Immanuel Kant famously said that “out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built.” He was referring to the tendency of human institutions to be riddled with the same shortcomings and weaknesses characteristic of individuals. The Christian belief attributes these shortcomings to original sin, which, as paraphrased by John Wesley, results in “the corruption of the nature of every man” such that “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.”
According to Wesley, it is only through the transformative power of Jesus Christ that people are able to overcome sin in their own lives. If it is Christ that sets crooked people straight, what is to set crooked institutions straight?
The most frequent answer to that question would seem to be activism. Recent developments in North Africa show that a small number of organized individuals, acting in good faith and using non-violent means, are indeed able to spark movements, gather momentum and large scale support, and bring sweeping change. Recent history contains numerous examples in which the Christian Church has been at the forefront of reform movements, perhaps the most obvious being the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was led throughout by Protestant clergymen. This is only one such example; history is full of instances in which Christians moved to resist (and sometimes overturn) secular powers whose rule had veered into self-interestedness and corrupt practices.
But do all non-violent attempts to reform institutions or wayward rulers lead ultimately to good? How, given the complicated relationship between Christianity and the state, should the Church view attempts by non-state actors to attack the authority and stability of secular states? The example that most readily presents itself is that of the organization WikiLeaks, and its present battle with the United States government.
The mission of WikiLeaks, as described on their website, is to “to publish original source material alongside news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” This source material tends to be classified documents leaked to the website that are purported to contain evidence of illegal or conspiratorial activities by governments. WikiLeaks has been described variously as a non-profit media organization, whistle-blower website, gossip column, and foreign terrorist organization. The website has recently been condemned by a number of world governments for releasing a cache of 250,000 stolen, confidential cables between members of the U.S. State Department which give the analysis and opinions of U.S. diplomats on topics including the Iranian nuclear program, the Chinese government’s attack on Google’s servers last year, and many others. This comes on the heels of two previous leaks: two separate caches of confidential documents containing highly-sensitive information concerning the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the centre of the WikiLeaks controversy is its founder, an Australian internet activist named Julian Assange. Assange, who is currently in London awaiting trial on sexual assault charges, has as complicated a relationship with secular institutions as any church. At 16, he began computer hacking in Australia, and within a couple of years he was able to break into major computer systems. His goal was never to harm the systems, but simply to snoop around and see what was hidden there. The Canadian telecommunications company Nortel, who he hacked in 1991, alerted the Australian Federal Police, who began to track Assange and eventually raided his home and placed him under arrest. Assange pleaded guilty to 24 charges of hacking but was released on bond and made to pay AU $2100, since no damage was done.
The Nortel incident (and an ugly divorce and child custody battle which happened around the same time) eroded his faith in the government’s bureaucratic system and made him suspicious of large institutions. He believed that all information should be public, and if companies or governments hid information, it was because their secrets were sinister in nature. In 2006, Assange and several other computer experts launched the WikiLeaks website, intended to become an open forum in which individuals could publish leaked material to expose the “secrets” of governments and institutions.
At first blush, this seems like a wonderful idea, and my initial reaction was to welcome such a forum where whistleblowers could quickly and anonymously shed light on corrupt practices. The goals of WikiLeaks seemed consistent with the Christian principles of conscientious objection. For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
Closer inspection of WikiLeaks’s publications began to beg the question: whose version of the truth we are seeing? One of their earliest leaks was a video shot in Iraq of an American helicopter airstrike in 2007. WikiLeaks released two versions of the video, both edited to give the impression that the helicopter had fired on civilians—among them, two Reuters photographers. The video was subtly titled “Collateral Murder.” The footage is disturbing, and there is certainly evidence of American military negligence, misjudgment, and perhaps worse. I do not defend the actions shown in the video.
But further analysis reveals a number of compelling reasons for the soldiers to act as they did, reasons that conveniently do not find their way into the WikiLeaks clip. When one views the video in full, the evidence becomes much more ambiguous. The light of WikiLeaks “truth” becomes obscured by the fog of war. What is clear is that WikiLeaks is not an objective source. They have very specific goals and directives, which seem increasingly to attack the credibility and motives of the United States government.
Subsequent leaks have revealed an agenda that is increasingly vindictive to the United States and dangerous for U.S. sources of information. On December 6, 2010, WikiLeaks released a memo detailing a list of key sites around the globe including power plants, dams, and communication grids in various parts of the world that the U.S. government has deemed critical to national security. The airing of the document has raised concerns that those who wish to harm the United States might have been given a list of ways to do so. Tom Kean, a co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, called the document “a map for terrorists, plain and simple.” Other leaks have named individuals in Afghanistan and Iraq who have collaborated with the United States against the Taliban. Publication of their names puts them at serious risk for retaliation, which would almost surely amount to death. When asked on the Today Show whether these people might be considered collateral damage in Assange’s broader effort to end the war in Afghanistan, he agreed that they might.
WikiLeaks cannot, in the end, speak truth into the world because they are as confused as those they wish to expose. Assange’s ideology holds more in common with anarchy than democracy, and is destined to fail because his motives and methods run parallel to the worst traits of the states and institutions he wishes to bring down. In short, WikiLeaks has become self-interested and corrupted by the spectre of power.
What is the church’s response to all this? The Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his essay “Should War Be Eliminated,” discusses why Christians should not support the violence of nation states as a suitable means to seek justice in this world. I would argue that the work of Assange is a kind of violence, and as such Hauerwas’ argument applies to WikiLeaks as well. As he says:
Christians believe that the true history of the world, that history that determines our destiny, is not carried by the nation state. In spite of its powerful moral appeal, this history is the history of godlessness . . . Christians have been offered the possibility of a different history through participation in a community in which one learns to love the enemy. They are thus a people who believe that God will have them exist through history without the necessity of war. God has done so by providing the world with a history through the church.
As he concludes, “The world’s true history is not that build on war, but that offered by a community that witnesses to God’s refusal to give up on his creation.”
In declaring a cyber war on the American government, WikiLeaks has devolved into precisely the type of corruption it purports to oppose. This is clear as Assange’s arrest on rape charges has made him increasingly erratic and emboldened his admirers to engage in waves of cyber piracy against companies and the Swedish prosecutor’s office handling the case. Assange proclaims peace and unity, but his methods rush headlong toward anarchy and chaos. Neither he nor those who follow him seem afraid, at this point, to get blood on their hands.
But Christians are able to view history through the lens of the church, and through God’s intervention in the world. This means we need unconditionally accept neither the motives of the state nor of those who try to destabilize it. We have the possibility of a third way: reform through love and reconciliation. There is no message in the history of the world more revolutionary than the command to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you. These words have overthrown empires, generated revolutions, and ushered in movements that radically changed societies. The adherents of them have been skinned alive, burned at the stake, stoned and shot down for their beliefs. It is profoundly difficult, counterintuitive, and even terrifying to love your enemies, to bless those who harm you, especially given that they often do not return the favour. That makes it all the more necessary, because it requires obedience and a genuine faith in God’s providence for the world.
When Christ was crucified, he asked forgiveness for his killers. Assange swears revenge. The way of the church cannot be through self-righteous anger, but only though love. We resist institutions and states that have gone awry through prayer and sacrifice. We seek revolution by working hard at our jobs and loving our neighbours, by taking positions as responsible Christian legislators, journalists, entrepreneurs. We resist evil by being good parents and spouses, by supporting our churches, and by looking after the needy in our communities. We resist by reforming society instead of seeking to destroy it. We love instead of hate.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “The only way to ultimately change humanity and make for the society that we all long for is to keep love at the centre of our lives.” This is the basis of our quiet revolution, a revolution that has changed the history of the world, lasted for 2000 years, and will be standing strong when Assange, his wars on America, and even America itself, have passed from the world and into the realm of history.