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Against Symbolic Killing

We weren’t, President Obama emphasized, going to use force to achieve a strategic goal. Whatever was being planned, it would not tip the balance of power in the Syrian civil war one way or another. “Unbelievably small,” as John Kerry put it, or as the president said, “A shot across the bow.” It seems the plan was to kill in order to put an exclamation mark on a sentence: “America believes in the international laws of war!” or “You’d better keep your fighting within limits, or else!”

The tradition of just war analysis guards against the troubling idea of killing to send a message or for any other symbolic purpose. The probability of success is an important just war principle; another is proportional use of force. Each requires clarity about the on-the-ground outcomes. The Obama administration’s refusal to justify intervention in Syria in terms of actual military goals”spokesmen consistently set aside any notion that planned strikes would commit us to Assad’s defeat”means that these principles aren’t operative. Probability of success: How would we know if killing a thousand Syrian soldiers succeeded in preserving our credibility? Proportional use of force: How many cruise missiles does it take to send a message?

Reasonable people can disagree about when wars are just, and they often do. The criteria of probability of success and proportionality, as well as other just war principles like last resort and even just cause, require judgment calls. But when we can’t even apply just war principles, we have no just war at all.

We’re not to wage war for the sake of war, or the sake of national pride or credibility, nor should we do so in order to remind the world that we’re still the superpower. The moral purpose of war is to counter aggression, defend justice, and, most important of all, restore peace.

Ambivalent, half-hearted war making may seem better than the determined and ferocious use of force to achieve clear ends because it foretells less violence, less killing. But what seems is not always so. Strategic indecisiveness and a tentative toe-in-the-water mentality often end up deepening and extending conflicts rather than actually resolving them. Our muddled involvement in Vietnam provides an obvious example.

Syria may well be an occasion in which both justice and our national interest support war. But one very important necessity when we go to war, and an implicit element in the just war principles themselves, is a clear idea of what we hope to achieve. Think what we may about our invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had clear ideas. They turned out to be based on erroneous information (weapons of mass destruction) and a dreamy idealism (democracy)”there was and is much to criticize”but the arguments for war in 2003 were articulate and admitted of just war analysis.

For many reasons”a national post-Iraq traumatic stress syndrome? a general pessimism about our ability to do much good in the Middle East? a desire to attend to issues here at home? an ambivalent and politically calculating White House?”this kind of clarity is not something the administration or congressional leaders seem able to achieve. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to see how war of any sort in Syria, however “unbelievably small,” can be justified.

Marriage Matters

A friend confides to me that he’s having an adulterous affair. I sigh inwardly over our sin-saturated condition as I remind him that the Ten Commandments are pretty clear about adultery. I counsel, but perhaps too sympathetically. I exhort, though often too gently. And even though he responds with self-justifying sophistries, it doesn’t affect our friendship very much. We go on as before, though maybe with a little more distance between us.

I have to a certain extent soft-pedaled moral truth because I’m weak and want to get along. Swimming against the current is exhausting and can be lonely. I reassure myself that at least I haven’t really condoned his transgression, haven’t affirmed as right that which is wrong. It’s an easy, thin, cowardly consolation, yes, but it’s also a crucial line of defense against the debilitating interior corruption of willingly and self-consciously betraying the truth.

Most of us who dissent from the sexual revolution do something similar, not just with friends but with society as a whole. We go to work, socialize, and share public space with many people who reject the moral law’s authority over their lives, people who regard abortion as a fundamental right or who think sexual liberation an imperative. We do so in large part with civility and an appreciation for their good qualities. We accommodate ourselves to the moral realities of our time but don’t condone them. We do this because we can look away, not fixing on what is wrong because we are not forced to do so.

We can’t so easily accommodate when circumstances force the issue. If my married friend were to insist on bringing his mistress to a dinner party, I’d be under tremendous social pressure to smile, shake her hand, and make her welcome, all of which would erode my defense against betraying the moral truth. I’ve done just that, or something similar. They are painful occasions. I feel myself bearing false witness, all but affirming out loud what I know to be wrong. As I struggle for moral survival, I try to reserve some moral space, deep within the privacy of my consciousness, where I’m saying “no” even as I’m socially saying “yes.”

In this and moments like it, I find myself wishing I prized politeness less and had the interior freedom to kick out my friend and his mistress”or in some way to give the moral truth that has been jammed into a far corner of my conscience some purchase on reality, some public expression. For a purely internal commitment, a moral conviction that never emerges out in the open when confronted by its negation, can easily, perhaps inevitably, become spectral, inconsequential, and eventually lifeless.

Same-sex marriage forces the issue, which is why it has been and will continue to be a point of conflict in our culture wars. Marriage is a fundamental social institution that by its nature seeks to be visible and demands public acknowledgment. We invite guests, register with the state, and wear gold wedding bands that announce to the world our married status. It’s this public reality, this claim to social recognition”not some desire to “impose our morals” on others or “homophobic” bigotry”that makes the redefinition of marriage so indigestible for anyone committed to the moral truth of the matter.

The pews are full of sinners, and as a hospital for souls the Church is set up to minister to us, even in our tedious, enduring vices, even in our twisted impenitence. A priest can say contraception is wrong while communing parishioners who use contraception and do so without contradicting himself or betraying the Church’s moral witness. He can do so because they’re not making a public statement. On this moral issue, along with many others, he may well know that some transgress”it has always been so”but for the most part, transgression remains fugitive and not public. It doesn’t openly contradict his message. Thus has the Church navigated the sexual revolution.

As an institution, marriage is ordered toward public recognition, which makes its redefinition something different and more threatening than the general attitude of license. As gay-rights advocates have recognized, same-sex marriage is a very large placard, a clear, frank public statement that broadcasts their cause: What we do in the bedroom must be affirmed, not condemned. This public character is why a priest can’t say that God intends marriage to be between a man and a woman and welcome the married gay couple onto the parish school board. Their marriage announces, in a very public way, the exact opposite of what he teaches.

Until now, the sexual revolution achieved its political goals by way of a supposed right to privacy, a legal artifice that says, in effect, that we are free to do as we please behind closed doors”use contraception, engage in sodomy, and so forth. The imperative of “marriage equality” is very different, because marriage is the very opposite of private. It will require us to affirm same-sex couples as couples, pairs that rightfully and without any shame or legal disability do what married couples do: have sex, form households, have and raise children.

Thus the difficulty of tactical retreat and accommodation on the question of marriage. The public reality of same-sex marriage disrupts our usual modes of getting along in a society where what we know to be wrong is widely practiced. When Jim introduces me to his husband, I can entertain no palliating illusions. My moral convictions are exposed; the issue is forced. Will I respond in the usual ways of polite social relations, knowing that doing so is one form of affirming? To give ground in these circumstances”to act as though everything is normal and fine”bears a false witness, and over time becomes equivalent to denying the moral truth of the matter.

Deeper In

I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe,” observes Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer , a rich, beautiful, spiritually honest, theologically informed assembly of fragmentary, God-haunted reflections about suffering, death, love, life, poetry, and the shimmering gift of the real. Wiman, the former editor of Poetry (and a guest at one of our evening programs a few years ago), writes of many things, the most important of which is his struggle to survive a rare and deadly cancer that brings death close and on occasion annihilates him with pain’s oblivion. But his main goal is to bear testimony to what he can and does believe.

Full of vivid images and arresting observations (“Trust no theory, no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk”), this is not a book of confident theological proclamation. On the contrary, Wiman is most certain about his tentative uncertainty, quoting Czeslaw Milosz, “Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, / and only late do we discover how obedient we were.” As Wiman observes, quite accurately, many of us believe, yes, but a critical, skeptical spirit infiltrates, “and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between science and religion, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind.”

Nevertheless, in these fragmentary reflections the core of his faith comes clear. God is the great illumination, or, better, the Great Illuminator, the brightness of the unfathomable, abysmal (in its literal sense of being very deep) realness of all things. A genuine faith in God seeks what he illumines, plunges us into the ecstasies and agonies of contingent existence that our self-enclosed egos often draw back from or merely use, exploit, and manipulate. “It propels you back toward the world and other people.”

This affirmation stands against a strand of the classical tradition that argues we must affirm death in order to fully embrace life, “that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it.” By this way of thinking, to know that nothingness awaits makes every little something precious: the distant train whistle, the aroma of coffee in the morning, the odd bend in your lover’s nose. It was the view Wiman entertained in his unbelief, but when his cancer brought him face-to-face with actual death, he found it absurd and empty. Better, he argues in countless indirect ways across nearly every page of My Bright Abyss , to see life through the lens of life.

His meditations are often beautifully leavened by and expressed in poems, a distilled way to convey the power of particularity. He observes a falcon that comes to rest on the ledge of his window. In a few spare lines the falcon seems to ask, “How is it that you, an intelligent, grown man, cannot bring to mind your deepest wish?” Finite things and contingent moments, indeed, but they have the demand (and promise) of eternity within them.

I called you in to see.
And when you’d steamed the room
And naked next to me
Stood dripping, as a bloom

Of blood formed on your cheek
And slowly seemed to melt
I could almost speak
The love I almost felt.

Wish for something, you said.
A shiver pricked my spine.
The falcon turned its head
And locked its eyes on mine.

Although he does not develop it, Wiman’s commitment to the divine liveliness of life is supported by the classical view of God as Creator. As David Hart has emphasized on numerous occasions, God does not fabricate a self-sustaining universe, but rather brings all things into being and maintains them in existence. When we’re awestruck by the flower’s bloom or the ant’s relentless determination or a friend’s sly smile, we’re participating in the miracle of existence, God’s continual donation of being.

This view of faith as a deepening of our participation in reality also has christological support, which he circles back to on a number of occasions. God does not just sustain our existence; he enters into it. Here Wiman draws heavily on modern theologians like Jürgen Moltmann who emphasize divine solidarity with humanity in Christ, even to the point of the Cross. “Christ is contingency.” He is with us at every point” in every point of our lives. Christ is what I call “super-real.” He is the alpha and omega, and faith in him saturates our often thinned-out experience with the thickness of reality.

Wiman’s focus on reality”seeing life through the lens of life”reflects an important Christian truth. God does not save us from the created world. On the contrary, he redeems the world, and us from our self-enclosed worldliness. As St. Paul writes, “the whole of creation has been groaning in travail until now,” awaiting the final donation of being, the consummation of all things. It is for this reason that, for all its emphasis on moral and ascetic discipline, Christianity (and Judaism) has encouraged an essentially world-affirming disposition.

Wiman, however, goes too far, and the danger, paradoxically, is that the unique reality of Christ”the pinpoint particularity of the man Jesus”gets dissolved into everything else. “Faith is change.” “Faith in God is, finally, faith in change.” There’s a fallacy at work here. The doctrine of the Incarnation teaches us that if we are to know God most fully we must know him in history, but it does not follow that God therefore is history. There are counter-claims (“God is constant”) in My Bright Abyss , but they’re relatively faint.

Elsewhere he writes, “God is life, this life.” Again, a dangerous conflation. God is the source of life. In Christ, the omnipotent power of divine life (God cannot not be) enters into the life-deprived world our sin has created: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” Therefore, God is life in the sense that without him all things make their woeful way to nothingness. But life is not God, and certainly not this life, which sadly remains under the sway of sin and death. We can find God only in this life, an important truth that blocks world-denying mysticisms, but the Good News is that he’s more than this life.

These exaggerations are understandable; Wiman the poet presses language to its limits. But they are not always innocent. He can sound like Friedrich Schleiermacher when he talks about faith’s “first, churchless incarnation in the human heart.” Or like Harvey Cox when he suggests that secularism helps us by tearing away the comfortable props of Christian convention. Or like countless modern liturgical vandals when he writes, “We”those of us who call ourselves Christian”need a revolution in the way we worship.”

Again, there are counter-passages. He bemoans churches that never seem to get around to mentioning Christ. He affirms our need for “definite beliefs.” But for the most part Wiman takes up patterns of thought from liberal Protestantism. This is perhaps not surprising. Its main aspiration has been to show how the jealous God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is, in fact, a congenial, generous source of inspiration, which Wiman (wrongly) takes to be the font and goal of the Christian life.

Moreover, the liberal theological tradition for the most part endorses the lives of morally sensitive, spiritually inquisitive upper-middle-class people” this life. It would be grotesque for me to suggest that Wiman shares this goal. A great deal in My Bright Abyss speaks to the contrary. But his urgent desire to fuse his faith with his poetic loyalty to every jot and tittle of life leads him in this direction.

My Bright Abyss is an evocative, moving book, and it does not pretend to outline a systematic theology or present itself as theological primer. I fear I may have fallen into a too comfortable role: theology professor correcting errors. But there is an unresolved spiritual contradiction in his meditations.

In one passage, he draws a sharp distinction between Christianity and Christ. He’s describing his reawakened faith: “When I looked at my life through the lens of Christianity”or more specifically, through the lens of Christ, as much of Christianity seemed (and still seems) uselessly absurd to me”it made sense.” I’m sure it’s true to his experience. I too have felt the machinery of Christianity, its rituals and teachings and habits of mind, remote from the way I lead my life and, in that sense, if not absurd, then certainly useless, because I didn’t (and still often don’t) use it to guide and govern my life.

However”and this is the crux of the matter”without Christianity Christ loses his reality and becomes an idea, sentiment, image, or inspiration, all fine things but all lacking the hard-edged density of life, which is ironic given Wiman’s fierce loyalty to the real. He wants to affirm a faith that encourages us to engage reality, one that opens us up to the shimmering depths of life. But in so doing his adopts slogans, images, and tropes that keep the Incarnate One at arm’s length.

Jesus Christ is not contingency or life or history. He is a living person among us in the contingency of our historical existence. We need to see, touch, and hear him, which means making ourselves vulnerable to”to suffer, be changed by”his troublesome, indigestible particularity, and that means being subject to the authoritative Scriptures, the sacraments he instituted, and the Church that is his body.

”for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

These are beautiful lines from Gerard Manley ­Hopkins, and Wiman uses them to good effect. But we need to remember that unless we know Christ”and to know him requires us to dwell in his house with his people”we will not recognize him in his ten thousand places.


Atlantic City was, in 1977, the first city outside Nevada to legalize casinos. Now many states have welcomed casino gambling and slot machines. Legislatures love the revenue, and neither the left nor the right thinks any big issues are at stake. There are. Why Casinos Matter , a new report from the Institute for American Values, details the human and social costs of gambling.

Of its many bad effects, the predatory nature of casino gambling stands out. According to one study, infrequent, casual gamblers account for 75 percent of casino visitors while contributing just 4 percent of the casinos’ net revenues. The profits come from the regulars. And the regulars are disproportionately poorly educated and poorly paid people. The gambling industry and the legislators who pave the way for its expansion prey on the weak”and voters like us who ignore the issue fail to protect them.

It’s part of a large-scale pattern. Gambling, like so much else, is no longer taboo. Our growing libertarian consensus shrugs. If people want to gamble, well, that’s their business. We’ve seen something similar with pawnshops, which have reinvented themselves as payday loan outfits that now dot the bleak landscapes of poor neighborhoods throughout the country. We’re seeing it with drug legalization as well.

A society should be judged by many criteria, and one of the most important concerns the way it treats those most vulnerable. In some respects, contemporary America does well. We feed, house, and provide healthcare for the people at the bottom. But morally we’ve largely abandoned them. We’ve done so because the people at the top prefer a permissive atmosphere that allows us to do as we wish”as long as we don’t hurt anyone, a judgment call that ends up ruling out things upper-middle-class people don’t like, such as smoking and putting glass bottles in plastics-only recycling bins.

Gambling? Most people at the top find it vaguely unappealing but see no harm. That’s because too often we see only ourselves.

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