Friday, February 24, 2012

America and the Eigth Sin: Deadly innocence and theological contradictions

The following article is from the Journal of Religion and Health, Winter, 2006 and was written by Ryan Lamothe.

ABSTRACT: In this article, I argue that the cultivation of innocence in the United States, coupled with policies of free market expansionism, the acquisitiveness of capitalism, rising militarism, the hubris of democratic evangelism, free market fundamentalism, and the immense U.S. militaristic and economic power, is an especially fatal sin. In general, I contend that nurturing innocence involves overlooking the inadvertent and advertent destruction and suering that has resulted from U.S. interventionist policies and actions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, I argue that the cultivation of innocence, which is often supported by Christian theological language, contradicts central Christian beliefs.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Part 4: Deadly innocence and theological contradictions

The cultivation of innocence, when combined with unparalleled military and economic power, is deadly not simply to those countries who dare oppose us, as Bush warned, but to ourselves. Notwithstanding the good the U.S. has done over the decades, Americans overlook the physical and psychological damage that result from U.S. interventions. While there are many examples, I address only a few. Supporting Latin American dictators (Cuba, El Salvador, Guate mala, Panama) and the economic colonization of Central America has resulted in thousands of deaths and economic stagnation, if not ruin. Indeed, Johnson (2004) argued that U.S. economic policies toward third-world countries (e.g., Central American nations) are designed to favor the United States and to keep these countries in debt and hence dependent on the United States. When people in these Central American countries began to rebel against dictators friendly to the U.S., the U.S. government fanned the flames of fear by citing the dangers of Communism. We then trained and armed soldiers who were implicated in numerous and devastating human rights abuses (Chomsky, 2004). Harm is not confined to this hemisphere. The Vietnam War cost 57,000 U.S. lives, but the number of North and South Vietnamese causalities dwarfs this number. The decade-long war also resulted in tremendous physical and economic damage to both the North and the South. In Central Asia, the United States supports, for economic and military reasons, two dictators who have "hopeless human rights records" (Johnson, 2004, p. 170). In cooperation with the British government, the United States secured the island of Diego Garcia after the "British deported the island's entire population to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they continue to live in conditions of poverty and racial discrimination" (p. 221).

The harm done to other nations is always rationalized and often, though not always, accompanied by actions that result in some good being achieved. Glossing over the deadly consequences of expanding U.S. economic and mili tary power as well as preoccupation with maintaining power through eco nomic and military force have psychosocial, spiritual, and moral consequences. An intense attachment to an empire identity and the glorifi cation of and preoccupation with military and economic power and dominance screen a deep fear and emptiness in the American psyche. This emptiness stems from the tendency to make transcendent what is contingent and rela tive, which is not simply a psychological problem, but a spiritual one as well. A sign of this spiritual emptiness is found in the frantic attempts to return to being a Christian God-fearing nation, which is almost always coupled with maintaining military dominance. The moral (and spiritual) damage comes in two forms. First, denial and rationalization of the harm, done by the United States, represent the refusal to take responsibility, which is a sign of impov erished moral perspective. Also, if one does not take responsibility, then for giveness and reconciliation cannot be realized. Second, the moral and spiritual impoverishment associated with hubris, denial, and rationalization accom panies a remarkable lack of compassion and empathy for those who have suffered. As Baldwin (1955) wrote, "In overlooking, denying, evading (our) complexity...we are diminished and we perish.... [This] formula created by necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth has been handed down and memorized and persists yet with terrible power" (pp. 15-16).

The physical damage to our society from the cultivation of innocence is difficult to assess. The cultivation of innocence, I have argued, is inextricably yoked to pride and power (military and economic). Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not decreased defense spending. Currently, we spend more money on "defense" (a euphemism) than all the countries in the world combined. Many poor and low income people in the United States could benefit from social programs. Money diverted from the military expedition in Iraq could have aided African nations struggling with the AID's epidemic. There are, in other words, people who suffer at the lower stratum of society because funds are used instead for expanding military and economic power. It is an especially vicious illusion to think that the poor in the United States benefit from the expansionist efforts of the United States.

Theological contradictions lie at the heart of our cultivation of innocence, which is so deadly. As far as I know, there is no scriptural basis for suggesting that God has chosen the United States for a salvific role in the world. Indeed, I am not aware of any reputable scripture scholar who would suggest this. A related oddity regarding Christian interpretation of America's role in the world is that we seem to forget that Rome was the empire during the time of Jesus' life, ministry, and death. Jesus did not embrace Pax Romana and even went so far as to differentiate between one's duty to the Roman political realm and the spiritual realm. An earthly empire, in other words, was not part of the Gospel message. This said, from a Christian perspective, the idea of the U.S. being a chosen people in salvation history seems odd, considering that Christians claim that Jesus is the savior (and not an empire or nation). Put another way, I cannot find anywhere in scripture where it says that democ racy and free market economies are part of the divine plan of salvation, though this does not mean semantic gymnastics cannot be used to rationalize, theologically, salvific democracy and capitalism.

Even if one wishes to do mental gymnastics to argue for the U.S.s' special role inthe world, there are more fundamental theological contradictions con cerning the cultivation of innocence. Christian theologies all recognize that human beings are sinful and thus not innocent. We may be innocent in terms of being a victim of this or that crime, but we are not in and of ourselves innocent. During WWII, H. Richard Niebuhr (1943) wrote about just war and its relation to crucifixion. He concluded that while no single answer "can be thing will be common in all actions which are based on such an understanding of war: there will be in them no effort to establish a righ teousness of our own, no excusing the self because one has fallen less short of the glory of God than others" (p. 515). Niebuhr was pointing out that even in so-called just wars we are not completely innocent. Killing may be justified, but this is not a reason to proclaim one's innocence before God and others.

Another contradiction with regard to the cultivation of innocence and the making of the U.S. Empire emerges when one faces how early Christian writers understood Jesus in relation to power. In Jesus' conversation with Pilate (John 19), he clearly refuses to use power to fight the Romans. In Philippians (2:6-7), we read that Jesus Christ "did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." In both cases, the power of Jesus was not found in coercion and violence, which are tools empires rely on to extend and maintain power. Rather, Jesus' power was founded in his love for God and human beings and his compassion for those who suffer. A person can defend the policies that are aimed toward empire building, but one can hardly defend these from a Christian perspective. Thus, the Christian, theo-political rhetoric that justifies American expansionism is fundamentally anti-Christian in the sense that it does not represent in any way Christ's self-understanding of his relation to God and the world and the use of power. As we know in any cursory reading of history, not everyone who invokes Christ's name is from Christ.

The final contradiction concerns the Gospel message?"I came so that they may have life and have it abundantly." The Gospel message does not single out one people for God's grace. To be an empire, however, means being concerned about enhancing our life; this is the aim of the colonization of others. To build and maintain an empire requires the exploitation and coercion of others for the sake of furthering the economic power of the empire. Surely client-states benefit, but the underlying goal is to further the life of the empire. No empire in history, including the American empire, survives by having policies geared toward the idea that others may have life and have it abundantly, except in the rhetoric used to exploit others. The cultivation of innocence overlooks this key Gospel message, and any defense of the American empire using Christian concepts is, at best, misbegotten, and at worst, a slick deception.

In conclusion, these contradictions do not mean that American Christians who support the American empire are not Christian. All Christians suffer some contradiction, which Kierkegaard (1846) noted when he wondered if there were any Christians in Christendom. Yet, in a country that cultivates innocence, often through flowery theo-political rhetoric, we need reminders that all empires are deeply and tragically flawed, that no empire lasts forever, and that no empire offers salvation. This is not a counsel of despair, but a possible remedy through responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation

No comments: