The Overton Salon

Osama bin Laden “Justice” and “True Grit”

Posted in Theology by Sarah Eisele-Dyrli on May 6, 2011

I’ve heard a number of people talk about “justice being done” in regards to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. As I was listening to someone say this on an NPR program the other day, my thoughts wandered to the film “True Grit.” [spoiler alert]

Mattie Ross is a feisty young girl who sets out to capture the man who killed her father, Tom Chaney. After tracking him for days with Rooster and LaBoeuf, she finally has the chance to kill him. And she does. And he falls off the cliff. And she falls back from the power of the gun, down into a hole with snakes, is bit, poisoned, and almost dies. As an audience, you have no time to celebrate his death. It’s completely anti-climactic.

In many ways, this feels similar to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Here’s what we’ve paid so far to kill Osama bin Laden:

  • Our way of life as a country has forever changed, in ways we can’t even remember. We live in constant fear of a possible terrorist attack. As a result, our quality of life has decreased.
  • We have “spent” over $1 trillion on the wars, some of which my children will be paying for in years to come.
  • Thousands of American soldiers have lost their lives 9/11 – almost 6,000 to date.
  • Thousands of American soldiers have sustained physical injuries (approximately 32,000). As of the first few months in 2010, 178,000 soldiers had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. It is estimated that 30% of all soldiers have developed mental health problems.  This will cost the American public for many years to come in lost wages, productivity, homelessness, medical care, and the loss of the quality of life for all of those soldiers.
  • Thousands of Iraqi (8,000-194,000), Pakistani, and Afghan civilians (almost 3,000 killed by pro-government forces alone) have lost their lives.
  • One estimate of the financial cost in the search for bin Laden came out today – $3 trillion over the past 15 years.
  • Thousands of soldiers lives have been changed in indescribable ways – long-term physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, divorce, night terrors, etc. Thousands of parents, grandparents, children, partners/spouses have lost loved ones physically and emotionally. They bear a burden bigger than any financial or lifestyle burden than those of us who have not suffered those losses will ever bear.

And this is justice? Scripture shows a very different picture of what justice looks like:

1 Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.

2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.

3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

(Isaiah 60)

This is what God says will happen to Israel when they begin to act justly. While not directly applicable to the United States, which is not a theocracy, God’s measure of justice should be our only measure of justice as a church. So it begs the question: Is light shining upon this nation as a result of this action? Are we radiant (v. 5)?

In God’s Kingdom, justice is not an expense. You don’t have to count bodies when Biblical justice occurs. You don’t have to cut needed supports to those in poverty to pay for justice. Justice is the presence of something – rightness, goodness, integrity, fairness. Humans flourish when justice is present.

Looking at what we have so far paid on catching bin Laden, are these things present?

To me, it looks more like the death of Tom Chaney than justice. Yes, he’s dead. But we’re in the snake pit.

Battlestar Galactica and the Cycle of Violence

Posted in Culture, Theology by austin on April 27, 2011

I finally finished watching the entire Battlestar Galactica (hereafter BG) TV show. I had heard that it was a re-telling of the Aeneid, Virgil’s telling of a remnant’s flight from Troy to found Rome, and while I realized that this was it’s beginning story, it eventually transformed into a story that deals with a major aspect of Christianity: an end to the cycle of violence.

The Aeneid was a story about the founding of an Empire. When Aeneas and his group settle in Latium, they meet the violence of the inhabitants. But in BG, this is the mid-point of the story on “New Caprica.” Eventually they are led to a place called “Earth,” in its primitive state, and they settle there as a people. The cycle of violence is then broken, because of a change in power dynamics.

The humans of the “twelve colonies of Kobal,” eventually developed the technology to create a artificial intelligence called “Cylons.” They eventually develop enough capacity on their own to turn on their masters, and they start a war (perhaps in reference to Cylon of Athens, an olympic victor who attempted a coup in Athens as told by Thucydides). There is a long and costly war, and then a truce. Then forty years later, as the humans are asleep as it were, there is a “Trojan horse” (the Cylons develop themselves to look like humans) and the Cylons proceed to destroy the entire human race, except for 49,000 or so.

So the story is basically about the Cylons chasing humans throughout the universe, and all the attended drama. Much of it is pretty good drama too, although it gets pretty melodramatic at times. The best seasons are 1 and 4, since the themes are the clearest, and even when it gets melodramatic, these seasons don’t stray to far from the overarching theme.

Now BG’s solution to the cycle of violence is two-fold: forgiveness and equality. As the character Ellen says, once the Centurians (Cylons) have been freed, the cycle of violence ends. BG basically interprets violence as an outcome of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: once the slave realizes that the master’s life is dependent on theirs, they recognize their rights. Yet the master will not give up their right so easily, because they see themselves as superior. Thus a fight for recognition ensues. The story of BG really is this fight: humans believe they are superior, and the Cylons believe they are superior. Eventually forgiveness emerges as both realize they need each other – and this is the reason why the Cylon-human hybrid child becomes so essential to the story.

In other words, forgiveness is the recognition that the claims of both parties – the claim of an equal dignity by the slaves, and a recognition of the need of the slaves by the humans – are affirmed. This allows the humans to re-imagine what life should be like, and allows the Cylons to come to grips with who they are.

You’ll have to see the show to understand how there are so many hints of Christian thinking involved in this (I mean, look at this picture!). I don’t think the creators necessarily intended this, because at certain points they seem to have a real antipathy for at least “organized” Christianity. But the answer to the cycle of violence that BG gives and the answer Christianity gives are quite different. And in the very last episode, it seems that they realize this answer – equality and forgiveness – don’t really do it.

The problem with this answer is that it leaves out a very basic element in human (or apparently, Cylon) life: desire. It does not deal with the fact that human desire for what the other has – whether that be power, or money, or survival – transforms their perception of that other, and what equality really means. Part of what Jesus came to reveal was a way this desire can be transformed, and this is a lot of what the cross is about.

But BG is worth watching in that it is a long meditation on this problem of violence.

What if God’s Administration were in Power?

Posted in Politcs, Theology, Uncategorized by austin on April 12, 2011

Originally I was going to title this post “Why I cannot be a Republican.” After reading Drew’s latest post, I realized that perhaps we shouldn’t politicize solutions, but rather have political solutions. And that got me to thinking. I was going to argue that I couldn’t be a Republican because of all the grandstanding about the budget, and the fact that their budget priorities are horrendous, in my humble view.

But I suppose I then realized that I could probably make similar argues – albeit about different subjects – concerning Democrats, or really about any group in American politics. I decided then to step back and ask a different type of question: what if God ran the U.S.? What would our nation look like?

Before you turn me off, just think for a minute. I’ve heard this asked before, and normally Christians who do so come up with things about sexual purity, the abolition of abortion, and other social programs conservative Christians have favored since the 80′s.

But since I’ve been deep into the theology of the book of Revelation, I think we should ask a prior question if we really want to judge this from what we think might be God’s perspective. The question is this: given that God has already inaugurated his kingdom on earth in the form of Jesus and his ministry, what would be the priorities of God’s administration on the topic that are now heatedly in the balance, like the budget, the military, etc?

I think once you start asking this question, you start realizing that the spectrum of right and left as we’ve understood it in this country really have little to do with God’s administration.

As an initial thought, let me just say that it is important to remember that the climax of the gospel presentations (and indeed of Revelation) is “king of the Jews” nailed upon a cross. So as I begin thinking about this for myself, let me just point out that kingdom and cross are the place to begin.

So, what do you think God’s administration would look like?

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King Hearings on “radicalization of Muslims in America.”

Posted in Politcs, Race, Theology by Andrew Dyrli Hermeling on March 10, 2011

The hearings begun by Republican Peter King have, not surprisingly, polarized the debate on homeland security. Leftists are calling foul, drawing comparisons to McCarthy’s Commie witch hunts. The problem with branding the hearings prior to the event is that what made the McCarthy hearings so reprehensible was the way they were conducted. It was, as described, a witch hunt based on shoddy evidence and with purely self-serving political aims.

Now, to be fair to critics of Rep. King, his résumé looks quite similar to McCarthy’s when one substitutes communist for radicalized Muslim. Which begs the question, if American security is the primary concern of these hearings, wouldn’t it have been wiser to appoint someone else to lead them? Of course, considering King’s constituency, there is a huge amount of political capital to be gained from appearing hard on terrorism.

In the end, appearing hard on terrorism may be the hearings’ great failure. Just as it is reasonable for Americans to be concerned about the radicalization of Christianity and how it increases the likelihood of domestic terrorism, it is reasonable to investigate any religious sub-group that promotes terrorism. The truth is, radical Christians who use the Bible to justify violence of any kind are an insult to my faith. I will do anything to foil Christians who distort my faith for violent or destructive ends.

The problem is, if I am addressed and treated as a radical first because of my faith, and a citizen only after I have proven my “loyalty,” I will inevitably become far less likely to cooperate. And that’s where these hearing become problematic. If American-Muslims are treated as suspicious first, then as citizens only after proving themselves, we lose a invaluable resource. Just as a sane Christian cannot tolerate violence against abortion clinics or homosexuals, a sane Muslim cannot abide terrorism. (Now may be a good time to point out the unavoidable irony, as Rep. King has historically supported a terrorist organization with strong ties to a particular brand of Christianity.) However, if these hearings take on the face of a witch hunt, we may actually weaken our national security. The fact is, most “homegrown” Muslim terrorists have been foiled by concerned Muslims (see Liz Halloran’s article or Jonathan Alter’s )

In the end, it is too early to judge the hearings, as we are yet to see exactly how Rep. King will conduct himself. The truth is, terrorism is a concern, and there are Islamist groups who seek to terrorize the United States. The test for King or any other group looking to improve American security is whether it can effectively isolate these groups while working to ensure that American-Muslim allies (the vast majority of Muslims) not only cooperate, but do so because they feel that their rights as American’s are being attacked by terrorists and not the United States government.

Review: David B Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite”

Posted in Books, Theology by austin on July 14, 2010

By Austin

David Bentley Hart – who seems to be something of a theological rock-star these days (as much as that’s possible) wrote this first book of his (subtitled “The Aesthetics of Christian Truth”) of out his dissertation, considerably expanding it, while keeping that dissertation feel in the first part of the book. It is a compelling volume I have to say (except for his ponderous writing style), and it has really made me think through some basic issues in regards to very foundational Christian claims.

The book starts with the assumption that “beauty [is the] measure of what theology may call as true” (3). He says this is the reason why postmodernity should be welcomed by orthodox Christians: it has vindicated “rhetoric” over “dialectic” (in non-philosopher’s terms: truth is ultimately about persuasion, rather than proof) through the postmodern deconstruction of Enlightenment values. It has taken on the myth of “disinterested rationality” and burned it to the ground. Fortunately Christians have no stake in that argument, since “the church has no arguments for its faith more convincing that the form of Christ; enjoined by Christ to preach the gospel, Christians must proclaim, exhort, bear witness, persuade – before other forms of reason can be marshaled” (ibid).

In other words, the postmodern should not scare us because it merely points out how all claims to truth ultimately work: as rhetoric, rather than reasonable (note: this does not mean reason is not a part of it – nor even the greater part – but that there is no ultimate ground outside of rhetoric). Hart argues throughout most of the book that Christianity’s is a rhetoric of peace, and thus is beatiful in itself – and hence is true.

For Hart – as for most post-modern thinkers – the first person to recognize this was Nietzsche. Indeed, Nietzsche was the first philosopher not only to recongize this, but to recognize a collorary to this. If rhetoric is the ultimate ground, if Christianity is to be opposed, if this great disease of humanity is to be cure, an entire new story will have to be created that can oppose such rhetoric of Christ. Nietzsche recognized that this rhetoric can only be opposed by creating a story so compelling that humans will find truth just by looking at it – thus his Zarathustra, and his entire development of a new myth to live by. One of the real pathetic things about the New Atheists is that they basically keep the old story, the Christian one, but just get rid of the author and lead actor (Nietzsche called their 19th century ancestors, the positivists of his day, the new priesthood).

Of course Nietzsche’s new story – and as Hart shows, Derrida’s, Deleuze’s, et al – ends up being one of the oldest stories out there: the myth that at the foundation of being is chaos and violence, and it takes an act of counter-violence to bring order (one doesn’t need to read much Derrida or Deleuze to get this – Derrida of course bemoans the fact, while Deleuze celebrates it). This is right out of the playbook of the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman myth cycles, myths that interestingly enough Jewish thought explicitly opposed itself to in those ponderous states about God breathing life into all things.

Instead, Hart tries to show how “the peace of God – the shalom of creation and of the day God declares his rule out of Zion – has a real historical shape and presence, a concrete story, one which has entered human history as a contrary history, the true story God always tells, in which violence has no place but rather stands under judgment as provisional, willful, needless: nonbeing” (127).

The rest of the book is an argument for this. He gives us a “Dogmatic Minora” in which he starts with the Trinity, moves to Creation, Salvation, and Eschatology. There’s a lot there, much of it convincing, some of it not so much. What I really like about Hart is that his theology starts from Creation, and takes this doctrine with utmost seriousness; what I thought was a weakness was his not taking quite so seriously eschatology (a mere 14 pages!).

In any case, for just posing this question of beauty, and then arguing that Christianity is an argument from peace, while those others are arguments from violence, is worth the entire book. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to him often.

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