I’ve been thinking about the differences between motion and action and inertia.
Things of or in motion: water moving through the Yucatan Straight, a barge carrying oil down the Mississippi to a refinery in Texas, a squid migrating across the Gulf of Mexico, logs being driven down a river like a herd of cattle, a trucker driving his goods across the country on I-90, a dead body in Damascus swinging from a rope, an asteroid hurtling through space a mere 4.2 million miles away from Earth, and they say it will come back again in 2032, and they say it could destroy us.
Inertia is defined as inertness, especially with regard to effort, motion, and action; or, thing in motion will tend to stay in motion and a thing at rest will tend to stay at rest so long as no external force acts on it. That asteroid will crash into Earth unless we send Bruce Willis. Somebody call Bruce Willis. He would perform an act that would destroy the asteroid or change its course, thwarting death and destruction for all.
So, what is an act? What is action? Action is not motion, exactly. Granted, action can involve motion: Willis must perform some kind of action in response to the motion of the asteroid, else the world ends. But action, unlike motion, has a definitive starting point and is oriented toward a particular end (i.e., blowing up a rock). Action is not necessarily physical (prayer is action) and it has something like determination, or a purpose. If this were math, motion might look something like a wave, whereas action might look something like a vector. Thomas Merton once wrote: contemplation is the spring and action is the stream. To mix metaphors, contemplation would be the first point on the vector and the ray (that which extends from it) would be the stream.
Perhaps ritual is a repeated series of actions that fosters contemplation. Unfortunately, a repeated series of actions can also lull, like a lullaby, making one sleepy, numb, unthinking, passive.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about war and about our prayers and conversations about war in the Christian churches. War is often presented to us as an action, but I think our conversations about war, if this were math, would look like an equation, not a shape. Shapes and symbols, while representative and referential, are unlike an equation in that they have a feel to them. Vectors and waves appeal to our senses: our sense of sight and our sense of touch. We “get” corners and flatness and curvature. We “get” jagged or smooth. We “get” two or three dimensional. At the sight of a wave, one might even hear music or the sound of the ocean. At the sight of a vector, one might hear the launching of a rocket. In this way motion and action are both, even when strictly conceptual, somewhat sensory.
Nothing about the mathematical logic of an equation appeals to our senses, which is the first and primary (and primal way) we come to know about the world: through our senses. Conversations about war, especially those that refer to Just War theory, are steeped in abstract logical reasoning: this plus that minus this plus this equals this. The mental acrobatics that accompanies the justification for war usually happens at great remove from war itself; it happens in op-ed columns, on blogs, around dinner tables, and at roundtables televised by corporate-owned, media conglomerates. Now this is strange, because there is nothing less elemental than logic, and there is nothing more elemental than war. War in action is an elemental thing, a thing of fire, (fire power), hydrogen, (hydrogen bombs). War is concrete. Its effects and consequences are concrete, sometimes genetic, manifested in diseases and deformations of human bodies generations later, after a war is over. Yet the equations for justification are abstract and conceptual, often highly speculative, and they are always, in point of fact, theoretical. It is only a Just War theory, after all. There is nothing less concrete than the theoretical. A theory exists entirely in one’s head.
So if our conversations about war are like an equation, what is war itself like? It is often presented to us as action. There is the threat (the asteroid, the spread of Communism, the proliferation of WMDs, the ceaseless plans of terrorists), all which threaten life, and then there is the “heroic” action of war, which is presented as the only thing that can stop the threat and save the people from the threat. This is strange, because while there is nothing more elemental than war, there is nothing less elemental than logic, and there is nothing less logical than war. War destroys life on a grand scale, en masse, systematically, while the destruction of life is the very thing the proponents of war purport to want to prevent. Terrorists have killed a few thousand human beings in the United States. The U.S. military has killed almost half a million human beings in Iraq alone since 2003, purportedly in an attempt to stop terrorists from killing human beings. There is nothing reasonable about this.
The Christian mystic Simone Weil saw this lunacy. She did not see war as action, which is how it is painted by the propagandists. Weil saw war as motion, almost more like a force, with its own laws of physics, like gravity, something almost entirely divorced from reason, which is the very thing it claims to be rooted in. She wrote in her famous essay on Homer’s The Iliad, particularly with regard to Homeric similes: “The winning of battles [in The Iliad] is not determined between men who plan and deliberate, who make a resolution and carry it out, but between men drained of these faculties, transformed, fallen to the level either of inert matter, which is all passivity, or to the level of blind forces; which are all momentum. This is the final secret of war, this secret the Iliad expresses through its similes, by making warriors apparitions of great natural phenomenon: a conflagration, a flood, the wind, ferocious beasts, any and every blind cause of disaster. Or else by likening them to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to all that is moved by the violence of external forces.” While the reasons for war may sound noble, there is something truly sinister in its execution — and everybody knows it. As Weil put it: “Thus is the nature of might. Its power to transform man into a thing is double and it cuts both ways: it petrifies differently but equally the souls of those who suffer it, and of those who wield it.” It doesn’t take faith to recognize that no human being should ever be thus reduced.
A thing in motion will tend to stay in motion and a thing at rest will tend to stay at rest so long as no external force acts on it. Galileo improved upon the physics of Aristotle by explaining that the stopping of bodies in motion can be attributed not to their tendency to stop, but to an encounter with something that resists the motion: friction. Without such resistance, the motion would continue at its previous speed. Human conscience is the friction that threatens, always, to put an end to war, which has its own inertia. Thus, to perpetuate the motion of war, the war makers must exert force to keep it going. One way to do that is through propaganda and PsyOps. The other way to keep it going is to reduce the friction of conscience, especially that of Christian conscience. The best way to reduce the friction of Christian conscience is to present the “momentum” of war as the will of God and the soldier as an instrument of that will, or to present the “fallen” soldier as a victim of violence, someone who gave his life for others, as Christ did. This “greasing” of conscience happens in our Churches, which I wrote about in my essay, and it happens most obviously and most objectionably in my opinion in the military chaplaincy.
It is dangerous to locate truth in concrete reality alone; that would be pantheism or materialism (something like that, I’m not a theologian). But if we try to locate truth somewhere entirely removed from the concrete, somewhere in the purely abstract or theoretical, using our faculties of reason alone, it is equally dangerous. Thomas Merton wrote: contemplation is the spring and action is the stream. Contemplation is not logical reasoning. It does not look in at itself and turn around on itself like logic does. Contemplation gazes outward and happens in both mind and heart; the action it provokes happens in the world. (The exception to this of course is Bruce Willis. His acts are, literally, out of this world.)
My “action” often takes the form of writing. If I wish to oppose the momentum of war I will use words, but there is no quicker way to realize the futility of logical argument than when expressing opposition to war and arguing with those who believe in it. Because reason has been corrupted by original sin, it can be wielded to justify almost anything. Nay, it can be used to justify anything. I imagine this is why monks and nuns and others have, in protest of wars past, or of other cases of extreme injustice, set themselves on fire. What else is there to do? How else to combat such a massive system of destruction, death and injustice? They embrace the means employed by the merchants of death by turning it in on themselves like a twisted piece logic. It is an attempt not to drive out the darkness with light but to expose the darkness with an act, with a blaze, because words will no longer do. It is the ultimate perversion of the ideal of “self-sacrifice.” Surely they know that their body, burning, will be seen, and in a sense they will be heard, and their body burned and inert, will have to be dealt with. That is probably part of the point: to force the issue by making it something to be dealt with, physically.
There is a time when writing ceases to be enough, or even to feel like it’s worth anything. Too much of our protest happens in op-ed columns and on blogs that are unlikely to be read by the people we’re trying to reach. There is nothing more elemental than war, and there is nothing less elemental than writing. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but I have lost all faith in might.
A few months ago I heard that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the first ever (to my knowledge) nationwide collection for the Archdiocese of Military Services (AMS) in November, which will take place in most churches this weekend before Veteran’s Day. AMS is the Archdiocese of Military Services, the “Catholic” wing of the military chaplaincy. The collections (we have two of them) are part of the ritual of Catholic Mass, but the ritual of the collection is not performed to foster contemplation of a particular thing: that which is being donated to. Rather, the collection is always for something that has been deemed good and worthy by the Church authorities. All that is required from the parishioners, or asked of them, is money. The ritual of the collection for AMS is bound not to foster contemplation but to elicit an automatic response. Christian Statists are always presenting the “service” of the soldier as being analogous to the service of Christ (“Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” Matthew 20:28). As usual, I predict there will be no careful homily given to enlighten parishioners about the crucial, obvious, yet often overlooked differences between these two forms of service, and in many churches there will be an abominable homily given to explicitly perpetuate this idolatrous notion. There will be no questions asked about the kind and quality of pastoral counseling provided by AMS to Catholic men and women serving in the military. This collection will be a ritual that lulls, dangerously, like a lullaby, making one sleepy, passive, and unthinking, and at a time when issues of war and peace need serious, honest contemplation, not emotional response, like never before.
So I, with the help of my brother, started a website. It’s called Catholics Against Militarism. Because that’s what the world really needs: another inelemental website. But the point of the website is this: We are encouraging Catholics who oppose these unjust wars to take action. If they oppose these wars that have been fought for the past ten years by a military that is 30% Catholic despite the objections and admonitions of three Popes, we are urging them to print out a statement of protest (there are printable .pdfs on the website), take it with them to church, and deposit it in the collection basket this weekend during the collection for AMS. I, for one, do not want to be a picture of inert passivity, letting that basket pass me by. It’s still just words, yes, but they will be printed on physical paper and delivered by human hands to their intended audience.
The paper these words are printed on will have been made from trees, which were grown in a forest, and chopped down with an ax, maybe floated down a river to a factory where they were turned into pulp and then sent to the mill (I don’t know, I’m not a paper manufacturer). There is the motion of production and then there is the motion of destruction. There is the motion of civilization and then there is the motion of war, which some call action. But the inertia of war is subject to the friction of conscience; and every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I won’t set myself on fire outside the church or on the National Mall. I do not despair as much, to embrace their ways and means. This action of the collection on the part of AMS and the Bishops who gave it their blessing will at least see a simple opposite, if not equal, reaction in the form of my singular piece of paper! It’s something. I needed to take some kind of action that was not writing. I am okay with reaction. I want a form of protest that I can touch and feel, no matter how small and insignificant. I want someone at the church to have to touch this piece of paper, read it, and physically throw it away. I want someone to have to physically discard it. The stream of action from my spring of contemplation will amount to a piece of paper being placed in a basket. Maybe it’s more like a trickle, but it’s something.