Monday, May 2, 2011

Anabaptist party-poopers, sports, shopping, and the military

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Who's laughing now, Evil Bert?
Last night when the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I was happily asleep. My wife was upstairs working late and so heard the news. When she came down to get ready for bed, she turned the lights on, nudged me, and asked, "Are you going to get up and watch the president's speech?" I groaned quizzically. "Bin Laden's dead," she answered. I pondered this in my half-consciousness. "How do they know?" I groaned, probably incoherently, rolling away from the light and falling back asleep before I could hear her answer.

But I woke this morning remembering what she had told me. We had to pull off a one-car-family maneuver this morning, so I found myself sitting in our car in the parking lot of the city high school where my wife works, waiting for her to come back out to so we could complete the logistical gymnastics with the car. In those intervening thirty minutes, I was curious to hear the news but nervous that it would just make me ill. My reading material was the Bible, so I first made a good faith effort at reading some 1 Samuel, as part of my march through the Old Testament. The chapters I read this morning had to do with Israel desiring a king, the prophet/judge Samuel grumbling about it, God telling him "fine, go ahead with it," and Saul's being anointed and confirmed as Israel's first non-God king. Not surprisingly, Saul goofs up right off the bat.

But my curiosity got the best of me after a few chapters. I closed the Bible and turned on NPR. That lasted for about five minutes and I had to turn it off. A journalist was interviewing a 19 year-old boy at Ground Zero about his "Where you were when bin Laden died" story. (Which is precisely the nature of this very post.) Anyway, this young man, who has lived more than half of his entire life in the post-9/11 shadow of fear cast as the face of Osama bin Laden, was openly emotional, voice wavering and even faltering when chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" rose up in the background. People were described as literally swinging from light-posts near Ground Zero, celebrating the apparent victory in the U.S.'s so-called "war on terror." It was too much for me.

After I finally got to the office this morning, I had a chance to see how folks on Facebook were responding. Most of my friends who were saying anything are peaceniks of various stripes, some liberal Christian, some firmly Anabaptist, some Muslim, some atheist, most American although some not. Even from these peacenik folks, the response was surprisingly ambivalent. From my friends who aren't peaceniks/pacifists, the most measured response came from my sister-in-law's husband, who happens to be deployed with the U.S. Army, stationed in Iraq at present. He was expressing concern at how jubilant and celebratory the response from within the U.S. had been. That a soldier would say this struck me as wise. He's often given a gravely realistic assessment of the work of the military, including his own, not dressing it up for show, not pretending like its more than it is. My brother-in-law is in the business of killing, and he knows it. But he's not dancing in the streets. As much as I disagree with his line of work (it's more about his employer than him), I think his response is wise. Pro-war American civilians with no desire to ever serve in the volunteer military should take note of that.

Sports and party-poopers
One person noted that the celebrations have a childish "nyah nyah" air to them, typical in American sports culture. One wise sports commentator has already picked up on this in his response to the news of bin Laden's killing and its reception in the sports world: Sports, bin Laden and the New Normal - Dave Zirin/The Nation. He wisely points out how post-9/11 sports in America have been co-opted by the military as essentially a propaganda and recruiting tool. This immediately reminded me of Christian philosopher, James K.A. Smith's, excellent post last fall about Thanksgiving/Sports/the Military. At sporting events, Smith notes, soldiers are "revered as the warrior-priests of freedom." But freedom from/for what? "Well," Smith continues, "to shop." The emphases are different, as are the ends to which Smith and Zirin are pointing us, but their points resonate well with each other and are worth paying attention to.

Last week, on the day of the royal wedding, I read a grumpy post from a fellow Anabaptist in the U.K.: As a Christian, the royal wedding deeply disturbes me. As much as I agree with his assessment, that monarchy should strike Christians as antithetical to the confession that "Jesus is Lord," I made a remark on Facebook that on days like that, Anabaptists can be real "fun-haters." Well, here we are just a few days later and we have another example of Anabaptists being seen as fun-haters or party-poopers. When I said as much on Facebook again this morning, one of my friends back in Iowa, a Christian, asked: "C'mon...just a little part inside isn't smiling?" No. Not even a little part.

Shopping and the military
Americans have an addiction to violence and consumption, and the two are intertwined. It's the reason why football games at Thanksgiving become the occasions for revering the "warrior-priests of freedom" and advertising Black Friday deals. It's the reason that FOX can air its tremendously successful show "Glee" on one channel while, simultaneously, news pundits on another FOX channel criticize it for flaunting homosexuality and further destroying "traditional American family values." It's the reason why American "defense" contractors will pursue business in countries where American national interests may not be the first priority, but profit is. War, violence, and conflict are often predicated on a good/evil narrative which instills fear. Fear is tremendously powerful tool for control. In a media-drenched, consumer capitalist society such as ours, fear not only controls, it sells like gothcakes.

From a theological view, there are so many points of antithesis to what I've said above that it's hard to even know where to start. As it relates to fear, notice how many times Jesus tells people to "be not afraid." I've recently posted about consumerism, so I'll say no more here.As it relates to nationalism, notice how Jesus shatters Hebrew nationalism in the new covenant; Jews and Gentiles alike have a place in God's in-breaking kingdom/reign, the new creation. As it relates to violence, look at a suffering messiah, God's chosen, dying - willingly - on a cross. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ made a nonviolent mockery of death and coercion. It is to that standard which Christians look. (And indeed this would have all sorts of joyous implications for non-Christians as well!)

So the death of a violent man by violent means will not end the insanity of terrorism; far from it. America's story just doesn't cut it. I won't celebrate it. Rather, I will celebrate the broken body of Christ, which is for the healing and reconciliation of the world in ways that any temporal nation-state or market economy could - given a million years - neither imagine nor enact. May that story so captivate us, shape our imaginations and bodies, that we can see violence, war, death, oppression, revenge, and arrogance for what they are: a sham. And then work against them with God's Spirit as our source for true life, true means, and life's true end in the fullness of God.

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