Where do we look for safety?

Where do we look for safety?

For many years my Lenten season reading has included Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's booklet, The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love [PDF file here]. When George W. Bush responded to the court decision declaring his recent war-on-terrorism wiretapping unconstitutional by saying, "Those who herald this decision simply do not understand the nature of the world in which we live," I thought about the spiritual implications of Bush's words, and that reminded me of McCarthy's booklet.

On a political level, it's easy to see the weakness in President Bush's logic. If our courts begin making decisions based on trying to interpret "the nature of the world in which we live," rather than trying to interpret the Constitution, we're heading for anarchy, or more likely, a dictatorship of the politically cleverest. But Bush's warning may be much more effective at a deeper level. Over and over again in history, we've seen people being persuaded that safety requires compromising our ostensible values.

Many years ago, James Prothro and Charles Grigg found a distinct difference between people's support of political tolerance in the abstract and their considerably lower tolerance in concrete situations. Every once in a while, political scientists tweak the rest of us by showing that Americans claim to cherish the Declaration of Independence, but when shown actual unlabeled text from that declaration, they declare it dangerous, communist, and the like.

So it's not surprising that today's politicians try out yet again that old argument that, during a "war," we cannot afford the luxury of our values. Or, rather, they propose another value, safety, which supposedly trumps civil liberties and due process.

However, to remain politically useful, "safety" as a value must remain abstract as well! When we begin studying safety in concrete terms, problems arise: Somehow, the politicians must convince us, their audiences, that we will remain safe, while hoping that we don't think too much about the safety of others.

For example, many innocent people have been severely inconvenienced or worse by being put on terrorist watch lists, arrested as material witnesses, or in a few (how many?) cases, kidnapped by US or allied forces for interrogation and even torture. But we must believe that this won't happen to us, even though our protections are being compromised in the service of the war on terrorism, and the government argues that judicial due process would reveal too many secrets.

Above all, we must not question the proposition that humans who are not US citizens are to be completely disregarded in any offer of safety. We must believe that the threat of terrorism is of a completely different order than the threat of natural disaster, crime, or any other danger whose probability increases as government resources are sucked away into this mislabeled "war." The government's unbelievably screwed-up response to Hurricane Katrina shows what the all-encompassing we-know-best claims of this war's leaders did for the actual safety of Gulf states' citizens.

We must believe in several lies at once: terrorism is a monolithic phenomenon, a new phenomenon, a manifestation of very clever sub-humans who cannot be communicated with, an intractable and implacable reality that only our leaders can understand and manage, despite their disastrous record to date. We must want safety so badly that we overlook our leaders' actual performance in favor of their stern claims of authority and expertise.

The power of government to claim a monopoly on defining safety is ultimately a spiritual issue, and requires a spiritual confrontation, because in one sense, the politicians are right: we are not safe. Safety is not guaranteed, neither in terms of protection from physical harm, nor in terms of quality and scope of life.

Each of us, at this moment, faces multiple dangers, ranging at varying degrees of probability or absurdity from disease and accident, to violent crime, to a direct impact from a meteor. In an interesting paradox given George Bush's rhetoric of freedom, perhaps the more we actually claim and use freedom publicly and effectively in this world, the more we expose ourselves to danger. (Effective dissidents must count on the possibility that their activities will draw the attention of our "security" agencies.)

This brings me to Charles McCarthy's main points on safety in The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love. Addressing the pro-family claims of the ‘powers that be’ in Station IV, he asks, “Can Christian family love and relationship find any lasting security in any source other than unconditional obedience to God’s will as revealed by Jesus Christ?”

Addressing the hypnotic pseudo-security of our culture, he says, in Station VI: “It is easy to find hope, security and a future in the GNP, a national anthem, a football team, military technology, Disneyland, drugs, fashion and alcohol. It is nearly impossible in a capitalist society to find hope in the patient, secret commitment to the omnipotence of Christic love. Such a use of life is incontestable folly by all standards except one—Jesus’ teaching that the cross of nonviolent love is the power and the wisdom and the will of The Source of all Reality.”

At a Friends World Committee regional conference shortly after the first Gulf War, T. Canby Jones warned us bluntly: “We cannot understand Christian pacifism until we have confronted our own mortality.”

My corollary, in light of Bush's warning about the ‘world in which we live’, is: The way in which we live in this world most not be dictated by fear. Otherwise, whatever safety we think we have, our death will come much too soon. If Jesus is our partner in shaping the way we live, and we have good friends listening and shaping and sharing our doubts and discoveries alongside us, fear and death will recede to their proper places—they're certainly not out of the picture, but whatever life we have, we don't live in their shadow.

One more excerpt from Charles McCarthy: “To those who do not believe in Christ’s cross of nonviolent love, its truth is folly, a scandal, an unrealistic waste of life’s time. To those who believe, it is nails, thorns, spears and suffering for others until the blind can see, until the lame can walk, until the imprisoned are freed, until the hungry are fed, until the oppressed are liberated, until the naked are clothed, until the sick are healed, until the rich are saved, until the homeless are at home, until the unlovable are loved, until all sins are forgiven. The believer in Christ’s nonviolent cross breathes in deeply the sufferings of humanity and breathes out freely his or her happiness in order to spread the healing power of nonviolent love as Divine Yeast in the dough of humanity.”

If we advocate focusing on quality of life as a crucial dimension of safety, "nails, thorns, spears, and suffering for others" may seem to be unpromising lifestyle components. How can we breathe in "the sufferings of humanity" and breathe out "happiness"? For me, the crucial factor is the desire to have my eyes open, to be exposed to reality. I don't want happiness at the expense of ignorance, and it's too late to pretend not to know what I know. My mother survived Hiroshima, one of my sisters was murdered ... the Beast has come too close to my home.

My own experience is that, before my conversion, I never thought I'd be happy again, or able to trust. Jesus restored both joy and trust to me, but did not promise to keep me "safe" from reality. From my vantage point, reality includes both love and evil. My moment-by-moment task is to breathe love, and devote whatever power I have to its service, and let my God-given mind (and my faithful friends) help me stay alert to evil's attempts to divert my energy. That's why I want to deny politicians the right to put evil at the center of their definition of "the nature of the world in which we live." I can't live that way anymore.