May 31, 2010


Sacrificial Nation (Paul W. Kahn, March 29, 2010, The Utopian)

Americans have long been unilateralists in the use of force. On human rights, the story is no different. The U.S. only started to accept human rights conventions when it discovered the power of attaching reservations to its instruments of ratification. Those reservations are intended to deny the treaties any domestic legal effect. The U.S. commitment to international human rights law goes exactly this far: Americans agree to abide by the conventions just to the extent that they coincide with that which is already required by domestic law.

The political and legal phenomena we confront here are elements of American exceptionalism. This can hardly find its ground in justice, when the whole point is to reject a neutral point of view. The claim that rules that apply to the rest of the world do not apply to the United States is not a conclusion we can reach behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. It is not a claim to which others can or should be sympathetic. Lack of sympathy is one thing; failure to understand is another. American exceptionalism, many think, is simply the expression of self-interest by an imperial power. Others respond that it is really not in American self-interest at all. Whether or not it is, focusing on self-interest will not take us to the heart of the matter. American exceptionalism predates the U.S.'s new and likely short-lived status as a hyper-power. If neither justice nor interest explain American exceptionalism, what does?

America is not just a political project; it is a political-theological project. That religion is an important aspect of American life is hardly a startling proposition. America begins with communities of Christian exiles. It is not an accident that the American Revolution was framed by the first and second Great Awakenings. Christian movements were prime movers in 19th and early 20th century politics -- from abolition, to prohibition. It was long a commonplace to describe America as a "Christian nation." No other country in the West so easily accepts the deep penetration of religious faith into its political rhetoric. "In God, we trust."

Population surveys of American church attendance and religious beliefs always astound the modern cosmopolitan. Still, these numbers and these expressions of faith lead us in the wrong direction, if we react by thinking that Christian influence is simply that of a particularly powerful interest group. There may be such influence, but to focus on it is to misunderstand the point of a political-theological inquiry into American exceptionalism. That point has little to do with the large number of Americans who happen to be Christians, but rather with the way in which "the Christian imagination" provides the deep structure of American political belief.

If the purpose of American governance were simply to solve coordination problems among individuals, then justice would be the appropriate measure of political life. However, Americans do not believe in America because it is a means to some other good. It is itself a source of meaning that can displace all others. [,,,]

This appeal to sacrifice is not just anachronistic political rhetoric. Rather, it remains the framing narrative of American political identity. When the World Trade Towers are attacked on 9/11, the thousands of deaths are not seen as victims of a mass murder. Rather, their deaths are the latest iteration of the relationship that every citizen bears to the popular sovereign. That sovereign can always demand a life; citizenship is never free of the possible test of faith. Sacred violence, not individual well-being, bears the meaning of this state. Americans hear, and want to hear, the rhetoric of ultimate sacrifice: "from these honored dead . . . this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." Still today, under this vision of national rebirth, terrible violence is accomplished. This time, the violence is directed outward, but why not, for America brings the "good news" that through sacrifice comes freedom.

Suppose that Saddam had simply followed the provisions of the UN Resolutions and granted Iraqis political freedom. This form of regime change would have been entirely satisfactory to America. Instead he tried to maintain his oppression of the Shi'a majority in particular, and so we sacrificed to liberate them. It is not the violence that matters, but the results. We use force unilaterally in order to secure the universal rights of others. And we refuse to be bound by transnational conventions because they may not meet those universalist standards.

Bearing Witness in a Time of War (Richard John Neuhaus, 6/08/07, First Things)

The following homily was delivered by Fr. Neuhaus at the annual Memorial Mass of the Military Vicariate at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on the Feast of the Ascension, 2007 [...]

We are servants of a disputed sovereignty. In the responsorial psalm we declared, "God mounts his throne to shouts of joy." Christ has ascended his throne, but his rule is challenged by rival thrones. For us who believe, St. Paul says in today's second lesson, it is the fact that Christ rules "far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion." But the principalities and powers of the present age still rage against his rule. We are the servants of a disputed sovereignty.

In today's gospel reading from Luke chapter 24, we hear the words of Jesus, "You are the witnesses of these things. . . . Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." The apostles stayed in the city and then, clothed with pentecostal power from on high, went out to the ends of the earth. And they continue to go, until the end of time. Christ goes with us, St. Paul says, in the form of the Church, "which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way." In the face of the principalities and powers, we bear witness to his disputed sovereignty. In the loneliness of military camps, in the terror of battle, in the emptiness of loss, you who are chaplains bear witness to the presence, the sacramentally Real Presence, of "the one who fills all things in every way."

As the sovereignty of Christ is disputed, so also is the ministry of the military chaplain disputed. How, it is asked, can those who serve the Prince of Peace also serve in the wars of the principalities and powers of the present age? It is an old question, but a question that continues to be asked, and understandably so. It is a question that addresses, as St. Augustine would put it, the right ordering of our loves and loyalties.

The second century "Letter to Diognetus," which is explaining the Christians to a pagan reader, says, "For the Christians, every foreign country is a homeland, and every homeland is a foreign country."

In the right ordering of our loves and loyalties, we are patriots of this foreign country called America, which is also our homeland; but we are patriots bound by a higher patriotism to the country that is our true homeā€”the country, the Kingdom, where the sovereignty of the ascended Lord is no longer disputed. Like St. Thomas More, we are "the king's good servants, but God's first." And we are the king's better servants because we are God's first.

Jesus says, "And you will be my witnesses." As chaplains, you are the witnesses of Christ and his Church to a new order of undivided love and allegiance. That kingdom is now present by faith's anticipation of what is to be. There are many important things a chaplain does: he teaches, he counsels, he encourages, he consoles. But, above all, the chaplain is a witness to the sovereignty of Christ and his kingdom. He is a witness to what is to be; he is a witness to what, for those who believe, already is. Through him, Christ makes sacramentally present a new heaven and a new earth. A new heaven and a new earth where the conflicts of the principalities and powers are no more. A new heaven and a new earth that is now, by the gift of faith, peace in the midst of battle.

Speaking last October to the International Congress of Military Ordinariates, Pope Benedict declared: "The Church is missionary by nature and her principal task is evangelization, which aims to proclaim and witness to Christ, and to promote his gospel of peace and love in every environment and every culture."

In situations of mortal conflict, in a world too often marked by the absence of peace and love, your task is to bear witness to a promised new world order. In doing so, you are the nation's good servants, but God's first. You are witnesses to the sovereignty of Christ, a sovereignty now disputed but one day to be acknowledged by all.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2010 1:44 PM
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