Morality

Soldiers of Conscience: The War Within Those Trained to Kill

Life is easier in black and white, when things are clearly right or clearly wrong. We tend not to like the gray very much. It was certainly easier for me to hard-headedly disapprove of all war, including those who took part in it. But, working at an orphanage in India, I met Chad, a young man fresh from Iraq with an American flag tattoo, and he muddled up my clarity.

A Matter of Life and Death

In May, Sen. Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. The news sent shock waves throughout Washington and across the country. The good news is that as an elected official of financial means, Sen. Kennedy has access to the very best medical care available. Shortly after his diagnosis, a team of nationally renowned oncologists and surgeons successfully removed parts of the tumor, improving his prognosis for a longer life.

One day after this surgery, a janitor and mother of two named Ercilia Sandoval stood before 3,500 fellow members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to tell her own—very different—health-care story.

Two years earlier, Ercilia and her fellow janitors at Houston’s biggest cleaning companies won a long fight to form a union and, for the first time, get health coverage. But for Ercilia that victory would come too late. The mother of two young daughters had already been diagnosed with cancer, and without insurance she had been unable to afford lifesaving treatments. “I don’t want what happened to me—to become sick without access to medical insurance—to happen to anyone else,” she said, describing what it was like “to be rejected by a hospital despite all the great pain you’re feeling.”

Ercilia Sandoval. Ted Kennedy. Two individuals fighting for their lives in the same country, but with dramatically different experiences. The scene compels us to cry out with the prophet Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

This is the legacy of our health-care system’s moral and economic failure: nearly 10 million children without coverage; families one medical emergency away from bankruptcy; elderly and infirm people without the resources necessary to live—or die—in relative comfort and with dignity.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2008
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A Conversation on Moral Issues

A new space is opening for a conversation among evangelicals on moral issues. Earlier this spring, a group of Religious Right leaders including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and about 20 others sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals board of directors. They challenged its vice president for governmental affairs, Rich Cizik, saying he was "dividing and demoralizing the NAE" by orchestrating a "relentless campaign" opposing global warming. The letter ended by suggesting that "he be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE."

In their letter, the conservative leaders claimed, "The existence of global warming and its implications for mankind [sic] is a subject of heated controversy throughout the world." The truth, which almost everyone except them acknowledges, is there is little reasonable doubt left about the threat posed to the earth by climate change. There is an international consensus among scientists, religious leaders, business leaders, and economists that we must act, and act now, to preserve a world for our children. As Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman recently wrote: "The debate has ended over whether global warming is a problem caused by human activity. … There is now a broad consensus in this country, and indeed in the world, that global warming is happening, that it is a serious problem, and that humans are causing it."

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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Regaining a Moral Compass

From 1963 to 1966, while teaching art history at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., I was in a Catholic religious community blessed with questioning and concerned women. I was already convinced the Vietnam War was wrong—a conviction born of morality and scripture, but with little political analysis. Martin Luther King's words in spring 1967 expressed some of my consciousness: "I was a clergyman ... and ... I accepted as a commission to ... bring the ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage to bear on the social evils of our day. War is one of the major evils facing humankind."

How profoundly our lives today are molded by the racism, materialism, and militarism about which Martin spoke so powerfully. How do we hold ourselves, each other, our communities, our churches, and our nation accountable? Perhaps it is the same way we carry forward King's idea that our national identity is secondary to our spiritual identity. How do we speak to an imperial nation that assumes it is entitled to dominate and control not only the earth and seas but all of outer space? We know that it has the intention and it has the means—nuclear stockpiles with world-destroying capacity.

King's insight has been realized in the United States. Our nation's "war on terror" is but the latest example: an epidemic of violence in the service of the rich and powerful. President Bush continues the war of the powerful against the powerless, with new excuses, new imperatives, new lies. The war has cost upwards of a trillion dollars. We have experienced the hostility of the Islamic world, the anger of our allies, the diminishment of our system of government, the complicity of the media, the silence of Congress, and the apathy of citizens. War has not made us more secure; it has made us less free.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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Dreaming America

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most important speeches in American history at Riverside Church in New York City. In it he decisively and prophetically extended his public ministry beyond narrowly defined civil rights by calling for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. "'A time comes when silence is betrayal,'" preached King. "That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."

The Riverside speech (variously called "Beyond Vietnam" or "Breaking the Silence") named the sickness eating the American soul as "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism." It was a watershed moment.

King's address was drafted for him by his friend, historian Vincent G. Harding. King made minor changes, but essentially delivered Harding's original text. "It's important to know that for about as long as the war was going on, Martin was raising questions about it," Harding, a retired professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said in a recent interview. Harding and his wife, Rosemarie, often attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta when King was preaching. "It was clear that Martin was opposing the war," Harding explained, "and that he was opposing it from a deeply Christian perspective."

In smaller venues King had linked the issues of civil rights, economic justice, and peace, but he had never united the three in such a powerful and public way. He had never dissected the history of U.S. military imperialism with such thoroughness. But most strikingly, King launched his deepest, sharpest theological critique of America. No longer was he only holding America accountable to the ideals of her founding documents. Now King was addressing the mechanisms of empire—not just its bitter fruits—and holding America accountable to God.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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