War: What is it Good For?
The phrase has come in for much analysis and ridicule since it was coined by George Bush. Was ‘war’ even the right term to describe what was going on? We’ve had surges, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism but in the end it’s been retreat and as counterproductive as the ‘war on drugs’. This has not been a campaign won.
When Covid first hit there was also a lot of talk about war. I used the term myself. It probably wasn’t the best turn of phrase. Is a virus something we can really war against?
In Tribe, published four years prior to the pandemic, war correspondent Sebastian Junger describes the surprisingly positive impact that a real war can have on a society. His thesis, and the evidence he produces to support it, is unsettling. The richer and more urbanised we are, he claims, the more depressed and suicidal we become. War might actually do us good: after the 9/11 attack New York saw a marked reduction in violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbances – something also witnessed in other areas of conflict, from the Blitz to Sarajevo, and in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Junger explains these disturbing observations by noting how real physical challenge helps foster group cohesiveness. Following a disaster, “class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group.” (Galatians 3:28 anyone?) It is in these more egalitarian, more tribal, settings that individuals feel more necessary. The battle for survival creates space for autonomy, competence and community in a way which is too often absent in modern societies. Without a sense of autonomy, competence and community mental health issues surge, which is why, “Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression.” A more tribal context provides more space for personal agency, something our modern world is deliberately engineering out.
Covid has been presented as a war-like emergency but it hasn’t created more societal cohesion. Instead we have repeatedly heard about the mental health crisis the pandemic has precipitated. There hasn’t been an increased egalitarianism: rather, those with secure income and comfortable homes and gardens to sit in had a rather pleasant lockdown, and saw a nice increase in their personal savings; while the poor have increased their indebtedness, known greater job insecurity and experienced the pressure of doing life in cramped housing. The divisions in society have widened rather than narrowed because of covid.
Our problem is that the pandemic hasn’t been war-like enough. For much of the last 18 months autonomy and competence and community have been stripped away from us. There hasn’t been an actual enemy we could go and grapple with, or lumps of concrete to pull off buried earthquake victims. Instead we were told to stay at home, mask up, keep our distance. Passivity has been more of a virtue than action. Our medics were like soldiers returning from Afghanistan – they’d been in a fight most of us only saw through TV. No wonder it is reported that so many medics, just like those military veterans, are suffering PTSD. They have returned to societies that seem more divided than ever and in which most people have no idea what they have really been through.
Junger wants us to be more tribal. It is that, he argues, which would make it easier for veterans to come home and for the rest of us to live with greater mental equilibrium and a sense of purpose. As he claims in the introduction to Tribe, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
September is always a month in which churches do something of a reset. Summer is over, the kids are back at school, students returning. This year that reset feels more pronounced than normal as we start to regather after all the disruption caused by the pandemic. Many of us are not only doing the annual reorganisation of our serving rotas and small group structures but asking the big questions about what we need to do differently. One answer to that could be that we try to become more tribal.
That might mean we do less ‘activities for’ and more ‘you take the initiative’, deliberately finding ways by which we can increase personal agency. It might mean getting our hands dirtier, often literally, creating more ways for people to, as it were, lift lumps of concrete from buried bodies. It might mean doing things that feel a little risky, dangerous even. It will certainly mean emphasising our group-ness: that the church does need to be more egalitarian than the culture we swim in. And it will mean reminding one another that we really are engaged in a war, not against flesh and blood, but one that is no less real for that (Eph. 6:12).