The Future of War … And Politics

Paul Mason has this to say over at The Guardian about the future mercilessness of war currently on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and elsewhere:

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles.

The Red Cross was, at its inception, both a global humanitarian movement and an alliance of national, military-aligned volunteer units. The two did not seem contradictory. As long as a nation’s army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva strictures – separating themselves from defensive military positions – civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding they would not be deliberately harmed.

That could not be further from the ideological framework under which modern wars are fought. Since the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and with the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story of modern conflict has become “we, the normal folk, against an inhuman, alien and irrational foe”.

I think that pretty well describes what politics has descended to in the United States as well — a contest not of fellow citizens who see that shared citizenship with each other even as they compete, but rather, a no-holds barred contest for victory and supremacy against an “inhuman, alien and irrational foe.”

Who must be defeated at all costs. Who is worthy neither of consideration nor consideration, and who deserves no mercy.

It isn’t that civilization is at stake. It’s more primal than that. We, the tribe, are at stake.

While tribalism has always been with us, one of the reasons it is becoming so intense is because the order created by modernity is so fundamentally alienating for so many people. Whether it succeeds or fails in its promises (such as consumerist individualism, or equal national citizenship and accountable governance), modernity destroys the very flesh and blood connections that make it possible for us to really be human and see the humanity even in others, and even in the stranger.

To borrow a Qur’anic concept, tribalism, a sense of us as a separate and unique people, makes it possible for us see the human in the other.

O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. (4:39 Khan & Al-Hilali)

But if our humanity is constantly threatened, so much that we are hard pressed even to see ourselves as human, then it becomes difficult — perhaps impossible — to see others as anything more than alien and irrational.

And the web of tribal organization that thrived in mid-century America — Churches, families (often extended), neighborhoods, civic associations — that made it possible for people to be embedded in a web of human relationships, are gone. This was a often not an ideal web, and it could frequently suffocate (though big cities often provided space for nonconformists to find their way), but it worked for most people and it gave their lives shape, meaning, and purpose.

It made them intelligibly human to themselves. And that gave them a fighting chance of seeing, truly seeing, the human in the other, the stranger, the alien. Of seeing the reason in the irrational.

As Andrew Bacevich writes over at Commonweal in his review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Members of a squad or platoon form a tribe of sorts, linked to one another by bonds that Junger believes have otherwise all but vanished from our hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented society. For boys grasping at maturity, in other words, war offers a rite of initiation, all the more alluring given that elsewhere in American society such rites have fallen out of fashion.

In place of communities, ours is a society consisting of market segments, delineated by personal consumer preferences. So when present-day veterans return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are duly welcomed and then duly expected to repair to their assigned niche in the marketplace. Thank you for your service. Now shut up and shop.

We aren’t in this together. We were once, but not anymore. A sense of shared obligation and responsibility is gone — everyone, but especially the wealthy and the successful, are angry and entitled, convinced the only people they owe are themselves. The aspiration for absolute equality and absolute freedom — both false and dreadful promises made by modernity — destroy any sense that anyone has a duty or responsibility to another. To their safety or their wellbeing.

This doesn’t get better. It gets worse. None of our institutions is set up to foster this sense of obligation and responsibility, to promote mutual self-giving and mutual self-surrender within a social hierarchy. Between the statism and the libertarianism of the age, we are incapable of even conceiving how a good life could be made when we live together, obligated by ties of kinship and faith and closeness that we didn’t choose. We are spinning, whirring, exhausting ourselves in a fit of unfocused rage that can only end in sorrow and suffering and possibly even destruction.

The desire to belong, however, to be part of something, to owe others as one is owed, is there, it just doesn’t know what to do or how to express itself right now. It will out at some point, when there’s little left, when we have been atomized and consumerized into almost non-existence. When we have become such strangers to ourselves that we aren’t sure we see human beings in the mirror anymore.

It’s Okay to Serve Nebuchadnezzar

Christendom left Christians, particularly European and American Christians, with a sense that they were empowered and entitled to organize the world. And with that came an obligation to do good and confront evil.

It makes sense that, in a Christian world, the teaching of the church would be far more prescriptive — telling people how to act and how to live in accordance with God’s wishes for humanity and the good order of creation — than descriptive — merely stating the what, how, and sometimes even why of puzzles humanity finds itself dealing with. The church, after all, has an order to uphold and protect, an understanding of what it means to be human.

In the millenia-and-a-half of functional Christendom, the church came to understand God primarily as creator rather than redeemer. Redemption could be taken for granted (in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ), and so the creation needed to be explained.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t really reflect Israel’s experience and understanding of its encounter with God in scripture. In the Bible, God is met primarily as a redeemer rather than creator. The creation could be taken for granted (it was always there, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and so it didn’t really need explaining), so what needed to be understood was redemption.

Because God was met not in the phrase “let there be light” but in the words “Do not be afraid.”

The creation-centeredness of our theologies has forced us to focus on the right order of the world. Coupled with power, Christians have come to believe the world was ours to organize the way God wants it organized, either because we are imposing order on the world or simply helping the order inherent in God’s good creation realize itself. Creation-centered theology is a theology that wants and needs power — it needs to shape and form the world and all those in it.

But the Bible is not the story of a powerful people. It is the story of one man and his (rather sizable) family told to leave him home for a place he will only be shown when he gets there. It is the story of promises given to that man, to his descendants, to a kingdom that rises and falls, is conquered and occupied and carried into exile. Throughout this story, this people — Israel — are constantly subject to the whim of others, mostly enemies, and what they have, they have solely because this God of the promise has given it to them.

They have earned nothing. They have conquered nothing. They have not even fought for much of anything. God did the fighting. Most of what they have been given is taken from them, and they are left weak, defeated, and scattered, with nothing more than the promises that old man was given long, long before.

This story — promise, rise, defeat, exile — is our story as the church. We have forgotten it is our story because we think we have transcended it. Because we have taught ourselves for so long that we must confront evil and defeat it, that we have a duty to order the world, that we must remain pure and upright and always do good in order to save our souls, we forget that our story is one of sin and consequence, of conquest and subjugation and exile.

And serving those who conquered and exiled us.

This is especially important as Christians — mostly conservatives — wonder what to do with modernity, with a secular politics in the West (especially America) that no longer treats their faith with much respect or privileges their truth claims or institutional structures. The desire to protect themselves, to find a champion (Damon Linker’s interpretation of Donald J. Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians) who will subdue enemies, seems to have guided much Christian thinking in the West for the last century.

But how should Christians deal with enemies?

The gospel is clear: love them. I constantly focus on the fact that the Beatitudes is a guide for faithful living while occupied and oppressed. Israel was not free, and was not going to be free through its own efforts. Freedom came another way — in love, a love that would not flinch in its encounter with the enemy oppressor, but would also not meet violence with violence. It was a love grounded in solidarity, in generosity, that met inhumanity and violence with forgiveness and “follow me.”

But even before Jesus meets his people in the midst of violent Roman occupation (and predicts far worse), the Hebrew Bible tells us of what it means when Israel is beaten, broken, and carried away into exile.

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1–7 ESV)

Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem. He killed its leaders, destroyed the temple — the house David promised and Solomon built for God to live in — and carried off the best and brightest of Israel as well as what remained of its wealth and its ceremonial objects. Because of what he did, it would be impossible to worship, and the people of Israel must have wondered — on that long trail of tears from Judah to northern Iraq — what would become of them now that the one thing that held them together — worship — was no longer possible.

If there was ever a reason for non-cooperation with any kind of government, it would be now. It would have been more than appropriate for Israel to tell the Babylonian king to go screw himself sideways and let them weep by the banks of that distant and foreign river by themselves.

Instead, the best and brightest go to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed their temple, conquered their people, and carried them off into exile.

How do you deal with your enemies? You love them. You serve them. This isn’t gospel squishiness … this is hard-headed Hebrew Bible history.

Oh, you speak truth to your enemies. You bear witness to the God who redeems. You refuse to bow down to their idols. You don’t eat the king’s food. You worship even when it is outlawed. You remember and confess who you are and whose you are. But you do this still serving, still loving, and trusting in God.

The church, with its rules and laws and teaching, has forgotten how to trust God. It has forgotten how to be church when the world isn’t organized in its favor. It has forgotten how to be church when it doesn’t have social and political power. Because to be Christian in Christendom is to live with a sense of agency and power, something Israel possessed only sporadically. The church has forgotten that our calling as God’s people is to be faithful, and not successful. The promises we have been given do not include success. Or power.

It will be tough to be faithful in modernity, to eat only vegetables rather than meals cooked in the king’s kitchen, to pray with the windows open so everyone may see. Modernity is all about reducing human beings to mere things to be used, consumed, discarded, and abandoned. It is about forming a standardized and commoditized humanity that conforms easily so individual human beings can be used easily. While we should not be about that, the church in modernity has easily surrendered itself to this objectification of humanity, embracing all the various ways human “things” can best be managed and put to use. It is because of this surrender to modernity, I think, that we have been defeated, and have been carried off into exile, into Babylon, where we are beginning to gather by the river’s edge and weep for what we have lost.

But we can, in good conscience, serve Nebuchadnezzar. We can, in good conscience, serve state and society in modernity, even given all modernity is and does. So long as we remember that the king of Babylon was only a man. That modernity is a transitory thing. It has come, and it will go. And that we have a promise of deliverance, a promise real in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who lived and died and rose under occupation. Who showed us what it meant to love and even serve our enemies.

Enemies who ruled us without pity.

We can still serve them, our enemies. We can still bear witness to the truth of God’s redeeming love. We know will be delivered because we have already been delivered. We do not need a protector or an avenger like Donald J. Trump. His promise of power and protection is akin to that of King Zedekiah, who started a pointless war with Babylon he could not win. We have Christ, who has overcome the world and defeated death. We have the promises of God. And they are true. They have not failed us.

They will never fail us.

The Problem of Pluralism

Writing about Islam and the West, Ross Douthat over at the New York Times almost stumbles across something a great deal more interesting:

… On the one hand, Westerners want Islam to adapt and assimilate, to “moderate” in some sense, to leave behind the lure of conquest, the pull of violent jihad.

But for several reasons — because we don’t understand Islam from the inside, but also because we’re divided about what our civilization stands for and where religious faith fits in — we have a hard time articulating what a “moderate” Muslim would actually believe, or what we expect a modernized Islam to become.

And to any Muslim who takes the teachings of his faith seriously, it must seem that many Western ideas about how Islam ought to change just promise its eventual extinction.

This is clearly true of the idea, held by certain prominent atheists and some of my fellow conservatives and Christians, that the heart of Islam is necessarily illiberal — that because the faith was born in conquest and theocracy, it simply can’t accommodate itself to pluralism without a massive rupture, an apostasy in fact if not in name. [Emphasis mine — CHF]

The question here is what is meant by pluralism. Historically, the Christian West did not believe in or practice religious pluralism — non-Christians were not allowed to exist inside the confines of Christian society, save for Jews, and their room to maneuver and exist was tightly controlled in the West (up to the point of expulsion). There were no Muslims allowed in Recinquista Spain, or in Sicily and Southern Italy in the period after Christians retook them from Muslim rule.

By comparison, Hungary was still full of Christians when a century of Muslim rule ended, the Balkans were as well, and even the Levant and Egypt were host to large Christian populations as late at the 19th century. Islam has never historically had a problem with pluralism — Western Christendom has.

(The only Christian society to effectively live with Islam in its midst was Orthodox Russia.)

However, Islam has a problem with pluralism now. And this is one of modernity’s sadder gifts to Islam. Because so does Liberalism, the ruling ideology of the West. Liberalism has inherited Christendom’s intolerance of alternative truth claims, dissolving them with all the force late medieval Catholicism demanded conversion or expulsion of its newly acquired Jewish and Muslim subjects. The only religion Liberalism will accept is one that has surrendered utterly to Liberalism — to its means, its ends, and its truth claims. This is as true of Christianity as it is of Islam, as Douthat notes.

But again, the problem is primarily a Western one that has become a modern one. (Though because the West conquered the world, it is also a global problem.) The Liberal nation-state wants domesticated religion — religion that serves the ends and means of society and the state (even as there is partisan bickering over what those ends exactly are). The church has, sadly, far too quickly obliged. The Islam that is fighting Liberalism is doing so less out of religious conviction (though it has those) than it is from a political vision — it seeks the creation of a clearly non-liberal polity, an Islamic modernity that is an alternative to the Liberal world order. Because Muslims understand, I think, that Liberalism doesn’t practice real pluralism.

There aren’t any alternatives to Liberalism that aren’t somehow grounded in Liberalism, and Islamism is the same — the caliphate proclaimed in the desert of Syria and Iraq is as much a “nation-state,” even though it pretends not to be, as the nation-states it seeks to supplant. Because there is no alternative to the order of nation-states in our world — there just isn’t.

The Liberal order — both within and among nation-states — seeks to assimilate. Mere obedience is not enough. This lack of pluralism is a mark of modernity, Liberalism’s inheritance from Christendom. And this is only going to get worse, not better, as Liberal societies increasingly demand conformity to an order that can neither tolerate nor accept traditional religious truth claims.

How Daesh (داعش) Does Really Effective Ministry

Rod Dreher does the world a tremendous favor today by posting a number of links to anthropologist and terror scholar Scott Atran , including this recent piece in The Guardian on the nature of داعش (Daesh, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria), this long interview with Russia Today, this essay in The New York Review of Books, and this piece for Foreign Policy.

Read them. Atran understands the appeal of Revolutionary Islam — he understands the appeal of revolution itself, especially for the young, who seek both adventure and moral clarity as they seek a place and a purpose in the world — and he appreciates the difficulties the bourgeois West faces in dealing what is essentially a revolutionary crusade to make a perfect world. I think Atran underestimates the sheer overwhelming and crushing power of bourgeois banality — it has steamrolled everything in its path, and I doubt Revolutionary Islam, for all its rage and well-planned violence, will prevail over the essential bureaucratic and mechanical meaninglessness of modernity.

I won’t belabor many of the points Atran makes — you should just read them. Mostly, he focuses on the tremendous appeal of meaning and purpose that داعش presents to the young, disaffected and otherwise, of the West, young people who are looking for something bigger to belong to.

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)

And I’ll have to be honest, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process in 2014, saying I was too much of a sinner — too much of a potential liability — to be a pastor, that set off a tremendous crisis of meaning and purpose in my life. One that I haven’t really been able to resolve. Because I still ache to belong to something. And I don’t now. Because I’m not allowed to belong.

So, I get the appeal of داعش, and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

But none of this is what I want to focus on. In the NYRB piece, Atran notes something stunning as he critiques Western efforts to counter داعش “propaganda”:

In its feckless “Think Again Turn Away” social media program, the US State Department has tried to dissuade youth with mostly negative anonymous messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things? As one teenage girl from a Chicago suburb retorted to FBI agents who stopped her from flying to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.

And any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. There are nearly fifty thousand Twitter accounts supporting ISIS, with an average of some one thousand followers each.

There’s a word for what داعش is doing here — ministry. While Western governments futz and fiddle (and generally fail) with programs and policies, داعش is building individual relationships of empathy and support, reaching across as individual human beings to other individual human beings, listening to life stories and then slowly, carefully, and deliberately providing a meaning and structure, and then a series of answers about life and the world that lead to purposeful action.

According to Atran, the FBI has only one person — an agent in Los Angeles — doing any kind of counter-engagement.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

I know many pastors who are deeply frustrated with a bureaucratic church life that seems deliberately and purposefully intent on suffocating or even preventing ministry. The good they do, the relationships they build, the presence of God they share and are part of, seem almost accidents in daily lives given over to bureaucratic and administrative nonsense. Its seems much of the world works that way, on accident rather than on purpose. It is deeply frustrating to live in a world like that.

And deeply human to want to change that.

Atran is right. Since the summer, I’ve done an online ministry with young people that has worked largely in this dynamic. It’s not hard to find kids who ache to be listened to empathetically — they are all over Whisper — and to say a kind word or two to them. To gain their trust simply by listening. I try to give hope, a Jesus-shaped hope (without overtly mentioning Jesus, though as I have read Atran’s work, I think that has been a mistake) to those who express hopelessness and despair. It’s tough work, this empathetic relationship building, even online, and I was successful at it when I was unemployed and could devote myself to it full time. But once I was employed, and had other work that swallowed up my days, well, there have been a couple of significant failures because I could not devote all the time needed to all the people I had committed to.

And as I think about this ministry, I suspect no church in its right mind would approve such a thing — much less approve me to do it. Too risky. Too unquantifiable. Too … strange. Where’s the program? The job description? The accountability? The measures of success?

If the West wanted to properly counter داعش, western governments would create — or better, probably foster and encourage — a cadre of empathetic relationship builders (or pastors, if you will) who will meet the same kinds of people in the same kinds of ways that داعش recruiters do and engage them. By listening, by empathizing, and then by slowly inviting those people into an understanding of their life, their meaning, and their purpose that doesn’t involve the waging of global revolution. I personally think love is a good organizing principle, but then I would. Perhaps we could aim to create an “Army of Love,” jaish al-hub جيش الحب, though what the point of that army would be, aside from doing what Jesus tells us to do — preach, teach, and baptize — I’m not sure.

Mostly because I don’t think there is anything more. But that’s just me.

What I do know is that no Western government could organize this without thinking in terms of call centers or customer support. Without imposing the means and methods of modern management in order to try to continually prove its effectiveness. Without job descriptions and regular metrics. You couldn’t sell mere relationship building, love as both means and end, to a modern organization. Contractors are allowed to rob governments blind but something as “unorganized” as this would simply give managers the hives. I’m not even sure a church could do it effectively. Because churches are wrapped up in the same way of doing business as governments and corporations. It’s all the same rotten culture.

So, داعش will continue to find — and be found — by those seeking meaning. Because young people want to know their lives have value and purpose. Because so many are hungering for meaningful encounters with empathetic adults who will value them and help guide them toward that purpose. I know because I’ve met them. And I still meet them. There are young people out there who hunger for meaning, purpose, and belonging, who yearn for something more than the grand buffet of unlimited consumption and meaningless comfort, of using and being used. And right now, for some, داعش provides that.

A smart society would find room for such people without demanding the kind of complete conformity that liberal modernity demands. But we do not live in a smart society. Most people seem happy with the promises of the modern world (and bully for them) and cannot fathom why some of us are misfits, malcontents, and marginalized — why we want something more. Or something different. So, because of that, it probably won’t matter what even a fairly large portion of the disaffected and the misfit want or even choose. We’ll all be steamrolled by the impersonal machine that is bureaucratic modernity anyway. The West can afford to do nothing. It can afford not to care.

The Tyranny of Choice

Polina Aronson over at Aeon — one of my favorite websites for “big think” essays — says something very provocative about the nature of modernity and choice:

The most important requirement for choice is not the availability of multiple options. It is the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest. Unlike all previous lovers who ran amok and acted like lost children, the new romantic hero approaches his emotions in a methodical, rational way. He sees an analyst, reads self-help literature and participates in couples counselling. Moreover, he might learn ‘love languages’, read into neuro-linguistic programming, or quantify his feelings by marking them on a scale from 1 to 10. The American philosopher Philip Rieff called this type ‘the psychological man’. In Freud: The Mind of a Moralist (1959), Rieff describes him as ‘anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided’. The psychological man is a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.

And she goes on:

Compared with other historical conventions about romance, the Regime of Choice might seem like a Gore-Tex jacket next to a hair shirt. Its greatest promise is that love needn’t cause pain. According to the polemics that Kipnis develops in Against Love (2003), the only suffering the Regime of Choice recognises is the supposedly productive strain of ‘working on a relationship’: tears shed in the couples therapist‘s room, wretched attempts at conjugal sex, daily inspection of mutual needs, the disappointment of a break-up with someone who is ‘not good for you’. You are allowed to have sore muscles but you cannot have accidents. By making heartbroken lovers into the authors of their own trouble, popular advice produces a new form of social hierarchy: an emotional stratification based on the misidentification of maturity with self-sufficiency.

In the Regime of Choice, committing oneself too strongly, too early, too eagerly is a sign of an infantile psyche. It shows a worrying readiness to abandon the self-interest so central to our culture.

Second, and even more importantly, the Regime of Choice is blind to structural limitations that make some people less willing – or less able – to choose than others. This occurs not only because we have unequal endowments of what the British sociologist Catherine Hakim calls ‘erotic capital’ (that is, some of us are prettier than others). In fact, the biggest problem about choice is that whole groups of individuals might, actually, be disadvantaged by it.

Aronson compares this to her native Russia, where the “Regime of Fate” rules, and where passion — unconsidered and unreflective passion — guides and where “the concept of maturity that lies at the heart of the Regime of Choice regards romantic pain as an aberration and a sign of poor decision-making, the Russians consider maturity to be the capacity to bear that very pain, sometimes to an absurd degree.”

A middle-class American who falls in love with a married woman is advised to break up with the lady and to schedule 50 hours of therapy. A Russian in a similar situation, however, storms the woman’s house and pulls her out by the hand, straight from the hob with stewing borsch, past crying children and a husband frozen with game controller in hand. Sometimes, it goes well: I know a couple who have been together happily for 15 years since the day he had kidnapped her from a conjugal New Year’s feast. But in most cases, the Regime of Fate produces mess.

In terms of bulk numbers, Russians have a greater number of marriages, divorces and abortions per capita than any other developed country. These statistics document an impetus to do whatever it takes to act upon emotions, and often at the cost of one’s own comfort. Russian romance is closely accompanied by substance abuse, domestic violence and abandoned children: the by-products of lives that were never really thought‑through very clearly. Apparently, believing in fate each time you fall in love is not such a great alternative to excessive choice.

Aarson sees the destruction the “regime of fate” inflicts upon the land, but she also see the “regime of choice” as attempting to impose too much control and took much predictability on events and acts that are, by our very nature as human beings, messy and unpredictable. Choice could use a little more passion and a little more fate.

I think Aronson here is speaking some deep and penetrating truths about the nature of the modern world (and not just about comparative coupling and romance in the United States and Russia). Modernity promises an end to pain and suffering, and in doing so, tells us that pain and suffering have no meaning except as things to be overcome. Passion and emotion have no value except as things to be mastered and eventually suppressed. Life will be plotted out carefully, deliberately, and properly, so that all of the right choices will be made and minimal suffering experienced or inflicted. Because, as Aronson notes, the modern autonomous individual (she uses the term “psychological man”) is “a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.”

I suspect this explains some of why I had such trouble with the Lutherans. More than once, people have described me as having a Russian soul — a swirling and chaotic darkness and deep, abiding and barely controlled passion. For folks who want a well-ordered world, and whose notion of non-anxious presence is a rational, calm, and non-emotive person (you’ve all met that pastor, I’m fairly certain), well, I can see how I would be deeply unsettling. The ideal emotional technocrat Aronson describes here doesn’t just control how he or she reacts to emotions, but has learned how to feel the right kinds of things. It is the ultimate triumph of ideology and technology over humanity.

And I hate it. It isn’t human. At least it doesn’t seem human to me.

The well-planned and well-ordered life does’t know what to do with the vagaries of fate. We love and make commitments not knowing how things will end. (Well, we do know death looms out there somewhere, until technology makes it possible for us to do away even with that.) We marry in the heat of passion, and learn as we live and love what it means to have actually committed to be with this one person. Because it won’t always go well. It won’t always be easy.

Jennifer and I chose not to kids of our own — a decision I will regret until the day I die. And I am beginning to consider the possibility that our ethos of choice in this matter also lets us think that we can choose our children, that we can craft them into things of our liking. In the last few years, but especially this summer, I have found myself in parental relationships with a handful of young people whom I would never have chosen as my children had it been up to me. But they chose me, or fate knocked us together, and it has been glorious, falling in love with these amazing young people, getting to know them, finding out who it is that God has made my “children” because of circumstance.

And learning what it means to commit to people whose lives are not particularly well ordered.

Aronson’s Russian way is messy. It is chaotic. And we see the pain it causes in broken lives. But I don’t think the regime of choice is any less damaging and any less destructive. (It just isn’t so obvious because the violence is institutional, legal, and usually in slow motion.) In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that our very modern idea that everything will be well planned, well considered, all angles examined and considered before any commitments are made, that we will choose well and choose wisely (and be judged harshly for failing to do so) is antihuman. (At least for non-Northern Europeans.) It denies us the experience of uncertainty, of bearing pain (and discerning meaning in that pain), and of finding real joy in that which cannot be planned.

How to be Your Own Oppressor

A number of conservatives are looking upon the American landscape in the age of Caitlyn Jenner and legalized same-sex marriage and saying, “there are no rules anymore.”

They especially see this in the logic of Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the justice wrote in 1992:

Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.

“The right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” These words are religious — they are teleological, they pertain to the ends and purposes of human existence — and they are, under this rubric, entirely up to the individual and the individual alone.

And that means chaos, conservatives say. Because there aren’t any “right” answers anymore. Aren’t any “shared” answers anymore, “objective” answers against which any individual conclusion can be measured. It’s anything goes.

Except, they’re wrong. Note this little exchange from the 1999 film Office Space between Joanna (played by Jennifer Anniston) and her boss Stan (played by Mike Judge) at restaurant Chotchkie’s about the amount of “flair” Joanna is — or in this case, isn’t — wearing:

STAN (MIKE JUDGE) : Joanna! . . . We need to talk about your flair.

JOANNA : Really? I have fifteen pieces on (demonstrating).

STAN : Fifteen is the minimum, mmkay. It’s up to you whether you want to just do the bare minimum. Brian for example has thirty-seven pieces of flair—and a terrific smile.

JOANNA : Okay, so you want me to wear more?

STAN : (Sighing.) Look, Joanna, people can get a cheeseburger anywhere, they come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.

JOANNA : So . . . more, then.

STAN : Look, we want you to express yourself. Mmkay? Now, if you feel the bare minimum is enough, well, okay, but some people choose to wear more, and we encourage that. You do want to express yourself, don’t you?

This may seem like a tawdry example, but this exchange is, I think, deeply indicative of how the therapeutic world works. While Stan clearly wants Joanna to wear more “flair,” he simply cannot simply tell her to do that. He cannot and will not be an external voice of authority. Instead, he wants her to want to wear more flair.

“We want you to express yourself.” You would think this would be fairly open ended statement with no right answer, but it’s not. It clearly has a correct answer. But it’s one that must be discerned internally. Brian is held up as a standard not because he wears 37 pieces of “flair,” but because he clearly wants to wear those 37 pieces. That’s self-expression in this world, and while Stan won’t tell Joanna “be like Brian,” (that would go against the whole notion of individual expression) he’s telling her to “be like Brian.” Because Brian expresses himself correctly.

Joanna doesn’t really care about all this, and thought wearing the minimum — and doing her job — would suffice. But it doesn’t. Stan needs her not just to do the right things, but to feel them, to want them. Of her own accord. To put those things inside her and make them part of her. She cannot simply do the right thing; she has to be the right thing.

In the therapeutic world, there are no clearly stated right answers because it will be assumed the right answer already exists inside everyone, and it’s just waiting to be found or cultivated. This has always been part of the paradox of American freedom — Americans were “free,” but it was always a tightly constrained freedom limited to certain kinds of choices. It was freedom from external authority (the main goal of the Enlightenment) — which is clearly tyranny — but it replaced that external authority with a semi-coherent internal authority. In order to function, this internal freedom demands a great deal of conformity — moreso even than any externally imposed order. In fact, in order for freedom to work, everyone has to make roughly the same choices. Wrong choices cannot be tolerated. They don’t just threaten the social order; they also signal that there’s a problem with the chooser, who is clearly disordered.

The right choices available would never really be explicitly outlined, and you wouldn’t know what they were until you actually failed to choose one of them. You might not be compelled to make those right choices, but right choices would still be expected, and failure to make right choices would still be sanctioned or punished. This was just as true of the socially, religiously, and politically conservative Southern California suburb I grew up in as it is of liberal and progressive America.

This kind of individual-defining, autonomous freedom is deeply conservative simply because it is American. Kennedy’s definition of freedom stands in the long tradition of allegedly expansive but simultaneously deeply constraining and conformist notions of American freedom. Very little has really changed, including the reality that there are wrong choices and wrong answers and that those who make them will be punished. Conservatives are suddenly griping about this now only because it’s finally working against them.

Where They Walk Over Sainte Therese

Dwight Longenecker over at The Imaginative Conservative makes an interesting comparison between Friedrich Nietzsche and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, noting the two thinkers — the late 19th century’s most famous atheist and the young nun who would later become one of the era’s best-known saints and only Doctor of the Church — were actually closer to each other than either could imagine.

Or, I suspect, many of their supporters. Continue reading

Book Review: The Desire of the Nations (PART 1)

Jesus is Lord.

This is something we who are called to follow Jesus are also called to proclaim. But this isn’t a simple proclamation of faith — like the shahadah, in which Muslims proclaim the oneness of God and confess that Muhammad is the messenger of God, this is proclamation with political implications.

This is the idea Oliver O’Donvan is dealing with in The Desire of The Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (1996). This review covers the first two chapters, where O’Donovan tries to get past Enlightenment suspicion of theological and religious motives and meaning in political action, and then tries to figure out exactly where and how political authority emerges in the biblical history of Israel. Continue reading

On Being Muslim and Modern

There’s a lot of heartburn in some places over Graeme Wood’s piece in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants.” Getting some traction is H. A. Hellyer’s piece over at Salon, which seems to claim (at least in the headline) that Wood is calling ISIS “representative of Islam.” This seems like something of a straw man, and I see little nonsense in what Wood wrote.

(I cannot speak for the New York Post.)

Wood makes sense to me. He’s written an insightful work that fairly well describes how I understood and experienced Revolutionary Islam (and Muslims who aspired to be revolutionaries) when I worshiped in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t see much nonsense in Wood’s analysis, especially this: Continue reading