Propitiation as Protest: A reflection for Drone Assassination Awareness Week
Yesterday I learnt that it was Drone Assasination Awareness Week, at least in Wellington. Apparently two indisputable and simple facts stand out from among all the complex and murky issues that could be debated.
- US drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians in 7 Muslim majority countries and the killing continues
- Our defence forces (GCSB) are helping the killer drone programme, by giving signals intelligence to the US.
So I got on my bike and trundled on down to the centre of the city and found a bus with a large banner on it parked on the 5 minute park directly opposite the neutral and un-signed building that houses our government spy department (GCSB). On arrival I was greeted and welcomed into a bus full of people and mattresses with a large shrine at one end – a shrine dedicated to the victims of drone murder. The group, mostly younger people, led by a long-bearded Wellington icon Adi Leason, were in the middle of prayer. I sat on one side of bus somewhat awkwardly and joined in the liturgy. Then they talk about what was ‘on top’ for each of them. Taking action for peace means addressing the many fears that you might have about parking fines and getting arrested and being abused by those who disagree with you and much more. These people were very conscious of that. They were equally conscious of the lives of those affected by high-tech machinery of murder, so they were spending a week praying and fasting. It was moving to see.
They didn’t know where the bus would end up at the end of the week, but they did have a plan to culminate the week of action and consciousness-raising. The plan was to deliver an offering of their own blood to the GCSB with the message ‘take our blood instead’. When they described this act as a ‘propitiatory offering’ my ears pricked up. For people like me raised in one of the winding back-alleys of protestant reformed theology this idea of sacrificial propitiation was familiar territory. In my childhood tradition propitiating was done to God – whether it is a matter of satisfying God’s just demand for vengeance or paying God off because of a (moral) debt it was always God who was the one being propitiated. Justice, whether in the economic or legal register, meant that a kind of exchange (“this for that”) was necessary. For those with ears like mine, this reminded me of the idea that Jesus was said to have done the deal, propitiated God and satisfied God’s retributive justice. Like human sacrifices of the ancient pagan temples, like animal sacrifices in the same world, Jesus gives his own blood so that God doesn’t take ours and the balance of the universe is maintained. Of course the people who say these things believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus does this ‘blood donation’ voluntarily and that, in an important sense, the whole thing is an act of God. But, in spite of this, the story remains that God (the Father) is the one propitiated, and does so because of a system of justice that even God is bound by. This is the world-view in which I know the word ‘propitiation’.
However, it seriously distorted. The only one whose life was saved because Jesus died in his place (i.e. by substitution) was Barabbas. The only one who demanded and took the blood of Jesus was The Man (capital T, capital M). His life was demanded by a collaboration of the Roman rulers, the Jewish leadership and the mob. He freely allowed himself to be sacrificed by politicians at all levels of the political process on the altar of political convenience and public unity. On that day Herod and Pilate became friends. The mob went home satisfied and united. The religious leaders were pleased to have eliminated another heretic. All was well with the world for a moment. Someone was propitiated but it wasn’t God. It was the ‘powers that be’.
Which brings me back to the beautiful irony hidden in the ‘take our blood instead’ protest. While using the language of western Christian atonement, they are not talking of propitiating God at all. They are seeking to propitiate the GCSB. They are mischievously likening the opaque bureaucracy of our military establishment to a pagan deity whose thirst for blood seems insatiable. And in doing so they shame this establishment into either acknowledging or denying their involvement in the hi-tech machinery of murder controlled by the U.S. military. Like Jesus own death this shaming is potentially powerful in averting further bloodshed. Their subtle and slightly idiosyncratic definition of propitiation makes this clear (‘to sacrifice something in order to stop something else being taken’). Their hope is that preventing further bloodshed might be achieved by a shaming process. The first Christians did something similar with the story of Jesus once they realised that God was on the side of the murdered victim rather than the politically powerful. The standard line was that God has raised and vindicated ‘this Jesus whom you crucified’. In this way the resurrection named and shamed the murderers while at the same time opening up a way of forgiveness and reconciliation – a new future without such scapegoating and slaughter. God raised him not just to vindicate him (in contrast to his killers) but also to transform his killers through reconciliation and healing.
The purpose of this new and symbolic protest-propitiation is not to achieve justice by paying in blood for murdered civilians – to substitute themselves for the victims, as it were. It is to change the hearts of those caught up in a murderous process so that they might see more clearly the reality and human cost of the system they support. In this way it is not unlike what Jesus was doing in his own bloody death.