On January 17, 1961, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower (legendary Supreme Allied Commander of World War II) delivered his famous Farewell Address1, where he warned the people about the effects of the American war machine, which he called the Military-Industrial Complex:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This 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 state house, 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.”2
The American society is influenced at nearly every level by this Military-Industrial Complex and the aptly-named “Iron Triangle”–Congress, military, and arms dealers–that continue to facilitate its existence. Our society is setup at every point to affirm our strength. We live in a country where a president is labeled by political opponents as “weak” even when his country spends more on military than the next seven nations combined.
As the Romans of old, we are addicted to war.
To the way it makes us feel strong and plays into our exceptionalism.
To the shirts, bumper stickers, and bomber flyovers.
To feel powerful enough to say to terrorists, “You’ve messed with the wrong country!” (Meaning, of course, that we’re about to go over and, “Bomb the hell out of them.”) As a country founded on armed resistance, the myth of redemptive violence is encoded into our very DNA.
And this crude nationalistic muscle-flexing fits hand in glove with an economy predicated on ever-increasing consumerism, constantly bombarding its citizens with consumeristic triggers, so we will pour more resources back into an economy sagging under the weight of such bloated war budgets. If we weren’t currently fighting ISIS or enabling Syria, it would be someone else. Our continued existence as a country requires it, both on the battlefield and in the retail stores that help pay for the battle. As George F. Kennan wrote in Norman Cousins’s 1987 book, The Pathology of Power, “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military–industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”3
Simply, Americans are born into a world that advocates frivolous spending punctuated by displays of militaristic bravado.
And the Church is complicit.
We are complicit in the same way the churches in Revelation were. We, like some of them, have become so enamoured of security and wealth that we are insulated against the cry of the vulnerable and poor. We are complicit as they were, saying “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing,” yet fail to see “that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
We are complicit because we have sold out like Balaam (2:14), because we have tolerated and loved that woman Jezebel–a symbol of fake religion hiding our cultural acceptance (2:20-24). We have truly given ourselves over to both the Harlot and the Beast (remember the Bauckham quote from the previous post).
Later in Revelation, we will see how these twin images are used to describe the dual seductions of the Gospel of Caesar: namely, participation in an economy unjustly weighted toward the wealthy, and participation in the broader agenda of Rome which was directly influenced by the power of its armies. The message we’ll hear over and again is a call to overcome and resist such seductions, a call that at times exhorts God’s people to willingly opt out of all that could be theirs through participation: “Come out of her, my people,” (Rev.18:4), while at others it requires a firm resolve to testify to the theocentric nature of the universe (a concept we’ll return to in the next post), regardless of the consequences (Rev. 11:7; 13:8, 15).
As the churches in Revelation, we are complicit because for many of us, to be American is not in any way in tension with being a Christian. Because we (literally) wear our patriotism on our sleeves without ever asking whether such displays are in keeping with the Gospel.
We are complicit because at every point we affirm our acceptance of this system, from our often unthinking embrace of patriotic nationalism and the militarism it represents, to our utter addiction to buying stuff. Because when we attempt to opt out of either, we’re looked on with suspicion, such as our friends at Cherith Brook Catholic Worker, who purposefully live below the poverty line in order to show solidarity with their homeless friends and to keep from paying the war tax.
So now we look, speak, and act no different than our neighbors.
Sure, some parts of the American church enjoy the illusion of differentiation created by the thin veneer of our “positive alternatives” like “Christian” music, movies, and clothing, but these only go to show how far we have fallen from the alter-imperial example of our first century forebears, as these are simply lesser, parallel versions of the exact same culture, rather than absolute counters to it. You can change the name on the t-shirt, but the forces that caused it to be printed, shelved, and purchased remain unchanged.
We are no longer the “third race” that the writer to Diognetus called us because we fit into the same dualistic molds as our contemporaries. We are no longer the “impious Galileans” that Julian the Apostate railed against, who “support not only their own poor but ours as well.” Instead, we rail against the poor, telling them to “get a job” (provided they aren’t an immigrant and taking our job). We are no longer so committed to the peacemaking cause of Christ that we, like Martin of Tours, are willing to face imprisonment and death in order to not shed the blood of an enemy.
As the people of God, our birthright is to be on the side of the oppressed: of the widow, the orphan, and the alien. To offer our last ounce of energy to the weary and our last loaf of bread to the hungry. It is to offer our coat to the poor, because as Dorothy Day reminds us, “If you have two, you’ve stolen one from the poor.”
Ours is to choose the path of downward mobility.4 To choose weakness, not strength. Poverty, not riches.
Ours is to beat swords into plowshares (or assault rifles into shovels) and to be holistically pro-life, swallowing the hard truth that the terrorist’s life is just as valuable to God as the unborn, American child. Ours is to be released from acquisitiveness and fear, seeking to buy security at the expense of peace. To opt out of the iron triangle and join in the Trinitarian dance, so that we might join the churches of Revelation and overcome.
Endnote: I get that there’s a ton to unpack here. And I understand that some of these words could seem disparaging, especially toward America or our military. As I said previously, I mean no disrespect toward our servicemen and women (many of whom I have the pleasure to call family and friends), and I’m very grateful for having been born in America as it has provided so many more opportunities (and yes, security and privileges) than I would likely get elsewhere. I see my own consumeristic addictions everyday, so I am not unaware of my own failings. However, that does not mean that we can’t honestly try to hear John’s prophetic words toward the churches and ask ourselves if we, as part of the “seven” (complete) Church are not failing in similar ways.