Living By The Sword/ Dying By The Sword

I'm certain that Jesus intended his church to be a peace church. That statement is obvious if one reads the gospel stories with an open mind and hasn't been overwhelmed by the propaganda from the leaders of the organized Christian church of the last 1700 years that one can, under certain circumstances, participate in the murder of another child of God and still be following Jesus.

Without a doubt, what was unique about Jesus was his ethic of love — love of God, love of neighbor, love for oneself, love for the least of these, love for one's enemies. Without a doubt, Jesus rejected violence and killing in everything he said and did — and he modeled that ethical stance clearly in the way he lived his life. And without a doubt, the early church understood Jesus' mission to be about practicing nonviolent love of friend and enemy, teaching us how to live in peace with one another, going about our daily lives with mercy rather than murder, compassion rather than cruelty, reconciliation rather than retaliation.

I have experienced only a small number of churches that I would call real peace churches in my life as a person of faith. The ones that come to mind include churches like St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, Walker Community Methodist Church and Reformation Lutheran Church, all in the Twin Cities. Others that I have experienced are scattered around the nation in my occasional travels as a member and organizer for Every Church A Peace Church.

Those churches somehow have found the courage to be radically prophetic, outspokenly anti-war, peacemaker churches in a culture that fears disturbing the patriotic status quo. Those churches seem to be about struggling to implement Jesus' ethical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount rather than modifying them to suit their nation's politics, economics or desire for earthly security. Those churches appear to be doing what the original followers of Jesus in the original form of Christianity did — trying to imitate him by consistently performing, no matter the circumstances, nonviolent Christ-like deeds of love, living lives of mercy and forgiveness and vigorously refusing to participate in or remain silent about, the legalized killing in the war-zone. Living lives of Christ-like love somehow promotes the coming of the peaceable kingdom of the Lamb here on earth. What the world desperately needs are more churches like that.

I suspect that many middle of the road, Just War Theory Christian churches have clergy and lay leaders that would like to transform their churches into true peace churches, but may have come to the conclusion that the people in the pews aren't quite ready for something as radical as that — and therefore the process is deemed too difficult for now and therefore effectively abandoned. Perhaps the pastor and lay leaders fear losing their pro-war members (and their financial contributions) if Jesus' nonviolence was preached vigorously. Maybe such churches fear being viewed with suspicion by the powerful, patriotic, pro-war people that constitute a majority in their communities.

Recall Matthew 25:31–46, the Last Judgment Passage. In that passage, Jesus says that we judge ourselves by what we did or did not do to u201Cthe least of theseu201D because what we did or did not do them was what we did or did not do to Jesus. According to that passage, Jesus is incarnated in the minds and bodies of those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of hospitality, naked, sickened, captive, homeless, discriminated against, powerless, victimized and in need of love and mercy. These least ones are to be cared for by the disciples of Jesus whether they are friends, neighbors or enemies; and it makes no difference if they appear to be deserving or not.

There is a parallel story in Luke, called the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man had wealth, power, privilege and was probably a religious, law-abiding, religious, Bible-believing Jew. As far as we can tell, he only lacked one thing — compassion for the u201Cleast of these.u201D

The rich man treated Lazarus as less than fully human, as an object of scorn, indifference and mercilessness, for which, in a moral universe, Jesus says there are serious consequences. The rich man condemns himself, because of his apathy in the face of relievable human suffering, to an eternity of separation from a relationship with a loving God, which many theologians have called hell.

A number of years ago, I was at a workshop on Christian nonviolence, presented by a Catholic priest, Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, whom I consider my mentor. He recited a simple but profound poem at that conference. It went like this:

When you treat a thing like it's a thing, that's reality. When you treat a thing like it's a person, that's illusion. When you treat a person like a thing, that's violence. But when you treat a person like a person, that's love.

That poem is a corollary to the Golden Rule, which should help us make our everyday ethical decisions, maybe even help us decide what politicians to vote for and which ones to oppose. When we treat someone as less than fully human, when we disrespect someone because of skin color, gender, religion, social status, looks or sexuality, we are doing violence. If we treat people like they are sexual objects, scapegoats, cannon fodder, or someone to dominate, demean or destroy, we are doing violence — with destructive ripples that go out we know not where.

In 1995, during the 50th anniversary week of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was at Holden Village, a politically and theologically progressive Christian retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. During that retreat, there was a one-man play about the life of Harry Truman, the president who was in office when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The actor portraying Mr. Truman mentioned pointedly that as a young man he had kept in his billfold a copy of the Golden Rule (u201Cdo unto others as you would have them do unto youu201D), from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Apparently Truman had claimed in his biographical statements during his life that he consulted the Golden Rule whenever he had ethical decisions to make.

Later in the monologue, the actor elaborated on Truman's famous decision to order the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two defenseless civilian targets, both of which had been protected, for scientific reasons, from the massive conventional bombings that had destroyed nearly every major city in Japan in the first half of 1945. At the end of the play, the actor talked about Truman's conviction that ordering the bombings had been the right thing to do, that he had never lost any sleep over the decision and that he would do it all over again without pangs of conscience.

The grotesque contradiction of that statement and Truman's professed commitment to the Golden Rule was too much for me, and so, during the question and answer period, I asked for clarification. How, I wanted to know, did Truman rationalize what Jesus clearly commanded his followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount with his decision to order the incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, especially with the knowledge that Japan had been searching for a way to surrender with honor for weeks before the bombing. All I got was an angry and sputtering defense of Truman's political decision, and, of course, no coherent comment about the Golden Rule.

Harry Truman, just like Lazarus, was a Bible-believing person of faith and privilege who felt no remorse for his part in generating suffering. But I suspect that if he had been on the ground at Nagasaki following the bombings instead of half-way around the world in the safety of the White House, joyously celebrating the end of the war, his cavalier attitude would have been different, for Truman would have then been forced to directly experience the agony, the living dead pleading for water and for non-existent medical relief from their pain. He would have smelled the unforgettable fecal stench of decaying bodies that is always there the day or week after a military strike.

If Truman had been there he would have seen the carbonized remains of fellow humans, and he might not have been so proud of American technological superiority. He might even have expressed shame at being an American, as have so many other observers of the aftermath. He might even have recanted of the deed and looked for ways to atone. If Mr. Truman and the tens of thousands of Manhattan Project workers who developed the bombs, and perhaps even the bomber crew that dropped the bomb at Nagasaki from 31,000 feet, had witnessed the end result of their effort up close and personal, they may have stopped cheering their success and instead started searching their souls.

If these Americans had actually been at ground zero and seen and smelled and heard the death and dying, those with any conscience left would have developed remorse and probably posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with overwhelming guilt, panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, depression, shame and even suicidality for the rest of their lives, as so many victims, perpetrators and bystanders of history's battlefields have done. Mr. Truman may even have worked for the abolition of war and refused to put so much money and effort into the post-war development of America's powerful military machine, its nuclear weapons industry and its national security apparatus, each of which has been such a tremendous curse to the world and to the soul of America.

But the problem isn't just Harry Truman. And it isn't just WWII. The problem is the willingness of most Bible-believing Americans, especially its politicians, war profiteers, super-patriots and professional soldiers, to cause others to suffer and die when their earthly security was threatened, a stance that is totally contrary to what Jesus did and said. The problem lies in America's desire for prestige, power, prerogative and property. The problem lies in America's unquenchable thirst for vengeance and retaliation when its honor is besmirched. Part of the problem is the American Christian church's silence or even complicity in the conduct of its wars. The problem is that most of Christianity has been nurtured in the type of religion that never seems to oppose its nation's military actions, in direct opposition to the teachings of the founder.

The story of the bombing of Nagasaki is a particularly sordid chapter in the history of Christianity, for on August 9, 1945, an all-Christian bomb crew dropped the second atomic bomb on the center of Japanese Christianity – the Nagasaki Urakami Cathedral. The Cathedral was one of the aiming points for the bombardier on the plane called Bock's Car and the bomb exploded only 500 meters above it. That important story is a profound one and one that can be told at a later time, but what the Japanese Imperial government had tried and failed to do for over 200 years — annihilate Christianity – was done by fellow American Christians in 9 seconds.

Since the Cathedral was near ground zero, few Nagasaki Christians survived. 6000 Christians died instantly including those who were celebrating mass that morning. Three orders of nuns and a Christian girl's school were incinerated. Tens of thousands of other innocent people died and hundreds of thousands were mortally wounded or are still in the process of dying as a consequence of the uranium bomb.

Is this the way of Christ? It is not. In the gospels, Jesus clearly forbids violence to those who wish to follow him. And, of course, he obviously would have had no part in doing anything that creates victims.

Following the bombing, many survivors went mad from the chaos, the disappearance, death or suffering of loved ones, the loss of homes and possessions, the hopelessness for the future and the absence of relief efforts. Every survivor became depressed, and many committed suicide in the weeks and years that followed. After the carnage of war, everybody on the ground is at risk of getting PTSD.

But let’s get biblical again. The Nagasaki victims are u201Cthe least onesu201D of Matthew 25. They were starving and thirsty; most were naked; all were sickened by the radiation poisoning and absence of medical care; most were homeless; and all were captives in their devastated city. They were also spiritually dead and dying, but so were the American soldier-witnesses, perpetrators who were also victims of the mass slaughter that is modern war.

The variety of PTSD called combat-induced PTSD turns out to be, in my professional experience, its most incurable form, for engaging in the legalized killing of war eventually comes back to haunt the soul and psyche – and that psychological trauma keeps on repeating itself in the intrusive, indelible, recurrent memories, with transient respite only possible when using brain-altering drugs, alcohol or mind-numbing, addicting activities.

One only has to ponder the estimated 200,000 suicides that have occurred among Vietnam War veterans – after they came home from the war – to appreciate the mental anguish caused from being involved in that atrocity. Combat-induced PTSD meets my definition of dying by the sword. As one Vietnam veteran said u201Chaving PTSD is like having been annihilated in the killing fields of Vietnam, and then having to wait 25 years to finally lie down and die.u201D After so much never-ending psychological and spiritual pain it feels good to finally lie down, even if it is to die.

War and violence sicken people whether they are victims, bystanders or perpetrators. War and violence are equal opportunity destroyers of the soul.

The spiritual costs of war are too high. The pacifist Martin Luther King was u201Cright on the war questionu201D (the statement that he wanted emphasized at his funeral). The pacifist Gandhi was right on the war question. The pacifist primitive Christian church was right on the war question — and it flourished in spite of that stance. Violence and killing are deadly to the perpetrators, deadly to the souls and bodies of the victims, deadly to the souls of the mothers of those soldiers who participate in war, whether engaged in willingly or unwillingly.

And the pacifist Jesus was right on the war question. u201CLove your enemiesu201D was not a throwaway line. And Jesus meant it when he said to the sword-wielding Peter in the garden of Gethsemane: u201CPut up the sword for he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.u201D

So recall the simple poem. If we treat other people as if they were fully human, we will treat them with mercy and love; if we treat them as fully human, we will be incapable of killing, threatening or dominating, even if certain groups are fingered as enemies by our political or military leaders.

If we understand and accept the ethical teachings of Jesus, we will then begin to question the wisdom and morality of having half of our federal income taxes expropriated for past and present military spending in a world where there need be no mortal enemies. And in reordering our ethical, political and economic lives is such a moral way, we will somehow be certain to receive the blessings Jesus promised to the peacemakers. Amen.

November 28, 2005