Misplaced Trust vs. Radical Obedience: Faith Communities and the National Security "Debate"
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on the Security State. Read other perspectives here.
I place the word "debate" in quotation marks because we have no real debate right now in regard to aggressive and intrusive government behavior undertaken in the name of national security. Civil libertarians have been pushed way over to the margins on the question of NSA surveillance and ultra-secret "national security letters" (shhhh!) that blatantly violate constitutional privacy guarantees; peacemakers have been pushed way over to the margins in respect to special operations and targeted assassinations in dozens of countries and indefinite detention without charge or trial at Guantanamo and other sites.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "Do what you have to do to keep us safe." Never mind Benjamin Franklin's warning that those who surrender freedom for security "will not have, nor do they deserve, either."
In theory, our religious communities should have a lot to say about the danger of being overcome by fear and of allowing ourselves to be obsessed with the fruitless search for absolute security. In practice, almost all American preachers have steered clear of this topic out of their own well-grounded fear of running afoul of anxiety-ridden congregants.
When U.S. faith leaders won't even preach about the danger of surrendering to fear, it is not hard to surmise how little they have to say about the still greater danger of drifting along with our country's imperial pretensions.
I maintain that this complacency regarding empire is the greater danger because of God's implacable hostility to the royal habit of attempting to stage-manage reality. As Walter Brueggemann observes, the manipulations of the powerful present a far worse problem than what arises when an ordinary individual bears false witness against a neighbor. In the "royal engine room of public distortion," says Brueggemann,
recognized voices of established reality deliberately misrepresent the state of the economy and foreign policy. Society has broken down and is not working, and they legitimate the dysfunction and give false assurance. The voices of accepted legitimacy present a fake reality, with failed fact disguised as workable fantasy.
The "workable fantasy" imposed upon us by the national security state is the notion that the United States has an absolute right to ignore its own Constitution, deceive its own special intelligence courts, interfere blatantly in the internal affairs of foreign countries, eavesdrop on the personal calls of even its closest allies (e.g., the German chancellor), and kill hundreds of people by remotely-controlled drone-launched weapons because (after all) we are a specially blessed people—a people who remain perpetually innocent and divinely protected no matter how much actual blood is dripping from our actual hands.
Do our faith traditions have anything distinctive to say in the face of the imperial narrative? One certainly hopes so! For Christians, our Easter faith necessarily de-legitimates and dethrones all false sovereignties; it dismisses Pharaoh, Caesar, and all other imperial power. Yes, all imperial power—very much including the presumed power of the so-called "indispensable nation" that the United States still fancies itself to be.
Rev. Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of congregations and individuals in Southern California. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he previously served as senior minister at New York's Judson Memorial Church and worked in communications for the U.S. labor movement. He is a contributing editor at Religion Dispatches.