The United States remains one of the most religious nations in the Western world. The greater number of Americans claim to be Christian, at least nominally. Religious though we may still be, we have also become a militarized nation, and the gods of war, masquerading as religious patriots, have taken their place in the hearts and minds of many who claim the name of Jesus.
At war for over two decades, federal defense budgets account for about 54% of federal discretionary spending, or 16% of all spending when Social Security, Medicare, etc. are added in (2014 figures). According to the Aerospace Industries Association, defense industries provide about 5.1 million jobs, and contribute about $63 billion in tax revenue to governments at all levels (2015 figures). It’s hard to miss the obvious. Ignoring the cost of lives lost and damaged, military conflict is good for business and a few local economies. Cultivating military patriotism as the mark of a true American is one way to keep it going. After all, what other kind of patriotism could there be?
I thought about that when Veterans Day elicited a string of posts from friends and family honoring those who have served in the military, and another string from veterans recalling their time of service. Honor, in the form of grateful thanksgiving, is most certainly due to those drafted into military service. Following the end of WWII and Korea, they were sent into conflicts having little to do with defending American freedom. The nation owes them honor and apologies for what was forced upon them under false pretense. Honor is also due to those who, following the end of the draft, volunteered because it was the patriotic thing to do, the right thing to do, the romantic thing to do, and, for a few, the only thing to do. For more than two decades they have loyally served their country in never ending conflicts where the political goals are uncertain, always just out of reach, with the vaguest connection to American national security. To them we owe more than a parade and a string of Facebook posts. We owe extravagant repatriation with every resource needed to reenter lives of wholeness in the civilian world. To our shame, what we owe and what we provide are not easily reconciled.
Military service is an honorable calling, but it’s not the ultimate sign of patriotism. Honorable as it is, the military is a blunt weapon in the hands of political leadership too willing to use it, not in defense of the nation, but in defense of egotistical pride, domestic political advantage, global realpolitik maneuvering, and sadly, jobs and profits generated by the arms industry. It’s too easy for lives of recruits to become expendable abstractions, just the cost of doing business in a violent world. The dead are buried with military honors, and the assurance that they died to protect our freedom, in hopes that it will be enough to keep deeper questions from being asked. Those who return alive, but with wounded souls, are given a Laurel and Hardy handshake with promises of rewards never quite funded, although things seem to be improving. As for the lives of ‘enemies’, they’re irrelevant, not worth thinking about. Destruction of civilian lives? Collateral damage, the cost of war, nothing more, can I freshen your drink?
A strong military has been a national priority since the end of WWII. That’s true of every administration, both sides of the aisle, and of public opinion. What seems to have changed is an entrenched undercurrent of religiously themed militarized patriotism, emerging through Trumpian tea party fueled mythologies, to the divine status of gods. Too many Christians wrap those gods in the flag, worshiping both in unquestioning confidence that Jesus approves.
It is patriotism swathed in religious garb that pays no attention to Jesus’ commands to love God, love neighbor, love others as Christ has loved us. It pays scant attention to the constitutional rule of law, rather than the military, as the guarantor of our liberties. It is patriotism threatened by the extension of constitutional liberties to minorities, and exacerbated by changing demographics challenging white male hegemony. It’s a dangerous place teetering on the edge of authoritarianism endorsed by what Hannah Arendt calls ‘the mob’, which I take to mean populism that belittles scientific thought, higher education, and the establishment (whatever that is). But they keep the name of Jesus close at hand.
Dorothy Day, writing many decades ago, observed that Christians cannot give ultimate loyalty to political ideals of any kind. It could not have been easy for her. She was an ardent socialist who worked hard to make her politics the servant of her faith, and not the other way round. The antidote for that temptation, she said, was love. She believed it may even be the antidote for those who don’t believe in God. As she wrote in her small book The Reckless Way of Love: notes on following Jesus:
There is a character in The Plague by Albert Camus who says that he is tired of hearing about men dying for an idea. He would like to hear about a man dying for love for a change. He goes on to say that men have forgotten how to love, that all they seem to be thinking of these days is learning how to kill. Man, he says, seems to have lost the capacity for love.
What is God but love? What is religion without love? We read of the saints dying for love, and we wonder what they mean. There was a silly verse I used to hear long ago: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” It comes from As You Like It. And nowadays in this time of war and preparing for war, we would agree, except for the saints. Yes, they have died for love of God. But Camus’s character would say, “I mean for love of man.” Our Lord did that, but most people no longer believe in him. It is hard to talk to people about God if they do not believe in him. So one can talk and write of love. People want to believe in that even when they are all but convinced that it is an illusion.
I agree with Day, and believe it’s the antidote for those who have made a god out of militarized, nationalistic patriotism. The love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus leaves no room for any other god. There is no room for Ares and Mars garbed in American flags, impersonating patriotism, demanding a place on the holy altar next to the cross. Antidote though it may be, smashing idols with reformation fervor is not likely to work. They’re embedded deep enough to have become a natural part of the scenery of generic American Christianity. What may work is constant, energetic proclamation of the gospel that simply leaves no room for them. Add to that secular teaching about the philosophy and history of our constitutional republic, with an emphasis on the subordinate servant role of the military, and we may make progress.
One final note. There are people out there who will not listen, and won’t change their minds. Maybe it’s time to quit knocking on their doors, and get on with those who will. To keep hammering away on the former is to ignore the latter, possibly losing both.