Beyond Good and Evil, Whither Liberal Sacrificial Love?
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.
— Brian Wren, 1969
Late in his second term George W. Bush told a reporter that he had given up playing golf because “I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”1 Unsurprisingly, Bush was excoriated and lampooned for equating the sacrifices of war and the game of golf. But in making this awkward equivalence Bush seemed to signal a deeper division between an administration prone to understand its actions in a millennialism of good and evil and critics of the administration who advocate a broader approach to the collective responsibilities of wartime sacrifice and the possibilities of wartime sacrificial love. If the nation is at war, then why are sacrifices asked only of the military and their families and not of the citizenry more generally? And how does waging a war premised on an absolute division between “those who stand with us” and all others square with another message preached in Christian pulpits every Easter season: the message of a sacrificial love offered not merely to friends but, more profoundly, to enemies?
As much as many might wish to hold the Bush administration responsible for every last bit of the mischief of our times, this we cannot nail to its coffin: Bush’s is not the first U.S. administration to promote a Christian-inflected millennial governance. His administration has certainly pressed the cause. We are only now beginning to appreciate the organizational ties connecting specific Christian groups and the various arms of the state apparatus.2 Scholars and activists have been particularly worried about the ties between the U.S. military and specific evangelical groups and about religio-political litmus tests used for appointments to the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.3 But equally worrisome are the complex entanglements of conservative Christian movements in neoliberal state functions — not merely the state’s public embrace of religious groups for the outsourcing of federal social service funding, but also the state’s covert ties to conservative Christian agendas, such as the personal and business connections among the Bush administration, the Family Research Council, and Blackwater Worldwide.4 But the second Bush was not the first.
Twenty years prior to the George W. Bush administration, Ronald Reagan’s belief that he was living in the end-time helped shape his foreign policy.5 I would not be the first to note that the Evil Empire provided a discursive footprint for the Axis of Evil. And long before Bush and Reagan, the concept of manifest destiny, as Ernest Tuveson wrote in 1968, expressed a specific U.S. Christian millennial utopianism in which America was understood to have been chosen by God to arbitrate a global war between good and evil.6 Therefore, what may be more disturbing than yet another U.S. administration articulating yet another millennial fantasy is how this fantasy seems to have drifted across the Atlantic and Pacific, encompassing the Blair ministry in Great Britain and less publicly the Howard ministry in Australia.7 And, equally unnerving, is how a touch of millennial good and evil may have been in play in debates about whether the European Union (EU) Constitution should make reference to Christianity or a Christian civilization. This debate is especially unnerving insofar as it occurred in a context in which the civilizational struggle between good and evil is often figured as a battle between good and bad Muslims.8 Thus German chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at the 2007 European Commission meeting that, while she did not hold out “any hope” for the inclusion of a reference to the Christian god in the EU Constitution, she could not close her eyes to the lack of religious freedom in Turkey for Christian denominations. While, therefore, the sociologist of religion José Casanova is certainly right that the United States is as much an exception to as a bunkmate of European secularism, it is also true that we are witnessing a host of possible convergences between the United States and Europe as the politics of recognition mutates from a social struggle over the worth of the other to a faithbased certainty about the evil of some others.
But as the golfing fiasco suggests, beyond good and evil, or coiled within its heart like a worm, is another rhetoric of governance that surely preceded the smoldering landscapes of New York, Afghanistan, Iraq, London, and Madrid but as surely has intensified in their heat: namely, the complex crossings of the figures of sacrifice and sacrificial love in late liberalism’s governance of the other. Although emerging from similar gospels, these two rhetorical figures — good and evil and sacrifice/sacrificial love — seem to index and express competing political and social visions and allegiances. On the political and social right, foreign policy is figured not as sacrifice or sacrificial love but as a millennial struggle between good and evil. And, according to Bush, “God is not neutral” in this struggle.9 From the point of view of progressive Christians such as James McGinnis, founder of the Institute for Peace and Justice, the Christian concept of sacrificial love offers an alternative to these conservative Knights of Faith.10 Tacking between the concept of sacrifice and the concept of sacrificial love, such progressive critics castigate the Bush administration for its refusal to stress the collective sacrifice a nation is normally called on to make in times of war. If the United States is at war, then all Americans should be asked to make the necessary social and economic sacrifices of war — not merely to give up golf. Perhaps if Americans had been encouraged to think of themselves as at war, then the orgy of spending encouraged by the housing bubble would have been replaced by a more circumspect sacrificial logic. The exorbitant margins of profit demanded of corporate executives as the price of Wall Street investment might have been tempered. But “We the People” was, instead, rewritten as “Me and Him the Competitors,” the first person and the nonperson who need not even be specified lexically.11 McGinnis, for instance, argues that Christian sacrifice teaches us to share burdens felt by individuals of a community among the community and that Christian sacrificial love teaches us to turn our cheeks to our enemies. Beyond good and evil lies another message, the cultivation of modes of sacrifice for the other that defines sacrificial love.
In other words, critiques of the Bush administration’s focus on good and evil to the exclusion of sacrifice and sacrificial love seem to open a space for a broader discussion about nationalism, social belonging, and economic risk. For all the administration’s early emphasis on compassion, critics argue, it has discouraged the kind of neighborliness that is collective in its imaginary, public in its burdens, and sacrificial in the face of the need of the other. For all the rhetorical emphasis on faith, religion emerges in administration policies only as a site for state outsourcing and the social production of individualized risk. Compassion means little more than sympathy for others unable to leverage the kinds of capital necessary to make huge profit at the center or margins of the market.
Under considerable pressure Bush did begin to acknowledge the suffering and sacrifice consequent to his war policies. In his June 28, 2005, prime-time address at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Bush stated: “Every picture [from the war] is horrifying, and the suffering is real. Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country.”12 Is the sacrifice worth it? Answering this question actually presupposes two prior discussions. The first is the discussion of modalities of expenditure and abandonment in our times, from expenditures and abandonments whose social weight are barely noticeable to those whose social weight begins to unravel the social order, from the soft deaths of pastoral care to the hard deaths of sovereign killing.13 In other words, deciding that this or that sacrifice is worth it depends on how we narrate forms of killing and letting die, making live and letting suffer, in the various domains of social life — politics, market, and civil society. And this discussion presupposes a second. The question whether this or that sacrifice is worth it opens the events of suffering and dying, if not to the problematic of being and time, then to the problematic of being and tense — the narrative relation among social, economic, and political values and subjective finitudes and how, where, and whether subjective finitudes are seen to occur and lead. We can begin to see what is at stake here if we rephrase what Bush said in this way: “Is the sacrifice worth it? It is if we establish a specific relationship between violence and redemption that will define the social imaginary of suffering and dying.” If we can do so, killing and dying will be understood and experienced as a mode of birth, as a way of bringing new being into existence. For instance, insofar as killing can be narrated in the future perfect, it can become a way of giving; violent death becomes sacrifice and ceases to be scandalous.14 Indeed, by denying the present perfect of suffering and death, we can make suffering and death something to strive for, celebrate, and memorialize.
Given its penchant for memorialized denial, the very narrative of sacrifice and sacrificial love presents a set of dilemmas for progressive critics when they mobilize these narratives against the millennial imaginary of good and evil. And this is what interests me here. How do discourses of sacrificial love coordinate violence and redemption in such a way that suffering and dying — the mortifications of the flesh of others — are continually read from the perspective of the future perfect, the redeemed end of a perfected social field? Sacrificial love constructs a complex self-reflexive totalization in which the present becomes a mode of pastness by being projected into a perfected future. This future perfect swallows up the possibility of a more complex mode of dwelling in the fractured present. In the background of my argument is Carl Schmitt’s notorious claim that “under no circumstances can anyone demand that a member of an economically determined society . . . sacrifice his life in the interests of [its] rational operations.”15 Equally relevant is Benedict Anderson’s question as to how an imaginary political formation can lead so many millions of people into “colossal sacrifices.”16 But rather than from the perspective of the state or the nation, I want to think about these issues from the perspective of the diffused discourses of liberal secular sacrificial love. What are the dilemmas of posing sacrificial love as an antidote to the millennialism of good and evil?
End of Excerpt | access full version
An earlier version of this essay was published in German in a special issue of Das Argument, no. 273 (2007): 99 – 113. I thank Stewart Motha, Jay Bernstein, Miriam Boyer, Michael Silverstein, and the editorial committees of Das Argument and Public Culture for their critical feedback. This essay began years ago, in an undergraduate seminar at St. John’s College, led by the late William O’Grady, and was reimagined during my conversations with the Late Liberalism Group at the University of Chicago.
- The interview was announced on Jonathan Martin’s blog, Politico, and carried on Yahoo. See www.politico.com/blogs/jonathanmartin/0508/Bush_has_given_up_golf_for_troops.html (accessed August 4, 2008).
- Much of this information is emerging only because of judicial pressure. See, e.g., Michael Abramowitz, “Service Logs of White House Visitors Are Public Records, Judge Rules,” Washington Post, December 18, 2007.
- Critics are worried by the influence of fundamentalist Christian groups like Military Ministry, a national organization and a subsidiary of the controversial fundamentalist Christian organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Military Ministry’s national Web site states that it targets basic training installations and has converted thousands of soldiers to evangelical Christianity. See Jason Leopold, “Military Evangelism Deeper, Wider Than First Thought,” truthout, December 21, 2007, www.truthout.org/article/military-evangelism-deeper-wider-than-first-thought. They are also worried by hiring practices in the Department of Justice during the reigns of John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. A top adviser to Gonzales, Monica Goodling, is quoted as having judged prosecutors on the basis of whether they were “sufficiently conservative on the core issues of ‘god, guns + gays.’ ” Eric Lightblau, “Report Faults Aides in Hiring at Justice Dept.,” New York Times, July 29, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/washington/29justice.html?partner=rssnyt%5C&emc=rss&page wanted=print. Similar problems are reported at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Vice President Dick Cheney’s office is reported to have removed statements on the health risks posed by global warming because they did not comply with the Bush administration’s political and market ideology. Andrew Revkin, “Cheney’s Office Said to Edit Draft Testimony,” New York Times, July 9, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/07/09/washington/09enviro.html.
- For the connections among the White House, Blackwater, and the Family Research Council, see Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, rev. ed. (New York: Nation Books, 2008).
- Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (New York: Random House, 1999).
- Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). See also Michael L. Weinstein and Davin Seay, With God on Our Side: One Man’s War against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military (New York: St. Martin’s, 2006); Robin Wagner-Pacifici, “The Innocuousness of State Lethality in an Age of National Security,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107 (2008): 459 – 83; Gordon C. Chang and Hugh B. Mehan, “Discourse in a Religious Mode: The Bush Administration’s Discourse in the War on Terrorism and Its Challenges,” Pragmatics 16 (2006): 1 – 23; and Stephen John Hartnett and Laura Ann Stengrim, “War Rhetorics: The National Security Strategy of the United States and President Bush’s Globalizationthrough- Benevolent-Empire,” South Atlantic Quarterly 105 (2006): 175 – 205.
- See, e.g., former prime minister Tony Blair’s comment that “if you have faith about these things then you realise that judgement is made by other people. If you believe in God, it’s made by God as well,” in Andy McSmith, “Blair: ‘God Will Be My Judge on Iraq,’ ” Independent, March 4, 2006, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/blair-god-will-be-my-judge-on-iraq-468512.html; and Amanda Lohrey, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia (Melbourne: Black, 2006).
- See, e.g., Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Pantheon, 2004).
- “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” September 20, 2001, www .whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.
- James McGinnis, “Teaching Peace after 9/11 and the War on Iraq: ‘The Most Weighty Task’ for Christian Leaders and Educators,” www.ipj-ppj.org/Reflections%20-%20Advocacy%20Suggestions %20-%20Lesson%20Plans/Teaching%20Peace%20Lesson%20Plan.htm (accessed May 12, 2008).
- Emile Benveniste famously noted that the third person should be, more precisely, thought of as the nonperson and was not always specified lexically (Problems in General Linguistics [Miami: University of Miami Press, 1973]).
- “President Addresses Nation, Discusses Iraq, War on Terror,” www.whitehouse.gov/news/ releases/2005/06/20050628-7.html (accessed July 12, 2008).
- For a longer discussion of sovereignty and biopolitics in contemporary late liberalism, see Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107 (2008): 509 – 30.
- In a reading of Herman Melville’s civil war poem “Shiloh,” Michael Warner examines how violence can be made scandalous. See Warner, “What Like a Bullet Can Undeceive,” Public Culture 15 (2003): 41 – 54.
- Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab, enl. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 48.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006), 7.