Friday, May 30, 2014

Jaw, Jaw, Jaw

The War in Afghanistan goes on and on.
Is the Commander-in-Chief listening to the best advice?

Matthew 22:1-15
Luke 14:31-32

Soon we will celebrate a significant anniversary. Thirteen years.

It would be a lace or textile furs celebration if we were marking a resilient marriage, but there was no nuptial endurance involved.

The War in Afghanistan has long been the longest war in U.S. history. It has lasted longer than Iraq and longer than Vietnam, both of which fizzled after eight and a half years. By comparison, the American Revolution was 6.7 years, the Civil War lasted four years, and World War II – which so preoccupied and altered the lives of our parents and grandparents – was only 3.7 years long. 

But Afghanistan, the energizer bunny of belligerence, keeps going, and going, and going.

Nearly 3500 American, British and other coalition troops have been killed so far, and no one really knows how many Afghanistan, Taliban or al Qaeda operatives have died. Polls show most Americans oppose the war.

President Obama visited Afghanistan on Memorial Day and came home to announce there will be a diminishing number of troops in the Afghanistan through the end of 2015. This is not exactly a declaration of peace.

The policy debate continues. Mr. Obama senses that the majority of Americans don’t want him to keep sending U.S. troops into world trouble spots where U.S. interests are not threatened. Addressing the graduates of West Point this week, he called for an increase in the use of diplomacy and a decrease in military intervention.

Not everyone believes the president’s foreign policy is all that coherent, and British diplomat Carne Ross wrote in

“From his speech, it sounds like Obama is convinced of the right things: negotiation (not war) with Iran; a push for nuclear disarmament; cutting carbon emissions. But it’s hard not to wish that there was a greater sense of someone stitching these many threads into a greater whole, while abandoning those parts, like drone strikes, that are downright wrong.” 

Certainly churches and persons of faith welcome a change in policy from less shooting to more palaver. As Winston Churchill said, “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war.” 

When the war passed the ten year mark On September 11, 2011, the National Council of Churches called for a rapid conclusion to the hostilities.

“After nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan, it is clearly too late to correct the mistakes and miscalculations of the past [the Council said]. But we set before the churches a call to greater vigilance in the future. It is no mere cliché that history repeats itself, and there is little doubt that U.S. presidents and military leaders will again be tempted to choose war over diplomacy as a means of redressing grievances. When those circumstances arise, may the church, which too often has been silent in the face of war, be prepared to offer its Christian witness that war is always contrary to the will of God, and that there are alternatives to war that wise leaders must seek.”

If the Council is right – if war is always contrary to the will of God – one has to wonder why good Christian presidents have so often taken us down that bloody path.

Some argue that the words of Jesus provide some wiggle room – that perhaps God sometimes approves of war, including “good wars” like World War II.

In Matthew 22:1-15, Jesus tells of a king’s outrage when his servants are beaten and murdered. With righteous retribution, the king sends his army to slaughter the malefactors and burn their city.

It’s more than a little disturbing that Jesus seems to be providing the scriptural basis for George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in 2001. Bush, like the king in the parable, responded to an act of war by sending vast armies to Afghanistan.

Parallel parables in the synoptic gospels are no less difficult. In Luke 14:31-32, Jesus asks:

What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

It’s hard to read this passage without thinking of the Powell doctrine: General Colin Powell’s declaration prior to Desert Storm that U.S. troops would not be sent into battle in Iraq unless they were vastly superior to the enemy they would confront. Powell’s approach was obviously wise. Desert Storm remains the shortest of all U.S. wars, lasting just one and a half months in January and February 1991.

Even so, it’s hard to understand why in these passages Jesus seems to blandly accept the reality of war. These passages from Matthew and Luke don’t sound like the Prince of Peace who told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. No doubt insightful preachers will explain that Jesus is merely spinning hyperbolic yarns to impress upon his listeners what will happen to those who rudely reject him. But is all this figurative bloodshed necessary?

The injection of martial arts in the parables of Jesus also evokes the famous brutality of Psalm 137 in which the psalmist fantasizes a horrifying revenge against his Babylonian oppressors:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’O daughter Babylon, you devastator!Happy shall they be who pay you backwhat you have done to us!Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

The notion of seeking righteous revenge by bashing enemy babies against boulders is – well, it’s unchristian. Blogger Jacob Schriftman shares our horror:

The psalmist does not merely predict such a horrible scene [Schriftman writes]; he feels happy about it. He does not find the scene horrible but desirable. He does not say, “As a consequence of the Babylonians’ sins, a terrible judgment shall strike the nation. Even babies’ heads will be smashed against rocks. It horrifies me, and I pray that if possible those babies could be spared …” He does not pray that. He does not even confine himself to predicting the event. No, he gloats. He rejoices. He is pleased imagining the smashing of the babies. 

As appalling as the image may be, the truth is that most of us feel ambivalent about this kind of retribution. The rage we felt following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 is a case in point. Would we have been repelled by the prospect of murdering the innocent progeny of the terrorists? Or would we have smiled? As a matter of fact, we might have been of two minds on the subject.

Probably most of us can understand that. There have been times in my life when I’ve been conflicted by opposing viewpoints. In 1968, my last six months in the Air Force were spent at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas. One of my jobs as a chaplain’s assistant was to interview airmen who were being reassigned to McConnell after a tour in Vietnam. 

After years of assuming the U.S. war was necessary to counter Communist expansion, I was stunned to hear the reports of the returning vets. With few exceptions, they felt the war was unjustified, untenable and (perhaps they felt comfortable saying it in the chapel) immoral.

I transitioned from McConnell to my freshman year at Eastern Baptist College in a very few days. In the interim, I reappraised my attitude toward the war and decided the returning vets were right. When I was recruited by Eastern’s student-run peace and freedom committee to participate in an anti-war forum, I accepted.

In those days veterans who became campus anti-war activists rose quickly in the BMOC ranks. I became a frequent spokesperson at rallies, was interviewed by the local press, and quickly grasped that the gig was a marvelously effective chick-magnet. 

But the real benefit of my ideological repositioning was the chance to develop a biblically-based theology of peace. My mentors were John Ruth, a Mennonite minister, writer and professor of English; and a fellow student, Bob Ulle, who memorized vast portions of the bible and could recite peace passages to draft boards on demand. John, who was quietly resigned to the fact most people in 1968 mistook his Mennonite plain coat for a Nehru jacket, was an exemplar of a 500 year-old Anabaptist peace tradition based in the teachings of Menno Simons. Both John and Bob (who became a Mennonite layman shortly after graduation and died tragically young a very few years later) made peace and non-violence a way of life. 

They made it plain that children of the God of love, redeemed by the Prince of Peace, could live no other way. Schriftman suggests that the peace message of scripture is abundantly clear and discerning readers should avoid proof texting or misinterpreting verses that are out of step with our understanding of God’s message. 

Psalm 137, he writes, “is in direct opposition to Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies and pronounce good things on those who hate us. But it goes not only against the New Testament. Even Proverbs knows better: ‘Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.’” 

What is the primary message of Jesus? He put it succinctly enough: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” It is impossible to dig holes in that sentence large enough to drive an army. 

So what is Jesus’ purpose in telling stories about the military adventures of strident kings? His point, I think, is to build a memorable metaphor so his listeners will never forget: those who reject God’s realm and God’s messiah will be out in the cold forever. Or worse.

Once you get passed references to the military ambush and the sacked city, I think the metaphor works. Far be it from me, of course, to suggest Jesus should have used a more peaceful illustration. He doesn’t need any copy editing from me.

But telling it is a far cry from endorsing the kind of behavior he’s describing, and writers are entitled to use their imaginations. Father Andrew Greeley’s torrid novels describe the sexual acrobatics of his characters in such erotic detail that it steams my glasses. But just because he wrote about it doesn’t mean the celibate Father Greeley did it. 

In the same way, just because Jesus talks about generals and armies doesn’t mean he endorses them. His eternal message of peace and love cannot be overcome by willful proof texting and misguided isogesis.

Peace and love. 

Love and peace. 

The message is from God, not a hippy commune. And as we move toward the close of the thirteen year of America’s longest war, God’s eternal message must not be ignored again.

Let's strive to live the words of the magnificent Maya Angelou, who died this week at 86:

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the world aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace My Brother.
Peace My Sister.
Peace, my soul.*


* From Amazing Peace, A Christmas Poem

Thursday, May 8, 2014


All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Acts 2:33-45

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need. - Karl Marx

What a nice Christian man Karl Marx must have been. His most famous quote is from the book of Acts. He must have heard it from his Lutheran pastor. 

Actually, there is truth here. Marx was baptized Lutheran and his housekeeper thought he was nice.

Of course Marx didn’t stay Lutheran for long. Born into a well-to-do German family in 1818, he soon traded Christianity for secular humanism, the enlightenment, and dialectical materialism. He wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and died in 1883 before he could see his philosophy revolutionize half the world. By the time Marx was dead 100 years, his revolution had been dumped – in Ronald Reagan’s words – on the ash heap of history. 

But with hindsight, the New Testament church and Karl Marx will always have something in common. Their basic ideas were so thoroughly twisted by their successors that they became unrecognizable.

We all know what happened to Communism. The idea of sharing wealth for the good of all was immediately lost in political purges and murderous great leaps forward. In Russia, commissars quickly seized as much power and wealth as the nobility, and Stalin ruled far more viciously than the timid tsar he replaced. Today, los hermanos Castro run Communist Cuba with geriatric petulance, and in North Korea the post-pubescent Kim Jing-Un looks to mad King Joffrey of Game of Thrones as a model of servant leadership. Marx would weep.

And we know what happened to the church. The idea of sharing the wealth for the good of all was lost when bishops began seeing themselves as bosses and not servants of the faithful. Today, some bishops adorn themselves with enough gold chains and pendants to pay the bills of a dozen soup kitchens. It would be hard to overestimate the amount of money Christian churches have spent over the centuries on massive cathedrals with flying buttresses, polished marble altars, stained glass windows several stories high, and gilded crosses. 

And bejeweled gold chalices. One gets a sense of just how far the church has strayed from its egalitarian roots by watching a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988). 

The Indiana Jones franchise is not known for its anthropological purity or theological astuteness.

In this film, however, Indy and a Nazi officer are shown several glistening grails lined up side-by-side. They are challenged to choose the actual vessel Jesus used at the last supper. Aligned before them are golden grails, silver grails, jewel-encrusted grails, and a nondescript clay cup.

The Nazi chooses a gold cup he thinks befitting the savior of the world and sips from it. He chooses poorly, as the movie shows. 

Shrewdly, Indy chooses the clay cup, reasoning it is the kind of tableware a Galilean wood worker would use. And, of course, he was right. It was supposed to be a surprise, because the producers knew the audience would ignore a crude goblet amid all the silver and gold.

That shows how far the image of the church has fallen since its salad days in Jerusalem.

It’s strange that the church would stray so far from its origins in poverty. Jesus could not have made it clearer that he had an overwhelming bias against the rich and in favor of the poor. When those early Christians saw the need to sell their property and share it with the poor, it might have been a radical act. But they had no doubt it was what Jesus expected. 

The question is, why have so many of us lost sight of Jesus expectations. Perhaps, as Garry Wills suggested in What Jesus Meant, we’ve lost track of the gospel message.

“For creating radicals,” Wills writes, “there is nothing like a reading of the gospels. They constantly inveigh against the rich the powerful, the exploiters. ‘Happy you who are poor, for heaven’s reign is yours …. But dire your plight, you who are rich, for your time of comfort is over (Lk 6.20, 24). The young man who has observed all Law and wants to follow Jesus is turned away in sadness ‘because his possessions were great’ (Mk 10.22). Jesus says, when the young man is gone, ‘It will be hard for those with possessions to enter into God’s reign.’ This perturbs his followers, but he repeats and strengthens his warning: ‘Little ones, it is very hard to enter into God’s reign. It is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s reign’ (Mk 10.23-25).

Jesus’ radical views on property can be traced back three millennia before he was born, to the Levitical law of shmita (sabbatical years), when after seven cycles of seven years – 49 years – the following year would be a jubilee in which property is returned to its original owners, slaves and prisoners are freed, debts are forgiven, and God’s special mercies would be manifest. (Lv 25:8-13).

If Karl Marx had remained a good Lutheran, he would have found ample scriptural proof-texting for his manifesto. He missed an opportunity to use religion as the methamphetamine of the masses.

To be fair, not everyone has lost sight of these biblical entreaties about property and wealth. Some religious Jews still follow the biblical rules of shmita in Israel, though they are in the minority and the state of Israel does not participate. 

And throughout the centuries, many monastic communities and Christian orders have made vows of poverty. 

In his blog on Ignatian Spirituality, the Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., says such vows are based on the lifestyle of Jesus. 

“Christ also lived in actual or material poverty, with a lack of material goods,” O’Brien writes. “Some people may be called to this way of living. Priests, brothers, and sisters in religious orders profess a vow of poverty, renouncing personal possessions and wealth and depending on their religious community for their material needs. God may call others to a life of material poverty without professing vows. Material poverty is not an end in itself, for abject poverty is degrading to the human person (as a survey of our world so tragically reveals). Instead, for those called to this state of life, material poverty is a means to deepen one’s commitment to the poor whom Christ held so dear.” 

In the final analysis, abject poverty is demeaning and killing millions of people worldwide. 

And so long as his manifesto remains on the trash heap of history, I think we can give Karl Marx some credit for wanting to eliminate poverty. I like to think his sense of social justice was buried in his Lutheran genes. 

But, as history has shown, the challenges facing pure socialism are overwhelming. Most of us hold on to personal property as if it was the realm of God, and the richer we are the more we grasp it. The notion of selling what we have to share with others is, if anything, more radical now than when Jesus sent the grieving young man back to his abundance.

And there are many signs that the rich still close their minds to ancient scripture and the sermons of Jesus, as they are wont to do. This week wealthy business owners are spending millions to oppose a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.

One can live on $10.10 an hour is one is willing to live at the poverty level. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that the world’s economy, and certainly our national economy, seems to be based on a rejection of thousands of years of scripture, and the words of Jesus, which warn the rich against hoarding what they have and depriving the poor of basic sustenance.

Realistically, no one really expects business and political leaders to embrace the radicalism of shmita or jubilee or the words of Jesus or the example of the earliest Christian communities.

That would be Marxist, they say.

But the radical scriptures continue to whine in our ears like annoying mosquitos, reminding us to sell what we have and give it to the poor.

And we must face the reality that the reason Jesus said there will always be poor people is that we always turn away from him in sadness.