Could the United States ever do something so heinous that it would become morally necessary for a foreign military to drop bombs on my house? This is the question that was running through my mind on November 11, 2018, when Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, Calif. —a congregation of around 250 souls who were kind enough to invite me to be their pastor five years ago — voted overwhelmingly to embrace pacifism by declaring itself to be a peace church.
While the process of becoming a peace church is something we entered into at the behest of our denomination, which invited congregations to engage in conversations about peacemaking, it was a natural step for us to take. The church has protested every American war since Vietnam, and has been active in opposing every weapon system from handguns to hydrogen bombs. Geographically, we’re close enough both to Berkeley and to Silicon Valley that most of the congregation’s older members can provide an impromptu oral narrative that connects the tie-dyed activism of the 1960s to the social media-driven organizing employed by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Still, it took us two years of conversation and study to come up with a statement of pacifism. We wanted a statement that reflected who we are as a congregation, and that might be meaningful beyond the social and political isolation of the community where we live, in what might accurately be described as the left ventricle of America’s bleeding heartland.
Our decision to declare ourselves a peace church took a long time partly because we had to wrestle with whether or not we would allow for the possibility that the use of military violence might be necessary to prevent genocide, gross violations of human rights, or other crimes against humanity. Most American Christians believe military violence to be a regrettable necessity: necessary because some evil is so awful that it only can be addressed using military might, and regrettable because modern warfare always involves the death of innocent civilians.
This certainly is how an overwhelming majority of Americans justify and even celebrate the United States’ involvement in WWII, viewing the Allied response to Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan as both morally necessary and practically unavoidable. When America fought wars in Korea and Vietnam, we enumerated the evils of Soviet Communism. When the United States fought two wars against Iraq, we reminded ourselves constantly that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. To support our longstanding military campaign in Afghanistan, we point to the misogyny and religious bigotry of the Taliban; and should the crisis in Venezuela morph into another American war, politicians and pundits will speak of the sins of Nicolás Maduro, and call the war “just.”
But if Christians are going to be guided by the ethics of Jesus, then we must treat others in the same way we ourselves would want to be treated. We need to invoke part two of the answer Jesus gave when asked to name the greatest commandment: loving our neighbors in the way we would love ourselves. This brings me back to this essay’s opening question. If we believe offending nations in far off places sometimes commit atrocities that necessitate a response from the United States’ military, is it then possible for the United States to do something so heinous that it would be morally necessary for a foreign military to bomb my house?
This is not an abstract question. The United States committed genocide against Native Americans. This nation enslaved millions of Africans. It invaded Mexico and conquered a third of its territory. It engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Chinese Americans in the western states. It sent Japanese American citizens to concentration camps during WWII. We are the only nation to have detonated nuclear weapons during a war. We set up a series of laws and policies that have kept brown and black citizens poor and powerless. We have incarcerated more people than any other nation in the history of the world, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.
The wars we have started in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused the deaths of more than a million souls, most of them civilians, and many of them children. And speaking of children, the ongoing American policy of detaining migrant children who have been forcibly separated from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border is a travesty so great, it might not be an exaggeration to call it a crime against humanity.
I cannot find it in my heart to approve of the idea that I, or anyone I know, should atone for America’s past and current sins by being on the receiving end of a bombing campaign, and if I’m going to take seriously the most basic ethical directives of my faith, then I cannot support the use of military violence to punish any other nation’s crimes. Pacifism is my only option. This is the conclusion my congregation reached last fall on the centenary of the armistice that ended the war that was supposed to end all wars but didn’t.
As one war leads into another in the Middle East, as the war in Afghanistan becomes old enough to vote, and as our nation’s political leaders continue to remind us that “all options are on the table” with regard to Venezuela, the time has come for Christians to reconsider our historic tendency to approve of war without considering the consequences of military violence. If the human race is to endure much longer with even a modicum of its sanity in tact, then pacifism cannot just be for hippies any more.