Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Post #186 - Glass half full, or glass half-shattered?

I said that I was going to post more on war and the global arms trade. Here is some philosophizing about the subject:

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "The limits of our language are the limits of our world." That is, we cannot meaningfully know what we have no way to express. Our language (at least English) has a bit of a problem with war. Not that our speech is at war with war -- in fact, we have a love-affair with it. We speak of "fighting for peace" or "a campaign against arms trade" (doesn't "campaign" come directly from the French "campagne" -- open country suited for battle?). This is not a new problem. Even in biblical times, metaphors of strife were common, hence passages such as "I come not with peace, but with a sword." [Matt. 10:34] and other such lines, so seemingly uncharacteristic of Jesus' message. Yet, He also said, "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." (Matt. 26:52)

The opposite side of this coin, as pointed out by Chuck Fager (an American Quaker) is that the peace movement can learn a great deal from the way the war establishment conducts its business -- those who seek peace would do well, for example, to adopt longer-range planning as the military does, to do more training of those coming into these efforts (a lot of peaceniks are dying off these days), and to do more to commemorate the persons and organizations that have made valuable contributions -- there are many more museums about war and weaponry (300 in the United States alone) than there are about peacemaking and reconciliation.

Let's ask ourselves some hard questions:

Q #1: Should one always strive for the ideal, or is "the perfect the enemy of the good?"

Should we stick with the grand plan: attempting to end war entirely for all time and usher in the Kingdom of God? Or, should one take a focused, if incremental, approach: e.g., efforts to ban land-mines or cluster-bombs – that is, do what one can, and do it as efficiently and effectively as possible. Or, perhaps strategic amelioration, like the limitation of arms trade -- a compromise, a less-than-perfect solution for a less-than-tolerable situation?

I read the words of Lanctatius (who tutored Emporer Constantine's son): "wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence," for "God, in prohibiting killing, discountenances not only brigandage, which is contrary to human law, but also that which men regard as legal"...and I think the ideal is not such a bad goal to keep before us.

Q #2: Are some faith traditions better oriented toward reducing destruction than others?

There is clearly a perennial tension between creation and destruction, which figures in the theology of each tradition. We have the eternal antagonism of Zoroastrianism – Ahura Mazda and Agra Mainyu -- good and evil -- in unending struggle with one another.

Shiva the Destroyer
The accepting equanimity of Hinduism – Shiva the destroyer is seen as but one manifestation of the Godhead (other gods, too, use a variety of weapons or astras to do battle or to gift humans). We see certain figures embracing their role as warrior because it is simply their lot in the current cycle of existence. Other gods embody peace, prosperity and various other positives.

The methodical transcendence of Buddhism – escape from suffering through acceptance and detachment; and non-violence presented itself as a viable option for the first time in history. We all remember the self-immolating monks of the Vietnam era (such self-sacrifice continues today in places like Tibet).

The realist, humanist approach of Judaism – "tikkun olam" ("repairing the world") -- the Talmudic sayingwhoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. or envisioning swords being forged into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. This contrasts with the defiance of Masada.

Finally, there is the radical transformation represented by Christianity – “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus attacked no one, unless we count the overturning of a few tables in the temple.

And yet....do we see any differences in actual practice (i.e., in history)? Is there any tradition whose members have consistently eschewed violence (there certainly has been ample evidence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam using force to uphold their rights, impose their beliefs or advance their worldly ambitions. Hindus have persecuted Christians in this century and Muslims for centuries, a Zoroastrian king conquered the known world and so on. Perhaps Baha'is alone are historically blameless -- or maybe they just haven't had enough time to turn violent, being only a few centuries old (though Mormons didn't need that much time).

Q #3: What is the proper relationship between religion, national identity and commerce?

The Orthodox Church condemns the placing of national identity over faith in Christ, as the heresy of phyletism. Despite this, as Bishop Kallistos Ware has said, "Nationalism has been the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries." (Make that eleven now, I suppose.)

The intertwining of religious identity with citizenship -- faith and patriotism -- is still one of the most difficult dilemmas facing us today. "God-and-country" (almost as a single word) seems to slide effortlessly off the tongue of many. Add to that the powerful lure of crass profit-maximization and you have a truly unholy trinity of interests.

William F. Schulz spent 12 years as executive director of Amnesty International; he said that he has seen enough of the ghastly things of which people are capable that he is "not easily convinced that humans, in the words of Psalm 8, are 'but a little lower than the angels'...Left unchecked, human beings are vicious sons of bitches with whom you would be very wise not to leave your two-year-old or your credit cards."

Orthodox theology holds that while we are not tainted by "original sin," we are nevertheless born into a fallen world. Solzhenitsyn (or possibly Dostoevsky) wrote: "The line between good and evil does not run between nations or parties, but through every human heart." This has not changed, I think, since Eden.

Q #4: Are things getting better or worse in regard to weapons of war?

It is a fact that a number of conventions now exist regarding the conduct of war, control of certain classes of weapons, or treatment of prisoners. That looks like improvement...

Or are we doing worse?...

We must keep in mind how new a phenomenon the arms trade as practiced today actually is. The United States had virtually no armaments industry prior to the Second World War, yet today we have a permanent arms establishment of truly vast proportions. People have always constructed weapons, but the massive standing capacity which creates its own justification is relatively new.

Warfare has grown more technological, therefore inherently less humane. The enemy target is a not much more than a digital fiction, rather than a real person. Alvin Toffler wrote in 1970, "If the last 50,000 years of man's existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately 62 years each...the vast majority of all the material goods we use...today have been developed within the present, the 800th lifetime." Churchill said, "What was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. The atomic bomb is the second coming in wrath!" About 100 million people were killed by other people in the 20th Century, most without resort to nuclear weapons. A thousand people a day are now being killed by small arms.

A Hindu, C. Rajagopalachari, writing about the evolution of mankind since the writing of the Mahabharata, said: "The passage of time has witnessed many changes in men's ideas of right and wrong. Nothing is exempt from attack in modern warfare. Not only are munitions made the target of attack but...animals, medical stores...non-combatants of all ages, are destroyed without compunction."

A colleague of mine wrote that technology has radically changed ethics. "For the first time, the old double standard of treating the powerful one way, the weak another, became, potentially at least, obsolete. We are entering a period when the 'weak' may well have weapons to retaliate." -- meaning nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that are easily transported and deployed. Certainly, taking out an architectural icon with a single airplane, or killing thousands by hand-made roadside bombs bespeaks an asymmetrical dynamic that is confounding traditional military tactical thinking.

This would be a good time to pray...

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