A Review of Sharon D. Welch’s After Empire: The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace

[1] Today in powerful places in the U.S.A., compromise is slurred as truth’s enemy, and only the single-minded know justice. Peace will arrive when the other, the different, is eliminated or turned into an impotent minority. Thus, on Comedy Central, “The Daily Show” never runs out of material.

[2] In the long run, however, how manifold might peace prove, and how multifariously might justice live? Sharon Welch raises ambiguity, contingency, and malleability as antidotes to the absolute perfectionism that can turn the ideals of politics and religion into deadly arrogance. Ambiguity, contingency, and malleability. How can we hear these adjectives as applause instead of lament? That is what After Empire is about, a fresh groundwork for peace.

[3] Last month the Pentagon released a list of federal military bases recommended for closing or realigning in the United States beginning in 2006. Sighs of relief or groans rose around the country as patriotism and economic stability either meshed or clashed locally. Here in California the news was welcomed by many politicians, for only ten bases face possible closure this time around. Where I live, some rejoiced at the news that Fort Hunter Liggett would grow in the Pentagon’s plan. For others the news continued the grieving of centuries.

[4] In 1771 the Spanish established Mission San Antonio de Padua in the middle of the land inhabited by the People for nearly 10,000 years. The Spanish called the People Salinans, after a major river in the area, and so this small nation has been called ever since. In 1834 the missions were secularized by the Spanish government, and some of the Salinans controlled by the Mission were able again to live freely on land that had been their home for millennia.

[5] When George Hearst bought 45,000 acres in 1865, the Salinan Nation lost homeland again. When William Randolph Heart inherited the estate he increased it to 250,000 acres by the 1930s. But in 1940 he needed money and sold 158,000 acres of the land to the War Department of the United States. The War Department also bought 108,950 from other landowners. Now Ft. Hunter Liggett covers about 165,000 acres of slopes and valleys of the Santa Lucia Mountains in Central California. In 1993 the U.S. Army Reserve Command took over the fort, and it is now the Army Reserve Command Western Training Center.

[6] The status of Fort Hunter Liggett has also been under study in the last decade as a possible site for Navy bombing exercises. The National Park Service is currently studying the possibility of turning some of the acreage and historic buildings into a National Park. But the engagement of Army Reserves in the war in the Middle East reduces the likelihood of that.

[7] I sat on a bench looking out at the Pacific Ocean as I read Sharon Welch’s After Empire. The site used to be a place where Salinan women and children ground acorns for food. The sandstone boulders at the top of the hill now catch condensed morning fog in the small bowls they ground into the surface over the centuries. When I reached Chapter 5, I read, “As a country, we have not fully confronted, much less understood, our colonial past.” Welch poses such consideration as requisite to tipping the practical scale toward peace instead of empire.

[8] Today the empire’s leaders express their ethics in a rhetoric of democracy and freedom. Under the guise of righteousness by divine selection this witness to the world sounds like patriotism worthy of the saint. Attending to the saints’ capacity for evil barely reaches a footnote. In Welch’s work the footnote has moved to organizing principle. The religious justification of cruelty and violence might today seem to many Christians in the U.S.A. as “what terrorists do.” Recognizing the danger in one’s own religious tradition and community does not come easily. Welch reads religious traditions as “amoral” and hence capable of creating orders of living which can be as oppressing as liberating. Acknowledging that one’s spiritual life is “amoral, contingent, malleable” opens the possibility of acknowledging too the lure of imperial perfectionism (16). Enduring peace can be achieved only when, first, the history of colonialism in this country is seriously studied, known, and confessed, and, second, when the perspectives of descendants of both colonizers and colonized shape the conversations today.

[9] The “Draft Fort Hunter Liggett Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment” finds Mission San Antonio de Padua, William Randolph Hearst’s hunting lodge, Jolon (the historic boom town of the gold mining era), and a section of the Juan Bautista de Anza Historic Trail to be “cultural resources” that are “nationally significant.” Even though the whole area was and is the home of Salinan Native Americans, this study claims that has only “Possible Further Significance.” Actual significance would be determined by “further scientific study.”

[10] Thus reason is defined here by the dominating system. Acknowledgment is made that “Salinan Native Americans would like to be more involved in any decisions that related to the transfer or management of land at Fort Hunter Liggett” (“National Park Service Summary of Public Comments on the Draft Study Report”). However, the perspective of the Salinan Nation holds no priority in decisions by state and federal government of the United States.

[11] Debra Krol, an enrolled member of the Salinan Nation, writes about decisions regarding Fort Hunter Liggett. “We are willing to work hard to improve the land and provide jobs and dignity for our people. But we need the land we were promised by the Spanish, Mexican and American governments. It comes down to this basic question: Can the United States, the world’s moral leader, be trusted to keep its promises to its own people? The Salinans would very much like to know; we’re tired of being left out in the cold” (Monterey County Weekly, July 29, 1999). “Can the United States, the world’s moral leader, be trusted to keep its promises to its own people?” From Salinan perspectives an untrustworthy nation claims to lead them and the whole world to peace and justice. How might people of the Salinan nation be active participants in creating “the art and ethos of an enduring peace”?

[12] Welch accepts gifts in epistemology and ethics from contemporary Native American social analysts, gifts concerning social engagements from Buddhism, and gifts within analysis of human rights from William F. Schulz. In each case autonomy and responsibility depend on each other reciprocally. So do reason and desire and religion and amorality. Welch does not recite predictable plaudits for peace. Rather she analyzes how usual routes to or polemics of peace need to be re-formed by listening to more voices.

[13] Attending to wider experience, we realize that religion-living truth leads often to violence. When truth knows no ambiguity, differing views are called deadly threats. Ideals bound by unilateral necessity lure believers to paths of cruelty and oppression. Too often, then, being open-minded is construed as being half-hearted. Advocating change is construed as a threat to truth’s roots. Ideals can then justify oppression.

[14] Creating “the art and ethos of enduring peace” requires a hermeneutic of “all my relations.” Welch accepts the gift of the Lakota interpretation of life in community described by Jace Weaver (52, 106 in After Empire). Responsibility in this “web of kinship” with everything moves contrary to private property as norm and self-interest as governing principle. The ethos of peace described here knows that the well-being of the whole community is prerequisite to the individual’s happiness. The community encompasses groups and nations. When relations fall into dualistic categories of friend and foe, neighbor and alien, ally and enemy, idealism as polarity threatens both peace and justice again.

[15] After Empire Welch evaluates both components and risks of global action that could enact this ethos of peace. A matrix of cooperative power offers an alternative to power usually construed as inherently violent. At the center of the alternative the empire must yield sovereignty for the sake of recognized interdependence. The motivation of this depends on creating and nurturing a rhetoric dependent not on imperial preferences but on relationships of mutual promise-keeping.

[16] The “art and ethos of enduring peace” applies not only to national and international policy but to the actions of groups and institutions in all forms, including the church. How can religious communities shape themselves without exclusive terms of membership and without construing divine power in exclusively imperial fashion? Do we know who we are only by making certain we aren’t those others? How can we create manifold and multifarious communities for the sake of truth-promising that harms no one? Sharon Welch has written a book that moves the questions and possible answers beyond speculative musing into artful opportunity.