The President as Pharaoh: Drones reveal hardness of heart


As we approach the Biblical season of Passover and Easter, it is instructive to explore some of the implications of “exodus” for us today. Having read Rabbis’ Waskow and Berman’s excellent Freedom Journeys, calling us to re-enact the struggle for liberation from bondage every year, I took to thinking about our Commander-in-Chief in the light of the forces aligned against Moses and his oppressed people.

The scriptures do not tell us the name of the political leader; he is known by his title as the Pharaoh. So one lesson we can learn is to concentrate on the role an individual plays within the power structure rather than dwelling on the personality of the individual. I admit to having great difficulty with this when it came to Nixon during Watergate or Cheney during water-boarding. What is it about water? Moses’ journey begins in the basket in the bull rushes and then continues in the escape through the Red [Reed] Sea.

What I want to focus on is the Biblical narrative about “hardness of heart.” Pharaoh suffers from this disease and the result is a series of plagues affecting the land and the peoples. In reading Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s new collection of the writings of Episcopalian lawyer and lay-theologian William Stringfellow, William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, Christians have too often limited their view of “the fall” as affecting individuals when Biblically the estrangement from the Divine effects all of creation – especially institutions which are known in scripture as “principalities and powers”.

William Stringfellow defines hardness of heart as “loss of moral discernment” and having a “paralyzed conscience“. It is a social pathology that possesses both persons and institutions. So it is really the President in his institutional role rather than focusing on the individual embodying that office that should be our focus. Yes, he [or she] should be held accountable for his actions as an individual like all of us – but in his role as President, Commander-in-Chief, head of the executive branch of government, he is more accurately a pawn of those large principalities and powers. In 1973, Stringfellow wrote: “It is more accurate, more truthful, to perceive the president as a victim and captive of the principalities and powers.”

The recent verbal jousting between Senator Feinstein of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the head of the CIA over spying on Congress by the latter is an excellent example of how these institutions have a life of their own. The struggle between Edward Snowden and Attorney General Eric Holder over the “stealing” of NSA “snooped” documents is another.

Stringfellow’s contention that the primary purpose of these principalities in their “fallen” state is their own survival and that they ultimately are in service of death rather than life serves as a sobering warning to all opponents – both moral and political – that they won’t surrender without a fight. So when immigrant rights advocates label President Obama as “Deporter-in-Chief” because of the record number of deportations of undocumented immigrants under his presidency, they are recognizing the confluence of individual accountability with the reality of institutional momentum (and a life and will of its own). The principality of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has been a vehicle used in separating families through deportation as well as a primary source of profit for corporate-run prisons. Like most federal and state bureaucracies, it develops a life of its own -concentrating on its rules and procedures caring little for the lives crushed in the process. We would like to live under the illusion that the President could dramatically change things if he wanted. In fact, the deferred deportation policy he put in place about a year and a half ago has definitely brought relief and some security for a small group of “Dreamers” (including two friends of mine), but it has hardly slowed the machinery of deportation for others.

There are many other arenas where we could explore the tension between proclaimed individual values and the contradiction of policies which emanate from the White House. The one I wish to focus on is the use of drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – now becoming the go-to strategy for fighting “the war on terror”, even as that name has now fallen out of favor.

Although he died in early March 1985 and was very ill for years prior to that, Stringfellow’s writings in the 1960s and 70s was especially prescient in two areas: what he identified as “the idolatry of National Security” and his caution about the rise of “technological totalitarianism“. Military-armed drones (or even more pernicious – armed drones flown by the CIA) embody the confluence of both of these demonic forces. The irony of having a Nobel Peace Prize recipient scheduling a meeting every Tuesday to go over a “kill list” for extrajudicial assassination by drones makes our President more Pharaoh-like.

When the drone is seen as a vehicle of technology used for totalitarian purposes, it is easier to recognize it as a tool of a principality serving death rather than something which “protects our troops”. The members of the Iowa National Guard who await their new “mission” [sic] of “piloting” Reaper drones over purported declared and non-declared “enemies” become unwitting accomplices in the war crimes committed over video screens. The airbase on the outskirts of Des Moines used to host F-16 fighter jets but when that function was ended, the community is told that this new Reaper drone command center could help “save jobs.” Like the mantra of creating jobs in rural areas by siting new for-profit prisons, a multitude of sins are covered under the guise of economic salvation versus human degradation.

Besides the excuse that this new drone mission will save jobs, the other compelling reason for reliance on this developing technological fix for warfare is saving the lives of American pilots or airplane crew members while still being able to visit “hell” on our enemies. Under the pretext of saving lives, technology allows us to better sort out those who should live and those who should die. However, this too is an illusion as the plethora of killed and injured “innocent civilians” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia readily attests. “We are creating enemies faster than we can kill them” has been a recent lament from some military leaders who have concluded that drone warfare might be counterproductive.

William Stringfellow reminds us:

“Two major blunders based upon false perceptions or delusions have repeatedly been indulged … One is the presumption of rationality in the nation’s leaders. That presumption is often coupled with the superstition that incumbency in high office, notably in the White House, somehow enhances the faculties of sanity and conscience, whereas the evidence is that occupancy of the presidency, or similar heights, is a pathetically dehumanizing ordeal, harmful to both sanity and conscience. … In fact, the captive status of the person occupying the office has now reached such proportions that the presidency has become a pseudo-monarchy functioning as an elaborate façade for an incipient technocratic totalitarianism. That sham points to a second tactical error: imputing malice to the nation’s reputed leaders. If [the President and other top officials] … can be said to be wicked men, that is of much less moral significance, or political relevance, than the enthrallment of men such as these with the power of death and their entrapment and enslavement by the powers and principalities in relation to which they nominally have office.” He goes on to enjoin us, “In the face of death, live humanly. … Amidst babel, speak the truth.”

The truth is that there is a direct line from hardness of heart to a dependence on drones. We need our own exodus out of empire and into the wilderness where we can stand side-by-side with those targeted – but also that is where we can encounter the Divine.