Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Looking Back for a Moment

Last week I was rummaging through some old files and I found the letter that I wrote to my pastor a day after he preached a message the first Sunday after the US invaded Iraq, pathetically striving to justify the invasion on Biblical terms. In re-reading what I'd written in the outrage of the moment, I thought it rather interesting to then reflect on it over five years later. For what it's worth, here it is:

Dear Pastor Mike:

I feel compelled to offer you these responses to your message this past Sunday. All this is offered in loving challenge.

If it is possible, live at peace with everyone. If not, then Jesus instructs his followers to be different (holy) from unsaved folks by feeding and clothing one’s enemy. Startle the conventional norms of behavior and, in so doing, demonstrate God’s love. It’s something like a conspiracy of kindness! We are called to overcome evil with good, not simply resort to a different kind of evil. Saddam Hussein certainly does not deserve to continue in office, but HOW he is removed ought to be as crucial to Christ-followers as whether he is or not.

What does the Bible say about war? It depends greatly on which testament one emphasizes and how one interprets the stories. In the Old Testament the people of Yahweh experienced war. On rare occasions they were even convinced (rightly or wrongly) that their God commanded them to engage in war. Even then it was only ever a test of their obedience, not an end in itself. I believe Gideon is the norm here. He was ready to wage war with thousands of soldiers. The more he listened to God, the more God convinced him to send troops home before the battle. Finally, he had so few troops that victory seemed impossible. Then, God arranged circumstances to insure victory without any of Gideon’s men or the enemy getting killed. These are ancient stories designed to teach us about trust and obedience, not that God wants war or even condones it.

War is caused by selfishness and pride. Selfishness: If the American government was not so covetous of the second largest oil reserves in the world (in Iraq) would they be willing to put so much at risk by initiating unilateral war? Pride: If the US were not the world’s only superpower would our government be so impatient with international avenues of diplomacy?

This morning’s (March 20, 2003) New York Times included the following column by esteemed writer Bob Herbert, titled “Ready for Peace?”: “Now that U.S. strikes against Iraq have begun, we should get rid of one canard immediately, and that's the notion that criticism of the Bush administration and opposition to this invasion imply in some sense a lack of support or concern for the men and women who are under arms. The names of too many of my friends are recorded on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial for me to tolerate that kind of nonsense. I hope that the war goes well, that our troops prevail quickly and that casualties everywhere are kept to a minimum.

But the fact that a war may be quick does not mean that it is wise. Against the wishes of most of the world, we have plunged not just into war, but toward a peace that is potentially more problematic than the war itself. Are Americans ready to pay the cost in lives and dollars of a long-term military occupation of Iraq? To what end? Will an occupation of Iraq increase or decrease our security here at home? Do most Americans understand that even as we are launching one of the most devastating air assaults in the history of warfare, private companies are lining up to reap the riches of rebuilding the very structures we're in the process of destroying?
Companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and the Bechtel Group understand this conflict a heck of a lot better than most of the men and women who will fight and die in it, or the armchair patriots who'll be watching on CNN and cheering them on. It's not unpatriotic to say that there are billions of dollars to be made in Iraq and that the gold rush is already under way. It's simply a matter of fact.

Back in January, an article in The Wall Street Journal noted: ''With oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia's, Iraq would offer the oil industry enormous opportunity should a war topple Saddam Hussein. But the early spoils would probably go to companies needed to keep Iraq's already rundown oil operations running, especially if facilities were further damaged in a war. Oil-services firms such as Halliburton Co., where Vice President Dick Cheney formerly served as chief executive, and Schlumberger Ltd. are seen as favorites for what could be as much as $1.5 billion in contracts.''
There is tremendous unease at the highest levels of the Pentagon about this war and its aftermath. The president and his civilian advisers are making a big deal about the anticipated rejoicing of the liberated populace once the war is over. But Iraq is an inherently unstable place, and while the forces assembled to chase Saddam from power are superbly trained for combat, the military is not well prepared for a long-term occupation in the most volatile region in the world.

What's driving this war is President Bush's Manichaean view of the world and messianic vision of himself, the dangerously grandiose perception of American power held by his saber-rattling advisers, and the irresistible lure of Iraq's enormous oil reserves. Polls show that the public is terribly confused about what's going on, so much so that some 40 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. That's really scary. Rather than correct this misconception, the administration has gone out of its way to reinforce it.

I think the men and women moving militarily against Saddam are among the few truly brave and even noble individuals left in our society. They have volunteered for the dangerous duty of defending the rest of us. But I also believe they are being put unnecessarily in harm's way. As a result of the military buildup, there is hardly a more hobbled leader on earth at the moment than Saddam Hussein. A skillful marshaling of international pressure could have forced him from power. But then the Bush administration would not have had its war and its occupation. It would not have been able to turn Iraq into an American protectorate, which is as good a term as any for a colony.

Is it a good idea to liberate the people of Iraq from the clutches of a degenerate like Saddam Hussein? Sure. But there were better, less dangerous, ways to go about it. In the epigraph to his memoir, ''Present at the Creation,'' Dean Acheson quoted a 13th-century king of Spain, Alphonso X, the Learned: ''Had I been present at the creation I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.''

Back to your message from yesterday:

There are times when war is bound to happen. The writer of Ecclesiastes is merely being descriptive here, not prescriptive. He is not saying this is what should occur; he is saying this is what does occur. From his view, it is part of the repetition and meaninglessness of human life apart from the presence of God in human affairs.

Three legitimate reasons for war: (1) To preserve freedom. In Numbers 32:6-8 Moses is anticipating resistance by the Canaanites to the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land. He wants all of the twelve tribes to band together, support one another, and especially to trust Yahweh as a united nation at this critical juncture in their experience. He knows God has a miracle in store for the people and doesn’t want any of them to miss it. So he insists that they all stay together as they prepare to enter the land. This passage is about unity of purpose and trust in Yahweh more that it is about desiring war making. And, even if it reflects a desire for war, what does that have to do with following Christ?

(2) To defend innocent people. Justice brings joy to the righteous and terror to evil. This proverb calls God’s people to devote themselves to serving the poor and the “sinned against.” The promise is that as we focus on serving the poor of the land and meeting their needs, God will assure that this activity is honored and used to “terrorize” those with evil intent because they would otherwise continue to take advantage of the poor. This proverb makes me wonder about countries that spend a million dollars apiece on cruse missiles while cutting appropriations for social services to the poor, the young, and the elderly, because they supposedly can’t afford those expenses.

(3) To stop the spread of evil. Paul was a Roman citizen and grew to appreciate and utilize his citizenship to help spread the gospel throughout the Empire. In this context he taught Christ’s first followers to not be unnecessarily obstinate or disrespectful of the legitimate authority of the government - as far as that authority was consistent with the commands of Jesus Christ upon the life of every believer. This passage is near the top of the all-time misapplied list in the New Testament. Folks have often misused it to argue that Christians should always just do whatever their government says to do. But, there is no implication here that Christians have any obligation to obey any government directive that stands in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Hence, there is no record whatsoever of any Christian participating in war of any kind in the Roman Empire until Constantine succeeded in seducing the church into becoming subservient to the state in 312AD. From then until now the church of Jesus Christ has mistakenly seen itself as beholden to secular governments even when those governments have called Christians to do that which is profoundly antithetical to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. To grasp more of the absurdity of this scriptural misinterpretation just substitute the name Hitler where the word Emperor appears and reflect on all the Lutherans who wore Nazi uniforms, or substitute Saddam and think of the 940,000 Christians living in Iraq. So long as people maintain this interpretation of Paul’s writings, Christians of different nationalities will just keep on murdering one another in the name of one government versus another and utterly trashing the life, teaching, and name of Jesus Christ in the process.

The police, on the other hand, are a different matter. To enforce just laws within a nation in order to protect the innocent and insure public justice within a community is certainly the heart of what Paul is referring to in Romans 13. But, this is a long, long way from citing this passage as a supposed justification for the United States initiating a wildly unjust, severely immoral, utterly illegal, unilateral attack on another sovereign nation - which has mounted no credible threat to the domestic security of the United States. Even if one is willing to accept what Augustine proposed and Aquinas refined into the Just War Theory as biblically defensible (which I don’t), this attack on Iraq doesn’t even come close to satisfying the requirements of such longstanding war-making apologetics.

Jesus went into the temple and turned over the tables of the moneychangers. This was definitely the low point of the entire message. To take this one incident out of the context of Jesus’ entire public life and characterize it in such a way as to broadly suggest that Jesus was given to violence and, by extension, not really opposed to war is incredibly irresponsible manipulation of the full witness of Scripture. Jesus took a unique moment to make a dramatic demonstration of his jealous desire to see his Father’s house kept open and accessible to all who would approach it in a spirit of prayer, praise, contrition, and pure desire to trust and obey God. To those actively engaged in frustrating this purpose, Jesus boldly tipped over some wooden tables and attracted attention with a noisy whip of cords. He said some important things. He did not physically threaten anyone. He did not hit anyone. He did not harm anyone. There is no record whatsoever of Jesus resorting to violence or bodily harming anyone ever in his entire public life. Rather, we have story after story of Jesus healing people and making them physically and spiritually whole.

Jesus blessed the meek, the wronged, and the peacemakers. He taught people to overcome evil with good. When opposed by an enemy he instructed his followers to bless them, love them, and go a second mile with or for them. He taught us to destroy our enemies by making them our friends. When his own physical life was being threatened he did not defend himself. He did not fight back. He trusted God. He did not say this was an approach only for him and that his followers ought to ignore his example and act like everyone else. He told us to follow him.

Jesus exercised his authority to alter and upgrade the teachings and expectations of the Old Testament. Many times he said, “You have heard that it was said.” He told his followers what the priests and scribes of the Old Testament had taught them about many things and then he said, “But I say to you.” He had the authority to change these understandings and expectations. And, he did. He raised the bar for Christ-followers. We don’t get to keep using the Old Testament standards for some things. War is definitely one of them. “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, but I say to you do not resist an evildoer.” We are instructed to turn the other cheek. This is not wimpy behavior. Nonviolent non-resistance takes much more faith and courage than merely trusting one’s own might and striking back. You have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But, I say to you love your enemies.” How is it ever possible to claim that we are loving our enemies when we actively support or even participate in their destruction? How can dropping 500 cruse missiles on a city of 5 million (mostly) innocent human beings ever be rationalized into something that Christ’s followers can pretend is commensurate with his teachings?

Perhaps this is why the Pope, nearly all leaders of major groupings of Christians all over the world, and hundreds of millions of Christ’s followers worldwide are outraged and continuing to speak out against, and actively protest, against this war? Is this church only a “safe place” for those who have Jesus so tightly wrapped up in the American flag that they can no longer even grasp his most basic teachings about loving one’s enemy and the cost of discipleship? What is the cost of discipleship at this church? How low is the bar? Where is the pastoral challenge to seriously grapple with these issues? Why is it OK to just wave the American flag at these issues and wander on pretending that the Bible supports the unleashing of megatons of death and destruction as justifiable behavior worthy of Christian acquiescence? What about those of us who consider this “nationalistic idolatry?” Idolatry, now there’s a topic on which the Bible has a lot to say!

If you want to discuss any of this further, great. If not, I understand. It is not that I disparage other perspectives. I’ve struggled for 35 years to try to understand them and how folks can reach such conclusions about the supposed Biblical justification for violence and war. Your message is yet another such attempt and pushed some very old buttons of mine. Thanks for receiving this “push back.” In Christ’s love, Mark