The past decade was a time to kill, a time to mourn, a time for war, thus, a time to be silent. But Americans seem to have grown weary of this. Perhaps spurred by Obama’s speech on May 23 in which he echoed James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare,” or perhaps knowing that some complacency in the American character has allowed the War on Terror to become the longest war in our history, whatever the reason, people are becoming more suspicious of their political leaders and openly expressing concerns about where we have been and where we are headed. I detected this awakening firsthand while doing a tour of Christian churches in Athens, Georgia, over Memorial Day weekend.
At Athens Christian Church, Pastor Eli Harding opened his Sunday sermon with the First Commandment: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me. After expressing sadness for the loss of life that inevitably happens when people engage in war, he took the opportunity of Memorial Day to caution his congregation against the tendency to romanticize wars and those who fight them: “We must not forget that aggression, enmity and violence, which lie at the heart of all wars, run contrary to our Lord’s Way of meekness, gentleness, and nonviolent love of friends and enemies.” He asked whether any of the young people present were considering joining the military and then asked them to consider the oaths they would have to take if they did.
“Think about it,” he said. “The only person a Christian should promise to obey, one-hundred percent of the time, without question, is not Barack Obama or George Bush, but Jesus Christ.” He urged young people to go on YouTube and listen to the stories of soldiers who “found out the hard way” that they “cannot serve two masters,” listing names of Christians who had become Conscientious Objectors after discovering that what they were told to do in in Iraq and Afghanistan was contrary to dictates of their faith.
Over at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Fr. Gary White used the holiday as an opportunity to express concern for those veterans who survived their tours of duty but lost their will to live.
“More soldiers have died from suicide than have died fighting in Afghanistan,” he said.
While the media calls the suicide trend “baffling,” Fr. White believes it is no mystery at all: “Human beings are made to love, not to harm. When we live in a way that is contrary to our nature, when we are forced to witness evil and participate in wicked deeds, it leads to sadness, guilt, and a loss of hope.” He said that we need to start doing more for veterans than simply thanking them for their service or prescribing them with anti-depressants. “We need to clear out the spiritual toxins that spread in the polluted atmosphere of war, which is a culture of destruction, enmity and death. We must help them to grieve, to pray, to repent!” He urged Catholic veterans to go to Confession, if they felt the need to, reminding them of God’s unconditional love and limitless mercy.
At Emmanuel Episcopal Church, after expressing sadness for the 6,000 or so American troops that have died in the War on Terror, Rev. John Brown reminded the congregation that the estimated number of deaths in Iraq alone was at least ten times that, probably around 60,000, but likely far greater, somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000. This was the most surprising and controversial sermon of the day.
“Friends, it is civilians that account for the majority of these deaths,” he pointed out. “While we must mourn our losses, we must be careful not to think that the lives of Americans are any more valuable than the lives of people living in other nations.” This elicited a few audible gasps and grunts from the crowd. “We must not be oblivious or casually indifferent to the suffering we have caused!” he said. At that point, about ten families rose to exit the church.
He continued, “How many of you believe that War on Terror is just?” About 75% of the remaining congregation raised their hands. “There are several criteria that must be met, in theory, in order for a Christian to participate in a war. All of you with your hands up: Who can tell me all of the criteria for a Just War according to Christian tradition?” All hands were quickly lowered.
The Reverend proceeded to enlighten his congregation about the Christian Just War theory, explaining the difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello, and shedding light on particularly problematic areas including “distinction” and “proportionality,” going into great detail with reference to drone warfare.
“It is hard to say with certainty, because our government classifies so much information and operates in such secrecy,” he says, “but it is likely that drones kill between 30 and 50 innocent civilians for every one person deemed a ‘combatant’ or ‘terrorist.’ We must ask if Christians can conscionably participate in this.”
At Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Reverend Stephen P. Uptegrove read John 8:44: “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
The Reverend spoke about the importance of the Christian concern for truth and warned the parishioners not to be deceived: “As the saying goes, the truth is the first casualty of war. Christians must be wise as serpents! There will always be those in political power who wish to manipulate us, because of our strong belief in personal sacrifice, into serving their ends. We must learn to discern fact from propaganda. We must never act out of fear or hatred. When in doubt, we must always return to the words of Christ for failsafe guidance. Doing so remains our only assurance that we will remain objective and critical, and not be misled by those who, out of desire for riches or power, deal in lies.”
The Reverend reminded the congregation that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. He alluded to recent reports about sexual assault and mistreatment of women among military personnel, along with reports of increasing domestic abuse, divorce rates, as well as rampant alcohol and substance abuse.
“You will know them by their fruits,” he said. “A young Christian who is looking for something meaningful to do after graduation may want to consider going overseas as a missionary and spreading the Gospel, instead of trying to spread democracy at the point of a gun, placing himself situations where he will constantly be confronted with the necessity to use intimidation and force against largely defenseless people who, if he weren’t occupying their lands, would never have any inclination, let alone opportunity, to be any kind of threat to him at all.”
But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already: None of this actually happened. There may well be preachers, pastors and priests that go by these names, but I don’t know of them, they don’t work in these churches, nor have I encountered, in the past ten years of going to church on Memorial Day weekend (or any other weekend), religious leaders who say these types of things. The most a Christian can hope for on Memorial Day weekend is a quick prayer “for peace,” followed by a slavish display of obeisance to “the men and women in uniform.” It is for this reason, more than any other, that this country can look forward to exactly what the Obama administration is promising: that the “war” on “terror” will most likely last at least another decade (or two).