On May 6, Barack Obama passed a significant milestone: he has now been at war longer than George W. Bush, or any other American president. But his war is a model of efficiency, for it runs with far fewer combat troops than any previous American war and employs “precision” tactics like drone attacks and carefully planned raids by elite forces. It is spread across seven countries, but it has to be, because this enemy is “terrorism”, something that is itself more like a “precision” tactic than a nation-state, for it has no known location and is unable to surrender. With his Nobel Peace Prize in tow, President Obama has presided over a new era in military conflicts: war without end.
Obama vs. terror. This is a 21st century match-up paradoxically made possible by the growing awareness that war is “an expression of human folly”, to quote Obama’s Peace Prize acceptance speech. Spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have made similar assessments, but without Obama’s confidence that war, despite it’s foolishness, is “sometimes necessary,” as he also told the Nobel Peace Committee and the world.
High Priest Obama
Obama’s belief that war is a necessary folly puts him in good company. Well, maybe not good exactly, but it certainly qualifies him as the heir apparent to some pretty popular and powerful ancient figures: the high priests who presided over human sacrifice. It’s strange to think about it, but human sacrifice is actually the earliest “precision” technology humanity ever invented to combat the problem of random, chaotic violence. It channeled the tensions, resentments, rivalries and outbreaks of revenge violence into an officially sanctioned, cathartic event. The blood sacrifices were raucous affairs, celebrated as divinely ordained peacekeeping technologies. In fact, if the Nobel Peace Prize were a thing in the ancient world, High Priests would have been serious contenders!
Think about these parallels: Like a high priest presiding over a blood sacrifice, Obama emphasizes what the crowd wants to hear: this small dose of violence will keep you safe and secure; the spilling of this blood is our sacred duty; the ones we sacrifice on our altars go to their deaths for our sakes. Of course, we can see the truth they were blind to: that the priests were murderers and the ones killed on the altar were not offerings demanded by the gods, but victims. Once the ancients could see this, too, sacrificial rituals vanished from the human, peacekeeping repertoire.
Ah, but humanity is nothing if not creative! Blood sacrifice didn’t die; it simply morphed into a new form. Obama’s peacekeeping war proceeds with little protest because we are as ignorant of the truth as the ancients were. The ancients would never have said that their rituals were foolish. All they saw was the necessity of the sacrifice. And while the folly of blood sacrifice is clear to us, what remains hidden from our awareness is that war is “an expression of human folly” because it is blood sacrifice by another name.
We are the willing participants in a strange, modern mutation of the ancient rites: our new High Priest touts his Peace Prize as he presides over a small, elite force of combat troops who have become victim/ priests, men and women, sons and daughters, who are willing to kill others and also to die to keep us safe and secure. Like sacrifice in the ancient world, our killing machine is primed for the long haul.
Sometimes the experience of war is so horrible that the participants double down on their faith in the High Priest to keep the painful truth at bay, that all the bloodletting and violence was for naught. But when the futility of this ancient formula becomes obvious to our combat personnel, the ones who survive the horror come home mute or broken. We call the damage done to the minds, bodies and spirits of our warrior/ priest/ victims a “moral injury,” a good name that calls the morality of our precision technology into question.
The New Atheists
Strangely, the ones that our secular culture views as the heirs to ancient religious practices, leaders like the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are the true atheists. For they refuse to believe in the gods of war, the religion of patriotism, or the divine duty to kill and die. Ironically, we must cultivate and promote their atheism if we are to reverse the Obama legacy. Enlightened atheism can challenge our faith in the necessity of sacrifice, a faith so ingrained that our victim/ soldiers go willingly to their deaths, as devout in their faith as the community who praises their devotion.
Obama would have us believe that he is the guardian of the Order of Perpetual Peace. Thankfully the new atheists know a deeper truth, that the new religious zeal is for Perpetual War, and what was old is new again. Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to openly confess his faith in violence by publicly returning the Nobel Peace Prize. What a wonderful ceremony it would be! In fact, an ancient poet who worshipped a far different God than the one Obama pledges allegiance to has already written his speech for him. President Obama could no better than to paraphrase the Psalmist of the Old Testament:
Sacrifice and offering are not desired by the God of Peace. My ears have been opened – peace does not require death or killing. My sacrifice is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. (Inspired by Psalm 40:6 and 51:17)