[The next few weeks will be a continuation of a presentation on “Spiritual Formation and Evangelism”]
Driving home to British Columbia from our annual Clericus in New Mexico, I encountered a large number of military convoys going in the other direction, far more than needed for the recently announced National Guard tasks on the Mexican border. Together with other ominous signs, I fear the U.S. is getting ready to go to war again.
America is a land of many, rich resources. It has abundant fertile soil and adequate rain to produce awesome crops. It has forests, minerals, fossil fuels, ample wind and sun for energy. In the past, combined with industrious immigrants from many lands and enough sharing of wealth to create a somewhat prosperous middle class, it made for a nation with the ability to choose what kind of country it wanted to be.
It could have been a new Athens, in ancient times a city-state renown for its culture, arts, creative spirit and intellectual prowess. Instead, in recent decades, the choice seems to be in favor of establishing a new Sparta instead, a nation of warriors focused on military achievement, pouring its rich resources into the sophisticated and very expensive weapons of modern war, instead of into education, health care, infrastructure and comforts for its citizens. At this point, war has been continuous for the entire span of the 21st Century so far, a much longer period than at any point in our previous history. The goals of the current wars are not transparent. No longer is there an obvious need to defeat a Hitler nor contain a Stalin. There are just complex and obscure alliances. The announced reasons for conflicts have little to do with the real reasons. The alleged “democratic revolutionaries” in Syria, for example, turn out to be mostly Islamic fundamentalists (except for the Kurds) favored by the distinctly undemocratic monarchs of Saudi Arabia. The extensive historic Syrian Christian minority is attacked by America’s allies and protected by Assad’s Syria, Russia and the Muslim Kurds. And the bottom line is that the U.S. spends as much on its military every year as the rest of the world combined.
Confronted with all this, how should a follower of the Prince of Peace react?
It is not at all a new question. Even in New Testament times, Roman soldiers converted to Christianity and continued to soldier. In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine was convinced that he conquered his dominions in the very name of Christ, and subsequent Byzantine rulers fused military power and Christian faith for centuries. In the medieval West, Christian crusades employed military victory, not persuasive evangelism, to advance Christendom. The “God-protected” armies of the Czar combined Orthodox religion and Russian rule throughout the East. The Hundred Years Wars were fought by Christian powers against each other, each in the name of God. The enormous bloodbath of Christian Europe in the First World War, “the war to end all wars” as President Woodrow Wilson termed it, did not end wars at all, but did do much to end Christendom in Europe.
As we develop our spiritual formation as Christians, what role do peace and harmony play? How can our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, our shared presence in the Body of Christ, our baptized entrance into the family of the Father, allow us to hurt and kill those who are alien from our nationality but are our brothers and sisters, children of the Father? The command of Jesus to love our neighbor, to live in harmony, caring for all around us, is illustrated by him with the story of the Good Samaritan, someone who Jews saw as a despised enemy and alien. It is true that the absence of war is not the same as achieving peace. But certainly active conflict, fear of others, oppression and enmity towards those around us greatly impede peace. “Peace be with you” says the Lord to the very unpeaceful, terrified disciples when he appears to them the evening of Easter Day and in the weeks after. It was, and is, a common Middle Eastern greeting, but that doesn’t detract from the real meaning of the powerful wish behind the words.
It was the fervent expectation of first century Israelites that the Messiah would come to lead a successful uprising against the occupiers and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel on earth again. So strong was that belief that, when people realized the Messiah had arrived, they could not comprehend Jesus’ many statements to the contrary, even to the day of his crucifixion. Such is human nature, that we often hear what we expect and want to hear, not what is actually said.
What Jesus actually said was to love your neighbor, and your neighbor is everyone (Luke 10:25-37). In his basic ethics teaching, he expands the ancient commandment against killing to include even anger and resentment (Matthew 5:21-24). He radically revises the Law from “an eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek,” (Matthew 5:38-42) and asks that you love your enemy (Matthew 5:43-48). Non-violence and love towards others is the heart of Christian teaching, as expressed by Jesus. When it is followed, by non-Christian (Gandhi) and Christian (Martin Luther King) alike, it appears to work. It appears frequently to also lead to martyrdom, because it greatly disturbs and enrages the powers of evil. If your leader is martyred by crucifixion, it is not surprising when many followers meet the same fate. Yet, when you appear before the Throne, as we all shall, would you rather explain your martyrdom as a result of trying to be a faithful follower, or would you rather try to defend why you perpetrated spiritual, emotional, social and/or physical assaults and killings on others?
Some have made this teaching an absolute, ranging from the Doukhobors who say that “love your neighbor” applies not only to non-violence in all forms towards humans but towards animals as well, and are vegetarians, to Quakers, Mennonites and other “conscientious objectors.” Some have made it relative. Roman Catholic teaching lists an imposing number of difficult conditions to meet before going to war and American Catholic bishops have been strong advocates for both the total abolition of the death penalty and the right to life of the unborn, but have not insisted on total pacifism.
It becomes muddled after that. Many conservative Christians are strong advocates against harming the unborn, but can hardly wait to get some currently identified “enemy” of the nation in their gunsights, and wish to expand, not eliminate the death penalty. Many liberal Christians oppose the death penalty and are skeptical of the American war mentality, but have no problem with abortion. Anglicans, as is typical, are spread over the entire spectrum, from rabid pacifism to support for almost continuous military action against any and all comers, and even some who do not offend but have desirable resources (King David’s “final solution” for Uriah [see 2 Samuel 11] has probably been copied in various forms and to obtain various goals, more than Jesus’ teaching of peace has been heard).
Spiritual formation for a Buddhist in this context might be to withdraw so completely that no emotion of anger or revenge remains and no desires matter. But Christians do not have the option to withdraw. We are the stewards of the earth. When others would destroy the creations of God and hurt his children, we are called to manage the earth to a better solution, to point to a better way. We cannot simply abandon our fiduciary responsibility to administer the Lord’s earth according to his policies.
The temptation is to answer evil forces with even greater evil force to smite them. Alas, the unleashing of the greater evil force normally causes greater evil, even as it smites. Bigger bombs to blow up bigger targets seldom bring about the love of neighbor on either “our” side or “theirs.” Suppressing the foe usually leads to an escalation of a thirst for revenge, exactly “an eye for an eye” (Exhibit A currently being Israel and Palestine, since 1948!).
Spiritual formation for the Christian begins with Christ, not with the Old Testament, which we are not under, and not with a greater loyalty to causes other than Christ and his Kingdom than to our Lord. The formation begins inside, which is why Lent and Advent can be so helpful, though it needs to happen every day. Christian martyrs are impressive for the peace which they appear to have. When you are personally ready to truly love your neighbor and not smite him or her, you are ready for your stewardship. And while Jesus seems to accept and understand the householder who defends the house against robbers, and does not require the centurion to resign from the army before offering healing, his ethics of love and non-violence are extremely clear.
Sin abounds. Violence, personal and national, thrives in a fallen world. In the public forum, the Christian voice need always be the one advocating peace not war, love not revenge, charity not greed, healing not wounding. Sadly, in the new Sparta, that voice is often replaced by those who would urge violence and oppression in the name of God. That is so wrong, and is a travesty on our vocation of stewardship.
Perhaps the voice of Jesus today needs to be our voice.