Tikkun, Winter 2011

A Christian Realist's Lament

by Andrew J. Bacevich

For someone who interprets the course of events from a Christian realist perspective, the prospects for healing and repairing the world appear less than promising. That defines the position I happen to occupy. Although my admiration for those who insist otherwise knows no bounds, I find myself unable to enlist under their banner: over the course of many centuries, evil has proven to be too persistent; humankind's penchant for folly too great; the allure of mammon too insidious; and power in all its variegated forms too corrupting.

No doubt cynicism and despair rank among the sins against which the realist must guard. Yet wisdom begins with taking stock of facts. Chief among the facts that we Christians have yet to acknowledge is this one: in this world (if perhaps not the next) the saving mission of Jesus Christ has failed massively and irrevocably. The offspring of Adam and Eve remain unredeemed, stubbornly unaffected by the events of 2000 years ago to which Christians attribute such transformative importance.

Practically speaking, the likelihood that any human endeavor, however earnest and well-intended, will reverse that outcome is nil. There are two ways to deal with this discouraging prospect.

The first way is to bear witness to the Truth anyway, simply because we deem it true -- even if expectations of thereby achieving success in practical terms appear nonexistent. This defines the position of Dorothy Day, pacifist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who wrote during World War II:

We believe that success, as the world determines it, is not the criterion by which a movement should be judged. We must be prepared and ready to face seeming failure. The most important thing is that we adhere to these values which transcend time and for which we will be asked a personal accounting, not as to whether they succeeded (though we should hope that they do) but as to whether we remained true to them even though the whole world go otherwise.

The second way is to settle for half a loaf, bending to circumstance and acknowledging the very real limits of what we can see or do. This is the camp I find myself inhabiting, at once more "practical" and yet far less worthy of emulation than Dorothy Day's.

In the wake of Christ's failure, I do not believe that mere mortals are able to discern history's purpose or determine its direction. God's intentions remain inscrutable. Darkness, confusion, and tragedy remain the lot of humankind.

Rather than repairing the world, therefore, the most we can reasonably hope for is to cope with the circumstance in which we find ourselves. The challenges inherent in coping are very large indeed. My own small contribution lies in inviting Americans who have embraced what C. Wright Mills once called the "military metaphysic" -- a tendency to treat war as an all-purpose problem-solver -- to see the error of their ways.

Unlike Dorothy Day, whom I revere, I am not a pacifist. On the odd occasion, violence may provide a necessary and justifiable response to evil. Yet as history has demonstrated time and again, the efficacy of force is limited at best. Meanwhile, the costs of opting for the sword almost invariably exceed by orders of magnitude the predictions of those who advocate war, as America's post-9/11 "global war on terror" has amply demonstrated.

To accept war as a normal or permanent condition is both wrong-headed and profoundly wrong. Yet this describes where the United States finds itself today. Puncturing Americans' illusions about war and military power will not heal the world. But it just might reduce our nation's propensity for wreaking havoc at others' expense.

Andrew Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His latest book is Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.

Source Citation: Bacevich, Andrew. 2011. A Christian Realist's Lament. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.

tags: Christianity, Rethinking Religion, War & Peace  
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