On the Brink of War: "Choose life."

Matteo di Giovanni, The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail, floor panel, Siena cathedral, 1481)

A madman has brought us to the brink of war. No one can predict where we go from here. If we’re lucky, the U.S. and Iran will both back off and stand down. If we’re not, hello Armageddon. But the fact that a psychologically unstable and dangerously impulsive ignoramus is steering us toward disaster, while Congress and public seem powerless or unwilling to relieve him of his command, should both terrify and sicken us. The “shining city on a hill” has become a rogue state: cruel, murderous, and––if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a war with Iran––clearly insane. 

Politicians and pundits are debating the reasons and guessing the consequences, but who is talking about the madness of a president who commits murder during his golf vacation? Who is calling out the evil of a president who would invite apocalypse to evade impeachment? Pretending not to notice these things is a form of enabling, if not its own kind of madness. 

People say Soleimani deserved death for taking so many lives. Do we really want to go down that road? If the death toll from the administration’s dismantling of health care and environmental protections should produce more fatalities than those caused by the Iranian general, what then would Trump deserve? 

We must say no to murder, and no to war. State-sponsored assassination is both repugnant and counterproductive. And military violence has become virtually obsolete as an instrument of national policy, as we have seen over the last three decades of endless and fruitless conflict. Will we never learn?

Twenty-nine years ago this month, I preached against Desert Storm, four days after we began to assault Iraq with the terrifying technology of “shock and awe.” It was not a popular sermon––over 80% of Americans took the opposite view.

I cited a declaration of the Anglican conference of bishops in 1978: “War as a matter of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.” But in 1991 our country was in love with our sophisticated weapons, and people were intoxicated by the smell of victory. 

For those who watched Desert Storm on television, it seemed like a video game. The “enemy” were just blips on the screen, bloodless and abstract, vaporized by noisy explosions. In my sermon, I tried to humanize the conflict: 

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, gazing at the world around him with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck and he is handcuffed.

If a Christian bomber pilot knew Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload? Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their assigned part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or a sister. They must practice indifference to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

But you and I cannot let this war be a video game. Instead, let us see and know that it is Christ being crucified in every victim. Let us watch Christ’s hands being pierced; let us hear his cry of anguish. Let us witness the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. 

As I said, it was not my most popular sermon. 

We pray every day to be delivered from evil. May that be so in our present danger. But if war comes, may we have the courage and the faith to choose Christ over the “powers” of this world, and say no to the violence. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” Ironically, Desert Storm began on Martin Luther King Day, seeming to mock the way of nonviolence. But faith takes the long view. Violence has no future. 

Today I give you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life.

                         –– Deuteronomy 30:19 

Festo Kivengere, the Ugandan bishop whose people suffered greatly under the unspeakably barbaric rule of Idi Amin, was once asked: “If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?”

“I would give him the gun, “Kivengere replied. “I would tell him, ‘This is your weapon. My weapon is love.’”

“Not too late to seek a newer world”

Fifty years ago today, Bobby Kennedy died. Moments before he was shot, he was being cheered by his supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California presidential primary, and his victory speech near midnight was full of hope and promise. “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there” were his parting words. But he never even made it to the hotel exit. With the jubilant ballroom crowd still shouting “Bobby! Bobby!,” an assassin’s bullet struck him down in a narrow kitchen corridor.

Watching on television only ten miles away, I turned off the news and went to bed less than a minute before the shooting. I slept in peaceful ignorance until the morning. Then came the long anxious watch as doctors at the Episcopal Hospital of the Good Samaritan––where I had been born and my father had died––tried to save the fallen leader.

But 26 hours after the shooting, Bobby Kennedy departed this world, and perishing with him was an American future that never happened. Who can say what that future might have been, but after watching Bobby Kennedy for President, Dawn Porter’s riveting 4-hour documentary for Netflix, I have to wonder.

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

In a time of great division, in an America troubled by violence at home and abroad, Bobby Kennedy was a passionate advocate for reconciliation and healing. Though born to great wealth, he visited the poorest of the poor––virtually invisible in today’s politics––and pronounced their plight “unacceptable.” He appealed not to resentments and fears but to our better natures. Against the darkness of the time, he envisioned an unselfish and compassionate America.

But that is not the America we have in 2018. Our would-be dictator is burning down the house while his shameless enablers say not a word. Instead of dreaming better futures, some of my friends are starting to worry that the end may be near, that the America we believed in is finished. For those who don’t confuse the United States with the Kingdom of God, this need not bring despair. The ingenuity of God will always find a way to make more justice, more peace, and more compassion in a world “so loved” by the divine. But still, the demise of our democratic experiment would be a very sad thing, despite the glee with which the powers-that-be are bringing it to pass. It could have been otherwise. And perhaps, God willing, it still might be.

Bobby Kennedy knew a lot of poems by heart, and one of his favorites was Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” about the hero who roamed “with a hungry heart” in search of his destined home. The journey is long, and the hero, though “made weak by time and fate,” is still determined “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” May these lines so treasured by Bobby bring comfort and courage to us all:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

 

 

Related post: Is the American Dream a Con Game?

 

 

 

 

 

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