We Are Called to Atheism by Abraham and Jesus! (Sunday Homily)

drone victims

Readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18:20-32; Ps. 138:1-3, 608; Col. 2:12-14; Lk. Ll:1-13. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfmhttp://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072813.cfm

Today’s readings about Abraham bargaining with God and about Jesus teaching his followers to pray raise some vital questions about God’s personality and existence. Abraham’s compassionate God seems to conflict with the warlike God who appears elsewhere in the Bible.

So who’s right? Should we be afraid of God? Or can we trust him? Is God warlike and punitive or kind and forgiving? If he’s our “Daddy” (that’s what “Abba” means in Jesus’ prayer: “Our Daddy who transcends everything”) does our experience show him to be abusive or loving? Today’s readings help us wrestle with those questions. In fact, they call us to a holy atheism.

But before I get to that, let me frame my thoughts.

Last week the government of Pakistan released a classified document revealing that scores of civilians had been killed in dozens of CIA drone strikes between late 2006 and 2009. That period mostly covered the final years of the Bush administration. However as we all know, such strikes have increased under the presidency of Barrack Obama.

Citing the leaked report, the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism said “Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.”

Meanwhile, the United States has consistently denied that significant numbers of civilians have been killed in drone strikes. It claims that “no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed during the entire, nine-year-long drone campaign.” Our government argues that such numbers are tolerable because the strikes protect Americans from the terrorists actually killed in the drone operations.

That’s the logic our government has adopted as it represents our country where 78-85% of the population claims to follow the one who refused to defend himself and gave his life that others might live. The logic of most American Christians says that killing innocents – even children – is acceptable if it saves American lives. Apparently, that’s the American notion of salvation: better them than us.

However that way of thinking is not what’s endorsed in today’s liturgy of the word. (And here I come back to those questions I raised earlier about God’s personality and existence.) There in Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh refuses to punish the wicked even if it means that as few as 10 innocents would lose their lives in the process.

Better-us-than-them is not the logic of Jesus who in teaching his disciples to pray tells them that God is better than us. God gives bread to anyone who asks. Yahweh acts like a loving father. He forgives sin and gives his children what they ask for. In fact, God shares his Spirit of love and forgiveness – he shares Jesus’ spirit of self-sacrifice – with anyone who requests it.

Elsewhere, Jesus says something even more shocking. Yahweh doesn’t even prefer the good over the wicked, he says. He showers his blessings (not bombs!) on everyone. Or as Jesus himself put it, God makes the sun rise on the virtuous and the criminal; his rain benefits those we consider evil as well as those we classify as good (Mt. 5:45). We should learn from that God, Jesus says, and be as perfect like him (Mt. 5:48). In fact, we should consider no one “the enemy” not even those who threaten us and kill us even as Jesus was threatened and killed (Lk. 6: 27-36).

How different is that from the way most of us think and act? How different is that from the God we’ve been taught to believe in?

Yes, you might say, but what about those other passages in the Bible where God is fierce and genocidal? After all, the Great Flood must have killed many good people and even children. And God did that, didn’t he? What about his instructions (more than once) to kill everyone without distinction. For example the Book of Joshua records: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Joshua 10:40). What about the Book of Revelation, which many Christians argue predicts God’s total destruction of the world? What about that violent, pitiless, threatening God? Is that the “Abba” of Jesus?

Good questions. They’re good because they make us face up to the fact that the Bible is ambiguous about God. No, let me put it more strongly. The Bible isn’t just ambiguous about God. It’s often plain wrong – at least If we adopt the perspective of Jesus and Abraham in today’s readings.

After all, Abraham’s God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Jesus’ God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Those Gods are not compatible. One of them must be false. Or as Jack Nelson Pallmeyer writes in his book Is Religion Killing Us? “Either God is a pathological killer or the Bible is sometimes wrong about God.”

Today’s readings show us that both Abraham and Jesus agree.

The Abraham story is about a man gradually rejecting Nelson’s Psychopath in the sky. Israel’s furthest back ancestor comes to realize that God is merciful, not punitive or cruel. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, God is kind, true, and responsive to prayer. God protects the weak and lowly and is distant from the powerful and haughty. In today’s reading from Genesis, we witness Abraham plodding slowly but surely towards that conclusion.

It’s the realization eventually adopted by Jesus: God is a kind father, not a war God. If Abraham’s God won’t tolerate killing 50 innocent people, nor 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10, Jesus’ God is gentler still. That God won’t tolerate killing anybody – not even those threatening Jesus’ own life.

All of that should be highly comforting to us. It has implications for us, politically, personally and liturgically.

Politically it means that followers of Jesus should be outraged by anyone connecting Jesus with our country’s perpetual war since 9/11, 2001. A drone program that kills the innocent with the targeted flies in the face of Abraham’s gradually-dawning insight about a merciful God. The war itself makes a complete mockery of Jesus’ total non-violence and the words of the prayer he taught us. Those supporting “America’s” “better them than us” attitude are atheists before Jesus’ God and the one depicted in the Abraham story.

Personally, what we’ve heard this morning should drive us towards an atheism of our own. It should cause us to review and renew our understandings of God. Impelled by today’s readings, we should cast as far from us as we can any inherited notions of a pathological, punishing, cruel, threatening and vindictive God. We need that holy atheism. Let’s pray for that gift together.

And that brings us to today’s liturgy. In effect, we’ve gathered around this table to hear God’s clarifying word, and symbolically act out the peaceful world that Jesus called “God’s Kingdom.” We’ve gathered around this table to break bread not only with each other, but emblematically with everyone in the world including those our culture considers enemies.

I mean if God is “Our Father,” everyone is our sister, everyone, our brother. It’s just that some couldn’t make it to our family’s table today. But they’re here in spirit; they’re present around this altar. They are Taliban and al-Qaeda; they are Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, and Somalis; they are Muslims and Jews; they include Edward Snowden and Trayvon Martin. They include those children killed in U.S. drone strikes. They are you and I!

All of us are children of a loving God. Jesus’ “Lord’s Prayer” says that.

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Boston Marathon Bombing: Our Collective Destiny

Boston Marathon

All of us were shocked yesterday by the bombing at the Boston Marathon. About 3:00 p.m. two powerful bombs were detonated near the finish line of the annual “Patriots’ Day” event. Three people were killed including an 8-year-old boy. One hundred and forty-four were injured among them a 3-year-old; two were left in critical condition.

Naturally, our hearts go out to all the victims and their families. A day that began in joy and celebration ended in complete tragedy. What can be more painful than losing a loved one – especially a child?

Responses to the disaster will be interesting to observe. It remains to be seen whether U.S. officials will connect the Boston Marathon Bombing with foreign or domestic terrorists or whether it was a criminal act by some insane individual.

In either case, the tragedy brings home to American soil the destruction and terror that U.S. policy inflicts each day on unsuspecting civilians across the world in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. Pakistani events, Yemeni celebrations that begin in joy and high spirits routinely end in tears and mourning as drones drop from the sky without warning or as doors are kicked in by rampaging American soldiers shouting vile curses.

We must remember that the terrifying explosions, blood, torn flesh, scattered body parts and lives cut off virtually before they’ve begun constitute everyday occurrences at the hands of our criminal government and brutal military.

In fact, next to the havoc, murder, torture and sheer cruelty of U.S. policy in the countries just mentioned, what happened in Boston hardly deserves a mention. (Actually, most of U.S.-caused terror gets no mention in our mainstream press at all.)

What I’m saying is the obvious: U.S. chickens are coming home to roost; Boston is a preview of things to come.
I mean, Marathon-like bombings regardless of the origin of this particular attack will increasingly be part of our own lives until our country comes to its senses and leaves aside its imperial pretensions, international interventions and quick resort to violence as the solution to every problem.

This is because random bombings employing crude improvised devices constitute poor people’s responses to illegal occupation of their countries by American invaders using state-of-the-art weapons from drones to daisy cutters. It’s the last resort — what is possible for the poor and powerless as they attempt to defend themselves from “the most powerful military in the world.”

There is only one way to avoid the fate I’m describing: reject empire. That means living within our means; respecting human rights and international law; abjuring militarism; stopping the torture; closing the secret prisons; remanding drone policy; and ACTUALLY BEING WHO WE CLAIM TO BE IN THE WORLD!

Until we make such reforms, mayhem like that exemplified by the Boston Marathon bombing will continue to represent our collective destiny.

9/11 Reconsidered in the Light of U.S. Drone Policy

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So, let me get this straight: you direct airborne vehicles to fly into buildings in order to destroy enemies your Leader has unilaterally judged are terrorizing your people. Those “taken out” don’t necessarily terrorize directly. Nonetheless you kill them because they’re associated with, are near, and/or are sympathetic to the ones who do actually or potentially terrorize. Alternatively, those killed have been designated “signature” terrorists, because they look like those you and your inner circle have decided are terrorists or potential terrorists.

Sound familiar? Sounds like the loose logic attributed to the still-undisclosed Obama rationale for extra-judicial drone killings in at least five countries. . . . Or like the logic of 9/11.

You recall, of course, why Osama bin Laden allegedly mounted the 9/11 attacks. If you’ve forgotten, you can read about it in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver)
According to the “Letter to the American People” finally posted there in 2002, it was all response to U.S. terrorism.

More specifically, after repeatedly invoking the authority of Allah, bin Laden said the attacks were retaliation for unprovoked western aggression against Arabs in the form of:
– Eighty years of occupying the Arab world (since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1921).
– U.S. support for Jewish crimes against Muslims and Arabs in Palestine.
– The killing of more than 500,000 children during the sanctions American regime against Saddam Hussein.
– U.S. desecration of Muslim holy sites, Mecca and Medina by the stationing of American troops there following the first Gulf War.

And bin Laden didn’t confine his rationale for 9/11 simply to retaliation for general acts of terrorism in the political or structural sense. He had particular more easily recognized instances in mind. He wrote,

“It will suffice to remind you of your latest war crimes in Afghanistan, in which densely populated innocent civilian villages were destroyed, bombs were dropped on mosques causing the roof of the mosque to come crashing down on the heads of the Muslims praying inside. You are the ones who broke the agreement with the Mujahideen when they left Qunduz, bombing them in Jangi fort, and killing more than 1,000 of your prisoners through suffocation and thirst.”

According to bin Laden, the entire American people were guilty of such acts of terror against the Muslim world. After all, he said, they elect the officials who formulate such policies. The American people pay the taxes that fund the manufacture of the tanks and planes involved. They’re the ones who populate the army directly involved in illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was all too much to take, bin Laden implied. So on the 80th anniversary of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, he was unilaterally declaring what might be called a “War on American Terror.” And, of course in a state of war, international law simply does not apply. As a Great Man once said, he would have to “work the dark side.”

More particularly, the rules of warfare allowed bin Laden to attack those doing their own shadowy work inside the World Trade Center. Everyone there matched the profile of what we now call “signature terrorists.” After all, they worked in that iconic center of economic oppression and terrorism that in the eyes of bin Laden was symbolically and actually responsible for the devastating debt that impoverishes the entire Third World. That debt and associated trade policies administered from the Twin Towers cause the deaths of at least 30,000 innocents who die every day from hunger-related and debt-related causes.

More specifically still, according to bin Laden, the usurious interest rates — in many ways the basis of “world trade” – are the culprit. They and those who determine and enforce them, like those working in the Twin Towers, are as guilty of terroristic murder as if they put guns to the heads of the innocents and pulled the trigger 30,000 times each day. They’re as guilty as if they flew planes into 10 Twin Towers on a daily basis.

Bin Laden wrote: “You are the nation that permits Usury, which has been forbidden by all the religions. Yet you build your economy and investments on Usury.”

What I’m saying here is that 9/11 was a prescient expression of drone warfare. The only difference was the 9/11 “dronists” possessed a courage of conviction entirely lacking in today’s U.S. drone terrorists. While the latter inflict death across the world entirely isolated from danger in their fortified air conditioned theaters, their 9/11 counterparts sacrificed their own lives to kill those they judged guilty of terrorizing their people. In any case, the rationale for 9/11 was nearly indistinguishable from that of Bush, Brennan and Obama, namely,

1. Those who have been terrorizing our people have gathered together by the thousands in the Twin Towers.
2. If they are not actually terrorists in the strict sense, their association with and sympathy for terrorists makes them guilty.
3. Since we have declared war on our opponents, the rules of war dispense us
from any obligation to observe peacetime procedures connected with international law.
4. We can do all of this because Allah is on our side. (Or as Bush/Brennan/Obama would put it: as the “Exceptional Nation” we are GOOD, while our opponents are BAD.)

Does anyone else see the oily, greasy, slippery slope we’re all sliding down? Barbara Lee perceived it immediately when she warned us against becoming “the evil we deplore.” Under drone warfare policy, we’ve now become the exact evil we claim to be fighting – right down to the detail of flying airborne vehicles into buildings where the innocent will be killed along with the guilty. We’ve manifested unmistakably for the entire world to see the very evil of which bin Laden accused us. That was his intention in the first place.

As another Great Man once said, “Mission accomplished.”

The New York Times on Drones: In Defense of Mafia Face-to-Face Hits

One of the unmanned drones in the growing U.S. arsenal

The New York Times recently  published an article called “The Moral Case for Drones.” It was authored by one if its national security reporters, Scott Shane. As the title indicates, the piece’s intention was to argue that U.S. drone policy is indeed morally defensible. However the article refused to address the really difficult moral issues. It concentrated instead on providing a rather obvious response to the question whether the use of drones avoids the wholesale slaughter of civilians that has been associated with modern warfare since the U.S. Civil War.

Of course it does! Is there anyone who would argue that carefully calibrated drone use would be worse than the direct targeting of civilians that occurred in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? However by focusing on the “lesser of two evils” approach and resolving it in favor of drones, Mr. Shane’s article leaves inattentive readers with the impression that drone policy is somehow moral and humane.

But what about those other questions?

For instance, nowhere in the article does Mr. Shane even gesture towards the basic moral issue (not to mention its constitutional counterpart) of whether or not the President of the United States actually possesses the authority to order extrajudicial assassinations by drone or any other means. If the President claims that authority, do we accord that same right to any head of state — even if he or she decides that Mr. Obama himself is an international outlaw?

But that’s not the only issue the Times article chooses to ignore. In fact, it begins by bracketing a whole host of moral questions about drone use. Mr. Shane opens by saying:
 

“For streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.”

At the outset, then, the Times author mentions some of the real issues only to set them aside. What about remote control assassinations? What are the moral implications of human agents making life and death decisions safely sequestered in air conditioned locations thousands of miles from the kill zone? Does it make a moral difference that justification comes from questionable sources, or that such justification is frequently circumstantial, based on hearsay, and often amounts to guilt by association? Is it a moral issue that the executioners’ decisions might be erroneously or casually made since they are immediately based on information provided by devices resembling video game screens?

Similarly removed from moral analysis is the fact that lethal operations inside sovereign countries not at war with the United States are not only “contentious” (as the article admits), but clearly contravene international law, not to mention the U.N. Charter. Is it possible to make a “moral case” in such a context? Wouldn’t that be like waxing eloquent about the moral case for face-to-face Mafia hits rather than spraying restaurants with machine gun fire? Like their drone equivalents, such hits successfully avoid all that messy collateral damage. However both types of extra-judicial killings are the work of “professionals” who immorally place themselves above the law.

Moreover, in an essay that will make that argument that drones diminish civilian casualties, Mr. Shane’s piece from the beginning chooses not to consider whether in the final tally, drones actually increase civilian casualties. Are the civilian deaths caused by such terrorists not to be calculated? Similarly what about the casualties caused by making drone technology available to those “odious regimes?” Their leaders find the United States similarly “odious.” Will the civilian casualties they cause seem thankfully minor when representatives of those particular agents fly their drones into the Sears Tower in Chicago?

Choosing not to consider such questions is like asking Mrs. Lincoln, “Apart from the assassination, what did you think of the play?”

However such incomplete and inconsiderate “moral analysis” also leads to the conclusion that United States drone policy is (as one of the article’s quoted experts says) “not only ethically permissible but might also be ethically obligatory because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

It’s the type of incomplete and deceptive moral analysis that would do Mafia ethicists proud.