Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

Remarks on July’s Theology at the Bottleworks

Espionage. Secrets. Privacy. Security. Spies have been around for a long time indeed, dating back to as early as the Old Testament. They are heroes or traitors, depending on which side you are on, or how the story is being told. Tales of espionage are the fodder for countless films, including the ever-popular James Bond series. Recently there have been numerous news reports on espionage or spy-related stories, including but far from limited to:

• Edward Snowden’s disclosure of US data and secrets

• The US charging China with corporate spying

• Germans charging US via the CIA with spying on Angela Merkel

• The US’s National Safety Administration admitting is has been collecting data on numerous private US citizen conversations. 

We spent considerable time talking about what spying is, whether it is wrong or unethical, and whether it is illegal. Definitions are trickier than you may initially think, and can depend remarkably on the perspective of the parties involved. Surveillance, spying, investigation, self-protection, active intelligence, counter-intelligence, security monitoring – all of these are or are not spying. It’s not quite so clear as in the latest James Bond flick, methinks.

Is spying illegal? One answer to that is that the US does have the Espionage Act on the books, so it is basically against US law to spy to the detriment of the US. Other countries have similar laws. Yet few people would think that the major countries of the world do not have active “intelligence”, or spying programs, looking into the affairs of other countries. 

Is spying wrong? Unethical? Immoral? Says who, and based on what? This is where he discussion flourished, with multiple perspectives being contributed from people of myriad backgrounds and political perspectives. At TATB we glory in the diversity of views contributed at a typical discussion, and hope that we can learn to speak, and listen, with respect to the views of everyone there who wants to talk. Respectful and thoughtful engagement of issues and concepts is a novel concept to many people in our culture, and TATB provides a place that is both safe and dangerous for exploring the important ideas of our day. It’s a safe place, because anyone can say anything and think anything. It’s dangerous, though, because no one has to agree with you and it’s very possible someone might. However, when opinions are given and disagreements arise, it’s actually a good thing – it means the ideas are out there to be examined instead of people superficially, and even disingenuously, pretending to get along and agree. Which is to the benefit of no one.

So is spying ethical or not? Moral or not? These were the fun questions. The answers? I hate to say it, but – you had to be there. It was too much, and too interesting, to encapsulate in a short summary. Suffice it to say that we covered good ground and people had fresh food for thought when they left the room for the evening. 

Sometimes at Theology at the Bottleworks, we talk about the good side of life: hope, redemption, restoration. While we had some glimmers of that sprinkled throughout the conversation, this topic focused more on the darker side of humanity: secrets, lies, fears, betrayals. It seems that everyone has secrets they don’t want shared. We all seem to share the recognition that even the people we know and love, even the country we live in and love, tries to keep its own secrets and gain insights into others, for a whole lot of reasons that run the gamut from meritorious to felonious. 

Events over the past year, triggered largely by Snowden, have raised concerns and conversations about who are we can really trust. Can we trust our government? The NSA? Our allies? What privacy would you sacrifice for the greater good of security against criminal acts of others? Is that in fact a greater good, and how do you quantify the “goodness” of privacy, and security, and compare them? 

Our moderator for the evening concluded that when it’s overseas, romanticized in history, or glorified in movies, surveillance and spying can be alluring and exciting; but its glamour fades quickly when the secrets in question are own own. While we may not all understand of agree exactly with Edward Snowden’s actions or motives in releasing US government secrets on the internet, perhaps we can agree that there is a higher authority, code or justice, that supersedes our own government. These thoughts hopefully will provide you some framework for evaluating the next news report you hear of Snowden or China or Germany or the spying scandal du jour. There is definitely more to come — 007 ain’t dead yet.