By Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite
The author explores the links between Christian theology and history, and the militarism which remains so prevalent in society today. Thistlethwaite sheds light on how the dominance of physical force influences our race, ethnic and gender relationships, perpetuating violence and damaging our spirits, concluding with a call to de-legitimize militarism before it’s too late.
Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Ph.D. is a Professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. A scholar of Just Peace, she is also a member of the Scholars in Action project of The Carter Center’s Mobilizing Faith for Women and Girls Initiative.
In its first three centuries, Christianity was both anti-militarist and pacifist. One of the key theological issues in sustaining this anti-militarist and pacifist stance was the doctrine of the human being that developed out of the first century. The human being was deemed capable of divinity. The incarnation of God into a human body and Jesus’ insistence that the Kingdom of God is “in our midst” vested the human person and human society with tremendous value.
That human beings could become divine can be seen biblically in Jesus’ admonition to be perfect even as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48), or in the Christian resistance to the divinity of the emperor. The centrality of the Kingdom (basileia) to Jesus’ preaching and teaching supports the notion that this world has value and we are not to value only the world to come.
￼Christians were to understand themselves as created in the image of God and falling “upward” toward salvation (lrenaeus). The equality in image of divinity of all humanity replaced the image of the emperor as image of divine power. This was rightly held by the Romans to be subversive, and the deification of an uneducated Jewish carpenter executed by Romans for treason against the state unleashed the whole power of Rome against Christians for three centuries of ￼persecution.1
The equality in image of divinity of all humanity replaced the image of the emperor as image of divine power.
In the first three centuries Christians were regarded as able to choose the good and not cooperate with the demonic military power of Rome. Therefore, their theological anthropology produced a practice of political and military resistance against the empire.
When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, however, then it was the Pax Romana that became the model of human society, and “order” becomes the definition of the good. Human beings, according to St. Augustine, far from being understood as images of the divine, are fallen and have lost all capacity for free will. They are, then, in divine providence, to be ruled. This theology dovetails nicely with obedience to a Christian-sanctioned totalitarianism, the Holy Roman Empire. Participation in the military, then, is not only permitted but the duty of Christians to the empire, now dubbed “holy.”
The so-called “left wing” of the Reformation reinstates the emphasis of the first three centuries on the freedom of the Christian and the non-cooperation with militarism. The attitude of a Luther or Calvin, however, represents the dominant Protestant position, which is to continue the notion of the hierarchical order of society, as the remedy for the hopelessly depraved human condition, and the participation of Christians in the military.
Vitor Westhelle, a Brazilian theologian, faced not with Pax Romana but its more modern version in Pax Americana, has protested that
in Latin America . . . “order” is not a positive concept. “Order”‘ is most often an ideological disguise for domination, repression, and persecution. Order becomes the moral parameter to speak about God’s will in the midst of the cosmos, justifying the organization of the state. Where order is granted by the head of the state, where order is the result of the “invisible hand” of capitalism, where order is the patriarchal hierarchy, the stability and control of the whole society is guaranteed.2
Militarism is the way in which the hierarchical ordering of political, social, economic, familial, bodily, and even biological life is constructed and sustained. It both constructs and sustains certain understandings of who the human being is theologically.
Militarism is the way in which the hierarchical ordering of political, social, economic, familial, bodily, and even biological life is constructed and sustained.
In the method of liberation theology, it is necessary to expose these constructions through ideology critique and then to reconstruct alternative doc trines of the human being, In this reflection paper I will consider four such constructions: 1) the construction of body and sexuality; 2) the construction of economics; 3) the construction of race/ethnicity; and 4) the construction of culture.
MILITARISM AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF BODY AND SEXUALITY
In our research for our book on prostitution, Rita Nakashima Brock and I have been repeatedly struck by the significant role that militarism plays in creating the conditions for the sex industry and not only, as is often thought, in creating the market for sex work.
One of the primary ways that militarism constructs the conditions that create the sex industry is in the forced separation of the sexes in military life. Men in the military are taken out of the intimate familial patterns of human relationship and no longer are governed by civilian community norms for sexual and moral conduct. They are placed in contexts that mimic the ascetic; physical symbols of individual identity, such as clothing and hair, are removed, and sleep deprivation and intense physical demands teach a denial of the body and its needs. A soldier in uniform is to be a “lean, mean fighting machine” and not a limited, embodied human being.
The power and dominance of military ideology becomes identical with masculinity and posed in direct opposition to femininity, portrayed as weakness or softness.
The military ideology of the body says that the body is to be suppressed and controlled. Contempt for embodied human life is the necessary splitting of consciousness required to kill another human being. The power and dominance of military ideology becomes identical with masculinity and posed in direct opposition to femininity, portrayed as weakness or softness. Sex then becomes a vehicle for overtly denying embodiment by asserting dominance over it, and the need of the lonely, stressed, and vulnerable recruit for relationship remains unacknowledged. The need itself, however, does not go away but gets reconfigured as power and dominance through the use of force. Sexuality and relationship then get constructed as violence, as the chant taught at many U.S. boot camps attests:
This is my weapon, this is my gun,
One is for shooting, the other’s for fun.
Militarism is both a support for and a product of the gnosticizing tendency in Christianity to denigrate the body and sexuality and to exclude them from the realm of the spirit. Rape or forced sexuality in war underlines the separation between power and embodiment and relegates the body to that which must be controlled. Military life itself is an alienated existence and further reinforces the denial of relationality that purchased sex illustrates) Militarism helps to support theologies that rigidly separate body from spirit and atomize human beings one from another. This separation of the spirit and the body must be reconstructed in Christianity toward an integration of sensuality and spirituality. This is what is meant by the womanist and feminist re-definition of the erotic as sensuous spirituality.3 Relationality must be re-claimed as well, as constitutive of the human being, for, as Beverly Harrison writes, “we have the power through acts of love or lovelessness literally to create one another.”4
MILITARISM AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Militarism also helps to create the population for prostitution in that war making disrupts local economies and produces refugee populations or prisoners of war who can be made into brothel prostitutes or the euphemistically termed “camp follower” or “comfort women,” as the Korean, Philippine, Chinese, and Japanese women forced into prostitution by the Japanese army in the first half of this century were called.5 The story of these women is powerfully presented in Chung Hyun Kyung’s chapter in [Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life].
The disruption of local economies and the production of dislocated populations also contribute to the general reduction of human beings to commodities in a world where the market is the defining metaphor. It is easier for multinational organizations to exploit indigenous workers where the community norms have been disrupted by militarism and the increased poverty makes any job welcome.6 Prostitution is on a continuum with other forms of the commodification of human beings.
Prostitution is on a continuum with other forms of the commodification of human beings.
Marilyn Waring, member of the New Zealand Parliament from 1975 to 1984 and member and, finally, chair of the Public Expenditure (Public Accounts and Budget) Select Committee, was stunned to find that what she valued about her country, the clear air, safe drinking water, the parks, the beaches, lakes, and forests all counted for nothing when she was called upon to tally up her country’s gross domestic capital. These figures, under a system called the System of National Accounts, are used to inform entities such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or the United Nations agencies of the need for aid. In short, she could not borrow to protect her country’s environment; she could only borrow to clean it up if it were polluted. She could not borrow to maintain her country’s status as a nuclear-free zone; she could borrow to make weapons.
The current state of the world is the result of a system that attributes little or no ‘value’ to peace. It pays no heed to the preservation of natural resources or to the labor of the majority of its inhabitants or to the unpaid work of the reproduction of human life itself not to mention its maintenance and care. The system cannot respond to values it refuses to recognize.7
An otherworldly Christianity that does not recognize the “basileia in our midst” works well with a capitalism that sees the world as having no value in itself as the creation, but only as a material commodity for exploitation. Militarism facilitates such a devaluation of the world, since its reason for existence is destruction, not construction.
Militarism facilitates such a devaluation of the world, since its reason for existence is destruction, not construction.
To resist such theology of world devaluation, we must assert the world as God’s creation. We can then offer an economics of “household,” a world where the chief economic problem is not the managing of scarcity, but the creation of abundance.8
MILITARISM AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF RACE/ETHNICITY
Militarism has a profound investment in attempting to construct racial and ethnic identities. Certainly race has always functioned, in both ancient and modem war, to construct the identity of the enemy as other, as not fully human, and therefore to remove any moral impediment to his or her extermination. The enemy is a Gook, a Nip, or, in the Gulf War, a camel jockey or sand nigger. It may have taken the Western powers longer to “stop Hitler” precisely because Hitler’s explicit use of racial supremacist solidarity against the Jews played to Euro-Atlantic constructions of race dominance and anti Semitism. Racism against Asians fueled the Japanese internment camps; anti-Arab racism was marshaled to get support for the Gulf War.
In the complicated construction of race in the United States, the military has functioned to define racial otherness and, as in the case of gender, also to provide the education, status, and rhetoric of racial betterment. This can appear to be a contradiction, but it is not. Racial/ethnic minorities are defined as the surplus people of a society and therefore a ready supply of impoverished people who need a chance at economic improvement. As the U.S. military increasingly becomes the only employer hiring in minority communities, the logic of the military construction of race becomes more visible.
Militarism uses racism to form rigid boundaries between the self and the other.
Militarism uses racism to form rigid boundaries between the self and the other. Indeed, racial otherness is one of the major supports for the “hardened self,” in Catherine Keller’s useful phrase, a self that cannot let the other in for fear of losing identity. Theologically, this means that “the separate ego expels the world from himself, projecting the sphere of immanence onto the fleshly woman below him, [and] he simultaneously projects his transcendence onto an otherworldly spirit above him.”9
￼The ability to be permeable to other people is the foundation of community and what we could mean theologically were we really to allow ourselves to hear the radical embodiment of ecclesiological constructions such as “body of Christ.”
MILITARISM AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF CULTURE: MAKING THE WORLD SAFE FOR HYPOCRISY
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which are canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and, above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.10
Gustavo Gutierrez has called the United States a “liar society.” One of the most important constructions of militarism is a culture of double-speak, where war is named peace and what passes for peace is really war, where totalitarianism masquerades as democracy and democracy is in reality oppression, where economic practice creates poverty and is presented as the cure for poverty, where violence in the home is called family values, and family values are the barest kind of contempt for children, women, and the elderly, and the supreme doublespeak and. Doublethink—death is more productive than life, and the living death of most of the people of the world is life.
These reversals take tremendous effort both to establish and to maintain because the experiential base of life finally cannot be denied: when people starve, they know it is not abundance: when they are abused, they know it is not love, when they are shot, they know it is not peace; and when death is all around, they know it is not life. But for those whose access to the experience of what their culture is actually up to is only secondhand, through the news media, these reversals can more easily be made.
￼￼Language and images are the key ways in which the culture of militarism is achieved. Language is extremely important, as the terminology “New World Order” attests. The New World Order is the Pax Americana with only one superpower, a world in which U.S. power will not be checked militarily. It employs a code word for peace, but does not dare use the term “peace” itself. Those responsible for the development of these terms have learned their lesson; when they named the Cruise Missile the “Peacekeeper,” they provided fuel for peace activists to ridicule the military for years. And so they have learned to siphon even more meaning off the top of terms so that all that remains is the hypnotic effect.
￼Without the New World Order imperative, military power around the world was in imminent danger of being curtailed. The so-called “peace dividend” had a brief life where even politicians speculated on what domestic agendas could now be achieved with the former Pentagon budget. The situation was dire.
It was necessary not only to claim a higher purpose for continued military expansion but to denigrate the possibility of social justice where more money was to be spent on social programs. As one of the most acute critics of these tactics, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund (no stranger to strategic language herself!), put it:
One of the most corrosive lies we face is the pervasive argument that “nothing works,” the War on Poverty failed, social programs don’t succeed. It is as though our entire nation had been put in one of those spirits squelching, hope-destroying schools in which we bury so many students . . . These teachings inspired a “can’t do” spirit.11
￼￼￼￼The Children’s Defense Fund has estimated that it would have cost $26 billion to bail children and families out of poverty in 1988, and to eliminate all poverty would have cost just under $54 billion. This is just about half the current estimate of the cost of bailing out the savings-and-loan industry.
Militarism demands that we tear the spirit from the body.
Militarism demands that we tear the spirit from the body. The body can be held in contempt as the cause of corruption of the will. But it is truly not all bodies that are so held in contempt, but the bodies of the vulnerable, those who do not have power or access to power in our societies: women, children, the elderly, the minority races, the poor, the non-heterosexual, the surplus other. We must expose these body denying theologies for what they are:-the rejection of the gift of the creation and the barest kind of contempt for the creator. Instead we must re-construct Christian theology, drawing on the “hidden histories,” the many places in our Christian history where a theological construction of the human person has been as one who is body and soul together, a creature destined for community with God and with one another.
We must re-construct with intent, we must delegitimize militarism and its constructions before the separation of the body and the spirit is complete in a world-destroying spasm of violence and greed. And I suggest that we hurry.
This piece was originally published as a chapter in the now out-of-print volume, Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life, edited by Mary John Mananzan.
1Elaine.Pagels,Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 39.
2Vitor Westhelle, “Creation Motifs in the Search for a Vital Space: A Latin American Perspective,” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, ed. Susan 1histlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990}, 131.
3Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys b y Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988).
4Beverly Wildung Harrison, Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics (Boston: Beacon, 1985).
5This case has received press recently because a Japanese historian found documentation which proved that the Japanese government had authorized the use of women for sex with soldiers as a policy. The prime minister of Japan has apologized to Korea, but the Japanese government has refused any form of redress or reparation. Cf. “Sexual Slavery by Japan’s Imperial Army,” in Against Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation Activities in Japan (Tokyo: Japan Anti-Prostitution Association, c/o JWC1U, 2-23-25 Hyakumin-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 169, JAPAN), 20-39.
6Cf. Chicago Tribune series on Asia and the plight of workers (Nov. 7, 8, 1994).
7MatilynWating, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (San Francisco: Hmper and Row, 1988), 3-4.
8Douglas Meeks, God the Economist (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989).
9Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Sexism, Separation, and the Self(Boston: Beacon, 1986), 44.
10Cf. George Orwell, 1984 (New York: New American Library, 1977).
11Children’s Defense Fund, S.O.S. America! A Children’s Defense Budget (Washington, D.C.: 1990), 11.