Thank the gods we don’t believe in the utterances of oracles anymore. We don’t search for omens in the entrails of sacrificed animals or believe that women in drug-induced trances can foretell our destiny. Because the ancient Greeks fell for this superstitious mumbo jumbo, they were led into two disastrous wars that had devastating consequences. The great anti-war playwright Euripides offers his critique of wars and oracles in his play, Iphigenia at Aulis, now playing at the Court Theater in Chicago. My talented friend Jeanne T. Arrigo is in the chorus of this production and I have her and the Court Theater to thank for bringing this ancient gem to my attention.
Two Oracles, Two Devastating Wars
Iphigenia at Aulis was first performed a year after Euripides’ death in 406 B.C.E. He wrote it in response to Athens’ nearly 30-year war against Sparta. Known as the Peloponnesian War, it ended in 404 B.C.E. with Athens’ surrender, her fleet destroyed, and the city starving after a four-month siege. Euripides felt that part of the reason Athens went to war in the first place was that the Oracle at Delphi had predicted victory “if they did their best.” Not only did this encourage the outbreak of the war, but it probably made a negotiated settlement impossible. Because why would anyone cease the pursuit of victory if victory has been assured? The Oracle’s prophecy lent an aura of inevitability to the outcome of the war, which in effect robbed the Athenians of their agency. They marched to war like automatons in service of the gods.
To convince Athenians that they were on a path of self-destruction, Euripides dramatized a scene from the beginning of a previous bad military adventure, the Trojan War. As the Homeric story is retold by Euripides, the Greek armies are assembled in the port city of Aulis. Agamemnon is their general, ready to lead a thousand ships to attack Troy to recover Helen, who has run off with young Paris of Troy. The nation has mobilized to avenge this insult to Helen’s husband, Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother) and all of Greece.
Unfortunately for Agamemnon, there is no wind. The soldiers soon tire of waiting and, despite their war lust, they are threatening to go home. But an Oracle has foretold that Artemis will raise the winds and bring certain victory on one condition: that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her. Under pressure from the troops and his own lust for glory, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter and the thousand ships are launched. The war is on, and the play ends with the fleet sailing eagerly across the sea.
I write this essay on the eve of a US led air campaign that marks “the biggest direct military intervention in Syria since the crisis began more than three years ago.” There is no denying that ISIS/ISIL has captured the attention of the world through its religiously inspired acts of violence. The atrocities committed in recent months by ISIS/ISIL have left countless people of faith—including many devout Muslim leaders across the world—speechless.
Yet, one of the central aspects of religiously inspired violence is that it rails against silence. Whether it is Christian violence in Nigeria and Uganda, Hindu violence in Western India, Jewish violence in Gaza, or Islamic violence in Indonesia and Syria, acts of terror demand denunciation. The ubiquity of religiously inspired violence across cultures and religious traditions lends credibility to the belief of some that religion itself is the problem. My own Christian tradition treats our inclination to harm and even kill one another as symptomatic of our fallen natures; it is a mark of our propensity to evil. This is what makes religious violence so pernicious: it twists our one remedy so that it exacerbates the disease.
Violence—whether it arises out of a Quentin Tarantino film or a YouTube video of decapitation—captures our attention. Even as we are repulsed by the scope of human depravity, such acts of violence consume our attention. Scenes of violence are like a mirror into the darkest parts of our soul: we cannot bear the images we see, but neither can we turn away.
Here at Sojourners we have written a lot about nonviolence. We take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We believe that violence begets violence, or as Jesus put it, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Personally, I take seriously the words of René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, that we are now “confronted with a perfectly straightforward and even scientifically calculable choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.”
Many Christians look to the Bible to justify divinely sanctioned violence against our enemies. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Christians are not Biblians. We are Christians. As Christians, we should be putting Jesus first. Not Deuteronomy. Not Joshua. Not Judges. Not David. Not Solomon. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not the Bible.
And Jesus calls us to nonviolence. As one of the early Christians stated, the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent love that embraces our enemies, is the way of the cross and the world thinks that way is foolish.
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.
I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.
During a recent visit to Kabul’s Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War, the staff shared with us their sense of what's happening around the country, derived from the reports of staff working at several dozen clinics and at their main hospitals in two other provinces. They described Kabul as "a bubble." They told us full-scale wars are being fought between quite heavily armed forces in both eastern and southern Afghanistan, although the news coverage that goes beyond Afghanistan generally pertains to Kabul. The groups fighting the Afghan government include various warlords, the Taliban, drug kingpins, and foreign fighters, some of whom may be strategizing ways to cut off the roads to Kabul. The Kabul “bubble” can be quite vulnerable.
The borders now vanishing in the Middle East – the most radical transformations of the map here since the post-WWI Sykes Picot agreement – are being redrawn in chaos and fear. The bubbles that burst here are the hopes for peace in a world avid for control of this region and its resources. Unfortunately, durable structures of separation and domination make it difficult for many young Afghans to fulfill their longings to connect meaningfully, peacefully, and stably with a saner world united under one blue sky.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12
War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?
These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?
Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.
VATICAN CITY — As he dispatches a top aide to war-torn Iraq this week, Pope Francis made his most impassioned plea yet for the world to halt the “slaughter” of Christians and other religious minorities by Islamic extremists.
“The news coming from Iraq leaves us incredulous and appalled,” Francis told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, as he cataloged the brutal “violence of every kind” that has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and left women and children dead and dying.
“All this seriously offends God and seriously offends humanity,” the pontiff declared. “You cannot bring hatred in the name of God. You cannot make war in the name of God!”
Yet even as Francis called on the international community to find “an efficient political solution that can stop these crimes,” the Vatican also tried to make peace with the idea that U.S. military strikes that began last week were necessary and working.
A London theater is refusing to host the UK Jewish Film Festival because it receives partial funding from the Israeli Embassy.
But the theater’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, the English-born daughter of Sri Lankan parents, issued a statement Tuesday saying that because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the theater’s board decided not to host the festival under its current sponsorship arrangement.
“The festival receives funding from the Israeli embassy and given the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, we feel it inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved,” she said in a statement. “We offered to provide alternative funding to cover the loss of the contribution from the Israeli embassy. However, the UKJFF decided it was not willing to decline sponsorship from the Israeli embassy and, to our regret, withdrew the festival from The Tricycle.”
Last week, here in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers welcomed activist Carmen Trotta, from New York, who has lived in close community with impoverished people in his city for the past 25 years, serving meals, sharing housing, and offering hospitality to the best of his ability. Put simply and in its own words, his community, founded by Dorothy Day, exists to practice “the works of mercy” and to “end the works of war.” We wanted to hear Carmen’s first impressions of traveling the streets of Kabul on his way from the airport to the working class neighborhood where he’ll be staying as the APVs’ welcome guest.
He said it was the first time he’d seen the streets of any city so crowded with people who have no work.
Carmen had noticed men sitting in wheelbarrows, on curb sides, and along sidewalks, unemployed, some of them waiting for a day labor opportunity that might or might not come. Dr. Hakim, the APV’s mentor, quoted Carmen the relevant statistics: the CIA World Fact Book uses research from 2008 to put Afghanistan’s unemployment rate at 35 percent — just under the figure of 36 percent of Afghans living beneath the poverty level. That’s the CIA’s unemployment figure. Catherine James, writing in The Asian Review this past March, noted that “the Afghan Chamber of Commerce puts it at 40%, the World Bank measures it at 56% and Afghanistan’s labor leaders put it at a shocking 86%.”
The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence.
There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight.
During my recent visit to Gangjeong, on Jeju Island, South Korea, where a protest community has struggled for years to block construction of a U.S. military base, conversations over delicious meals in the community kitchen were a delightful daily event. At lunchtime on my first day there I met Emily and Dongwon, a young and recently married couple, both protesters, who had met each other in Gangjeong. Emily recalled that when her parents finally travelled from Taiwan to meet her partner, they had to visit him in prison.
Dongwon, who is from a rural area of South Korea, had visited Gangjeong and gotten to know the small protest community living on the Gureombi Rock. Drawn by their tenacity and commitment, he had decided to join them. When a barge crane was dredging the sea in front of Gureombi Rock, Dongwon had climbed up to its tip and declined to come down. On February 18, 2013, a judge sentenced him to one year in prison for the nonviolent action.
America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far — despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20–21)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
All nations use propaganda to tell half-truths and spread misinformation about their enemies, which should be honestly challenged. Even so, it is also true that we have real enemies in this world, as individuals, groups, and nations. To assume otherwise is foolish, from the perspective of history, certainly, but also in light of good theology about evil as part of the nature of the human condition. According to the Bible, even our faith communities will encounter enemies. Jesus’s teaching assumes that we will have enemies, and he teaches us how to treat them. In the passages above, Jesus and Paul the Apostle offer guidance for more effective ways of dealing with our enemies. It seems to be clear that our habit of going to war against them is increasingly ineffective. For the past several years, we have found ourselves in a constant state of war with “enemies” who are very hard to ﬁnd or completely defeat.
On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought of my father, who died several years ago. James Emerson Wallis, Sr. was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from college at the University of Michigan, and was married — all on the same June day in 1945! After a very quick honeymoon, my Dad was sent out almost immediately to the Pacific as the engineering officer on a destroyer minesweeper. I heard most about that day, and the days that followed, while sitting with my father on the benches at the World War II Memorial shortly after it opened in Washington, D.C. I soon realized why there were so many benches there — so old war veterans could sit down for a while, even for hours, to remember and tell their stories to the ones they most love.
For his 80th birthday, our family invited my dad to go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He said he wanted to go to Oxford, England, to see the where his favorite Christian author C.S. Lewis lived — and then he wanted to go to Normandy, where so many of his high school buddies died on D-Day. He wanted to go to those beaches and to that special place himself to see the memorials to his friends. So we did both. My father got to sit at the desk of C.S. Lewis with a big smile on his face. Then I took my dad and my father-in-law to that very solemn place where American and Allied soldiers paid such a heavy human cost in perhaps the most historically significant military action in history.
Oh, Sarah Palin.
So you’ve most likely heard Sarah Palin used baptism as a metaphor for waterboarding terrorists. (I mean I heard and I’m in Australia!) I found out when fellow neo-Anabaptist Tyler Tully sent me his reflections. Many are blogging thoughtful responses. But more and more this is my conviction: the best critique of the bad is the practice of the beautiful. So I want to testify to the beauty of the baptisms I was a part of on Sunday.
I do so knowing that the despondence and darkness I feel when baptism is equated with the diabolical is driven out in the joy of the mystery of what happen when we say yes to the Holy Spirit by wading in the water. Our new sister Natha, brother Ky, and I met separately in the End Poverty movement. Both of them, in quiet different ways, found themselves being found by God while looking for a better world. And in Jesus they found the world they were looking for has started! Without a dry eye in the community that surrounded them on Sunday, they shared their wanderings in the wilderness before following Jesus through the waters.