Twenty Years Later: Thoughts on War and the Powers

"Sgt. Paul L. Anstine III, U.S. Marine Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Iraq. (One might better put it: Not the start, but the escalation of a longer running war.) Without trying to analyze geo-political complexities, I invite us to ponder how the world might be different today if that invasion had not happened.

The anniversary caught me off guard. As it happened, I had been reading some passages from William Stringfellow’s classic tract on discipleship and resistance, An Ethic for Christians and Others in a Strange Land (1973). He writes of the ubiquity and myriad proliferations of the principalities and powers that vie with each other for survival and ascendency as they afflict and oppress living human beings. Somehow, mysteriously, all these powers that be, great and small, serve one overarching force, which Stringfellow names as Death.

[A]gain and again, with nations no less than other powers, history discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality – for a great corporation, profit, for example; or, for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity – that is sooner or later superseded by the greater moral power of death (Quoted from A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, Ed. Bill Wylie-Kellerman, Eerdmans, 1994, p. 207-208).

I paused to fix breakfast, catching the headlines on public radio, wherein I heard Stringfellow’s insights into our world’s malaise verified empirically: Vladimir Putin is meeting with Xi Jinping. The Navaho nation is suing the federal government to procure its rightful water allotment from a dying Colorado River. Financial analysts fret over the stability of our banking system (the same system the Congress has in recent years worked to deregulate). My Congressman, Jim McGovern, is criticizing the Biden administration’s plan to expand oil drilling in Alaska (NPR's Morning Edition, March 20, 2023). Principalities all, struggling to survive and thrive amid chaos and scarcity – collective powers representing real people, to be sure, but also something more.

Then I was stopped cold by a story comprised of personal reflections from people who have witnessed first-hand the costs of the war in Iraq (I couldn't find a link to this piece on NPR's website): A man who lived in Fallujah still struggles with a seared conscience for lying to a wounded boy, claiming the youth’s parents were still alive, to persuade him to go to the hospital. A U.S. Army interpreter recounts the mutual disillusionment as relationships between occupiers and occupied soured. An Iraqi man laments how U.S. troops secured the building of the oil ministry while looters had open season on the priceless antiquities of the national museum in Baghdad.

In a later piece, reflective (if perhaps overly sanguine) comments from retired Admiral Mike Mullen (who, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped oversee the troop surge in Iraq) confirm my view that those who prosecuted this conflict were not, tout court, intrinsically evil people with a callous disregard for the human consequences ("After Iraq, Mullen wants to prevent future presidents from launching a war of choice"). Like you and me – and like everyone else – they were caught in a complex web of forces beyond direct human control, though I wouldn’t wish to dismiss questions of human agency and accountability either. As furious as I was at the likes of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary Rumsfeld, it is crucial, from a Christian standpoint, to draw a distinction between the individuals who (ostensibly) “hold” power and the much more potent, if more elusive principalities they represent (e.g., the Presidency, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex). Reading Stringfellow has taught me to appreciate this distinction. Indeed, as he notes, the scope of a principality can so utterly overwhelm its human subject or representative that that person’s humanity can be virtually swallowed up by it.

I remember those early days of the war – the several dozen protestors holding vigil on the Amherst, Massachusetts town commons, the classroom of otherwise somnolent undergrads in a religion class who came alive and tinned my ear when I opened up a convo about the conflict; above all, the pervasive feelings of shock, outrage, doom, and resignation as events unfolded. My wife Leah and I had just gotten married that fall. She joined some Marxists and other protestors from a local community college at a protest in DC. My idealistic and energetic young cousin was living with us during his AmeriCorps year of service with Vietnamese immigrants and refugees.

Arrogant and revved up, I was prepping a parish adult ed intro course on Christology. Leah put in my hands some book of Stringfellow’s, my first encounter. I don’t recall exactly, but I think it might have been his 1963 work, Free in Obedience, a book that NT scholar and activist Walter Wink would later admit inspired his own trilogy on the principalities and powers. In this slim tract, Stringfellow resets the drama of fall and redemption in a new key – the context of U.S. churches overwhelmed by post-war urbanization, wealth inequality, white supremacy, and increasingly radical agitation for racial justice. In the face of crisis and confusion, he offers this word of hope, apropos of the drama of Holy Week:

Christ’s resurrection is for human beings and for the whole of creation, including the principalities of this world. Through the encounters between Christ and the principalities and between Christ and death, the power of death is exhausted (ibid., p. 203).

How can these things be? Clearly, Stringfellow posits a cosmic mystery reason cannot plumb. Still, a central piece of the matter seems to be the exposure of the religious and political powers and their false claims to supremacy unmasked in Jesus’ passion. I think this comports with the (deutero)Pauline insight: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15, NIV). Stringfellow continues:

The reign of death and, within that, the pretensions to sovereignty over history of the principalities, is brought to an end in Christ’s resurrection. He bears the fullness of their hostility toward him; he submits to their condemnation; he accepts their committal of himself to death, and in his resurrection he ends their power and the power they represent (ibid., p. 203).

Frankly, I don’t know what the practical import of Stringfellow’s words might be for those who strategize and struggle for peace, nor how (if at all) such views might impact policies. Perhaps his words do lend insight and support for those of us who pray for peace and the advent of God’s reign. But without trying to analyze theological complexities, I ask you to ponder how our lives might be different if you and I believed his insights were true.


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