From Rev. Peter Laarman, Director of Progressive Christians Uniting and valued partner of FPL.
The Right’s appropriation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy is, to me, a significant if minor footnote to the larger chronicle of a triumphant conservative resurgence over the course of four decades. What the right-wingers like about Niebuhr, it goes without saying, is his willingness, especially later in his long career, to sanction the use of U.S. military power for worthy ends. My purpose is not to apotheosize Niebuhr or to excuse his susceptibility to the blandishments of the powerful. I want simply to focus in on Niehbuhr’s core insight that Christians should see the world as it is and act ethically in the light of a clear-sighted realism. For the neoconservatives and for most other Right ideologues, “realism” means understanding how bad they are–all the “enemies of freedom,” “Islamo-fascists,” etc.; yet surely a major part of Niebuhr’s realism entailed understanding our own propensity to sinning, our own capacity for self-deception and hubris. It’s this kind of Christian Realism that is in critically short supply right now.
Clear-sighted realism, whether Christian or otherwise, is a scarce commodity in all of contemporary U.S. culture, suggesting that American Christians, for the most part, are every bit as encapsulated in the corporate-media mystification bubble as everyone else. The fact that fully 40 percent of adult Americans–and a solid majority of self-described Christians–still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks only begins to scratch the surface of Americans’ willful ignorance and credulity.
Other evidence of the advanced decay of critical faculties in this land:
- a public that seems barely aware, let alone alarmed, over the implications of Bush’s push to get his official eavesdropping, his military tribunals (which allow the use of coerced evidence), and official U.S. government torture legalized by Congress; this latest push–and this administration’s concomitant fearmongering about terrorists at the gate–amounts to nothing else than an attempted coup d’etat, but almost no one seems attuned to that reality. All the White House needs to do to advance its agenda is to bray, “Do you want to give Miranda rights to terrorists?” Very few seem to be fazed or outraged by the depth of such villainy.
- an American public that continues to be ruled by fear. So fearful are we that it is hard for us even to imagine how the Londoners of 1940, who saw 30,000 (not 3,000) of their neighbors die, and 100,000 houses destroyed, during the first days of the Luftwaffe blitz, kept going about their business with quiet calm and courage, refusing to surrender to their fear.
- a public that may have finally turned against the Iraq war but only because that war now looks unwinnable and not because the whole premise of the invasion and subsequent occupation was profoundly immoral and illegal
- a huge majority of self-described Christians who can still judge George W. Bush to be a deeply moral and decent man despite his obvious lack of a moral compass
- almost no public agitation for the impeachment of this president for his easily-documented high crimes and misdemeanors: misleading Congress in the run-up to the Iraq war, recklessly endangering members of our armed forces, openly violating key provisions of the Constitution, etc.
- an American public that still doesn’t seem to understand how thoroughly its pockets are being picked by the set of policies that constitute what Bush and his cohorts are pleased to call an “ownership society.”
It is this last blindness, I think, that holds the key to the rest. The heart of our collective stupor is connected to the way Americans think of themselves as consumers rather than as citizens. So we don’t care, for example, if the oil is running out or if carbon emissions are suffocating the earth itself; what we care about is whether the price of gas is going to go up to $4. We tell pollsters that we’re still doing okay because we’re still spending at a rate that makes us happy, even if our household savings are in the negative zone and we are funding our purchases on maxed-out credit cards and shaky home equity loans. We take comfort in the fact that the U.S. still has the world’s most productive economy, but we fail to see that the price of that productivity is chronic overwork, not technological innovation or wise use of productive capital.
Consumption is a lonely pursuit, but it is a pursuit that accords perfectly with the high level of small-bore anxiety that rules our culture. Shouldn’t I trade up and out of this tired-looking house? Have I bought them enough gear to make my kids feel okay with their school peers? Why can’t I take the kind of vacation my co-workers take instead of going to the same old place every year? I don’t have an I-pod or a Mac computer or a plasma TV–is there something wrong with me?
Consumerism pits me against other consuming monads. It invites me to think about how well I will fare when I’m ready for retirement, how I am going to cope with outrageous health care costs, how I will finesse getting the education I need in order to compete for material success; it definitely does not invite us to think collectively about how we will fare in retirement, maintain our health, or gain education for the enhancement of life itself rather than for purposes of workplace competition. This latter way of thinking–thinking about the “we” and doing so with the benefit of critical consciousness–is the business of citizenship, not consumerism.
But aren’t Christians supposed to be about the “we”? Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Our Father, who art in Heaven” and “give us this day our daily bread”? Did Jesus not warn us not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal”? Did Jesus not say, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” and also (this one is hard) “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”?
For more than three centuries of the North American experience, a very significant number of Christians did in fact concern themselves with matters of citizenship–with the defense of the commonweal–and did not attend only to their private thriving. As Randall Balmer demonstrates convincingly in his new book, evangelical Christians were among the staunchest agitators for a godly commonwealth in which all would have access to the good things of life: food and drink, rest and recreation, good public schools, decent housing and health care, and a secure and dignified old age.
When and how this shifted decisively–when and how North American Christians ceased to believe in the importance of the commonweal–is a matter for dispute and debate, but it does certainly seem that the seeds for the final ascendancy a false consumerist paradise– and for the manufacturing of consent–were sown in the period of unparalleled prosperity that followed the Second World War. Even then, however, there were powerful voices–voices like Niebuhr’s, in fact–asking not just whether the consumerist paradise is the best of all possible worlds but also asking quite specifically whether it is a paradise that Christians should find themselves celebrating.
Now, of course, we begin to see the full extent of the damage done by our complete and unconditional surrender to consumerism. Now we begin to see the full apostasy of our habit of evaluating politicians and their proposals in good consumerist fashion on the basis of packaging, not substance. We begin to see, but just barely, the decadence of ignoring, say, the legalization of torture in our name because, after all, the new television season is already upon us and the kids are starting school and, well, there’s just a lot going on right now.
The paramount challenge facing progressive Christians, I believe, is developing the courage and the tools needed to puncture the mystification bubble; the challenge is finding the capacity open the eyes and awaken the consciences of our fellow Christians and of the body politic as a whole to the suffering and danger all around us.
I do not pretend to have a blueprint for how we meet this challenge. I do know that we won’t meet it unless we immerse ourselves much more deeply in scriptures of hope and liberation. Perhaps a place to begin is with the insight that this is not the first time God’s people have found themselves inside a bubble of mass deception:
“Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor…For the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers…
“Because these people draw near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing…
“…on that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off.” (Isaiah 29)