My friend Derek Rishmawy offered a thoughtful critique of Owen Strachan and my’s essay at The Federalist titled “Chris Kyle, ‘Savages’ and Moral Language in a Terrorist Age.”
First, let me begin upfront noting my appreciation and respect for Derek and his general approach to all things theological. We like to rib each other from within our respective Baptist and Presbyterian traditions and have a jolly time doing that. We’re on the same team and he’s a co-laborer, and our disagreement here is very internecine and friendly.
Contra Strachan and me, Rishmawy’s concern is that Christian ethicists should not deploy language like “Savages” or “Savagery” when discussing enemy combatants and that our approach lacks “sensitivity.” In his own words:
The bigger problem I have with their piece is that it conducts itself as if the events depicted in American Sniper and Chris Kyle’s statements occurred in a historical vacuum where that language doesn’t have a long trail of social history dragging behind it. In other words, there’s still a long social history of colonialism, racism, and cultural violence loaded in a term like “savage” that comes off differently when used by a heroic white man killing violent brown Muslims.
“Savage” is the term that some Christians, or simply Westerners, used to justify their colonial conquest of indigenous peoples who didn’t have the proper sort of cultures, forms of dress, or skin colors. Without sitting on too high of a horse as we look back on our forebears, we have to remember that some considered it part of the White Man’s Burden to conquer the savages, educate them, and give them the Truth of Western culture so that they might not have to dwell in the darkness of their former bestiality. If some had to be killed, enslaved, or tortured in order for that to happen, well, so be it.
What I am saying is that their argument lacks a certain sensitivity — and yes, I realize the sneers that term might set off in conservative circles — to the fact that social and historical factors affect our ability to properly name evil for what it is. They might intend to condemn particular activities, but given our social history, there are inevitable connotations of racial and cultural superiority that appears to justify hatred, fear, nativism, and violence against the Arab, the Muslim, and the irrational Other.
He closed his essay by stressing the need to recognize the historical contingencies that surround our moral discourse. Rishmawy writes that “we should take care to name evil ‘as though the past happened.'”
In response, first let me express appreciation for Rishmawy not questioning our motives. He (rightly) exonerates us from any charges of colonialism or racism.
But allow me to respond, very briefly, on two fronts.
First, I’ll grant, with Rishmawy, that history should chasten us from being too quick to use such stark language as “evil” and “savages” and “savagery.” But to chasten isn’t to refrain. I don’t believe either Strachan or I were unaware of the historical contingencies or loaded imagery that such language is fraught with. Strachan, for one, is a professional historian; and I’m a student of Christian ethics quite aware of the connotative effects of language. We’ve read our history books. We’re acquainted, though impersonally and by time and distance, with the historical record detailing entire regimes whose purpose was the degradation of humanity through genocidal barbarism (see “Hitler, Adolf”). It is the very historical record itself that propels us to label terrorists and ISIS in the terms we did.
Secondly, and to the larger disagreement I have with Rishmawy’s critique, is his matrix for reaching moral conclusions. Implied in his criticism of us is that naming something as evil or “savage” can or should be conditioned or governed by externalities that have nothing to do with the evil being perpetrated. On this, I simply disagree. What do I mean? Think of the Chicago Cubs, a baseball team I loathe. When I call them “one of the worst baseball teams in MLB history,” I ought to be able to make that claim independent of the historical baggage or lived realities of Cubs’ fans. A team is objectively good or bad much in the same way that the manner of conduct in combat is either good or bad.
Evil is a respecter of no one person, ethnicity, or culture over another (Genesis 3). We said as much in our own words. In our piece we expressed, with no reluctance, the very real possibility that “evil” and the descriptor of “savage” could be justifiably foisted upon American military forces were they ever to engage in such actions. We wrote that:
To call evil “savagery” is not to justify harsher, capricious treatment in return. Our position requires consistency and fair application. Were U.S. soldiers to ever act in similar barbarism, they, too, would be acting savagely. America has rules of engagement, a well-defined system of accountability, and it subjects offenders to trials in courts of law. This is moral realism in practice. Borders do not determine good and evil. American militancy is not barbarism, and our martial code both deplores it and guards against it.
And I agree, fiercely, with a recent headline “When ISIS Ran the American South” from Rod Dreher, who linked to a story out of The New York Times that described the barbaric, savage practice of lynching in the American South. I’ll willingly be an equal opportunity offender: Those Americans who perpetrated lynchings acted as savages, driven by irrational motive and employing brutal tactics that were unspeakably awful (and what is incalculably terrible is that many who professed Christ were the evildoers. Maranatha!). I’m not concerned about the feelings of any American who felt they were somehow justified to commit barbaric acts against their fellow citizens because of their skin color. I want to confront that past evil, name it, and work to end future occurrences of it.
Where evil is practiced, let us call it evil, barbarous, and savagery—regardless of culture, race, or ethnicity. Let not the troubled conscience of past sins erode our ability to name evil for what it truly is. Let us be aware of the points of vulnerability, but let not that impede the opportunity to speak in morally stark terms that seeks to restrain the evildoer and rescue the innocent. In our day, we need a Niebuhrian realism that doesn’t balk at naming reality as it is, a moral reality unencumbered by irrelevancies that only further equivocation. That was why we wrote what we did in the first place.