I first heard about Samantha Power when the United States took part in bombing Libya; turns out she was part of the Obama 2008 campaign, got in some trouble for calling then-Senator Hillary Clinton “a monster,” was part of the Obama transition team, and has served in the Obama White House as a Special Assistant [link]. I first read about her in an article in the New York Times, where she was described as being someone who shuns the spotlight because she tends to speak her mind and is always afraid of upstaging or front-running the President.
Turns out she’s also a former war correspondent and one-time Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide [link], the subject of this post.
This is a thoroughly depressing book, as it starts with the Armenian genocide, briefly discusses the Holocaust, and then deals with the struggles of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide,” gave it its legal definition and formulated the official definition eventually ratified by the United Nations. There are chapters about post-Lemkin genocides in Cambodia, Iraq (Kurds), and Rwanda, but more than a third of the book is about the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia and the various campaigns by Serb forces to kill all the Muslims and Albanians in various Serb-controlled areas. What glimmers of hope Power offers are presented at the end, when she discusses the legal proceedings by various international courts against perpetrators in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and how that related to the efforts by Lemkin. Power, after all, is a multilateralist and a firm believer in the rightness of international organizations in dealing with problems like these, despite their obvious and even admitted failings.
Power repeatedly returns to a couple of themes: one is that the United States tends to deal with genocide poorly because politicians who could do something tend to choose not to, citing the lack of obvious American interests. The other is that the people who end particular genocides fit no particular pattern, and often come from unexpected places.
I was interested to note how little difference conservative Christians make in Power’s narrative. Various church leaders are mentioned in the chapter on the Armenian genocide, but then disappear from the narrative and do not resurface in the subsequent ninety or so years. It may or may not be a coincidence that the victims in only that once case were clearly Christian. I’m not sure.
What’s disturbing about this is that it suggests that Christians either do not really have much of a voice in American foreign policy where moral issues are concerned; or that we put our economic interests first, foremost, and nearly only. Or that we don’t care if the victims aren’t Christians; or if they’re not particularly our kind of Christians. It’s as if we have no foreign policy unless it pertains to whether Israel should return to its pre-1967 borders, and no moral voice on any subject but abortion.
I am inclined to take Power’s discussion as an indictment of modernity itself; the genocides she covers are noteworthy in that they all occur in the modern era and use (with the possible exception of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia) uniquely modern technology and exploit the vulnerabilities of the modern nation-state, and the remedy proposed may put a stop to the genocide itself, but doesn’t result in anything that resembles justice. Unfortunately when the Church doesn’t take modernity to task for these failings it’s hard to suggest it can offer any real answers.
This was an unpleasant read but at 500+ pages it went surprisingly quickly. I’d recommend reading it and asking yourself if your Christianity offers anything more in the way of meaningful analysis than a shallow “well, what do you expect from a fallen world?”
I recently took a break from listening to ESPN Radio in the morning, opting instead to listen to our local liberal talk radio station, which used to be an Air America Radio affiliate and now seems to offer the radio equivalent of the MSNBC minor leagues. It’s not so much that I’m dying to hear what e.g. Rachel Maddow has to say about current events twice a day; it’s more that I can’t bear the dead part of the sports year between say the end of March Madness and the MLB All-Star break.
And so it was that I woke up a couple of days ago and heard in about thirty seconds Bill Press [link] giving the schematic version of the death of Osama bin Laden. To my ears Press rushed through the facts to get to the meaningful part: how this one act made the first term of the Obama Administration a success, how the “right-wingers” were going to commit some sort of treason by second-guessing the President, and some other political color that for the moment eludes me.
I don’t and can’t fault Press for interpreting the situation the way he did; after all, it is always the political season and everything is grist for the political mill, and Press is paid to think the way he does, etc. Beyond that I have to agree with him: I believe President Obama’s reelection is all but assured now.
Press, in case you don’t know, grew up Catholic, has a degree in theology, and will occasionally mention his days in seminary. He considers himself a Christian and occasionally frames his political statements in a way that suggests that his faith informs his political positions.
Tuesday morning he dealt with the question of whether it is appropriate for a Christian to be happy when someone is killed. He said “yes,” provided the person is sufficiently evil, or words to that effect. And I think this is a valid question and worthy of consideration.
As an American, of course, I’m glad to see that after long last the system more or less works, and it’s possible for our intelligence service to figure out when our allies are double-dealing, how to deal with a complicated and difficult mission like this, etc. It takes some of the sting out of a failure like Operation Eagle Claw [link], but only just.
But as a Christian I can’t bring myself to be happy about this. And it’s not just the easy stuff about pacifism, the redeemability of bin Laden’s soul, etc. I’m more concerned about whether easy explanations about evil and justice [link] and so forth have any meaning when there’s no rule of law, or whether modern concepts of jurisprudence and war crimes make any sense when faced with sufficiently complicated circumstances.
I used to have more moral clarity about war generally, but after voting for George W. Bush and seeing how he wielded the tools of war in response to 9/11 I lost a lot of that clarity. And I’m inclined to see the death of Osama bin Laden as just another step in the escalation of a physical, rather than a metaphorical, culture war.
I’ve been so busy lately I’ve mostly ignored politics. I’ve ignored the Tea Party altogether since it is making no inroads whatsoever in the state where I currently vote. But recently a couple of items caught my attention.
One is what appears to be a Doug Wead endorsement of Ron Paul [link]. If I read Wead correctly he seems to be saying that he thinks the Tea Party is the natural conduit for voters who want to vote for Ron Paul in 2012, whether they know it or not.
What the American people want is something new. Someone who will not mortgage away their futures. Someone who will pay the bills. Someone who will not spend trillions of dollars on foreign adventures that make more enemies than friends. Someone who will not use government to rule their lives. Someone who will honor the constitution and the original ideas of liberty that directed the Founding Fathers. Those issues cut across Democrat and Republican.
What the American people want is Ron Paul.
They just don’t know it yet.
This is a strange article from Wead; as far as I can tell he’s only talking about fiscal conservatism as being a good reason to vote for Paul and taking some predictable shots and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t mention any of the issues important to social conservatives, particularly those important to religious conservatives. This is odd for two reasons: one is that pitching candidates to conservative evangelicals is Wead’s specialty. The other is that at first glance Ron Paul’s a good fit for a pitch to evangelicals, better than everyone ahead of him for the 2012 Republican nomination with the possible exception of John Thune (graduate of Biola) and Mike Huckabee (former Baptist preacher).
Ron Paul is that rare former Libertarian (he defeated Russell Means to become their Presidential nominee in 1988) who actually matches up well with evangelical talking points; most Libertarians tend to part ways with evangelicals on social issues, including the legalization of drugs, gay rights, and abortion [link].
The other interesting item I stumbled across this week asks the difficult questions about the religious attitude of the Tea Party [link]. Here’s the pull quote:
For example, [Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association] recently interviewed Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, on his nationwide radio program. Fischer told her that evangelicals want some signal that the Tea Party movement supports their views on abortion and marriage.”Can we hear that message from the Tea Party leadership?” he asked.
“You’re not going to hear it from me,” she responded. “I’m sorry, I’m going to disappoint you.”
In an interview, Kremer explains that the Tea Party movement is a big tent, including not just religious people but atheists and libertarians.
“As long as we stay focused on the fiscal issues, that’s the glue that holds us together,” she says. “If we start delving into the religious aspect or social aspect, that’s when we’re going to become divided and when people are going to disagree.”
But Fischer says this strategy could alienate Christian conservatives.
“And if they begin to discover that the leadership of the Tea Party movement isn’t going to fight for them on those issues, then I think they’re going to lose their enthusiasm for movement,” he says. “And they’ll go back to being disengaged or they’ll invest in that energy in some other direction.”
In other words, the Tea Party is happy to have religious conservatives along for the ride, but they shouldn’t expect it to return their loyalty. I suspect Kremer is taking the same calculated risk other fiscal conservative groups take regarding religious conservatives: that either they will continue to project their values onto candidates without good reason, or they will decide they have nowhere else to go. I hope folks like Fischer will keep asking the difficult questions so religious conservatives remember where their values really lie.
For the record I don’t think Paul is a viable candidate; he will be 77 in 2012, the only candidate in the current Republican field older than John McCain. With due respect to his experience and wisdom, I think he’s too old to campaign and too old to serve. Also, InTrade still has his chances at 5-6% [link], more than a point behind Newt Gingrich, and I’m still sticking to my arbitrary decision that anyone who doesn’t rank equal to or higher than Gingrich isn’t a viable candidate.
The World Wide Web is such a heavily-connected thing, and my interests are so few, that I’m sometimes surprised to see them dovetail. It’s almost like living in a town so small that all your friends are your friends’ friends as well. Here’s an interesting quip from SBC/LifeWay researcher Ed Stetzer’s Facebook page from a couple of months ago, regarding the question of the current President’s religious affiliation:
Ergun Caner said that he was going to cast his vote in the last presidential election for the Christian, and there was only one Christian running. I think he knew something that the majority of other Americans didn’t [link].
I’d love to see this sourced; it seems pretty clear from the context that the author is implying that Senator John McCain would have been the solitary Christian in question (as opposed to Senator Barack Obama and I guess some number of minor party candidates and independents). Alternately, I’d settle for video of Senator McCain discussing the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Those are probably so abundant that you can’t swing a search term without hitting one on C-SPAN or YouTube.
Doug Stych takes a view on comments by Marine Corps General James Conway warning that announcing a date for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan aids the Taliban [link; WSJ]:
What this general has done is called insubordination, his job is to implement the orders he receives from the commander in chief. For him to publicly criticize the commander-in-chief’s orders is not in any way implementing them. He should be immediately reprimanded, if not cashiered.
Oddly enough the Fundamental Christianization of the military seems to have really started to get traction around , a scary process that continues to this day. Why is is scary? Because armies are supposed to defend the country, not the faith. [link]
I really have no idea if Stych is right or wrong here; I don’t understand the first thing about the military and its relationship to the Office of the President, nor whether comparisons between World War II and the present day are fair.
I’m more interested in Stych’s characterization of the military as undergoing a process of Christianization. This basic idea — that the military has become disproportionately Christian — also surfaced in Lauren Sandler’s 2006 book Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement [Amazon],where she spent an entire chapter being appalled at something; I really couldn’t tell you if she was appalled by the fact that soldiers serving a post-Christian nation were Christian, by the details of their faith, or by the fact that they apparently saw the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in religious terms.
I do hear spooky stories from time to time about how one branch of public service or another is being overrun by crazies of one sort or another (a popular one a couple of years ago had Mormons taking over the American diplomatic corps and giving preferential treatment to foreign Mormons), but I never know how to analyze them. In this case I think I’d want to know something like
- The proportion of self-identifying Christians in the military circa the end of the draft in 1973
- The rates at which draft-era military people aged out and retired
- Proportions of various religious groups in likely volunteer pools in the general population
- Rates at which these groups actually volunteered over the course of the last 37 years.
It’s fairly easy and rather irresponsible to visit a distinct but foreign subculture, fail to see things that makes one comfortable, and freak out in print. I definitely got the impression that Sandler overstated how religious the military was. I remember there being a tendency in some quarters to see 9/11 in religious terms and people joining the military as a reaction to 9/11; I don’t have a feel for how many of these were Christian, much less how many were Evangelical or fundamentalist.
I would be tempted to cast a lot of this as a variant of the prevailing notion that Barack Obama is a “bad king” and needs to be resisted, however, against George W. Bush being a “good king” that needed to be obeyed, just writ in a particularly military vernacular.
Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, crossed the aisle along with Olympia Snowe of Maine to support a financial regulatory reform bill, according to an article by Brady Dennis in Tuesday’s Washington Post.
I am guessing that this signals more interest on Brown’s part in returning to the Senate than in running for President in 2012. I would have picked him as a candidate with minimal chances of clinching the nomination before; if he were to run he’d have to explain the merits of this vote in the face of likely accusations he “sold out the party,” “endorsed Obamanomics,” or some such. And financial regulations are really difficult to explain; financial regulatory reform especially so.