Thursday, September 20, 2018
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Projecting Power or Promoting Peace

George W. Bush Presidential CenterThe Prophetic Call for Justice, Kindness, Humility

I want to speak tonight in the language of spirit, but about subjects that transcend religion. I want to discuss politics, but in a way that transcends parties. I want to struggle with crises we have created out of ignorance and inattention; face up to problems that have no simple solutions; deal with the depths of human destructiveness and despair.

This will lead us, of course, to George W. Bush and his administration’s contribution to this mess.
But first I want to talk about sin and redemption. I want to confess, to testify, and to prophesy. I want to speak in this manner not just because we are at Southern Methodist University, but because it is appropriate for end times.
By end times, I don’t mean the fantasies of a rapture that will take us to a heavenly place but the realities of a rupture in the fabric of our living world. These are the times in which we must end the unjust and unsustainable systems that govern our world -- the end times for U.S. imperialism, for a predatory corporate capitalism, and for the fantasy of endless abundance. If we cannot end those systems in our time, then the end times surely are coming.
There is no place better to face our obligation to end those times than the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a monument to these failed systems.
In the shadow of that center, let’s begin by posing a spiritual question: Are we going to settle for piety (in both theology and politics) and sink into the profane? Or can we strive for humility and seek the holy (in spiritual and secular terms)?
This evening I am speaking in the language of the Christian tradition in which I was raised and to which I have returned, though the values I speak of are common to all the theological and philosophical traditions that people hold dear in this world. We speak through the stories of our culture and our time, but I believe those of us here tonight speak a common language of love. More on that later.
Tonight we are focused on one specific period of time, one administration, one set of lies and obfuscations, and their terrible consequences. But our task is to face a larger reality in regard to empire, economics, and ecology. The problem is not that the policies of George W. Bush’s administration put us on a new road, but instead that they took us faster and further toward the inevitable destination of the road on which we’ve been on. This road on which we have been traveling leads to a cliff, and we are perilously close to the edge.
So, I want to speak theologically but in the service of a political question: Do we imagine our future will be secured through the projection of power or through the promotion of peace? If we dare to answer “peace,” are we willing to take the risks necessary to challenge that power?
Confession and testimony
First, my confession. Although I am arguing that we should focus on the big picture -- on the systems and institutions that structure power in society -- I have sometimes succumbed to the temptation to mock political opponents. During the eight years of the Bush administration, I sometimes made fun of our president, suggesting he was intellectually and/or emotionally and/or morally unsuited for high office. I sometimes repeated his most comical verbal missteps, using phrases such as “make the pie higher” as cheap laugh lines, even though I knew that played into the hands of Bush’s handlers, who loved presenting him as an ordinary guy, clearing brush on his ranch and clear-cutting the English language.
For these sins, I ask forgiveness. It’s easy to shore up one’s own sense of moral and intellectual superiority by mocking others. Even when others deserve to be mocked, it is almost always self-indulgent and counterproductive. Better than implying we are right because others are so obviously wrong, we should demonstrate we are right through righteousness.
Second, my testimony. In a funny way, George W. Bush is responsible for me returning to membership in a Christian church, a tradition that I had abandoned as a young person. I joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin in 2005, in part because of the welcoming atmosphere of that progressive congregation and the political courage of its pastor, the Rev. Jim Rigby. I was pleasantly surprised to find a church that welcomed my radical politics and didn’t demand that I accept supernatural theological claims (the belief in god as a force, entity, or being that has the capacity to direct the world; or the belief in the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event). St. Andrew’s was a hospitable place for me to land, where religion was understood as the struggle for deeper wisdom through historical experience, mythology, and poetry, rather than the imposition of rigid rules through delusion, dogma, and doctrine.
But I might not have been looking for a place to land if not for Bush’s skillful use of religion politically, which forced me to think more about the Christian character of the United States. By that I don’t mean we are a “Christian nation” in the sense that Glenn Beck suggests, but only that Christianity provides the dominant spiritual narrative of the culture. Bush helped me realize that I could deride the forces that are most prominent in that tradition today (which vary, depending on the denomination, from the mushy centrist to the harsh reactionary) or I could fight for a progressive theology and a radical politics rooted in the Gospels and the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. For two decades I had assumed that the crude, ham-handed theology and politics of the Moral Majority and similar groups would run its course, but I finally realized that was based on wishful thinking, not evidence. So, I went back to church.
For this revelation, I am grateful to the former president. Not everyone has to work within a religious tradition, of course, but progressive/radical movements cannot afford to abandon that turf to the reactionary right. For most of my life I had felt smug and comfortable in my secular worldview, which reduced my political effectiveness and limited my vision. Bush changed my heart, in a roundabout sort of way.
The prophetic voice
Confession of sin and testimony about faith are important, but more crucial for the future is our willingness to prophesy. I don’t use that term to suggest I can see the future or have special status. Rather, I believe we all should strive to tap into the prophetic voice within us. To speak in that voice is not to claim exclusive insight or definitive knowledge, nor is it to speak arrogantly. We speak in the prophetic voice when we are true to the best of our traditions and the best in ourselves. The prophets of the Hebrew tradition, for example, typically did not see themselves as special. When the king’s priest confronted Amos for naming the injustice of his day, Amazi’ah called Amos a “seer” and commanded him to pack his bags and head to Judah and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos rejected the label:
[14] Then Amos answered Amazi’ah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,

[15] and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
[Amos 7:14-15]
You may be saying to yourself, I seek no such calling, but neither did the prophets. Jeremiah told God he did not know how to speak, but God didn’t buy the excuse:
[7] But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak.

[8] Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

[9] Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.

[10] See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
[Jer. 1:7-10]
Nor was it typically much fun to fill the role of a prophet. On this, Jeremiah was clear:
[9] Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words.
[Jer. 23:9]
My heart is broken within me as well. This room is no doubt filled with broken hearts tonight. I speak not just of the heartbreaks that come, inevitably, with being human -- the heartbreaks of disappointment, distress, disease, and death. The heartbreak that I refer to is not the unavoidable suffering of being human, but the suffering produced by imperialism, a predatory corporate capitalism, and a fantasy of endless abundance. That avoidable suffering demands that we speak prophetically in opposition to the systems out of which that suffering arises. We know we must reject religious fundamentalism, but we also must reject the national fundamentalism at the heart of imperial wars of domination; the economic fundamentalism at the heart of capitalism’s cult of greed; and the technological fundamentalism that spins the story of infinite consumption on a finite planet.
To speak prophetically we must strip away the delusional trappings of the culture and remember the core of our humanity. The world is complex, but the command is simple. Another of the Old Testament prophets, Micah, captured this:
[8] He has showed you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
[Mic. 6:8]
Of those virtues, I want to focus on the importance of humility. When we speak in the prophetic voice, we necessarily speak with passion and conviction. But we all know that passion and conviction can lead any of us to arrogance and self-righteousness. The counterbalance to that is humility, which brings us back to George W. Bush.
False humility
In Bush’s first presidential campaign, during the second debate, he used the word “humble” five times when discussing his approach to foreign policy:
“It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.

…“We’re a freedom-loving nation. And if we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.…“I think the United States must be humble and must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.” [1]

That’s the Bush rhetoric on humility, but we know what the reality was like. Humility was not the strong suit of the Bush administration, especially in foreign policy. The Bush administration didn’t really do humility, unless we define humility as the instinct to use massive violence to achieve the goals of elites, while expressing contempt for international law, international institutions, the views of a vocal group within the United States, and the views of a majority of the people of the world.
That’s a fair description of U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration. I use the term “unilateralist thugs” to describe the Bush gang. “Thugs” in the sense of the willingness to use violence, and “unilateralist” in the approach to international law and organizations, and domestic and world opinion. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration didn’t even bother going to the U.N. Security Council for authorization, preferring to ignore international law. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it attempted to secure a resolution but went forward anyway when that attempt failed.
The humility Bush promised evaporated quickly, but that shouldn’t surprise us, for humility hasn’t been the stance of any U.S. administration. We might recall the