IMES welcomes guest contributor Matthew Lumpkin.
This painting is about the deep unrest I feel about my government’s increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s or drones) to assassinate people we assert are a threat to us and our interests. We assert that we have intelligence linking them to the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet my government takes these actions in secret and doesn’t publicly acknowledge that they are taking them.
There appears to be no check on our government’s executive power to kill anyone, anywhere in the world who we deem a threat.
I completed this piece in response to a series of lectures hosted by the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts at Fuller Seminary, Calif. The day after I completed it, Israel launched an offensive near Gaza. Not only did they make use of UAV missile strikes for targeted assassinations openly, but they used twitter to post links to video from the drone strikes and Photoshopped images of people they had killed listing the alleged crimes for which they have been judged and executed – their faces rendered in on a blood-red background.
During the Brehm lectures, Shane Hipps, Barry Taylor and Ryan Bolger discussed 20th century sociologist, Marshall Mcluhan’s assertion that all technology is an extension of one or more human senses. I see the drones as an extension of not just our senses but our agency to kill, much as the sword extends the killing reach of the hand. The fact of our being able to carry out these targeted killings is being mistaken for a value or moral imperative to do them. The minimized “collateral damage,” to nearby women, children and other unintended targets is used as a supporting argument.
As a follower of Jesus, and a human being, I object to people killing people. When Jesus’ own friends resorted to defensive violence on his behalf he stopped Peter’s swordplay and healed the damage done. Jesus was on the receiving end of individual, political and religious violence mediated through the technology of the cross. On the cross Jesus showed us powerfully and eternally how cycles of violence can only end by refusal to participate.
As an American, I especially object to my government killing people. I object even more when they do it without any check on that power and without transparent oversight. Secret courts don’t count as a check precisely because they are secret.
I singled out Israel above, but my painting is a critique of all those who would turn their human brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons into “collateral damage,” “monsters” or any other mask that makes them easier to kill –to erase. To say that Israel has had to adopt the tactics of terrorists (assassination etc.) to fight terrorists or that America has had to do the same is to admit that we are becoming what we most fear and deride.
No matter how far we distance ourselves through drones, rockets or bullets, the use of violence transforms and deforms both the giver and the receiver. We have extended not only our senses, but our own violent selves out into the world, to our great moral, ethical, economic and human peril.
Matt Lumpkin is an MDiv graduate from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California where he now works at the intersection of theological education and technology. He is also the founder of read-together.com , an experiment in social reading designed to bring people in very different parts of the world into conversation around the bible to see how the people you read with change what you read. More at mattlumpkin.com
Perhaps it is the distance between victim and victimizer that makes unmanned drones so dangerous. The progression of technology has increased the distance of the killer and the slain. A deadly blow once happened at arms length (the reach of sword) then it went within seeing distance (shot of a gun) and later miles (jet rockets and missiles). Now the separation can span oceans. It’s that distance that desensitizes what is happening and the loss of life taking place. As mentioned, some countries display the victims of their actions. I say that’s less terrifying than those that don’t display a thing.
Hi Brent. I agree that the more humans distance themselves from the tangible consequences of their actions, the more indiscriminate and dangerous the world will become. I should be a vegetarian. I eat meat. I would however, never kill an animal. It’s easy for me to eat meat in Australia because I am distanced from the process…I don’t have to deal with the messiness of it all. I’m often disturbed by the increasingly graphic images shown by reporters on the evening News. These reports force me to see the victims, to see the pain, loss and consequences of war. I want a sanitised version of what I’m seeing. As uncomfortable as it is, these images and stories stay with me, they force me to know what I believe, motivate me to seek truth and to act on my convictions.
Great post from Matthew, really appreciated his insightful and articulate thoughts.
(And as a Canadian and Torontonian, I love seeing Marshall McLuhan’s influence wherever I can find it) I appreciated the comments too – definitely lots to think about.
Brent, what you were talking about reminded me of this philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas. He’s one of the guys that often get mentioned in discussions on “the Other”. There’s a great quote from his book Totality and Infinity that says:
“The face speaks. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse…. The first word of the face is the “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an order. There is a
commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me.”
(Katrina, though Levinas was referring to humans, I think for a lot of people this would apply to non-human animals as well.)
The face speaks, and so in the course of technological expansion of human senses and will, we’ve crossed some kind of significant line in losing the face-to-face encounter.
What scares me most is not that this is a dehumanizing act…but that without Levinas’ concept of “the face” and “the Other”, we don’t even begin with an understanding of a human being on the receiving end of our expanded agency – there is no ‘human’ to reduce.
But it’s encouraging, as Suzie said – that even technology can be redeemed to re-humanize. …(Skype?)
Matt- I think you hit on another crucial point here which is that we often create a “…mask that makes [our victims] easier to kill –to erase.” We live in a world driven by false good vs. evil dichotomies that enable us to justify the demonization of an entire nation or race, which, interestingly enough, is also the psychological justification for genocide. Tragically, the dichotomies that prove most destructive are often those rooted in misguided religious dogma. Yet what the Bible truly teaches is that our battle with good and evil is much more complex, because it is a battle that even we, as believers, must wage daily within ourselves. It is not a battle against people, but a battle against sin on behalf of the people that God loves. I agree that technology is an extension of human agency, and thus it is equally susceptible to the fallen errors of humanity. Let us believe in hope that it can be redeemed.