“Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war.”

(Psalm 120:6-7, NRSV)

            The words of the Psalmist are echoed throughout the world, off the walls of reality do they bounce, and into the ears of those who sharpen the weapons are they heard. In quoting the words of the Roman poet Horace, Wilfred Owen in the awake of the first world war told his country that if they knew the terrors and horror of war they would not teach their children, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori“-“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country”. The Psalmist also knew well that one could only be convinced of the goodness of the pursuit of war by “lying lips” and “a deceitful tongue” (Psalm 120:2, NRSV). As to how deep the venom of the deceitful tongues flows into the caverns of our thoughts that bring forth majestic Babylonian trees bearing the fruit of violence and war, is another question entirely. The lie must consist of its virtue, of its ‘sweetness’,  because if the lie consisted in its effectiveness, it is very much doubtful whether many would believe it at all. If the appeal to its virtue is what makes itself pleasing to the human heart, then it is this very ‘virtue’ that needs to be cut at the root so as to withdraw the venom out. What will appear as a destructive act of everything we knew and were told by the deceitful tongues, will in fact be the only way of salvaging our minds from the ‘old lie’, which runs through the manifestations of our society from war propaganda to innocent children’s sports. The sweet old lie is not only perpetuated in our media, but in the works of our theologians and major thinkers to the point of pure blasphemy and, in the strongest Christian terms, distortion of the very Gospel of the Prince of Peace, with whose banner they often lift in their pursuit. In the terms of the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for the academic and careful voice, and there is a time for the prophetic and reckless voice. This instance is of the later.

            The goal here in expounding upon the false virtue of the sweet old lie is not originality or innovativeness but reveal things in the starkest and most blunt of terms, sensitivities will be disturbed, and things cherished will be mocked. Let’s begin with the teaching of Mixed Marital Arts (MMA) to children throughout Ontario after the ban of such things was lifted in 2010. The UFC and its associated practices have often been compared to Roman gladiatorial games, and it still remains to be seen why the comparison is not apt other than the lame moral bar of- ‘Well the intention isn’t to kill the opponent in UFC’..yes quite right, it is only to beat him or her into an inch of their life, and what an inch it is!romans-amphi-gladiators1 The Toronto Star headlined its story as “MMA for kids: Teaching violence, or values?”, which is entirely wrong because there is no question that it teaches violence, and furthermore it teaches violence as a value. One instructor of the sport, Mel Bellissimo said, “Don’t look at 15 seconds (of UFC) on television and then make a judgment,…Come to a place like Lanna MMA and watch what the kids do. And you tell me whether or not this is about violence or whether this is about learning and making words like respect, honour and hard work not just words but words to live by.” How wonderfully charming it sounds- ‘Don’t look at our superficial images in the media, that’s all hype! Come see for yourself how wonderfully your kids are disciplined into respecting those bigger than them, how honourable their meaningless competitions are between each other, and how much hard work they put into learning to kick each other in the stomach!’- Is not the truth however that the images portrayed on TV  (you know the violent bloody ones?) are actually the real form of fighting, as they so like to pat themselves on the back for? Whereas the fighting that occurs in the training centre is the highly controlled superficial environment of rules and regulations from instructors and paternal authority? In relation to war then, it is not to difficult to see how the very teaching of violence is seen as a value because it contributes to other well-known virtues like honour, respect, discipline, and hard work. The exact same sort of rhetoric is of course found within militaries the world over, as military reform schools are seen as what teaches someone values and how to become a valuable citizen. As Nigel Biggar, in his new work In Defence of War (Oxford University Press: 2013),* says, “Anger, hatred, rage, the sheer pleasure of destruction: these are all powerful emotions on the battlefield, but they can be governed…Whether or not they will be governed depends crucially upon the military discipline instilled by training…” (89). The idea both with MMA fighting and the military is that ‘yes while anger, bullying, violence raw are terrible, you can be taught in extensive training in these arts the values of discipline, hard-work etc…’ The false virtue then to be seen is that hard-work, discipline, honour, etc… are goods in and of themselves regardless of the end of violence at which they are aimed- ‘if you kid has trouble finishing his homework on time, train him to be a soldier, then he’ll learn discipline to finish his homework!’- as if the teaching of violence was the only possible way of instilling these ‘virtues’, which again are no virtues of ends, only of means. The honest message of the sweet old lie, which is still a lie but is nevertheless more honest in its intentions, can be whispered as: violence in moderation is possible, so don’t worry, indulge what little you need to, enjoy!** 

            Alongside of arguing that teaching violence is a virtue because it instills other virtues, is also the notion that dying for one’s country out of self-sacrifice is an honourable thing. Stanley Hauerwas has outlined the particular American history of this idea that the war is a needed and noble sacrifice for the freedom’s of one’s country in his essay, “Why War Is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic Is Realism?”***, in which he writes,

“…after the Civil War Americans think they must go to war to insure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “to make the world safe for democracy” or for “unconditional surrender” or “freedom”…War, American wars, must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification. War is America’s altar.”

The same kind of justification with strong nationalist undertones can of course be found in any country, despite increasing internationalism and globalism. The wars of national purpose will be rewritten as wars that defended human rights or some other just international ideal, with that same idea however that they were a blood sacrifice. Every remembrance day or whatnot will remind the citizens of a particular country, that we need to pay homage to our soldiers, not only the ones past but the ones in the present, because they fought and are fighting for our political freedoms, which we should honour and be grateful for. man-of-steel-national-guard‘They had to die so that we might live’- is the notion presented. Outside of the Christian tradition, if one is a secularist, or a nationalist or a humanist of a particular sort, then yes, quite possibly the soldiers did die for your freedoms, because despite the fact that ‘modern’ society has believed itself to surpass our ‘barbaric’ ancestors, it still devoutly believes in the system of atonement for sins.+ If the speech of the politicians were explicit, it might appear something like this: “To pay for the sins of the science of eugenics, racism, and many other evils of modernity, soldiers were sacrificed in world war two to save us from the Third Reich so that we might enjoy the fruits of modernity, having now cleansed our consciences. The soldiers who gave themselves up for the task defended our liberties, our rights, our way of life, and to them we will be grateful by erecting statues, wearing flowers…(though actually caring for veterans is another matter entirely)…and in imitation of their brave example  (and Superman, the Man of Steel!!!) we invite you to join their ranks, so that we may continue to live the lives we do. The world is retaliating against us and is jealous of our freedoms, let us appease the discontent of our populous and the gods who have taken away their favour, with a war to show our devotion to the rights and elevation of humanity given us by Prometheus.”

            In fact, because soldiers are viewed in a self-sacrifical manner, they are often compared to Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus is portrayed as saying, “No one greater love than this, to lay one’s life down for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NRSV), and this is the acclaimed love of the soldiers. In the Christian tradition, self-sacrifice is the highest form of love, and therefore throughout much of theological rhetoric in justifying and making a virtue out of violence by the soldier’s practice, violence and war are given a divine character and blessing. However, it must be said that it is difficult to conceive of many things more blasphemous in the Christian tradition than to compare the violent destructive activity of soldiers to the sacrifice of the one who, though about to be executed by soldiers, “…yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7, NRSV). The false virtue found in the notion of the self-sacrifical soldier in a violent endeavour, is precisely that they are not self-sacrifical, they sacrifice others and then are killed in an act of resistance. In what sense is it even believed that soldiers are self-sacrifical? It is believed that they sacrificed their lives, when in reality they did not sacrifice their lives but they risked their lives. One risks their life by sky-diving, one does not sacrifice their life by sky-diving. ‘Should not the risk be honoured? Did they not risk it on our behalf?’- no, they died on the behalf of ‘future’ generations, they did not know you, but furthermore and more importantly, they not only risked their lives, but they risked their lives in the pursuit of sacrificing and killing other lives, as any combatant does, including the other-side of the conflict.++ The honest message of the sweet old lie, which is still a lie but is nevertheless more honest in its intentions, can also be whispered as: violence is redemptive, risk your lives, offer your sacrifices, and enjoy your crop!    

            Lastly in the list of deceits to be revealed as such- in addition to the false virtues of (1) that hard-work, discipline, honour, etc… are goods in and of themselves regardless of the end of violence at which they are aimed  (2) that soldiers are self-sacrifical, instead of the sacrificers, and killed in an act of resistance- is simply that something can be rendered virtuous by its ‘necessity’. For instance, in our present day, a humanities professor at Stanford University, Ian Morris, can write an opinion piece in the Washington Post, in which he argues that the process of war, “…yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over 10,000 years…” has “…made states, and states made peace”. Furthermore, it is when such a professor can write something like the following secular theodicy, that   a ‘religious’ person can deeply understand how disgusting all ‘religious’ attempts at a theodicy or an explanation of the evils of the Holocaust can be,

“War may well be the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, but the depressing fact is that it is pretty much the only way. If only the Roman Empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls and Greeks, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans, if these and countless conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force. But this did not happen.”

How would we ever know such a ridiculous proposal that it could not have been otherwise? Have any societies that we’ve ever known of tried the alternative of civilization without war?!?!? Notice the way Prof. Morris simply assumes that the brutal course that history took, was inevitable and necessary for our peace and abundance. ‘If only [it] could…’, as if we knew it could not have. For Prof. Morris, the process of enslavement, exploitation, racism, and much else can be described as, “…the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies…” More than this however, is the much larger lie that even if humanity’s past violence was necessary for our peace that that therefore makes it good and right. In other words, alongside of the very questionable premise of whether war and violence are ‘necessary’ is the false virtue that even if it were necessary this would mean it would be good, which is non-sense because in a realist worldview (of which it can only be presumed that Prof. Morris is) there could be such a thing as a ‘necessary evil’. But let us peel one more layer back and ask what the honest message of the sweet old lie, which is still a lie but is nevertheless more honest in its intentions, can be whispered as, in this case. Is it not?- Go, indulge your violence, history will thank you for doing the ‘necessary’ dirty work of violence, enjoy! 

            In sum then, what can we see? The false virtue of violence can have three separate parts, namely: (1) that hard-work, discipline, honour, etc… are goods in and of themselves regardless of the end of violence at which they are aimed  (2) that soldiers are self-sacrifical, instead of the sacrificers, and killed in an act of resistance and (3) simply that something can be rendered virtuous by its ‘necessity’, even violence. But what we have also seen is something much darker, which are the honest messages of the sweet old lie of violence as virtuous, which consist of: (1) violence in moderation is possible, so don’t worry, indulge what little you need to, enjoy!,  (2) violence is redemptive, risk your lives, offer your sacrifices, and enjoy your crop!, (3) go, indulge your violence, history will thank you for doing the ‘necessary’ dirty work of violence, enjoy! What do these whispers of the tongues of deceit appeal to in order to make itself pleasing to the human heart? Grimly its simply that the human heart already desires violence and all it needs are preachers, professors, media, and others to give them the justification for that which they already want to do. Violence is what we already want to commit, we just have to make sure that we don’t seem ‘crazy’ and over-indulgent to those with a conscious, and that we exercise moderation. Violence is what we already want to pursue, we just have to justify to the remainders of our conscious that its a redemptive thing to do. Finally, violence is something we already have decided on, we just have to convince an audience that we did the ‘necessary’ thing for which we should be thanked.

It must be confessed that I have not read the entire book yet, though I do intend too.

** Without much deciphering, it can also be said that this is the exact message of rape culture to young men, ‘Boys will be boys! Just make sure she’s unconscious, use a condom, and make sure she’s of age. We all understand that you have those violent impulses, just be disciplined about it. If people weren’t so sensitive and over-protective about the word ‘rape’ on the news and actually come to a frat house, they would see that the kids are having fun, they would understand that this is completely normal, and probably healthy too because it lets out sexual frustration.’ 

*** Which can helpfully be accessed herehttp://criswell.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/ctrhauerwasformatted3.pdf

On which, see Mr. Upton’s essayhttps://calebdupton.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/the-reinstatement-of-the-sacrificial-system-or-its-abolishment-atonement-theologys-abuse/ 

++ In addition, this false virtue is also similar to the previous false virtue in that it is a virtue of means, rather than a virtue of endsYes, self-sacrifice is a virtue, but the Christian tradition has never praised self-sacrifice in and of itself, rather it has praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the love of neighbour and on behalf of the Gospel.