Some More (Unsolicited) Advice for the Libyan Rebels

Oh what fun we’ve had in the last six weeks! You folks were winning. And then you weren’t. And then the French and the American air forces showed up, allowing you to win again. And now you aren’t. To be crass, it’s like a tennis match. With tanks and bombs.

It’s clear at this point that not all Libyans support the uprising against Muammar Qaddafiy. Many do. Possibly even most. But not quite enough. Qaddafiy still commands a fairly well organized army, one that is still fairly cohesive despite being pounded from the air and losing both armor and artillery and the ability to effectively use armor and heavy artillery. It can still defeat you on the ground. What we had all hoped would be a fairly happy rerun of the December 1989 revolution in Romania has not happened. Qaddafiy has far more support in Libya than Nicolae Ceaucescu had in the end, and I suppose we can thank the tribal nature of Libyan society, as well as the fact the The Brother Leader had put many of his close family members in charge of those bits of government most important to him. (Modern state institutions like Egypt’s or Romania’s, with their desired basis in professionalism and competence rather than familial closeness, can easily betray a dictator if they see their best interests served in doing so. Political parties are also not families. Family is, well, family.)

So, some advice. As romantic and wonderful as a charge across the desert in Toyota pickup trucks is, beating the crap out of regime forces with the help of French and American fighter jets, it’s clear you’ve strung yourselves out too far and aren’t a coherent enough fighting force to effectively hold territory. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The French and Americans really are on your side. Don’t take the alleged impartiality of the UN Security Council resolution too seriously. The West is working for you. The presence of CIA advisors should be proof of that, not to mention all the bombing. Take advantage of that. Form a defensive line somewhere — I’d recommend Ajdabiya, but I understand y’all may be retreating from there as well — and then, with the help of all this allied air power, hold it. (For inspiration, let me suggest to you Surah 105 of the Qur’an, which relates the account of how God sent the birds to drop stones on Abraha’s army besieging the Ka’aba in Makka and destroy that army. If such a comparison, birds sent from God with the US and French air forces, seems blasphemous to you, consider that Kuwaitis were more than happy to make that link after the 1991 war to liberate their country.)
  • Organize, organize, organize. Yes, as I noted, the dash across the desert probably seems adventurous and romantic, all Lawrence of Arabia/Norman Schwartzkopf-like. (And perhaps there are stories from Libyan history as well.) But you aren’t an army, you are an armed mob. And the difference is being able to stand, defend and hold a position. Which you can’t. Even becoming a militia at this point would be an improvement. Slow down. Time is now on your side. Qaddafiy cannot legally re-equip his army (tanks and howitzers gone are gone for good), and allied air power will continue to wear it down. If Qaddafiy thinks he can outlast Western force, I’d suggest a quick Wikipedia search under “Hussein, Saddam” and “Milosevic, Slobodan.” (This may also inspire you to slow down.) Westerners may come off as sissies initially, but when we decide to wage war, we are relentless.
  • Form a proper government already. See the above section on organizing. You are getting there. But even Cote d’Ivoire has a proper, internationally recognized government.
  • But realize now your are conquering a country, not liberating it. Western reporters wandering around Tripoli a few days after the bombing began, in allegedly unminded moments, would get snippets of talk from Libyans stating something to the effect of “a week more of this and Tripoli will rise.” Maybe. But it has been nearly two weeks now, and none of the cities currently under Qaddafiy control have rebelled. It could be those under Qaddafiy’s rule — some, many, or most — are still oppressed by his regime and still too frightened to rise up. But it could also be that, at least in places, there is significant real support for Qaddafiy and his war aims. It is impossible to tell with dictatorships. It could also be the intervention of NATO has changed how Libyans in Qaddafiy-ruled areas view their government. Like Russians facing the Wermacht in 1941, they may be willing to fight for a regime they hate because it is fighting against foreign force. I do not know. But once it was clear this was no longer a mass, popular rebellion against a hated government and had become a civil war, the obvious outcome is that someone was going to be defeated and ruled against their will.
  • Foreign forces are coming ready or not. I know y’all have said you don’t believe you need foreign troops to help. And some of you may actually believe the UN resolution authorizing the war prevents foreign soldiers from intervening. It doesn’t. The West has already committed itself to the success of your increasingly haphazard rebellion, and if defending Benghazi and protecting Misurata cannot be done from the air, well, then it will be done on the ground, probably with French Foreign Legion regiments and U.S. Marine battalions. This will likely make any regime partisans fight all that much harder.
  • Get ready for a long war. It’s nice that Mousa Kousa showed up in London, resigned his old job and denounced his former employer. He also doesn’t matter much. Until the Qaddafiy regime leaders on the UN Security Council resolution 1970 list of sanctioned people and people prevented from traveling start defecting, the regime is still solid and still united and will still stand whatever ground it holds. You are going to have to take that ground meter by meter, probably, especially at the end. This is why you need to organize. To break Qaddafiy, you will need to break his state. Every bit of it. Without tiring or flinching. It’s very likely going to take awhile. And when you are done, you will have to rebuild just about everything from scratch. This is the course you have committed to.
Again, I suspect I have told y’all anything you don’t already know. And I haven’t said anything your supporters in Washington, Paris and London don’t already know too. May God be with you.

The Things You Find in Church!

Workers building a new sound booth in the choir loft of our church found this today after pulling up some floorboards…

Yes, it’s an empty pouch of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco, valued at 10¢. Clearly someone was doing something they were not supposed to be doing.

Here’s the odd part. The tax stamp clearly dates the tobacco from 1910. Yet St. John’s was not built until 1924. Does chewing tobacco keep that long? And who would use 14-year-old chew? And did St. John’s ever put spittoons in the choir loft?

King David as Sacrifice

And now for a change of pace. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged biblically. So here goes.

At the church where I am currently interning, St. John’s Lutheran in Somonauk, Illinois, the pastor and I have split up Lenten preaching buy focusing on the Gospel during the midweek services and the other scripture readings on the weekend.

I’m preaching this Saturday and Sunday, and so it gives me a chance to do something I truly love — preach from the Deuteronomistic History. In this instance, the reading is 1 Samuel 16:1-13, where the Lord commands the prophet and judge Samuel to anoint David as king to replace Saul, who has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the Lord.

It’s a fascinating story [as always, all quotes come from the English Standard Version]:

[16:1] The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” [2] And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ [3] And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” [4] Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” [5] And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

[6] When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” [7] But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” [8] Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” [9] Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” [10] And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” [11] Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” [12] And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” [13] Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

Samuel is grieving Saul’s lack of faithfulness, but the Lord tells him there’s no time for grieving. He must find another king. Under cover is going to sacrifice with a cow (more on that later). It’s strange that Samuel’s appearance with the cow causes more than a little fear in Bethlehem, but he invites the town elders to sacrifice.

What happens next is strange. He looks over the sons of Jesse almost as if this was a casting call (I can almost here him say, “Lemme see yer teeth” to Abinadab and Shammah and the others), as if it were one of the sons of Jesse, and not the cow, he had come to sacrifice. First, Samuel gazes on the oldest son, Eliab, and is convinced he’s found the new king of Israel. But God tells him:

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

It’s an odd thing for God to say in this passage, because no sooner is the youngest son David brought forth than the narrator describes him as “ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” So, the Lord does see as men see, apparently.

But consider how David is described — ruddy, handsome, with beautiful eyes. My Grandfather Marsh was a very handsome young man, and according to what I’ve been told, people often said he was too pretty to be a boy. But ruddy and beautiful eyes are words we don’t often use to describe men. Particularly beautiful eyes. in Semitic poetry, this description of the eyes is most frequently reserved for girls, cattle and gazelles (and often interchangeably).

So, back to the cow. The Hebrew word used here is בקר (bqr) a good semitic word meaning cow. Heifer is more specific, a cow that has not yet calved (and thus does not produce milk). We don’t know why Samuel is bringing this cow — under what sacrificial pretenses — but we do have two examples (and only two) from the Hebrew Bible of times that heifers are specifically to be sacrificed.

First, in Deuteronomy 21, we find the following method of antoning for unsolved murders:

[21:1] “If in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, [2] then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. [3] And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. [4] And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. [5] Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. [6] And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, [7] and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. [8] Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ [9] So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

The word here for heifer is the same בקר as used in the Samuel passage. The heifer in question atones for shed blood when no one can specifically be made accountable for that shed bled. It is an act of communal repentance while at the same time denying responsibility. It’s also an act in which people can be reconciled. Interestingly, it involves a symbolic washing of hands.

The second time God instructs Israel to sacrifice a heifer is in Numbers 19, as part of a communal purification ritual:

[19:1] Now the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, [2] “This is the statute of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. [3] And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. [4] And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. [5] And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. [6] And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. [7] Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. [8] The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. [9] And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. [10] And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 

A red heifer — פרה אדמה (parah adomah). The word פרה for heifer here is a synonym for בקר. But the interesting word here is אדמה. David is described as “ruddy,” אדמוני (JPS Tanakh notes the meaning of this is uncertain), but the Hebrew word אדמוני clearly is related to אדמה in much the same way red is to ruddy in English. In any event, the sacrifice of the red cow that has never worked the soil — outside the camp by the high priest, and devoting the entire animal to destruction so that’s its ashes may be used to ritually purify those who have come into contact with the dead — is what is important here.

When the narrator describes David as ruddy with beautiful eyes, I don’t think he’s describing a young man so much as he is describing a sacrificial animal. David, in becoming king, is being sacrificed, to purify his people and to atone for shed blood. Granted, Saul was anointed to (and even kissed by Samuel), but there’s something about David’s anointing that strikes me as so similar to the woman who pours the jar of ointment over Jesus. Saul’s anointing doesn’t do that for me. Don’t know why.

But it isn’t that David himself, David as David, is the sacrifice — it’s that David’s kingship, David’s monarchy, David’s calling to be king, is the sacrifice itself. A living sacrifice. To atone for the sins of his people and to keep his people in ritual purity. His rule is a sacrifice to God and for God on behalf of God’s people.

There are two directions I want to go with this. First, there’s the idea that calling or vocation is a living sacrifice to God. Christians have all been anointed in baptism to be what God has called us to be. I hope to develop that idea a little bit more.

But more importantly, David’s is a sacrifice that prefigures Christ. David’s sacrifice is completed by Christ, who makes perfect this atonement for shed blood (and Pilate, in that most Jewish of gospels, Matthew, even washes his hands of the whole thing) and to make his people ritually pure. Being sacrificed outside the city. Jesus is the sacrifice. I tend not to like sacrificial theology, especially Anselmian (is that a word?) reasoning which states Jesus had to die in order for salvation to happen (because then atonement becomes a game God plays with God’s-self, rather than anything involving human beings). But I think the symbolism here is too constant and too clear to conclude otherwise. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t intend to draw logical conclusions from all of this. But I will, as always, preach a message of Grace — in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are atoned for, the blood we have shed made good, and we are made right (ritually pure) with God.

I haven’t finished this, obviously, and these are just musings on the scripture reading. But this is more or less what I’m going to preach.

Obama’s Speech

I haven’t listened to a presidential speech in a while. I boycotted all of Bush Jong-Il’s speeches, and was right to do so, since listening to him simply made me angry. And up to last night’s speech on Libya, I had also ignored Barack Obama. When presidents talk, I just get angry. Last night was not much different.

Mostly it was twaddle and nonsense. Americans are not “reluctant” about using force, given the number of times we’ve gone to war since 1950 and the constant state of war since 1948. If anything, we are less reluctant about killing brown people now than we ever have been, merely because there is no other great power to threaten us if we go too far. Obama mentioned the Libyans who helped the pilot whose F-15 fighter-bomber crashed without also noting that the Marines who came to rescue the pilot fired upon those same Libyans and injured a number of them (and killed several, if I remember the reports right).

And of course there’s the idiocy of humanitarianism. I cannot even begin to express how foul and evil a justification this is for making war, the helping and bettering of others and the protection of the “innocent.” Obama stated as one justification for bombing Qaddafiy’s forces the fact that Muammar Qaddafiy used his air force to bomb civilians in cities who could not fight back. If this is a criteria for intervention, I wonder when the United States and its NATO allies will bomb Israel in defense of Gaza, which itself is regularly pounded from the air by Israeli fighter-bombers and whose people cannot adequately fight back or defend themselves against attack.

Oh, right. Never.

I have long had a disdain for much of the ethics of war in the West, with Just War Theory and all of that. I have been told I do not understand how these things work, and maybe that’s fair, but I don’t see the long, deliberative process at work that these processes of reasoning out when a government should go to war seem to require or mandate. All I see is justification after the fact, the decision to go to war first and then a self-righteous declaration that war is being fought allegedly not for our advantage, but to benefit of the people we are “helping.” George W. Bush could have given most of that speech, and it was completely in line with Obama’s intention to have America continue to dominate the world he set forth in the Nobel Peace Prize* (sic) speech. I also see essentialism at work, that the people making the decision to go to war are good people, the people they are fighting are bad people, and the people they are defending are innocent people — and it is always this way. There is never any reflection about the suffering our actions cause, and that we might not be the people we think we are, that the evil will so clearly see in others also resides in us, and is easily empowered by our self-obsession with our goodness and righteousness.

I also do not understand this focus on “innocence.” I remember from the time of the Bosnian War, meeting various Leftists in the United States and reading European Leftists who complained the Bosnian Muslims were not properly “innocent” because they (unlike European Jewry in the WWII) had the audacity to fight back, and thus were undeserving of help. Theologically, this makes utterly no sense, since in the Christian frame of ethics, none are innocent save Jesus Christ. “Innocence” should not be a requirement for assistance. But this also becomes self-serving, because we decide to justify our help by determining the people were are aiding (by bombing them) are “innocent” somehow and the people we don’t help are clearly guilty and deserve to be bombed by whoever isn’t us that’s bombing them. Again, this isn’t well-thought out prior reasoning, it’s after-the-fact justification. Always.

(Honest, I really do not understand this, and am convinced the desire to “save innocents” and inflict “justice upon the guilty” is really an excuse to exercise power, dominate others and inflict suffering upon people. I see no other reason for any of it. Helping them is only a cover for these things. If someone could explain this innocence thing, I’ll listen. I won’t be convinced, but I promise I’ll listen.)

And that last bit leads to another important point — every bleeding heart humanitarian has someone’s suffering they simply do not care about. Or are willing to empower and call righteous. (See Gaza.) So, in the end, their humanitarianism is completely situational and very selective. And they refuse to be called on this, since they are self-righteous — good people waging war to defend the innocent from evil. As an excuse to wage war, it is too noble, to attractive. It will lead, has already led, to far too much war, destruction, and domination.

Obama did touch upon the one real reason the West should act — because had Qaddafiy won two weeks ago (and if he still wins), refugees will flood not only Egypt and Tunisia, but Italy, Malta and Greece as well. Hundreds of thousands, probably more than a million. Qaddafiy would have been in charge of a broken, sanctioned, blockaded, impoverished country with few resources. Libyans would have suffered greatly under those sanctions, as Iraqis did in the 1990s. He would have had no reason to behave himself in Africa or elsewhere, and his connections with some of the world’s worst regimes would have been the only economic ties he would have been able to retain and strengthen. The material support Qaddafiy gave to Al Qaeda in Iraq beginning in 2007 would have continued, and probably also strengthened. (That many Iraqi veterans of the anti-US war in Iraq are now fighting Qaddafiy’s regime is proof that even dictators can face blowback.) Once Europe and the world more or less committed itself to supporting the rebels in their struggle to overthrow Qaddafiy, they were in.

And there is only on way this ends — with the death of most or all of the senior Libyan officials on the sanctions list of UN Security Council Resolution 1970.

I have the same argument for those who complain about the West’s “failure” to stop the Nazi efforts to exterminate European Jews in WWII: the only way to help them is to the bring the war to as quick an end as possible. You “protect” the civilians of Libya by waging a war that removes the threat as quickly as possible. That threat, as just about everyone has concluded, is Qaddafiy’s government. Obama and Nikolai Sarkozy do seem to understand that, and they do seem to be waging war toward that end (even if they are rather cagily or stupidly saying they aren’t).

So I don’t so much object to Obama’s actions as I do his language, which is dishonest, deceitful, self-righteous and self-serving in the extreme. And those words he did mean — all that crap about humanitarianism — are frightening and horrific. Because they promise war without end.


* Some people suggest Obama ought to return his Peace Prize. That isn’t fair. The Nobel committee was merely premature in giving him the award. Sitting American presidents who have won the prize — Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919 — have always done so after they waged their wars of mass destruction and slaughter (Roosevelt the Philippines War, Wilson the Great War to End All Great Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy and Reparations). The committee acted in haste. Obama needs at least one more war, and then he will be properly eligible for the Peace Prize.

The Economics of Rebellion

Something else about the legitimacy of governments and the state (though more about governments than the state itself). The Arab uprisings are showing that the ability of people to organize to challenge a government has gotten easier, and the costs significantly less, than they used to be.

The ubiquity of cell phone cameras makes it possible to film things far less conspicuously than was once possible. The Internet makes it easier for scattered groups of people — Libyan exiles, for example, living in Washington DC, London, Rome and Dubai — to organize and mobilize. The amount of cell phone video coming out of Libya in the initial days of the February 17 Revolution, for example, was clearly well-organized and well-planned. And recently similar video came out of Daraa in Syria. Gone are the days when the leveling of Hama would take place in relative secrecy (and have to be filmed very surreptitiously, as one Hama video I remember seeing on ABC news in 1982). Libyan exiles are using their network to aid the Syrian opposition, with results that may end up being similar.

This may seem a “duh” moment, but consider: the costs of challenging and even toppling a government have gone plummeted, while the return on that investment has skyrocketed. At the same time, the cost of maintaining government control and stability has increased significantly and the return on that investment has declined significantly. A government without solid moral legitimacy and/or enough loyal backing to defeat a challenge is a government that will face trouble sooner or later.

But make no mistake: this is about control of the state in the belief that kelptocratic, authoritarian governments are not accountable to the people while the state can and should be. These are revolts to make the state work better. I believe all the same applies in the West, that Western populaces will eventually come to the same conclusions as Arabs facing down dictators and kings, but we have yet to see what will happen if Westerners try to organize — really organize — to topple unresponsive and unaccountable governments. Eventually, citizens in the West will discover elections cannot do this. I don’t know when that will happen, or how badly Western regimes will behave in order to protect themselves. But I’m fairly confident this will eventually reach the West. Not today, not tomorrow. But sometime.

It is only a matter of time.

Musical Discovery

As my discipline for Lent, I have been playing scales — mostly on my guitar, but also on my ukulele. I have never been a terribly skilled instrumentalist (I have, over the last 20 years, learned how to sing well), and it has been something of a challenge, teaching my fingers to work the fretboard(s) as fingers. But I’ve been learning a fair amount, I think.

Mostly what I have been playing, over and over again, are scales/available notes in the first position (first through fourth fret) for C major, F major, G major and D major (just learning that one). I futzed with C major yesterday on the uke, thanks to an amazingly nifty iPhone app I originally bought that has all this stuff on it — it’s a tuner, metronome, scale guide and chord handbook. (The guitar bit of the app has about a zillion different alternate tunings…)

Music is a bit like math or foreign languages for me. I have a good ear, can master sounds (I pick up accents easily, and when I travel abroad, if I hear the local language, I cannot help but pick it up and start to use it), easily remember what I hear, but I always get clobbered on the bits and pieces of a foreign language that matter — vocabulary. (Grammar is actually fairly easy for me.) Math is similar. Past basic algebra, math is a conceptual blur for me. Higher mathematics are simply too abstract for me. I cannot look at a formula and make much sense of what, exactly, it is trying to communicate. I can cypher well, know my multiplication tables, can do long division, even fairly easily do percentages (and I often prefer to do these things by hand), but the rest just leaves me confused. My one experience of calculus — an econometrics class at Georgetown — was not much fun (my B- was an act of grace on Julia Devlin’s part), as I could never make sense of what a bivariate regression was trying to prove or what the answer meant. In any event, I could rarely get the same answer out of the same regression twice. My father is an immensely gifted mathematician. I am not.

(As an aside, I was also never really good at reading music either. I can know the value of a particular dot when place on a particular line of written music — “That’s an F# played for two beats!” — but I never really had a feel for the abstract language of music and how to read it. Once I heard something, then I could play it, and I can always follow along to notes when someone else it playing, but I cannot sight read. I can pick out a melody, though, which I couldn’t do at 15. And I simply cannot attach the F# on the page to an actual tone of F#. Which makes singing from a score impossible for me.)

Music theory, to the extent I have ever studied it, has always done the same thing to me. Abstractly, it has made absolutely no sense to me. I have a fairly good ear, but I don’t really know what I’m doing when I write songs or melodies, save that things sound good and right to me. It’s all kind-of cook bookery, what World Controller Mustafa Mond says of science in Brave New World.

Another example: I cannot tell you the physics of building bicycle wheels. I cannot even tell you much about the engineering of bicycle wheels. But I know how to build bicycle wheels, and I can do it pretty well.

But this year, something has changed. I’ve actually spent a fair amount of quality time with my guitar, learning to play other people’s music. The first breakthrough of sorts came in November, when I was compiling Christmas songs to play and transposing them. I’ve long known that songs in the keys of C, G and D were fairly easy to play, because sharps were easier to play than flats. That limited what I could play. But a fair amount of Christmas music was in F (one flat) Bb and Eb, and as I was going through the ELCA’s simplified keyboard accompaniment book, I realized how to adjust the capo to easily play songs with flats in them. Now I don’t have to transpose chords on the music sheet to play in F (or Bb, or Eb), I just put the capo on the third fret (in F), and know that the F chord is fingered as a D in that position. I’ve gotten good enough at this that I don’t need much mental preparation for it.

Stupid, huh? But I noticed something this morning as I was playing my scales: that the notes you play in a scale will also match the notes of the chords you can finger in scale’s key. I know, I’ve discovered nothing somebody couldn’t have already told me, but I’ve also really learned it the only way I can truly learn anything. I went through the C major scale and wrote down all the chords I knew I could finger from the notes in the scale. It was actually a really good exercise.

I have always wanted to take a basic music theory course, and I think once I get there I might even have some idea of what I’m doing. As I learn to finger the guitar — and not just strum the damn thing (my finger picking is getting better, and I can even sing and pick, though picking suffers when I do) — I may actually get a better tactile feel of the instrument, and thus be able to take what are for almost imponderable abstractions into the “real” world and make them concrete. That would be awesome. I would like, at some point, to have some idea of what I am doing when I make music.

Redeeming Politics and Redeeming the State

Whew! I have finally finished Peter Leithart’s book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It took me longer than normal because, in my current schedule, reading deeper books is a somewhat sporadic affair. (I renewed this book four time, for example, and at 340 pages, it’s not all that long.) And I have finally figured out what Leithart wants to accomplish.

Leithat wants to redeem politics, and through that redeemed politics, wants a redeemed state. A state which can be a ground for Christians — and individuals and as church — to live out faith in love (to borrow a Lutheran phrase which he does not use). He tears Yoder’s history apart because he wants to preserve the ability of Christians to purposefully use the state to act. Leithart does a reasonably good job of proving John Howard Yoder’s history wrong — there were no “pristine” Christian church that in the two centuries before Constantine swore off violence and statecraft, only to be later seduced by the serpent of power. Yoder’s history is an Anabaptist narrative, and it does not reflect the reality of the pre-Constantinian church. Indeed, I have read several church fathers from the second century AD in which they write two things about persecution:

  1. As Christians, we are willing to suffer persecution and even die as martyrs — witnesses — to the faith at the hands of the Roman state because Jesus Christ our Lord did;
  2. But we shouldn’t have to, because as Christians we are the Empire’s best citizens, praying for the emperor and for peace.
Leithart also writes two very important things: that the church pre-Constantine had no systematic theology about either war or the state. This is true enough. We confess nothing about the state, one way or the other, and from that, it is clear there was little or no theological dispute about the Roman state (even during the persecution of Diocletian). There was also no systematic theological approach to soldiers, the Roman army and war. Leithart states that Tertullian’s and Origen’s opposition to the military has less to with war itself and more to do with the pagan religious rituals central to state worship. If the objection is pagan idolatry, and not war itself, Leithrt asks what then would happen when the state and its agents were stripped of pagan idolatry and need for pagan ritual (such as sacrifice)? Every clue we have suggests that Christians easily accommodated themselves to the Roman state.
There were also regional differences in how Romans view the military:

Opposition to military service was most prevalent in safe “interior of the Pax Romana” and [was] less prevalent in the frontier provinces menaced by the barbarians.” The exception to this generalization was Rome, where the church was more accommodating to military service than elsewhere. The Hellenistic East, with its base in Alexandria, was the most rigidly opposed to military service. (p. 262)

This makes sense. Where military service was seen as a necessity for survival, it was most likely to be theologically accepted. But not to the point of needing to be confessed. The church also early on decided that homicide in war is not “murder” in the sense of the law — νομος — and thus not punishable, though St. Basil did state that soldiers fighting in war needed to abstain from communion for three years, presumably to do some kind of reflection and penance (Leithart, p.276).
Let me state up front that I still agree with Yoder’s theology, even as his history has been shredded. Leithart does not. He was to “re-baptize” the state, set it on a new trajectory, to become a place and ground where the Kingdom of God can be made known:

… only through reevangelization, only through the revival of a purified Constantinianism, only by the formation of a Christically centered politics, only through the fresh confession that Jesus’ city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward and be baptized. (p. 342)

Only that? If Leithart has a partisan political axe to wield, he doesn’t us it in this book. He has no program, confesses no understanding of what a “baptized” politics would include, what the polity’s confession of Christ as Lord would mean. Before I go farther, it’s necessary to quote Leithart at length on his exceptionally accurate description of politics in modern nation-states:

Modern states, first, do not welcome the church, as true city, into their midst. They are happy to welcome the church if it agrees to moderate its claims, if it agrees to reduce itself to religion, or private piety, or aesthetical liturgy, or mystical piety. Modern states are happy to be Diocletian, supporting the priesthoods as a department of the empire. The modern state will not, however, welcome a competitor. It will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city, and it will not honor the Queen unless she is a floozy. [I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that word in print before — CHF] All modern states denounce the Constantinian system; that is what makes them modern states. There are differences, and important ones. Totalitarian states attack the sacrificial city of the church, seeking to turn it into Diocletian’s sacrifice of Christians. Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church, and the Christians of democratic states too often cheer them on. For all their differences, totalitarian and democratic systems are secretly united in their anti-Constantinianism.

Second, because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state. This means that there must be blood. Medieval life was rough and brutish in plenty of ways and had it share of blood. But believing that the Eucharistic blood of Jesus founded the true city provided a brake on the bloodshed. Bishops imposed the peace and truce of God, and monks and others continuously modeled Christ before kings. Modern states have no brakes. Modern nations thus get resacrilized because they are resacrificialized, they demand the “ultimate sacrifice” (pro patria mori), they expel citizens of the wrong color or wrong nationality or religion. In modernity, “Constantinianism” that Yoder deplores becomes a horrific reality, as the church has too often wedded itself to power. 

This is the origin of nihilistic politics. Nihilistic modern politics is not the product of Stoicism or nominalism or any other system of ideas. Nihilistic politics is the product of the history of Western politics, from Constantine’s desacrificialization of Western politics back to modernity’s re-sacrificialization. Nihilistic politics arises when the modern state reassumes the role of sacrificer but then realizes that there are no more gods to receive the sacrifice–no more gods but itself. And there can be no more goats and bulls, since animal sacrifice is cruel and inhumane. Yet there is blood, more blood than ever, more blood than any ancient tyranny would have thought possible, and all of it human. … [W]e might say that modern nations are post-Christian; they benefit from the covenant privilege of handling the sword and the fire but refuse to listen to Jesus when he tells them how to avoid cutting or burning themselves. (pp. 340-341)

I think this is a marvelous description, and Leithart clearly states at the end what he believes: the church as separate sovereign, empowered to advise and restrain the state. He points to many examples (Ambrose upbraiding Emperor Theodosius) of the church acting courageously before power. And it’s true — the church has done so. Also essential to Leithart’s thesis is a kind of dispensationalism (he does not use the term). Under the “new covenant,” humanity are now full-participants in God’s creative work, and waging war is one of those works. (Yes, trust me, this is what he writes.)
Here I have to state, I am still theologically with Yoder and Hauerwas. For Leithart’s thesis to work, there has to be a kind-of high water mark when the church and state functioned best together, and modernity is really a fall from good medievalism. I do not know where Leithart falls politically, whether he would sup gladly with the like of Walter Wink, but clearly Leithart believes the “powers” to be redeemable. And he knows what a redeemed world looks like — building a cathedral as cast in a medieval painting. A world of harmony and order.
But let me suggest something else — nihilistic politics is politics. There is no difference between power wielded today and power wielded in Christendom 1,000 years ago because human beings are no different. The nature of power is no different. Because the powers are born as a result of human sinfulness, did not pre-exist, and thus cannot be redeemed because, once humanity is redeemed, there are no powers. It is my understanding that Christian theology understands essential human institutions — family, state, and church (religious community) — to be things we walked out of Eden with. Thus, they are redeemable, and God uses them to impose God’s good order on the world. I don’t believe this. I see no scriptural evidence that we walked out of Eden with any of these (not even family, which one can assume most easily), and thus all of these human institutions are created in the fall. Nowhere in Eden are human beings ever given dominion over other human beings. Yet outside of Eden, we insist upon having it. Leithart wants to redeem the unredeemable.
Second, in a liberal age — an age of individual freedom and autonomy — anything that even hints at illiberalism is a non-starter. Monarchy, hierarchy, elitism, all of these things are human realities that liberalism effectively denies, and most of the supporters of the above, even if they are principled (I believe in the moral superiority of monarchy to democracy, for example), are still, in the end, advocates of illiberal government. Leithart’s ideas are fundamentally illiberal. In a liberal age, no one will listen.
Finally, I must always hearken back to the political ideas that animate me so — opposition to state violence. Leithart, like all who want to preserve the state’s ground (and the church’s) to act on behalf of justice, seek the possibility of having their faith active in love manifest itself as violence or coercion. The problem is, if love is relational, then it must be experienced or encountered by the other party in the act of love as love. Violence is — how do I say this? — open to significant misunderstanding. You are asking a lot of people you are clobbering (or bombing, or incarcerating) to see what you are doing as an act of love.
If it is not experienced by the other as love, is it really love?
I think Leithart says some very worthwhile things about Constantine, that he was not who we think he was. The early church was complex and faithful and human But until I know exactly what kind of things he thinks a “redeemed” state would do, I have to say no thanks.

What The Resolution Really Says

Something caught my eye the other day as a read through UN Security Council Resolution 1973 — the resolution that authorizes military action against Libya to “protect civilians.” This is the operative section is paragraph four, which comes after wading through many paragraphs of preamble (“Recalling,” “taking note of,” “reiterating,” “considering,” blah blah blah):

4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council …

Two things. First, the purpose of the resolution makes the defense of civilians and civilian areas under attack the purpose of the military action. This, of course, is cover for assisting the rebels, but suppose the military situation turns, it could just as easily be invoked by Qaddafiy’s government to demand protection for Tripoli. It won’t happen (the protection, not the call), since the goal of the intervention — at least from the Anglo-French perspective — is the end of Qaddafiy and his government. Neither country will use their military to protect him or his forces, or cities he controls, even if the “law” allows it.

The second thing, however, is more interesting. The resolution explicitly excludes a “foreign occupation force.” This has been taken to mean (by the press) no ground troops, but that’s not what the words say. It doesn’t say “foreign combat force,” it says “foreign occupation force.” This is enough wiggle room to drive the French Foreign Legion or a Marine Expeditionary Unit through. The difference, in my mind, is simple — no one can send troops in to occupy and govern Libya, but it says nothing about troops in to help the rebels fight.

I’m not saying that will happen, or was even planned. But lawyers write these documents very carefully. If they had wanted a resolution that would explicitly forbid all foreign (non-Libyan) ground troops from being in the country as part of this, it would have said so. That it doesn’t suggests someone (in Paris, probably) wanted to keep the option open.

May Your Hell be Properly Hellish. And Properly Permanent.

I never know quite what do when someone says something like this:

Evangelical opposition to Bell is exemplified in a succinct tweet from prominent evangelical pastor John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Page Brooks, a professor at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, thinks Bell errs in a conception of a loving God that leaves out the divine attributes of justice and holiness.

“It’s love, but it’s a just love,” Brooks said. “God is love, but you have to understand you’re a sinner and the only way to get around that is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.”

The problem I have with what Brooks says is that for him, salvation is not accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, but by the belief in that death and resurrection. There is a significant difference. Salvation is no longer done by God’s act in Christ, but by my act for myself. I am saved not by God’s action for me but by my faith in God. This is what Brooks and his ilk are actually saying. God is therefore irrelevant to salvation in this set-up.

If God is sovereign, then God’s act alone saves. And you must be open to the possibility that Christ’s atoning death and resurrection saves even those who do not confess that reality (some or all). Otherwise, human salvation is *ENTIRELY* a product of human action — individual human faith in God’s work in Christ.

The Narrowing Legitimacy of the State

I have wanted to write this essay for a long, long time, and tried twice to do so for Lew Rockwell, but was never happy with where it went. Some of my “big think” pieces were never as well written as I’d like. But since many of these ideas are central to what I blog elsewhere (on Libya, for example, or my theology of the state), it’s about time I set out and write these down.

I’ve long believed that the legitimacy of the state — that is, the state as seen and judged by those it governs — has been declining. But I’ve come to conclude that decline is not the right word, as we are not heading to an anti-state moment. Rather, the ability of the state to act and justify its actions is getting narrower. People are demanding as much of the state but becoming much harsher in their judgement of the state. And the state can no longer assume that because it acts, it can justify its actions merely because it’s the state. (“It’s the right thing to do because we say so. Nyaaah!”)

Allow me to try and explain.

The modern state — the state birthed in the Protestant Enlightenment — possesses two very important monopolies. The first is on the moral and lawful use of violence and coercion. The state alone can compel human action and punish human beings for actions against the law or for failing to act. This is “moral” because many (perhaps most) human beings through time have viewed state violence (violence done by those who have been appointed agents of the state) as having a moral legitimacy that mere individual violence does not have. And this is a trait of the state for as long as human beings have lived together. This is not new, and it will not go away. This monopoly on lawful and moral violence is what makes the state the state.

The other monopoly the state possesses is that of meaning. The state alone, especially from early 19th century through to about the middle of the 20th, took to itself the sole or primary right to construct the narrative through which human life within (and often outside) the state would be valued and given purpose. The state would author the story and create the ideas that would determine the purpose and meaning of individual and collective human life, what human beings would live for, contribute for, sacrifice for and die for. The state would accept no alternative narratives, no different meanings — all were considered threats to the creation of a state-centered society (society being that community contiguous with the nation-state). The state was the sole creator and sustainer of human purpose, and would accept absolutely no dissent.

This is why even liberal states were, 100 years ago, incredibly intolerant, persecuting and prosecuting those holding alternative narratives.

In the West, this is largely an artifact of the Protestant Reformation, in which the church was effectively made subsidiary to the state while at the same time made contiguous with the state. Protestants, especially Germans and Scandinavians (but also the English to an extent), tend to confuse church, society and state because they all historically had the same boundaries.

All of this, particularly the monopoly on meaning, was necessary for the creation of mass societies, in which there were only individuals standing alone but also collectively as a mass of citizens before the state. The only subsidiary institutions and identities the state could allow in mass society were those that accepted the state as the center of society. Liberal Christianity, fraternal and professional organizations, trade unions, nationalistic and patriotic groups, all accepted not just the moral legitimacy of the state but also if its narrative, and its central place in human organization. They accepted the monopoly. There were degrees of liberal tolerance for non-conformity, but such tolerance was based on the state’s ability to be magnanimous about the “threat” non-conformity posed (or didn’t) to the state.

It was a time when the state could act, claim its justification for acting as “there is a state interest,” and make that claim stick.

But nothing can last forever. The high water mark of this monopoly on meaning was the First World War, in which states — liberal and those less-than-liberal — were able to thoroughly organize societies and mobilize resources to fight the war. In doing so, states had to make promises about why the war was being fought, as mass war requires mass participation (if nowhere else, in the minds of the state’s citizens, which really is the most important real estate a state controls), and had to create narratives in which the state fighting was ever-virtuous and the states being fought were utter evil. There is no way the sacrifice demanded of Europe’s “citizens” (and also of Americans for the two years the United States was mobilized) could ever be justified given what the outcome of the war was to be — death, suffering, destruction and utter defeat for someone.

In a way, Europeans slowly (but only slowly) began to recoil against the reality of state-centered society and state-imposed meaning. Yes, the nation may be united in purpose, but if that purpose could only be realized in mass death and mass destruction and mass suffering, what was the point of it? Where was the promise of a better world? But I say only slowly, as Fascism and Communism sought to give meaning to the suffering, to find a noble a virtuous purpose in the suffering and destruction. A new world out of the old for the masses of humanity.

The Second World War came without the cheering crowds that greeting declarations of war in July and August of 1914. It was the necessary sequel to the first, because the first hadn’t really settled anything. And even though the state was able to mobilize, it did so without the utter brutality and totality the state mobilized for the First World War (save for the Soviet Union). And although the planners in the West had hoped to create a mass global community in and through the UN, the people of the world had other ideas.

Slowly in the West (and eventually elsewhere), people become consumers. This is much derided, mostly on the Left in the United States, who lament the loss of proper politics. After all, a consumer is nothing but a passive actor, taking in what is easily at hand. But consider it this way for a moment — a citizen can be conscripted, mobilized, propagandized, made demands of, forced to sacrifice, so on. But consumers really cannot be. Consumption is a one-way deal — you provide, I consume. My consumption is necessary to your survival, but you live and prosper not by making demands of me or compelling me to sacrifice but by providing me with what I want or what you have convinced me I want. This may have been an accident, the result of post-WWII American industry seeking markets for products, but people became consumers not just of goods and services but also of government. With the same expectation that the state would be a provider of services, and not the active organizer of humanity.

This was a slow change. It did not happen immediately. But the excesses of the state, particularly the monopoly of meaning, were taken to heart by many (though not all) liberals in the West. The total state had never set well with the liberal mindset, always seeming something of a betrayal of liberal ideals of individual freedom and autonomy. This isn’t to say liberalism always wins — it didn’t in the Gettysburg Address, and it didn’t with Woodrow Wilson — but the ideas of liberalism are powerful and compelling.

In the West, in particular, the state began to surrender, slowly, its claims to a monopoly of meaning. And this gave room for new, non-state meanings to arise. Let me be clear what happened and is happening here. People are not opting for new meanings that reject or sideline the state, nor are they creating alternate structures of governance. Rather, they are saying to the state:

The good life, the meaningful life, is not a life of sacrifice for the state, it is not building grand and great monuments for the state, it is not marching together to a bright new future planned and promised by the state, it is having families and loving children and doing satisfying work and worshiping God (or not) in a community of people who have come to care about each other, a community which on some level includes the nation. We will sacrifice for the defense of our homes if we have to, and at times come to the aid of others, but our lives have value outside what someone in a uniform or who leads a political party or who manages a state program tells us they have. And that value we ourselves give our lives comes first.

In Europe, the state became a provider of services to consumers. Monopoly provision of services, yes, but a long way from Bismark’s notion that the state provides welfare as part of its deal in which citizens sacrifice for the state. The state in the West, and increasingly all over the world, can no longer justify its actions by saying “we are the state.” Not in a world of consumerism, liberalism and human rights. The state has to work much harder to do less than it could 100 years ago. At times and in places it is still very illiberal, especially the United States, where the powers the President is accumulating lie more potential than kinetic (mostly at home; it’s plenty kinetic for denizens of non-American nations) but would still make a Caesar blush. But the state is morally accountable to people in ways no one could have imagined in the midst of the First World War. And states, increasingly, cannot hide from that accountability. No matter how hard they try.

The state, in this, is still expected to protect people, and it is still expected that the state will educate, provide health care and a basic level of economic security for the society’s most vulnerable people. The welfare state is the ideal for much of the world. But it is a consumer welfare state, not a citizen welfare state. Welfare exists in order to allow people to define their own lives most successfully, rather than orienting their lives in service to and sacrifice for the state. (Whether this works is another matter.) The state is expected to provide its goods and services professionally, efficiently and at a cost people can afford. Meaning is less and less one of those services.

The Arab revolt of the last few months has been, I think, an interesting example of this. Most Arab states were formed in anti-colonial movements, and were expressions of national unity and greatness as a way of resisting outside domination. Long ago, however, these states failed to be able to deliver any meaningful services to the people they governed, and the meaning they created became anachronistic. The idea of the liberal consumer welfare state (that’s a mouthful) is powerful, and along with dignity and government accountability it was what was being fought for on the streets of Tunis and the streets of Cairo. And possibly even in Tripoli and Banghazi. It is what the Shia of Bahrain are fighting for. That value we ourselves give our lives comes first.

But these revolts also offer a preview of the crisis to come in government in the Western world too. Liberal governance promises accountability, but this is often a difficult promise to keep — what does it mean for government to be accountable? And accountable to consumers? Because you cannot dictate to consumers the terms under which they consume. We no longer live in the world of Phillip Dru: Administrator. The European Union and the United States will face the fact that the elites who rule are not properly accountable to much of anyone, and certainly not in elections. The same ideas that government exists to empower people which were used to topple Hosni Mubarak are also the same ideas animating the Tea Party and the protestors who occupied the Wisconsin state capitol. There is less coherence in the United States, is part because the Left and the Right have constructed ideas of citizenship and consumerism that are utterly at odds with each other. But also because America is a country held together by a confession of credal documents that founded and empower government — without the state, you don’t have a United States of America. (You would still have France without a French state, or Egypt without an Egyptian state.) We don’t share enough culture to be held together by anything other than our ideas of government. And when we don’t share those, we share nothing. You don’t have a United States without the United States government.

However, I’m going to leave this discussion for another time.

We don’t live in a libertarian moment. Or even an anti-state moment. People are protesting to make the state work better, to work for them. But it is an interesting moment, and one that is generally positive for liberty. Consider: no state could fight the First World War today. People would not accept it. Even in the last two states to mass mobilize, Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, such a war would be impossible. I do not believe Iranians and Iraqis would countenance mass mobilization. But the downside is states no longer need to mass mobilize for war or even ensure the loyalty of all citizens. Professional armies and mercenaries (from Qaddafiy’s West Africans to Xe) are significantly more loyal to the state than masses could be at this point. The state still retains that monopoly on force, the willingness to use it, and the ability to justify it.

But we do live in a time in which the state’s authority is growing narrower. It is easier, thanks to technology, for those of us who question the moral legitimacy of the state to speak and be heard. There are more ways for people to listen. There is no longer one overarching narrative of power and meaning in most of the world’s nation-states. States and governments are no longer believed to so embody the ideals they claim to represent. They are now more accountable to those ideals — including freedom — than ever before. And when they fall short, people will challenge them. It will not always be good or easy. And elites who rule will frequently continue to do so with little regard for the people they rule. All of these things are true, always have been and always will be. But it is a good day to believe in freedom.

And it is a good day to say “no” to the state.