Thursday, February 27, 2014

Faithful Compromise

Compromise has increasingly been a lost art in our public life as we have come to prize ideological purity over brokered effectiveness.

February 27, 2014 - By James K.A. Smith

"Faithful witness is an abstract ideal, which can take no form in the world as it is; compromise, therefore, is the law of our being, and no-one, not even Jesus himself, can get by without striking bargains."


Many of us will be both puzzled and disturbed by this provocative claim from ethicist and theologian Oliver O'Donovan. It counters our gut-level intuitions and also runs counter to the spirit of the age in which "compromise" is a dirty word. For Christians, the word evokes a sense of capitulation or assimilation, the sort of "friendship with the world" that James describes as "enmity with God" (James 4:4). To compromise is to give up and give in, to abandon one's principles, to surrender. Indeed, resistance to compromise is behind our Sunday school rallying cry, "Dare to be a Daniel!" Daniel is the poster boy of refusal to compromise.

Except, of course, when he did. Daniel and his friends are remembered for their uncompromising witness: they refused to defile themselves with the king's delicacies; they refused to worship the image of the king. They were willing to bear the costs of such faithfulness, and we rightly celebrate such public witness.

But Daniel was also willing to make compromises, to almost embrace his exile in a way that secured influence. He learned the language and literature of the Chaldeans; he served in an administration that had captured his own people; he provided counsel to an idolater. His faithfulness did not find expression in an enclave of purity, nor did it require him to insulate himself in some holy huddle that protected him from compromise. Instead, he was faithful amidst compromise. His expectations were cut to the measure of exile. He had no illusions about what was possible in Babylon, even while he sought to influence his exilic home in the meantime.

There is a parable for us in that. So this issue of Comment undertakes an audacious goal: to redeem compromise. We want to recover a sense in which compromise can actually be faithful, a good, tangible expression of our commitment to shalom precisely because we give up any illusion that the purity of eschatological justice can be secured by us in the here-and-now. In other words, we believe that "not being in control," as Stanley Hauerwas often puts it, actually liberates us to compromise when pursuing the common good.

We believe this is especially important in an era that demonizes compromise in our public life. The legislative gridlock in the U.S. congress, which shut down the federal government for a time, was in many ways the result of two camps that refused to compromise. Indeed, compromise has increasingly been a lost art in our public life as we have come to prize ideological purity over brokered effectiveness.

There are Christian versions of this too—across the ideological spectrum. Those still waging a culture war take an all-or-nothing approach: we can settle for nothing less than what we know to be good and true. But the same refusal to compromise can also be true of those who've checked out of the culture wars. Having given up any illusions of Christendom, and viewing cultural engagement as tantamount to assimilation and "friendship with the world," these Christians call for "alternative" communities, carving out spaces above—or at least outside of—the tainting machinations of the state or the market in order to pursue a "faithful" way of life. We don't want to compromise just so we can try to "run" the world, they'll say; so instead we'll retreat into our alternative "ecclesial" space where we can be faithful without compromising.

But, as Eric Miller's essay in this issue points out, such "third ways" don't last very long. It is precisely the illusion of being above the fray that seems to make one all the more susceptible to assimilation.

This brings us back to Daniel's faithful compromise. At times he is uncompromising, taking a principled stand, particularly when it comes to faithful worship of God. But on other matters, he resolves to live with less than the ideal. He can do so precisely because he has no illusions that Babylon is Zion. Instead, he seeks to be faithful to the God of Zion while also seeking the welfare of the city of his exile (Jeremiah 29:7). But that's not the same as imagining he will remake Babylon into Zion.

It is precisely on this point that we should dare to be Daniels. It's a dangerous thing to acquire a theology of cultural transformation but lose an eschatology. Too many Christians who are newly convinced about the implications of the Gospel for society—on either left or right—act as if we are the ones who need to secure the kingdom. If the advent of justice really depended on us, then I can imagine why we could never entertain compromise: it would all rest on our shoulders, hinge on our decisions, depend on our commitment. The buck would stop with us; we would be the last line of defense.

But we need to be careful that our commitment to pursuing shalom isn't confused with a progressivism that functionally imagines we bring about the kingdom. Instead, we need to recover an Augustinian sense of living in the saeculum, this time between times in which we long for kingdom come but live without illusions of its being accomplished and perfected before then. This side of the eschaton, we seek proximate justice, which means facing up to the complexity of our decisions, policies, and systems and learning to work within them.

To pray "Thy kingdom come" is liberating precisely because, while it calls us to participate in what God is doing in the world, it also reminds us that God alone, in his providence, is bringing about the consummation of all things. And until then, we can't expect—and shouldn't seek—complete purity. Every time we pray, "Thy kingdom come," we are also reminded: it hasn't come yet. In the meantime, we are liberated to compromise—faithfully, with much discernment, and always praying, in hope, "Thy kingdom come."

This, finally, brings us back to Oliver O'Donovan's provocative claim. We walk a tightrope, he says. On the one hand, despite all our affirmation of the goodness of creation, "we are not invited now to live in the created order as though there had been no cross. The resurrection of Christ bears nail-prints, and the life of those who follow him means taking up the cross." So in this "meantime" of the saeculum, that means faithful disciples will sometimes experience exclusion from creational goods precisely because they can't be experienced without compromise. Access to political power might be available, for example, but only on terms that would require the compromise of our witness. "Striking bargains with the world," he notes, "is not the imitatio Christi. Christ's followers are called to bear his cross, to 'mortify' those aspects of their own nature which are inclined to compromise 'upon the earth' (Colossians 3:5). They are called to accept exclusion from the created good as the necessary price of a true and unqualified witness to it."

But then O'Donovan immediately emphasizes that this doesn't mean there is no place for compromise! Rooted in our uncompromising commitment to Christ, we nonetheless have to act, and we act always and only in situations. We have to make judgments, working with what we've got. "It is an old and damaging confusion," O'Donovan points out, "to suppose that compromise in this secondary sense implies compromise in the primary sense." Thus "every moral decision will be a decision between faithfulness and compromise," he concludes, especially "for the conduct of public life."

We hope this issue of Comment provides the wisdom to help you walk that tightrope of faithful compromise.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What in the World are We Here For?

That’s the question I keep coming back to in the recent dust-up over providing services for gay customers.  What are we, the church, here for?  From the various blogs I’ve seen at least the following answers to my question can be deduced:

1.    To stand for our faith in every area of life

2.    To pass judgment on gay people

3.    To impose our view of sexuality on others in whatever ways we can

The common thread here is exclusion.  In a faith mandated to take the non-exclusive and unconditional love of God to the word, the Christians involved in this brouhaha seem more focused on drawing lines in the sand and excluding those who don’t have the right qualifications. 

While it is surely right to stand for our faith in every area of life, whatever faith we are representing by exclusive actions is certainly questionable.

To pass judgment on someone, or to declare that they stand under the judgment of God should be an impetus for us to befriend them and show and share God’s love to them.

To impose our view of sexual morality on others is the last gasp of a Christendom mentality that accepted for a time that Christian faith should set the norms for our culture (at least in some areas).  That such was a mistake is one of the great lessons of the 20th century.  Instead of embracing the plurality of culture that actually is and seeking what the call “to be all things to all people” might meant for us a lá the Apostle Paul or Jesus’ risky practice of crossing taboo boundaries to engage and even learn from others (Matt.15:21-28), we have taken the easy way of exclusion and call that purity.  We should have learned from the way Jesus reversed the contagion of impurity from infecting the pure to making the impure clean!

The only gospel answer I can see to the plural world we live in is friendship.  God’s kingdom movement is all about reversing or erasing the insider-outsider boundary.  We whom Christ has graciously befriended ought to extend such graciousness to others – even those others who are strange and frightening to us.  That, I suggest, is the best answer to my question of “What in the world are we here for?”

Why I Don’t Go To Church

There has been a lot of buzz online in recent days about the value of church attendance. 

Initiated by a pair of posts by Donald Miller, ( The initial post… and the followup.), who bravely confessed that he rarely goes to church, Miller’s posts were followed up by this piece on Christianity Today’s PARSE blog, which dug a little deeper but had more of the feel of an expose, and didn’t get to the heart of what seems (to me anyway) to be the crucial issues about church.

I appreciate Donald’s honesty — and Brian McLaren’s as well, in response to the PARSE piece — and I have no interest arguing for or against the positions that they described.  Rather, I want to tell my own story reflect on what we mean when we talk of church attendance or “going to church.”

I grew up going to church, and continued to do so in college.  In fact, it was almost a necessity. I went to Taylor University, which has no church on campus, and being located in the middle of Indiana  cornfields, it was not easy for a person like me (who didn’t have a car) to participate in a church on any deeper level than going to Sunday services.  So, I would catch a ride with whomever I could and got to whatever church service they were headed to.

But, after college, I had a crisis of faith. I could no longer go to church.  I was done being a consumer of religious goods and services. I needed something more; specifically, I needed to belong to a church community, needed to share life with a particular community of sisters and brothers.  So, almost 18 years ago, I — once and for all — stopped going to church.

Now of course, those of who have read this blog for awhile, know that I by no means have given up on church, and am deeply committed to the Englewood Christian Church community, where I am a member.  But this distinction between “going to church” and “belonging to (or being a part of) a church” betrays the stories that drive us and give shape to our lives.

Specifically, “going to church” (as the phrase is commonly used) turns church into a consumer experience.  I could go (or not go) to church.  Either way, the driving force is not the church community, but ME.  So in addition to reflecting a consumer approach to church, the language of “going to church” reflects the individualism of our times.

Additionally, when we talk of “going to church” what we are typically doing is conflating church with a church service.  There’s nothing wrong with going to church services, but when we speak as if that is our sole or primary experience of church, we are greatly reducing our imaginations about what church is or could be.  On the flip-side, we load up the church service with massive expectations of what can or should be accomplished there, in such a relatively small fraction of weekly lives.  Part of the Slow Church vision is rooted in the conviction that God is reconciling ALL things, and that our churches are called into that all-encompassing mission. When we overemphasize the weekly church service, we are in grave danger of losing sight of the reality that God has called us church communities in the work of reconciliation.

If we look carefully at the biblical story, we will see that one of God’s primary activities in the world is gathering a people. This work began the Israelite people, the descendents of Abraham, and continued as Jesus gathered a little community of 12 disciples (a number that reflected the 12 tribes of Israel). Through the work of these disciples after Pentecost, the people of God was expanded and no longer defined by Jewish ethnicity, and Greeks were welcome into God’s people now as well as Jews. Throughout, God is at work gathering a people whose shared life will bear witness to God’s love for humanity and God’s ongoing work of reconciliation.   Our local churches to which we commit ourselves can then be understood a manifestations of the Body of Christ in a particular place.  We are called to BELONG to a people, not merely to go to church services.

John and I describe the nature of the church in the SLOW CHURCH book:
The people of God are at the heart of God’s mission for reconciling creation. In the Western world where individualism reigns supreme, there is unfamiliarity, awkwardness and even slowness in our calling to live as a community of God’s people. We are so accustomed to living and acting as autonomous individuals that the idea of being God’s people in the world can be tough to wrap our heads around. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions, and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient (and even considerate!) to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read Scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place. The people of God become a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.
This is why I stopped going to church, and have instead have immersed myself in BEING a part of a church community.   If church is little more than a church service, then I agree with Donald Miller, I would much rather be out in the woods experiencing God in the wonder of creation!  But I think our call to belong to God’s people goes much deeper than that: much deeper, much messier, much more joyful and full of wonder.  Slow Church is about recovering this sort wholistic community in our local churches.  May we get a taste of this abundant life, and see that God is indeed good!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Atonement and Divine Child Abuse

It seems the charge of “Divine Child Abuse” has gone from being a marginal critique of an aberrant expression of one version of atonement theology to a constitutive critique of any sacrificial or penal view.  Scot McKnight ( effectively if briefly debunks this development.
Feb 25, 2014 @ 0:05 By Scot McKnight

About a decade ago it became avant garde theology to contend the classical Christian theory of atonement was nothing less than divine child abuse. That is, the image of a Father punishing a Son, or exacting retribution at the expense of his own Son, or punishing a Son for the good of others — each of these became a way of deconstructing classical atonement theory.

Unfortunately, this approach works from a very simplistic image: a father, a son, and a brutal death and attributes intention to the father as one who brutalizes a son. As an image, it connotes abuse. The image, however, abuses the Bible’s image. (Art is from Rebel God.)

If the critics were to say each time that they are criticizing not penal substitution theory itself but the caricatures of PSA, then one might be more sympathetic for there clearly are abuses of the theory and imagery. But the critics do not frequently say that; in fact, my read is that the Father requiring death for sin (the consequences of sin), and putting the Son in the place of others, is an image of the Father using violence against the Son. So I’m not convinced the “caricature of a caricature” theory solves the problem. If there are consequences for sin (death, suffering, etc), then there is some kind of “punishment” theory at work in sin-language and atonement-language.

What fell into place after this theory was up for grabs, but one “atonement theory” that jumped in was Girard’s mimetic desire and scapegoat theory. Though that theory might help us understand something about the cross, it is not an atonement theory nor does it really get God off the hook. What Girard enabled was seeing the cross as injustice and God siding with the victim and therefore exposing injustice for what it is. That’s fair enough, just says nothing about atonement and it can’t explain where Paul and Hebrews go when they begin to do atonement theology.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Exposing Myths about Christianity, addresses divine child abuse theory and I will bring out his points and supplement them with my own — so what follows is what I think too.

First, this accusation fails to represent the best thinking about how the Father and Son are related in the Bible and Christian theology. Inevitably, it turns the Father against the Son, bifurcates God, turns the Father into a torturer and someone who can’t be nice until he exacts some blood, and ends up destroying what the perichoresis of Trinitarian thinking is about. Both Western and Eastern thinking have no place for this perception of the Trinity’s relations at the cross. In Christian theology the cross is an act of Father, Son and Spirit.

Second, this accusation fails to see that the Son gave his life, that the Father gave the Son’s life, and the point here is that the cross in the Bible and theology is the freely-chosen, gracious choice and act of the Father, Son and Spirit. In other words, there is something entirely redemptive about the act that reveals the divine child abuse theory for what it is: a mockery of the way Christian theology describes what God is doing. The cross is an act of love by the Father (and Son, and Spirit) for humans and sketching it as act of revenge on the Son fails the larger context of grace.

Third, this accusation fails to comprehend that entering into death, willingly and out of love, is the act of God entering into the fullness of the human condition, including death. Once again, this is out of love: the Son entered into the suffering and death of humans because Father, Son and Spirit love each one of us and want to go down into the depths with us in order to lift us from death into life. The God who does not suffer with us doesn’t know us and becomes the remote God of deism.


Why the Traditional Church is Extremely Unlikely to Become Missional

1.    Unless and until we can imagine and experience God as the Great Lover of the World whose face we see in Jesus Christ, and not the “God-with-a-Scowl” whom so many identify him with, the church will never become missional.  

2.    Unless and until we can see and experience Jesus Christ as the Lord of all reality (Bonhoeffer), the world’s rightful king who is on a mission to subvert and overcome the attitudes, actions, patterns, and structures and ourselves as his divinely armor-clad soldiers (Eph.6:10-20) who implement and spread the fruit of Christ’s victory at the cross and in his resurrection and ascension, the church will never become missional. 

3.    Unless and until the Holy Spirit is a reality in the lives of traditional churches (and released from the narrow confines in which Pentecostal churches tend to keep him), God’s struggle to spread the fruits of Christ’s victory throughout the world through his people will never be brought to completion.  God’s will, of course, will not be frustrated but we may or may not participate in it as intended. 

4.    Unless and until  the church shakes the dualist spirituality (more worthy of Plato than Jesus or Paul) it has inherited which privileges the inward, immaterial, (which it calls “spiritual”) and sees the human as composed of two parts, body (inferior and finally dispensable) and spirit (superior and eternal), it will never become missional (i.e. incarnational). 

5.    Unless and until we can imagine church in such out of the box ways that we gradually forget church as we have known it, the church will never become missional. 

6.    Unless and until the church recovers leadership by gift, particularly the five gifts of apostle prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher (Eph.4:11), it will be perpetually ill-equipped to function as a missional body. 

7.    Unless and until the church derives a consensus rule (way of life) by which they are willing to live (as in Mike Frost’s “Bells”), it is very unlikely it will display a way of life for others to catch.  Such rules, of course, will vary from community to community. 

8.    Unless and until church happens in daily life Monday – Saturday, what happens on Sunday is unlikely to be worship. 

9.    Unless and until the church replants itself in neighborhoods (those it lives around and with), it will find itself buried in mausoleums it built for itself. 

10. Unless and until the church becomes a community whose life is inexplicable apart from the existence of the God it proclaims, it will never become missional.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Looking for Those Disaffected with Church in Longview, TX

If you are in the Longview, TX area, and if you have been damaged, disgusted, or disappointed by the church, or if you just wonder, "There has to be more to church than this," or if you wish the church was more like Jesus, contact me here or at and let's see if we can get a group of folks together to explore what we might do to deal with our disaffection with church as we have known it.

To Will One Thing
Posted: 22 Feb 2014 10:10 PM PST
SKC-1Father in Heaven,
What are we without You?
What is all that we know,
vast accumulation though it be,
but a chipped fragment if we do not know You!
What is all our striving,
could it ever encompass a world,
but a half-finished work if we do not know You:
You the One, who is one thing and who is all!
So may You give to the intellect,
wisdom to comprehend that one thing;
to the heart,
sincerity to receive this understanding;
to the will,
purity that wills only one thing.
In prosperity may You grant perseverance to will one thing;
amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing.
You that gives both the beginning and the completion,
give Your victory in the day of need
so that what neither our burning wish
nor our determined resolution may attain to,
may be granted unto us in the sorrowing of repentance:
to will only one thing.
Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-55

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Exclusive Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State

February 21, 2014

by Mike Lofgren

Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.

The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)

There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. [1]

During the last five years, the news media has been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: In the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.

Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country…

As I wrote in The Party is Over, the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.

Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions — with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance.

These are not isolated instances of a contradiction; they have been so pervasive that they tend to be disregarded as background noise. During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing 13 people. During that same period of time, the government spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of 17 football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have coined. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single trace of your electronic life.

Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude. [2]

How did I come to write an analysis of the Deep State, and why am I equipped to write it? As a congressional staff member for 28 years specializing in national security and possessing a top secret security clearance, I was at least on the fringes of the world I am describing, if neither totally in it by virtue of full membership nor of it by psychological disposition. But, like virtually every employed person, I became, to some extent, assimilated into the culture of the institution I worked for, and only by slow degrees, starting before the invasion of Iraq, did I begin fundamentally to question the reasons of state that motivate the people who are, to quote George W. Bush, “the deciders.”

Cultural assimilation is partly a matter of what psychologist Irving L. Janis called “groupthink,” the chameleon-like ability of people to adopt the views of their superiors and peers. This syndrome is endemic to Washington: The town is characterized by sudden fads, be it negotiating biennial budgeting, making grand bargains or invading countries. Then, after a while, all the town’s cool kids drop those ideas as if they were radioactive. As in the military, everybody has to get on board with the mission, and questioning it is not a career-enhancing move. The universe of people who will critically examine the goings-on at the institutions they work for is always going to be a small one. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

A more elusive aspect of cultural assimilation is the sheer dead weight of the ordinariness of it all once you have planted yourself in your office chair for the 10,000th time. Government life is typically not some vignette from an Allen Drury novel about intrigue under the Capitol dome. Sitting and staring at the clock on the off-white office wall when it’s 11:00 in the evening and you are vowing never, ever to eat another piece of takeout pizza in your life is not an experience that summons the higher literary instincts of a would-be memoirist. After a while, a functionary of the state begins to hear things that, in another context, would be quite remarkable, or at least noteworthy, and yet that simply bounce off one’s consciousness like pebbles off steel plate: “You mean the number of terrorist groups we are fighting is classified?” No wonder so few people are whistle-blowers, quite apart from the vicious retaliation whistle-blowing often provokes: Unless one is blessed with imagination and a fine sense of irony, growing immune to the curiousness of one’s surroundings is easy. To paraphrase the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, I didn’t know all that I knew, at least until I had had a couple of years away from the government to reflect upon it.

The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.

I saw this submissiveness on many occasions. One memorable incident was passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008. This legislation retroactively legalized the Bush administration’s illegal and unconstitutional surveillance first revealed by The New York Times in 2005 and indemnified the telecommunications companies for their cooperation in these acts. The bill passed easily: All that was required was the invocation of the word “terrorism” and most members of Congress responded like iron filings obeying a magnet. One who responded in that fashion was Senator Barack Obama, soon to be coronated as the presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He had already won the most delegates by campaigning to the left of his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the excesses of the global war on terror and the erosion of constitutional liberties.

As the indemnification vote showed, the Deep State does not consist only of government agencies. What is euphemistically called “private enterprise” is an integral part of its operations. In a special series in The Washington Post called “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest and William K. Arkin described the scope of the privatized Deep State and the degree to which it has metastasized after the September 11 attacks. There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances — a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government. While they work throughout the country and the world, their heavy concentration in and around the Washington suburbs is unmistakable: Since 9/11, 33 facilities for top-secret intelligence have been built or are under construction. Combined, they occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet. Seventy percent of the intelligence community’s budget goes to paying contracts. And the membrane between government and industry is highly permeable: The Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, is a former executive of Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the government’s largest intelligence contractors. His predecessor as director, Admiral Mike McConnell, is the current vice chairman of the same company; Booz Allen is 99 percent dependent on government business. These contractors now set the political and social tone of Washington, just as they are increasingly setting the direction of the country, but they are doing it quietly, their doings unrecorded in the Congressional Record or the Federal Register, and are rarely subject to congressional hearings.

Washington is the most important node of the Deep State that has taken over America, but it is not the only one. Invisible threads of money and ambition connect the town to other nodes. One is Wall Street, which supplies the cash that keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater. Should the politicians forget their lines and threaten the status quo, Wall Street floods the town with cash and lawyers to help the hired hands remember their own best interests. The executives of the financial giants even have de facto criminal immunity. On March 6, 2013, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder stated the following: “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” This, from the chief law enforcement officer of a justice system that has practically abolished the constitutional right to trial for poorer defendants charged with certain crimes. It is not too much to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice — certainly beyond the dreams of a salaried government employee. [3]

The corridor between Manhattan and Washington is a well trodden highway for the personalities we have all gotten to know in the period since the massive deregulation of Wall Street: Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner and many others. Not all the traffic involves persons connected with the purely financial operations of the government: In 2013, General David Petraeus joined KKR (formerly Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) of 9 West 57th Street, New York, a private equity firm with $62.3 billion in assets. KKR specializes in management buyouts and leveraged finance. General Petraeus’ expertise in these areas is unclear. His ability to peddle influence, however, is a known and valued commodity. Unlike Cincinnatus, the military commanders of the Deep State do not take up the plow once they lay down the sword. Petraeus also obtained a sinecure as a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The Ivy League is, of course, the preferred bleaching tub and charm school of the American oligarchy. [4]

Petraeus and most of the avatars of the Deep State — the White House advisers who urged Obama not to impose compensation limits on Wall Street CEOs, the contractor-connected think tank experts who besought us to “stay the course” in Iraq, the economic gurus who perpetually demonstrate that globalization and deregulation are a blessing that makes us all better off in the long run — are careful to pretend that they have no ideology. Their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well considered advice based on profound expertise. That is nonsense. They are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. Domestically, whatever they might privately believe about essentially diversionary social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, they almost invariably believe in the “Washington Consensus”: financialization, outsourcing, privatization, deregulation and the commodifying of labor. Internationally, they espouse 21st-century “American Exceptionalism”: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world with coercive diplomacy and boots on the ground and to ignore painfully won international norms of civilized behavior. To paraphrase what Sir John Harrington said more than 400 years ago about treason, now that the ideology of the Deep State has prospered, none dare call it ideology. [5] That is why describing torture with the word “torture” on broadcast television is treated less as political heresy than as an inexcusable lapse of Washington etiquette: Like smoking a cigarette on camera, these days it is simply “not done.”

After Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent and depth of surveillance by the National Security Agency, it has become publicly evident that Silicon Valley is a vital node of the Deep State as well. Unlike military and intelligence contractors, Silicon Valley overwhelmingly sells to the private market, but its business is so important to the government that a strange relationship has emerged. While the government could simply dragoon the high technology companies to do the NSA’s bidding, it would prefer cooperation with so important an engine of the nation’s economy, perhaps with an implied quid pro quo. Perhaps this explains the extraordinary indulgence the government shows the Valley in intellectual property matters. If an American “jailbreaks” his smartphone (i.e., modifies it so that it can use a service provider other than the one dictated by the manufacturer), he could receive a fine of up to $500,000 and several years in prison; so much for a citizen’s vaunted property rights to what he purchases. The libertarian pose of the Silicon Valley moguls, so carefully cultivated in their public relations, has always been a sham. Silicon Valley has long been tracking for commercial purposes the activities of every person who uses an electronic device, so it is hardly surprising that the Deep State should emulate the Valley and do the same for its own purposes. Nor is it surprising that it should conscript the Valley’s assistance.

Still, despite the essential roles of lower Manhattan and Silicon Valley, the center of gravity of the Deep State is firmly situated in and around the Beltway. The Deep State’s physical expansion and consolidation around the Beltway would seem to make a mockery of the frequent pronouncement that governance in Washington is dysfunctional and broken. That the secret and unaccountable Deep State floats freely above the gridlock between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is the paradox of American government in the 21st century: drone strikes, data mining, secret prisons and Panopticon-like control on the one hand; and on the other, the ordinary, visible parliamentary institutions of self-government declining to the status of a banana republic amid the gradual collapse of public infrastructure.

The results of this contradiction are not abstract, as a tour of the rotting, decaying, bankrupt cities of the American Midwest will attest. It is not even confined to those parts of the country left behind by a Washington Consensus that decreed the financialization and deindustrialization of the economy in the interests of efficiency and shareholder value. This paradox is evident even within the Beltway itself, the richest metropolitan area in the nation. Although demographers and urban researchers invariably count Washington as a “world city,” that is not always evident to those who live there. Virtually every time there is a severe summer thunderstorm, tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of residents lose power, often for many days. There are occasional water restrictions over wide areas because water mains, poorly constructed and inadequately maintained, have burst. [6] The Washington metropolitan area considers it a Herculean task just to build a rail link to its international airport — with luck it may be completed by 2018.

It is as if Hadrian’s Wall was still fully manned and the fortifications along the border with Germania were never stronger, even as the city of Rome disintegrates from within and the life-sustaining aqueducts leading down from the hills begin to crumble. The governing classes of the Deep State may continue to deceive themselves with their dreams of Zeus-like omnipotence, but others do not. A 2013 Pew Poll that interviewed 38,000 people around the world found that in 23 of 39 countries surveyed, a plurality of respondents said they believed China already had or would in the future replace the United States as the world’s top economic power.

The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State, and its time in the sun as a rival to Rome, Constantinople or London may be term-limited by its overweening sense of self-importance and its habit, as Winwood Reade said of Rome, to “live upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face.” “Living upon its principal,” in this case, means that the Deep State has been extracting value from the American people in vampire-like fashion.

We are faced with two disagreeable implications. First, that the Deep State is so heavily entrenched, so well protected by surveillance, firepower, money and its ability to co-opt resistance that it is almost impervious to change. Second, that just as in so many previous empires, the Deep State is populated with those whose instinctive reaction to the failure of their policies is to double down on those very policies in the future. Iraq was a failure briefly camouflaged by the wholly propagandistic success of the so-called surge; this legerdemain allowed for the surge in Afghanistan, which equally came to naught. Undeterred by that failure, the functionaries of the Deep State plunged into Libya; the smoking rubble of the Benghazi consulate, rather than discouraging further misadventure, seemed merely to incite the itch to bomb Syria. Will the Deep State ride on the back of the American people from failure to failure until the country itself, despite its huge reserves of human and material capital, is slowly exhausted? The dusty road of empire is strewn with the bones of former great powers that exhausted themselves in like manner.

But, there are signs of resistance to the Deep State and its demands. In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the House narrowly failed to pass an amendment that would have defunded the NSA’s warrantless collection of data from US persons. Shortly thereafter, the president, advocating yet another military intervention in the Middle East, this time in Syria, met with such overwhelming congressional skepticism that he changed the subject by grasping at a diplomatic lifeline thrown to him by Vladimir Putin. [7]

Has the visible, constitutional state, the one envisaged by Madison and the other Founders, finally begun to reassert itself against the claims and usurpations of the Deep State? To some extent, perhaps. The unfolding revelations of the scope of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance have become so egregious that even institutional apologists such as Senator Dianne Feinstein have begun to backpedal — if only rhetorically — from their knee-jerk defense of the agency. As more people begin to waken from the fearful and suggestible state that 9/11 created in their minds, it is possible that the Deep State’s decade-old tactic of crying “terrorism!” every time it faces resistance is no longer eliciting the same Pavlovian response of meek obedience. And the American people, possibly even their legislators, are growing tired of endless quagmires in the Middle East.

But there is another more structural reason the Deep State may have peaked in the extent of its dominance. While it seems to float above the constitutional state, its essentially parasitic, extractive nature means that it is still tethered to the formal proceedings of governance. The Deep State thrives when there is tolerable functionality in the day-to-day operations of the federal government. As long as appropriations bills get passed on time, promotion lists get confirmed, black (i.e., secret) budgets get rubber-stamped, special tax subsidies for certain corporations are approved without controversy, as long as too many awkward questions are not asked, the gears of the hybrid state will mesh noiselessly. But when one house of Congress is taken over by tea party Wahhabites, life for the ruling class becomes more trying.

If there is anything the Deep State requires it is silent, uninterrupted cash flow and the confidence that things will go on as they have in the past. It is even willing to tolerate a degree of gridlock: Partisan mud wrestling over cultural issues may be a useful distraction from its agenda. But recent congressional antics involving sequestration, the government shutdown and the threat of default over the debt ceiling extension have been disrupting that equilibrium. And an extreme gridlock dynamic has developed between the two parties such that continuing some level of sequestration is politically the least bad option for both parties, albeit for different reasons. As much as many Republicans might want to give budget relief to the organs of national security, they cannot fully reverse sequestration without the Democrats demanding revenue increases. And Democrats wanting to spend more on domestic discretionary programs cannot void sequestration on either domestic or defense programs without Republicans insisting on entitlement cuts.

So, for the foreseeable future, the Deep State must restrain its appetite for taxpayer dollars. Limited deals may soften sequestration, but agency requests will not likely be fully funded anytime soon. Even Wall Street’s rentier operations have been affected: After helping finance the tea party to advance its own plutocratic ambitions, America’s Big Money is now regretting the Frankenstein’s monster it has created. Like children playing with dynamite, the tea party and its compulsion to drive the nation into credit default has alarmed the grown-ups commanding the heights of capital; the latter are now telling the politicians they thought they had hired to knock it off.

The House vote to defund the NSA’s illegal surveillance programs was equally illustrative of the disruptive nature of the tea party insurgency. Civil liberties Democrats alone would never have come so close to victory; tea party stalwart Justin Amash (R-MI), who has also upset the business community for his debt-limit fundamentalism, was the lead Republican sponsor of the NSA amendment, and most of the Republicans who voted with him were aligned with the tea party.

The final factor is Silicon Valley. Owing to secrecy and obfuscation, it is hard to know how much of the NSA’s relationship with the Valley is based on voluntary cooperation, how much is legal compulsion through FISA warrants and how much is a matter of the NSA surreptitiously breaking into technology companies’ systems. Given the Valley’s public relations requirement to mollify its customers who have privacy concerns, it is difficult to take the tech firms’ libertarian protestations about government compromise of their systems at face value, especially since they engage in similar activity against their own customers for commercial purposes. That said, evidence is accumulating that Silicon Valley is losing billions in overseas business from companies, individuals and governments that want to maintain privacy. For high tech entrepreneurs, the cash nexus is ultimately more compelling than the Deep State’s demand for patriotic cooperation. Even legal compulsion can be combatted: Unlike the individual citizen, tech firms have deep pockets and batteries of lawyers with which to fight government diktat.

This pushback has gone so far that on January 17, President Obama announced revisions to the NSA’s data collection programs, including withdrawing the agency’s custody of a domestic telephone record database, expanding requirements for judicial warrants and ceasing to spy on (undefined) “friendly foreign leaders.” Critics have denounced the changes as a cosmetic public relations move, but they are still significant in that the clamor has gotten so loud that the president feels the political need to address it.

When the contradictions within a ruling ideology are pushed too far, factionalism appears and that ideology begins slowly to crumble. Corporate oligarchs such as the Koch brothers are no longer entirely happy with the faux-populist political front group they helped fund and groom. Silicon Valley, for all the Ayn Rand-like tendencies of its major players, its offshoring strategies and its further exacerbation of income inequality, is now lobbying Congress to restrain the NSA, a core component of the Deep State. Some tech firms are moving to encrypt their data. High tech corporations and governments alike seek dominance over people though collection of personal data, but the corporations are jumping ship now that adverse public reaction to the NSA scandals threatens their profits.

The outcome of all these developments is uncertain. The Deep State, based on the twin pillars of national security imperative and corporate hegemony, has until recently seemed unshakable and the latest events may only be a temporary perturbation in its trajectory. But history has a way of toppling the altars of the mighty. While the two great materialist and determinist ideologies of the twentieth century, Marxism and the Washington Consensus, successively decreed that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the market were inevitable, the future is actually indeterminate. It may be that deep economic and social currents create the framework of history, but those currents can be channeled, eddied, or even reversed by circumstance, chance and human agency. We have only to reflect upon defunct glacial despotisms such as the USSR or East Germany to realize that nothing is forever.

Throughout history, state systems with outsized pretensions to power have reacted to their environments in two ways. The first strategy, reflecting the ossification of its ruling elites, consists of repeating that nothing is wrong, that the status quo reflects the nation’s unique good fortune in being favored by God and that those calling for change are merely subversive troublemakers. As the French ancien régime, the Romanov dynasty and the Habsburg emperors discovered, the strategy works splendidly for a while, particularly if one has a talent for dismissing unpleasant facts. The final results, however, are likely to be thoroughly disappointing.

The second strategy is one embraced to varying degrees and with differing goals, by figures of such contrasting personalities as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Deng Xiaoping. They were certainly not revolutionaries by temperament; if anything, their natures were conservative. But they understood that the political cultures in which they lived were fossilized and incapable of adapting to the times. In their drive to reform and modernize the political systems they inherited, their first obstacles to overcome were the outworn myths that encrusted the thinking of the elites of their time.

As the United States confronts its future after experiencing two failed wars, a precarious economy and $17 trillion in accumulated debt, the national punditry has split into two camps. The first, the declinists, sees a broken, dysfunctional political system incapable of reform and an economy soon to be overtaken by China. The second, the reformers, offers a profusion of nostrums to turn the nation around: public financing of elections to sever the artery of money between the corporate components of the Deep State and financially dependent elected officials, government “insourcing” to reverse the tide of outsourcing of government functions and the conflicts of interest that it creates, a tax policy that values human labor over financial manipulation and a trade policy that favors exporting manufactured goods over exporting investment capital.

Mike Lofgren on the Deep State Hiding in Plain Sight

All of that is necessary, but not sufficient. The Snowden revelations (the impact of which have been surprisingly strong), the derailed drive for military intervention in Syria and a fractious Congress, whose dysfunction has begun to be a serious inconvenience to the Deep State, show that there is now a deep but as yet inchoate hunger for change. What America lacks is a figure with the serene self-confidence to tell us that the twin idols of national security and corporate power are outworn dogmas that have nothing more to offer us. Thus disenthralled, the people themselves will unravel the Deep State with surprising speed.

[1] The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime. In British author John le Carré’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth, a character describes the Deep State as “… the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.”  I use the term to mean a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.

[2] Twenty-five years ago, the sociologist
Robert Nisbet described this phenomenon as “the attribute of No Fault…. Presidents, secretaries and generals and admirals in America seemingly subscribe to the doctrine that no fault ever attaches to policy and operations. This No Fault conviction prevents them from taking too seriously such notorious foul-ups as Desert One, Grenada, Lebanon and now the Persian Gulf.” To his list we might add 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

[3] The attitude of many members of Congress towards Wall Street was
memorably expressed by Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, in 2010: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

[4] Beginning in 1988, every US president has been a graduate of Harvard or Yale. Beginning in 2000, every losing presidential candidate has been a Harvard or Yale graduate, with the exception of John McCain in 2008.

[5] In recent months, the American public has seen a vivid example of a Deep State operative marketing his ideology under the banner of pragmatism. Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates — a one-time career CIA officer and
deeply political Bush family retainer — has camouflaged his retrospective defense of military escalations that have brought us nothing but casualties and fiscal grief as the straight-from-the-shoulder memoir from a plain-spoken son of Kansas who disdains Washington and its politicians.

[6] Meanwhile, the US government took the lead in restoring Baghdad’s sewer system
at a cost of $7 billion.

[7] Obama’s abrupt about-face suggests he may have been skeptical of military intervention in Syria all along, but only dropped that policy once Congress and Putin gave him the running room to do so. In 2009, he went ahead with the Afghanistan “surge” partly because General Petraeus’
public relations campaign and back-channel lobbying on the Hill for implementation of his pet military strategy pre-empted other options. These incidents raise the disturbing question of how much the democratically elected president — or any president — sets the policy of the national security state and how much the policy is set for him by the professional operatives of that state who engineer faits accomplis that force his hand.