question of, ‘What kind of virtues do a citizenry need to have to sponsor Just War as an ongoing policy? What would a Just War foreign policy look like? What would a Just War Pentagon look like?’ That’s where you have to start. If you get to war then it’s already too late.”
Hauerwas claimed it was unfair that his philosophy of nonviolence is often decried as an unworkable solution to a world of conflict.
“The fact that Just War people get to call we pacifists unrealistic is just bull----. I mean, let them pay up,” he said. “Let them pay up on the kind of commitments that allegedly they have.” Hauerwas argued that, if the United States truly adhered to the rigors of a just war philosophy, it would never find itself in a position to take up arms. But alas, says Hauerwas, the U.S. is beholden to an ideology that not only justifies, but mandates, the sacrifice of its citizens.
To press his case, Hauerwas quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s recognizable speech of 1863:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
“The Gettysburg Address is an address that asks us to continue to murder other people in the future,” he declared. “All in the name of the sacrifices that were made. All in the name of preserving a realism that we think America represents in the world for the betterment of human civilization.”
Hauerwas further criticized what he called the persistent, “sacrificial” meta-narrative that has kept the United States on a perpetually warlike footing since the Civil War. This narrative has impelled Americans to sacrifice their children “on the national altar” in order to prove their moral worth to past generations, he said. “How do you get a people who are taught that they are free to follow their own interests to sacrifice themselves and their children in war?” he asked. The famed pacifist argued that this paradigm sets itself as an alternative moral framework to the work of the cross. “Christ ended all sacrifices necessary to have a morally worthy world,” he said, claiming that any effort to circumvent that act effectively constitutes idolatry.
“War is a counter-church,” said Hauerwas. “War is the most determinative moral experience many people have. That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror, or perhaps because it is so horrible, can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war, but rather the church is the alternative to war.”
Hauerwas would later elaborate on this final point in his visit to Indiana Wesleyan University, whereat he acknowledged that Christians, in confronting the world nonviolently, must thus prepare themselves for a potentially more violent world.
The Dangers of a Waning “Empire”
If America has always lived by the sword, it appears doomed to die by it. According to Mary Jo Leddy, director of the Toronto-based Romero House Community for Refugees, the American “Empire” is following in the way of all ambitious empires: as its economic base has become stretched in order to maintain a military apparatus to keep its “colonies” in line, it has slowly but surely begun its descent into dissolution.
“This is a dangerous time,” said Leddy. “Because as empires feel they are losing power they become ever more violent, ever more controlling, ever more desperate to hold on to that position of being in the center of the world.” Leddy alleged that the attacks of September 11, 2001 served to galvanize support around George W. Bush’s War on Terror – a timely development, she argued, since empires in decline require foes against which to define themselves.
“This war against terrorism is not only destroying the lives of innocent people,” she said. “It is impoverishing the people. It is legitimizing and minimizing the violence that runs through gender and racial politics. And it is destroying us spiritually.”
Leddy warned that a nation will inevitably become what it fights against. “We have spent decades fighting communism, and we have become more materialistic and less democratic in the process,” Leddy said. “We are running roughshod over the innocent. In fighting terrorism, we have tortured people.”
When reflecting on what that implies for efforts to build “peace among the peoples”, Leddy admitted that could not be attained using the world’s “imperial” methods. “Our work for peace should not replicate the patterns of empire in the process. We should at least question large plans, big strategies, global visions that may subtly re-pattern the empire within our very best intentions.”
“The alternative to the imperial way of organizing the world for peace is the way of the termite – that involves many, daily, determined acts of peace that strike at the foundation of empire,” Leddy said. Small, sustained efforts in the lives of individual Christians, she said, are the only way to create the groundswell necessary to effect change in society.
A Revolution for the “Common Good”
Brian McLaren, professing to speak from an evangelical perspective, agreed with Leddy and Hauerwas that Christians in America have allowed themselves to be defined by the meta-narrative of “domination”.
“The world runs on stories,” McLaren said, and the domination story has convinced Americans that “peace and security come from being in control.” McLaren described the “story” model as the most powerful, all-encompassing value system to which human beings adhere – which makes it all the more difficult to notice by those held within it.
“[The domination story] is the story that says, ‘If only we were in charge.’ It’s the story of Empire,” said McLaren, echoing Leddy’s vocabulary. “’If we can be in charge, if we can have dominance, we can be safe.’ I believe this is the dominant story in the evangelical community in America today.” This, and several other narratives he described, distorts the gospel and conceals its significance by imposing on it an alien worldview, McLaren said.
McLaren encouraged listeners to reject these narratives in favor of one that casts believers as “protagonists in the story of our own liberation.” Borrowing Gabe Lyon’s depiction of the future of Christianity in his book The Next Christians, McLaren offered that the next generation of evangelicals will be drawn to a narrative that emphasizes the “common good” – the story of “some of us for all of us,” he said. This counter-cultural shift is playing out in many denominations that are trying to move out from under the “captivity” of the religious right, he said.
McLaren did not elaborate further on what sort of change this counter-culture would really effect, except that it had the promise of being a “very different, radically hopeful narrative.”
“This is the great challenge in the evangelical community,” McLaren said. “Evangelicals are coming to terms with the essential hypocrisy of camouflaging alien narratives in biblical language. When that happens, especially when Jesus, whom many of us believe uniquely… embodies this alternative story – when Jesus gets co-opted to one of these other narratives… then Christianity ceases to be Christian.”
The “Peace Among Peoples” conference was reported to have had over 200 registrants, with 20 co-sponsors including the National Council of Churches, the Mennonite Central Committee, the United Church of Christ, and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Although most, with some exceptions, of the participants approached war exclusively from the pacifist perspective, “Peace Among the Peoples” was purportedly organized to “facilitate a truly ecumenical conversation that will encourage greater understanding among Christians on the morality of war,” according to the organization’s website.
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