An Alternate History

For some time now I’ve been trying to compose the speech President Bush should’ve given on 9/11/01. Someone much wiser beat me to it:

My fellow Americans: We have been hit. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon have damaged every one of us. We are filled with anger and rage, for in 200 years our country has never experienced such an attack from the outside.So everything in us cries out for revenge. Should we give in to this cry? It would be the easier way. And I am sure you would support me if I mobilized our troops to hunt down the terrorists and those who helped them wherever they are hiding.

But I propose to take another route. It may baffle you, even infuriate you, at first hearing. But I ask that you consider it with care. (more…)

Why I Pay My Taxes

Dear Taxpayer,

Your contribution this fiscal year was put toward the maintenance of an F-15 fighter jet, which on October 16 dropped a bomb on the town of Ramadi, in Iraq, killing, among others, Muhammed Salih Ali (age six) and Haifa Ahmed Fuad (age eight) and Saad Ahmed Fuad (age four). Little Haifa and Saad were sister and brother; you helped accomplish their deaths by a jet very similar to, if not exactly the same as, those that fly over the stadium after the American Idol winner sings “and the home of the brave” at the Super Bowl.

Thank you and congratulations.

— from “Why I Pay My Taxes” by Ben Metcalf in Harpers magazine, April 2008.

Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus redux

I want to talk a little bit about my Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus essay. Over the last week I’ve kept thinking about a quote from Jean-Luc Marion that says “Theology renders its author hypocritical… One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology.” I take that seriously, and so it’s with fear and trembling that I’ve submitted it to Cedars for the February 14th issue. The final version — shorter, tighter, improved — can be found here if you’re interested. If Cedars hasn’t tired of my liberalism, my next piece for them will probably also concern war & peace.

I would encourage those of you intrigued by the Derrida discussion to consider reading Live Theory: Jacques Derrida by James K.A. Smith. Even the brief bits I referenced may provide food for further thought. E.g. is it possible to deconstruct all binaries? (Or more accurately, find within the binaries how they auto-deconstruct themselves) I’ve hinted before at how we might deconstruct natural/supernatural, but what about other tricky ones… like being/non-being? Saved/unsaved? Furthermore, does an unconditional openness to the Other mean rejecting determinate religions altogether — ie, the “religion without religion” of Mark C Taylor, John Caputo, etc?

My article also owes a small debt to, of all people, David Foster Wallace for his brief essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled Just Asking. DFW considers the safety vs. freedom trade-off and sides with freedom, just as I (coming from a different angle) have sided with unconditional hospitality in its dispute with safety. This idea is more profound the deeper into it you dig… and since it is not an idea original with me, I also am continuing to dig and uncover its radical implications.

P.S. — bonus war coverage: Where’s the Iraqi Voice? by Noam Chomsky

Derrida via Claiborne

Like many students, I was saddened to learn on January 30th that Shane Claiborne’s expected campus event had been canceled. In one sense it was simply disappointing that we missed an opportunity to listen and dialogue with Claiborne in person. More importantly, the incident was disappointing in what it revealed about the “forces for status quo” (to use John Edwards’ phrase), or the length to which the foot soldiers of legalistic fundamentalism will go in order to silence an “ordinary radical” whose message of love, peace, and justice are simply too extreme for this campus. Personally, I’m particularly drawn to Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution because it seems to me an important picture of “The Great Law of Hospitality”; that is, the ethics of Jacques Derrida.

The juxtaposition of Shane Claiborne and Jacques Derrida is, at first blush, more than a little odd: one a young American hippie, the other a deceased French theorist. However, Derrida’s connection to Claiborne and Derrida’s immense relevance to this campus is perhaps best encapsulated in his claim that “ethics is hospitality.” For Derrida, unconditionally welcoming the foreigner — the Other — is the very meaning of justice.

As he tells the story, the history of philosophy or Western ideas is the history of exclusion. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, it is a history that is hell-bent on erecting binaries: male/female, rational/irrational, objective/subjective, inside/outside, presence/absence, fact/opinion, and so forth. The former is always privileged and the latter always sidelined, dominated, oppressed. To be male, rational & factual, was supposedly clearly superior to being female, irrational & opinionated. Derrida’s goal, among and with many others, is to subvert — he says “deconstruct” — this traditional arrangement to demonstrate the inter-dependence of both concepts. For example, it does not make sense to speak of being inside unless there is an outside with whom it is contrasted; there are also spaces which destabilize the binary even more by being both/neither inside and outside. Derrida does not want to invert the binary, so that being outside is better/greater than being inside, but rather make the two live in tension between the forces of violence that would pull them apart or have one subjugate the Other.

Most relevantly to us today, we need to see that the marginalized Other in our society is undoubtedly the sick, the poor, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the “least of these.” In the face of these, Derrida calls us to an impossible task: unconditional hospitality. The impossibility of such a demand is the very condition of the call itself, the very reason it ought to nag us by day and haunt us at night. Furthermore, this call contains in itself immense risk: there is no guarantee that an unqualified openness to the Other won’t bring personal danger, harm, tragedy. This is justice, Derrida says, for it invites the foreigner inside (our home, our space, our koinos, our heart) without question and without demand.

Enter Shane Claiborne. For I am convinced that Irresistible Revolution, a humble book that is certainly otherwise than philosophy, sketches a brilliant picture of what a life of unconditional hospitality might look like. Claiborne’s simple call is to love; love deeply, generously, excessively. Most importantly, do this to the unlovable.

Last fall, after reading Claiborne’s book, I attempted to commit myself to giving and welcoming unconditionally. One night I went to Dayton to spend on a 2-hour movie what one billion humans earn as a week’s wage. As I left The Neon I was approached by Jesus, disguised as a beleaguered white woman and her boyfriend. I don’t remember whether it was to see a long-lost brother or just escape the impending winter, but she wanted bus tickets and so I gave her money and wished them well. Not 20 feet onward I came across Jesus again, this time in the form of a scraggly black man who wanted to eat at Arby’s. There’s no doubt that the beggar and I should’ve shared a meal together, but opening my arms to a dirty Jesus seemed more difficult and so I just gave him some bills. The third time I saw Jesus was just minutes later, when a beggar began heading towards me from a ways down the sidewalk. I immediately began to think of excuses: that the price of my evening had already doubled, that I was “poor” too, that I “needed” to get home, that giving unconditionally was just getting to be too hard. And so I turned a blind eye and crossed to the other side of the street. Was there ever a more disgusting, obviously Pharisaical act? That my Savior passed His three tests, that He died on the cross, that He rose again on the third day, that is only what saves a wretch like me.

You see what Derrida and Claiborne were driving at is an ethical demand that’s too radical for us to handle, almost even comprehend. It was just as radical 2000 years ago when a Nazarene carpenter first proclaimed these truths. The Sermon on the Mount is so outrageous that it’s still unwelcome today, banned even from our Christian university. For if we truly unconditionally welcomed the Other — the unwanted, the marginalized, the destitute, even our enemies — our lives would require such radical re-constitution that we’d be shaken to the core. Wouldn’t we as individuals, as communities, as towns, and as a nation ultimately conduct ourselves very, very differently? Would we any longer bless the pre-emptive war-mongers, so that they might inherit the earth? Would we any longer tolerate cowboy imperialism, pretending that it represents the kingdom of heaven? Does unconditional hospitality erect a 2000-mile fence to keep out Unwanteds and Outsiders? Does unconditional giving mean HMO bureaucracy just to treat a sick child? To turn the other cheek and to give (not invest) our last dollar: these are the demands of that wandering Christ we claim to follow. Welcoming — not bombing — the poor, tired, and huddled masses is undoubtedly a risky proposition. Our Jesus, however, does not call us to safety or economic efficiency; He calls us to love. It’s so simple. To love extravagantly beyond all measure, because that is how our Father in Heaven loves us. This is a love that can transform my life, and yours, and all of us here at this Christ-ian university, so that next time Jesus wants to visit us in the disguise of a long-haired hippie from Philadelphia we unequivocally say Yes, please. Welcome.

Military-industrial complex


“[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower (January 17, 1961)

Bonus:

The Ground Truth

“Things Overheard In the Only Coffee Shop In Town” was a better idea in theory than it actually turned out to be. I posted it because I can’t post what I really want to. Because I can’t really find the words. It’s 0 degrees outside, I’m listening to Van Morrison, and I’m absolutely livid. I have been in a state of suppressed rage for 24 hours because I simply cannot believe how much shit is going down in Iraq. I can’t even wrap my mind around it, can’t process it. How, realistically, do you deal with the sick waste of life occuring there?

I should probably point out that my anger is, more or less, a result of viewing the documentary The Ground Truth. Needless to say, the film is powerful.

God I’m Old

Poke me.

Brenton is mowing our lawn with gas I bought in a milk jug and it smells good and it smells like summer. The setting sun tonight was hot pink and orange and hot sex and I liked it.

I think I’m down to about a 50% chance of survival every time I get into my car. There are noises and groanings and pleas for automobile euthanasia.

Ray Romano in his Pulitzer-winning comedy book says you’re getting old if you can name two anti-depressants other than Prozac. Strike One. Or, he says, if you can’t remember if you’ve shampooed in the morning. Strike two. Today I didn’t even stop and think about it, so sure was I that I hadn’t washed my hair yet. Turns out I had. I hate wasting shampoo because there are so many starving children in Africa and our nation is at war and I like to do my part to help out. Like not eat meat on Wednesdays and ration my hair products. For the troops.

I want to be on a trampoline by a pool right now and feel young and vibrant and nineteen.

The Iraqi Non-Deaths

Eject!Eject!Eject! has a sweet post on the ‘cost’ of the war with Iraq…

Here’s a math quiz for you:

During the 30-odd years he was in power, Saddam Hussein murdered at least 300,000 of his own people. These are the ones we are finding in mass graves in Iraq. Another 300,000 – at least – were killed in his war with Iran and his two conflicts with the US. Those are bare-bones, undeniable, non-speculative, minimums.

That darling arithmetic works out to no less than 20,000 people a year killed by that lunatic, or about 1,700 people a month.

So how many innocent people have not died as a result of the Iraq war?

I get about 13,000 so far.

by Bill A. Whittle