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Thursday, November 12, 2009  

God and Country

I suspect there is limited value in analyzing the Fort Hood shooting from the standpoint of religious duty and doctrine. You can infer things about specific acts from the general categories to which they belong, but it's risky business going the other way, from the specific to the general. If you understand America well, it helps you understand George W. Bush. If, however, all you know is George W. Bush, you should not thereby consider yourself an expert on America (a point on which some of our friends around the world were not always clear). Major Hasan's alleged acts are his own; they are not data points for understanding Islam any more than Eric Rudolph's are for understanding Christianity.

That said, it was interesting to read what Daniel Larison wrote about religious and civic duty, in response to Rod Dreher's contention that any faithful Christian, Muslim, or Jew must be willing to obey God first and country second (though Dreher rather confusingly says that an American Christian is most never faced with this dilemma). Here's Larison:

Would these [Orthodox] Christians [in the U.S. Armed Forces, fighting against Serbia] have been in the right to turn on their comrades? Absolutely not. Even though the attack on Serbia was completely unjustifiable and morally wrong, Orthodox Christians pledged to U.S. and NATO military service would have been obliged at the very least to remain loyal to their governments. If there were a severe conflict between their obligations to their fellow Christians and their duty, they would either have to resign or at least refuse to engage in hostilities...

Treason and mutiny, which are the actual crimes that Hasan committed in addition to murder, are not justified by one’s political views of what is being done to one’s co-religionists by the government. As I understand it, only if the government demanded apostasy and the abandonment of the faith would Christians be required to resist or disobey a legitimate government.

There's plenty more, and it's a good post to read in full. Larison's take on this issue is in line with the state church tradition he confesses (Orthodoxy) and you would find variations on this same theme repeated by adherents to the other state church traditions--Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans most notably. The state may compel anything but direct apostasy, and in that case the Christian's only recourse is to a kind of passive disobedience.

But what constitutes apostasy? One of the major advances in Christian thought in the last century was the insistence that human laws like those enforcing segregation did, in fact, deny and reject the God of the Bible. It is hard to imagine a more perfectly godless act than employing a weapon that vaporizes a whole city in a moment, in that it exalts the power of human beings over life and death to a kind of Satanic perfection.

Yet are all the faithful individually deputized to judge which acts the state may and may not lawfully require of us? That doesn't seem right, either. This is why Calvin, who was much more accepting of the possibility of civil disobedience and revolution than Luther and the Catholics, insisted that resistance to the governing authority could come only from duly-constituted magistrates, not from private citizens. An individual may protest peacefully and suffer the consequences, but she may not, on this understanding, act to subvert the governing authority unless her office requires it.

All of this was on my mind as I watched the movie Valkyrie this week. It was a much better film than I expected, though it hardly dwells on the ethics of trying to overthrow one's own government by assassinating its head. As cultural symbols, Hitler and Nazism exist in part to suspend our usual moral categories, and this makes some sense. Despite the constant neocon refrain of "Munich," Hitler really was a figure unique in both his malice and his irrationality. At the time, however, especially for Germans, it was not necessarily so easy. The Valkyrie conspirators were not only taking grave personal risks, they were making an ethical calculation that most of us would find very, very difficult: to assassinate their own head of state and whomever else happened to be near him in order to seize control of the government and sue for peace with their country's military enemies. The Christian who gave this the most sustained thought (he had a lot of time to do so in prison) was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had reluctantly moved from a principled Christian pacifism to actually participating, in a minor way, in the conspiracy against Hitler.

Bonhoeffer concluded that the responsible Christian's task in evil times was not to extricate himself from spiritual danger through passivity but to do what he could to ensure human survival. Violence and even treason may be required of us, he reluctantly surmised. This is more or less the conclusion that Von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators must have reached in order to do what all of their training, as patriots and officers, told them not to do. As Bonhoeffer's Ethics makes reasonably clear, this is not a problem that can be solved by some kind of fixed principle. It always involves terrible risk, not just to your life--which is assumed, for Bonhoeffer--but to your very soul.

To be clear, none of this has anything to do with shooting up a room full of one's fellow soldiers. There is no justification for that, especially not when there are non-violent ways to protest available. That's why it's all the more important to be clear about what we celebrate and what we condemn when we encounter attempted acts of cathartic violence, whoever the perpetrator and targets may be.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:46 PM
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