As if it wasn’t chilling enough to learn that NSA cronies are poring over your web browser history, now we discover that Barack Obama sits in bed at night and listens in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls to Domino’s.
Okay, maybe those are a bit of a stretch, but quite a buzz has been generated as of late about the revelation that the United States does, indeed, monitor the communications of leaders from allied nations, including the cell phone activity of Chancellor Merkel. For some, the collective reaction has been more of a collective shrug, as if such impositions should be expected from a global superpower that generally prefers to maintain that status. But for others, there’s a clear sense of shock and outrage.
For starters, let's clarify: nations cannot be friends. They don't go out on dates and they don't pass notes during class. Nations become allies out of strategic necessity, economic expediency, and other potential mutual benefit. Once these criteria are compromised, the relationship becomes strained. But historically, all manner of other impropriety can be tolerated if there are larger strategic and economic advantages at stake. So although talking heads in Germany may express anger about American spying, suffice it to say that it won't change very much of any real substance about our relationship.
Second, the only thing that personally surprises me about the story is that anybody acts genuinely surprised. In his Washington Post article, “ Why America spies on its allies (and probably should) ," Max Fisher rightly quotes novelist and former German correspondent Frederick Forsyth, who says, “Frau Merkel has been listened to since she was a teenager. The only thing that amazes me about the furor is that it amazes people."
And as for the propriety of such nosiness, National Intelligence Director James Clapper claims that allies of the United States "absolutely" conduct similar espionage activities about our political goings-on, and that it is not only known to happen, but it a fairly commonly anticipated international practice.
None of this, of course, addresses the moral and theological implications of such activity. However, to remain focus on isolated incidents such as this – which arguably are not only commonplace, but consistent with historic international allied relations – is to ignore the larger issue.
Can we honestly call ourselves Christians while also benefiting daily from living beneath the protection and provision of an empire that knowingly and willfully imposes its will on the rest of the world in order to maintain superior military, political, and economic standing?
Simply expressing some self-righteous anger and going on about our lives as if we are not part of the problem is little more than self-deception. We are pharisaic in our hypocrisy if we do not actively challenge the un-Christlike imperialism all around us, from an inherently violent globalized economy and exploitation of natural resources to unjust international labor laws and inequitable treatment of the poor in our own homeland, we have far greater rifts within God's coming kingdom to amend without occupying ourselves with who is listening in on the cell phone calls of another powerful world leader.
But feeding on our own righteous anger helps us feel a little bit better about our own sins, while doing little or nothing to change. We can feel validated that we were on the right side of the argument, while still enjoying the privileges of living in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world. This is not to say that we should not criticize our own government. But when we do, it should be on matters of justice and great substance — the kinds of issues to which Jesus calls us to act in the Beatitudes.
And we should even approach these matters with great caution, as criticism alone is not enough. If we are content to sit on the sidelines and critique without investing our whole selves and realizing divinely inspired systemic change, we are, in fact, part of the problem.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus . His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date .