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Response: Frameworks of Meaning, Identity, and Resistance

The language of the imago dei has the capacity, in my view, to subvert the legal and ethical justifications for war, and focus dialogue and conversations on the ways in which killing, tragically, allows us to glimpse the diminishment of our own humanity in the death of another.

The following is a response to Bradley Burroughs’s chapter, “Contracting Justice? Private Military and Security Contractors and the Commodification of War” in The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex.

I respond to these excellent essays as a former U.S. Air Force officer and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – someone who once held a position directly within the influence of the military industrial complex and internalized and propagated its moral logic.  I also respond as a Christian systematic theologian who has spent my brief career arguing against this moral logic and contending that it does not often hold when combatants actually participate in violence themselves and experience a deep sense of moral anguish that we’ve come to know as “moral injury.”  Veterans who have experienced moral injury have inhabited an identity within the military that was carefully constructed around the moral logic of war.  Upon leaving service, however, there is nothing that offers veterans a way to reconstruct their identity, and many struggle to make meaning of their experiences in the absence of a moral and ideological framework that gives them meaning.

These contributions are thereby of great value, not only for their critical challenge to the moral status quo that supports the business of war, but for the ways in which they help to create an intellectual and theological scaffolding that supports the identity that anyone – veteran or civilian – may authentically inhabit as a Christian and patriotic citizen while resisting the power of the military industrial complex.  In other words, as McCarty notes, quoting the work of Marbre Stahly-Butts, the critique of the faulty moral and theological framework is only the beginning – the majority of the effort must be made in “imagining and creating new systems.”  Doing so, even conceptually, is vital work in a nation in which the loudest Christian voices often tacitly use its scared symbols and philosophical concepts to undergird a grand narrative of exceptionalism that rests on the power of military violence to shape history. 

Questions of theological anthropology run as powerful undercurrents beneath each essay – bidding us to understand who we are as US citizens, immigrants, veterans, citizens of other nations, white persons, persons of color, poor or wealthy and how we act with justice as faithful neighbors with those different from ourselves.  Engaging their themes, I lift up two theological conceptions that may serve as resonant conceptual frameworks, providing a secondary theological context in the hope of enhancing the arguments of the authors. 

James McCarty argues that the growth of the military industrial complex, both in power expressed abroad and in domestic political influence, is deeply intertwined with the social ills of racism and economic inequality.  At least two elements of this metastatic connection were on full display in the insurrection at the capitol on the 6th of January, as police officers clad in military tactical gear were unprepared to use force to repel a white nationalist mob that eventually ransacked the building where Congress was meeting to tally the votes of the electoral college and affirm the election of Joe Biden.  This stood in stark contrast to the events of the first and second of June – the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests over the death of George Floyd, which saw the DC National guard pre-positioned in force at federal buildings.  It also stood in stark contrast to the tactical response of many police forces to the BLM protests across the country weeks earlier, when tear gas and rubber bullets were used often against crowds that in the overwhelming majority of cases, acted in a far less aggressive manner than did the mob at the capitol.  Additionally, there were few arrests made on the day of the sixth of January, as once police reinforcements arrived (often seen in military gear obtained from the government’s 1033 program that grants military equipment to police departments at no cost), the capitol invaders were largely allowed to leave and were moved from the capitol grounds without the firing of tear gas or rubber bullets.

MCarty’s description of the interwoven injustices of violence, racism and poverty and the manner in which these systems perpetuate each other resonates within an Augustinian theological anthropology – a conception of humanity in the grip of distorting forces that distort our horizons and sequester our life trajectories.  Augustine notes that the force of Sin is not defined simply by atomized acts of wrongdoing, but as the larger elements that distort our very conception of what is good.  He argues against Pelagius, who held that we were entirely capable of transcending the factors that condition who we are, and thus are entirely responsible for every good or ill action we take – sins are simply bad acts themselves.  For Augustine, however, the things that today we would name as our social and economic locations, personal histories, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, educations and nationalities all influence what we understand to be “good,” and this distorted sense of “good” bears only a pale resemblance to the true good of God.  Thus, while we participate in and internalize cultural forces and histories and thus become culpable for our actions, we are not exhaustively responsible for them, as the sinful and distorting forces and conditions themselves also bear responsibility for shaping our life trajectories.

Augustine’s notion of Sin may provide a resonant theological underpinning for McCarty’s view, through which one can understand the corruptive influence of the military industrial complex, its interconnected nature to the forces of racism and injustice, and glimpse, perhaps, the ways in which many of us participate in each of these evils, and the way in which they have their own self-sustaining moral logic.  A framework within which to situate our own distortions and participation in larger cultural forces, provides a conceptual way in which to resist a reductive essentialism.  A Pelagian view of sin undergirds a retributive view of justice – one exhaustively bears the weight of their own sins and the blame for them.  In the modern world, it lends credence to the concretization of one’s identity and in totality and perpetuity as a “criminal,” or “killer,” “racist” or “warmonger.”  An Augustinian view, however, acknowledges that our participation in the forces of racism, violence, sexism and oppression traps victims in cycles of violence and injustice and distorts and emboldens perpetrators, but does not exclusively define our identities.  This view may help undercut the ideological underpinning of retributive justice, which tends to view “criminals” as deserving of a lifetime of punishment and relegation to struggle, and ideologically provides support for a system that binds a person to this identity and poisons their future.  It would encourage a language that recognizes “persons who have experienced homelessness” rather than essentializing the identity of “homeless persons” in recognition of an experience that describes their situation, not one that defines their personhood.  An Augustinian perspective also allows us, perhaps, to name bad acts and participation in the systems that give rise to them, while allowing breathing room to envision transformation both for victims of these forces as well as those who both tacitly and explicitly endorse their moral logic.  For instance, the difference between “she is participating deeply in a racist way of thinking and acting” and “she is a racist,” may seem pedantic, but perhaps the former allows the breathing room for someone to step back from an essential view of their own sinfulness and understand the way they have internalized the moral logic of violence, racism, and economic injustice and give them just enough space to envision a different path for their own trajectory. 

Christina McRorie’s essay provides some conceptual tools for the difficult work of disentangling Christian thinking about war from Christian thinking about business and the economy.  McCrorie argues that because the market may exist justly within a vision of economic equality and human flourishing, it requires a different ethical lens than that of war, which only exists as a response to sin – relations between peoples gone wrong.  However, it strikes me that if Christian ethics is to bear out the conceptual language to minimize the very tragedy of war, care must be taken to recognize the category differences between “war” and “business.”  The typology is asymmetrical, as “business” reflects general behavior within an economy that is a fundamental mode of human interaction and thus axiologically neutral, while war is a particularly negative outcome of a separate fundamental mode of human interaction:  politics, as the way we organize and govern ourselves, balancing rights, responsibilities and making rules, both internally and with those outside our community who may look, act, and believe differently than we do.  Like the economy, this mode “allows humanity to collaborate with God’s own creative activity in the world” in just action with neighbors.  The equivalent category of business, then, might be politics, whereas the equivalent outcomes of war within economic relations might be lawsuits or economic sanction – both actions taken (albeit less violent ones) in response to perceived wrong or sin, and likely as a result of economic injustice.

I make this point not to contend with McRorie’s typology or her conclusion, but rather to slightly expand it in order to affirm the importance of both.  For just as business exists as a larger domain that enables the Christian to deal with their neighbor justly in a way that collaborates “with God in promoting human flourishing,” so does politics, particularly in terms of our slightly more remote neighbors.  Christian ethical involvement in international justice, of course, benefits from a lens of similarly avoiding the temptation to “fail to love God and the neighbor” in ways that ultimately lead to the tragedy of war.

In either mode – political or economic, the concept of the Imago Dei, that human beings are created in the image of God, provides a metaphorical language for describing our connections to each other and the consequences of severing them.  Second-century theologian Lactantius noted that this image was best represented in humanity through our kindness to one another, and that this imprint of God, present in all of us, knit humanity together in one fabric of shared life.  When we commit violence against each other, particularly in taking a human life, Lactantius held that we blot out that image and rend the fabric that binds us.  He conceived that we also descend into a lesser, baser form of existence when we do so, recognizing that killing profoundly disfigures the perpetrator as well as taking the life of the victim.  In the larger economic and political realms, our acts of justice may serve to maintain the fabric of humanity and perhaps even mend it by working for legal and economic justice.  Adding to McRorie’s conceptualization of war as inherently tragic, from a theological view, Lactantius’ language allows us to envision that war – even when we might recognize it in extreme cases as legally or ethically necessary – as inherently dehumanizing and something that not only requires us to willfully deny the image of God in our enemy, but requires us to become less, marring the image of God in ourselves and one another.

In this same vein, Bradley Burroughs explores an often opaque, yet certainly acute, way that economic, political and military forces converge to obfuscate means of accountability in war, often to the end of commodified dehumanization.  If Burroughs’ argument that a critical ethical, political and legal problem with PMSCs is their lack of accountability was possibly in doubt, on December 20, 2020, President Trump pardoned the four Blackwater security guards who were serving time in prison for manslaughter for the Nisour Square killings that Burroughs references in the opening of his essay.  The pardon further illustrates the convergence of economic and political forces – the profitability of PMSCs enabled them to have a powerful lobbying presence in Washington that facilitated their ability to make their case to the President and to secure his favor.  Burroughs argues that the executive branch often uses PMSCs to avoid congressional oversight, and as this pardon further emphasizes, also has the power not simply to “diminish accountability,” but to “obviate it entirely.”

Burroughs also poignantly illuminates the ways in which Private Military Security Contractors (PMSCs) shift the costs and risks of warfare to “disempowered populations” in the name of profit – a particularly grotesque form of wartime dehumanization.  The fact that it is opaque to the American public reflects the marriage of violence and racism that McCarty notes – the deaths of persons of color from distant nations reflects a subtle way that much of the US civilian populace is both desensitized and blinded to the fact that the fabric of humanity is being rent.  Whereas the deaths of US troops in combat zones are frequently covered in the media, the deaths of civilians usually are not – the deaths of PMSC foreign or local nationals, even less so.  Both the physical distance (the last military battle on US soil occurred in 1865) and the psychological distance maintained, for example, by this lack of media coverage, enables the American populace to avoid confrontation with the majority of the deaths of humans in wars the US wages.

Notably, however, those combatants who actually fight in US wars are often traumatized precisely by the fact that they are confronted with the humanity of their enemy.  Former US Army psychologist Dave Grossman argues that while combatants are trained in ways that dehumanize the enemy in order that they may kill them without hesitation when required, a great many suffer severe psychological trauma precisely through the realization that the enemy that they have killed is just like them.  Legal and ethical justifications frequently fail to provide psychological safeguards against this trauma in combatants – a phenomena most recently noted in drone operators, who often suffer from the psychological trauma of killing high-value, carefully legally vetted targets from positions of relative safety.  The language of the imago dei may help give expression to the psychological and spiritual trauma of killing another human being in se – a profound counter-testimony to the dehumanization of war. 
            At least one tentative and fragile answer to Burroughs’ questions about our capacity to prevent ongoing injustice and dehumanization in military conflict involves cultivating conversations between those who have borne the weight of the trauma of killing and civilians, scholars, and others who may hear their testimony and amplify the plight of the dehumanized victims of war.  The language of the imago dei has the capacity, in my view, to subvert the legal and ethical justifications for war, and focus dialogue and conversations on the ways in which killing, tragically, allows us to glimpse the diminishment of our own humanity in the death of another.  At the risk of being maudlin, it is perhaps in these conversations between veterans and civilians, through locating ourselves amidst the forces that shape us and listening and joining with those who are imagining and building new systems that we answer Paul Ramsay’s question and begin to develop our capacity to develop an ethos and cultural moral character that values human flourishing and checks the dehumanization of war.  

Christian Ethics and the “Problems” of Business and War

Above all, the Christian tradition urges us to reject the application of war metaphors to the market, as if it were a bloody realm of unavoidable tragedy and exclusively self-focused interest. It is not—or should not be—and the temptation to accept economic “tragedy” is really just the temptation to fail to love God and the neighbor, theologically speaking.

Justice and the Use of Private Military and Security Contractors

Transforming war into a capitalist imperative, the expanded use of PMSCs makes it more difficult to place democratic checks upon military power, commodifies war in a fashion that obscures its tragedy and misery, and threatens to further constrict the role of justice in determining military engagements.

Transformative Justice is Resistance to the Military-Industrial Complex

By working to abolish policing and prisons as we know them today, prison and police abolitionists are engaging in the kind of activism that can resist and dismantle these interconnected evils at the same time. In other words, transformative justice and prison abolition are ways to resist the military-industrial complex.

Response: The Business of War, the Labor of War

A full-scale war might spectacularly display the deaths and violence that immediately bring people’s attention. However, an excessive profit-driven business may also kill as many people as war does, while in many cases, these deaths are invisible.

Response: The Inversion of U.S. Society’s Militarism

A transformative justice approach with restorative mechanisms works to break this logic of de-humanization and build more humanizing social processes. Accountability, as distinct from punishment, is about better understanding the harm, growing in empathy, acknowledging responsibility, and moving in the direction of changing harmful behavior.

Response: Frameworks of Meaning, Identity, and Resistance

The language of the imago dei has the capacity, in my view, to subvert the legal and ethical justifications for war, and focus dialogue and conversations on the ways in which killing, tragically, allows us to glimpse the diminishment of our own humanity in the death of another.

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