Wars and Rumors of Wars

Antiwar poster, World War I

With a cornered President governing by tantrum and a National Security Advisor eager for Armageddon, storm clouds are gathering––and peacemakers are on the alert. A recent article by Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy magazine provides the “Top Five Warning Signs We’re Going to War”:

  • The danger is grave and growing.
  • War will be easy and cheap if we act now.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • The enemy is evil and/or crazy.
  • Peace is unpatriotic.[i]

 Sound familiar? Read the whole article here. And while you’re at it, consider Laurence Lewis’ cautionary piece, “Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end,”[ii] as well as Michael Klare’s “The New ‘Long War,’” which notes a strategic shift in military planning, away from counterterrorism toward old-style great powers confrontation.[iii] These days, it’s natural to be fully absorbed by the downward spiral of American democracy, but the dogs of war are barking as well. Whether the prospect be endless quagmire or sudden apocalypse, we ignore the prophets’ warnings at our peril.

In 1991, Desert Storm rained down fire on Iraq in the name of who-can-remember-what. Twenty-seven years later, we’re still in the global violence business. But after so much blood, treasure and toil, are things better, worse, or the same––not only in the Middle East, but in an America which has been living by the sword for far too long?

In going through some old files last week, I came across the sermon I preached in an Episcopal parish on the first Sunday after the launch of Desert Storm, which had received an overwhelming 79% approval rating from the American people (the war, not the sermon!). In the wake of the recent missile attacks in Syria, it was interesting to re-read that ancient text in light of what has changed––and what has not––in the world, in my country, and in myself over the past three decades. It also made me wonder what God’s friends ought to be saying and doing in our present time of trial.  

I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts on these questions. Meanwhile, here’s what my younger self said so many years ago:

A sermon preached at Christ Church in Ontario, California, on January 20th, 1991.

I would speak to you of war. This war. Our war. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe it to be a just war.

We have been told that Saddam Hussein is a Hitler. But for the last seven or eight years, he was our ally. In violation of U.S. law prohibiting arms sales to terrorist nations, the Reagan-Bush administration secretly provided Iraq with weapons by laundering them through countries such as Jordan. Saddam is a bad and brutal man, no doubt. But is Assad of Syria [Haffez al-Assad, the current president’s father] any better? And Assad, for now, is our ally.

We have been told that we are there to liberate Kuwait, but I doubt that a free Kuwait is what the Emir-in-exile as in mind. So let us be spared the pieties invented to solicit public opinion. This is a war of power politics.

To put it in its best light, we want to demonstrate that the sovereignty of nations cannot be taken lightly if we are to have a stable “new world order.” That is fine as far as it goes. Now you might say, in the light of 52 cases of border-crossing aggression since World War II––most of which the United States ignored––that we might not have paid as much attention to this one if Kuwait’s chief export were broccoli.

But purity of intent is not the issue to be addressed here. What much concern us today is the means employed to achieve our ends. Is this war necessary?

Last Tuesday, George [H. W.] Bush, who worships according to the Book of Common Prayer as we do, spoke with Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning by telephone. We don’t know what was said. But hours later, President Bush unleashed the dogs of war, while his bishop led a march of protest from the National Cathedral to the White House gates.

President Eisenhower once said that “every war is going to astonish you.” The anxiety of these terrible days exists because we don’t know just where the dogs of war intend to go. Perhaps this war will be quick and cause only a minimum of pain for the sake of the greatest good. But what if the greatest air assault in the history of the world has already functioned as a recruiting program for a new generation of terrorists?

Or what if Israel is drawn into the conflict, the coalition falls apart, and the war escalates into a chemical or even nuclear conflict? What if we take out Hussein, only to see another demon take his place, or find the vacuum of Iraq’s defeat filled by Iran? What if Hussein burns the oil fields, throwing world markets into chaos and creating environmental disaster from the massive smoke that would result? What if the war drags on into a war of attrition, causing immense loss of life on both sides and deeply dividing the American people? And what if we can’t foot the bill for this war without robbing the poor and neglecting the environment?

The scenarios of disaster multiply. We pray that none of them will come to pass. But once we started the war, they all became possibilities.

According to the CIA and other experts advising the President, sanctions were working. And serious diplomacy had not even been attempted. This war was nowhere close to being “necessary.”

But this war is not only unnecessary. It is, in the words of the National Council of Churches, “a failure of the human spirit.” It is immoral to punish a dictator by killing innocent women and children. As the Anglican bishops declared in the Lambeth Conference of 1978:

“War as a matter of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of the modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.”

On a purely pragmatic level, it should be added that the destructiveness of modern weapons has made war obsolete as an instrument of national policy. War has become eschatological. The suicide of the planet seems to be an excessive price to pay for the settling of a border dispute. And even if this war remains “limited,” there can be no winning in the long term.

Violence breeds violence. Americans all suffer from amnesia. We don’t understand cultures with long memories. But I have met Arabs in the Middle East who are still mad about the Crusades.

Americans love winning. “We’re number one!” and all that. But there is a new attitude gaining acceptance in recreational circles today, which is this: “If your opponent stops having fun, you lose.”

Heavy-handed violence––the big guy pushing the little guys around––not only leaves all the essential conflicts unresolved, but it inflames the passions that obstruct fruitful dialogue and resolution. Beware of “victory.” And if our victory is quick and painless, we face another danger: our faith in violence will grow deeper.

Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said last week that our faith in weapons technology has been vindicated. All those defense contractors who took so much heat for cost overruns and other problems can now stand up and take a bow.

Simone Weil defined violence as the transformation of a person into a thing. When the warrior had to look his victim in the eye, this depersonalization required some work. But weapons technology has made such detachment effortless.

Desert Storm is a great video game. Iraqis are just blips on a screen––abstract, bloodless targets in an electronic arcade. Eighty-three percent of Americans, according to the polls, are caught up in this game. Television, which the military is treating as an instrument of policy, is leading the cheers. Hey, our weapons work! We’re going to win one for a change! I myself am not immune to this. I can feel the predators in my past, singing in my blood.

What, then, is a follower of Jesus to do? First of all, we must look for the cross in this. Where is the crucified Christ to be found? Where Christ is always to be found––in the suffering of the sons and daughters of God. At the cross, there are no Americans, there are no Iraqis. There is only the One who suffers.

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, looking over the world with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck, and he is handcuffed. If a Christian pilot knew that Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload?

Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of individual soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or sister. Executioners must be indifferent to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

You and I cannot let this war be a video game, bloodless and abstract. Let us see Christ crucified in every victim. Let us see whose hands are pierced by the nails, whose cry of anguish rends the heavens. Let us see the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. Let us see Christ in the foxhole, taking the bullet meant for his buddy.

But let us also see beyond the cross, to the risen life already present in the hope of the faithful. The saints have illumined even the darkest times by holding fast to this hope. Christian Century magazine gives a striking example of this from our own day:

Festo Kivengere, Anglican bishop in Uganda, was a witness to, and in many ways a victim of the barbaric rule of Idi Amin. While in exile he was asked: ‘If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?’ He responded, ‘I would give the gun to Amin, saying, ‘This is your weapon; my weapon is love.’

The peacemaker does not retreat from the struggle against evil. But the peacemaker responds to hate and aggression in ways that create community rather than enemies. When Lincoln was urged to wreak vengeance on the leaders of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, he said, ‘Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” And Martin Luther King, whose birthday was so disgracefully dishonored by the bombings last week, said, ‘Our ultimate end must be the creation of the blessed community.’

What then is a follower of Jesus to do? Here are the recommendations of the Anglican bishops who met at Lambeth in 1978, calling on Christian people everywhere:

  1. To reexamine as a matter of urgency their own attitudes towards, and their complicity with, violence in its many forms.
  2. To take with utmost seriousness the questions which the teachings of Jesus places against violence in human relationships and the use of armed force by those who would follow him, and the example of redemptive love which the Cross holds before all people.
  3. To engage themselves in non-violent action for justice and peace and to support others so engaged, recognizing that such action will be controversial and may be personally very costly.
  4. To commit themselves to informed, disciplined prayer, not only for all victims of violence, especially for those who suffer for their obedience to the Man of the Cross, but also for those who inflict violence on others.
  5. To protest in whatever way possible at the escalation of the sale of armaments by the producing nations to the developing and dependent nations, and to support with every effort all international proposals and conferences designed to place limitations on, or arrange reductions in, the armaments of war of the nations of the world.

I would add to this list a call for immediate cessation of hostilities and the beginning of real and constructive diplomacy in the Middle East.

Last Sunday night I joined with 1500 Christians, Jews and Muslims for a service of peace. The very fact of such a gathering was extraordinary. We listened to each other’s scriptures, we prayed each other’s prayers. And, at the end, we stood to make a common affirmation which concluded with these words based on the Book of Deuteronomy:

Before us this evening are set life and death.
We choose life
so that we and our children
may live.
Let it be so.

 

Window detail, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Virginia City, Montana (1903)

 

[i] Stephen M. Walt, “How to Start a War in 5 Easy Steps,” Foreign Policy online, April 2, 2018: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/02/how-to-start-a-war-in-5-easy-steps/

[ii] Laurence Lewis, “Wars are easy to start. They’re not so easy to end,” Daily Kos, April 15, 2018: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/4/15/1756334/-Wars-are-easy-to-start-They-re-not-so-easy-to-end

[iii] Michael Klare, “The New ‘Long War’”, April 3, 2018: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176406/

Grace me guide

Holy Saturday dawn at Laguna Beach, California (2005)

Holy Saturday dawn at Laguna Beach, California (2005)

My wife recently asked me what my favorite prayer was. Interesting question. We are both Episcopal priests, steeped in a tradition of eloquent prayers, so there were plenty to choose from (the Lord’s Prayer was ruled ineligible in order to make the competition fair). But one particular “collect” from the Book of Common Prayer came immediately to mind, not only because I know it by heart and begin most days with it, but also because I am drawn to the theology and spirituality that underlie it.

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[i]

In three beautiful clauses, this Collect for the Renewal of Life from the Office of Morning Prayer spans the daily round from night to day to night. Its origins lie in the Benedictine practice of creating liturgies to fit each period of the passing day. Like time-lapse photography, this collect compresses the temporal flow into a single unity of beginning, middle and end. The ordinary succession of the hours is sanctified by the simple act of attention.

But the prayer casts its net into deeper pools as well. The light dividing the day from the night recalls the first day of creation, making every dawn the renewal of the world. And the shadow of death turning into morning invokes the Resurrection, when creation is restored and the wound of death is healed at last.

Having turned our attention to the divine source of this perpetual renewal, the prayer then asks for the grace to become conformed to the shaping pattern or formative way of that originating and empowering source. The first request addresses the obstacles to that conformity – the things that misshape or distort our truest selves.

Drive far from us all wrong desires.

Religion is sometimes caricatured as the repression of desire. It’s not only the mockers who do this; many of the devout have striven for a passionless existence in imitation of a supposedly passionless God. But wanting to want nothing is itself a form of desire, and it doesn’t always end well.

We are made of desire. We come into the world reaching for a larger source of sustenance, nurture and love. Everbody’s got a hungry heart. Springsteen said that. Or was it St. Augustine? Some argue that our primal maternal nurturing is then projected onto the void to produce the consolations of religion, but Christian faith insists that our longing never ceases to thirst for something actual and real, from our first breath to our last.

But desire is easily misdirected to fix on easier, less demanding objects, unworthy of our true nature. In one of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, a worldly couple is given a ride in a convertible. When the driver reveals that he happens to be God, they immediately ask him for things: Can I own a hotel on Miami Beach? Can you make me more beautiful? God is disgusted. “Is that all you want? I don’t do miracles for jerks like you.” He throws them out of the car and drives away.

As Gregory of Nyssa said, our task is not the eradication of desire, but the education of desire. How do we live in such a way that our desire may find its proper object? It is not desire that is wrong, but only its misdirection. And so we pray for whatever it takes to steer us toward our ultimate goal, “the great meeting with being which one way or another everything in our life strains to achieve.”[ii]

Incline our hearts to keep your law,
and guide our feet into the way of peace.

There may be times in our life when God’s will feels radically disruptive. “Thus says the Lord: I am going to tear down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted.” (Jer. 45:4) Or John Donne: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God …. / and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”

But in this prayer said at the start of each day, “incline” and “guide” propose a much gentler formational process than the cataclysmic upheavals of Jeremiah and Donne. An inclination may only be a slight tipping from the vertical, just enough so everything leans or flows in a particular direction. And the act of guiding does not itself create momentum; it only steers a motion which is already underway. These are subtler influences than earthquake, wind and fire, but their long-term effect on us is no less profound.

The entire prayer assumes a dailiness about grace, and the constancy of prayerful attention that allows it to work on us over time. This quiet, steady, cumulative spirituality is so very Anglican. I once found a perfect motto for this habitual spirituality in an old English church. Painted in golden Gothic lettering, repeated in every panel of the coffered ceiling, are the words, Grace me guide. Even a bored worshipper, glancing upward to relieve the tedium of a poor sermon, could not miss this summons to the beauty of holiness.

The prayer’s third clause assumes a happy outcome for a day given over to God’s shaping influence. Throughout the passing hours, God’s will is done “with cheerfulness.” Does this word appear anywhere else in the history of formal Christian prayer? There are plenty of texts to remind us how hard the journey, how recalcitrant the will. But how rare to make the Christian life sound so easy, so effortless, so fun!

But perhaps the prayer has in mind the ease of the ballet dancer, whose extraordinary physical grace, while appearing effortless, is achieved through a sometimes painful and always demanding discipline. Or maybe “cheerfulness” refers to the saintly joy that St. Francis spoke of – the ability to accept even life’s hardest blows with a grateful and trusting heart. Who can say?  I only know that whenever I say this prayer, it is hard not to smile, at least inwardly. Cheerfulness is an attractive quality in the Christian life.

The entire prayer assumes that we are capable, that we can be conformed to divine intention, that this day has potential for us. We may not make it to nightfall without lapses major and minor. The cheerfulness may fail us, more than once. We are well acquainted with that scenario. But to begin each morning by visualizing a day that will end with thanksgiving for what God has done in us and through us – this expresses the incredible hope of Christian faith. God has amazing plans for us, no matter what.

The gratitude the prayer envisions is not contingent on what we manage to accomplish in any given day. Perfection is a process, not a possession. But as this prayer puts it so beautifully, we are nevertheless invited to begin each morning as if we are actually capable of living into the full humanity for which are made. And at the close of a day begun with this kind of mindfulness, even though it be fraught with imperfections, there will be reason enough for thanksgiving.

Saying this prayer was one of the very last things I did with my mother. I had been visiting her in Santa Barbara, and it was always our custom to read Morning Prayer whenever we were together. After our prayers, we said farewell and I headed for home a thousand miles north. A few hours after I left, her 96-year-old heart suddenly gave out. She died three days later. I didn’t quite make it back in time, but we had already made the perfect goodbye, with the cheerfulness of our morning prayers.

We each had our own copy of The Daily Office Book, containing services and Scripture readings for the entire year. After she died, I started using her copy instead of mine. It seemed a way to stay in touch, acknowledging the unbroken connection of the communion of saints. And one day I happened to look at the inside back cover. She had written a prayer on the blank endpaper. Whether she had made it up, or found it somewhere, I don’t know. But it perfectly expressed her own faithful spirit. It also seemed to echo my own favorite prayer. In her distinctive hand, familiar from so many letters over the years, she had written:

God, whatever …. Thanks.

[i] Book of Common Prayer (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979) 99

[ii] Ann & Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983) 14