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In Search of Security - Princeton University

"In Search of Security"
Princeton University
March 26, 2006
Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker

The word security is ever on our lips today.  I wonder how many times security is mentioned on CNN every 24 hours.  Government officials seem to spend more time discussing security than the environment, education, health care, the power grid, or road and bridges.  We speak of global security, national security, Social Security.  We want secure borders, secure ports, secure airports, secure subways.  We buy houses behind gates with security guards.  We wire our houses with home security systems, and we equip our cars with technology, like On Star for our security.  While we know that there is no protection from natural forces such as hurricanes, we demand effective warning systems and efficient emergency management systems.  If all else fails, we want insurance, a word whose meaning is "assurance."

In Peanuts Linus is a character hugging his "security blanket."  We have met Linus, and he is us.  America has become a Linus-nation where we are also searching for our security blanket. 

In our frantic search for security, shouldn't we pause to remember what philosophers and poets are always reminding us - that there is no absolute security in this world; that human existence is being thrown into contingencies; that we are mortal?

The wisest book in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Book of Job.  Job is wise because he has no pretension to wisdom, but he dares to look at reality without illusion.  As the poet Kenneth Rexroth observed, Job was not a Jew, but what we would call a Bedouin: what he knew he had learned from the "mystery of the desert, the cruelty of nature, the impassivity of the constellations."  Looking at his life with the clear eyes of one who will not be deceived, Job says

Truly the thing that I fear comes
upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest, but trouble

Job muses,

….Human beings are born to
just as sparks fly upward.

In other words, trouble will come to all of us just because this is the way things are.

What Job and other sages down through the ages remind us is that we human beings are vulnerable in this world.  The word vulnerable means "capable of being physically wounded" and "open to attack or damage."

We cannot let Job have the last word, but we must allow him the first work in our search for security in this world.  Just because we are vulnerable does not mean that we cannot take prudent measures to protect ourselves.  Nor does it mean that there is no security that we can possess.  But that we are vulnerable does mean that the search for absolute security in the world is an illusion. 

Only a fool thinks that he or she can possess absolute security in this world.  It is somewhat amusing to watch a fool trying to protect himself from the dangers of life.  When I was a child, I enjoyed a comic strip in the newspaper titled Spotless McFarland.  Spotless McFarland was a little boy obsessed with the fear of germs.  The absurd length to which he would go in trying to protect himself from germs were funny.

Our foolishness in trying to deny our vulnerability is not always comical.  It can also be dangerous.

On September 11, 2001 the United States was attacked by terrorists commissioned by Osama Bin Laden.  All of us watched our television sets with horror as we viewed passenger planes fly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and learned about a crash on a lonely field in Pennsylvania.  For the first time in the lives of many of us, we felt our vulnerability.  We had assumed that America, bordered by friendly nations and two vast oceans, was safe and secure from the kind of terrorism that had been a constant in the life of much of the world.

Since that awful day, much has happened.  As I reflect upon what America has become since September 11, 2001, I cannot help but observe: there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful nation that is afraid!  What is dangerous is that we are tempted to use our power in an effort to control events in an obsessive search for absolute security.

No one questions the right and the need for the United States, or any nation, to use appropriate means to defend its citizens from lawless attacks, including the use of force against terrorists.  Yet the search for absolute security by relying upon our power can cause us to over-react.  We over-react when we over-estimate our ability to guarantee our security by using our power.

In my opinion, there were two major demonstrations of over-reaction by the United States following September 11, 2001.

The first was the adoption by the government of the National Security Strategy in September, 2002.  Just this month the government released an up-date of the National Security Strategy.  This document presents the intellectual framework for how the United States should seek security in an era of international terrorism.  There are some wise elements in the National Security Strategy, but there is also a doctrine of preemptive war that many of us consider to be foolish and dangerous.

The doctrine of preemptive war is the idea that the United States has the right to conduct war against so-called rogue states in order to "forestall or prevent" hostile acts by our adversaries. 

Many consider the doctrine of preemptive war to be contrary to international law and established norms of morality.  I call the doctrine of preemptive war the "new morality" of war.  In any "new morality" I presume that the normal rules do not apply to me, but I am free to act as I choose in any given situation.  By adopting the doctrine of preemptive war the United States is presuming that the moral rules governing when to go to war do not apply to it in the new situation of the threat of international terrorism.  The United States is claiming the right to initiate war even if there is no imminent threat in order to prevent a possible catastrophe.  Yet the established norms for waging war have always included a prohibition against a nation attacking another nation when there is no imminent threat.  For example, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg rejected Germany's argument that it was compelled to attack Norway in order to prevent an attack by Allied Forces.

Established moral norms for waging war have included the right to take preemptive action whenever there is an imminent threat, such as the massing of armies on the border, but they have never included the right to take preemptive action when there is no imminent threat.  When President Dwight Eisenhower was asked his view of "preventative war," he remarked, "I don't believe there is such a thing.  I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing."

There are two main reasons why the doctrine of preemptive war is foolish.  For one thing, there is too much room for miscalculation.  What if the threat that was perceived was not as serious as it seemed?  Then the death and devastation of war would have been unnecessary.  More importantly, there is the most significant moral rule that war should be the last resort, but by definition war is not the last resort in a doctrine of preemption.  The doctrine of preemptive war makes war a normal tool of international politics.  Once preemptive war becomes acceptable, we can expect it to be used by other nations to justify invasions of their neighbors considered to be their enemies.

The other demonstration of over-reaction to September 11, 2001 was Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  I consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to be the first instance of the Unites States acting on its doctrine of preemption.  Many people have ostracized the government for invading Iraq because no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.  They say that the government misled us because there was no imminent threat from Iraq.  Although some leaders did talk as if they thought Iraq was an imminent threat, the main rationale for the war was not to counter an imminent threat, but to prevent Iraq from ever posing an imminent threat to the United States.  Operation Iraqi Freedom was an implementation of the doctrine of preemptive war.

Most of the Christian churches and leaders around the world warned against the war and pleaded with President George W. Bush not to rush to war.  Our rationale for protesting this war was our understanding of the principles of the Christian moral tradition of "just war."  The principles of just war are as follows: the cause itself must be just - to right a wrong, to defend against an act of aggression, to protect the innocent from injury; it must be undertaken by a legitimate authority; it must be a last resort; its reasonably predictable consequences must be better than the consequences of not going to war; there must be a reasonable expectation of victory; in the actual conduct of war, the belligerents must maintain "right intention," that is seeking peace with justice, never seeking unjust gains, not being corrupted by hatred; and the means used must be consistent with the just purpose, including avoiding intended injury to non-combatants. 

There were several reasons why this war would be considered unjust, but consider two of them.  One of them is that war should be a last resort.  Yet this war was launched before the inspectors of the United Nations had finished their task to find weapons of mass destruction and to dismantle them if they existed.  The other reason this war would be considered unjust was that the United States did not possess legitimate authority to invade Iraq to change the regime.  The United Nations did possess legitimate authority.  Its Charter states that regimes can be changed if they are a threat to other nations or their own people.  The Security Council of the United Nations is the body that must decide if a regime change is warranted.  But the United States acted unilaterally to form a "coalition of willing" to invade Iraq.  There are those who criticize the United Nations for corruption or ineptitude.  However, the United States has signed a solemn treaty to join the United Nations and to abide by its Charter, and the Constitution of the United States requires the government to abide by its treaties.

I respect the judgment of those who contend that there was moral justification for a regime change in Iraq because of the injustices that Saddam Hussein had committed against the citizens of Iraq.  However, the right to initiate regime change to correct injustice does not reside in any one government.  That right belongs to the Security Council of the United Nations.  President Bush does deserve credit for demanding that the United Nations hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his violation of resolutions of the United Nations.  But what if the United States had waited until the inspectors had finished their work and ascertained that Iraq posed no imminent threat since it had no weapons of mass destruction?  Then the debate in the United Nations would have shifted from a concern about WMD to a legitimate concern about the violation of U.N. resolutions and Saddam Hussein's injustice toward his own people.  This does not mean that a war against Iraq would have been inevitable.  There would have been the option of permitting Saddam to go into exile and placing the government under U.N. control to manage the creation of a new government of the Iraqi citizens.  If it were the judgment of the U.N. that there was no alternative to war in order to establish a just regime in Iraq, then the war would have been waged by a truly international force with the legitimate authority of the United Nations.  Of course, every diplomatic effort should have to be attempted before there was a resort to war.  There were legitimate moral concerns about the regime in Iraq.  However, just because there were these moral concerns does not mean that any one nation had the right or the authority to act on its own because the problem in Iraq affected the whole world.

Besides our direct moral considerations there were other reasons why we objected to the war in Iraq.  Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; yet this war was presented as part of the "war on terror."  Moreover, we considered that Iraq was not a nation, but only a state of rival ethnic groups and religions held together by the power of a dictator like Yugoslavia.  Once that power was removed, we feared the prospect of civil war.  Also, we feared that a war on an Arab Muslim country would inflame Arabs and Muslins around the world and make it easier for terrorist groups like Al-Queda to recruit even more terrorists. 

For these and other reasons we objected to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The war seemed to be an over-reaction to September 11, 2001.  Instead of building up American defenses without endangering civil liberties and developing an international effort of thwarting terrorist plots we launched am ambiguous "war on terror" with a claim to start preemptive wars because we feel terror.

I offer these opinions not to rehash the old debate about the justification of the war in Iraq.  I mention how the United States adopted the doctrine of preemptive war and launched an attack upon Iraq to illustrate how dangerous it is when a nation begins to feel its vulnerability and then tries to obtain absolute security by projecting its power to try to control events. 

It is not only the lawless acts of terrorists that have made us sense our vulnerability, but also the occurrence of devastating natural disasters.  We have witnessed a tsunami in Asia, a massive earthquake in Pakistan, and terrible hurricanes in America, especially Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Katrina descended upon us like a biblical apocalypse: it unveiled some cold, hard truths about ourselves.  Why did we neglect the repair of the levees around New Orleans and ignore the disappearance of wetlands for decades, even though the dangers were well-known?  Why were our governments so unprepared to evacuate the poor in New Orleans who had no personal means of transportation?  Why do we still ignore the realities of natural forces and allow development in wetlands and on barrier islands?

In this world we shall always be vulnerable to tragedies and atrocities.  Is there any source of security to which we can turn?

For those of us in the Christian community, security is a theological concept.  We believe that security must be sought in God.  Our hope for security is directed by the revelation of God according to the witness of the prophets and the apostles in the Bible.  What kind of security does God promise us according to the story of God's revelation in the Bible?

We do not expect that people of faith will receive special protection by God from the tragedies and atrocities of this world.  We know that we are mortal creatures who exist in a world of freedom where tragedies and atrocities occur.  Both nature and human nature are given freedom by the Creator; in such a world of freedom there can be beauty and goodness, but there can also be terror and wickedness.  Indeed, the main symbol of the Christian faith is the cross.  If the Son of God is not spared suffering and injustice, then how can we be spared? 

Even though we do not expect to find special protection in this world, we do hope for ultimate security in the world to come.  Our hope for absolute security is eschatological.  The apostle Paul eloquently expressed our hope when he wrote to the Church in Rome, "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword….?  No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord."  No matter what happens to us in this world of freedom, we know by faith the love of God with us, and this is a love that is more powerful than death itself.

Yet this is not all.  Even now in unfinished history we can find some tangible worldly security if we live our lives and order our security according to God's purposes that have been revealed to us.

At the end of his life, Augustine sat in his study in North Africa writing The City of God while the Roman Empire began to collapse all around him.  His purpose was to respond to the critics who claimed that the reason Rome was falling was because it had abandoned its gods and embraced Christianity.  As he studied human history in the light of the story in the Bible, Augustine reflected upon how we can find peace.  He said that Christians can find some peace even in the vicissitudes of life: our peace is not freedom from suffering, but peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ.  And he looked forward to the peace that "will be ours forever" beyond death in the City of God.  But he also mused that even now the "earthly city," the society of men and women in history, can know a tangible peace only if we will remember and do God's will.  Like the old man of Hippo pondering God's promise of peace for the earthly city we should reflect upon God's promise of security for our world.

The biblical revelation of God's purpose for us as a human society in history is community.  There can be no security without community.  This biblical vision of God's purpose for the world is expressed through the church's doctrines of creation and reconciliation. 

According to the Bible, we are created in the image of God.  Over the centuries Christian theologians have offered different interpretations of what it means for us to be created in God's image.  The two dominant interpretations are that to be created in God's image is to possess rationality or freedom of will.  Despite the truth in these classical views, the primary biblical perspective is that being created in God's image means that we have the capacity to relate.  We are created for communion with God and community with one another.  The Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler added ecology to communion and community.  That is, we have the capacity to relate to God, to one another, and to the whole ecology of the natural world. 

This relational understanding of being the image of God is expressed even more powerfully in the church's doctrine of the Trinity.  We are created in the image of the triune God.  God is one, but God is also a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As Hilary of Poitiers said, "God is one, but not solitary."  Basil of Caesarea frequently spoke of God as "a community of essence."  Because God is a community, a relationship among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are of one Being, to be created in God's image means to be a relational being.  It is our nature to be in community because we are created in the image of the triune God.

It is not only the church's doctrine of creation that expresses God's purpose that we live in community, but also the doctrine of reconciliation.  Because we misuse the freedom God gives us, and we fail to live together in community, God sent his Son Jesus Christ to reconcile us to God and to one another.  As the apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, God "reconciled us to himself through Christ, and had given us the ministry of reconciliation."

Consider, then, how there can be greater security in the world through community as God's gift and our task.

Last year The United Methodist Church engaged in a study of the Search for Security from the perspective of the Christian faith.  Bishops led discussions of the meaning of security in their areas all over the world - the United States, Europe, Africa and the Philippines.  We reflected upon a paper written by Bishop Walter Klaiber, a systematic theologian who was bishop in Germany.  In his paper, Bishop Klaiber quoted Theodore Webber's comments on the public complications of reconciliation.  Webber was trying to show how the Christian understanding of God's purposes of reconciliation give direction to nations seeking security in an era of terrorism.  Webber said, "Reconciliation, politically understood, is the process of eliciting, coordinating, and strengthening the elements of community in both domestic and international society.  The stronger the community and its ethos, customs, and laws, the stronger the invisible and presupposed security to be free, to be vulnerable.  The greater the invisible security of common will and supportive social fabric, the less need there is for visible, coercive 'security forces.'  Therefore, a politics of reconciliation, which attempts to overcome hostilities, conciliate interests, and generally strengthen the fabric of social relationships, may be much more valuable as a security policy than a politics of competition and armaments."

I ask you to compare the vision of a politics of reconciliation in the era of terrorism with a politics of unilateral national actions, including preemptive war.  Which is more likely to create a more secure world?  Those who trust in a narrow nationalism and militarism accuse Christians of being unrealistic.  But who is being unrealistic?  Because we are created in the image of the triune God to live in communion, community and ecology, and because God has reconciled us to Christ and given us the service of reconciliation, the only political strategies that are realistic are those that are grounded ontologically in an understanding that being human means living in community.  The political reconciliation works because it is based upon reality, the reality that we are made for community.

Then, consider how the Christian vision of security in community informs the kind of nation we can become.  After Hurricane Katrina, our brokenness as a nation was revealed.  It is not only that we learned that we need more effective government preparation for, and response to, national disasters.  It is also that we learned that we have not been good stewards of our nation as a community. We do not care for the environment like our wetlands and barrier islands.  We do not care for the poor in our midst.  The response of citizens to Hurricane Katrina was far different from the response of the governments.  People donated money, and they came to Louisiana and Mississippi to volunteer their help.  They wanted to help rebuild the neighborhoods that were devastated.  In other words, the voluntary response of the people has been an expression of our yearning to reclaim what it means for us to be a nation that is community.  Those of you are involved in disaster response have no power to prevent disaster, but you do have the power to help us to learn how to work together as a community to prepare for disasters and to come together as a community after a disaster to help one another. 

In 1991, the poet Robert Bly made a speech on the first war in Iraq by the first President Bush.  In his speech, Bly said that a nation is both a "state" and a "country."  He said the state is interested in international interests, and it has a valid interest in resources like oil.  It is the state that goes to war.  But he added that included in the United States is also a country.  The country also has its concerns: helping millions of children in poverty, rebuilding bridges and highways, improving schools, sheltering the homeless, dealing with racism and explosive inequalities, strengthening families.  Sometimes the state has interests that contradict the country's needs.  Bly observed that the United States has found it difficult to honor both these opposites, the state and the country, and to live in the resonating space between them.  What Bly called the "country" in the United States is what we mean by community.

If we are to find security in history in the midst of the vulnerabilities of human existence then we should look for it in community both here and abroad.

The mission of the church in history is to be the witness to God's purposes for persons and the world.  The church proclaims to us that the only ultimate security we can know in our vulnerability as creatures is the eternal love of God in Jesus Christ.  Knowing this love we are not afraid.  This love liberates us from the vain attempt to secure absolute security by own power.  It also directs us toward ordering our world as a community as the true basis of domestic and global security.

The first genuine Christian poet was Prudentius in the 4th century.  In one of his poems, the Crown of Martyrdom, he tells the story of Saint Lawrence.  Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome in the middle of the third century who suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Emperor Valerian, probably in A.D. 258.  According to tradition, Lawrence was in charge of the "holy things" of the church, such as liturgical objects like chalices and candlesticks, but also the church's treasury.  The prefect of the city came to Lawrence and asked him to place before him all the wealth of the church.  Lawrence replied, "Our church is rich.  I deny it not.  Much wealth and gold it has.  No one in the world has more."  Then Lawrence promises to present all the wealth of the church, but he asks for time to make a list of the church's treasury.  The prefect agrees to give Lawrence several days to conduct his inventory.  Then for three days Lawrence goes about the city gathering the sick and the poor.  The people he collects include a man with two eyeless sockets, a person with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with a leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities.  He writes down their names and lines them up at the entrance of the church.  When the prefect enters the church at the appointed hour, Lawrence points to the company of ragged and sick people and says, "These are the church's riches.  Take them."  Angrily the prefect arrests Lawrence and slowly burns him to death on a gridiron.

The poet Prudentius wrote that by his death Lawrence won the "civic crown" in that city where "the eternal senate" sits. In other words, Prudentius describes Lawrence as a new kind of citizen of Rome and a new kind of public hero.  Lawrence represented the citizen who knows the earthly city should be a reflection of the city of God.  Our earthly city is a community whose treasure is its people; including the sick and the poor.

The search for security is a never-ending quest in a world where

….Human beings are born to
just as sparks fly upward.

Whatever security can be obtained in this life is found in God, who calls us into communion with God and community with one another and care for the creation.