Ted Grimsrud—September 19, 2016
I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book, Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.
I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, UN-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.
That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach—I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the UN be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the US were committed to UN peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world.
The next thought, though, was wait a minute, isn’t the role of the US in the world precisely the issue? Ever since August 1945 and the end of World War II, the United States has been by far the dominant nation in the world—both economically and militarily. Couldn’t it be that American unwillingness to commit to peace has been the biggest reason we have not had more peace—by far? That’s the lesson that follows from the research and writing I did for my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. So, let’s stay with this thought a bit.
World peace as something “simple”?
If it truly is the case that by far the biggest reason for a lack of world peace is the United States (see these chapter drafts from The Good War That Wasn’t for some support for this statement), then couldn’t we say that the path toward greater world peace is simple. Just get the US to change its approach—break its spiral of militarism, give up on its imperialism, act seriously to get rid of nuclear weapons. There actually seems to be few (if any) externally driven requirements for the approach we currently follow; it’s almost completely an American choice to be this way. That is, we face no external threats that require the level of warism that our nation currently embraces. It’s our choice; it’s an “elective” approach.
Now, to say the path toward world peace is “simple” is not to say that it is easy. There are indeed powerful forces in the US that fuel our warism—a lot of them are economic. Just think a little about the unmeasurable wealth that is directed from the federal treasury to war profiteers (and I mean “unmeasurable” literally because the Pentagon is not remotely interested in measuring it). And a small fraction of those war profits get redirected back toward our political power elite in campaign contributions and other forms of influence buying. Why else is the current choice between Clinton and Trump limited to being a choice between two styles of unfettered warism?
Other factors dovetail with the economic. The propaganda machine that treats the myth of redemptive violence as unassailable, even unmentionable, runs our corporate media (just one small example that is current has to do with the millions of dollars the US military funnels into the National Football League to fund blindly patriotic and military-glorifying “celebrations of America”; this connection explains why many criticize the recent mild protests about police violence during playings of the national anthem as being “disrespectful of the troops”).
Driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia right now exposes one to multitudes of Trump/Pence campaign signs (and literally no Clinton/Kaine signs). It is speculation on my part, but I interpret these as at least somewhat signaling a desire by economically downtrodden white people for America to be “great again”—a desire typically linked with warism. As if our “greatness” (whatever that is) is reestablished by military conquest.
We wouldn’t be in the fix we are now with our runaway militarism that threatens the survival of life on earth itself if it were easy to turn it around. But maybe it can help this necessary work if we could focus more on the central problem—and recognize that this problem is, nonetheless, simple. It’s not really that our world system is not amenable to peace and we have to do all this complicated and hard to imagine work to come up with a world government that can enforce world peace. Maybe it’s simply that only one actor needs to change—the United States.
As part of our thought experiment, let’s focus on just one theme, American military spending. Estimates vary, but every analysis I have seen puts the American share of global spending on the military at around 50%. That is, we spend as much money on our military as the rest of the world put together. We have roughly 196 independent countries in the world today (depending on how they are counted). So the United States spends as much on our military as the other 195 countries in the world.
How can this be necessary? How can this be something that is required for our security as a nation? And of the military spending by non-US countries, how much is spent by our unassailable allies (say, the NATO countries, Israel, and Australia)? The spending of our close allies should be added to our total, so that we are talking about an immensely disproportionate amount of spending vis-à-vis our potential enemies. And how much of the spending of our potential enemies is strictly defensive, money they wouldn’t spend if we weren’t spending so much?
And we should factor in, as I mentioned above, that amount of our military spending that simply is a subsidy for war profiteers—spending that does nothing to enhance our actual national security. In fact, for example, a lot of that subsidy gets poured into our nuclear arsenal that, of course, greatly enhances our national insecurity.
So, looking at US military spending we may see two things— (1) it’s extraordinarily immense and (2) it’s mostly unnecessary in the sense that it is not driven by actual threats or security considerations. What would happen then if there was one “simple” change—that we drastically reduced our military spending, linking it with genuine security needs. By greatly cutting back on the world’s worst threat to global peace (the American military), all kinds of creative and life-enhancing possibilities would be opened up. The world would have greatly increased availability of resources for healing work—health care, infrastructure renewal, alternative energy investment, education, pollution cleanup, and on and on.
By recognizing that the path to greater world peace is this simple (though not easy!), we may be encouraged to focus our energies more on that one thread that could unravel the entire dynamic of global fear and insecurity.
Standing against the “Beast”
The book of Revelation, it seems to me, can be a tremendous resource for stimulating our imaginations to empower this work of enhancing world peace. Not because it gives us information about the future but because it gives us insights about the present dynamics of empire and empire resistance. Certainly many things have changed since the first century, but the reality of empires and domination remains a constant. Revelation contains what many scholars recognize as an unprecedented critique of imperial power—a critique that remains relevant today.
I want to mention just two images from the middle part of Revelation. Revelation 13 introduces us to the Beast. This Beast is extraordinary—and almost certainly, in the immediate context of Revelation, alludes to the Roman Empire. However, by linking the Beast with the underlying influence of the Dragon (Satan), John means to convey a sense that what’s in mind is what we could call the spirituality of the Empire, its underlying values, myths, and structures that serve centralized power and domination—and that this means all empires.
John is not condemning the particular human beings who form Rome’s power elite as irredeemably evil (in fact, in the end, “the kings of the earth” [his term throughout the book for this elite] actually end up being healed). Rather, he is concerned with the beliefs, myths, narrative framing, and the like.
The point, though, is that the spirit of Empire is extraordinarily powerful as it is embodied in this particular Roman Empire. Revelation 13 shows how overwhelming that power seems (“who can stand against it?”—no one, it appears). And the power is operationalized by an impressive propaganda system (led by the “False Prophet”)—something we see in many of the artifacts from the Roman era that portray the emperor as divine and his power as inexorable.
It would not be difficult to see numerous parallels between the scenario in Revelation 13 and our present context in the US. Sure, America is not Rome—the differences are significant. But I believe the parallels are more significant. Part of our work in seeking to enhance world peace as I suggested above, focusing on challenging American militarism, can be furthered by understanding better the spiritual underpinnings of the American Empire. Revelation 13 can give us some clues about that.
John’s intent in Revelation 13, though, is not to offer a counsel of despair. He answers the seemingly rhetorical question about “who can stand against it?” at the beginning of chapter 14. There is someone standing, the Lamb—along with his followers (the “144,000” here is actually a symbol for the “uncounted multitude” we are introduced to in chapter 7). [For more on this point, see this sermon, “How Do We Fight the Beast?”]
The point I take from the standing Lamb for the agenda of this post is that to stand for peace, to witness to a different kind of narrative framing that reflects a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, is actually something that can be done, that can make a difference, that reflects an affirmation of the moral grain of the universe.
I think Revelation encourages us to make it a point of emphasis whenever we can that the biggest obstacle to world peace right now is American militarism. And that this militarism is unnecessary and counter-productive for the wellbeing of the American people themselves, not to mention everyone else in the world. This is a simple message. It will be enhanced by information, by analyses, by factual critiques. But at bottom, it points to a spiritual struggle. And the resources of Revelation and other accounts of the message of Jesus may well be essential. If Christianity has any validity in the world today (and it may not, given its legacy as an empowering dynamic in the creation and sustenance of the American Empire), it lies with an embrace of the anti-imperial message of Revelation, the gospels, and rest of the Bible.