Monday, July 11, 2005

Rhetorics of violence, rhetorics of peace

Shortly after the London bombings, John McGowan (elevated to "permanent guest host" every Thursday at published a compelling argument for the pacifist stance. As the commentators are variously noting, what he explores is a purposeful nonviolence, something that the very word "pacifism" seems too thin to describe. In his claim that pacifism "insists that violence can never be instrumental, that it never simply produces the ends toward which it aims," John is right there with Martin Luther King in the Gandhian tradition:

[T]hrough violence you may murder a murderer, but you can't murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

This is a hard argument to make in our country today. And yet a few folks have been making it since September 12, 2001. John's essay returns me to Stanley Hauerwas, to his essay in the special Spring 2002 issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, "Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11." The entire volume is interesting to revisit, because it was written before we went to war in Iraq; almost quaintly, the bad guy is bin Laden. Hauerwas, who teaches up the road from John and me, is a deeply committed pacifist and the truest Christian I know. He writes,

American imperialism, often celebrated as the new globalism, is a frightening power. It is frightening not only because of the harm such power inflicts on the innocent, but because it is difficult to imagine alternatives. Pacifists are often challenged after an event like September 11 with the question, "Well, what alternative do you have to bombing Afghanistan?" Such a question assumes that pacifists must have an alternative foreign policy. My only response is I do not have a foreign policy. I have something better--a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill. . . .

What a gift bin Laden has therefore given America. Americans were in despair because we won the cold war. Americans won by outspending the USSR, proving that we can waste more money on guns than they can or did. But what to Americans do after they have won a war? The war was necessary to give moral coherence. We had to cooperate with one another because we were at war. How can America make sense of what it means for us to be "a people" if we have no common enemy? We were in a dangerous funk having nothing better to dothan entertain ourselves with the soap opera Bill Clinton was. Now we have something better to do. We can fight the war against terrorism. . . .

Which means Americans get to have it any way they want it. Some that are captured, for example, are prisoners of war; some are detainees. No problem. When you are the biggest kid on the block, you can say whatever you want to say, even if what you say is nonsense. We all know the first casualty in war is truth. So the conservatives who have fought the war against "postmodernism" in the name of "objective truth," the same conservatives that now rule us, assume they can use language any way they please.

That Americans get to decide who is and who is not a terrorist means that this is not only a war without clear purpose, but also a war without end. From now on we can be in a perpetual state of war. America is always at her best when she is on permanent war footing. Moreover, when our country is at war, it has no space to worry about the extraordinary inequities that constitute our society, no time to worry about povery or those parts of the world that are ravaged by hunger and genocide. Everything--civil liberties, due process, the protection of the law--must be subordinated to the one great moral enterprise of winning the unending war against terrorism.

At the heart of the American desire to win endless war is the American fear of death. . . . Americans are determined to be safe, to be able to get out of this life alive. On September 11, Americans were confronted with their worst fear--a people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments. Some speculate such people must have chosen death because they were desperate or, at least, they were so desperate that death was preferable to life. Yet their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to September 11 to shop.

The notion that "no one gets out of this life alive" is classic Hauerwas, central to his ethos. As he puts it in an earlier, shorter version of this essay, "Part of the space Christians can provide at this time is the space given to us as a people who have learned . . . that the worst thing that can happen to us is not death, but dying for the wrong thing."

This is a hard position to take. It's one thing to say it, but who could live it out? Even Hauerwas, who like all of us of a certain cast of mind has a rage to explain, confines himself in this essay to a modest goal: to speak honestly. "Explanation domesticates terror, making it part of 'our' world. I believe attempts to explain must be resisted. Rather, we should learn to wait before what we know not, hoping to gain time and space sufficient to learn how to speak without lying. I should like to think that pacifism names the habits and community necessary to gain the time and place that is an alternative to revenge. But I do not pretend that I know how that is accomplished."

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