As I watched the aftermath of the confrontation between the students from Covington Catholic and Native American Elder, Nathan Phillips it came as no surprise to me the instant, adamant defense of the actions of privileged students by chaperones, administrators, reporters, and powerful public leaders – people who are so sure of these boys rightness, goodness, and motives.
People who seemed to not truly question the actions or intents of the students, much less those of others involved, at all. It seemed like they’d decided from the start these boys are above reproach. And when we allow the powerful to determine for us those who are above reproach, and stop asking questions and seeking deeper truths, we can end up defending complex systems and situations we don’t understand and that have dangerous, harmful consequences.
But there was another part of me that understood the teens in that crowd. I didn’t go to a Catholic Prep School but I did go to the very conservative Trump Supporting Evangelical Liberty University. The one that Donald Trump spoke at in 2016 where he said “Two Corinthians.”
I was a student in 2004 when President George W. Bush was up for re-election I was starting my freshman year at Liberty University. I didn’t care too much about politics at the time and didn’t think too much about it.
I and my friends at Liberty were all conservative, sure. But we didn’t talk much about it. I couldn’t have told you why I was except for abortion and the people around me who were older and smarter seemed to think that was the obvious right choice and so I did too.
I didn’t pay any mind at all to the election. I’m not even sure that I voted. I was too busy discerning God’s will for my life and serving God in ministry (which, turns out, was mostly an endless circle of caring about the other girls on my hall and in our classrooms and had little to do with anyone off campus unless we were trying to convert them in formulaic ways.)
I didn’t really know much about how politics worked, didn’t care to. Politics never had much bearing in my life, not in any discernible way. My white middle-class privilege allowed me to be mostly unaffected by politics, any by extension, uninterested if I chose to be.
Liberty is where I started being exposed to politics, where I first heard politicians speak. Everyone seemed so sure of themselves and their stances, and they were all so very loudly and proudly Christian. It was made obvious that Republicans were the godly party. There was little room, if any, for discernment or nuance in any political discussion.
I wasn’t invited to think too critically about these sorts of things anyway. Things would work out, God would orchestrate the outcome and was in control. I could simply look away, uninterested, and focus on important things like reading through the Bible in a year, going to six church services a week, and dream about the big ways God might use me as his (because God was definitely a “he”) hands and feet in the world. God was in control, people I trusted, who were smarter and more informed than I was were doing their part, and that left me free to contemplate a faith that was about me as an individual and had little to say about systems or collective responsibility.
On my campus the notion of supporting as morally bankrupt as a Democrat was so ridiculous it was a joke. I remember someone I knew put a John Kerry sign in their dorm room window to be funny. They got so much flack for it, so much pushback and vitriol that they took it down, and did so begrudgingly, wondering why people couldn’t just take a joke.
But it was a given that Dick Cheney’s political agenda was ours too.
Now, 14 years later, my world has split wide open. I chose to live in places much different than the one I came from and learned I had been so naive about the world, so small and self-focused in my faith. I learned I find Christ exactly where he said he would be – in the face of my neighbor, particularly among my most vulnerable neighbors. I learned the way we love God is by loving our neighbors well, and this impacts everything about our way in the world, the systems we uphold, the purchases we make, the strangers we choose to welcome, the people we put into power and how we hold them accountable. I learned of suffering, learned there are no easy answers. I learned God is still good in a world I found, as I read and befriended and dug in, to be a more dark and difficult place than I’d ever known it to be before.
For New Years’ Eve a friend suggested we go see Vice, the Adam McKay-directed account of the career of Dick Cheney, and, given the hoopla that was 2018, it seemed a poignant and perfect way to ring in the New Year. Seeing a movie that would make me laugh and also feel deeply disturbed seemed exactly the way to go.
The movie is an account of the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who was notoriously secretive in the public eye. It is a movie based on fact, intelligently done. It moves quickly, made me laugh, and also made me want to cry.
The movie spans the life of Cheney, from the plains of Wyoming to the “swamp” of Washington, following the forces that pushed him toward Washington and to ever more and greater power – redefining not just the Vice Presidency but the whole Executive along the way. We also learn about his wife, we meet his daughters, and the impact of the family’s political agenda on each other.
We also see graphic images of the family’s political agenda on the world: bombing, bodies, war and torture. I watched the graphic images of the bombings in Iraq, and the torture of detainees. I also looked away at some. I’ve seen war, I have my own images lodged in my brain. I don’t need more in my internal rolodex of carnage to feel viscerally, to acknowledge the destruction. I looked away, knowing in part what it’s like to hear bombs falling nearby, my eyes stinging with tears. I felt sick.
As the movie progressed, I watched the connective threads join together about events I knew a little bit about, and the insidious, self-seeking nature of powerful people manipulate a population, twist facts, and use tragedy to pursue their own agendas of greed and conquering. I knew some of these details – of Cheney’s hand in the opportunistic nature of a response to 9/11 used to pursue a different agenda in Iraq, and the creation of the Forever Wars.
Such a small number of powerful men were responsible for so much death and destruction that is still ongoing. This “War on Terror” is responsible for the formulation of ISIS and was used as an excuse for selfish gain. Sure, some of the movie is conjecture – it’s not all fact, and a lot of artistic license is used (unless the Cheney’s did recite MacBeth to each other in lieu of pillow talk). Cheney was a notoriously private man. But if we squint around the details and stick to the general themes of what is known, the facts are still stark. We, Americans, are still responsible for so much bloodshed.
None of this was covered in Bible school.
I sat in the movie theater disgusted with myself. I opted out of politics for so many years because it didn’t affect me so I didn’t really care. Nothing was happening that affected me personally so I paid it no mind.
The damage we have done in Iraq and beyond is often described as incalculable, but in a lot of meaningful ways, it is calculable. At the end of the movie, we are provided with statistics of lives lost, for soldiers with PTSD. What there are no statistics for are of critical schooling years lost for children, for homes, livelihoods, dreams, and good health lost.
The destruction in Iraq was total – and among the wildly indiscriminate nature of the war and its “collateral damage”, there were strategic decisions made at every turn. When the US invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, one of the orders for the Chief of the Provisional Authority was to introduce genetically modified (GM) crops and institute intellectual property rights for seed developers. This made the centuries-old practice of seed saving by farmers illegal and forced farmers to purchase GMO seeds each year from large global companies. While we bombed and shelled and droned, we also attacked Iraqi civilians’ ability to feed themselves.
And we made money doing it. Iraq’s gene bank – essentially a foundation for food security and sort of national seed bank, containing thousands of years of seed-breeding work – was lost when Abu Ghraib was conquered and controlled by invading troops. The sole purpose of this was to open a new open a new potentially lucrative market for corporate giants – I believe we call this “opening new markets”.
Life and livelihoods. Torture and terror. Secret prisons and seed stores. Fiery skies and the food supply. Not just out there, but a boomerang that affects us in ways many of us don’t perceive or acknowledge, insidious control with disregard for most walks of human life other than their own.
In Vice we see a few powerful people (almost exclusively older white men) manipulate people and situations, corroborate false information, and work to make their agendas palatable to the American people by way of semantics and half or un-truths. It’s well established that we were lied to about the Iraq war – by Colin Powell and others, about WMDs and pretty much every aspect in the run-up to the war.
If I was being lied to along with everyone else does that mean I’m not complicit?
This is a question that haunts me – even if I didn’t know better, am I complicit?
The war on terror was good for Dick Cheney’s theory of government, for oil companies like Halliburton, who registered $39.5bn in profits from the war, and from the $138bn in profits to US companies as a direct result of the war we created. As a car driver, food consumer, and tiny 401(k) holder, the Iraq war wasn’t all bad for me.
Stacey Midge (@revstacy) said on Twitter recently in regards to Jesus, Empire, and progressive Christian circles:
“You may not be the emperor, but you’re not the Samaritan woman either. Lots of us are more like tax collectors and soldiers of the Empire. We’re not at the top. We don’t have a ton of control. But we participate in and benefit from the power structure, and our benefit comes at the cost of those further down the structure, whether we’re aware or not.”
In one of the final scenes of the movie, Cheney himself drives the point home:
“I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones could sleep peacefully at night. It has been my honor to be your servant. You chose me. And I did what you asked.”
I am altogether unsettled by these words. I am quick to insist that Dick Cheney’s sins are not my own. But what does it mean that he did it for me – for the nation writ large? What does it mean that the nations will be judged?
As a voter I have some responsibility about who is in office. As a taxpayer, 51% of what I render unto Ceaser goes directly into the war machine. I can’t choose that my tax dollars to go food stamps, national parks, or subsidized housing instead of bombers, guns, or toxic chemicals, though I would very much like that.
What I do know is: I am responsible for the questions I ask, the pages I turn, the media and entertainment I consume. I’m responsible to know how my actions and inactions affect others, and thinking through and working and living toward a more just world, where none shall be made afraid. I’m responsible to do better once I know better.
In the meantime, though, I’ll weep and gnash and repent. I’ll keep reading and learning and trying to do better now that I know better.