Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Commencement, A Wedding, and an Alternative Politics

As the President of the United States delivered the commencement address at my institutional home, Calvin College, I was celebrating a wedding with a young couple that my wife and I counseled during their engagement. Being on sabbatical excused me from attending, so I chose the wedding over the President’s visit. Because of this, I was confronted with questions on two fronts.

To astonished West Michiganders (while Michigan was colored a blue state in the last election, it’s western environs are a deep rouge), I had to admit that I was going to pass on this wonderful “honor” to be in the presence of the President. But to many of my equally disappointed colleagues, I also had to explain why I wasn’t there to wear an armband at the ceremony, and why I didn’t sign the faculty’s letter of protest which received national media attention. It was the latter group I found to be less charitable, calling into question my commitment to the vaulted Niebuhrian dream of “transforming culture.” One colleague even dug up the Reformed tradition’s oldest and vilest epithet, suggesting that I was acting like (gasp!) an “Anabaptist.”

But being at the wedding, I want to suggest, was a political act. (Of course, it was also a good time; but not that good: it was a Baptist wedding, so sans libations).

Let me backtrack a bit: as most now know, our campus was shaken from its West Michigan Republican slumber with the announcement that our commencement address would be delivered by the President of the United States. Almost immediately, all kinds of coalitions of dissent and protest began to form. Eventually amongst the faculty two dominant modes of engagement won out: a plan to wear symbolic armbands during the commencement, and an opportunity to sign an “open letter” to President Bush, articulating a critique of his own policies and a more constructive vision of politics seeking justice for all.

And then it slowly began to happen: the unfolding of a Seinfeld episode. You know the one: where Kramer participates in the AIDS walk but prefers not to wear a pink ribbon.

“What!?,” is the response. “Who won’t wear the ribbon? Why won’t you wear the ribbon? You’re against AIDS, aren’t you? Then why won’t you wear the ribbon?” Kramer collapses under the blows of other protesters.

I began to experience something similar: “Why won’t you sign the letter? Aren’t you opposed to Bush’s policies?” Yes, absolutely was my reply; but I also wasn’t comfortable with the articulation of an alternative which still, to my mind, was trying to play the game by the rules of a politics that wasn’t mine.

For instance, I couldn’t sign on to "respecting" (rather than simply “obeying” [Rom. 13]) the office of the President since I'm not sure that the executive branch has ever been a force for justice in the world. And quite to the contrary, this is the office of the Commander-in-Chief: the office that has, with the push of the proverbial “button,” rained untold suffering on many, from the horrendous bombings of Japan to Clinton's wag-the-dog war crimes in Sudan, not to mention the current Iraq war. So I just can’t bring myself to look on this “office” with too much respect. Nor could I sign on to the criticism of the Iraq war as “unjust” and “unjustified” because the letter, while purporting to speak from Christian confession, entertained that war could be just, which I don’t.

So, with a sense of respect for those undertaking this organized dissent, I politely declined participation, sent our RSVP to the wedding, and began to check the couples’ gift registry.

While I was prepared for brusk treatment from those on the Right, I wasn’t really prepared for the hegemonic response from my “progressive” sisters and brothers. Because of my (non)response—which they variously labeled as quietest, pietist, escapist, perfectionist, purist, Anabaptist, and sectarian—a number of my colleagues judged that I was either a cop-out or a sell-out. One was even happy to label my “silence” as evil. If you won’t wear the ribbon, if you won’t sign the letter, if you won’t wear the armband, you must be complicit with the system. By not signing the letter, I might as well have pushed the button on the cruise missiles that tragically shattered an Iraqi family’s wedding.

Being called evil is a bit hard to take—especially for someone who has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq (and war in general), as well as the injustices that are the fruit of capitalist systems for distributing resources, not to mention the maddening conflation of foreign policy with bastardized theology. But because I didn’t respond in the “right way,” because I wasn’t “participating in the political process,” I was remaining silent—silently evil.

Once I gathered my thoughts however, I responded with a question: Why would you conclude that because I’m not signing your letter that I’m being “silent?” Is there only one way to speak? If I don't do what you’re doing, does that mean I’m not doing anything?

A proper response in this situation must proceed from a careful diagnosis. And it is here that I think my progressive colleagues are a bit shortsighted. We need to first ask: Why was it that so many in Calvin’s constituency—and many other Christians in West Michigan—eagerly welcomed President Bush into a central ritual of our college community? Why is it that the Reformed cultural elite have come to so closely identify being faithful with being committed to a party that privileges the wealthy, is aggressively militaristic, and caters to the nouveau riche of late capitalism?

My answer would be both simple and complex: this represents a failure of discipleship. If we find the climate of highly-churched West Michigan to be so complicit with institutionalized social injustice, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. Clearly, our churches, far from forming us otherwise, are actually contributing to the formation of docile subjects of the GOP machine.

What, then, would be a fitting response? Armbands? A letter?

If the problem is a failure of discipleship, the only proper response must be a rigorous commitment to re-imagining Christian formation. The best response will be a matter of worship, not publicity. (And, in fact, I fear the “open letter” to President Bush only exacerbated the problem, galvanizing the constituency and confirming all their suspicions about “liberal” academics, losing a chance to really be heard by our constituency.)

So we went to the wedding. We participated in a liturgy of worship that, to some degree, had the goal of constituting a “peculiar people” whose politics is otherwise. And what I'll continue “doing” is try to reshape and re-educate the imagination of the church so that in time they will be formed as disciples who will immediately see the injustice of exploitive domestic policies and the utter inconsistency between Christian confession and militaristic foreign policy. I guess I'm taking a longer term view (which doesn’t play well with activist urgency). I’m also taking a stance of hopeful charity, trusting the possibility that the Spirit can change hearts and minds—even in West Michigan! (Such a miracle would be enough to make the staunchest Reformed folk entertain Pentecostal visions.)

And here I must confess that I don’t see many of my progressive sisters and brothers eager or willing to take up this hard, long work of discipleship and formation in the churches. Many of my colleagues who so loudly and publicly protested the Bush visit with their armbands and other declarations tend to inhabit ecclesial spaces where they’ll find many sympathetic to their political stance—and from there articulate their prophetic critique. But as Richard Mouw wisely counseled me several months ago, we need fewer prophets, and more teachers. Or as Klaas Schilder put it a half-century ago, in his own little book on Christ and Culture penned in the shadow of fascism:

"Blessed is my wise ward-elder who does his home visiting in the right way. He is a cultural force, although he may not be aware of it. Let them mock him: they do not know what they are doing, those cultural gadabouts of the other side!"

So I’ll continue to see my adult Sunday School class or our Bible study group as political spaces where, slowly to be sure, disciples of Jesus are shaped by the politics of Jesus. This politics doesn’t play the game of party lines or state power, but rather seeks to form us otherwise—as those who desire a different kingdom and who serve a king-in-waiting.

A Europe "To Come"--or Not?

Last fall while I was working on my new book Jacques Derrida: Live Theory (Continuum, due to appear in the Live Theory series late this summer), I was most intrigued to go back to some of Derrida's thoughts on the "idea" of "Europe" offered back in the late 80s and early 90s, as the idea of the EU was coming together. There Derrida spoke of an "other Europe" and a "Europe open to the other" as a "Europe to come." (Recent waves of xenophobia across Europe would seem to indicate Europe, rather than opening itself to the other, has become fixated with shutting its doors.) There Derrida wondered aloud about the possibility of France's leadership in this new Europe.

So it is with some interest that I'm watching this week's key votes on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands, though I confess to not yet having formed any strong position on the matter. But for a very helpful entree into the Constitution, which utlizes web technology very well to highlight the points of debate, see the constitution feature created by Le Monde.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Galloway Redux

OK, having been just scolded by Gideon Strauss, and duly informed by Christopher Hitchens, let me qualify my "praise" for Galloway by noting that I was praising his no-holds-bar rhetorical approach to the dullness of the Senate subcommittee. I didn't mean to extol him as a moral saint. So, the re-cantation out of the way, I still wish we could import more British parliamentarian posturing into the mundane, monotome rambling of the senate and congress. Who wouldn't want to hear Galloway sustain a filibuster?!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

From Republic to Empire: The Fascism of the Sith

Just returned from taking the boys to see Revenge of the Sith. Pretty much all one could hope for (if you have realistic hopes), and more. The Buddhism of the series is clearly confirmed, but for me the most interesting line of development was the transformation of the Republic into an Empire--all in the name of peace and protection. The Emperor's "resolve" is for the sake of homeland security. Sound familiar?

Senator Amidala captures the irony of fascism's triumph: "So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause." Indeed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

George Galloway: My (New) Hero

I first heard of George Galloway when we were living in Cambridge: he had become quite notorious as a renegade (now ex-)Labor MP, deeply critical of Blair and the Iraq War. The Sunday Times Magazine did a feature spread on him that was fascinating, though not altogether charitable. His (voluntary) appearance before a Senate subcommittee brought some of his blistering rhetoric stateside, bringing with it a taste of British parliamentary debate that I deeply miss. [Be sure to watch the video if you can.]

The BBC has culled some choice quotes from Galloway's testimony. My favorite:

"I have met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns."

Washington doesn't know what to do with this strange, truth-telling beast.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Blame Carter

Much ink has been spilt on the supposedly new emergence of imperial aims in American foreign policy, including jeremiads about how everything has changed post-9/11. In a sweeping essay in the Wilson Quarterly ("The Real World War IV")--something of a precis to his new book, The New American Militarism--Andrew Bacevich carefully demonstrates thst American foreign policy, with respect to the middle east, really hasn't changed since the twilight of the Carter administration. Bacevich suggests two key factors that contributed to the current excesses of "American militarism":

First, American militarism isn't all that "new": ever since Vietnam, he suggests, Americans--on both left and right--have been infatuated with American military might. "Militarism insinuated itself into American life."

But second, one can see a kind of chemical reaction between this deepening militarism with respect to foreign policy and a very particular domestic interest: preserving the "American dream." This "American way of life" revolves around automobiles, and so one of the most important elements required to maintain this culture is perpetual access to cheap oil. So if we want to understand "the rising tide of American bellicosity that culminated in March 2003," Bacevich remarks, "we must look as well to national interests and, indeed, to the utlimate U.S. interest, which is the removal of any obstacles or encumbrances that might hinder the American people in their pursuit of happiness."

Ironically, the first "villain" in this narrative is not one of many hawkish Republicans, but the timid southern evangelical, Jimmy Carter. Though Carter also represents a missed opportunity.

On July 15, 1979, Carter--seeing that American's increased addiction to foreign oil [at the time the US imported 43% of it's oil; today it's 56%]--delivered a national address that offered an almost prophetic critique of American consumption. Americans, he warned, had come to worship self-indulgent consumption of material goods as the way to define themselves. This, he suggested, stemmed from a "mistaken idea of freedom" understood merely as self-interest, to which he contrasted a "true freedom" which sought "the path of common purpose" and mitigated self-interested hoarding of resources. And then he uttered a notion that was--and very much is--a taboo for the "American way of life": he told American's that they must make sacrifices. He called on Americans to restrict their use of energy resources, to park their cars one day a week, to pursue alternative sources of energy, and to just generally put a cap on their consumption.

The message landed like a lead balloon, and within just a few months, fighting for his political life, Carter made an about-face and articulated what would come to be known as the "Carter Doctrine": “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he declared, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

It was Jimmy Carter, then, who declared World War IV. And it seems that any who disagree with the current rendition of American militarism in the middle east can only excuse themselves if they also reject the Carter Doctrine. But that, of course, will require a people who are willing to forego a culture of consumption. I'm not too hopeful that "America" is very interested in that. But it might be that within America we could find new monastic communities with the resources and will to do so.

Friday, May 13, 2005

This Historian Should Pay More Attention to the Present

Yale historian Donald Kagan delivered the NEH's Jefferson Lectures last night in Washington. Undertaking a rant against postmodern "theory" and seeking to reclaim the Enlightenment dream of objectivity, Kagan argued that history was the discipline best poised for this reclamation project. As the Chronicle reports:

'Mr. Kagan also defended his view of history as "Queen of the Humanities, standing between and slightly above her noble handmaidens, the muses of literature and philosophy," against the claims made by last year's Jefferson lecturer, Helen Vendler, a poetry critic and professor at Harvard University.

Ms. Vendler's 2004 lecture took the view that education in the humanities should focus on language, literature, and the arts, rather than on history and philosophy (The Chronicle, May 7, 2004). Mr. Kagan disagreed, noting that in the "modern world," where the influence of "religion and the traditions based upon it" has faded, "the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not."'

The influence of religion and tradition has "faded" in the modern world? Is Kagan so lost in the archives looking for that elusive objectivity that he can't find time to read today's newspapers?! If this is the kind of astute analysis that her majesty History has to offer, then I think her reign is a blind one. While Kagan perhaps captures the spirit of Jefferson, it is just such blind commitment to Enlightenment dreams of secularism (which promised religion would wither away) that blocks any real progress on dealing with the wide impact of religion and traditon across the globe. Mr. Kagan would do well to pay a little more attention to the present.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Constantinianism of the Left?

Jim Wallis' book tour for God's Politics made a stop at Calvin College last night. His presentation was disappointing (alot of slogan-mongering), but it was really his position that was disappointing. Though not surprising, I must say; I'm glad to have gone, if only to confirm my suspicions. There are a couple of areas in which Wallis either gets it wrong, or doesn't get it:

1. I would describe Wallis' position as a kind of Constantinianism of the left. While he's not out to establish a theocracy governed by a leftish god, his position is nevertheless deeply "statist." In Dan Bell's terms, he still believes in statecraft. What was most telling, I thought, was for all his talk about faith, and even "evangelicalism," last night, I don't know that he ever once mentioned _the Church_! Instead, he'll focus on "people of faith" getting out the vote, lobbying congress, and doing everything they can to marshall the political process to effect prophetic justice. But that kind of picture plays right into the hands not only of American liberal individualism, but also the deep anti-ecclesial individualism of evangelicalism. In contrast, I think the only hope for justice is a robust church, which requires an ecclesiological account of the formation of disciples. Wallis seems to think a good "moral" civics lesson is enough. Indeed, at the end of the day, he thinks that democracy trumps the Church, for as he put it (yes, this is a direct quote): "Religion must be disciplined by democracy."

2. I couldn't help but concluding that, whatever Wallis' earlier stance might have been, he's really just ended up as a humanist. The talk last night was riddled with talk of "values"--which is just the code word for some kind of vague, supposedly common American moral vision. So there's all kind of bluster about morals, faith, religion, and "values," but this is all aimed at the end of just creating a kinder, compassionate American civil theology.

Instead of Wallis' leftish civil theology, I'll continue to believe that our most important political action remains the act of discipleship through worship.