“Doing Theology” in a Nation That Bombs Grandmothers

By Eric Martin

Warning: this post includes a graphic image of a victim of drone attacks

There are hard questions American Christian theologians must ask in lieu of the Rehman family’s Congressional testimony last Tuesday.

A US drone killed Monina Bibi, a 67-year old Pakistani midwife on October 24, 2012. She was the only person killed, though the bomb also wounded her 9-year old granddaughter Nabila. They were playing in a field far from any roads, despite the claim that the bomb was targeting terrorists in a car. Rafiq ur Rehman, in an open letter to President Obama asking why his mother was killed, describes finding the wreckage after leaving the primary school where he teaches. “I came home to find not the joys of Eid [a festival Monina baked homemade sweets for], but my children in the hospital and a coffin containing only pieces of my mother.”

The Rehman family, whose grandmother was killed by a drone, testifies before all five members of Congress.

The Rehman family, whose grandmother was killed by a drone, testifies before all five members of Congress.

So Rafiq and his family came to Washington, DC to testify before Congress and inform them what US policy has done to their grandmother. Insultingly, only five of our representatives bothered to show up.

Read a small portion of the effect drones are having on the Rehman’s village. This is from 13-year old Zubair speaking to Congress (video footage of the testimony can be viewed here):

    “We used to play outside all the time. We loved to play all sorts of games in my village – cricket, football, volleyball. But now people are afraid to even leave their houses, much less travel great distances, so we don’t play very often.”
    “There are few schools in my community, but now many children have stopped going to the few that exist. This is a big problem in my community, as what everyone really wants and needs is education. But education isn’t possible as long as the drones circle overhead.”

Let us pause on these quotes. Let our thoughts, already oversaturated with news of blood shed by our own government, marinate in these words and consider what is at stake. Children are afraid to play. Parents are keeping them from school. Drones in the sky are an ever-present reality to a 13-year old boy and his 9-year old sister. Their grandmother has literally been shred to pieces. Our country is the perpetrator.

Consider now that last week the UN stated that “at least” 450 civilians have been killed by US drones in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, while another last year claimed the number may be as high as 881, including 176 children. The report calls for American transparency on the issue, including just how many noncombatants have died under our bombs. Venezuela has tracked these developments closely and estimates that only 10% of those killed were actual targets. In other words, 90% of those who died were like Monina. Several countries challenged the legality of US drone policies under international law, but the US delegate brushed off these trifles by declaring that our practice is “necessary and just.” One wonders if the Rehman family would agree the assassination of their grandmother was either necessary or in service of justice.

Behind every family story like the Rehman’s there is also the wider community. Rafiq notes that Monina was the only midwife in the village. What now will they do? “She delivered hundreds of babies for our community,” he notes. “Now families have no one to help them.” There is also the inevitability of blowback. Consider how we might react if Pakistan killed one of our grandmothers playing in a field. The result is obvious: there is a “marked radicalization” which is “driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.” In 2010 — two years before Monina was killed — the UN special representative on extrajudicial killings warned the US that we are creating a “chaotic world.”

Look theologically at this story. Families, which American Christians have been wanting to defend recently, are being torn apart. Communities turn to violence. Rather than Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom we are creating “terror.” Hate begets hate and we have engaged in the tragedy of “eye for an eye.” The Golden Rule is systematically ignored. We are creating a “chaotic world,” undoing the very act of Creation in Genesis in which God forms order from the chaotic waters. Our bombs create more poor, more oppressed, more widows, more orphans, and more downtrodden — the very ones the prophets and Jesus call us to attend to. In a final insult, our own representatives do not bother to show up to hear the lamentations of the victims. We have become the rich man who refuses to give a damn about Lazarus, who languishes at our very gate. We have killed real people with real names and real loved ones who bear the ineradicable image of God. Their blood, like Abel’s, cries out to God from the ground.

What does Ali, who had his arms blown off by an American drone, mean to theologians?

What does Ali, who had his arms blown off by an American drone, mean to theologians?

Questions For Theologians

Let us ask honest questions of ourselves as American Christian theologians in light of this atrocity. (We could similarly do so with this weekend’s news that American doctors assisted – and continue to assist – with torture in Guantanamo under orders from the Department of Defense and CIA.) Now is a good time to engage in collective introspection. Theology as a discipline must confront Thoreau’s call to “consider the way in which we spend our lives.”

What does our trade have to do with Monina and the Rehman family? If by our fruits ye shall know us, the answer appears to be “nothing.” Does this sit well with us? Should a theological voice be raised from within America in protest of the murder of perhaps 880 civilians, not to mention the thousands of “targets” that have been killed? Is this tragedy “our business?” Are we content to read, speak, and write about the God who created and intimately breathed life into the nostrils of humans while ignoring the sudden and grotesque detonation of that very life? What kind of integrity can theologians maintain in such a silence? Do we agree with Dr. King that “A time comes when silence is betrayal?”

Who are we, as theologians? What is our function? So often the question of “what to do” arises in the face of injustice. But we must first decide who we are. Are we academics, identical to a mathematician or geologist except for our subject matter? Are we simply employees who take up our faith in between work shifts? Does our job have anything to do with loving the poor, oppressed, and spat-upon — or anyone, for that matter — and therefore necessarily working for justice? Is discipleship related to “being a theologian?” Does being a “good theologian” have anything to do with living as if the Beatitudes were true? Is it a career or a vocation, a way of being in the world? What does love have to do with our collective identity? What claim does the Bible make on us as Christian theologians? Do we agree with Thomas Merton that “there is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible – until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable for ourselves?”

Is structural sin something theologians should treat as an astronomer would a distant nebula? Is it merely subject matter, a topic for the curriculum? Should we write about it as an English professor might treat Shakespeare, as a tidy concept which we contextualize within the field of thought? Is it a graspable, containable academic thing which we name and therefore control? Do we act sufficiently as theologians by tracing its historical development, listing problems raised by trying to address it, and perhaps pointing students to this or that papal encyclical, asking them to learn the academic importance of how Rerum Novarum treats labor? Or is this sanitizing sin, anesthetizing our departments and absolving them from the burden of acknowledging its reality, making an intellectual object of another’s suffering that we might otherwise embrace as our responsibility? Does Henri de Lubac’s critique of neo-Scholasticism apply also to our stance toward social sin when he says “we stroll about theology somewhat as if in a museum of which we are curators, a museum where we have inventoried, arranged, and labeled everything?”

What is our role in America? Ought we to pretend we did not pay the money that built the bomb that killed Monina? Or that we do not continue to sign and send our taxes to fund torture in Guantanamo? Should we ignore “politics,” acting as if theology were a hermetic monastery on a college campus? Do we embrace the prophet’s position, relaying God’s demands to society? Do we call for repentance and justice? Do we lead the way by action? What does it mean that Dr. King studied theology at a prestigious university and left academia? Where is the place for the theologian? Can we be genuine disciples in the comfort of our offices while our nation’s drones fly the Pakistani skies?  Should we add to the UN’s qualm of a “lack of transparency” in US drone bombing the further “lack of Christian love, justice, and community?” Can we teach a religion pointing toward God’s Kingdom and do nothing while our country bombs its structures? Do we conclude in the face of systematic killing, as Dan Berrigan once did, “The machine is working badly?” If so, what then?

These questions ought to be pursued, even chased, together. Let them fester in our collective consciousness. At stake is whether Monina and her family become, as Wendell Berry put it, just another statistic that does not move us to tears.

Jesus, however, wept at death. Whether or not that tells us something about our role as theologians ought to be of importance to us. It will certainly matter to those whom we might otherwise not notice.

Eric Martin is a doctoral student in historical theology at Fordham University in New York

5 responses to ““Doing Theology” in a Nation That Bombs Grandmothers

  1. I think a pre-requisite for serious discussion on this subject is that the atrocities of the terrorists that these drones are targeting is also taken into account. Otherwise all the facts of the case are not there. You cannot make a moral calculation without acknowledging the reasons why these drone attacks were launched. Pretending they did not happen does not help your case in any way. Acknowledging these reasons would make your case much stronger, and encourage those who don’t agree with you to actually consider your arguments and not dismiss you out of hand.

    • Ever since I read that only 5 representatives showed up to this hearing, I haven’t been able to get this story out of my head. Thanks for having the courage to write what a lot of us have surely been thinking about but unwilling to fully engage because of the serious consequences it might involve for our “careers” as theologians.

      • Thanks, Nick.

        John – These are helpful points, and you are right that I left important things out. You are also correct to be concerned about “the terrorists” and laying out “all the facts.”

        Interestingly, the US Department of Defense gave this working definition of “terrorism” in 2010: “The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies.” By our own definition, then, the US is a terrorist entity. Repeatedly burning Vietnamese children’s flesh with napalm would be an example. In fact, by this definition, the US is the only country found guilty of terrorism by the World Court for its actions in Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States, 1984). Also, part of the aim of this article is to point out that UN representatives are concluding that our use of drones constitutes “unlawful use of violence.”. So yes, terrorism is important to consider, but the term must be consistently applied if it is to be, as you say, a serious discussion. We should either call both parties “terrorist” or neither if they fit the given definition.

        You are also right to ask why drone attacks are launched. We obviously face security issues and assume this will keep us safe. But to continue your line of thought, why do “terrorists” want to harm us? There are historical reasons. We overthrew Iran’s government in 1953. Our navy blew up passenger Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988, killing 290 people, including 66 children. Osama bin Laden’s open letter to America said plainly that one reason they attacked on 9/11 is that we have been blowing up towers in the Holy Land. (President Bush must not have read the letter, claiming they hate us for our freedoms.) These are just three examples of a long list of what others see as American atrocities. We may not know them well, but the victims do. Clearly, we present a security risk for them. “Terrorist organizations” are not bound by national boundaries, and what we do to one region is known by others. You should ask yourself how we might react if Iran blew up a passenger flight or overthrew our government.

        So I did not mean to pretend the drones are sent for no reason. I simply assumed most Americans already consider al-Qaeda to be thugs. The more pressing need is to consider our own role. Perhaps you can see it as a communal Ignatian examen, taking stock of our day to find where God is and is not. It is not a time to dwell on the faults of others. Is there harm in that? Not many al-Qaeda members will read this article, so I did not see a need to point out their faults. But a few American theologians might read it. And we ought to consider what our role is when we drop a bomb on someone’s grandmother, especially when that fits a pattern. Perhaps you are right and we ought not to ask whether our killing of this village midwife concerns us. Maybe an attempt to see ourselves clearly is undesirable. Perhaps, in Christian terms, we would rather not confront our sin. I expect many Americans prefer this view. I assume the Gospels and the example of Jesus dictate otherwise.

  2. Pingback: What does it mean to honor the troops? Theological considerations when war is assumed. | Daily Theology·

  3. Unfortunately you are putting words in someone’s mouth: “Perhaps you are right and we ought not to ask whether our killing of this village midwife concerns us.” That is unfair. I don’t know John Doman, but he said nothing of the sort. In fact, he might very well be “on your side” and was giving you a suggestion to make your case stronger. I think what he said was valid, as do I what you said. You don’t have to go into a long discussion of Al-Qaeda as thugs, but merely acknowledge that some might say the atrocities of Al-Qaeda that have resulted in so many deaths warrants “collateral damage” as described above. I don’t hold that view and clearly you don’t either, but if the article is going to not merely preach to the choir, it probably is good to reference reasons some of your detractors might have, so that your article isn’t merely dismissed by them, but is seriously wrestled with.

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