On Prophets and the Mess of the World

Eugene Peterson has this truly insightful thing to say about prophets in the Bible in his introduction to the prophetic works of Jewish scripture from The Message: Remix:

Basically, the prophets did two things: They worked to get people to accept the worst as God’s judgment — not a religious catastrophe or a political disaster, but judgment. If what seems like the worst turns out to be God’s judgment, it can be embraced, not denied or avoided, for God is good and intends our salvation. So judgment, while certainly not what we human beings anticipate in our planned future, can never be the worst that can happen. It is the best, for it is the work of God to set the world, and us, right.  

And the prophets worked to get people who were beaten down to open themselves up to hope in God’s future. In the wreckage of exile and death and humiliation and sin, the prophet ignited hope, opening lives to the new work of salvation that God is about at all times and everywhere.

The Confessional Nature of Anglo-American Nationalism

My last post, and much of the “controversy” (sic) over Barack Obama’s birth certificate, got me thinking about England’s “Glorious Revolution of 1688” and the nature of Anglo-American nationalism. As I recall, I think most of this comes from Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe.

For those not familiar (and I am not as familiar as I would like to be), the “Glorious Revolution of 1688” was the toppling of the Catholic Stuart dynasty and installation as King of England one William of Orange, a good Protestant Dutchman. In the Whig version of history, it was a non-violent uprising against the alleged injustices and usurpations of James II (the Stuarts themselves had been interrupted by the Civil War and Cromwell’s über-Protestant Protectorate), in which England as a mass (or at least the Protestant elite) rose as one and ousted the king without the head-chopping and bloodletting that had convulsed the country a half-century earlier. Kaplan’s not quite so sanguine about the matter — he notes that William was actually the leader of an invading army that was helped by most English elites.

What is interesting, however, is how willing England’s elites were to get rid of a more-or-less English monarch (the Stuarts were Scottish but related to the Tudors) and replace him with a Dutch prince who probably spoke no English whatsoever merely because of religion — William was protestant and James was Roman Catholic (who had produced a Catholic heir). Now, granted, there was more to this than that. The great struggle in England in the 17th century was over monarchical absolutism, with the Stuarts (beginning with James I) claiming to be absolute kings akin to Louis XIV of France while parliament was claiming absolute power. (Hint: Parliament wins.) But it is the religious component that fascinates me most.

There is a confessional aspect to Anglo-American nationalism. It is not enough merely to be born in a place, or to speak a language (though that helps; the English were paranoid about foreigners and language as far back as the 13th century). One must confess one’s national identity. A perfectly good English monarch is tossed overboard for being Catholic (and thus representing all things foreign and tyrannical) in favor of a foreign noble who, by being Protestant (and willing to defer to parliament), can confess the right national identity.

In a popular age, it is not enough merely to be born in the United States. One must confess one’s Americanness. And in the right way, too. I’ve long believed the United States is not so much a nation as it is a confessional church with a flag and an army. Our political discourse isn’t so much about ideas or even ideology (though we live in an ideological age), it is religious. It is about the exegesis of sacred documents (Constitution, Declaration of Independence, other significant foundational documents) and overt confession of what those documents are believed to mean. Because we don’t, as Americans, really share anything else. Not language. Not culture. All we have in common are governing principles. And that’s it.*

For many, Barack Obama isn’t a proper American because he doesn’t confess the right kind of Americanness. (Bill Clinton didn’t either.) His skin color and African heritage on his father’s side are a convenient proxy for this. Were he a Herman Cain or Congressman Alan West, confessing the same ideals they do, the right would not question his “Americanness” one bit even if he had been born in Kenya of a Muslim father. (For the left, it doesn’t matter where he comes from because he confesses, for them, the right kind of Americanness.) The political right, like many rightist religious groups in this country, is eager to impose its understanding of sacred doctrine on all and demand allegiance to that understanding by all. Failure to confess that understanding places one outside the confines of what it means to be a citizen and participate in the civic life of the nation. (Lutherans should be familiar with this use of the law to exclude.) For their part, the progressive left shows every desire to have its own confessional identity that will exclude some from participation in civic life. And it is doing so. There is law enough for all.

Because these two confessional camps are increasingly mutually exclusive and increasingly unwilling to allow opponents to “commune” (again, sorry for the religious language, but it is what I believe is happening) and participate in the sacramental aspects of the state, I believe conflict is coming. Because unlike in a church group, where people can walk away and start their own churches, the conflict here is over the state — the right and ability to rule others against their will. At some point, someone will decide the stakes are far too high to let the other side win. That way lies strife, war and dictatorship. Which I have long believed is coming to this country.


* This really should give pause to libertarians.

Includes Roman Catholics, Communists and Muslims Too!

Stanley Fish, in a column about the public discussion of Jews and Jewishness in the West today, writes this at the New York Times:

An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature. Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.

This notion of the almost supernaturally strong, essentially evil enemy who is at the same time weak and cowardly and blends in so as to destroy society from within also forms the substance of English anti-Catholicism (though it tends to focus on the person of the pope, rather than average Roman Catholics), was central to anti-communism and has found new life in anti-Islamism in America.

I cannot speak to how other societies view enemies real and imagined, but it seems the kind of paranoia reflected in English anti-Catholicism/Semitism/Communism/Islamism is an essential fact of Protestant Anglo-American culture. It is foundational, an essential fact that some in the culture can transcend in times and place, but not for any great length of time. It is something that cannot be explained so much as it explains. It is so much a part of the culture that many Jews — particularly right-wing supporters of Israel — have embraced the language, images and logic of this paranoid-conspiracy thinking when they intellectually deal with Muslims and Islam (and even Arabs in general).

This fear is not grounded in much fact, and so reason cannot explain it away or even ease the fear much. (In the 18th century, there were never more than 100,000 Roman Catholics in England, and yet occasionally the English public would erupt into paroxysms of violent anti-Catholicism in which fear of a take-over of the country by the pope — that century’s version of the sharia scare — was primal, and said take-over would end English liberty because rule by the pope was the very definition of tyranny.) But it is grounded in some fact — Roman Catholic Stuart pretenders hung around in France making ominous noises for decades after the Revolution of 1688; Jews did seem to play a overly huge role in finance and the professions Europe in the 18th and 19th century during a time of several social dislocation; Communists did actually believe they were going take over the world (science allegedly proved the inevitability of revolutionary socialism); and Revolutionary Muslims did attack the United States throughout the 1990s and spectacularly on September 11, 2001. But the fear departs from the fact by creating a moral universe of both irredeemable evil and cowardly weakness incarnate in the same opponent.

I wish I understood where this fear comes from. It does seem to be primal to Anglo-American Protestant existence. (The King of England would take on many of the features of the pope in the run-up to the American War of Independence.) I want to root this with the Scots-Irish protestant, but it appears to be just as English as it is Scots-Irish. So I have no idea where it comes from. But it is fascinating. And frightening to behold.

The Yearning of the Spirit

This amazing quote comes from a piece by Jamie Manson at the Religion Dispatches web site, and the italicized bit echoes my experience and understanding utterly:

Like Wallis and Claiborne, my partner and I have a deep passion for working with the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. Our commitment to this work does not come simply from a desire for the common good, but from the yearnings of our spirits [italics mine – CF]. I’m a Catholic with a Master of Divinity degree and my partner grew up evangelical and attended a Midwestern Bible college. For us, the margins are a sacred place where we have some of our deepest experiences of “church,” the way Jesus envisions and incarnates it in the gospels. It is in the face of the broken and desolate that we most clearly see the face of Christ. [Again, italics mine – CF]

I’ve said before, though not articulated it fully, that I don’t really believe in the common good. And I don’t. I follow this call because I have to, in order to be true to myself. To live with myself. To be at peace with myself. If that sounds selfish, in a way it is. No one acts without a lack of self-regard or self-concern, even if that self-concern is the righting of the soul by doing for and with others.

And the margins are sacred. They are amazing places where God shows up all the time. That’s why I love doing ministry in cities. It’s the randomness of unplanned and unprogrammed encounters. I never know exactly when I will meet God. When God will meet me.

The Appeal of Choice Theology

I do not believe that human beings can or do make the conscious and “free” to choice to follow God. My life experience tells me this, but also my understanding of scripture does as well. There may have been many people who followed Jesus because they thought it would be a neat idea, but the disciples — Simon, Matthew/Levi, John and James the sons of Zebedee, Saul of Tarsus — were the people Jesus called. People Jesus came to while they were minding their own business.

In calling them, he invited — not commanded, as I don’t see God commanding so much as inviting, but maybe compelled, in the better sense of the word — them to follow him and do his work. Not just to believe, but to do. And to be a people called. It was understood as an overwhelming experience, an encounter in which the one called understood there was no saying “no,” no not following. For whatever reason.

That’s been my experience. And not just as a follower of Jesus. I was a Muslim for 15 years, and was so because it was also something of a calling. I am grateful for the time I spent with brothers and sisters in Islam, and met a great many Muslims who are better at being “Christians” — at loving their neighbors, and of caring for the “least of these” — than many Christians are. And while I am Christian now because of my experience at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it is not because I somehow decided that I could no longer “believe” what I had believed about God or belong to the community of people who submit to God as Muslims. (Because I still miss being part of that community. I miss it very much.) It is because, standing beneath the towers, watching them burn, watching people die, standing powerless in the midst of this event*, I understood that I was met by God that day — and would later come to appreciate that the God who met me was the risen and resurrected Jesus Christ, thanks to the love and compassion of other Christians. It was Jesus who told me, that day, in the midst of fire, terror, fear and suffering: “My love is all that matters.” And: “This is who I am.”

So no, I don’t believe for a minute we “choose” to follow God. God calls us. God gathers us. Forms. Sometimes, even, against our own will. Israel did not ask to be freed from slavery in Egypt, did not appeal to God to do something. Israel simply groaned. It was God who yanked Israel out of Egypt, unwilling, unasked. And promised them something they never wanted, never asked for, never demanded.

Questions of will come up at this point. I don’t know what to say. Predestination makes my head hurt, and I simply do not believe in double predestination of any kind. God is not an intellectual puzzle, a set of ideas, concepts bounded by an introduction and a conclusion, something we try to tie up neatly in a little fancy box. We experience God in all God’s awful glory. I don’t know what to make of human will when it comes to God. More importantly, I don’t really care. I know, like Matthew at his tax booth, that when Jesus said, “follow me,” I followed. I didn’t really see myself as having any choice. My “will” was irrelevant in the matter. Because I knew that in order to live with myself, I had to follow. I know when I have met others who have been called to follow. We compare notes, and we follow together. We extend that invitation to others, but mostly, I don’t care about those who have not been called.

Because I really don’t know how they’ve been called. Or not. I’m not interested in saving the world. God has already done that in and through Jesus Christ.

But there are lots of people who do believe we can — and do — choose to follow God. I may not buy it, but it a huge part of the American religious landscape. And I think I get the appeal of “choice theology,” the ability of the human will to make a conscious moral choice to follow God and adhere to God’s teaching. Choice theology is both radically egalitarian and democratic on one hand, and extremely conservative on the other. It is a critique of predestination (especially double predestination) on one hand, and universalism on the other.

Choice theology is radically egalitarian and democratic because it makes every human being, regardless of social position, wealth or stature, utterly and completely equal before God. Every human being is capable of making the choice to believe in God and God’s promises, to follow God, and through that faith, receive the promises made by God. No human being is destined for Hell, all can choose to be part of God’s kingdom. In this, it is incredibly empowering. It gives a great deal of agency to human beings, a great deal of power to decide individual fates and communal belonging. Where dour Calvinism had to invent signs of election for the uncertain, choice theology gives a certainty that “I have chosen” or “I continue to choose.” It makes the choosing, the confession of Christ, the mere acknowledgement of the majesty of God, the central act of worship, because that is what makes the Christian community. The Christian community is created not by God calling it out, or Christ gathering it together for a meal, but by the Christians who confess. It is a true community of choice. It is, in fact, the ultimate community of choice.

And anyone in the community can adhere to the teachings of God. The teaching is democratic too.

But that’s where choice theology also becomes very conservative. I read recently (somewhere online, in a fairly reputable essay — wish I could cite the source) that English establishment Christianity (and even dissenters like the Methodists) in the late 17th and 18th centuries believed in a kind-of casual universalism. That all Christians in a Christian society would be saved. Pietism — and that’s what Methodism was — sought a greater expression of what it means to truly be a follower of Jesus in a society where everyone is baptized (by law) and thus Christian. Choice theology does not say everyone is saved. In fact, you must actively choose to be saved. Otherwise, you are not. In creating a community of choice, it also creates a community defined almost entirely be shared confession — by ideology. It becomes a much less tolerant community of intellectual difference (as ideological communities tend to be, even when they are “diverse”). Confessional conformity and adherence to the teaching are essential elements of belonging to the community, and failure to do so gets someone kicked out of the community, since confession and adherence are all that are seen uniting people. (As an aside, as liberal Christian confessions are becoming ideological communities, they are becoming significantly less tolerant of intellectual difference, even as they pursue “diversity.”)

What choice theology does is emphasize the human will, and seeks to square the omnis of God with the ability of human beings to make moral choices. Since the Second Great Awakening of the early-to-mid 19th century, choice theology is the strain in American religiosity that cannot be avoided. That’s why I am at great pains to preach that God gathers the community — in baptism and communion — and why, despite not wanting to, I had to recently defend the ELCA’s position on homosexuality — because God gathers the community. And if God gathers and calls people, who are we to argue? Even if it means we must live in the tension of what God’s teaching says or appears to say. (Arguments of equality and fairness are made from the basis of the American civil religion, and have absolutely no basis in scripture.) The sanctified community is not formed by right-thinking people who choose to create an alternative community, but rather is formed by God, who has called God’s people — and God calls all kinds of people — out of where they were into the wilderness to form them. And give them teaching. And forgive them when they are utterly incapable of following it.


* I believe the experience of and encountering God in utter powerlessness is actually an important one for a life of faith. Bourgeois religion, whether it is Islam or Christianity, is about control, about the exercise of power, about the organizing of the world. Perhaps responsibly, but it sees powerlessness as a vacuum into which power and agency must be poured. But it is in real powerlessness, in the real admission that we have absolutely no control, that we truly are found and met by God.

Of Shrines and Trials

It was 2003 or 2004, I think, when I came across a news article in a UK newspaper — The Independent, I think, though it may have been The Guardian — detailing how a group of Afghan Sufi Muslims were turning the graves of fallen Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters into ad-hoc shrines. Where they would invoke the power of the fallen mujahedin in their petitions to God.

There was a lot of power in the place where the fallen were buried, one Sufi leader told the newspaper. They struggled in the name of God, they fought in the name of God, and they died in the name of God. They were closer to God than the rest of us. That made the ground where they fell, and the ground where they were buried, sacred ground. Holy ground.

The Sufis were not, however, pining for the days of the Taliban government, and they weren’t fighting for Al Qaeda or even supporting the organization. Indeed, Afghan Sufis had been oppressed — quite viciously — by the dry and brutal legalism of the Taliban. And they were not supporting the Taliban in its fight against the United States, or the Northern Alliance, or the Western allies. And they understood the irony of consecrating ground where their enemies and oppressors fell, and beatifying those now safely dead enemies.

But the Sufis did know holy men, and holy ground, when they saw it. Even when those holy men were their enemies.

That’s the interesting irony behind the desire not to allow whatever place Usama bin Laden might have been buried to become some kind of shrine or monument to the late Al Qaeda leader. Those Muslims most likely to turn his grave into a shrine, to venerate him as a saint, to draw upon his “power” and have it used on their behalf in their petitions to God, are the kinds of Muslims most likely to blown to bits by Al Qaeda types. In Pakistan, Sufis have been frequent targets, along with the Ahmadiyya (who are considered heretical in the way many Sunni consider the Shia) and the country’s small Christian minority, of a sometimes brutal campaign of violence — mostly bombings.

I appreciate that the Saudis did not want Bin Laden’s body. I can even appreciate that the Bin Laden family did not want the body. And I suppose that even in Saudi Arabia, there was the risk of Usama’s grave becoming an informal shrine, a pilgrimage site, a place of prayer. I find that unlikely, given the Saudis — whose official Islam is as dry and legalistic and the English Calvinism that gave birth to the settlements of New England — have done a good job of pulverizing just about every shrine they could find. Centuries old sites, many connected with important figures from the Qur’an and Islamic history, have been demolished. Even that built on the Prophet Muhammad’s grave was demolished. (To be fair, even the kingdom’s modern founder, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, was buried in an unmarked grave — at least that is my understanding.) Saudi Sufis have long complained about this. Very quietly, but they have complained.

So it is unlikely, had Usama Bin Laden’s body been kept around, that it would have become the kind of religious center that, say, Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb has become. (Khomeini himself came from a Shis Sufi tradition, well outside the mainstream of Iran’s Shia clergy.) Because he wouldn’t have had a tomb. But an unmarked grave is somewhere, and even if no one quite knew where, I could see someone deciding, “well, it might as well be here,” and passing a place off as Usama’s tomb. It wouldn’t have been on the Saudi Tourism Ministry’s list of preferred destinations, and visiting the place would have earned you some time in lockup. But someone could have made a nice living “hosting” the grave of the sainted Usama Bin Laden!

But who know what will happen in a century or two or three, when Usama has passed into the realm of myth, when relics of him may be collected. I fully expect that the compound in Abbottabad to become some kind of shrine — probably run by the same kinds of Sufi Muslims who would otherwise find themselves on the receiving end of jihadi violence.

(This is not to say that Sufi Muslims are inherently peaceful. The 19th and 20th centuries saw lots of Sufi-led resistance to colonialism — the Naqshabandi in the Caucasus Mountains and elsewhere, the Sanusids in Libya, the various Mahdists of Africa. While it is likely in the short term that the Revolutionary Islam embraced by Bin Laden will become a criminal enterprise, along the lines of Colombia’s FARC, I can see a day long from now when Al Qaeda could be a Sufi order of some sort, practicing a spiritual discipline rooted in whatever understanding of jihad makes sense at the time. I’m not predicting, I’m just saying…)

Now, someone asked me if Bin Laden should have gotten a trial. No, he should not have. I have come to believe in something I call “rough justice” — that there are people who have acted in such a way that frankly, what they really need and the best they are going get is to be strung up by the mob. Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena strike me as relatively good examples of this in action. Manuel Noriega would have been another. I can just as easily argue for mercy in either case, as with Chile’s action in refusing to hand former East German leader Erich Honecker over for trial. I was not terribly excited about the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, foul as he was. Muammar Qaddafiy is a man who strikes me as in need of rough justice. Frankly, so does George W. Bush.

This is a matter of sensibility for me, and not a hard and fast rule. Generally, when it comes to certain kinds of crimes or human acts, such as those committed by heads of states and heads of governments, or by soldiers, or by guerrillas and terrorists, the legal process simply becomes morally inadequate. It spirals to absurdity. I would never vote against the prissy human rights lawyers who prosecute such crimes (they always seem to win)*, but believers in the “rule of law” conveniently tend to forget that laws can rule because men are prepared to do violence. Often times terrible, horrific violence. Which is why I was generally in favor of mercy for Pinochet and Honecker. It was not worth burning down anything to get “justice” for the victims of either. Both were old men, their regimes defunct, and I’m not sure what measure of satisfaction anyone could get from imprisoning unrepentant old men. I have no idea what justice means in instances like these. I’m not sure anyone else does either.

UPDATE 03 MAY: I’d like to clarify something. Typically, a trial is about the establishment of guilt, whether in the English tradition where innocence is first assumed and the state must prove guilt, or in the continental system, where guilt is assumed (on the basis of state charge) and innocence must be proved. (Given prosecutorial power in the U.S., there isn’t much daylight between the two stances anymore.) A trial is, ideally, a tool to establish guilt. Which means that not guilty has to be a realistic, possible outcome. Trials do not exist, at least in theory, to determine how guilty the accused is. However, in most cases I’ve cited above, guilt has already been assumed, and not just by non-state accusers, but also by the “legal process.” The point of a trial is, well, I’m not sure — to confront the accused with the pain and suffering the accused has caused? Public catharsis? If that’s the case, a trial is really just a slow-motion, legalistic lynching anyway. If the point of trying Usama Bin Laden is to find him guilty and punish him — to serve justice as angry and aggrieved human beings understand it — then why bother? A rope and a lamppost or a tall tree will suffice. You say we’re better than that, that’s what we have law for? No we’re not. No one is. Look how the law is being used. And by whom.

Rough justice cannot be taken for others, either. Prissy European human rights lawyers sitting in judgement in the Hague (or wherever such ridiculous people sit) cannot adequately take any kind of real justice for Rwandans, or the people of Sierra Leone, or Liberia, or Sri Lanka, or Libya, or whoever. The only real justice — if such a thing is to be had — they can find is the justice they make for themselves. The Rwandan genocide actually ended the way it needed to be ended, by Rwandans. And not outsiders. This is a matter of human dignity.

So no, the idea of a “trial” for Bin Laden was absurd. Not just from a legal standpoint (given the mess the Bush and Obama regimes have made out of the legal system for terrorism suspects), but morally as well. What justice can there be for anyone who lost anything that day? And what is human justice but vengeance with the occasional possibility of mercy — a possibility already foreclosed upon in the case of Bin Laden? As it is for so many others? I don’t know if justice was done in killing Usama Bin Laden. I suspect, however, that Sunday’s assault on the compound in northern Pakistan is probably as close as we could ever get.

Really, law is the triumph of brute force wrapped up in a neat little package anyway. Justice is the triumph of brute force enveloped in pretty words. Sometimes, for justice to be real, to make sense, it must shed the law and its cloak of pretty words and simply act. Mostly, it will be ugly and bloody. Most human struggles are. And it will rarely satisfy. Most human struggles don’t do that, either.


* That’s only because the prissy human rights lawyers have never taken on anyone truly powerful. In this, they are hypocrites, mostly.

Bin Laden’s Death and a Matter of Honor

I was working for the Saudi Press Agency at the kingdom’s U.S. embassy in Washington when the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in March, 2003. The Saudis I knew were not terribly supportive of the invasion, but they didn’t like the Iraqi government much either. They also knew there wasn’t much they could do, and that the Kingdom was tacitly supporting the invasion.

In the first week of the invasion, when the Iraqi army appeared to give little effective resistance to the American advance, a few Saudis I met in the embassy were a little glum. “We don’t expect them to win,” one told me. “But they do need to fight well. They need to show they can and are willing to fight to protect their country and their families.”

There is no sin in losing to a superior force if you at least acquit yourself honorably on the battlefield. This is both a matter of honor (in the premodern sense) and dignity (in a modern sense)*. To be utterly overpowered, to never have a chance to fight and die in a “fair” fight, to feel that you have been defeated fairly rather than unfairly is, I think, almost as important as whether you win or lose. The West’s way of war — technologically effective, impersonal, overpowering and overwhelming — is a way of war of the deprives those who are defeated of their honor and dignity. (This matters, because it’s impossible to make peace or even reconcile people to their defeat if they do not believe they maintain some amount of honor and dignity in the fight. It means that “winning” wars in such ways effectively does not matter.)

To stand, to fight, to even die like men — that’s important. We ignore that reality at our peril.

This came to me last night as I considered the scant reports we have now of Usama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. commandoes in north-eastern Pakistan. As of this writing, it appears he died on his feet, fighting, and it was important that he did so. I do not know if this was intentional or not, but the Obama administration gave bin Laden an honorable death. Granted, unlike Saddam Hussein, bin Laden probably reconciled himself to dying years ago. And with his faith, he likely had no fear of dying either. I suspect he was not inclined to be captured alive.

And capturing him alive presented any number of problems — where to keep him, how to treat him, how public a spectacle he is to become. Treating him the way U.S. forces treated Saddam Hussein, the public humiliation of something like a health checkup, photos of bin Laden in a cage in Cuba, would have enraged too many people. Granted, Saddam was a coward who talked big about fighting to the end but hoped, instead, to live and rule another day. He did not. The American desire to humiliate bin Laden was intense, and it is good we were not given — and did not take — the opportunity to act upon our worst impulses.

This doesn’t matter because somehow those waging war on the United States will say to themselves, “the Americans are now honorable, so we can stop fighting.” They won’t stop. But in the outrage to come — about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, the dumping of the body at sea — many will at least be able to say bin Laden died fighting, that he died like a man. There will be some begrudging admiration from friend and foe alike. It will provide something resembling an ending.

The only problem I have with how the administration has acted has been with what they did with the body of bin Laden. I would have seriously considered giving the body to the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, knowing that the burial rules and customs of the Wahhabis require burial in an unmarked grave. The Bin Ladens could have buried their wayward and long-disowned son deep on private property and no one would ever know where. It does, however, make sense that the administration feared they would no longer have control over the conversation if they released the body. The burial at sea — I suspect with the presence of a Muslim cleric and maybe a Muslim service member or two for a proper funeral — was basically a dumping, a way to easily get rid of a now-inconvenient artifact, something too hot to handle. It’s clever they are justifying this by motioning to bin Laden’s “religious beliefs,” but this was all about not wanting to keep the trophy too long.

Because it would have been too tempting to want to do something awful to the body. Something humiliating. (I can just see the likes of John McCain and Joe Lieberman demanding that Bin Laden’s body be publicly displayed and “desecrated”…) Something that would have only angered Muslims across the world. It would have been Americans at their absolute worst. In according Usama bin Laden the dignity of dying in a firefight, dying on his feet, and then dumping his body in the deep blue sea, the Obama administration has also according the Muslim world a matter of respect. Some honor. Some dignity.

Real power is knowing when you don’t have to, and don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, lord it over others. There’s much that I don’t like about Obama, and the actions of his administration, but he does have a more sophisticated and effective understanding of power than many in the GOP, who confuse barking orders and threatening people with real power.  Who confuse brutalizing and humiliating people with defeating them. And, like Israel’s Likudniks, confuse strength with aggression and domination.


* I have come to believe that dignity and honor are roughly the same thing. Honor being a pre-modern, very tribalist notion (that requires a community), while dignity is its modern and much more individualistic articulation.