Monday, September 5, 2011

Chug a beer for the Solider-Priests of Freedom!

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
"High life" defined as American consumerism (click image)
Literary critic, William Deresiewicz, offers a biting commentary on America's post-9/11 "cult of the uniform" in a recent New York Times op-ed piece:

An Empty Regard
(via Fors Clavigera)

The author's main contention is that we as a nation have set up this cult of the uniform as a way to immunize the military from critique. This cult is attended to by the secular liturgies entailed by the hero worship of soldiers, who serve as priests of our freedom. The cult is constructed and practiced in such a way as to make criticizing the military analogous to criticizing those who serve in the military. But as Deresiewicz contends...
(W)ho our service members are and the work their images do in our public psyche, our public discourse, and our public policy are not the same. Pieties are ways to settle arguments before they begin. We need to question them, to see what they’re hiding. (Emphasis mine.)
I commend this piece for a host of reasons which I'll explore below. Just briefly, though, this piece is excellent because it voices many of the reasons why I happily and intentionally maintain relationships with American soldiers within my networks of friends of family, while still remaining an ardent Christian pacifist. Criticizing the military-industrial complex and the work it asks of its members by no means diminishes my care for those members, who are real human beings with real challenges and needs.

[Oct '11 update: The Mennonite Weekly Review has since picked up this post in edited form: Hero worship of U.S. soldiers. As usual, thanks to Sheldon C. Good for his editorial hand!]

The language of worship
It's very wise of the the author to make use of liturgical, worshipful language to sketch out this nationalistic "cult of the uniform." I used the term "secular liturgies" above as an explicit reference to Christian philosopher, James K.A. Smith, and his work in the book, Desiring the Kingdom, which I've blogged about numerous times, most recently in response to a David Brooks piece in the Times about the sociality of virtue. Worship is worship, wither sacred or profane, or as pop theologian Bob Dylan puts it: "You’re gonna have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody." (To worship is indeed to serve, in a sense.)

So for Deresiewicz to describe the cult of the uniform in this way should set American Christians' teeth on edge, because if he's right (and obviously I think he is), practice in the cult of the uniform is a contemporary manifestation of one of the Bible's more insidious sins: institutionalized idolatry.

This worship service brought to you by...
One significant dimension of this "cult of the uniform" that Deresiewicz seems to miss is its corporate sponsorship. As the Miller High Life image which I used above illustrates, hero worship of soldiers has been given the corporate philanthropy treatment. The Fors Clavigera post I linked to above signals this, as does Jamie Smith's post on Thanksgiving weekend of last year: The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military. Watch any NFL game these days (which is exactly what Smith was doing) and you'll see this at work: saluting soldiers who march out on the field, the obligatory fighter jet fly-over, and other fantastic displays of power and majesty. Besides flaming nationalistic fervor through the worship of heroes, what does this corporate-sponsored form of worship signify and, more importantly, what does it do to public life?

Corporate philanthropy for military service members is an interesting phenomenon. (Hell, corporate philanthropy period is an interesting phenomenon...for another time.) On one hand it seems to be a critique of the government, as if to say, "Well, Uncle Sam, since you obviously can't take care of your physically and psychologically wounded soldiers (cf. Walter Reed scandal), let ol' Rich Uncle Pennybags do your job for you." But on the other hand this critique isn't critical of the U.S. as a whole. The state needs the market and vice versa.

Some observers of globalization have predicted the demise of the nation-state at the hands of the globo-corporation. Such predictions, though, seem to miss how interwoven are nationalistic and consumeristic narratives (advertising) and ends. "Buy stuff, it's good for America," as president Bush reminded us in the days following 9/11. William T. Cavanaugh has said that globalization is better seen as the "hyperextension" of the nation-state beyond territorial borders. This helps provide coherence to why America's military adventurism seems to have the strange tendency to happen in nations with oil or other national (and corporate) interests. It also brings to light the mobility of goods, money, and credit (inhuman) and the lack of mobility of labor (human). Think of the relationship between cheap manufacturing in Latin America and the US conflict over immigration from Latin America, or between the US reliance on cheap consumer goods from China and the US's financial indebtedness to China to subsidize our consumerist standard of living. Which takes us deeper...

The worship of soldier-priests on AstroTurf altars is actually a diversion tactic, indicative of a deeper form of American idolatry: the worship of our consumerist standard of living. Wars to preserve our national interests preserve that standard of living. And Americans worship their leisure (beer, football, satellite TV) to the degree that, in my armchair assessment, there is no critical mass of civic or political will to substantively change and turn the rudder on this large, large ship: the American project.

Deresiewicz nails this point dead-on when he says that the cult of the uniform is "a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters...embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators." Spectators being mediated to and shaped by a digital screen brought to you by Vizio (via Costco via who-knows-what thin-margin distribution chains), through a satellite network brought to you by DirectTV, from content brought to you by the NFL Network and its army of producers, and a worship service being brought to you on the backs of military service members. God bless America, change the channel, pass me the "Late Night® All Nighter Cheeseburger®"-flavored Doritos® and a cold Michelob Ultra. I am, after all, watching my figure and - just like in the ad - will go jogging after the game (no I won't, there's another game on and re-run games ESPN Classic after that!).

This rhetorical flourish should not be taken to hide my own implication/participation in all the above. Indeed I enjoy cold beer, Doritos, and football on TV. I am not proposing an Amish-style withdrawal from society, as tempting as that is at times. I pay my taxes, and even when we were walking into U.S. Customs at Dulles last month, just back from Ethiopia, I had a sheepish sense of comfort/pride when the recorded voice said overhead, "U.S. citizens...welcome home to the United States." Yes, indeed, I was glad to be home and American soil has been the land I've called home my whole life.

Turning idolatry bitter
As Christians, then, where does this leave us? Well the whole point of this post was entirely critical. It's already too long so there's not much space to be constructive. Such critical work, though, should always propel us to the constructive "now what?" questions. If Christians can see a bit clearer the powerful systems - animating spirits of the age - which have a grip on our imaginations and bodies, we are then more free to imagine and practice faithfully the liturgy of Christian worship and service to God's reconciling mission to the world as the church, Christ's body.

We are freed to love and serve those whose bodies have been shaped and sometimes broken by those powerful systems and whose image has been defiled and abused. Am I talking about American soldiers or civilian victims of drone attacks in Pakistan? Am I talking about homeless people in Flint, Michigan, or untouchables in Calcutta? Or am I talking about comfortable middle-class white Americans (like me) who don't see anything wrong with the status quo?Yes, yes, and YES!

Seeing idolatry for what it is will turn its taste to bitterness and poison, which it is, and with repentance and lament, will turn us toward the worship and service of the true God revealed to us in a poor, wandering teacher-messiah, crucified and broken on a Roman cross and resurrected to show the power of God for those who believe and follow. Real power doesn't look like fighter jets buzzing football stadiums. It doesn't look like big houses with a lot of crap in them (and a huge amount of debt hiding behind them). Real power is a broken, contrite spirit, turned to humble, thankless service and animated by a Holy Spirit which blows where it will. We can only hope in faith to be blown along with it.

(Thanks to the pastor of my home congregation, who helped me chew on this topic and the Times piece before posting.)

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