Timothy McGee is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.
The Midtown South branch of the NYPD recently tweeted (and promptly took down) an image of Jack Nicholson playing Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men, along with the full quotation that begins with the famous line, “you can’t handle the truth,” and includes the troubling statement, “You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives!”
Posted two days after more than twenty-thousand people marched in New York to protest the killings of unarmed black men and women, this quote reveals the deep cultural as well as material connection between the military and police, such that the defense of one institution serves as the identical defense of the other. It thereby also reminds us that the domestic killing of unarmed black men and women should be connected to the international killing of unarmed civilians via drone warfare, and the torture of “enemy combatants” held in secret CIA detention centers overseas.
The reasoning provided by Jessup and quoted by the NYPD was recently repeated, even more callously, by Dick Cheney. Cheney argued that he was fine with the brutal treatment of innocent detainees as long as the objective of “saving lives” was fulfilled. No tragedy even, as long as “we” triumph.
The redemptive logic displayed in the tweet and defended by Cheney collapses the notion of “saving lives” into a larger project to “safeguard the nation.” It is not simply empirical individuals whose existence has been threatened but a whole idealized mode of life that has come under threat. What ultimately connects the militarization of the police to the imperialist policing of the world by the military is the sense that “America” is under attack and its salvation requires an increasingly violent response.
Talal Asad, an anthropologist and post-colonial theorist, has pointed out that Western Christian and secularized understandings of redemption have always been accompanied by a kind of cruelty or disregard for human life. The goal of redemption is to bring out the potential humanity of those not fully human others—whether poor black urban youth or Arab Muslims—and to contain and extirpate (culturally or biologically) those internal and external inhuman others who refuse and resist being “humanized” or redeemed by the West.
The current population self-identified with this redemptive project of humanizing potential human others, that is, the middle-class white U.S. citizen, is facing a crisis of legitimacy that it perceives as a threat. No longer able to sustain the fiction that its own interests are the nation’s best self-interests let alone the self-interests of the human species as a whole, it interprets this loss as attack or threat, doubling down on the myth of “American awesomeness” in the face of torture reports, police brutality, economic downturn and instability, racialized and gendered violence, and the increasingly strained position of the U.S. as the political and economic leader of the globe.
In face of the realization that its power and prestige cannot be assumed, the salvific defense of this class and its self-interests turns violent. If torture or the shooting of unarmed black civilians happens, these are simply, at worst, tragic necessities so that this threatened way of life—America—can continue. And it must continue, it must be saved, for it, in fact, is what redemption means. As the Jamaican essayist Sylvia Wynter has argued, human redemption has become materialized and now simply is entrance into the cultural mode of life defined by and structured for the sake of white, middle class America.
These tremblings of an Empire and its way of life are happening during Advent, a time in which we Christians remember that the prophesied birth of the Jewish Messiah sent the ruling elite of another Empire into a murderous, genocidal tirade. The “tragic sacrifice” of innocent life was deemed necessary to preserve the structures that would ensure global peace, the Pax Romana. But beneath and against these tremblings of Empire, other forms of life were emerging. In the language of the Gospels, the Kin(g)dom of God was breaking in, not in the pompous glory of power, but in the birth of a child in a stable, welcomed by poor shepherds and foreign wise men.
In the opening of Luke’s Gospel, Mary praises God for granting her the honor of mothering this Messiah. She sings,
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy…
If we white U.S. Christians cannot echo Mary in this song of praise, it might be that we are more interested in preserving our self-proclaimed role as universal saviors than in embracing the form and mode of life in which Jesus of Nazareth actually came, and into which he continually calls us. On the other side, I can think of no better summary of Mary’s song happening today than the refrain Black Lives Matter. Not all lives matter, but black lives matter, for in a very biblical way, we do not seek to include the part into the whole—the covenant with Israel into creation, the Jew into the Gentile, black lives into all (human) lives—but constantly challenge the proposed whole for the sake of the part: creation for the sake of covenant, Gentiles grafted into Israel, and all lives matter only because black lives matter.
Perhaps then, as one marcher in New York wrote on a sign, the black liberation theologian James Cone was (and is) right, and the Gospel can and still should be summarized for us today as “Jesus Christ is Black.” A Black Christ is not antithetical to us white people. Christ is, however, quite clearly opposed to the redemptive violence unleashed against non-white bodies at home and abroad for the sake of saving what our bodies represent: the form of life that falsely claims to enact, bring, and secure the peace that will redeem or humanize all peoples. Against this redemptive life we too must learn to shout and hope and pray and live and act and work so that God’s kin(g)dom will come and Shut It Down.