Shock and Awe, Fear and Trembling
I didn’t move to the woods a month ago because we were on the brink of war, but now, as the brink becomes the breach, rural Virginia seems a fairly safe place to be. I live down a bumpy dead-end dirt road miles from town. My neighbors, the three households just up the hill, are all Jehovah’s Witnesses and pretty much keep to themselves. Their kitchen tables are cluttered with the Watchtower magazines they hand out door-to-door, but they don’t bother trying to convert me, to witness to me, or even to offer me their prayers. In the neighborhood, at least, the rule seems to be live and let live. It’s a safe place indeed.
Too safe, maybe. While my friends in New York wonder if they should be buying duck tape to seal their apartments in the event of biological counter-attack, I use a few strips of it to fix a drafty window. While my family in Boston reads two newspapers every day as if one more story about the war could suddenly make it seem sensible, I twist the same pages into tight little knots, throw them in the woodstove, and make a fire. It’s important to keep the place warm. Yes, I’ve heard the news of the battle plan, the “shock and awe” to be rained down on Baghdad. But take a look outside today: late March, early morning, and still it looks like snow. When I see my neighbors we don’t talk about war or witness; I ask if they’ve heard the weather.
News of matters of greater global interest comes mainly through the Web and the radio. Both are spotty – no high speed access out here and the dial-up is hit or miss; NPR meanwhile is often filled with static. The only clear, strong signal I can get is a Christian station that talks about the war in terms that are at once ecstatic and apocalyptic, welcoming the shake-up of the status quo with a missionary zeal, guessing that whatever craters left by shock and awe’s bombardment will be filled with God’s own fear and trembling.
“When you think about it,” one of this station’s talk show hosts opined last night, “you realize what a favor it would be if the Lord would use this war to give us another wake up call like the one we had on 9-11.”
“Yes,” a co-host said. “It’s true.”
“It just breaks my heart the way the nation’s churches filled up for just a week or two after that tragedy. Makes me wonder what it would take to get us back there permanently…”
“Not that we deserve it. I’m not saying it would be an act of punishment if the Lord allowed another tragedy on American soil. No, no. What it would be-”
“What it would be, really, is a great act of love and mercy.”
Is it a stretch to wonder, like the rapper Chuck D once said of hip hop’s role in the inner city, if this is the CNN of Christian America? A chance to eavesdrop on the starkly theological worldview of so many in this country, including not a few of the people who decide when and why we go to war?
Maybe, maybe not. A friend doing research at Wheaton College, home of the Billy Graham Center, sends word that even there, where inscrutable world events are usually viewed as products of divine will, concerned students are scratching their heads. And it’s not just these young evangelicals; leaders of mainline Protestant churches also oppose the war, and the Pope has just declared that for pronouncing diplomacy dead, George W. Bush now faces a “grave responsibility before God.”
Yet the Believer-in-Chief often echoes the Christian radio notion that God’s will can come dressed as destruction. In his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of world leaders devoted to faith as much as to the networks of power that proclaim it, the president noted in 2002, “Since we met last year, millions of Americans have been led to prayer… The prayers of this nation are a part of the good that has come from the evil of September the 11th.”
Let’s call it “wake-up call theology”: If things get bad, we’ll get godly, and won’t that be for the best?
At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, there was more of the same. Not only from the president, but the whole head table, the most powerful people in a room full of the most powerful people in the world: senators, congressman, ambassadors, parliamentarians. Seated with President Bush were, among others, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence; and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. Rice, in fact, was the morning’s keynote speaker.
“American slaves used to sing, ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory Hallelujah,'” Rice preached, “Growing up, I would often wonder at the seeming contradiction contained in this line. But as I grew older, I came to learn that there is no contradiction at all.”
” I believe this same message is found in the Bible in Romans 5, where we are told to ‘rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.'”
Rice is the daughter, granddaughter and niece of clergy; she knows how to thump a Bible and she knows how to work a room. Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen, she says. Yes, I mean you, Mr. Senator, Mr. Prime Minister. Nobody knows the troubles you’ve seen. Glory Hallelujah. “If terror and tragedy spur us to rediscover and strengthen these commitments, then we can truly say that some good has come from great loss.” It’s the love and mercy of Christian radio dressed up for public appearance. If terror and tragedy have done such great things for us, just think what shock and awe could do for the world.
“Only through struggle,” she said, “do we realize the depths of our resilience and understand that the hardest of blows can be survived and overcome. Too often when all is well, we slip into the false joy and satisfaction of the material and a complacent pride and faith in ourselves. Yet it is through struggle that we find redemption and self-knowledge.”
“Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance,” the president added. “Behind all of life and all of history, there’s a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God.”
Pious remarks made by people of faith; nothing terribly original, inspiring, or, for that matter, troubling. Yet these same people who sat for prayer a month ago and spoke of struggle and purpose — Bush, Rice, Tenet — sat at another table late Wednesday afternoon, meeting for four hours in the White House to begin a war, and their earlier comments have everything to do with it. In light of Wednesday night’s war pronouncement, in which the president spoke much of prayer, much of liberation, much of struggle, much of purpose, we see how the rhetoric of redemption can be followed with the hard fact of cruise missiles. Love and Mercy. Shock and Awe. Maybe it all depends which end of the prayer you’re on.
Outside the temperature has risen since the early morning; the sky that threatened snow now pours a hard relentless rain. Still though the cottage is cold. I go out to the front porch to gather wood for the fire. Just then, my neighbor clunks by in his battered old pick up. He rolls down his window, slowing as he passes. Dressed in a dark suit, a box of Watchtowers riding shotgun, it seems he’s off for a day of evangelizing. In the neighborhood though he keeps his ideas of redemption to himself. Throwing me a greeting on the first morning of the new war, he says only, “Some rain, huh? Better get that inside before it’s too wet to burn.”
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.