Idolatry American Style: The Military

I imagine this post will cause me some trouble somewhere down the line, but if I never cause trouble, why speak at all?

Now, the United States is not unique in its idolatrous worship of its military forces. In doing this, we have a very long and proud pedigree of the other imperial powers of history. We say that we trust in God to keep us safe, but deep down, we know damn well that there are hundreds of billion dollars being spent every year to do the same job using soldiers and weaponry. And if we lost that capacity for violence, I wonder who would have the courage to actually trust God in its absence?

The early Church had that kind of courage, and thousands of martyrs lived out their conviction to the very end. They had their faith, and their dependence on God, but they did not have our society’s recourse to massive violence to enforce our will all over the world. If there was any shock and awe in Rome at the time, it was shock and awe that someone believed in something strongly enough to give up their life – and not as a soldier, who is also trying to take lives, but as one who rejects both violence and fear.

We can look at our idolatrous worship of our military in the sense that where our treasure is, there our heart is also. Our military spending is greater than the next ten nations combined. Our economy was never de-militarized when WWII ended, and I doubt it ever will be. Because we worship our military. We have to feed the thing that we trust to keep us safe, and that thing is most certainly not God.

We can also look at our idolatrous worship of our military in the sense that we turn to it to accomplish our aims almost unfailingly. When the US has an “interest” in a region of the world, that means we have troops there or we want to have troops there. We put our pistis in our military.

Our worship of the military is caught up in our worship of the flag. We think of the American flag as sanctified by the blood of soldiers who have died in the past. But what was sanctified by the people those soldiers killed? Other flags? Other soil?

In our military we trust. It should go on our currency. Because the real test is – do you trust God when you don’t have a gun as well? Or when no one is standing in your place with a gun? Do you dare trust God when you have disarmed yourself, of violence and the weapons of privilege? Because that’s what trust means.

Take some time, and listen to our language when we talk about the military. We talk about hallowed ground, sacred sites, martyrs, heroes, sacrifice – these are religious terms, and they describe an idolatry that we hold dear in the US.

19 thoughts on “Idolatry American Style: The Military

  1. I don’t know what prompted your post, and while I certainly don’t condone idolatry and think your larger point about too much trust in the military is a sound one, I would want to nuance my argument with a recognition that condemning our nation’s trust in weapons and brute force is not incompatible with respect for those who serve. The soldiers on the ground, who are in the military for various reasons, are not part of this problem, and I think that ought to be explicitly stated. It does take courage to risk one’s life for one’s country, and that ought not to be dismissed out of hand.

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  2. Mspote:I don’t want to imply disrespect for those serving in the military, and I agree that it does take courage to do so. I do think that soldiers are part of the problem, in that they are Americans and in that they probably participate in this idolatry as much as the rest of us do.What prompted me was my perception that our nations worship of violence, primarily through worship of our military, bothers me so much, and is almost never talked about. I think it should be. I think that our military should be on the table for discussion, and not simply assumed as a good thing and left unreflected upon.So, anyway, thanks for the comment and the gentle reprimand. đŸ™‚

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  3. Anything created by God or instituted by God or humanity can become an idol. Of course. But, there is also the flip side: we are obligated to show appreciation and be grateful for those things that bring beauty, order and freedom to our world. Right now, the American military is an order-maintaining force around the world. We have forces on every continent. The military has divided up its mission into NorthCom, SouthCom, EuCom, CentCom and so on. They are assisting other countries’ military and police forces in their fight against terrorism, narco-terrorism and rebel groups that threaten legitimate governments and tyrannize local communities. They help in building infrastructure in backward places as well as schools, hospitals and water wells. They run aids projects. And they then give credit to local governments, backing off to let the locals get the credit in the local press. The American military, in my opinion, is a great force for good in this world. To inform oneself about this, a good place to start would be to read Robert D. Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts” — a fascinating, information-packed story. I am a retired Presby. minister, not connected with the military in any way.

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  4. Qeverest:First, welcome to my comments thread, and thank you for the comment. I hope that you will feel free to comment again, but I understand if you don’t, given how strongly I see we disagree.I honestly have to say that we are going to probably have to agree to disagree here. I disagree very strongly with the idea that any military is a force for good from a Christian point of view. The military is our most potent force by which we violate Christ’s call to love our enemies and to render to no one evil for evil. I praise them for the humanitarian work they do which you mentioned, but I would not describe any military as a force for good. To me, the military is a force for violence, designed to take lives which are the precious images of God, each having infinite moral value. I cannot find a way, in my heart, to support what the military does and still remain true to what I see as a core element of God’s message – “For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is. 2:3-4 & Micah 4:2-3).Combined with other passages from Amos and elsewhere, as well as the teachings of Jesus which I believe leave us no room whatsoever to justify violence, I just can’t agree with you about our military, or any military. I’m sorry.

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  5. Doug,Maybe I’m missing the point here, but it seems as though the military is an arm of the United States Government. That government is, as progressives are wont to point out, secular. If your point is that Christians should trust God to protect our secular country, I’m not sure that follows logically. Why should Christians trust God to “protect” anythng but the Church? Even then his “protection” is not necessarily physical (re: your martyrs point earlier). The military serves a purpose as an arm of the state, not the Church. I would think that there are a number of people who would disagree with your take that the military does no good. If your point is that we should disband the military, and count on God to protect our country, then the same arguement could be made about medical care. If you really trusted God to protect you, you wouldn’t bother with doctors.However, I think your point is, that some (maybe too many) put their faith in something other that God. As I said earlier; some make science their God, some the military, some politics, some environmentalism, and some themselves. This is not new, or shocking. While, I see a great deal of respect for our military (especially those who serve), I don;t see the idolatry you see. Shockingly we disagree about this.Craig

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  6. Hi Craig. I don’t really want to get into another 15-comment conversation, so this is going to be my only response to your comment.I think you are missing the point, and also making at least four weak arguments.1: Yes, the government is secular. That has no bearing whatsoever on whether the military, or the government, can be an idol.2: The fact that the military is the arm of the state has no bearing whatsoever on whether it can be an idol.3: The comparison to medical care is wrong logically and wrong theologically. Logically, the comparison is false between medical care and the military. Medical care helps protect us deal with injury and disease. The military kills people on behalf of the government (and therefore, on our behalf). Theologically, the Bible is not full of prophetic calls to do away with medicine, but it is full of calls to do away with military power and warfare. Jesus does not admonish us again and again to give up medicine, but to give up returning evil for evil or failing to love our enemies. So I don’t really see any kind of argument there at all.4: In the last case, you did get my point correctly. I never said, nor intimated, that our idolatries were shocking or surprising, so I’m not sure why you think its worth mentioning that as if I had and you were putting forward a counter-argument.5: How do you define worship? We put our ‘treasure’ into the military – more so than the next ten biggest spenders. We put our trust in it. We give it praise and adulation. We sing national hymns about it. It is demanded that we support it without question whenever we are at war. I have no idea how this doesn’t look like worship to you.6: As far as I can tell, by your definition, idolatry isn’t really worth discussing, so I suggest that you just skip these idolatry posts – they’ll probably just frustrate you, and their intended audience is those who care about idolatry or are bothered by it. I’ll just take it as a given that ‘Craig doesn’t think that’s idolatry either’ and move on.

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  7. Doug,1. Thank you for agreeing the govt is secular. My problem with this post is you are expecting the secular govt to act in accordance with your religious beliefs.2. Again, the military can be idolized (I’m sure I mentioned that) but as you correctly point out the military is an arm of the state. You seem to want to define or judge it according to your religious standards. Further, even in the military is idolized, the problem does not lie with the military, but with those who idolize it.The point of the first two is that the secular does not operate under the same standards as the sacred.3. You miss my point. If we aer trulu consistant about trusting God, then we would trust him equally whether it be for “protection” from evil or “protection” from sickness.Also, the Bible is not full of prophetic calls to do away with the military either. (I know we’ve had this conversation, but I can’t let that go unchallenged) The Bible is full of examples where Gods purposes were fulfilled through military action.4. I did not say or imply that idolatry was shocking. I am waiting for your post on those who idolize the environment, or the political process or the PCUSA. What I clearly said is that it is not news that people put their trust in something other than God. What they idolize is not really the point.5. I’m not sure what money has to do with worship. But to use what it seems your arguement is. If you actually look at the federal budget what we actually worship/idolize (based on % of the budget) is entitlement/social programs which amount to more than twicw what is spent on defense/security. Your argument would be more affective if our largest budget sector was actually the military.6. I’m not sure where I even defined idolatry so I’m not sure what your point is. My problem with your posts is not so much that I think idolatry is not a problem, it is that I don’t see idolatry in the same places you do. So, is it ok if I read the posts, maybe get frustrated and disagree?Finally, If we are to accept your premise as true. Given your commitment to pacificism. Then the only (as you point out) option open to believers is martyrdom. Your view would not allow for the possibility of God drowning the Egyptian army, or (I think it was) Gideon’s army of 300 defeating their enemy, or giving David the ability to defeat Goliath, or Joshua blowing the horns around Jericho. I could go on, but you get the point. Just as God can/does act through medicine or other human agents, He can also (He is God after all) act through military. It seems as though you would like to limit God’s ability to act on behalf of His people.Finally, I’m going to assume that when the Allied military overran the concentration camps, those inside might have thought that the military had saved them. (which on the surface seems like a good thing) I think you are overreaching in saying that nothing good can ever come from the military. Anyway, you can respond or not, it really doesn’t matter. If it’s ok I’ll keep commenting until you ask me not to or ban me. I won’t hold my breath waiting for your post on idolizing the environment.Craig

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  8. Now, with that out of the way, in Craig’s entire post I did detect at least one argument amidst the drivel, and that was his assertion that we spend far more on social programs than on our military here in the United States. For anyone who’s interested, here’s a rundown on the United States military budget for 2006 to serve as an example. We spent 626.1 billion on the military in 2006. Seems fairly cut and dry, right? It’s not so bad. Modest, even, compared to our Gross Domestic Product. Well, keep looking. Those figures are not counting black budget military spending (which is not listed as federal spending and not included in published military spending figures). It’s also not including the money used to fund the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, since those are funded through supplementary spending bills instead of through the actual military budget…And it’s not including things like the cost of maintaining our nuclear arsenal, which is also not a part of the official budget.… and, if I am interpreting this copy of the budget report I snagged off of the official government webpage correctly, also not including the budget of the Coast Guard, which is now listed under ‘homeland security,’ and not under ‘defense.’ Do the math, folks. As far as our military being a force for good and order in the world, well, that’s a bubble that also needs bursting. The report on United States military equipment in Iraq for the year of 2007 was leaked at wikileaks.org recently, and would anyone like to take a guess at what it includes? Our very own, brand new collection of illegal chemical weapons! Just what our soldiers always wanted. Furthermore, also released on wikileaks, we’ve got confirmed proof that the United States is in fact torturing the good people at Guantanamo Bay. How do we know this? Because we have copies of the Guantanamo Bay operating manual… <>which provides instructions on how to torture people.<>There’s also very strong evidence that these are not isolated cases with individual bad apples doing this or that: these are things which require Presidential authorization, folks. I could go on, but that wouldn’t be anywhere near as useful as you just going and looking it up for yourself. The Freedom of Information act is your friend. You can get all sorts of formerly classified documents, and most of it is damn interesting. Wikileaks is also your friend. Don’t take my word for it. Go. Do your research. Educate yourself, people. It’s worth the effort.<>Oh, and on an unrelated note, for those who do not know, Godwin’s Law is the rule of the internet which states that as an online discussion draws on, the probability of someone making a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, or their activities, approaches 1.<>

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  9. Paul:I’m sorry man, I had to delete that first comment. It was pretty offensive. In short, “Paul doesn’t agree with Craig at all.”Craig:I just deleted this long, frustrated comment in response. Look, I think you’re wrong about everything you said except that I should post about idolatry as it relates to the PCUSA and the US political process. Here’s the short version.1. Like EVERYONE with ethical values, I want people to live in accordance with them, because they are how I define good. How is this confusing you?2. Your last sentence? THAT’S THE POINT OF THE POST.Your secular/sacred split? It would mean that no religious person could ever comment on any political action. That is absurd. I have no idea how you think this is a reasonable argument.3. No, I get your point. It is a bad one, with the theological and logical fallacies that I pointed out. And I have no idea what Bible you’re reading. Mine has these things called prophets, which constantly talk about how it is God’s purpose to end warfare. It also has this Jesus guy, who said stuff that some of us think is important. You conveniently dodge that guy, because somewhere in the Gospels your argument loses what little wind it had, even if it could survive Isaiah and Amos and their buddies.But you’re right – God can bring good out of evil. Feel free to worship the God of Old Testament genocides – you’ll get a lot of agreement from those committing genocides today, who I’m sure think God is on their side too. As for me, not so much.4. Posting about environmentalism as idolatry strikes me as incredibly ridiculous. We are so far from worshiping the environment…first, as a society, shouldn’t we care about it? So start your own blog and post about that, because I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got posts on the political process and the PCUSA in the works – we’ll see when I get to them.5. “I’m not sure what money has to do with worship.” Then I don’t want to take the time to explain it to you. If you don’t think where we spend our money reflects what we value most, then I have no idea what to say to you on that score. And you didn’t address my point, which wasn’t comparing our spending to our spending on helping the poor, but on the spending of the next ten highest spenders on planet Earth. And for the record, HELPING THE POOR IS GOOD. If Jesus is any guide, that’s where ALL OF OUR MONEY SHOULD GO. But, honestly, I have yet to see any way in which Jesus is a guide for you, except perhaps in your attempts to be polite to me as we continuously disagree.6. Read on. Its your time to spend however you wish of course.As for pacifism, you continue to have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m sorry, but I’m tired of trying over and over again to explain to you what it means. I have no hope of ever getting through to you anymore. I give up. Read Gandhi. Read MLK. Read the Gospels. I’m clearly never going to get through.I NEVER said that nothing good can ever come from the military. Once again, as far as I can tell, you’re arguing with someone who isn’t here. God can bring good out of anything, even something as horrific as war. That DOES NOT MEAN THAT WAR IS GOOD.And no, don’t hold you breath Craig. We have to start caring about the environment as a society before we can start worshiping it. As I said, you’re welcome to post that kind of thing on a blog of your own.And now, folks, that’s all for this thread. Craig and I have clashed, and passed each other without any mutual comprehension as usual. He thinks I’m wrong and I think he’s wrong, and we both think the other doesn’t address our arguments. I’m definitely done with this particular comment-thread ‘conversation’, and I’m going to put a lid on it…now.If you’re not me, Craig, or Paul, feel free to comment as you like. I still read them, and if they’re a departure from this frustrating conversation, I’ll even respond.

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  10. Doug,You’ll probably moderate this comment, but I’ll give it a shot. I’m not going to respond to you point by point since that’s a waste of my time. I will however say, that if you are not aware of those who worship the environment and do violence in the name of protecting it, you should search a little deeper.Despite your condescending words, and personal shots. I do comprehend your posts. What you want is for everyone to live in accordance with your ethical values. You want to secular US govt to function according to your interpretation of the Bible. Craig

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  11. People who “worship” the environment and do violence on its behalf are such an insignificant, microscopic minority that honestly it would be a waste of a post. These posts are about widespread idolatries, not fringe ones. Again, sorry.

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  12. Doug: No worries, and my apologies. Wasn’t sure if I had gone too far with it or not. I’ll try to keep flames to a minimum in the future. Craig: Are you perhaps referring to the Gaia Theory (formerly the Gaia Hypothesis)? If so, you’re demonstrating a shocking (but not surprising) failure to understand the argument of the Scientist who actually produced the theory. Gaia is defined as a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. Much more briefly and clearly stated: Biomass modifies the conditions of the planet to make conditions on the planet more hospitable for itself. When it was still a hypothesis, it was met with fierce criticism from the Scientific community. It has since been accepted to some extent on account of having been supported by the results of controlled experiments, and having produced useful predictions. Note that nowhere in this theory is there any claim that ‘Gaia’ is in any way capable of intentional or conscious action: Gaia is not a sentient being, but rather a word for the whole system of the life on Earth. This is, of course, popularly (and deliberately) misinterpreted by people hoping to capitalize on the populace’s fear of paganism and general ignorance.

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  13. Doug,I just wanted to respond to a couple of your comments. “I have yet to see any way in which Jesus is a guide for you”.First, without getting into definitions let me say I would consider Jesus a lot of things, I’m not sure guide is one. I certainly would consider Jesus as Savior, Lord, Way, Truth, Life, but not guide. I would consider that role of the Spirit as a guide of sorts. More imporatntly than what I consider Jesus, I what I hope he considers me. Like us all I hope to one day hear “well done good and faithful servant”. But I would not presume to speak for Him. I’m a little disappointed that you decided to take this tack. I have disagreed with you but never question the sincerity of your beliefs. You say you have yet to “see any way in…”, guess what you “see” a part of a part of my life. I would prefer not to have to list my “resume” in terms of what I do as a result of my faith. But, I also don’t appreciate you questioning it either. “Feel free to worship the God of Old Testament genocides”Doug, it would appear that you are ignoring that those pesky gospels as well. “In the beginning was the word…” “I and the Father are one” etc. If you are really trying to say that there is a disconnect between the three persons of the Godhead, then we have a much bigger problem.I do hope you post on idolizing the political process and the PCUSA, I look forward to your thoughts on those. I think you are minimizine those who idolize the environment (maybe I’m overstating), but I suspect there is more of that than you are willing to admit. Paul,Re your first post, My point was the percentage of spending on the military, not the total amount. If we are to play your game we would then have to deduct the amount spent on the Coast Guard, humanitarian efforts (tsunami relief, Katrina, etc). However, Doug’s point was that spending priorities indicate idolization. The percentages don’t support his claim. As far as your second post let me just say that I am amazed at your abilities to discern my innermst thoughts. However, (I’ll try to be gentle) you are wrong. I am referring to people I work with (and those like them) who elevate the creation over the creator. The only Gaia I know of is one of our C.A.’s. Sorry to dissapoint you. Better luck reading my mind next time.

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  14. Craig:Ok, a tiny bit of progress. Cool. Now, how does Jesus being your Lord and Savior affect your life? And yeah, I was harsh with my tack, but I was frustrated as Hell.For the second one – we’ve been over this a lot and if it isn’t clear, I don’t have the energy to go through it again. Suffice to say, I will under no circumstances whatsoever associate God with approval of any genocide at any time. I realize we disagree there, and we both have a big problem with the others’ theology there. That much is well established at this point.Also, as for environmentalism as idolatry, we’re going to be mutually opaque there and I’m happy to drop it at that. I don’t see any signs whatsoever of any significant number of Americans worshiping the environment, and of that insignificant number, an insignificant number of those are willing to do violence in the name of the environment. So, as I said, save that one for your own blog.

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  15. Doug,I’d be fascinated to know what about that response was a tiny bit of progress.I’m not even sure how to answer your question without going on for ever, so let me say this.My relationship with Jesus is the reason why I do what I do 5 days a week. It affects my relationships, my family, and whare I live. I could go on but, time is short.As to the rest, you are right, we deeply disagree. I have no desire to cover that territory again. As to writing about the idolization of the environment, at some point I may. Right now, I am actually working on a “real” post. That will probably take some time because my blogging time has been significantly reduced with my summer schedule.

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  16. I said progress because, for months now, our ‘conversations’ have been about what you think is wrong with my ideas, but very little has been said about who I am talking to here, about what you value or why you feel strongly the things you seem to feel strongly. For me, understanding someone else/different from me better always feels like progress.

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  17. Doug,I’m glad to hear it. I am a little reluctant to get too personal in this forum, but if youhave questions or want more info I’ll be happy to contiue via e mail

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