The Common Good
June 2007

Discerning the Spirit of Iraq

by Rose Marie Berger | June 2007

Our children are coming home from the front lines- and they have questions.

How are we, as American Christians, to discern the spirit of the Iraq war present in our churches? When the drumbeat of war started up, our ambiguity about where our true loyalty lay became obvious. American hegemony holds the world captive, while always promising freedom and new life, and it also holds our churches captive. Are we Americans first or is our "citizenship in heaven" (Philippians 3:20)? Is our loyalty to our president and nation first or to the cross of Jesus (Luke 14:27)?

"The discernment of spirits," wrote William Stringfellow in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, "refers to the talent to recognize the Word of God in this world in principalities and persons ... transcending the moral reality of death permeating everything."

Most professed Christians in America were insufficiently prepared to distinguish loyalties. Pastors and church leaders had not discipled them in the distinctions between America and the body of Christ, had not taught them the biblical narrative of empire. To the percussive swell, we let our children "go save the world" by joining the Army, the Air Force, National Guard, and Marines. Maybe we were wistful, maybe proud. Mostly we just prayed they'd be safe. But did we tell them that it's not what Jesus would do?

Now our children are coming home from the front lines of the "war on terrorism" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, and 728 other known U.S. military bases—and they have questions.

They want to know if what they did was right. Was the enemy at which they rolled a hand grenade really worth killing? What about the car they shot into that turned out to be just a family trying to get home? "Every morning I got up and drove around looking for landmines," writes Army Spc. Darryl Anderson in Yvonne Latty's book In Conflict, "but the only way we found them was when they blew up. So every morning we were just waiting to die. Every night we could get hit by mortar attacks. It was death every day."

They saw human beings do things that no human being should ever do. In some cases, they did these things themselves. "The insurgents didn't wear uniforms, just regular clothes, so you didn't know who was the enemy," said Marine Sgt. Jaquaie McAtee. "We gave a ration to this little kid, and this man just grabbed him and slammed his neck and shoulders for the food." They want to know why good people die horrible deaths. If a good person does a very bad thing, can she be redeemed? They want to know if they are heroes or villains.

"THE DISCERNMENT OF spirits is inherently political, while in practice it has specifically to do with pastoral care," wrote Stringfellow, "with healing, with the nurture of human life, and with the fulfillment of all life."

The god of empire has always been—and is today—anti-human. It requires that we sacrifice our humanity on its altar. To redeem our children and protect the integrity of our claim that Jesus Christ is Lord, then as pastors and church leaders we must, as Walter Brueggemann frames it in his essay "Always in the shadow of the empire," recover two things: liturgical resistance and rigorous disciplines of distinction.

Both of these are deeply embedded biblical, pro-human, and radically pastoral acts. Liturgical resistance requires that every worship be a drama where we relive our exodus from empire and into the freedom of Christ. The first impulse toward liberation is the public, communal expression of pain (Exodus 2:23-25). Liturgical resistance also teaches us how to unmask the world's power and reinforces that it is in liturgy that we experience the real world as God intends.

The disciplines that distinguish us as Christians are simple and profound. We must reclaim the daily practice of reciting the great commandment and let it reorder our lives: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:28-30). This repetition will be the key to spiritual conversion. Second, we must find authentic ways to practice the second commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). This will require us reaching out to our enemies. Holding one another in our pain. Practicing penitential acts of kindness. Submitting our time, talent, and treasure to life-giving economies. It means taking Sabbath seriously.

If we can restore these two principles to Sunday mornings in American churches, then our children will begin to heal and, God willing, find themselves again. And perhaps we too will be redeemed.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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