Thursday, April 20, 2006

Wendell Berry, National Security, and Christian Concerns

Wendell Berry is one of America’s best and most versatile writers. A novelist, an essayist, an environmentalist, a social critic, a farmer, a theologian, and much more, Berry displays a deep commitment to principle, to ordered well-being, to such “old values” as commitment, fidelity (the subject of much of his writing), community, and respect for the basic dignity of all persons. I am incapable of not buying a new Wendell Berry book when I see one, and I do so regularly – as I did yesterday when I picked up his 2005 publication, The Way of Ignorance and other Essays. The first essay justifies the price of the book.

In that essay, “Secrecy vs. Rights,” he offers as eloquent, informed, and common-sense an analysis of the current security craze in America as I have seen anywhere (not that there are many appearing). It is a reflection that grows out of the 2004 decision (or non-decision) by the Supreme Court of the United States to let stand a lower-court ruling that “the Justice Department [sic: increasingly, many of us left-wingers are inclined to write “so-called Justice Department”] was within its rights in refusing to identify more than 700 people, most of those Arabs or Muslims, arrested for immigration violations in connection with the attacks” of September 11, 2001. This was, of course, done in the name of “national security” or protecting the country from terrorists. In the following mere four pages, Berry demonstrates from the Constitution of the United States (and most especially the Bill of Rights) and the Declaration of Independence that fundamental to the founding of this country was the principle that efforts to provide security for the nation could not trump individual liberties without destroying the basic fabric of this country’s existence. (I wish I had read this during law school: It would have been fabulous to use his analysis, which I never heard offered – even by liberals – , in class discussion.)

After arguing that defense and security are certainly legitimate and critical concerns, Berry demonstrates and concludes that, by the lights of the Founding Fathers, defense of the nation at the expense of its liberties would constitute a fundamental self-contradiction, resulting in the ultimate end of the country. His last paragraph is long, but worth quoting and contemplating:

Terrorism, against which the government without formally declaring war says we are “at war,” at the same time that it seeks to circumvent the legal conventions of war, has certainly precipitated a time of public danger. How badly frightened the general public may be by this state of affairs is a question hard to answer. But the federal government and the courts have given evidence that they, as the terrorists intended, are badly frightened. They are so badly frightened as to believe that they have no choice but to sacrifice the rights of persons in deference to the government’s need for secrecy. But it is an error to believe that these two “fundamental values” can somehow be justly “balanced” by the government or the courts, or that the people can judge responsibly between their rights, which they can easily know, and a proclaimed “need,” which the government so far forbids them to know. The Constitution, anyhow, does not provide for its own suspension by the fearful in a time of war and public danger. (italics added)

Let the people say “Amen” to that.

Berry’s is a logical and, to my mind, fundamentally correct analysis. It accurately portrays a kind of “simul” to government that Christians (at least of the Lutheran persuasion) identify in human being and (if they’re keen) human institutions (including government). The American form of government is at the same time protector from assaults from the outside (i.e., for example, war-making attacks on the populace) and protector from those inside who would violate fundamental principles in order to provide that other security. Responsible citizenship requires a careful balancing of the two concerns, but liberty remains the higher concern. As more than one important American hero (including Ben Franklin) has noted, “They who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

To my eye, we stand in a crisis of liberty in this land. It is as serious as that crisis (only acknowledged years later) realized by the internment into concentration camps of people of Japanese lineage (whether citizens or not) during World War II. Ours may be an even more serious crisis, because by act of Congress, the government can now intern citizens and non-citizens alike without announcing that they have taken them into custody, without releasing their names, without bringing them to trial (which parallels Lincoln’s suspension of the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, an act later determined to be unconstitutional), without treating them as human beings. (The parallels to the "disappeareds" in Latin America and in communist countries in recent decades may not be entirely hyperbolic, except as to the numbers involved -- and perhaps the ultimate fate of those detainees.) The combination of the USA Patriot Act (the name alone provides a classic illustration that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel") and a current administration that arrogates to itself the supposed authority to do (literally) anything it wants, irrespective of legislation and legal precedent, results in a situation where even attorneys have to fear for their well-being if they zealously advocate for their clients (who may or may not be interned).

I was with a group of lawyers yesterday (in a continuing education event), discussing the state of bias in the judicial system. When I tried to raise the bias implicit in such legal areas as the Patriot Act and the exacerbation of the problem with the prohibition on speaking about detainees and requests for information, I couldn’t get anyone to acknowledge that I was raising an issue. They looked uncomfortable, but they preferred to stick to bias against blacks. So apparently even my own profession refuses to stand up for that which we have sworn to uphold – viz., the Constitution.

Christians are called to take seriously in the civil institutions within which they find themselves placed; relatively few are called to a life of withdrawal from the world. But Christians are called to be citizens with a clear eye and a realization that all things of the world are temporary, of secondary importance to “the things of the spirit.” (Thus, for example, while we may and ought to be good citizens, exercise of that good citizenship ought to empower us to refuse to fight in the military.) Supposedly, too, Christians realize that remaining alive is not the summa, the meaning of existence, though you wouldn’t know it to hear a lot of Christian preaching.

This understanding ought to result in a Christian outcry against the current state of affairs in this country. But it has not. Where is the Christian witness to the importance of welcoming the stranger (scripture contains no exception for the case where the stranger may be a threat – the whole point of the commandment is to overcome a kind of natural xenophobia, it seems to me), of freeing the unjustly imprisoned (some of the Guantanamo detainees have been there years, even though the government acknowledges that they are not security threats), of holding the gospel before the leaders? I am less concerned here with the missives of bishops than I am with individual Christians’ coming to grips with the existential impact of their faith. If a brother (whether Christian or Muslim) is dragged away simply because he fits some sort of profile, am I not required by the Lord of Life to scream my head off, too?

The issues of “national security” and “civil liberties” are religiously rich. Wendell Berry’s secular essay ought to set off overtones in the ears of faith in Christians. This is a very important issue for us.

It’s time for Christians to exercise their voice.

And by the way, if I suddenly disappear and the government denies that I am at Guantanamo, know for certain that that’s where I’ve been taken. (And I’m not sure whether that is a joke or not.)


Jim said...

If you had been wearing a collar and saying those things to your lawyer colleagues, you would have gotten an entirely different response, wouldn't you?

You were speaking Truth to power, and power didn't like it. Go figure.

Dwight P. said...

In fact, the lawyers who show up for these discussions have a kind of negative reaction to Christianity. The collar would not impress them. And that feeds my eagerness to have "ordinary" Christians get on the stick to take responsibility.

I think a few clerical collars can inspire people to think through issues: The "high church" types who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, brought a special witness. But that witness was more to by-watchers, I think, than to "power/s." When I saw Richard John Neuhaus marching and knew him to be a Lutheran, I was called to look more deeply into the issue. (I can't believe I just cited Richard John Neuhaus in a favorable light! How matters have changed.)