Last July 4 weekend I came across the following church announcement:
“Our Verse of the Day is Psalm 33:12: Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. Let’s thank God for our freedom today, and pray for the safety and success for the mission of our soldiers around the world as they bring justice to the terrorists so that we can be safe and free from tyranny, here on our country’s soil.”
Typical Independence Day language, but it started me thinking: Is this the kind of language we should be speaking in the church? Is our confidence for well-being based on our military might? What about the remaining words of the same psalm?:
No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him. . . . We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield (33:16-20).
I noticed that the church announcement and suggested prayer lacked an important word: peace.
Shouldn’t our prayers go out for peace rather than victory (which equals peace at the cost of more deaths)? Certainly we should pray for the safety of our soldiers, but what about prayers for Iraqi and Afghani civilians? Many more of them are dying every day. What is Jesus’ message to us in all this?
A Thin Line
Approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 (see iraqbodycount.org). And experts agree that is a conservative estimate. One 2006 study showed the number of civilians dead at that time to already be between 400,000 and 600,000 (Lancet study, as covered in the New York Times).
Those are startling numbers. On Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 civilians died in the United States, we appropriately reacted with outrage. But somehow our outrage subsides when the innocent dead are farther away both geographically and culturally.
Given such statistics, you wonder what makes terrorism so terrible and war so legitimate. In reality, the line between terrorism and war is a thin one, as Wendell Berry notes: “The National Security Strategy defines terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.’ This is truly a distinct kind of violence, but to imply by the word ‘terrorism’ that this sort of terror is the work exclusively of ‘terrorists’ is misleading. The ‘legitimate’ warfare of technologically advanced nations likewise is premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents. The distinction between the intention to perpetrate violence against innocents, as in ‘terrorism,’ and the willingness to do so, as in ‘war,’ is not a source of comfort” (“A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States”).
Jesus as an Iraqi?
I find it alarming to see many Christians so supportive of such revenge-motivated foreign policy. In our patriotic fervor, we seem to forget Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies, not destroy them with the largest and wealthiest army the world has ever known.
“But,” we say, “Jesus was just talking about interpersonal relationships, not national politics.” Was he? The world Jesus lived in was in some ways very different from our own, but in other ways he was on the other end of a very similar context. His Middle Eastern nation was occupied by the largest superpower in the world at that time. And that empire claimed to spread peace, freedom, civilization, and security. We like to imagine Jesus as an American wearing a “God Bless America” T-shirt. In fact, we’d do better to imagine him as an Iraqi.
Many in Jesus’ audience were eager for armed revolt against Rome. It was to them that Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:39, 41). Roman soldiers felt free to remind the occupied Jewish people who was in charge with a physical blow. Roman law required people living under Roman rule to carry a soldier’s gear one mile if requested. Jesus addresses people involved in real conflicts with real governments and real soldiers, not simply interpersonal relationships.
Jesus’ entire life and ministry could be viewed as a contrast to what the world offers. In the end, about to face the might of Rome, Jesus told Pilate (Rome’s local representative), “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my servants would fight . . .” (John 18:36). He wasn’t saying that his kingdom is apolitical; rather, he was saying how his kingdom is political: “the essential difference is that in my kingdom, we do not fight to maintain the kingdom” (Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, p. 110).
New Testament scholar Marcus Borg notes that Jesus’ words would have had an unmistakable meaning in the politically violent situation of first-century Palestine: “For a public figure to speak of loving one’s enemies in such a setting would unambiguously mean to disavow the path of violence and war” (Jesus: A New Vision, p. 139). The church for its first 300 years understood this and maintained a path of nonviolence. It was only when the church went from being a minority in the Roman Empire to the official religion of the empire under Constantine that it began to endorse warfare as sometimes legitimate—indeed, even necessary.
Some will say that we can support war because in the Bible it is sometimes even sanctioned by God. John Dominic Crossan addresses this ambiguity: “The ambiguity of divine power suffuses the Christian Bible in both its Testaments and therefore presses this question for us Christians: how do we reconcile the ambiguity of our Bible’s violent and/or nonviolent God? The Bible forces us to witness the struggles of these two transcendental visions within its own pages and to ask ourselves as Christians how we decide between them. My answer is that we are bound to whichever of these visions was incarnated by and in the historical Jesus. It is not the violent but the nonviolent God who is revealed to Christian faith in Jesus of Nazareth and announced to Christian faith by Paul of Tarsus. That is how we Christians decide between a violent and nonviolent God in the Bible: Christ is the norm of the Bible, the criterion of the New Testament, the incarnation of the Gospel” (God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, pp. 94-95).
Are we to blame for not taking Jesus at his word? Marcus Borg notes that it is understandable that the church has largely denied the political thrust of Jesus’ words: “Through time the church became enculturated, and it is very difficult for an enculturated religion to stand in tension with culture. For the church to have said that following Jesus meant nonviolence would have made the church into a counterculture. Only occasionally has it been willing to be so since the time of Jesus and his earliest followers” (Jesus: A New Vision, p. 139).
Perhaps it is time for a countercultural church and message to re-emerge. In this day of multibillion-dollar war budgets, may we remember that the Bible from its very beginning calls us to bless the world, rather than rid the world of evil. The latter is God’s business, as Paul reminds us in Romans 12: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary . . . do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 19-21).