Restoring Christmas

It is easy, observing the prospects for peace, let alone an American withdrawal any time soon in Iraq, to be discouraged this Christmas season. “There is no peace on earth, I said,” goes the line from the 19th-century Christmas song. And even though that song ends on a hopeful note, it is not difficult to dismiss the hope as 19th-century romanticism, the notion that God is beneficent if He exists as something people cling to despite the fact that despair, even cynicism, is the more realistic attitude.

I prefer, however, to find notes of hope. And I still think it’s worth resisting having Jesus hijacked by lovers of empire and armed conflict.

Yesterday, a couple of days after the attack on a U.S. base in Mosul left more than a dozen Americans dead, news that three US Marines had been killed in a flare-up in Fallujah rated a separate item on the wire services. In wars past the death of three Americans might not have rated even a footnote in a given day’s news. In World War II, for heaven’s sake, 292,131 Americans were killed in battle and 115,186 died from other causes. A battle on a given day might lead to thousands of deaths. That battle and those deaths would not have been known about that very day stateside. The killing fields still seemed remote and faraway.

Embedded reporters more often than not serve as cheerleaders for the military, but even in that role they are in a position to relay to whoever is paying attention to the news back home something about the daily costs of war, in human suffering and death. In the era of instant communication with words and pictures, our leaders can no longer carry out brutal wars without the general public knowing about them except through delayed reports. Whether they acknowledge it or not, this puts a subtle damper on the ability to carry out war in a brutal a fashion as wars of the past were sometimes waged. Atrocities, even those that some people are able to liken to fraternity pranks, like Abu Ghraib, are big news, and while they may condone them on one level, our leaders don’t want people to find out about them.


It was big news when 1,000 Americans had died in this current war, and many newspapers keep a daily toll of deaths. People are simply more sensitive, I think – even if some of the sensitivity is partially manufactured by the media – about deaths and atrocities in war than they used to be. Some war enthusiasts suggest this means Americans are becoming softer, that they have less tolerance for paying the price of empire – or, as they would prefer to have us think of it, “freedom.” I suspect that it is simply a more realistic understanding of the cost paid in the lives of young people for the ambitions and enthusiasms of political leaders and their henchmen.

Americans are willing to go along so long as “victory” seems cheap and easy and a Saddam can be painted as a real danger. But their tolerance is not infinite. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll the other day showed that 56 percent of Americans now think the Iraq war was “not worth fighting.” And “while a slight majority believe the Iraq war contributed to the long-term security of the United States, 70 percent of Americans think these gains have come at an ‘unacceptable’ cost in military casualties,” according to the Post story.

In short, while Americans still tend to rally ‘round the president and some are even eager for war in a way that strikes me as profoundly sociopathic, that eagerness is hardly universal. Furthermore, the experience in Iraq makes it somewhat less likely – I bring myself to hope, in the spirit of the season – that the empire-mongers will be able to drum up significant support for a foray into Iran, or even Syria. The Bush administration seems to know this at some level. While the president is still capable of delivering palpable blather about the inevitable dawning of democracy in the Middle East, his agenda for a second term is almost entirely domestic. The lust for further conquest, generally speaking, is confined to a few aeries at AEI and other think tanks properly insulated from the messiness of actual combat.

A new attack on U.S. soil could change the dynamic, at least for a while, inspiring support for retaliation. But a new attack would also demonstrate that invading Iraq was not the key to stopping terrorism.


All this provides a certain context for the article by Bill Kristol last week calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. It should be becoming more and more transparent, as Bob Novak’s recent column acknowledges, that this is an effort to deflect attention away from those who pushed (and pushed and pushed) to invade Iraq since 1996, and finally got themselves into positions of influence sufficient to make it happen, and toward one person with partial responsibility for implementing the policy. The implicit argument from Kristol is that there was nothing wrong with the policy, it’s just that the implementation was flawed.

I suspect that an increasing number of Americans, however, are coming to believe that it was the policy that was flawed, even more then the implementation. This isn’t to defend Don Rumsfeld, or to deny that even at the time of the initial invasion there were numerous military people calling for more troops on the ground who were, in essence, vetoed by Rumsfeld and the president. Rumsfeld’s did have a vision of a smaller, leaner, more mobile military and he seemed more than willing to make young Americans guinea pigs to test his theories. But the war didn’t necessarily prove or disprove them.

It does seem true in retrospect (and was clear to many in advance) that if you are going to engage in invasions and occupations of large countries with bitter political and ethnic divisions, you won’t be successful with a trimmed-down military force, especially one with few people trained in what the military calls civil affairs. What deserves more fundamental questioning, however, is the idea of invading and occupying large countries (Iran is much larger and more militarily dangerous than Iraq), especially when they pose no imminent danger to the United States.

Few would shed tears if Don Rumsfeld resigned or was forced out. But those analyzing the war would do well to remember that it was the policy of “preemptive” (or more accurately, preventive) war, pushed so hard by Bill Kristol and his compadres, that was flawed. The execution had its flaws, no doubt. But one wonders just how many troops it would have taken to make a dubious policy achievable. So even as Bill Kristol tries to deflect attention from the policy itself and make Rumsfeld the scapegoat for faulty execution, those of us in the war-questioning camp should resolve not to let him get away with it, and redouble our efforts to call attention to the shortcomings of a policy that justifies invasion of countries that pose no immediate threat.


I don’t know if that brings me logically to the question of whether somebody initially hailed by those who accepted his message as the Prince of Peace would be pleased that so many of his titular followers enthusiastically embrace an aggressive war or not, but that’s where I’m going. In this season that celebrates his birth – whether seasonally accurate or not; many scholars think it more likely he was born in August – I would like to offer a plea not to judge Jesus by some of his would-be disciples.

Almost everything about Jesus’ life – a life certain evangelicals actually downplay in favor of certain other parts of the Bible – suggests dismay not only at the power structures human beings erect to lord it over one another, but at religious manifestations that allow believers to feel superior and privileged as compared to other mere mortals.

It starts with his birth, which some of us will celebrate tomorrow. The story is so familiar that it is easy to forget how odd it is in terms of the values of this world. Wouldn’t you expect somebody touted as the savior of humankind to be born in a palace – or at least someplace comfortable? Instead, the story – which may be a legend but it is significant that this is the legend the early church chose to perpetuate – is that he was born in a smelly manger, among cattle and chickens, after his parents were turned away from every inn. All this happened because a distant ruler forced people to move around for the convenience of the authorities.


Is this implied disdain for the authorities of the world simply a coincidence? In 1987, theologian Vernard Eller of LaVerne University wrote a fascinating book titled Christian Anarchy. He didn’t use the term in the conventional political sense, but harked back to its Greek roots. An “archy” or “arky” is a human power or authority structure. The kind of anarchist Eller believed Jesus was (along with Paul!) was not a political revolutionary who wanted to overthrow all governments; indeed, the Gospels tell us that Jesus strongly resisted a rather persistent desire on the part of some of his followers to become a mere political leader. Instead, his kind of anarchist was indifferent to human archies – as somebody who is amoral is not necessarily immoral or hostile to morality but simply indifferent to it – because he had such great respect for the ultimate archy of God, which was based on love and benevolence rather than power and the use of force.

This doesn’t mean being indifferent to injustice or oppression, simply understanding that you can’t fight injustice with the tools at which oppression excels: force, coercion, power and strength of arms.

This doesn’t necessarily imply wimpy acquiescence in injustice. Here’s an example from Walter Wink’s recent book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While. You remember the admonition to turn the other cheek? It wasn’t as passive as it sounds. Wink notes that Jesus actually said, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also:

“Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks … The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

“What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer this way, and if one did the fine was exorbitant. A backhand slap was a normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. ….

“Why then does Jesus counsel these humiliated people to turn to other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being, just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.’ Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how can he now hit the other cheek? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. If he hits it with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality.”

Jesus was actually suggesting social and intellectual jujitsu against illegitimate authority – with the clear implication that any form of merely human authority is illegitimate since all are equal in the eyes of God. Considering by how long Christianity – albeit perhaps more often than not in a twisted form, much more enamored of human authority and the things of this world than would please Jesus, but with the power of the Gospel still able to bring believers back to the simpler, more direct, more humane message of Jesus – has outlasted the Roman Empire, perhaps he had something.

In that hope, let me close with an excerpt from tomorrow’s Orange County Register Christmas editorial – which I did not write:

“We pray that, today of all days, those who feel lost may be found, that those who mourn will find comfort, and that prodigals may be welcomed home. When genuine love is extended to our families, friends and neighbors, we just may find that the miracle and mystery of Christmas still has the power to change the world.”

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).