Above the Fray from Beneath

The infantry advanced,

The artillery it rumbled. 

A Great War was raging

Even stout hearts now they stumbled. 

Low on the battlefield

Beneath the trench and wire

Stood this tiny order

Surrounded by blasts and fire. 

Upon it emerged one

Too small to see at first glance,

Not possible to hear,

Calmly speak as bullets danced,

“You’re clearly dangerous,

Though that will not deter me.

I will carry on here,

Your fued does not concern me.”

So on that bloody day

But one maintained his honor.

To choose one evil side

The anthill did not bother.

And when the smoke had cleared

A sea of great things killed,

Just one thing was created,

What the ant did build.

The Arrogance of Meddling with Foreign Affairs

Scene 1

Civilian A: “Hey, your neighbors seem really dysfunctional. I hear them yelling, sometimes the kids leave late at night, there might be some pretty bad dynamics over there.”

Civilian B: “Yeah, but what do I know? It’s a complex relationship and I have a hard time believing I’d help by butting in. There are a few generations of dysfunction involved, and I wouldn’t know where to begin. I don’t feel right just going and knocking on the door and trying to insert myself into the conversation. Sadly, I probably can’t help them as an outsider.”

Scene 2

Civilian A: “Hey, that country on the other side of the world, the name of which I can’t remember or pronounce, seems pretty messed up. I have no idea if it is or not, since I can’t speak the language and I’ve never been there or seen any firsthand accounts, but it just kinda seems like one of those messed up places. Maybe you should go over and, you know, make it better with some guns and stuff?”

Military Person B: “Yeah, I’m pretty confident I get the dynamics of a few million people with really diverse culture, history, language, and religion, as well as decades of interlacing political institutions. I’ve never studied it, but I do know how to yell and point guns. I’m sure if I fly over unannounced, kick in a few doors, and bring several thousand menacing-looking friends who are full of adrenaline and have no idea about conflict resolution techniques we can sort things out in no time. I’m a natural helper, and I think they’ll appreciate me coming to help them sort things out.”

The Worst Protection

You feel safe in your neighborhood, but worry about the small chance of a break-in or act of vandalism. To protect yourself from these risks, you pay a security company to look after your house. It costs a little more than you’d like, but you determine it’s worth it.

They put an unarmed guard in front of your house at night, just to keep an eye out. It seems a bit unnecessary, but you rest easier knowing he might deter would be thieves. The guards start coming earlier and staying longer. It seems silly to have them there before sundown, but you ignore it. Soon, they’ve got someone there almost around the clock. Then they send you a bill with a new higher rate for their services. You suggest going back to night only guards, but they assure you this is necessary to protect you, and also tell you the neighborhood is getting a bit more dangerous. You pay.

The next week, not only do they have a guard around the clock, but he’s armed. Then there’s two or three patrolling at a time. Rates go up again. You’ve been hearing more stories about how dangerous the neighborhood is, so you pay. Before long, they have a constant cadre of armed guards patrolling not just your sidewalk, but the whole neighborhood. They start randomly knocking on your neighbors’ doors and searching their houses for anything they might use against you. They set up permanent stations throughout the area, manned 24/7. Guards constantly patrol and conduct random searches, without permission, and occasionally they cage or kill someone. They assure you; there was reason to believe these neighbors had it in for you. It’s a jungle out there. They raise their rates.

Some of your neighbors object. Some devise ways to protect from being searched or bullied. All become suspicious of you, and a little angry. After all, the guards are invoking your name when they do this. The more the neighbors resist or lash out at the guards, the more the company explains just how unsafe you are unless you purchase the latest upgrade. You do. They deploy more street walkers. They pre-emptively kill and cage more neighbors. It seems a fight breaks out every day. Bands of neighbors form for the sole purpose of combatting you and your security team. Their children grow up afraid of you and they hate you, and your children, for it.

The company says more is needed; threats can come from anywhere. Now guards are groping your guests and your children each day before they enter or exit your house. They search your house on occasion, just to be sure your conspiring neighbors don’t have an inside man. They treat you like a suspect on your own property. You pay the new fee with the only credit card you haven’t yet maxed out.

Every day you wake up scared of your neighbors, suspicious of your guests, leery of your own children, and irritated by the guards who may or may not rummage through your belongings. You juggle money around just to keep the lights on, meanwhile the guards roll around in tanks, thanks to your borrowed money. You remind yourself that they’re here to protect you from an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. It’s worth it. Sure, they could cut some costs, but it’s a struggle to convince them of anything, and it’s a little intimidating to try. Besides, what’s a few dollars overspent compared to the imminent danger you’d face if they scaled back too far?

One day it hits you: you’re not safer. You’re paying a lot of money, not to insure you against unlikely violence, but to stir it up. You’re paying to create enemies, not defend against vandalism. You’re paying to be treated not like a customer, but a criminal in your own home. You’ve been ripped off. You have fewer options when it comes to social circles, since you’ve made a lot of enemies. You can’t travel down certain streets, because there your name has become a byword. You’ve learned to fear your neighbors and you’re not really sure why, or what threat they pose except to the guards that harass them.

You fire the company and begin the long task of putting your life back together.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy in the real world. You can’t fire those that provide supposed security. You have to pay, and you have to obey, or else. Don’t be mistaken: just because it’s done on a grander scale and wrapped in a lot of fuzzy feelings and national myths, doesn’t make it different from the neighborhood story above. States are supposed to provide protection; instead they poke people with sticks and incite them to violence.

The United States has enemies. I do not have enemies. There is no one in a far flung place in the world looking at a map and saying, “Here, on the Atlantic coast where the Cooper and Wando rivers come together. The people who have chosen to live on this bit of land are terrible. Let’s invade them. Let’s kill them.” Every international threat to me is a threat to me because I am associated, whether I like it or not, with the United States government.

Acts of terrorism and war are strategic acts. They are intended to pressure the state into changing its policies, or to make it pay for previous policies. Attackers know that the state ultimately responds to the views of its people and the interests that form around it. They attack civilians because they believe it creates impetus for the state to do what they want. We are the pawns in the game of states. We are at risk because we are seen as leverage with which to manipulate the political class.

The state is often defended as necessary to secure individuals against foreign aggression. Yet foreign aggression has no target if there is no state. The state does not make us safer, it makes us less safe. It kills in our name, with our money. It harasses us in our own country in the name of protecting us. It makes us suspicious of people we’d otherwise never know, or know only through Tweets or peaceful commercial interactions. It makes us hated.

The sooner we can forge an identity separate from the states that claim to protect us, the safer we will be. If the state is a kind of security provider, or insurance against international aggression, it’s the worst form of protection I can imagine. You wouldn’t stand for a company that marauded through the neighborhood in your name; you shouldn’t stand for a nation that does either.

The Things That Make for Peace

(Originally posted here.)

“I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” – Psalm 120:7

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” – Luke 19:41-42

“All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.” – Thomas a Kempis

I recently heard praise among churchgoers for the movie, “Act of Valor”, a movie about Navy SEAL’s funded in large part by the Navy itself. (And, judging by the previews, essentially a military recruitment film.)  There is even a Bible study that coincides with the movie and is based on the SEAL code of honor.  I was unexpectedly overcome with grief when it was excitedly mentioned during a church service I attended.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible contrast I had just experienced.  The sermon was on this verse from the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.  And yet here Christians had high praise for a code of conduct espoused by an outfit whose entire purpose is to kill ruthlessly and efficiently.  And not merely to kill, but specifically to kill whoever they are commanded to kill by the political powers in the United States without question.  The very first tenet in the SEAL code of conduct is “Loyalty to Country” which means, in practical terms, obeying the orders of your superiors who are supposed to represent “the country”, however ill-defined the term.

Not only does obedience to the first tenet render obedience to any of the rest impossible, it is unfathomable to me how a Christian could find this a suitable basis for a Bible study intended to make men into better Christians.  The first tenet of this code means, quite plainly, to forsake your own conscience, do not question the morality of your orders, do not seek to understand why you are supposed to be at war with whomever you are told to be at war with, do not investigate whether or not your targets are a genuine threat or deserving of death, but simply pull the trigger.

The Evangelical Church in America today looks very little like a body of Christ followers and more like a body of state and military followers.  American flags grace many a pulpit.  Veterans Day celebrations are common.  Prayers for the success of military ventures are not unheard of.  Calls by politicians and pundits for the use of violence in almost any country for almost any reason will almost always gain the unwavering support of the entire Evangelical community.  Anything – including torture, assassinations, and “collateral damage” – can be excused and even praised if it is done “for the country” and under the stars and stripes.

How did this happen?  Can you imagine Jesus, or Peter or John with Kevlar vests and M-16’s kicking in doors, screaming , and “double-tapping” people in the head before yelling, “All clear!”’ and high-fiving each other?  Can you imagine them dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki?  Can you imagine Jesus instructing his followers to study a code of conduct that begins first and foremost with, “Be loyal to the Roman government”?

Not only did Christ and the giants of the Christian faith refuse to aggress against others, no matter how sinful or evil, they even refused to use violence in self-defense and instead chose martyrdom.  When Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword by cutting off the ear of a soldier, Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus did not instruct the disciples to go to the wilderness and train for a few months so they could plan a stealth nighttime assassination of the guards who crucified Him or any who opposed the Way.  He told them to forgive.  To Baptize.  To turn the other cheek.  To submit even to death for the sake of the gospel, rather than resort to violence.  That is a radical message and they lived it.

And yet the Church finds herself cheering for the military and honoring them without questioning what they are doing, who they are killing, why they are doing it, or if it’s right.  Worship of America and the myth of its righteousness have taken the place of any sense of individual moral responsibility on the part of soldiers or those who support them.

I left the church that morning with an immense weight on my soul.  I wept.  I wept because I knew exactly the sentiment expressed by most of the churchgoers that morning.  I used to share it.  I wept as I remembered my bloodlust after 9/11.  I wanted the United States military to kill people.  I wanted bombs to drop and guns to fire.  I wanted somebody to get it, good and hard.  I wanted death.  I wanted war.  I did not want peace.  I felt no love, only hate.

This impulse is perhaps the most human of all impulses.  It is also the very impulse Christ taught us to overcome and demonstrated how to do so by His own example.  Even when others hate, love.

I wept as I saw in my mind’s eye the blood on the hands of nearly every Christian in this country.  How many self-proclaimed followers of Christ have cheered on “the boys in uniform” during every conflict we’ve ever had, including wars of aggression, just because they’re “our countrymen” fighting for “our side”?

What are “the things that make for peace”?  The belief that right and wrong trump nationality and patriotism.  The belief that killing is only ever permissible as a last resort and in self-defense.  An understanding that Congressional or Presidential approval of an action does not make it moral.  That obeying orders is not a virtue unless the orders are virtuous, in which case they should be obeyed because they are right, not because they are orders.  That voluntarily agreeing to kill whomever you are told to kill is not honorable.  That love is better than vengeance.

Before you support any military action, conduct a brief mental experiment: imagine not the US Military, but you as an individual embarking on the mission in question.  In the end it is only individuals who can act and bear moral responsibility for their actions.  Imagine standing before God and saying, “I was only following orders”.

How many churches cheered for war against Iraq?  Yet can you imagine a pastor standing before his church and saying, “For the next six months we are all going to train in explosives and guns, and we are taking a church trip to Iraq to kill bad people and make the world a safer place.”  Who would support it?  In moral terms, it is no different to support taking money from taxpayers to pay soldiers to do the same.  In fact, the latter is in some ways more nefarious and less honest.

Most would argue that there is a difference between unjust violence and just violence – indeed there is.  Some argue there is a difference between just war and unjust war – perhaps there is.  But never in my years of observing church support for state military action have I witnessed a single discussion of whether the action was just or right.  There have been a few discussions of whether it was “Constitutional”, but never whether it was moral.  The morality of war is assumed by the mere fact that the war is waged by the United States Government.

Until the Church in America stops blindly supporting violence done in the name of patriotism, our hands are bloody and our witness is tainted.  We say we are for peace, but we want war.  We say we pray to the Prince of Peace, but we ask him to bless the violence committed by soldiers.  We say “the law is written on our hearts” yet we ignore our hearts and only follow the laws of governments and call what they call right “good”, and what they call wrong “bad”.

In our ignorance, we support violence.  We can cry out, “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.”  But after our eyes are opened and we begin to examine the morality of acts of violence, we will be held accountable for what we know.  I pray we will be willing to oppose violence, even when doing so makes us “unpatriotic” or “un-American”; even when doing so may lead to our own persecution.

“He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself” — C. S. Lewis.

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