Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Brethren droning about drones?

Yes, this is a real toy Predator drone.
Read the customer reviews; you'll be glad you did.
A few weeks ago the Mission and Ministry board of the Church of the Brethren issued a resolution against drone warfare. It's on its way to the Annual Conference this summer, where it could potentially be adopted by the highest governing body of our denomination. Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to read or think this resolution over, but I did so today in conversation with my NuDunker pals over e-mail and also with one of my pastoral mentors.

It's a good resolution, and I deeply resonate with much of what it's about. It makes appeals to Scripture as well as historical statements from the Brethren peace tradition, such statements themselves arising out of particular challenging issues of the past such as the draft in the days before conscientious objector status. It also makes some pretty strong calls upon "districts, congregations, and individual members"within the denomination to wrestle seriously with the issue.

As a pacifist, I've watched with a growing sense of dread at the development of this country's drone warfare program. It's one thing that totally demystified me about Obama in terms of his foreign policy vis-a-vis his predecessors. Drone warfare will soon begin to impact us more locally here in Iowa, as an Air National Guard base in Des Moines is transitioning from flying F-16 fighter jets to piloting drones (not completely unopposed). I have a friend and fellow Brethren who's worked on that base for years, so I'm trying to be pastoral first and foremost here. And yet...

Drone warfare should be deeply troubling for a number of reasons, some of which are illustrated in this excellent piece on what drones are doing to us, as a society:
  • Increasing fear in communities (our own, as well as those we're dropping bombs on)
  • Increasing impersonal engagements of conflict
  • Avoiding the roots of conflicts
  • Diminishing key virtues (namely: empathy, solidarity, courage, justice, nonviolent peacemaking)

These points, couched in virtue/human flourishing language, resonate with what I learned in a graduate peacebuilding program. So yes, this resolution is timely and important. But I have a few cautionary notes to strike...

I like that the calls to constituencies within the denomination occupy spots 1 & 2 in the resolution. This is as it should be. Spots 3 & 4 are the "witness to Caesar." If the numbering system can be taken as an indication of where our priorities should be, and where our hopes and loves placed, then we're good. I start to get worried, though, when advocacy and political lobbying get too much love, and the church kind of withers away toward being just - as Pope Francis recently put it - "a pious NGO." No, the first ethical task for the church is to be the church, so priorities on matters like this must be set accordingly. If we can witness to Caesar with resolutions like this, fine, but hopefully let's work harder at embodying prophetic witness, not just shouting words from our little (and it is little) soapbox.

Next, I worry that denominational leadership suffers from a credibility problem with rank and file Brethren. As Carl Bowman's sociological research has it, the Church of the Brethren is by averages a conservative evangelical group. But denominational leadership tends to reflect more mainline liberal Protestantism. So when denominational leadership speaks, I'm afraid not too many people listen. I know my friends who are closer to centers of institutional power know this, and I trust them to work at this issue carefully and pastorally.

In closing, I see it as right and good that such resolutions against drone warfare are issued by my denomination. But as they're issued, I hope the movers and shakers are also grappling with some of the challenges to these statements face as they hit the ground in the Brethren body politic.

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