"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons [and daughters] of God.”
Matthew 5: 9 from the Beatitudes
I grew up watching casualty reports from the Vietnam War on TV. My Uncle Bill, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, was serving there. My family watched the news every evening to learn about the latest casualty reports. I was too young to understand the anxiety of my parents, but I felt the tension while Uncle Bill was deployed.
As an adult, it’s been a different story. I understand and experience things more fully and have an emotional connection to what I see and hear. That has been true for the last decade. Ten years ago, the Iraq War began. Ten years marked by conflict, violence, and loss. Ten years of debate about why we went to war and why we remained. Ten years dealing with death and injury – 4,488 U.S. deaths and 32,321 soldiers coming home with significant injuries. Suicide rates of soldiers are so high it is impossible to ignore – some while in Iraq and others after returning home. Traumatic brain injuries, grieving families, moral injury, and multiple limb loss are just a few of the constant reminders of the tremendous costs of war. The toll on the nation’s economy has been long lasting as well. The jobless rate among veterans is staggeringly high.
The human toll has been significant. But military personnel aren’t the only causalities of this war. Numbers vary, but statistics tell us more than 100,000 Iraqi citizens also have been killed and nearly 3 million have been displaced.
These figures cannot be ignored. And they are the results of war.
I don’t like war. Probably, no one does, but I am a pacifist. I believe that violence should not be an option. As a person of faith, I look for guidance from the church. I am a United Methodist pastor and our denomination has made a clear statement about war in our Social Principles. It states:
We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict.
This statement pretty much sums up my beliefs about war – about any war.
But this one felt different. For me, and for many, it was a tough one. On September 11, 2001, the U.S. was attacked by terrorists bent on hurting Americans, destroying our way of life, and crushing symbols of American pride. In the 9/11 attacks, 2,996 persons lost their lives.
Soon after these horrendous acts of terror — on September 20 — then President George W. Bush announced his "War on Terror." He laid out a new strategy of pre-emptive military action, called the “Bush Doctrine,” which helped lead us to war. The decision was also based on claims of Iraq having WMDs – weapons of mass destruction – which were later proven to be based on faulty intelligence.
The debate about how and why we got into this conflict continues to rage 10 years later. Images from the war left the TV screens long before we left the battlefield. The U.S. government forbade military coffins from being photographed as they came home. So the images we saw from the war seemed sanitized.
I am a pacifist, but I’m also a realist and know that defending your family, friends, and country from attack at times may feel like the only option. Many felt this way after the attacks on 9/11. Many wanted to punish the terrorists. I get it. But I also don’t.
Retribution and revenge seemed to drive the discussion. But the fact is if we are going to make the difficult decision to put American citizens in harm’s way, we have to have a better reason. A reason based not just on revenge, but also on facts. So I was and am against war.
But here is the tricky point. Can you be against war but support the troops? That is one of the issues for a lot of folks around this war. Many, like me, have always, always supported our troops and their families as they answer the orders of their Commander-In-Chief and superiors.
One of my long-time friends is a military spouse and her husband is a helicopter pilot who served in the War on Terror. I cannot be anything other than supportive of the troops and their families. But this conflict has strained my feelings about war significantly. So I turn to my faith and to the Bible for additional guidance.
When we read the Beatitudes in Matthew, we are reminded of the blessedness God wants for us and what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like. Many Christians believe this is the vision that is to be with the Second Coming of Christ – in the not yet. But we are also called to bring this into some kind of reality in the here and now.
The Beatitudes teach us that peacemakers are persons who put down conflict in favor of peace. We are reminded that making peace is not simply the absence of conflict — it is the presence of justice, reconciliation, and peace. Making peace means doing all we can for the benefit of others. It means creating a sense of shalom and well-being.
War and conflict are in contradiction to where this text is leading us. War and conflict are the result of not making peace. War and conflict are not what God’s kingdom is about. War and conflict should not be our first inclination; they should be our very last resort, if even then for many of us.
On this 10-year anniversary of the war in Iraq, we are left with numerous scars and losses. We also are faced with the challenge of what comes next.
When asked to submit this “special edition” piece for ON Scripture, I began writing and soon wondered how to end it. Then it hit me – this war hasn’t ended. It hasn’t ended for the soldier’s families who grieve their losses, for the troops who are trying to recover from significant injuries, for soldiers haunted by the moral injury that comes from conflict, for the Iraqi people, or for those who have been impacted in numerous ways by the war.
For many, it will never be completely over. But we can make it count for something. We can commit to being peacemakers and creating the kingdom that God envisions. We can commit to supporting our military families in every way we can. We can commit to holding our government and military leaders accountable for the decisions that they make about war and conflict. We can join in programs like the one in the accompanying video regarding Soul Repair to help veterans returning from war recover from moral injury. We can encourage our congregations and faith communities to do the same.
Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman is the Associate Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Dr. Wiseman has a book coming out in Fall of 2013 on preaching from Pilgrim Press. Her ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
Photo: Soldier with assault weapon, Sunshine Pics/ shutterstock.com