God's Politics

Two events this week should cause all Christians to stop and consider the relationship between truth and war. Both the congressional hearings in the Tillman/Lynch cases and the Bill Moyers PBS special about the media and Iraq point out one of the dimensions of war: lying.

When religious people protest war, they most often protest killing and the loss of life. Indeed, Christian ethicist (and just-war theorist) Jean Bethke Elshtain makes the case that “the national identity that we assume, or yearn for, is historically inseparable from war. The nation-state, including our own, rests on mounds of bodies.” Those bodies include both soldiers and citizens – the direct result of the “nationalistic enthusiasm” that sustains war in a democracy.

But how does a democracy create a necessary climate for ordinary folks to kill or be willing to be killed? Well, it appears that they sometimes have to lie. And it isn’t just the “big” lies about cooking military intelligence for war – those lies can be much smaller.

Take the cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch, two soldiers whose stories were “hyped” by someone (that’s what the congressional panel is trying to determine) who apparently wanted to deflect attention away from the less-glamorous aspects of American action in Iraq (including, evidently, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal). The image of the good soldier motivates heroism, giving people a reason to kill and die. Heroes are necessary for war.

Christian ethicists, both pacifists and just-war theorists, criticize contemporary warfare because war depends on absolute loyalty to the state – and the state has a tendency to bend morality to fit its purposes to create heroes. As Stanley Hauerwas has written, “The state needs to convince its citizens that it can give them a meaningful identity because the state is the only means of achieving the common good. …To preserve themselves, all states, even democracies, must ask their citizens to die for them.”

Is that what Christians believe? That – no matter what – the state maintains the common good? The Christian tradition says “no.” It teaches that the common good is grounded in God, founded on charity, lived through the church, and modeled by the saints.

War teaches a rival belief: that the common good is grounded in a political system, founded in courage, lived through citizenship, and modeled by soldiers. Indeed, in warfare, soldiers replace saints as cultural heroes – the military maintains an elaborate cult of sainthood that celebrates obedience, self-sacrifice for the state, and death in battle; its virtues resemble that of pagan antiquity more than that of the church. (For more on this argument, read Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, “Courage Exemplified,” 1993.) Anything that forwards the state serves the good. Of that, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that being asked to die for a modern state is “like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Consider this observation of Randolph Bourne from 1918, during the Great War:

“War – or at least modern war waged by a democratic republic against a powerful enemy – seems to achieve for a nation almost all that the most inflamed political idealist could desire. Citizens are no longer indifferent to their Government, but each cell of the body politic is brimming with life and activity … in a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened by that identification.”

The hyped cases of Tillman and Lynch offered some “inflamed political idealist” a perfect moment to promote the cause, to bend the truth in service to the state’s good. Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were ideal candidates for sainthood. Of all American youth, who moves us more than a star football player and the girl-next-door? They served as ultimate American archetypes, young people whose sacrifice helped us identify “with the whole,” giving others a reason to die for the state. Somewhere in the government, some very smart person knew that Tillman and Lynch were the perfect PR vehicles for war. Lies were told. Lies that could sustain the greater lie that the Iraq war is good, necessary, and just. The hyping of their stories was both cynical and immoral.

Those lies echoed through the pulpits of our nation – through television, radio, and the internet. Without a willing media (the focus of Bill Moyers’ special), the stories of Tillman and Lynch would have never been known (indeed, news stations broadcast Tillman’s funeral and a TV movie was made about Lynch). For true believers, critique is not allowed, only true doctrine permitted in the “church” of modern warfare is acceptable. The media was lied to, bought lies, broadcast lies, and proclaimed lies. Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were lied about for the dark – and probably political – purposes of sustaining nationalistic fervor.

The irony is, of course, that Mr. Tillman and Ms. Lynch are heroes. Not for their hyped-up stories, but because the lies told about them are leading, finally, to truth. Speaking for their son, the Tillman family believes that Pat was victimized by the lies. Pat Tillman’s brother, Kevin (also in the military) said, “The least this country can do for [Pat] in return is to uncover who was responsible for his death, who lied and covered it up, and who instigated those lies and benefited from them.” Ms. Lynch insisted to Congress that she is not a hero (as she has insisted in many venues): “… the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies.”

Thank you, Mr. Tillman and Ms. Lynch, for witnessing to truth. It is hard to believe that shards of honesty are emerging from all these lies.

Diana Butler Bass ( is an independent commentator on religion and American culture. She is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco), which was recently awarded Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.

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