Friendly fire and Fratricide

“There is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved,” said a U.S. military official yesterday of the five American soldiers’ deaths in southern Afghanistan, according to news reports like this one from NBC News. The sentence came over my car radio yesterday. I’ve been pondering it ever since.

Interesting choice of words: “fratricide”, the killing of a brother, meaning, in this case, one of our guys, not one of their guys.

The Genesis story of Cain and Abel is the archetypal fratricide in Western culture. Cain turns to violence. Abel, his biological brother, is dead. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain retorts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer is “Yes, Cain, you are.” Fratricide is out of order.

So is friendly fire. But what about killing the Taliban? Is that “unfriendly fire”? Is that not fratricide because the Taliban are not my brothers?

My ears are attuned to fratricide and to the use of language that brings theology and humaneness into stories like yesterday’s tragedy in Afghanistan and many wartime public relations press releases. The implication is clear. One of our guys may have killed one of his own guys.

In a subsequent statement, another military official said that, in the daylong fight preceding the apparent friendly fire airstrike, the joint U.S.-Afghan security forces operation had killed “lots of them” (i.e., Taliban, the enemy, the non-brothers). The case is being investigated.

Every death of a human being at the hands of another human being, on the ground or from the air, is an act of fratricide.

William Blake painting of "Cain fleeing from the wrath of God "as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

 

Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel

The Ongoing Saga of Cain and Abel

Gordon C. Stewart | published by MinnPost.com

Religion and politics: oil and water? The problem is that each stakes a claim for the same turf. They both answer the question of how we live together. The fact that religious creeds and political creeds stake claims to leads some of us to separate them, not only as they are separated by the U.S. Constitution, but by carving out different spaces on the same turf: one private/personal sphere (religion), the other public/social sphere (politics). Religion says to politics: Keep your hands off my private beliefs! Politics says to religion: Keep your hands off public policy!

With the exception of adherents of the extreme right or left in religion or politics, most of us have had enough of religious or political fundamentalism. We’re tired of explosive tirades and single-issue politics whose test-tube is organized religion. We’re equally tired of political power plays that dress up a political party (take your choice) as the incarnation of righteousness.

The U.S. Constitution does a good thing when it insists that there be no established religion in this country. Looking back on the failed experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s blending of religious creed and political authority that resulted in the banishment of dissident Anne Hutchinson (1637), the execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, and the Salem witch trials, the framers of our Constitution had every reason to protect the body politic from the tyranny of any religious majority.

Faith, a vision of the peaceable society

But even as I celebrate the anti-establishment provision of the Constitution, there is no way to separate faith and politics. It’s impossible because faith is about more than the private/personal sphere — it’s a vision of the peaceable society. Faith and politics live in the same territory every time the vexing questions appear regarding the public/social/economic/military ideas and beliefs that create public policy for good or for ill.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — answer Yes to the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” Our three traditions refuse to confine religion to the vertical and the private. Faith is a living relationship with the Divine that expresses itself, according to Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad, primarily in the daily practice of keeping or caring for the neighbor. Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are social as well as personal, public as well as private. While alms-giving and charitable giving are essential, they count for little without also addressing the public policies that set the fires that drive people into the arms of charity. The Cain and Abel story strikes me as a place to anchor the discussion. In the biblical story, Cain (‘kayin’ which means ‘Get’ in Hebrew) is humanity’s first child East of Eden. When Cain kills his young brother Abel (‘puff’ or ‘vapor’ in Hebrew), YHWH asks Cain where his brother is. Cain answers with a crafty question that still echoes down the centuries with war and bloodshed and religious hatred: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A call from the NRA

While concentrating on the Cain and Abel story last Monday, my phone rang. The little window on the phone said “NRA.” “Mr. Stewart?” “Yes.” “I’m calling for Ronald Schmeits, president of the National Rifle Association, to invite you participate in a survey with one simple question. It will take just a minute of your time. Mr. Schmeits has an important message. When the message is finished, Mr. Schmeits’ assistant will come on the line for the one-answer survey.”

The message went something like this: “Right now the United Nations is meeting behind closed doors planning to ban all guns everywhere in the world. Even as I speak, they’re planning behind closed doors to take away your freedom in this country. The United States is a sovereign country. We cannot allow a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away the American people’s freedom to bear arms. If we let them succeed, it will be the end of the Second Amendment and the end of freedom in our own country.” Mr. Schmeits’ assistant came on the line to pose the survey’s one “simple” question: “Mr. Stewart, do you think we should allow the United Nations and a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away our freedom? “

“May I ask how you got my name?”

“Yes, sir, you’re in our data base either as an NRA member, contributor, or as someone who believes in the civil liberties.”

“Well …,” I said, “… I am an advocate for civil liberties.”

“So, Mr. Stewart, would you like to answer the question?”

“Are you serious?! You want me to answer a question that has only one answer, a question premised on demagoguery, fear and lies? Give me a break.”

“You’ve had your break! Have a nice day, Mr. Stewart!”

At that point I wished I’d had a gun. In the name of Abel and all things good, I was becoming Cain.

The work of all religion and politics

YHWH tells an angry Cain in the Genesis story that “sin is crouching at the door, and its urging is for you. But you must master it.” It is the human leaning toward violence that humanity must overcome.

The story of humankind is Cain’s story, the refusal of this mastery. The long sweep of human history is the story of slaying the brother because we have not mastered the beast that crouches inside ourselves. “I am not my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” The sin — i.e. the refusal to take responsibility, the rebellion of separation and of slaying that from which we cannot be separated — goes un-mastered and slays the brother. It comes hurling down the centuries of human development as a rock, a caveman’s club, a sling shot, a rifle, a handgun, a Bazooka, an M-15, an airplane turned into a missile, a drone that kills innocent civilians whose blood, as in the Genesis story, “is crying out to Me (YHWH) from the ground.” Abel’s blood is the ink in which our story is written. Cain’s story sets the stage for the work of all religion and politics worthy of their callings. It is the real story of the Fall from grace held in common by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It also holds the key to re-writing the story, not by claiming innocence, but by taking responsibility for a violent world.

For faith and for politics alike there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Or will I insist on the right to slay him? Am I willing to take responsibility for my neighbor, to master the urge to violence that crouches at my door? Do my religion and my politics slay or keep my brother/my sister from deadly harm?

Are we willing to re-claim the Earth as sacred turf — through responsible religion and responsible politics — so that the voice of Abel’s blood no longer cries out from the ground to a horrified God?

Religion and the White House

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 14, 2012

Is the religion of presidential candidates off limits?

President Obama’s remarks at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast and Mitt Romney’s statement about the poor and the wealthy resurrect a question regarded since 1960 as off the table.

The religious issue in 1960 was the Roman Catholicism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No Roman Catholic had ever been elected President. The question was whether a faithful Catholic would be subservient to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, in matters of state. Finally the question was put to Kennedy himself.

Since that time, with the exception of conservative fundamentalist Christians, American culture has increasingly accepted the separation of one’s religion from one’s politics. Religious faith is regarded as private; political beliefs are public.

The old adage that the way to best assure civil tranquility is to steer clear of religion, sex, and politics is good advice at family reunions and the like, but does it serve the public interests of an informed electorate in a democratic republic?

It should not go unnoticed that then-candidate Obama’s faith was brought into the national spotlight when his political opposition sought to paint Mr. Obama as un-American because of comments made by pastor Jeremiah Wright.

The unspoken journalistic rule that “religion is off-the-table” was set aside by ABC’s investigative reporting into 500 hours of sermon tapes by Mr. Obama’s pastor and its decision to air a one-minute excerpt from one of Mr. Wright’s sermons.

It made no difference that the sermon from which the excerpt came was biblically-based and in the bold African-American preaching tradition of Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Howard Thurman that thunders the Hebrew prophet’s voice in scripture as it apply to today’s news. Nor did it matter that the statement about the chicken’s coming home to roost on 9/11 came after a long recitation of the history of American violence at home and abroad. Mr. Obama’s religion was on the table.

The public wanted to know. Was the President a Christian? Or was he, as some of his opponents claimed or insinuated, a Marxist, a secret Muslim, or un-American?

Mr. Obama eventually denounced the excerpt from Rev. Wright’s sermon, resigned from the church, and used the controversy to spell out his own views in a brilliant speech in Philadelphia on race in America called “A More Perfect Union.”

So here we are in 2012.

Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), a Mormon. His statement about the very poor, the middle class, and the wealthy became the center of media controversy. “I’m in this race, he told CNN following his primary victory in Florida, “because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the  90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” To be fair, his statement, like the Rev. Wright’s ignoried his earlier remarks. Nevertheless, the statement deserved careful scrutiny.

At the same time, President Obama’s religion was in the news again because of heavy criticism for connecting his faith with his public policies at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast  where he described his motivation as “living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.”  “These values,” he said, “they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.”

In doing so, Mr. Obama voiced a conviction central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The belief goes to the heart of the Christian faith – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in which Jesus tells his listeners that, if they want to know where to find “the Son of Man,” they will find him among the poor and destitute (Matthew 25:31-4.).”Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Mr. Obama’s view came under attack from a number of quarters. One response came in the Washington Times with the headline “President Obama misrepresents the teachings of Jesus at National Prayer Breakfast,” arguing that “Jesus did not teach that wealthy people should give more money to the government or charity than others should.” And on CNN on-line, the public comments re: the President’s position ran heavily against his view.

At the same time, Mitt Romney’s stock was rising. So is his religion. Years ago Leo Tolstoy asked the American Ambassador to Russia about the new religion in America, the Ambassador pleaded ignorance, Tolstoy described Mormonism as “the quintessentially American religion” that would one day catch fire and be unstoppable.

Is religion on the table or off the table in 2012? If it’s on the table for discussion, as in Mr. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast statement, the question about the “quintessentially American religion” should also be on the table. How would Mr. Romney’s religious views affect his public policy decisions? What difference would it make to his conduct of foreign policy that his religion is American-centric, believing that “Christ  appeared in the western hemisphere between his resurrection and ascension to heaven; that the State of Missouri is the site of the Garden of Eden as well as the site where Jesus will return at the Second Coming? “For this and other reasons, including a belief by many Mormons in American exceptionalism, Molly Worthen speculates that this may be why Leo Tolstoy described Mormonism as the “quintessential ‘American religion'” (Wikipedia).

One does not need to be a partisan opponent or a despiser of religion to ask whether a candidate for the Presidency believes that America is sacred, God’s chosen people, and if so, what the implications are for how he would use American power and influence in a world that is always just one step away from nuclear holocaust.

It was the pernicious idea of American exemption from the way of the nations that got us into Iraq, and it is the rejection of that idea that has allowed us to begin to pull back into a more humble and realistic way of being America. The idea of American exceptionalism is widespread across party and religious lines in America, and, most sadly, an electorate that fears the future may fall for whichever candidate continues the illusion that America is God.

If I could ask one question to those who aspire to the White House, I would ask them to reflect, line by line, on the Clifford Bax’s hymn (1919):

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one:
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky,
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry—
“Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!”

Melody from The Genevan Psalter

 

 

Faith and Politics

For faith and for politics, there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? – Gordon C. Stewart; Published by MinnPost.com | Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

Religion and politics. Oil and water. The problem is that each stakes a claim for the same turf. They both answer the question of how we live together. The fact that religious creeds and political creeds stake claims to truth leads some of us to separate them, not only as they are separated by the U.S. Constitution, but by carving out different spaces on the same turf: one private/personal sphere (religion), the other public/social sphere (politics). Religion says to politics: Keep your hands off my private beliefs! Politics says to religion: Keep your hands off public policy!

With the exception of adherents of the extreme right or left in religion or politics, most of us have had enough of religious or political fundamentalism. We’re tired of explosive tirades and single-issue politics whose test-tube is organized religion. We’re equally tired of political power plays that dress up a political party (take your choice) as the incarnation of righteousness.

The U.S. Constitution does a good thing when it insists that there be no established religion in this country. Looking back on the failed experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s blending of religious creed and political authority that resulted in the banishment of dissident Anne Hutchinson (1637), the execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, and the Salem witch trials, the framers of our Constitution had every reason to protect the body politic from the tyranny of any religious majority.

Faith, a vision of the peaceable society

But even as I celebrate the anti-establishment provision of the Constitution, there is no way to separate faith and politics. It’s impossible because faith is about more than the private/personal sphere — it’s a vision of the peaceable society. Faith and politics live in the same territory every time the vexing questions appear regarding the public/social/economic/military ideas and beliefs that create public policy for good or for ill.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — answer Yes to the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” Our three traditions refuse to confine religion to the vertical and the private. Faith is a living relationship with the Divine that expresses itself, according to Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad, primarily in the daily practice of keeping or caring for the neighbor. Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are social as well as personal, public as well as private. While alms-giving and charitable giving are essential, they count for little without also addressing the public policies that set the fires that drive people into the arms of charity.
The Cain and Abel story strikes me as a place to anchor the discussion. In the biblical story, Cain (kayin which means ‘Get’ in Hebrew) is humanity’s first child East of Eden. When Cain kills his young brother Abel (‘puff’ or ‘vapor’ in Hebrew), YHWH asks Cain where his brother is. Cain answers with a crafty question that still echoes down the centuries with war and bloodshed and religious hatred: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A call from the NRA

While concentrating on the Cain and Abel story last Monday, my phone rang. The little window on the phone said “NRA.” “Mr. Stewart?” “Yes.” “I’m calling for Ronald Schmeits, president of the National Rifle Association, to invite you participate in a survey with one simple question. It will take just a minute of your time. Mr. Schmeits has an important message. When the message is finished, Mr. Schmeits’ assistant will come on the line for the one-answer survey.”

The message went something like this: “Right now the United Nations is meeting behind closed doors planning to ban all guns everywhere in the world. Even as I speak, they’re planning behind closed doors to take away your freedom in this country. The United States is a sovereign country. We cannot allow a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away the American people’s freedom to bear arms. If we let them succeed, it will be the end of the Second Amendment and the end of freedom in our own country.”
Mr. Schmeits’ assistant came on the line to pose the survey’s one “simple” question: “Mr. Stewart, do you think we should allow the United Nations and a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away our freedom? “

“May I ask how you got my name?”

“Yes, sir, you’re in our data base either as an NRA member, contributor, or as someone who believes in the civil liberties.”

“Well …,” I said, “… I am an advocate for civil liberties.”

“So, Mr. Stewart, would you like to answer the question?”

“Are you serious?! You want me to answer a question that has only one answer, a question premised on demagoguery, fear and lies? Give me a break.”

“You’ve had your break! Have a nice day, Mr. Stewart!”

At that point I wished I’d had a gun. In the name of Abel and all things good, I was becoming Cain.
The work of all religion and politics

YHWH tells an angry Cain in the Genesis story that “sin is crouching at the door, and its urging is for you. But you must master it.” It is the human leaning toward violence that humanity must overcome.
The story of humankind is Cain’s story, the refusal of this mastery. The long sweep of human history is the story of slaying the brother because we have not mastered the beast that crouches inside ourselves. “I am not my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” The sin — i.e. the refusal to take responsibility, the rebellion of separation and of slaying that from which we cannot be separated — goes un-mastered and slays the brother. It comes hurling down the centuries of human development as a rock, a caveman’s club, a sling shot, a rifle, a handgun, a Bazooka, an M-15, an airplane turned into a missile, a drone that kills innocent civilians whose blood, as in the Genesis story, “is crying out to Me (YHWH) from the ground.” Abel’s blood is the ink in which our
story is written.

Cain’s story sets the stage for the work of all religion and politics worthy of their callings. It is the real story of the Fall from grace held in common by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It also holds the key to re-writing the story, not by claiming innocence, but by taking responsibility for a violent world.

For faith and for politics alike there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Or will I insist on the right to slay him? Am I willing to take responsibility for my neighbor, to master the urge to violence that crouches at my door? Do my religion and my politics slay or keep my brother/my sister from deadly harm?

Are we willing to re-claim the Earth as sacred turf — through responsible religion and responsible politics — so that the voice of Abel’s blood no longer cries out from the ground to a horrified God?