This is adapted from a talk I gave on January 24th at an interfaith conference on drone warfare held at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was invited to speak from a faith perspective about the use of weaponized drones as a tactic of modern warfare.
I’m sure many of you know a certain poem written by the poet e.e. cummings. It’s one of my favorite apocryphal psalms of gratitude. It begins like this:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
I often murmur this verse to myself when standing under a blue true dream of sky so wide and open that it makes my soul expand into the infinite that is yes, that is God. Or I murmur this verse over an evening meal, in gratitude for being carried through a day under that blue dream.
And it’s this poem I think of when I heard the thirteen-year-old boy from Pakistan offer his statement to American policymakers at a congressional hearing in 2013. Zubair Rehman, who survived the drone strike that killed his grandmother, spoke in his native Urdu, explaining to them: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and so for a short period of time the mental tension and the fear lessens. But when the sky brightens, the drones return, and so does the fear.”
This is where I begin, the perspective of Zubair Rehman looking up from his slice of earth in Pakistan to the heavens, and fearing a blue true dream of sky that should send his soul soaring because of everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes, but that instead makes him cower. Zubair is afraid of the blue sky he no longer loves, because, as Congressman Rush Holt said in his own presentation last night as explanation for why drone strikes are so terrifying: it’s because they come out of the blue.
Augustine described sin as a curving inward. For him and, later, for Martin Luther, sin is best understood as a turning toward the self and its will, its needs, away from the other and the Great Other that is God. It’s a cowering inward, instead of an expanding outward in response to God’s call from heaven. There is something in Zubair Rehman’s recoil under the blue heavens that makes me think of Augustine’s description of sin. What does it mean when our government’s actions (read: our own actions, since our democratic government ostensibly reflects our collective will) force others to curve inward, stifling their souls, preventing them from soaring gratefully into the blue true infinite yes?
And, of course, what does it mean when our own national security concerns, our love for self and nation, turn us inward, leading us to put nation and self before God and other?When asked what was the most important commandment, Jesus replied that the commandment on which everything hangs is this: love God with all your heart and mind and strength. Once you get that right, once you orient your everything toward the Infinite Yes, then everything else falls into place: love of neighbor and all creation, the law and the prophets, and ultimately the peaceable kingdom. That’s where adherence to the great commandment leads, we’re promised: Peace on earth.
Now this is what’s a little absurd about all that: The Christian faith, rooted in Judaism, teaches that it is actually possible to eradicate sin and violence and to create a world in which all human beings flourish, living into fullness. The world, meanwhile, this same world in which drones are manufactured, sold, weaponized, and sent flying, tells us that very same idea is a naive, impossible pipe dream. To which belief do your thoughts and actions adhere? I’d like to say that’s an easy answer for me, but it’s not always when I read the news and hear about the extreme suffering being wrought around the world by both governments and non-state forces. Still, most days I do my work as a builder of just peace trusting the rather absurd notion that a world without war is possible – that we have already the resources, knowledge, and institutions to create sustainable peace. What we lack is faith. I don’t mean religious faith, necessarily, but rather the trust, generally, in our ideals as a solid and legitimate foundation for making life and death decisions, policy decisions, and military ones too.
So often in DC I hear the argument that if we do not respond militarily in the face of the suffering of others, it’s the equivalent of doing nothing. This was the argument made last year by Secretary Kerry as he advocated for a military campaign into Syria. The faulty logic here is assuming that to respond to suffering in ways other than militarily, to respond in nonviolent actions that build peace, is the equivalent of doing nothing. In reality, military interventions (of whatever sort – ground troops to bombing campaigns to drones) hardly have a solid track record in creating sustainable peace. We can look backwards in history and see the story of violence unfold and the reality of what bombs and violence do – they create shock waves across space and then across time, creating new forms of violence in their wake. We give arms to groups that end up turning those arms against us later on. We fight one front only to entrench resentments that arise in another place — an endless game of whack-a-mole. The Cold War ends, its proxy wars continue through the 90s, up to the war on terror – you can dot a line between these episodes from the God’s eye view. What this tells me is that not only is the use of military force not the only viable response to injustice or violence, but perhaps more persuasively, it is arguably not the most effective response, ultimately.
In fact, there is, ultimately, only one way to end violence. That is what is affirmed in our scriptures, and that is what is affirmed in much of the scholarship and statistics that inform the field in which I work, international conflict management: it’s the creation of sustainable peace — an environment in which people have collaborative and supportive relationships, and in which there is a lack of structural and cultural violence: the suffering caused by economic and political structures of exploitation and repression, and the aspects of culture, including religion and ideology, used to dehumanize others and legitimate violence.
To put it in more Jesusy-speak, this is the creation of shalom, or salaam, a context marked by the conditions conducive to human flourishing, in which all people live with dignity, fully, their soul expanding into the infinite blue true dream of yes.
My denomination, the United Church of Christ (or UCC), declared itself a Just Peace church in 1985. And we have a resolution that will be presented at our upcoming national gathering to reconfirm our Just Peace commitment on its thirtieth anniversary, calling on our churches to do so in light of the state of near constant warfare in the world today, warfare that’s been extended through the use of weaponized drones, as well as the growing inequality, environmental degradation, cultural prejudice, and poverty that feed incessant violence.
Just peace principles are rooted in the vision and values to which Maryann Cusimano Love spoke yesterday: the creation of right relationships between people, the eradication of human exploitation, the commitment to a positive peace free of overt and structural violence, the restoration of ties that bind people together, and care for the psyche and spirit.
Do drones help to create just peace? That’s the question I’ve been asked to answer today. Well, no. As has been noted by others, the use of drones has harmed our relationship with others around the world. The feeling of mental anxiety experienced by those living in places where drones operate, where attacks that are not constrained by rules of law come out of the blue, terrorize them and create resentments toward the U.S. that feed violent reactionary movements. The secrecy of the drone program and its use runs counter to democratic, participatory processes and undermines international cooperation as a value and as the foundation necessary for international organizations to function. Our use of drones has expanded violent military campaigns into areas in which we are not at formal war, lowering the bar for military interventions and dragging our country into a state of seemingly incessant, unmitigated military campaigns. For me, this undermines the argument that drones limit destruction caused by full-flung military campaigns. That argument might fly if we used drones only in places where we have declared war, but in reality they’ve expanded the battleground. Drones, certainly used in isolation, and arguably used at all, do not help build sustainable peace. They are merely a short-term, easy, almost whimsical (a word used by one of the other conference presenters) answer to complex problems. And they make kids fear blue skies.
This is what the Christian scriptures teach us: our security will not ultimately come from more advanced weapons. Those who live by the sword, die by it. The more we seek to refine and rebuild our machinery of death, the more insecure we become, at least from the perspective of the ultimate. It’s love, finally, and only, that squelches out fear. It’s love as lived out in the public square as justice, right relationships, human flourishing. It’s love that’s reflected in the infinite yes of a true blue dream of sky in which souls can soar toward heaven in gratitude. Pretty absurd an idea, but maybe one deserving of our faith.