The phrase “speaking truth to power” was coined in 1955 in a statement by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that still exists today. The AFSC is famous for a large number of admirable activities in many places, such as assistance to refugees and victims of natural disasters. The Quakers as a church are of course also famous for their principled pacifism, so that, during the period when the United States had conscription, a young man who could show that he was a Quaker or even that he had attended a Quaker school was pretty automatically granted conscientious-objector status. [To my chagrin, just about when I was drafted, a cousin of mine escaped military service just because he had attended Swarthmore College; to my knowledge he would have been hard put if he had been asked to specify the nature of his Quaker beliefs or practices.] In any case, the phrase “speaking truth to power” became a favored slogan of the anti-Vietnam campaign and other Left-leaning movements. In 1977 Diana Trilling published an essay entitled “We must march again, my darlings”, which satirized the American Leftist intelligentsia, which saw itself as the truth-telling conscience of the nation.
Well now, over half a century later, the same self-image is still acting out. Right now progressive Methodists have been leading the march, accompanied by similar-minded other Protestants and Catholics. But the “darlings” have not changed all that much.
In its issue of October 1, 2014, The Christian Century published a story about an “An Open Letter to President Obama”, dated August 27, 2014, asking him to stop air strikes against ISIS and to pursue only peaceful means to resolve the conflict. The full text of the document can be obtained from the website of the United Methodist Church.
The letter was signed by fifty-three national religious groups and a sizable number of individuals. Leading national groups were the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church/USA (recently in the news for favoring disinvestment from Israel), the United Church of Christ (which shares a “global ministry” with the gloriously named but quite respectable, Disciples of Christ)–the usual Protestant suspects, one may say. (Where was the AFSC?). Catholic fellow-marchers were Pax Christi International (the foothold of Liberation Theology at the Vatican), and the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers (an order long known for advocating Leftist views). Among the individual signers is Francis Clooney, a Jesuit who now directs Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. I don’t know most of the other individual signers. But I was struck by the titles of two other Catholic signers–Father John Converset, Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, North American Province of Comboni Missionaries, and Brother Michael Gosch, Justice, Peace, Integrity of Creation Director, Clerics of St. Viator (Viatorians).
The letter begins by expressing “deep concern over the recent escalation of U.S. military action in Iraq. (I take it that the text was drafted before this military action came to include Syria as well). The plight of “Iraqi civilians” is acknowledged (not a word about the genocidal campaign against Christians and other religious minorities, just concern for civilians in general). The “dire plight” of these civilians should lead “the international community” to respond “in some way”, but “U.S. military action is not the answer”. Instead the crisis should be addressed “through long-term investments in supporting inclusive governance and diplomacy, nonviolent resistance, sustainable development, and community-level peace and reconciliation”. The letter invokes Pope Francis’ rececent statement (I don’t know how accurately reported) that ”it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop’, I don’t say bomb, make war–stop him.” The letter rather plausibly adds “But how we ask?” The letter then states that the present situation has been caused by “complex factors”, including “decades of U.S. political and military intervention”. Air strikes will fail to build “sustainable peace in the long-term”. One should address “the root causes of the conflict” (they are not listed) by a peace strategy. There follows a long list of steps recommended for the United States. First of all to stop all bombing. Engage the United Nations and all local political leaders to move toward “a lasting political solution”. Iran should be part of this process. Support “community-based resistance strategies”. Financial sanctions. An “arms embargo on all parties to the conflict (including the Iraqi government and all ethnic militias—presumably, though not mentioned, the Kurdish ones). And so on.
It is difficult to report this list without lapsing into satire. For a group of Christians to comment on the present situation in Iraq without mentioning the ongoing project of murder, enslavement and forced conversion of fellow-believers is obscene. The “international community” which is appealed to does not exist. The reference to the United Nations shows an almost incredible naivete. But just what are supposed to be “root causes” that should be addressed? An earlier generation of peace marchers were more explicit—international capitalism, American imperialism, Third World poverty caused by the first two. Given the worldview of the backers of this “Open Letter”, I would not be surprised if similar notions about “root causes” were still reverberating in their minds.
So as not to leave the impression that this document represents a religious consensus about the conflict in Iraq, I will mention a very different statement issued a little earlier in August. (I have not read the full text, only a summary in The Christian Century.) A group of fifty Christian and Jewish leaders urged President Obama to escalate military action against the Islamic State in Iraq; nothing sort of its destruction can protect Christians and other religious minorities. That statement was originated by Robert George, a prominent conservative Catholic law professor at Princeton; he presently chairs the US Commission for International Religious Freedom. Significantly it was signed by Russell Moore, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other interesting signers were Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth), the daughter of Abraham Heschel, who had been the principal Jewish figure in the anti-Vietnam movement of the 1960s, and Cornel West, the African-American professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
But back to the statement by Methodists et al. One must ask who would be moved by it. President Obama? I have no idea what Obama really believes about the world. His foreign policy to date, especially in the Middle East, suggests a worldview not far from the one expressed in the “Open Letter”. Have the recent horrors committed and proudly displayed on television by the Islamists really changed his mind? Or has he simply, obviously with great reluctance, resorted to military force because he was pushed there by an outraged public opinion and the sharp decine in his approval ratings. And what about the combatants in Iraq and Syria? The main state actors are pursuing their own interests without much resort to moral reasoning—the Baghdad regime, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia—as well as the non-state actors—the Kurds, the Shia and Sunni militias in Iraq. The Free Syrian Army (insofar as it exists at all). As to the Islamists themselves, I do believe that most of them are indeed motivated by their murderous ideology. I can just imagine them, as they pause from raping captive women and slitting the throats of putative infidels, reading the “Open Letter” and being moved to turn toward the recommended “peace strategy”.
I was reminded of a story I read many years ago about Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of modern pacifism. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the story. But apparently, shortly before or soon after the beginning of World War II, a delegation of Jews came to visit Gandhi. They questioned about his method of non-violent resistance, which apparently had worked against the British. Would it work against the Nazis? Gandhi said yes. The Jews said that the Nazis would just respond by killing all of them. Gandhi is supposed to have answered: “But then you would die in the knowledge of your spiritual superiority over your enemies”.
Perhaps the language used to describe the enemy expresses the confusion of the American response. As the Islamists moved from being a non-state actor to having an incipient state covering a large territory straddling the vanishing border between Iraq and Syria, they changed their self-description in an increasingly megalomaniac direction. It first was relatively descriptive—ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Then it became ISIL—the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—the latter a term used by Europeans since the 19th century to describe the entire Fertile Crescent, a huge arc of territory including present-day Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, possibly also slices of Anatolia and Saudi Arabia. Now, with the proclamation of a Caliphate (which by definition claims the allegiance of all Muslims), the designation has become just IS—the Islamic State—by implication the Islamic State, the only one—all others claiming the appellation “Islamic” being usurpers. Both the American government and media now use all these titles, tending toward the simpler IS. If the Islamists would now call their entity the Sole Regency of God on Earth, would the White House press secretary carefully refer to them as the SRG? Perhaps it would be wiser to stick with ISIS.
Once again a group of American Christians purports to speak “truth to power”. What “truth”? The word hardly fits this collection of illusionary notions about the realities of this world. What “‘power”? Presumably the principal intended audience is the US government, the American media and public opinion. I don’t know who in Washington pays attention to the pronouncements of Protestant progressives. Evangelicals and Jews have more clout. So does the Catholic Church, though in this case the confusing (and probably confused) remarks of the Pope don’t give helpful directions. The Obama administration is struggling to cope with a situation that contradicts its illusions. Congress and public opinion have been moved toward military intervention by the ghastly horrors perpetrated by ISIS. I suspect that what we have in this “Open Letter” is a group of people speaking to themselves.