|“The Chickens Come Home to Roost”?
Paul R. Hinlicky
It is possible to commit an atrocity in a just cause. It is possible to sully a just war with unjust tactics, even to invite defeat by recklessness and arrogance – what Reinhold Niebuhr called hybris. Sorting such things out is at it the moral core of democratic society. It is the kind of debate we ought to be having about finishing the job in Iraq.
We contemplate five years of war in Iraq these days at the same as we have been exposed to the political preaching of Presidential contender Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. What we see in these video clips is but a snippet of Wright’s theology, exaggerated out of context by media sensationalism. Some of what the pastor said in these clips is no doubt the kind of rhetorical hyperbole that preachers unfortunately indulge in. Other of what the pastor said is patent falsehood. But I want to focus on his provocative claim that on 9/11 “the chickens came home to roost.” For those with a memory, it reminds of Malcolm X’s comment on hearing of John Kennedy’s assassination. The point is that what goes round, comes round – that violence cycles back on the violent.
Many take offense at Rev. Wright’s statement that we Americans “didn’t bat an eyelash” at incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many resent the insinuation that we have no right to be offended when others do unto us as we have done unto them. Indeed, Wright’s statement here is a left-wing version of the political preaching of a Robertson or a Falwell that God dropped his protective shield around America because of abortion and homosexuality. In both versions there is a prophetic impulse to interpret the catastrophe of war as sign of divine judgment on our own sins. In both versions, there is the characteristic lack of appreciation in contemporary America for the moral complexity of events and the moral ambiguity of human agents. Whether from the Left or the Right, it is this illusion of innocence masquerading as prophecy which ought to offend us.
It is possible to commit an atrocity in a just cause. It is possible to fight terror with terror and so to win a battle for today but lose the war for hearts and minds in the end. If ever there was a just war it was the Allied cause against the Axis. Yet the juggernaut of total war overtook the Allies in the demand for Japan’s unconditional surrender and the consequent need, as Secretary of War Stimson wrote afterwards, to deliver a decisive “psychological shock.” Thus the decision to target civilian population centers with atomic bombs came about. What was that but relying on “terror?” How much plain old-fashioned revenge can be hidden under such rationalization?
I take that question to be the proper point of Rev. Wright’s otherwise incendiary comparison. We can apply the same line of reasoning to question the use of “shock and awe” and torture in a moral cause which defines itself as a war “against terror.” The contradiction seems obvious to anyone with the imagination to see oneself as others do.
Where Rev. Wright goes wrong –judging from the video clip—is in failing to recognize that the atrocity of the atomic bombings at the close of World War Two took place within the eminently just cause of defeating fascism, militarism and imperialism. That is why the comparison to 9/11 does not work. The Islamic fanatics who conspired and executed that attack are heretics and arch-reactionaries within the world of Islam, who seek to unify Muslims under their own feudal and puritanical vision by casting America as the Great Satan and scape-goating the West for indigenous failures of their own society. Truly prophetic preaching no more succumbs to American illusions of innocence than indulges Islamic illusions of innocence. Truly prophetic preaching understands that we are all in this together, that not one is righteous, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and gets to work on the difficult and sometimes painful business of debating lesser evils and greater goods.
Truly prophetic preaching would help us see that the so-called “war against terror” is a misnomer. It is a false name for this war which misleads us into thinking that the enemy is a brutal tactic, not an ideology; as a result, it gives us permission, as happens in the fog of war, to fight fire with fire. But it is surely a moral catastrophe to fight terror with terror. That really is what “betrays us” – not General Petraeus’ anti-insurgency campaign aimed at winning hearts and minds. It is time for us all to move on from the polarized political theologies of the Reverends Wright and Falwell and Robertson, to move on to a Niebuhrian theology of hopeful realism.