Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: Brian Castner`s All The Ways We Kill and Die

My military ProD reading lately has included Brian Castner, one of the writers to have emerged from America`s post-9/11 wars. A US Air Force EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officer, Castner commanded teams of EOD operators in Iraq. In 2012, he wrote The Long Walk Home, a memoir of his time there, and his struggle to make peace with his memories, emotions and PTSD. In 2016, he published All The Ways We Kill and Die, chronicling his attempt to make sense of the death of a fellow EOD operator in Afghanistan. This second book is by turns a memoir, a piece of journalism, and an of-the-moment military history of the Improvised Explosives Device (IED), the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both books feature an unsparing honesty and a clear, bitterly beautiful prose style. Civilian and military readers alike will want to get to know this writer. I am very happy to say that my review of Castner appeared today in the online military journal, The Strategy Bridge. You can find it here. MP+

Monday, October 24, 2016

Preparing Chaplains For The Next War

As my current duties include directing a course designed to prepare new Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) chaplains for their first operational deployment, I try to keep an eye on the professional literature.   As geopolitical tensions continue to rise, I have been thinking quite often about the possibility of a conflict with a near-parity opponent, meaning, most likely, Russia.  This reading has led me to offer some thoughts which are predominantly intended for my chaplain colleagues.  Of course, these thoughts are entirely my own and do not reflect the positions of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service, its School, or the CAF.

CAF personnel from all three services participate in OPERATION REASSURANCE "in Central and Eastern Europe as part of NATO assurance and deterrence measures."  We also have an ongoing assistance and training mission in Ukraine as part of OPERATION UNIFIER.

Glebokie, Poland. 31 July 2015 – Corporal Philippe Lyonnais carries a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle (M2CG) followed by Corporal Emilie Gauthier-Wong carrying the 84mm rounds for the M2CG during a live fire exercise at Mielno range in the Drawsko-Pomorski training area in Glebokie, Poland on July 31, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE. Photo: Corporal Nathan Moulton, Land Task Force Imagery

The training we are doing in REASSURANCE, not to mention our military posture in Eastern Europe, is significantly different from the stability and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations that the CAF was commonly practicing when I became a chaplain a decade ago.   During the Afghanistan era we focused primarily on asymmetric warfare, (a notable exception was Operation Medusa in 2006, which was the Army's largest set-piece engagement since Korea).  Our chaplain training assumed a battlespace that featured:

- robust and extensive logistics and secure rear-area base networks made possible in large part because of private contractors and local labour.
- complete air-superiority, including the ability to insert, evacuate, and rotate troops as required.
- significant technological advantages over the enemy, including night-vision and thermal capability. precision guided munitions, long range artillery and armour support, UAVs and aerial surveillance, and close air support (CAS).
- uninterrupted command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) capabilities.
- a comprehensive commitment to soldier welfare, including regular and dependable home leave allowances mid-tour, and regular communications, including via social media, with loved ones at home.
- the luxury of being able to focus on ministry to a relatively small number of Canadian casualties.
- an emphasis on civil-military cooperation (CIMIC), perhaps more so than on combat operations
- a relatively low-threat environment.
None of these points is intended to minimize the impact of what chaplains experienced in Afghanistan, or to suggest that they did not experience hardship, difficulty or danger in their ministry.   I know colleagues who suffer to this day, mentally and physically, because they were exposed to mortal danger or gave to much of themselves in ministering to others.   If you are nearly blown up by a rocket attack or by a primitive IED, the trauma is still real, even if it is incurred in an asymmetric conflict.  While no CAF chaplains were killed or wounded in action in Afghanistan, the number of those suffering from PTSD, from my own, admittedly anecdotal knowledge, is proportional to rates in the CAF as a whole. 
Nevertheless, chaplains enjoyed significant advantages and resources in their ministry that their predecessors did not enjoy in Canada's previous wars.   Our padres had a high degree of mobility and movement to allow them to reach troops, even in Forward Operating Bases.   They had access to support from bases and rear-party ministry teams in Canada when arranging repatriations or aiding a deployed soldier's family in times of crisis.   They worked in interdisciplinary teams with civilian helping professionals such as social workers, and so did not have to bear the load of maintaining soldier welfare by themselves.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as the Afghan mission evolved from combat to aid and training, padres were ministering to soldiers with a very high probability of coming home alive and in one piece.   We cannot expect a future conflict to have these characteristics.

It is a truism that armies train to fight the last war.   However, the literature I am reading suggests that strategists, particularly Americans, now believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sui generis, one-of-a-kind conflicts, and were even poor preparation for the kind of war fighting that a conflict with a near-peer adversary would require.  Should "assurance and deterrence" fail, and
Canada  become involved in such a conflict, perhaps through invocation of NATO Article Five after a Russian attack on a Baltic country, our recent military experience may be of little use to us.  For the  CAF, the transition to a war with a peer opponent might be historically analogous to its participation in the South African war, in which Britain's professional army enjoyed significant advantages over their Boer opponents, and 1915, when our small Expeditionary Force went up against a huge, well equipped, and professionally led conventional Germany army.  While images of Canadian gallantry at Second Ypres adorn many a CAF mess today, our first battle of the Great War was a significant shock for an army hitherto only experienced in garrison life and colonial warfare.


Fighting a peer opponent.  Richard Jack's painting of Canadian troops holding the line at Second Ypres, courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

Chaplain training for the next war needs to pay attention to articles like this one, in which strategic leaders like Tom Mahnken, president of the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is quoted as saying that  “Like the European powers at the start of World War I, we could find ourselves tremendously unprepared ... surprised, and unpleasantly surprised.”  In a speech that has been widely circulated in military social media circles, US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has warned that the battlefield of the near future will be decidedly unpleasant, an environment where being surrounded and constantly on the move will be normal.  "There will no clear front line, no secure supply lines, no big bases like Bagram or Camp Victory with chow halls, air-conditioning, and showers. With enemy drones and sensors constantly on the hunt for targets, there won’t even be time for four hours’ unbroken sleep. So, says Milley, “being seriously miserable every single minute of every day will have to become a way of life.”

For chaplains, our training should demand that we think about the demands of doing our ministry in a battlespace with these characteristics:

- no safe bases from which to minister.   Tactical and brigade level chaplains, normally attached to service and support, B echelon or HQ elements, will be frequently on the move.  Fighting and support units will all be at some degree of risk from from artillery, air attack, or even from tactical nuclear missiles.
- air superiority may be contested or even denied by enemy anti-access /area denial (A2/AD) weapons systems.  C3I capabilities may be degraded by enemy Electronic Warfare and jamming operations.  Chaplains may find themselves part of a force cut off from Canada for long periods.
- casualty ministry will be the norm.  The ornate ramp ceremonies practised in Afghanistan will often be impossible when airspace is heavily contested or even dominated by the enemy.  Lost arts from the mobile battlefields of World War Two, including grave registration and hasty casualty collection ministry, will need to be relearned. 
- battlefield ministry will be the norm.  This task will be complicated by the social impact of secularism and pluralism.  The twentieth century padre had the advantage of ministering to soldiers from a culture shaped by Christianity.   However, the old axiom of no atheists in foxholes will likely reassert itself and hasty prayers before and after actions, another chaplain skill from twentieth century conflicts, will doubtless be valued by soldiers whom we previously thought of as quite secular.
- self-directed ministry will be the norm.  During Afghanistan the CAF chaplaincy developed elaborate command and communications protocols for events like casualty notification, with each step in the process being reported to a host of persons back in Canada.  In the event of war with a peer competitor, with communications severely degraded, chaplains will need to function independently for days or weeks at a time.  It is doubtful that chaplains will have the assistance of civilian helping professionals such as social workers.   Other than their partnerships with CAF medical personnel, chaplains will be working on their own to support morale, welfare and mental health as best they can.
- military skills will be paramount.  The highest honour troops can give a chaplain, that he or she is a "soldier's padre", must be the norm and not the exception.  Chaplains will be as dirty, unfed, cut off, scared and miserable as anyone else.  They will need to know how to use a map and compass, conceal their positions, give first aid and even drive some military vehicles as required.  They will need to do all these things while effectively giving spiritual aid and morale comfort to their troops.
- chaplain casualties will be normal.  In late World War Two, the British and Canadian armies, chaplain casualties (KIA and WIA) were proportionally as high as that of the combat arms.  If the first stages of a future war go badly, as they did in WW2, chaplains will almost certainly become POWs and will need to minister in austere conditions.

Battlefield ministry in 1944.  A Canadian Army chaplain aids in the evacuation of the wounded in Normandy.

Much of the training that these points would require would have to be delivered in the field, either on regularly scheduled exercises or in whatever workup training was possible in the event of or after the start of hostilities.   Training at the Chaplain School, which is predominantly academic in nature, would have to be significantly reimagined in a conflict of any significant duration.  In focusing on ministry in theatre, I have not discussed what domestic or rear-party ministry would look like.  The amount of pastoral work required to notify next of kin in Canada after a significant engagement, with large numbers killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner, would be a herculean task in itself.

Finally, we need to consider the enormous spiritual and psychological demands that ministry in this type of conflict would make of chaplains.   In garrison ministry, or even on some deployments, our chaplains have not always met the mark.   In the battlespace of the near-future, chaplains will be conspicuous in their successes and failures, at a time when they will be needed more than ever.  Success will depend on the cultivation of physical fitness, military skills, fieldcraft and, above all, highly intentional and meaningful spiritual preparation.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Law And Order Sunday: A Sermon For the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. Margaret's of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 16 October, 2016

RCL readings    : Jeremiah 31: 27-34;  Psalm 119: 97-104; Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18: 1-8

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 37:33)

A grumpy judge.

Did you notices that judges and judgement run through our readings this morning?  In Jeremiah, God speaks like a judge who has gotten tired of punishing Israel and is going to try something different.   In Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a grumpy judge who is persistently badgered by a widow until he gives in to her.   In second Timothy. Paul tells us to follow Scripture and do the right thing, until the day when God and Jesus return “to judge the living and the dead”.

That’s a lot of judges and a lot of judgement.   It makes me wonder how comfortable we are with this legalistic aspect of our relationship to God.   To be sure, our faith teaches us in the creeds to think of God as our judge, but if you’ve ever been in a courtroom, and seen a judge in action, you may not draw a lot of comfort from that image.   The legal system can be very intimidating when you see it working. 

I remember going to court as a character witness for a young soldier who had done something stupid. On the whole, it could have gone a lot worse for the soldier.  Afterwards, he told me “Padre, I was scared, that judge was really mean!”  I said no, I thought he was being fair, but I did agree that it was a scary business and suggested that he stay out of courtrooms in future.

I think the same is true of our faith lives.  We know that one aspect of God is that he is a our judge, but we all hope to stay out of the courtroom.   It’s easier for many Christians, myself included, to focus on a personal relationship with Jesus as friend and Saviour.   Or maybe, if we are feeling guilty and nervous about that final judgement, we may think of Jesus as the defence lawyer who will gain us the mercy of the court.

Even if judges and courtrooms make us nervous, I doubt any that any of us would want to live in a system where the legal system is either corrupt or just doesn’t work.   We want just laws, fairly applied, because we hope that they will protect us, our loved ones and our property.   So much of the anger in politics today, especially in the US election, seems to be about certain people being above the law.   I think too that if we are honest, we will admit that we need laws and judges to protect us from ourselves and our worst instincts.  Take a church, for example.  We put some people in positions of responsibility, with access to the very young or the very vulnerable.  Others have responsibility for money.   The system only works if everyone takes responsibility for their actions, and if they are held accountable.  That's why we as church volunteers submit to police background checks, even if we would rather not want to (has *anyone* ever been happy to get one?).

So if we can agree that law and judgement are desirable, even necessary, for our society, can we also say that law and judgement are necessary for our faith lives?  As Christians, like our Jewish older brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who is looking out for our welfare.  Like a parent, God sets rules to protect us and guide our development.   Paul reminds us of this in our second lesson when he says that God gives us scripture so that “everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.  

I find that word “proficient” to be very interesting, because it is a word that belongs to the world I work in, the world of military training.  Someone who is “proficient” is well trained, skilled, highly capable of doing something.   You want a soldier to be proficient with weapons, just as you want an artist to be proficient with paints or a carpenter with tools.   So as Christians, Paul is saying, we are expected to be proficient in good works, which is presumably what Paul elsewhere calls the fruits of the spirit: mercy, kindness, charity and so forth.   We get proficient, Paul says, by keeping ourselves locked into the church’s teaching and “sound doctrine” and teaching.

The only problem for me when I hear this passage from Second Timothy is that I worry about how proficient I am, because I take proficiency tests all the time in the military and I do ok, but not great.    For example, in June I took a proficiency test in French language skills.  I was rated ok, meaning I can speak French and be understood, but it would be no great joy for a French person to listen to me.  Last month I did my annual test of physical fitness test, something all military members must pass.   I passed, which was great, but the evaluation basically said that I wasn’t a choice physical specimen.   “Even though you’re in your fifties and we’re making allowances for that, you could stand to lose some weight, you could be a lot faster, you could be a lot stronger.”   Yaaaayyyy, me, I said in a discouraged voice.

Now if I had to take a test of spiritual proficiency, to see if I was a good Christian, I think I would get the same sort of mixed results.  Well Michael, the angel would say afterwards, looking at its clipboard, you go to church, you give some money away, and you’re kind to stray kittens.  So you get a pass.  But, you lost in in traffic the other day, you spend far too much time thinking about your clothes, you said you were too busy to volunteer at the mission when you really just wanted to watch the baseball game, and you couldn’t name all ten commandments or get them in the right order.”  You get a pass, 51%, but you have to take the remedial class.  

I suspect that a lot of us think about our spiritual lives in this way, wondering if we make the grade, fearful to imagine what’s inside the ledger book that God keeps on each of us.  I also wonder if one of the problems we have in our relationship with God is that because we are taught to see him as a judge, we therefore see him as an impartial judge.  After all, we want judges to be impartial, we want to be treated fairly.   When I go to the hymn for my physical fitness text, the examiners don’t care who I am.  They just want to see how much I can lift and how fast I can run.   That’s why they use stopwatches.   You can’t lie to a stopwatch, any more than you can le to a police breathalyzer, and you get judged on the results.   This is the reason why judges and police act stern in public, because they have to uphold the law fairly, without favouritism.   Fortunately for us, God isn’t that kind of judge.

In our gospel today, Jesus tells the parable of the widow who wears down a corrupt judge with her ceaseless petitions.   Sometimes we get confused about the moral of this parable, and think that it’s about how our prayers only get results if we make a total nuisance of ourselves.   On the contrary, say many biblical scholars, the point Jesus seems to be making is more subtle.  If this corrupt judge shows mercy to a woman he doesn’t really care for, just to get rid of her, how much more will God do out of his love for us?  God, Jesus says, will “quickly” grant justice to us.

Our first lesson makes a similar point.  At this point in Jeremiah, God is rebuilding his relationship with his people, Israel, because they trashed the first relationship.  As Simon noted a few weeks back, Jeremiah was writing when Israel had been captured by its powerful enemies, its people scattered and enslaved in foreign lands.   The people of Israel  had started to believe that the promised land came with an unconditional guarantee.  They forgot that God had asked things of them:  follow the law given to Moses, do not worship false gods, treat the widow and orphan with justice, welcome the stranger, and so forth.  These laws were written in various books of scripture called the Torah, they were repeated by the prophets, and taught in the synagogues.  

Now God promises a new relationship with the people he has forgiven and restored.   Not only will Israel get its land and cities back, but it will have a new relationship with God.   In this new relationship, God’s law will not be set down in stone tablets, sacred scrolls or books.  Instead, it will be intensely personal, even intimate.  God`s law will live inside his people, written on their hearts, pulsing in their veins, as important as breath and life.     It will be a new way of living, rather like a stage in the spiritual evolution of God`s people, and it will be for ALL the people.   They ‘shall all know me, from the least to the greatest`.

God continues to give this gift to the church today.   Not all of us are theologically trained or gifted.  We don’t all go to bible study, though it’s a good thing for most of us and some of us should go more often.    We may not be able to name all ten commandments in the right order.   But, if we open our hearts to God, he will come to us and give us a sense of what he wants for us, and wants from us.   That internal voice, that guidance, is always there.   Call it the work of the Holy Spirit, call it our growing and maturing in the mind of Christ, but it is there, sometimes not even working at the level of words, but keeping us pointed to God.

I think this idea of an internal voice or guidance that keeps us pointed towards God helps understand one of the famous passages in Romans 8:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

In all of our readings this morning, we have seen this image of God as a judge, and we are reminded that we are accountable for our lives, both in this world and in the next.    Rather than scaring us, the idea of accountability should comfort us, because it reminds us that God cares for us and wants us to live well, in our homes and families, in our workplaces and in our churches.   Accountability is part of our two-way relationship with God, because just as are held accountable, so God takes responsibility for us, guides us, and even forgives us for the many ways we fall short.   So we can be grateful that God is not an impartial judge after all, but rather a merciful and kind judge who is always there for us, even when we are far from him.  After all, earlier in Jeremiah 34, as God considers how Israel got in trouble because it forgot him, Jeremiah imagines Israel saying these words.

I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
   because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ 

And God responding:

 Is Ephraim my dear son?
   Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
   I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
   I will surely have mercy on him, 
says the Lord. 

If that sounds a little like the parable of the Prodigal Son, then perhaps it is because one of the enduring figures of the bible is not the stern and terrifying judge, but rather the loving parent, waiting patiently for a loved and lost child’s return.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trump And The Christians

It's time for Christians to get off the Trump Train.   It is certainly time now, and it was time a long while ago. 

I get why some still want to stay on, even as it hurtles towards a scene that will eclipse the big final moments of either The Cassandra Crossing or Breakheart Pass (something about Trump seems to invite metaphors based on 1970s disaster films - or is that just me?).

Their argument is that even though Trump has said (and apparently done, according to his growing legion of accusers) the sorts of things as an old man that would have had a youth pastor fired in a heartbeat, he is nevertheless the last best hope for Christian America, because after Hilary comes the Deluge, apparently.

Here is an example of how this argument works.   Ralph Reed and Jerry Fallwell Jr., lay out a case for Trump as the candidate most likely to advance a pro-Christian agenda by appointing suitable judges to the Supreme Court and to further curtail access to abortion, which Reed has called the “defining moral issue of our time.”

This argument appeals to an overarching theological claim of American Exceptionalism, meaning that God has created America as a second Israel, and has entered into a covenantal relationship with American Christians by which he gives special blessings and rewards in return for America's faithfulness.   This theology was central to Ted Cruz's Republican nomination bid this year and now Reed and others are willing to give this standard to Trump, who must win lest America suffer ''a moral and spiritual and a cultural death from within that starts at the heart and soul of a country.”

According to Reed and Falwell, Trump must win to champion the causes that “matter most to the Christian community'', even though the events of this past week have confirmed that Trump is a morally deficient standard bearer.  One senses that for Reed, the stakes are too high to wait for a more suitable champion.  As Reed said on 10 October to Liberty University's convocation gathering,  “I think retreating to the stained-glass ghetto from whence we came and refusing to muddy our boots with the mud and mire of politics is simply not an option for a follower of Christ
Leaving aside for a moment the idea that the Christian faith is worth dragging into ''the mud and mire' of politics'' in order to, supposedly, save it, is the idea of Christian America theologically and historically defensible?

While it is tempting to think of modern America's founding in New England by devout Puritan exiles as the basis of a national identity based on Protestant Christian values (Chesterton's quip of a nation with the soul of a church), the reality is far too complicated and pluralistic for that idea to hold water.  The founding fathers were primarily 18th century Deists, whose view of a distant, uninvolved God was far removed from contemporary evangelicals.  The Christianity of slaves become African-Americans, Hispanics, and Irish immigrants from the Old World was far removed from, and almost unintelligible to, white Protestants through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries

Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Americans forged new alliances in the mid 20th century (see Kevin M. Schultz's excellent book Tri-Faith America).  Then came immigration from Asia and the globalization of religion and now Jews and Christians are finding that mosques and temples are now also part of the religious landscape.   Sikh soldiers in the US Army want their distinctive beards and turbans to be authorized as part of their service dress.   Buddhism, once an exotic counter-cultural option in the 1960s, is increasingly familiar.  A Mormon won the Republican presidential nomination.  'Spiritual but not religious' and 'nones' are now recognized categories in religious polling as the proportion of Americans who do not identify with Christianity increases year by year. 

American religion and society is pluralistic.  This seems to me to be a fact on the ground that is as much historical as it is contemporary and demographic.   The author of the excellent religious blog Bensonian made this point when he wrote, back in February, that he could not accept Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate because Cruz was running to be the Christian president of Christian America.  In his post, Bensonian quotes the scholar Paul D. Miller on why the idea of Christian America so dear to Cruz, Reed and Falwell, Jr. is so problematic. 

America is exceptional, but not because of any special access she enjoys to God. The United States had a highly unique origin in the acts of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, and its national identity is uniquely rooted in ideas of equality and liberty, rather than race, class, or language, as had been the case for most European countries at the time.

But America is not the special vehicle of God’s purposes in the world. Some conservatives love to quote Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” The nation whose God is the Lord is the Christian Church, not the United States. The church, not the United States, is the vehicle of God’s purposes in the world. To believe otherwise is to confuse the nation with the church, the spiritual with the temporal. That sort of confusion can justify all sorts of dangerous messianic political movements.

As a Christian, I believe that I am called to follow a moral and ethical code based on the law of God and the imitation of Christ.  I hope that in so doing, however imperfectly, that I am a good influence (salt and light to use biblical terms) on those around me.  However, I can't ignore the fact that I live n a pluralistic democracy where Christian faith is widely perceived as a lifestyle choice.   For me to believe that I have a right to impose Christian-based laws and governance on those who do not subscribe to them would be at best hubristic, and at worst theocratic.  In any case, how could I do when Christians can't agree amongst themselves on key issues like pacifism, abortion, and sexuality? To impose a Christian view on those who don't share it could only be a coercive act, and coercion, as I read the gospel, is antithetical to the nature and invitation of Christ to follow him willingly.

The history of Christianity in the west has long been composed of some groups buttressing the power of the day in throne and altar alliances (e.g. Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans), and dissenters (e.g. Mennonites) retreating into self-isolating communities.   Starting in the late 20th century, once dominant religious groups were slowly disenfranchised by secularization and political change.  American evangelism, like British Anglicanism and French/Quebecois Catholicism before it), now seems to find itself on the way into exile which is why the stakes in this US election seem so high.  Lose the Supreme Court to Clinton and the last chance of legislating a Christian agenda for at least the next few generations vanishes. 

I think, though I can't prove, that this is why the authoritarian aspects of Trump's character have attracted American evangelicals even when his morality has been exposed as a sordid mess.   If it takes a tribune to make America Great again, in Trump's phrase, as 'one people, under one God, saluting one flag', and if the popular vote threatens to elect Clinton, then democracy be damned. 

Second to their betrayal of Christ's gospel of love, the betrayal of a republic that so many non-Christians have fought and died for, and that so many across the world still see as our best hope, is the great treason of the religious right in America.   Their desire to impose a Christian agenda on America, even if well-meaning, has blinded them to the terrible danger that Trump poses to democracy.   The political scholar Jill Lepore laid out this danger eloquently in a recent post for The New Yorker.

Donald J. Trump ... leads the Republican Party the way the head of a rebel army holds a capital city. This isn’t an ambush or an act of treason or a kidnapping. This is a siege. He plans to build walls; he promises to put his opponents in prison. He enjoys harems. He admires tyrants. He erects monuments to himself in major cities. He holds entertainments in America’s stadiums, where he toys with his political enemies, delighting his band of followers while terrorizing other citizens. Over the weekend, he insisted that he will neither retreat nor surrender.

Meanwhile, he invokes the people: they, he says, have chosen him, and will elect him; the people love him. Do they? Joe McGinniss once observed that the American voter “defends passionately the illusion that the men he chooses to lead him are of a finer nature than he” and that “it has been traditional that the successful politician honor this illusion.” That tradition has ended. No one in the Republican Party can possibly believe that Trump is a better person, a man of finer nature, than the ordinary American voter. The problem for the Party is that no one, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, can even pretend to believe that anymore. No one can believe that in daylight, or in the darkest hour of night, while Trump, restless, tweets about the conspiracies that he believes are being hatched by his enemies—men and, especially, women—to fell him.

In the last few weeks, theologians like Miroslav Volf and Russell Moore have also made the case for disavowing Trump.   Yesterday it was heartening to see students at Liberty University follow suit, despite the urgings of their elders.  For those Christian leaders like Falwell Jr. who want to stay on the Trump Train, well, see my comments on The Cassandra Crossing.  It will not end well for you and it will bring shame and disrepute on the gospel you profess to preach.

For other Christian Americans, assuming (as is likely) that Hillary Clinton is the next president, the question is, can you go forward without proclaiming her as the AntiChrist, delegitimizing the election and government, and so like Samson bringing down the temple on your heads?   Robert Franklin, who teaches at Emory University, offers some suggestions for how a post-Trump civics could be achieved.   It will involve dialogue and listening on both sides, and a letting go of words like 'deplorables' and 'irredeemable', because no one and nothing is irredeemable.    Christians and non-Christians will have to find a way to live together, because the alternative is too grim and too terrible to contemplate.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Interrogator's Confession: A Book Review of Consequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair

Consequence: A Memoir is the confession of a good man who became complicit in evil.   Eric Fair, an American and a Christian with a strong sense of vocation to God and country, found himself working as an interrogator in Iraq, where he became involved in torture and war crimes.    With unflinching honesty and a total absence of self-pity, Fair tells the story of his time as a private contractor tasked with extracting intelligence from Iraqi detainees during the American occupation of the mid-2000s.  While never asking for our sympathy, he shows how a seemingly decent person can continue to make compromises and excuses for their moral failures until they find themselves in a spiritually catastrophic place.


            Born to a middle class family in a depressed Pennsylvania steel town, Eric Fair was a timid child who found a refuge in his family’s Presbyterian church.  While he became more robust in high school, his childhood left him with a profound respect for protector figures and a sense that he had a calling to a career in law enforcement.  In 1995, after university, Fair chose enlistment in the army as a brief means to an end, since training as a military policeman would make him an attractive candidate to civilian police departments.  Instead he was selected to become a linguist in Arabic. 


            In describing his time as a young NCM in the Army, as a member of a conservative church, and as a civilian police officer, Fair reveals a sense of disquiet and even alienation from cultures that were intolerant and violent.  The murder of a soldier in his unit, who was suspected to be gay, haunts him.  The violence of being a street cop proves disillusioning, while the judgemental culture of his church culture alienates him.   As he finds himself estranged from the institutions and ideals that gave him his moral purpose, Fair struggles to find purpose and meaning in his life.



            In 2003, a diagnosed heart defect left Fair unemployable as a policeman.   By then the second Iraq War is underway, and friends are encouraging Fair to go there as an Arab linguist, while his wife is encouraging him to go to seminary because she admires his sense of compassion and thinks he would be a good pastor.   Driven by his sense that he was called to serve and protect his country, he begins to research civilian contractors and government agencies that might employ him as a linguist.  “I don’t listen to Karin, and I don’t listen to the voices telling me to be patient, or consider changing course.  I apply to seminary to appease these voices and silence the advice.  In the meantime, I chart my own path back.  I intend to make Iraq the first step”.


            It’s not uncommon to see men, still young and vigorous, who deny the betrayal of their bodies after a heart attack or similar illness.   In 2003, as the US was hiring a legion of civilian employees to administer Iraq, it was easy for Fair to get hired without a medical exam.  While he may have wanted to recover his self-image as a soldier and protector, the disorganized and unprofessional nature of his private-sector employer troubles him.  He is assigned to Abu Ghraib, a former prison of the Saddam regime now used to warehouse the many Iraqis being rounded up in US sweeps, where Fair’s job will be to interrogate these men and decide who poses a threat.   The assignment fills him with dismay and leads him to this disturbing revelation:


“In Scripture, God often works in prisons, but he is never on the side of the jailer.  He is always on the side of the prisoner.  The realization brings on a physical reaction.  My hands shake.  My face warms.  I feel nauseated.  The sensation is terrifying.  Prayer in Iraq is dangerous.  I am beginning to realize that I’m not on God’s path.  I’m on my own.”


            What happened in Abu Ghraib is well known.   While Fair was not involved in the worst excesses that were documented in now-infamous images, he is honest about his own role there.   Extreme methods of interrogation, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, and physical intimidation, were standard and he participated in them.   Fair’s time in Iraq, his return to the US and subsequent physical and mental collapse are honestly described and make for harrowing reading. In 2006 he spoke to the media about his role in Iraq and was involved in the US government investigations into torture in Iraq.  Some of the final pages of the book are redacted, the blocks of black ink testifying to the official secrecy and even guilt that lingers over this period.


            An opening quotation from the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, seems to signal Fair’s purpose.  Maimonides wrote that “a person is not forgiven until he pays back his fellow man what he owes him and appeases him.  He must placate him and approach him again and again until he is forgiven”.  The reader may struggle to decide if he or she is indeed placated, or if Fair is even seeking our forgiveness.  At times the book feels like nothing more than an extended confession, to which our task is only to bear witness.   In April of this year, after the book was published, Fair told National Public Radio that while his book offers “long discussions about why those things happened ... and how difficult it was to sort of break from those expectations of being a soldier  … none of that matters. I made horrible mistakes. ... I have a responsibility to confess those things openly." 


            For military chaplains, Fair’s book offers much food for thought.   It invites us to reflect on the vanities that may lie concealed in our sense of vocations, and whether our projects and identities come from ambition rather than true calling.   Fair’s confession shows how easy it can be to rationalize our involvement with evil, and how we can compound the moral damage by cutting ourselves off from God when we persuade ourselves that our prayers are unworthy of him.  Finally, as moral and ethical advisors in these dangerous and alarmed times, Fair reminds chaplains of the need for truthful language about how we humans injure one another, rather than using dishonest words such as “enhanced interrogation”.  As Fair told NPR, “I think that the minute you violate another human being's will … we have an obligation to call that torture.” [i]


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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