The worst thing that happened last week

American Empire and complicity

(It’s worth noting that I started writing this back in September so “last week” really means two months ago. But this is what happens when you decide to start a blog a month when you travel 3 of the 4 weekends with a 6 month old… Also this one is a bit heavy and violent, just a heads up.)

After a long hard day of work harvesting, around 200 farmers pitched their tents and lit a bonfire to enjoy the evening and relax. The temperature was high in the 90s and they had labored for hours in the heat. Pine nut harvesting is not an easy job. It requires climbing the pine trees in order to shake the branches and dislodge the pine cones. Now in the cool evening they shared a meal, sang songs, told jokes, and enjoyed each others’ company.

The next morning, Sep 19, they were in mourning as they prepared least 30 of their friends for burial and tended to the over 40 who were injured.

With the click of a button or flip of a switch, a US drone operator ended the life of 30 innocent Afghani pine nut farmers. Fire and shrapnel and screams interrupted the peaceful night. Dozens of children will live the rest of their lives without their father or mother. Hundreds of family members will never get to see, laugh with, or hug their loved ones again. The survivors will deal with the trauma of this attack for the rest of their lives. This community will never be the same again.

And its all our fault. If ISIS killed 30 and injured 40 innocent people in an attack in the western world we would all be changing out Facebook profile pic filters to the Italian or Swedish flag and tweeting #StandWithSydney or #LisbonStrong. It would be on the news cycle for at least 4 days (which is saying a lot in the current media climate). It would trigger our empathy like terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels, and Christchurch have.

But when it happens in the developing world, and more importantly when WE are the ones who did it, it barely makes the news cycle. Just search it on Google and you’ll find a few articles here and there in mid September and then nothing. There will be no political or legal ramifications for this war crime. No one will be tried at the Hague for this atrocity. In fact, the American Service-Members Protection Act, passed in 2002, states that if the International Criminal Court tries any American military personnel or government officials, the President will simply invade the Hague until they are released. Empire is not accountable to anyone, especially when it writes its own rules. 30 innocent people dead at the hands of the US war machine and while almost definitely personally emotionally affected by it, the professional life of that drone operator will not be changed at all. And while this attack would be considered a “mistake,” I might argue that it did exactly what it was intended to (but I don’t want to get too deep into conspiracies in this blog post).

The US military is the most powerful fighting force to ever exist. In 2020, the US military budget will reach $738 billion a year. Using data from 2018, the military budgets of the next 14 countries add up to $734 billion. Of those 14, 9 (Saudi Arabia, UK, France, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Israel) are our historic close allies. NATO alone, not counting our allies in other regions, makes up 57% of global military spending.

No Empire in human history has the ability to wage war like we can on a global scale. We have over 800 different military bases in 70 different countries. In addition to that we have 11 floating fortress aircraft carriers. At a moments notice, a drone launched from any of the strategically placed bases or carriers could extinguish human lives with the flip of a switch.

So what should be the Christian response to this?

We read in the book of Revelation what John of Patmos thought about the Roman Empire. He describes it as a horrible beast and a dragon. The emperors are depicted by as 7 heads on this beast. As a member of a colonized and minoritized community in the Roman Empire, John knew first hand the destruction of Empire. Throughout the Hebrew Bible the ancient writers also condemn the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Seleucid Greek Empires.

Then Christ established a new kingdom. Not an earthly Empire created and governed by the sword, but a new transcendent community created through resurrection and governed by love. He refers to this as the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. This new way of social organization is depicted in the book of Acts. The early church shared everything, and ensured that no one went without and they worshiped Jesus Christ, not Caesar, as Lord. And the Romans killed them for their subversion of the Empire.

But soon after that, one of the biggest failures in Christian history occurred. In 312 BCE Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and the Empire was baptized. From that moment on, at least in Western Christianity, the Empire has always been baptized. The Byzantine, Carolingian, Holy Roman Empire, Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, Russian, Belgian, Dutch, German, and now American Empires have been “Christian Empires.” They colonized the European continent and then colonized the globe. The religion of the oppressed was co-opted by the oppressors.

Yet even in progressive Christian contexts, so rarely do we condemn the sins of Empire. We condemn the violence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and nativism here, but many times turn a blind eye to the violence that occurs abroad. Or if we do acknowledge the violence, it is about protecting our friends and family who serve in the armed forces.

Did your church pray for the victims of the latest mass shooting? But did it pray for those killed by drone strikes? Are the lives of American school children, mall shoppers, or movie theater patrons more valuable than the lives of Afghani pine nut farmers? Surely anyone of faith would answer no. The difference is that we did not kill the victims of the last mass shooting. We killed the victims of the last drone strike. We are complicit in the sins of Empire and we must repent.

And repentance without action is pointless. If we are followers of the Prince of Peace, we must defeat the military industrial complex. That means both electing officials who will stand up to it and resisting through civil disobedience. It also means that we must pray that both the victims and the perpetrators will experience the justice of God. I believe in the power of resurrection and know that what the Empire tries to kill will never truly stay dead. It’s with this hope that I continue.