On Resistance

After two years off, I am working once again as a teaching assistant for Dr. Amy Laura Hall at Duke Divinity school – this time for her class on War and the Christian Tradition. The class is bringing together some of my longest held interests, and as usual when “precepting” (teaching assistants at Duke are called preceptors), the class is stimulating more insights than I have time to record.

Right now, the class is reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing. I am adding it to my short mental list of books everyone should read. Grossman has been a soldier, historian, psychologist, and teacher – and he brings together a great deal of research with his own personal experience in this book. The theme of the book is that most people – up to 98% of soldiers – are not capable of remorseless killing even in battle. Like most other species, humans have a great deal of innate resistance to killing another of their own species. When face to face with a perceived enemy, we would rather run away, or stand our ground and try to scare them, or demonstrate how unthreatening we are, or simply disarm / disable them than we would kill them. So much of military history is the history of a handful of people trying to figure out how to get another group of people to kill a third group of people, when they aren’t all that interested in doing so.

Grossman notes a number of ways that this inclination can be overcome – by dehumanizing the “enemy,” by diffusing responsibility (sharing responsibility with a group, or being commanded to kill in the moment by a nearby respected leader), by increasing the distance (ideally so you don’t even see the person you are killing, or at least not their face)… but even these measures are not enough, and so modern military practice has been to practice – to make training as realistic as possible, so that a soldier will go into “auto-pilot” in the moment of killing. Some soldiers have been so well programmed that they go into a sort of dissociative state – where they relive the experience of their training exercises, and don’t realize that it was all real until after they have stopped shooting.

It was after World War II that the need for this kind of training was realized – and by the time of the Vietnam war, it was fully in force. The firing rate was extraordinarily high in Vietnam compared to World War II – a jump from about 20% to closer to 90%.

One of the things that made Vietnam different from prior U.S. wars was the sudden shift in public opinion from support to large scale protests. Furthermore, returning veterans appear to have been at the forefront of this uncommon and rapid disaffection with the war. Which makes me wonder – the Pacific war was horrible – why didn’t returning veterans put an end to that war? The Civil War was horrible – why not that war? War is, in general, horrible. How can any war continue without veterans returning from the front putting an end to it?

“Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” Click through to see this cartoon in it’s original setting on xkcd.com

It has been said that one of the biggest problems with Vietnam was how unclear it was why we should be fighting there. However, this was one of the great flare ups in the Cold War – domino theory (the idea that a single nation falling to communism would trigger a wave of nations falling, until finally the U.S. was itself at risk) had been convincingly sold to the American people. The Cuban missile crisis (1962) was still fresh in everyone’s minds when the first ground troops were sent to Vietnam (1965).

So I’m wondering about this anti-war movement – a movement that included the active participation of Vietnam veterans… were these veterans who in World War II would have fired over the heads of their enemies – or might not have fired their guns at all? Were these men whose resistance to killing had been overcome?

Because here is the problem with overcoming someone’s resistance to killing – you can make someone kill, but you can’t make them ok with it afterwards. Increasing kill rates means increasing the number of people haunted by having killed. It means overcoming the natural resistance of people whose own brains probably know best how well they will handle the trauma of seeing someone die knowing that they themselves are responsible for that person’s death. It means not caring what a young man wants to do, but instead reshaping him so that he does something that he would never do without being programmed. Which is the word brainwashers use to refer to brainwashing, not incidentally.

So I am wondering, when people complain that we won every battle in Vietnam but lost the war – when they say that it was the shift in public opinion that lost the war in Vietnam – who exactly should we hold responsible for that? Privileged students and dope-smoking hippies? Or the very military commanders who decided to try to “improve” war – to change it from an already miserable experience to an even worse experience for even more people? Perhaps these soldiers who were rendered incapable of resisting to killing in battle could cope only by reclaiming their agency – by resisting when they had returned to the States.

I can’t say for sure – I’m not even done reading the book, so maybe Grossman addresses some of these issues. But it seems to me that it has not been established that conditioning young men to kill provides any real gain in outcome (such as bringing a conflict to an end more quickly) – and neither has the subsequent loss (the emotional fall out from having killed against one’s natural inclination) been given sufficient attention. What does it mean to ask thousands of people in every generation to live with a horror of themselves and what they have done?

For me, the aims of the military could not be more clearly opposed to the demands of Christian love – no distance between myself and my enemy is too great for God to overcome, nor can I forget at any distance that every other human being is God’s own beloved child no less than my own self.

But for American Christians who still are immersed in the potent conflation of God and country that is (not exclusively, but especially) a remnant of the Cold War – can we agree on our love for the young men and women who serve as U.S. soldiers?  And can we agree that conditioning them to become more efficient killers over the resistance of their own minds may be damaging to them in the long term? And if so, can we agree that maybe we need to reconsider just how important killing is to us as a nation?

May God have mercy on us, and forgive us.

A vocabulary lesson

When my Mom was teaching school, she had a standard consequence for students who cussed: she would give them a list of more appropriate words they could have used, and have them copy the definitions from a dictionary. Cussing, she said, was the sign of an inadequate vocabulary.  Along those same lines, each time she heard me cuss she would say to me, “You have a better vocabulary than that – use it!”

Dr. Amy Laura Hall invited a number of women (including myself) to join in conversation about the word b**** – can it be reclaimed as a positive word by feminists, and if so, ought it to be?  You can find that conversation on her blog, Profligate Grace.

I enjoyed reading the various responses, finding the resonances and the variations in our feelings about the word.  I especially enjoyed Amanda Joan Mackay Smith’s discussion of “mudball words” – on the imprecision of words like b****.  In her case for rejecting the word on linguistic grounds, I finally understood what my Mom had been telling me years ago.  While it will take a great deal of effort to excise cussing from my speech altogether, I can begin with finding more helpful and precise words to replace the b-word in my vocabulary!

“Leadery Leaders” – Wherefore art thou pastor revisted

This past fall, I published this article on the blog as a “page” before I understood what those were for! So now I am moving it to a post.  The article is itself a revision of an earlier blog post – revised for The Morning Breaks, The Shadows Flee, edited by Russell Johnson and Kara Slade – a playful festschrift for Amy Laura Hall, presented to her on October 7, 2011.  The title “Leadery leaders” is an expression frequently used by Dr. Hall in her Ethics class.

The Pastor Dilemma:  How are United Methodist pastors to lead without becoming “leadery leaders”?

 What is a pastor?  What is a pastor for?  Who should or should not be a pastor? What should a pastor do?  When I was a seminary student, these questions were asked by the students, but almost never examined in the classroom.  For the most part, it was assumed that the answers to these questions were known – that, beyond being able to recite the definitions of the Discipline when before the board of ordained ministry, no further existential explorations along the lines of “Wherefore art thou pastor?” were required.

I imagine that things are not all that different now.  Which may in part explain one critical difference between the students now at Duke Divinity and those who were students with me ten years ago:  after generations of no explicit answers, today’s students are less and less feeling called to a position they cannot describe, explain, or (in some cases) even justify.

But I am not ready to do away with the position of pastor just yet.  What I would like to do is re-imagine it.  As one who feels called to the Order of Elder – an order in the UMC that is different from Deacon not only in the relation to the sacraments, but in being responsible for “Order”ing the church, it is about time we thought about re-ordering the Order.

As Bob Dylan sang, “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”  And true to the Fall-driven disorder of the world, a lack of theologically sound direction in what pastors are to be has led the pastors to find their direction elsewhere – they gotta follow somebody.  And who pastors are following are the authors of various books that purport to solve whatever leadership problem they are having – books of dubious theology, rooted in the dominant language and narratives of our national faith in such contradictory (and elusive) ideals as freedom, power, rights, and the market.  Marketing is particularly enjoying ascendancy now, as anxieties about dwindling membership have burst into full bloom.  (Let us not say “taken root,” as these fears took root some decades ago.  It is only now that they are leading to full scale dashboarding and boards of inquisition in the various conferences.)

My father used to often describe his role as “the CEO” of the congregation.  He’s not the only one.  Whether they speak these words aloud, or even recognize that they see themselves this way, many pastors behave as the chief executive or their corporation.  They take their ideas about leadership from the post-Reagan business world – which means that their purpose (and aren’t we enculturated to desire a “Purpose Driven Life?” Even those of us who sneered at the book and its readers?) is to come up with new and exciting ways to re-invigorate the brand, and so bring in new customers.  To be a CEO is to lead the company (the pyramidical, top-down, power driven company) into a future of decreased costs and increased revenues.  But this future had best be a near-future, because the analysts will be closely examining your quarterly results – that is, Charge Conference reports.

But perhaps with a new model, consciously explored and adopted, pastors would find themselves with a more God-centered life – which is to say, a less market driven life.  The model I propose is the model of the anchorite, a religious order that is most familiar to seminary students through the life of Julian of Norwich, who was herself an anchorite.

Anchorites lived a monastic life.  But rather than living that life in a monastery or in some remote location, the anchorite’s cell shared at least one wall with a church sanctuary.  The anchorite’s life was one of worship, eucharist, and prayer – of total devotion to God.  They were provided for by the congregation with which they were associated.  They were available to the members of the congregation (and other visitors) to provide counsel – counsel that was understood to arise from the time they spent in communion with God.

Now granted, anchorites did not lead worship, so that is one key difference.  But I am not suggesting that pastors become anchorites – only that they consider it as a model / metaphor for the pastor’s life.  Shall we imagine that the congregation pays the pastor to be a CEO?  To give them a next quarter better than last quarter – on the books, anyway?  Or shall we imagine that they provide for the pastor’s needs in order that she may devote her time to the service of God, and that her doing so will benefit the members of the congregation (to which you are “attached,” as the cell of an anchorite was attached to the church wall) considerably – especially insofar as they seek her out?

The words of Paul are particularly instructive here:  “Am I now seeking the favor of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.”  Indeed, pastors spend all too much time trying to please (mostly) men in positions of “power” – the men who judge one’s ministry, whether on the Cabinet, on the SPRC, or in absurd Annual Conference proposals that adopt the standard of the number of “professions of faith” as the sole measure of the worth of a pastor.  As if Satan himself cannot recite scripture when it appears expedient.  The time has come for pastors to stop fearing men, and to fear God alone – because the way of serving the whims of men (you gotta serve somebody) puts us body and soul into a living hell.

But if pastors are to fear nothing but what their lives will be if they do not serve God alone, then we must not throw these fledglings out of the nest unprotected.  If the past generation (or two or three) has feared the bishop, the SPRC chair, the sweet little couple on the front row who has threatened to withhold their offering check, then the seminaries must share some of the blame: the seminaries who neither warned nor prepared these young pastors for the reality of service in the local churches.  (Better that Duke-stone be tied around our neck and we be thrown into the sea than that we mislead these young people.) Giving the students a model of a God-centered ministry may just give them a chance to make it as pastors – a role that requires them to be (perhaps more than any other Christian) in the world, but not of it.