Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for March 2012

One of the most moving letters I received in response to my last Blog post was from a retired professor of philosophy, now living in a small town in Texas. “I have never seen US politics in greater decline”, he laments, “and characterized as much by mere perversity as by obtuse partisanship and venality- and, the country itself is increasingly militarized economically. To the extent that the church is ensnared in these politics, it will be soiled, as it always has been in any country in this respect.”

The men vying for the Republican party presidential nomination reveal the depths to which that once honourable party has now sunk. They embody the very antitheses to the values of the Kingdom of God which Jesus announced: ignore the poor, protect and pamper the rich, plunder the earth, kill your enemies.

Let’s turn from the fiasco of American presidential politics to the terrible tragedy unfolding in Syria. The two are, however, linked in recent memory. Syria was one of the Bush administration’s favourite destinations for what was euphemistically termed “rendition”- sending any suspected “terrorists” to places where they could be interrogated and tortured with impunity. The West’s attitude has changed with the Arab Spring. But it is not surprising to find President Assad taking a leaf out of Bush’s book and calling his brutal crackdown “a war against terrorists”.

Syria represents yet another failure of the Arab League and, indeed, of the United Nations. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are not only the biggest arms dealers in the world but can rarely act in concert, with national interest always trumping the global good. The possibility of losing Syria as a major military purchaser was the reason for Russia’s veto of the UN resolution on Syria. However, fears about US strategic interests in the area also contribute to Russia’s support for the Syrian regime.

Having lost key client states in the Arab world, the US is less influential in the Middle East. But maintaining control of oil markets and US strategic capacity are still key regional goals for the US. The nature of its military engagement is changing – away from large-scale deployments of ground troops in favour of rapidly expanding fleets of armed drones, and growing reliance on sea-based weapons. Thus the US backs Saudi intervention in Bahrain to ensure the US Fifth Fleet maintains its Bahraini base; Washington’s escalating sanctions give the West greater leverage in control of oil markets and the “threat” of Iran serves to justify expansion of the US naval presence in the gulf.

The main problem with the United Nations Organization is that it was conceived in a world of sovereign states, a world where the overriding concern of the post-World War II settlement was the guarantee of the inviolability of national borders and national sovereignty. But today’s world is one where wars happen typically within states. Whole populations, or minorities within populations, need assistance against their own governments. Thus the 1945 UN Charter’s emphasis on the inviolability of sovereign states poses a conundrum. It stands in blatant contradiction to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, lacking a well-equipped global police force of its own, and often hamstrung by the chronic lack of funds and use of the veto by the permanent members of its Security Council, its peace-making and peace-keeping abilities have been severely curtailed.

While despots (and even liberal democracies from time to time) invoke “national sovereignty” to deflect criticism of their brutality, “human rights” is the language that civil society and international non-governmental organizations like Amnesty regularly employ. The latter language is also the only weapon that the poor and the oppressed can use against their own governments. This is why the misguided rejection of “rights discourse” by some Western Christian leaders is unfortunate. It reveals a lack of historical awareness: of how much “rights discourse” is rooted in the Biblical writings, the early Church Fathers and then conceptualized by the twelfth-century European canon lawyers. It is not a product of post-Enlightenment individualism. All moral vocabularies can- and are- abused. But that is all the more reason Christians should be in the forefront of articulating and defending the rights of the poor and oppressed against their own governments.

There are no blueprints for preventing or resolving violent conflicts around the globe. We are a world in transition, searching for new forms of political organization and structures of accountability, as empires and nation-states become less relevant as well as lose legitimacy.

The early church, as an egalitarian, multinational, socially inclusive polity (ekklesia), in which the weakest members were to be the most honoured, stood as a radical antithesis to the politics of both empire and republic. But in the ensuing centuries it was quickly co-opted by empires and republics, and even took on the characteristics of empire in many of its manifestations. If Christians are to contribute to the quest for a more just and peaceable world, their proclamation of the Good News of the Reign of God has to accompanied by a decisive repudiation of all those forms of nationalism, chauvinism and ethnocentrism that still distort the face of Christ within the church. A national church that has been co-opted and domesticated by ethne or  Caesar has ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ- the sign and foretaste of a new world order.


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