Is the Commander-in-Chief listening to the best advice?
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 theguardian.com,
“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