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    Readers Respond: Issue 23

    Letters to the Editor

    January 3, 2020

    We welcome letters to the editor. Letters and web comments may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. Letters should be sent with the writer’s name and address to

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    “Love, and Do What You Will”

    On Will Willimon’s “The Unchosen Calling,” Autumn 2019: As a Catholic priest, I’m grateful for this article’s attempt to address modernity’s approach to faith as a means of personal fulfillment. Willimon argues, “Christians assert the un-American conviction that our lives are less interesting than the God who assigns us.” Our attention to God should inform every choice, not just the choices we call “ethical.” God entered our human life fully and calls us to enter his life fully. This runs up against the modern dictate that we own ourselves, that we have made ourselves.

    It’s true that vocation is God’s calling, and not “your bundle of need and desire.” I hesitate, though, to entirely reject desires and talents in the vocational decision. They are themselves part of God’s gifts to us; they are themselves responsive to what God does in us.

    As Augustine tells us, everyone is drawn by his own delight, and part of what Augustine realizes in the Confessions is that these delights are themselves changed and shaped by God. The modern problem with the idea of vocation is not just its subjectivity, its quest to find what might fulfill us by introspection into “what I truly desire,” but also an unwillingness to consider how changeable we and our desires really are. The problem then lies in sorting out which of our desires are good, and which are an invitation to chase after the wind.

    This same dynamic applies in all questions of ethics. Modernity sees the fulfillment of desire as the final aim of the human life. Humans should be free to fulfill those desires, so long as they don’t prevent anyone else from doing so, or cause harm. We’re individual units, occasionally in proximity to each other; we’re free to the extent that we’re able to move about without colliding in an objectionable way against other similar units.

    But this isn’t reality. We don’t believe this vision of humanity, because we recognize the sovereignty of God over even our desires, and we recognize those desires as only part of a relationship with God and with each other. We are members of the natural societies of family and polity, with their corresponding loves and obligations, and it’s as such members that God deals with us. He deals with us, too, as those called to play a role in the building up of another society, the church, the body of Christ – and that church is charged, finally, with this task of discerning where each of us fit in this great work.

    Augustine pointed out that what made actions good or bad was whether they were done in love or hatred. And so he says “love and do what you will.” But we human beings are extremely good at self-deception and can convince ourselves falsely that this or that action is genuinely loving. The love Augustine had in mind was not our achievement, but our full participation in a love which is prior and superior to us: the love of God for us, shown in sending his Son into the world that we may have life, and loving us in all our unlovability in order to make us able to love.

    Father Robert Krishna OP, Chaplain,
    Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

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    Vision from Inside

    On Pola Rader’s “Icon and Mirror,” Autumn 2019: Among the otherwise excellent articles in this issue, the “Portfolio” entitled “Icon and Mirror – A photo-essay on the women of Voronezh, Russia” sticks out like a disappointing sore thumb. I write as a ­communicant of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), traveling to Russia regularly, including Voronezh, and with contacts in church circles in that city.

    You can tell any story you want with a few well-shot photographs. In Russian this is known as a Potemkin village, named after the fake villages built to inspire the empress traveling past. I fear that the text and photos of “Icon and Mirror” together build such a village.

    Your article asks: “Can the voice of modern Orthodox women be heard in the church today?” Whatever these women told your reporter, my answer is “no.” Yes, they can work as bookkeepers, or running social services: they do a lot of the drudge work. But official decision-making in the ROC remains an entirely male prerogative. This is probably a main reason why the Russian church right now is fast losing its drawing power among the better educated, “modern” classes, and in particular among women. Those not bound to the system, as are the priests’ wives featured in the article, are moving out to the periphery.

    Yes, Russian women can be formidable and strong, with a long history of holding the fort in difficult national and family situations – war, alcoholism, exile – where men have failed. But do these women draw their strength from their Orthodox faith, or simply from an ancestral Russian understanding of womanhood? My money’s on the latter.

    On reading the article, my Voronezh correspondent quoted to me the Russian saying “Don’t expect to see the inside of people’s coats on the first visit.” This was very clearly a first visit.

    Michael Lomax, Brussels

    Pola Rader responds: “Can the voice of modern Orthodox women be heard in the church today?” This question is very important to me. But I didn’t let myself give an unambiguous answer to it in my photo-essay; otherwise, the essay would have been trivial.

    It was important to me to make readers, and viewers, think about this topic, and I am pleased to see that Mr. Lomax was not left indifferent. Many of the things that he writes in criticism are not papered over in the article; the issue is complex. However, this was no first impression, and I did not encounter Voronezh as a Potemkin village. I have spent a great deal of time in Voronezh, as a child and a teenager; I returned there for the project with that background. And I am, myself, a modern Orthodox woman.

    Visions from outside are often very superficial, although I don’t say that they are necessarily wrong. But it was important for me to catch and share the vision from inside, and at least by means of my photo-essay to let the voice of the modern Orthodox woman be heard, and to show her face.

    A Common Inheritance

    On Plough Quarterly No. 21: Beyond Capitalism, Summer 2019: I enjoyed each article in this issue, from Hart’s indictment of capitalism to Boyle’s move off the grid.

    A challenge is to integrate these views with the observation that markets and capitalism are the means which God has chosen to bless women and men materially. There is plenty of historical and current evidence of results from other systems. Without developed markets, life for most of us would be short and brutal. Experiments with other systems, even the Bruderhof’s Community Playthings as described by John Rhodes, thrive in good part because they are surrounded by a wealthy, market-capitalist system.

    Perhaps a point of integration relates to David Bentley Hart’s contention that “Whatever else capitalism may be, it is first and foremost a system for producing as much private wealth as possible by squandering as much as possible of humanity’s common inheritance of the goods of creation.” And Hart is consistent with Brandon Terry’s article on Martin Luther King Jr.: “In 1967 … King demanded that we ask ‘Who owns the oil?’ or ‘Who owns the iron ore?’” Both points imply that we hold a common inheritance, God-given, to bless all members of a society. The blessing is developed by shared activity which, from observation, has been most effectively coordinated by markets, and on a large scale by capitalism.

    Common inheritance energizes thinking about the common good – to be overseen by good governance. I sense that Plough authors have more to share about how we might explore governance in new ways.

    Larry A. Smith, President,
    ScholarLeaders International

    For many years I’ve read the German edition of Plough. The new format has increased the effectiveness of its outreach; contributions have become more extensive and helpful. The latest issue has given me real enthusiasm; we in Europe are currently in a heated discussion about values. Globalized capitalism and the principles of market liberalism create unacceptable living conditions for ordinary people. But the left-green alternatives being offered strike many of us as inadequate, especially here in eastern Germany, a region that endured forty years of socialist experimentation.

    Unfortunately, I don’t belong to a Christian community like the Bruderhof, so in a sense I am the young man of Matthew 19, trapped in material and family ties – but who still hopes for God’s grace according to verse 26. A Christian life beyond capitalism and socialism is also possible in a living church or a stable gathering of households under the Word of God. As Peter Mommsen wrote in the editorial: “While a new generation is asking critical questions about justice, solidarity and … happiness, we Christians should not forget that we had access to the answers all the time.”

    Steffen Grahnert, Dresden, Germany

    As one who enjoys the challenges of Plough, I was left disturbed by the most recent edition, Beyond Capitalism, not so much by the obvious dangers of capitalism, but by the implication that only a communal approach, like that of the Bruderhof, was a genuine response to money and property.

    My previous contacts with your communities in northern New South Wales have been generous, whereas the tone of this recent issue is otherwise. There are millions of believers who, agreeing about the dangers of money, property, and capitalism, are seeking to genuinely use their possessions to bring glory to God and the good to others.

    Scripture has other, more positive things to say about private property. We need not divest ourselves of property to be disciples. Consider Acts 5:4, the 8th Commandment’s endorsement of private property, our Lord’s word in Acts 20:35, and the witness of the believers who had homes large enough for the churches to meet and sufficient wealth to support the church’s needy. It is true that the rich young ruler went away from Jesus because he would not part with the money he loved, but our Lord commended Zacchaeus in the next chapter when he made restitution without giving away all his wealth.

    Jesus’ diagnosis of the human condition is far more radical than your articles suggest (Luke 12:13–21). Greed is possible for all of us, rich or poor, and can only be dealt with by a true conversion of the heart. The overrealized eschatology proposed by David Bentley Hart fails to account for the sin that causes both communism and capitalism to fail to perfectly deliver the equality, justice, and generosity that believers expect to be fully realized only at Jesus’ return. Hence the exhortations to eschew greed and the love of money (Col. 3:5, 1 Tim. 6:9–10) and to use the money and possessions entrusted to us with radical Christ-like generosity (2 Cor. 8:1–9, 1 Tim. 6:17–19). These may enable us to meet the needs of others (Gal. 6:9–10), rescue us from greed, and prove to be the salt that saves human systems from banditry (Mat. 5:13–16).

    The problem, so well presented, demands of disciples a serious response, attractive and consistent with the full range of biblical example and expectation. Whether sought in community or in the world, both demand mutual respect and a balanced reading of scripture.

    Peter Brain, Perth, Australia

    Peter Mommsen responds: I thank Peter Brain for his candid letter regarding our Beyond Capitalism issue, and am glad to reassure him that Plough does not believe that only the Bruderhof’s way of life is a “genuine response to money and property.” That would be absurd; Christ’s church is far greater than that, thank God. As my editorial mentioned, over the last two millennia the church has brought forth a rich variety of movements that practiced economic sharing inspired by the New Testament, many very different from my own community. The broad spectrum of traditions represented on Plough’s pages illustrates this diversity.

    Let’s set aside for a moment the specific characteristics of the Bruderhof, one movement among many in the stream of church history. The question remains: is there any “genuine [Christian] response to money and property” that is not in some way communal? The New Testament is not as accommodating of private property as often supposed. The apostles’ writings, and above all the Christ’s words in the Gospels, say virtually nothing about a right to private ownership, and a great deal about giving up riches and sharing one’s possessions in fraternal love. As the biblical scholar Richard Hays summarizes: “While the particular mandates and forms of expression may vary, the New Testament witnesses speak loudly in chorus: the accumulation of wealth is antithetical to serving God’s kingdom, and Jesus’ disciples are called at least to share their goods generously with those in need, and perhaps even to give everything away in order to follow him more freely. . . . For the church to heed the New Testament’s challenge on the question of possessions would require nothing less than a new Reformation” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 467–468).

    To prescribe this or that form of sharing possessions would be presumptuous, and Brain is absolutely right that we must not go beyond Scripture. Yet isn’t the more common danger to duck the issue? In the end, each would-be disciple must reckon with how to live out the Master’s startling and unqualified call (Luke 14:33): “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

    Honor, Money, and War

    On Scott Beauchamp’s “Mercenaries Out of the Gate,” Autumn 2019: This article has two theses that I’m not sure are related by logic, as opposed to sentiment. The first is that the military and capitalism share a metastasizing impulse, “unyoked from any moral principles.” The second is that modern mercenaries are more “honest” servants of an amoral military than are “typical” soldiers like Beauchamp.

    Beauchamp raises good points in defense of his first thesis. The rise of “PMSCs” (private military security companies) remains unknown to many Americans. The privatization of combat which Beauchamp refers to correlates to the post–Cold War period, the vast if perhaps only momentary conquest of the world by liberal capitalism with its deregulation and moral decapitation. All of this suggests important moral, political, and pragmatic questions, most of which don’t rise to the level of public scrutiny because of Americans’ ignorance of the entanglement of war and profit-seeking.

    But the soldiers do know. Many of them, like Beauchamp, serve alongside contractors, most of whom make five-figure monthly salaries. Though armed, they are not soldiers’ brothers-in-arms. The veterans I’ve spoken with hold these men in contempt. Unlike Beauchamp, they intuit Augustine’s point about the difference between fighting for greed and fighting for honor. Augustine calls greed a baser instinct; honor, while not the same as fighting for the true Good, is a superior motivation. Beauchamp can draw consolation from that: there is something different between fighting for money and fighting for even a corrupted state.

    Joseph Capizzi, Washington, DC

    I was disturbed to find the article “Mercenaries out of the Gate” by Scott Beauchamp in your Anabaptist magazine. While we all can share Mr. Beauchamp’s concern and disgust with the use of the military to further the goals of capitalist corporations, his view of what is honorable should be offensive to the Christian reader. He writes, “To fight for one’s nation as a soldier was honorable. To fight only for money became the ultimate mark of dishonor.” When did it become acceptable, or even honorable, to kill? And is it honorable to kill for a flag, but not for a dollar? Did God say, “Thou shalt not kill, except if you’re told to by your president”? Did Jesus say, “Love your enemy, but it is honorable to kill them”? Far too many of our Anabaptist forebears were hunted down and martyred by military men doing what they were instructed to do. Was that killing “honorable” because they were doing it for their nation? I share Mr. Beauchamp’s concern about the use of mercenaries, but I have that same concern about anyone who kills people for any reason. None of it is honorable.

    David Brown Kinloch, Louisville, Kentucky

    Around the same time Scott Beauchamp was pulling tower guard as a soldier at one of the city-sized bases around Baghdad watching the Blackwater and KBR contractors come and go in their armored SUVs, wraparound Oakley glasses, and tactical khaki pants, I was stationed on a base in southern Iraq interacting with a different sort of military contractor.

    My unit’s mission was providing security for civilian supply trucks. With two up-armored HMMWVs in the front and two in the rear, we escorted long convoys of civilian trucks; big 18-wheelers like the kind you’d see in the States, twenty or thirty in a row, driving the length of Iraq’s highways, with us American soldiers providing security: getting blown up and ambushed to ensure safe delivery of grape soda, frozen crab legs, construction supplies, diesel fuel, and monster energy drinks – all the materiel of war that kept the bases buzzing in their eerily domesticated bureaucratic routine, and supplied the combat units outside the wire, where only a minority of the troops ever ventured, with the fuel – both diesel and monster energy drinks – that kept them fighting.

    Most of the contractors I interacted with on those missions weren’t ex-US-military like those Beauchamp describes. There were a few of those guys driving the lead vehicles, the ones with armor plating, but the rest of the trucks were driven by a different kind of mercenary: men from Bangladesh, Turkey, Sri Lanka, other countries with no connection to the war, grouped together under the acronym TCN: “Third Country Nationals.” The TCNs drove the refrigerated trucks full of food and the tankers full of fuel. They got blown up and maimed and killed all the time, pieces of them left on the roads of Iraq. Even when people talk about the rise of private contractor armies in the war on terror, you rarely ever hear about the TCNs. Their role in the war, like their deaths, doesn’t take up much space in official histories or in the critiques of military privatization that focus on more notorious and symbolically potent groups like Blackwater. The TCNs were all over Iraq but they were hardly even there. They died without names.

    I don’t bring this up to disagree with Beauchamp’s well-informed account of private military contractors. Where Beauchamp writes: “Capitalism and the military want, for lack of a better term, the same things. Both want intrusive intelligence and data gathering for purposes of control,” I agree. But the control exists as a degraded replacement for a true purpose. The only rightful goal of war is peace; when that is discarded war becomes a profit unto itself. And while one form of control is the monopoly of valuable information, another form is the power to declare what counts as valuable and what’s just surplus. With one hand the surveillance state collects; with another, it discards.

    It’s been a little more than ten years since I left Iraq and half as many years since the war officially ended and nobody ever asks me about the TCNs. How can you talk about people without names?

    Jacob Siegel, New York City

    Scott Beauchamp responds: D. H. Lawrence wrote in “The Bad Side of Books” that “One writes … to some mysterious presence in the air. If that presence were not there, and one thought of even a single solitary actual reader, the paper would remain forever white.” That’s why it’s always such a joy to receive thoughtful responses from my interlocutors. It’s humbling to have proof that actual communication is happening.

    Of course I remember the people Jacob Siegel mentions, the Third Country Nationals cooking our food and doing our laundry. During my second deployment, a regular soccer game developed between the Ugandan guards who manned the gates and the Eastern European sanitation workers. Whatever social or material advantage we had as Americans was erased on the playing field. And I remember a specific Sri Lankan man working in the base laundry who was always eager to quiz me on English vocabulary words he was learning. We once argued over the proper use of “void” and he won. As mysterious as the story of American soldiers is to their fellow citizens, the TCNs present an even more profound silence. They deserve a book all their own. And I think Siegel is the man to write it.

    The distinction which Joseph Capizzi draws between the lures of money and honor is a fascinating one, and one which I recognize. Its spirit, quite obviously, suffuses the piece which I wrote. But David Brown Kinloch is also correct, I think, in his estimation of martial honor in light of the meaning of the cross. I was not a Christian when I went to war. I am now. As I grow in my faith, I count myself blessed to have voices such as Kinloch’s reminding me to orient myself always towards the one supreme Good which cuts straight through the parsing of all the lesser ones.

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