A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as ‘beast’

Sep 22, 2016 by

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I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book by Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.

I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, U.N.-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.

That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach — I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the U.N. be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the U.S. were committed to U.N. peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world.

The next thought, though, was wait a minute, isn’t the role of the U.S. in the world precisely the issue? Ever since August 1945 and the end of World War II, the United States has been by far the dominant nation in the world — both economically and militarily. Couldn’t it be that American unwillingness to commit to peace has been the biggest reason we have not had more peace — by far? That’s the lesson that follows from the research and writing I did for my book, The Good War That Wasn’t — And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. So, let’s stay with this thought a bit.

World peace as something ‘simple’?

If it truly is the case that by far the biggest reason for a lack of world peace is the United States (see these chapter drafts from The Good War That Wasn’t for some support for this statement), then couldn’t we say that the path toward greater world peace is simple. Just get the U.S. to change its approach — break its spiral of militarism, give up on its imperialism, act seriously to get rid of nuclear weapons. There actually seems to be few (if any) externally driven requirements for the approach we currently follow; it’s almost completely an American choice to be this way. That is, we face no external threats that require the level of warism that our nation currently embraces. It’s our choice; it’s an “elective” approach.

Now, to say the path toward world peace is “simple” is not to say that it is easy. There are indeed powerful forces in the U.S. that fuel our warism — a lot of them are economic. Just think a little about the unmeasurable wealth that is directed from the federal treasury to war profiteers (and I mean “unmeasurable” literally because the Pentagon is not remotely interested in measuring it). And a small fraction of those war profits get redirected back toward our political power elite in campaign contributions and other forms of influence buying. Why else is the current choice between Clinton and Trump limited to being a choice between two styles of unfettered warism?

Other factors dovetail with the economic. The propaganda machine that treats the myth of redemptive violence as unassailable, even unmentionable, runs our corporate media (just one small example that is current has to do with the millions of dollars the U.S. military funnels into the National Football League to fund blindly patriotic and military-glorifying “celebrations of America”; this connection explains why many criticize the recent mild protests about police violence during playings of the national anthem as being “disrespectful of the troops”).

Driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia right now exposes one to multitudes of Trump/Pence campaign signs (and literally no Clinton/Kaine signs). It is speculation on my part, but I interpret these as at least somewhat signaling a desire by economically downtrodden white people for America to be “great again” — a desire typically linked with warism. As if our “greatness” (whatever that is) is re-established by military conquest.

We wouldn’t be in the fix we are now with our runaway militarism that threatens the survival of life on earth itself if it were easy to turn it around. But maybe it can help this necessary work if we could focus more on the central problem — and recognize that this problem is, nonetheless, simple. It’s not really that our world system is not amenable to peace and we have to do all this complicated and hard to imagine work to come up with a world government that can enforce world peace. Maybe it’s simply that only one actor needs to change — the United States.

Military spending

As part of our thought experiment, let’s focus on just one theme, American military spending. Estimates vary, but every analysis I have seen puts the American share of global spending on the military at around 50 percent. That is, we spend as much money on our military as the rest of the world put together. We have roughly 196 independent countries in the world today (depending on how they are counted). So the United States spends as much on our military as the other 195 countries in the world.

How can this be necessary? How can this be something that is required for our security as a nation? And of the military spending by non-U.S. countries, how much is spent by our unassailable allies (say, the NATO countries, Israel and Australia)? The spending of our close allies should be added to our total, so that we are talking about an immensely disproportionate amount of spending vis-à-vis our potential enemies. And how much of the spending of our potential enemies is strictly defensive, money they wouldn’t spend if we weren’t spending so much?

And we should factor in, as I mentioned above, that amount of our military spending that simply is a subsidy for war profiteers — spending that does nothing to enhance our actual national security. In fact, for example, a lot of that subsidy gets poured into our nuclear arsenal that, of course, greatly enhances our national insecurity.

So, looking at U.S. military spending we may see two things — (1) it’s extraordinarily immense and (2) it’s mostly unnecessary in the sense that it is not driven by actual threats or security considerations. What would happen then if there was one “simple” change — that we drastically reduced our military spending, linking it with genuine security needs. By greatly cutting back on the world’s worst threat to global peace (the American military), all kinds of creative and life-enhancing possibilities would be opened up. The world would have greatly increased availability of resources for healing work — health care, infrastructure renewal, alternative energy investment, education, pollution cleanup, and on and on.

By recognizing that the path to greater world peace is this simple (though not easy!), we may be encouraged to focus our energies more on that one thread that could unravel the entire dynamic of global fear and insecurity.

Standing against the ‘beast’

The book of Revelation, it seems to me, can be a tremendous resource for stimulating our imaginations to empower this work of enhancing world peace. Not because it gives us information about the future but because it gives us insights about the present dynamics of empire and empire resistance. Certainly many things have changed since the first century, but the reality of empires and domination remains a constant. Revelation contains what many scholars recognize as an unprecedented critique of imperial power — a critique that remains relevant today.

I want to mention just two images from the middle part of Revelation. Revelation 13 introduces us to the beast. This beast is extraordinary — and almost certainly, in the immediate context of Revelation, alludes to the Roman Empire. However, by linking the beast with the underlying influence of the dragon (Satan), John means to convey a sense that what’s in mind is what we could call the spirituality of the Empire, its underlying values, myths, and structures that serve centralized power and domination — and that this means all empires.

John is not condemning the particular human beings who form Rome’s power elite as irredeemably evil (in fact, in the end, “the kings of the earth” [his term throughout the book for this elite] actually end up being healed). Rather, he is concerned with the beliefs, myths, narrative framing, and the like.

The point, though, is that the spirit of Empire is extraordinarily powerful as it is embodied in this particular Roman Empire. Revelation 13 shows how overwhelming that power seems (“who can stand against it?” — no one, it appears). And the power is operationalized by an impressive propaganda system (led by the “false prophet”) — something we see in many of the artifacts from the Roman era that portray the emperor as divine and his power as inexorable.

It would not be difficult to see numerous parallels between the scenario in Revelation 13 and our present context in the US. Sure, America is not Rome — the differences are significant. But I believe the parallels are more significant. Part of our work in seeking to enhance world peace as I suggested above, focusing on challenging American militarism, can be furthered by understanding better the spiritual underpinnings of the American Empire. Revelation 13 can give us some clues about that.

John’s intent in Revelation 13, though, is not to offer a counsel of despair. He answers the seemingly rhetorical question about “who can stand against it?” at the beginning of chapter 14. There is someone standing, the Lamb — along with his followers (the “144,000” here is actually a symbol for the “uncounted multitude” we are introduced to in chapter 7). [For more on this point, see this sermon, “How Do We Fight the Beast?”]

The point I take from the standing Lamb for the agenda of this post is that to stand for peace, to witness to a different kind of narrative framing that reflects a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, is actually something that can be done, that can make a difference, that reflects an affirmation of the moral grain of the universe.

I think Revelation encourages us to make it a point of emphasis whenever we can that the biggest obstacle to world peace right now is American militarism. And that this militarism is unnecessary and counter-productive for the wellbeing of the American people themselves, not to mention everyone else in the world. This is a simple message. It will be enhanced by information, by analyses, by factual critiques. But at bottom, it points to a spiritual struggle. And the resources of Revelation and other accounts of the message of Jesus may well be essential. If Christianity has any validity in the world today (and it may not, given its legacy as an empowering dynamic in the creation and sustenance of the American Empire), it lies with an embrace of the anti-imperial message of Revelation, the gospels and the rest of the Bible.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va. He blogs at Thinking Pacifism, where this post first appeared.


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  • Dale Welty

    Ted, what you are suggesting sounds a lot like what Neville Chamberlain did, prior to WW 2, when he negotiated the Munich Agreement with Hitler, France & England stating we have peace in our time. Why did that not work? Dale Welty

  • Berry Friesen

    A few people do indeed reject the spirit of Empire because of what they read in “Revelation and other accounts of the message of Jesus.” Once upon a time many Mennonites did just that. But nowadays, most folks (including Mennonites who read the Bible) have lost the capacity to recognize and shun “the spirit of Empire.” Instead, what they see (liberals and conservatives alike) is a god-blessed nation that is well-intentioned but tragically unable to fix a complicated and unpredictable world.

    What then will save us?

    Ted points to “information, analyses, factual critiques.” I pray he’s right; that’s why I blog at http://www.bible-and-empire.net about the empire’s deadly ways.

    But let’s face it: information, analysis and factual critiques are weak tea compared to the spirit of Empire, which fills our hearts and minds with deceptions we emotionally embrace. Thus, by and large, we have been co-opted by the Empire and wish it every success.

    This is “a spiritual struggle,” as Ted says. Much more than bloggers are needed before the scales fall from our eyes.

    • Joshua Rodd

      A sizeable amount of Mennonites and other Anabaptists continue to embrace what James said, and we believe that “friendship with the world is enmity with God”. We do not see our country as a “God-blessed nation”; we just believe that God sends rain on both the just and the unjust.
      We see a biblical duty to pray for those in authority over us, and we are thankful for times of peace for us. But I think you’re overlooking a whole bunch of us who consider ourselves citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and ambassadors to our earthly citizens around us.

      • Berry Friesen

        I stand corrected, Josh. Thank you!

  • Joshua Rodd

    The idea of world peace is intriguing, but how will we have peace as long as this remains true:

    “Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask; you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions.”

    UN committees, peacemaking organisations, and peace treaties won’t do anything to fix the problem that passions battle inside each of us. The message of Jesus is that he can fix the problem where we desire and don’t have, and thus we murder, envy, quarrel, and fight.

  • Ernest Martinson

    Do not feed the beast by voting for the two-party duopoly in November. There are third parties for those with eyes to see.
    Military spending dwarfs campaign spending. Nevertheless, relatively small campaign spending has been effective in sustaining the duopoly and the beast. We have met the enemy and it is US.

  • Greaq Van Pep

    This is an excellent perspective that reminds me of contemporary philosopher Jens Meiert and his post on ‘On America’ *. Quoting: ‘The United States have so far engaged in 71 wars in which they killed 13.8 million people […]. The U.S. have led 26 proxy wars in which they took 1.4 million lives.’ That seems to be more than what the Germans killed in WW2–and yet there is no discussion anywhere on how to stop all this killing (except here….). We torture, we detain, we murder, and the only country that provokes is really, us. And then everyone proudly waves the flag as if that was all okay.

    If we ever put all this military spending into education……

    * https://meiert.com/en/blog/20140909/on-america/