I am a good person.
We make this declaration from time to time, usually when we have done something wrong or when we want to put distance between ourselves and the evil Other. However, calling ourselves good is a dangerous pronouncement, one that even Jesus refused to make. Jesus said: "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18). To think of ourselves as good is dangerous because it hides the fact that we all miss the mark.
Lent is a time when we face the fact of our own shortcomings. If the goodness and the glory of God is the target, then all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We miss the mark by what we do and by what we leave undone.
David C. Maguire, professor of ethics at Marquette University, calls upon Americans to do some hard introspection in his book The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-war Legacy. It is a scathing jeremiad against U.S. Empire and a foreign policy too quick to go to war.
Maguire's thesis is: "that state-sponsored violence can only be justified in a community context with legal and internationally enforceable restrictions comparable to the restraints put upon our police." He thinks we can get to this goal when we remove the glamour from war and see it for the stupid, useless, insane evil that it is. Maguire believes, as do I, that war is a "failure of imagination." It throws extreme violence against a situation that may well have been solved through the unglamorous, difficult drudgery of peacemaking.
His critique, however, is not only against government. His critique is against us. Speaking of going to war in Iraq, he says: "The political leaders in this farce were twice elected by American voters. Dumbness is not restricted to those in charge. 'We the People' are also infatuated by the allures of quick-fix violence." He reminds us that "we get the leaders we deserve."
He calls our attention to the size of the military budget and lists ways the money could be better used. He reminds us of the constitutional requirement that wars ought to be declared by Congress. Any war that is not declared is illegal, and as citizens we are responsible for illegal wars waged in our name. Unlike me, he is not ready to consign just war theory to the history of ideas. However, he does outline how just war principles have been misused and manipulated for the purpose of going to war. He reminds us that Christianity was a pacifist religion until Constantine.
Mercifully, he leaves us with hope. And that hope is justice. It is a politics of peacemaking. It is our praying tears. It is trust in life-power, diplomacy, imagination, and the human capability to dream, to vision a peaceful world.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.