Our Religious Monsters

by Stephen Gowans

November 12, 2001


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Western theologians as keen as the Taliban to pervert religions of peace

A cartoon depicting God giving a thumbs up to American bombers.

Headlines reading,

The Just War

The right to smite

If the US and its allies are to maintain the moral high ground, they must weigh the costs of their war against its benefits, (as if there's a moral high ground to maintain.)

That's what awaited readers of the Toronto Globe and Mail, on the morning of October 31, Halloween.

Along with...

Those theologians who are not pacifists have generally given the US and its allies the green light on the right to go to war.

The Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin was skeptical of the idea of God and right, and for good reason. These ideas have, on more than a few occasions, marched millions off to early deaths, in pointless, bloody wars, fought, it was said, for national honor, for God, for some high moral purpose, but somehow, it always seemed that the enemy's markets were captured and their oil wells blundered into, as John Flynn put it, in 1944.

U.S President Woodrow Wilson put it differently: "Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here, who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?" Sadly, yes, there are. Theologians, and newspaper editorialists, their colleagues in arms in confusing the issue, have seen to it.

Priests, pastors, mullahs, rabbis, any theologian, Bakunin argued, are, along with right, national honor, and God "the vampires of history, ever nourished upon human blood." To his list, he could have added the newspaper columnists who fervently beat the drums of war, and cover up the atrocities committed by their own governments.

"All human history has been only a perpetual and bloody immolation of millions of poor human beings in honor of some pitiless abstraction," he wrote, in his God and the State.

Were he alive today, Bakunin may have thundered: "If God approves the war, then God, if he truly exists, must be abolished." Amen.

It's hard to reconcile the idea that theologians, especially Christian theologians, who are supposed to be inspired by the Nazarene, could give the green light to a war that so flagrantly violates international law, whose outcomes are so horrific, whose aims are so dubious, that has been so unforgiving to the innocent. But not surprising. For centuries, theologians -- at least establishment theologians, among whose ranks Jesus would never be counted -- have blessed the rapine, the wars of conquest, the genocides, perpetrated by monarchs and governments in whose service they have so willingly toiled, and for which they have been so handsomely rewarded, with honors, with comforts, with prestige. Theologians giving the green light to war simply means that dark, dimly lit, back-streets are not the only place whores ply their trade. Theirs is to confer a moral imprimatur on decisions taken in advance of moral consideration. Hence, the inapt metaphor, "give the green light to." Are we to believe that Washington awaited approval from theologians before blasting Afghans to pieces, anymore than they awaited a green light from scholars of international law? You can't give the green light to a muscle car that just sped through a red light. All you can say is, "Oh, you just went through the light. Well, I guess that's all right." In which case, if you use Latin and seemingly recondite ideas, you'll be feted, celebrated as a great moral thinker. Or you can say, "No, this is wrong," in which case you'll be marginalized. Or forced to wear a crown of thorns, an indignity the great theologians of today -- casuists in the service of the powerful -- will never have to bear.

Charlatans rely on big words and high-faulting ideas to befog those they want to sucker, and theologians, as one species of charlatan, are no different. Whenever you hear anyone mention jus ad bellum or jus in bello, (see war, just) when you hear God invoked, or patriotism appealed to, you'd be well-advised to watch out. Your life, or that of innocents abroad, will soon be on the line.

"If somebody told you, that God is on your side," sang blues men Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, "I was told the very same thing, so you know somebody lied."

Screenwriter Donald Trumbo put it another way. In his 1939 antiwar classic, Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo's protagonist, an American casualty of W.W.I who's so badly mangled he can't talk or hear or speak or walk or touch, mutely commands,

"Take me into your churches, your great towering cathedrals that have to be rebuilt every fifty years because they are destroyed by war. Carry me in my glass box down the aisles where kings and queens and priests and brides and children at their confirmation have gone so many times before to kiss a splinter of wood from a true cross on which was nailed the body of a man who was lucky enough to die. Set me high on your altars and call on god to look down on his murderous little children, his dearly beloved little children. Wave over me the incense I can't smell. Swill down the sacramental wine I can't taste. Drone out the prayers I can't hear. Go through the old holy gestures for which I have no legs and no arms. Chorus out the hallelujahs I can't sing. Sing them out loud and strong for me your hallelujahs all of them for me because I know the truth and you don't you fools. You fools, you fools, you fools..."

It seems fitting that the vampires of history -- theology, the idea of right, the fraud of justice in war -- should be trotted out by a major newspaper on Halloween. And maybe that's where they should stay, among the dusty old relics of costumes from Halloweens gone by, to be brought out once a year, for amusement only.



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2001. All rights reserved.

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Essays published in 2001


Published November 12, 2001
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