“Love your enemies.” I’m reflecting on this, the hardest of Jesus’ commandments, as I grieve my own nation’s policies of war, exclusion, vengeance, and cruelty — policies envisioned through the lens of enmity. The lens of enmity warps our vision, inverting it so that the outside world is obscured by our inward fears. It contorts the human faces in front of us into monsters. It magnifies our own pain and obstructs that of others. It blinds us with lies.
Don’t expect a peaceful scene of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus when you open a Christmas card from Doctors of the World.
The British branch of the humanitarian group has opted to set the characters of the creche in the midst of Mideast crises. On one card, Mary and Joseph are leaning over the baby Jesus, as a missile traverses a starry night.
“Christmas is a time people contemplate the world,” the group said in its online introduction to the cards. “Doctors of the World’s cards seek to remind the public that this year war has forced millions from their homes, and they really need our help.”
Hacksaw Ridge is an intensely violent film about pacifism. That may seem like an oxymoron, but here, context is everything. Mel Gibson’s World War II film is about the pacifism of real-life conscientious objector Desmond Doss. Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who served as an army medic and saved the lives of his fellow soldiers without once picking up a gun.
We should have no fear of making an apology, which is the outward symbol of an inward change of heart acknowledging and renouncing our violence. We should apologize not only in Hiroshima, but in Nagasaki, Vietnam, Fallujah, Kunduz — around the world, and upon our own shores, with reparations to Native and African Americans.
“Down by the Riverside” comes out of the same time in the history of our nation that the lingering divisions of Civil War did, and it’s a reminder to us that our hope and calling as children of God is to leave off studying war.
I believe that a Christian can nonetheless honor those who have fallen in war. They are casualties not only of the arms of a foe, but also of the failure of humanity to build a better peace. Those who hold arms take on not only the burden of risking their lives, but are also made to bear those first poisoned fruits whenever nations or radical groups turn to the sword instead of the plowshare.
WITH THE RECENT decision to open combat positions in the U.S. armed forces to women, Selective Service registration is back in the news, in the courts, and in Congress. While much of the debate has focused on issues of gender—will young women be required to register?—the problems with draft registration are extensive and worthy of more thorough consideration.
For many people of faith and people of conscience, questions around Selective Service registration are not new, and, ethically speaking, nothing is different now that women may be part of the equation. For many, the questions around Selective Service registration have long been ones of preparation for war, militarization of our communities, and coercion of individual conscience.
The Selective Service act of 1917 launched the modern American version of the government raising an army in a time of war. In 1975, following the Vietnam War, draft registration was suspended, but it was reinstated under President Carter in 1980 and continues today. There is no option to register as a conscientious objector, no matter one’s religious beliefs.
Over the last 35 years, millions of young men have violated the law by failing to register. Only 20 of them have been prosecuted for the felony offense—19 of those were resisting for reasons of faith or conscience.
The last indictment for failure to register was filed in 1986. The government thought it would prosecute a handful of resisters to set an example and encourage compliance. The strategy backfired. When these conscientious objectors were interviewed on the evening news, claiming allegiance to a higher moral law, noncompliance with registration actually increased, much to the government’s dismay. It had underestimated the power of conscience. It failed to take into account a universal truth: When we follow the counsel of our conscience, we tend to make better decisions.
AS I WRITE this, one week after the beginning of “Desert Storm,” the networks have returned to their regularly scheduled programming, responding to polls the third day of the war indicating that Americans were tiring of the coverage. (Considering what we don’t hear, “coverage” seems a wholly appropriate euphemism—just try to verify reports beginning to leak out of the war zone of 100,000 or 200,000 civilian casualties.) War news has become a mere refrain—“Allied forces continued today to pound Iraq ...”—punctuated with videotaped missile strikes or bemasked reporters and the horrific wailing of air raid sirens.
For his final State of the Union address, President Obama delivered a characteristically eloquent and passionate speech. He issued a heartfelt call for unity and cooperation in a country whose political climate is just a few notches short of civil war. He asked us to consider how we might move forward as one nation, affirming our highest ideals rather than the hateful rhetoric of would-be despots.
Obama’s final State of the Union was in many ways a masterpiece of American political theater. He reminded us of the best of our tradition, calling us to live up to our history of welcoming the outsider and being a land of opportunity for all people. Despite the fact that this canonical history is to a great degree aspirational rather than actual, I was at many points uplifted to hear the president invite us to live into the more beautiful aspects of the American Dream.
National Geographic magazine recently named Mary, the mother of Jesus, “the most powerful woman in the world” as an appraisal of her ongoing influence and popularity. But do Mary’s words and example have a prayer of being heard and effecting change in this time of war?
Indeed, this is war. America has effectively been engaged in continuous warfare since the weeks after September 11, 2001. In a few decades we’ll learn what happens when whole generations of people grow up and take charge of a society that has waged war their entire lives.
Attempts to tone down the descriptions we use for warfare or the way we conceptualize the present conflict don’t change anything. No end is in sight. Others turn up the rhetoric: after the San Bernardino shooting, at least one presidential candidate insisted the USA now finds itself in “the next world war.” Another one puffed up his chest and boasted of his resolve to “carpet bomb” people. We hear this stuff so often, we’ve become numb to its magnitude.
The British Parliament voted Dec. 2 to begin a bombing campaign in Syria in order to disrupt ISIS.
The vote took place after a contentious ten-hour debate in the House of Commons. Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments that those opposed to the bombing campaign are “terrorist sympathisers” hung in the background of the debate.
It is so easy to read Mark and think of war as far off — especially if you are someone living in a neighborhood or region that has a semblance of peaceful times. For non-military families and organizations it is easy to miss that “wars and rumors of wars” means that families, perhaps right next door to us, are bracing for the possibility that parents or children may be leaving soon.
The portion of our population in the military is staggering. According to 2013 reports, approximately 2,220,412 of our population were on active duty in the armed forces and reserves. Family members out-numbered military personnel 1.4 to 1. There were 689,344 spouses reported and more than 1.2 million dependent children living in active duty families.
As he poured the gallon jug of kerosene over his head, onlookers reacted with disbelief. Before anyone knew what to do, he lit a match. In one terrible instant, 31-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison set himself ablaze in front of the Pentagon, just 40 feet below the 3rd floor window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Moments before ignition, Morrison passed his 11-month-old daughter, Emily, to a bystander. His wife and two other children were in Baltimore that day, unaware of what this young husband and father had planned.
Though his terrifying act of self-destruction, Morrison brought the Vietnam War home to a country that was still largely unaware of the widespread atrocities taking place in Southeast Asia. It was hard for most Americans to comprehend the true human cost of U.S. carpet bombing, and the incineration of whole families in the name of peace and security. Even the U.S. military officials leading the war effort did not understand on a visceral level what it meant to burn human beings alive in Vietnam.
Norman Morrison provided a live demonstration.
Tall, lanky, cheerful, and confident, Esmatullah easily engages his young students at the Street Kids School, a project of Kabul’s Afghan Peace Volunteers, an antiwar community with a focus on service to the poor. Esmatullah teaches child laborers to read. He feels particularly motivated to teach at the Street Kids School because, as he puts it, “I was once one of these children.”
Esmatullah began working to support his family when he was 9 years old. Now, at age 18, he is catching up on school.He has reached the tenth grade, takes pride in having learned English well enough to teach a course in a local academy, and knows that his family appreciates his dedicated, hard work.
When Esmatullah was nine, the Taliban came to his house looking for his older brother. Esmatullah’s father wouldn’t divulge information they wanted. The Taliban then tortured his father by beating his feet so severely that he has never walked since. Esmatullah’s dad, now 48, has never learned to read or write. There are no jobs for him.
“U.S. military intervention is the problem, not the solution. Since the U.S. started bombing Iraq and Syria last year, ISIS has grown stronger.”
In the months since Cortright’s charge the world has witnessed millions of Syrian citizens fleeing the conflict. Having saturated the capacity of neighboring nations to accept refugees, displaced Syrians have continued north through Turkey and Eastern Europe, en route to Germany and neighboring countries. In September, Russia inserted itself into the Syrian military calculus, offering military support for, it claimed, the Assad regime’s fight against ISIS. Instead Russian bombs showered insurgent Syrian rebel forces. Recent reports confirm that Russia is actually helping Assad retake Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, from insurgent forces, with an Iranian assist.
In moments like these it is tempting to stand in solidarity with the disciple Peter, who tried to defend the helpless with military might. When Jesus was seized by temple police, Peter took out his blade and sliced off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus. (Matt. 26:51-56, Luke 22:50, John 18:10-11). Jesus stopped him.
Our class studying terrorism found itself under terrorist attack.
You might expect these military men would be first in line calling for the use of force. You would be wrong. Veterans of the first Iraq war, they, like Gen. Colin Powell, warned that starting a war would be easy, but accomplishing anything good by the use of force in the region would be hard. Military attacks would "rearrange the rubble" and incite retribution and further cycles of violence. They urged other responses — political engagement, diplomacy, [and] legal and financial instruments.
As advisors to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, we also urged using “just peace” methods. Pope — now Saint — John Paul II urged President Bush not to invade Iraq but to pursue a just peace. The U.S. invasion would de-stabilize the entire region, cause worse bloodshed, and do more harm than good.
Today, as then, the military and religious leaders agree. We ought to notice.
Just as the Treaty of Versailles crushed the Germans after WWI to become the resentment stream [from which] the Nazis flowed, so the Sykes-Picot [Agreement] of the same time crushed the Muslim Middle East under colonialism, followed by dictatorships, then deepened by the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
We can all lament or question the necessary violence required to stop IS brutality. [But] many of our church traditions had blessed as “necessary” the waves of past violence that helped create the poisoned well [from which] the IS flows.
Turning to theology — Joseph, Elisha, and Jesus stood in similar rivers of death yet turned to life.
The Syrian crisis is escalating in unnerving ways with the arrival of Russian troops and the beginning of direct Russian military intervention. What had been a local and regional humanitarian disaster now risks becoming a superpower confrontation between Russia and the United States. Undoubtedly the introduction of Russian firepower on the scene will bring more civilian suffering, dislocation, and death.
If I were looking for handles for prophetic preaching on the Syria situation, I might select the following.
Pope Francis is not an innovator in his approach to the topic of nuclear weapons (though he did extend the logic of earlier ethical thought). The consistent teaching of the Roman Catholic Church since Pope John XXIII has been that the use of nuclear weapons in war is immoral because it conflicts with the principles of just war theory. Problematically for the principles, the violence wrought through nuclear war is extensive enough that there can be plausible victor in a nuclear exchange, and no chance to protect noncombatants from becoming involved. In short, the church teaches, the use of nuclear weapons is indiscriminate and always disproportionate to the good that can be hoped to be achieved.
Pope Francis' whole papal agenda was brought into focus by Dr. Love when she summarized his mission as care for the three 'P's — his concern for the poor, for the planet, and for peace. Various elements of this are obvious from his Laudato Si', among other addresses and initiatives, but all three of these come together in Francis' concern to see a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons and potential of nuclear catastrophe.
There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the situation in South Sudan. But as I saw on my trip, there are also reasons to be hopeful. Working for a faith-based organization provides many opportunities for me to not only reflect on my faith but also put it in to action in my day-to-day work. While I grew up outside of a specific congregation, my parents instilled in me from an early age the importance of helping those in need, no matter their race, religion, or any other difference because we are all equal in the eyes of God. It’s this idea, paired with my love of learning about cultures, which put me on this path of working for an organization like Lutheran World Relief. I feel blessed because I wake up every day excited to go to work. While there are many daunting challenges in the relief field, I chose to see the good when possible because if you look closely, hope is there in even in the darkest of places.
Here are a few inspiring highlights from what I witnessed in South Sudan.
The decision to focus just on the Christian relationships takes away from the complex and morally grey issues surrounding war. As a younger viewer, I left the film with a series of questions: did the directors think the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was justified? Should we have left at an earlier time? How do we deal with the ethical atrocities that were committed by U.S. forces, such as the use of napalm?
While Little Boy and Faith of Our Fathers are films made by different teams and creators with different interests, they both reflect an intrinsic tendency in the Christian film industry to "clean things up." Both films ignore the darker moral implications of the symbols they choose. While the filmmakers clearly want to remember the people who fought in these wars, their attempts at cleaning up history so that it’s family friendly doesn’t do the veterans the justice they deserve.