January 12, 2003
By Brian McLaren
Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, MD
Dear Mr. President,
I will never forget the day the ballots finally revealed you as our nation’s 43rd president. I was listening to the radio. You were asked in an interview what you wanted to say to the American people, and you said, “We have to love one another,” and I thought, “This is a different kind of president indeed!”
Those hope-inspiring words, echoing the words of Jesus, said something about your sincere commitment as a Christian. They also signified, to me at least, that we are entering a profound new era, called by some a postmodern era. In the premodern era (before, say, 1500), church and state were one. In the modern era, the two wisely separated, but the state often marginalized the church and the spiritual life to a private sphere, excluded from public life, where the state reigned supreme. Or else the state admitted a domesticated civil religion to the public sphere as its chaplain, its justifier, its assistant, its baptizer, but not often as its peer or conscience or advisor.
But in the postmodern era, we realize that while spirituality and politics can and should be separate (for the benefit of both), they are best never to be dis-integrated or alienated or isolated, nor should one be subordinate to the other. Instead, like good neighbors partnering in a difficult task, like two wings on a flying bird, like two participants in an important dialogue, they each must be strong and free to give their best, respectfully interacting with one another as peers with distinct God-given roles.
Mr. President, I am a pastor, serving a congregation of ordinary Americans in the suburbs of Washington, DC. They’re good folk, a mix of GED’s and PhD’s, a mix of white, blue, and no collars, a mix of Democrats and Republicans (who get along pretty well most of the time!), a mix of skin tones and family shapes and sizes. Many of our members work for the government in various capacities, and many are current or retired military people for whom I have deep respect. Several are in the process of being deployed to the Middle East right now. I know you are very busy, and I doubt my words will ever reach your ears, but in case they do, I will seek to keep them brief and simple, in hopes that I, as a fellow Christian, can be of some help and encouragement to you at this difficult time of war and rumors of war.
In addition to our ongoing war against terrorism, we now face the imminent prospect of war with Iraq. I know that politics involves all kinds of gamesmanship and rhetorical maneuvering, requiring far more dexterity and skill than a halfback dodging between tacklers or a quarterback scrambling, faking, and weaving a pass between blocking hands to reach its target. I can understand that sometimes, to prevent a war leaders must make a strong stand by preparing for war. I know that enemies like Saddam Hussein are wily, deceitful, desperate, and dangerously ruthless, and that one must be as wise as a serpent (as Jesus said) in order to deal with them.
Jesus also said, though, that in our serpentine cleverness, we must remain as guileless as a dove, pure in heart as peacemakers, because the God who is real is a God of peace. Whatever clever tactics we must use to seek to prevent war, however we must bare our teeth and expose our claws to dissuade our attackers, we must reverence the harmless dove (God’s Spirit) who flies among us, within us. I have been asking myself what it means to be a true Christian in a time like this, facing war yet loving and seeking peace, wise as a serpent, yet innocent as a dove. So here are four reflections that have been resonant within me in recent days that I wish to share with you.
1. For the follower of Jesus, war must always be seen as a defeat, before the first shot is fired or the last body is buried. In the Scriptures, the voice of God through the prophets plants a dream in our hearts, a dream not of military power and victory, but of peace that makes military power and victories unnecessary. Many people think the prophets primary aim was to predict the future … and there is some little truth to that. But more important, I think, the prophets were helping form the future. They were making history and changing history in a very profound and powerful way: by reaching into the imagination of their hearers, by planting a dream in people’s hearts, a dream that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. This happened in the 7th century BC, when Isaiah was given this message to give to the people. In those days, the Jewish people were under threat from superpowers around them that threatened to overpower them. At a tense time like that, one would expect a rousing, “Let’s go get ‘em! Prepare for war!” kind of speech. But what the prophet says at this critical moment is stunning, surprising:
Many peoples will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths."
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD. (Isaiah 2:3-5)
At this dangerous time, when people were sharpening swords and forging spears, God plants in the hearts of the people a dream of peace, of a time when weapons will be melted down and recast as farming tools. True, they may still have to fight, but in their fighting, this dream from God will have taken root, reminding them that fighting will one day be obsolete, and that training for war was not God’s dream.
So, going to war is never a dream come true; it is always a nightmare come true, God’s best dream for us being temporarily defeated. Training for war is a reminder that the dream of God for planet earth is still frustrated, and taking up swords and spears (or tanks and bombs) means that one or both sides have failed, one or both sides have been defeated, have failed to let God “judge between nations” and “settle disputes for many peoples.”
Jesus resonated with this ancient prophet’s dream. In his day, many of his Jewish countrymen dreamed of being free from Roman oppression – a good dream. But to get free, many dreamed of slitting Roman throats – a nightmare, Jesus said. His strategy to achieve freedom and peace was stunningly different:
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-29)
Many have interpreted Jesus’ words as a mandate for all followers of Jesus to be strict pacifists. It is hard to contradict that interpretation, although there is a respectable counterargument in what is called “just war theory” that arises from several Biblical passages, and especially the writings of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. (Unfortunately, I don’t know of any wars ever being called off because theologians convinced anyone that a particular war was unjust in view of the theory, although many wars have been justified through the theory, often at the same time by opposite sides.) But in spite of just war theory, as followers of Jesus we must believe that if pacifism is not right for this or that particular war, it is only a matter of time. Someday, pacifism will be right for everyone, even if it isn’t now, and we should prepare our hearts for that day and long for it to come. In the meantime, it is clear that when war happens, a loving God weeps. After all, Jesus himself, by his way of living and dying, made it clear that God’s kingdom is better welcomed by suffering violence than by causing others to suffer violence. General Douglas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
I would add that for the Christian who is a soldier, his motivation to pray for peace is intensified by his concern for the scars of war suffered by his enemies. So, for the Christian, we must begin with God’s dream, God’s desire, God’s will for us … which is peace. This leads to my second reflection.
2. Whenever we talk of war, and if we must go to war, we must do so with sadness for all concerned. Jesus said we are to love our enemies, and if we love people, to see beloved enemies as the targets of bullets and bombs is a tragic thing.
I grew up, as you did, Mr. President, hearing Walter Cronkite’s weekly reports on the death toll in Viet Nam, first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. I remember the first time I heard Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sing, “Four dead in Ohio, four dead in Ohio, four dead in Ohio,” showing a different kind of casualty of the war, smaller in number but closer to home. But something I never heard, and still have never heard, is the death toll of the North Vietnamese. A decade ago, in the Gulf War (which I watched unfold while sitting at the bedside of my son, who was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia), I never heard the death toll even estimated of the Iraqis. Perhaps these numbers were never released, or never counted.
Colonel Samuel J.T. Boone, a chaplain in our Army and a Gulf War veteran, wrote,
“In the five months of Desert Shield, prior to Desert Storm, I took prayer requests every day during daily worship service. At every service, some American solder asked that we pray for our enemies. One staff sergeant noted, ‘…A mother’s wail at the loss of her son knows no language, race, or religion.’” (Colonel Samuel J.T. Boone)
In this war, Mr. President, if war must happen, I wonder if you would make history by being the first president to share the death toll of our enemy, not as a score of victory, but as another tragic cost of war? I wonder if you could teach the American people to mourn the death of Iraqi mothers’ sons along with our own? I wonder if you could, in this way, deepen our dread and hatred of war, so that if this war happens, it will bring us one war closer to the end of the nightmare, and the beginning of God’s dream for us? When Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn…” (Matthew 5:4)
I think it is this sort of situation he had in mind.
In our history, I think of Abraham Lincoln, whose sad, sad face – shown in nearly every old photograph and painting -- revealed a heart that was broken by war, a heart that took no joy even in victory in such a dirty business, but only relief that the nightmare was over. If we go to war, Mr. President, my prayer is that your face will show similar lines of sadness, not because I wish for you to be sad, but because I pray for you to be as good a man as Lincoln was, a man who knows the blessedness of mourning that Jesus spoke of. I often think that Lincoln’s sadness was intensified because the war he presided over was a civil war, a war between brothers. And then I think that from God’s perspective, every war is really a civil war, every war a battle between brothers.
Third, Mr. President, it’s important to remember that one doesn’t get a military exemption from the teachings of Christ. So, in light of Jesus’ words, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12)
it should never be easy to drop a bomb on them. In light of Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:44)
it should never be easy to load a machine gun with a belt of bullets. But if these things must be done (again, with a heavy heart, with a sense of defeat even before we begin), we must ask, “What do we wish others would do for us if they attacked us and made war against us?”
Three answers rush to my mind. First, I would wish that they would never forget that we are human beings. We are not faceless enemies. We are not gears or pistons in the machinery of an evil empire. We are not subhuman orcs from a Tolkein movie. We are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, lovers and friends, neighbors and colleagues. You reminded us of this again and again at the outset of our attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. You constantly referred to the people of Afghanistan as neighbors, even friends; you asked the children of America to send a dollar each to the children of Afghanistan. If war breaks out, Mr. President, please do this again, with no less passion and compassion. Be our moral leader even more powerfully than our military leader, and tell the world that we see even our enemies as human beings.
Second, if I ask how I wish our enemies would treat us if they went to war against us, I would wish that they would take every pain to avoid the loss of innocent life. So, if another fifteen minutes of preparation, another fifteen days of taking extra pains and precautions, if another fifteen hours of checking and rechecking satellite data or whatever other tools are at the disposal of military planners … if these extra efforts on our part could save a civilian family, a school girl, a teenager, and old grandfather … I hope we will take the extra effort. I am sure that this is always a concern, but Mr. President, I would wish and hope that you would double the concern, or triple it, or more.
And third, Mr. President, if I were the one being attacked, I would wish that my enemies would spend at least two dollars to repair whatever damage each dollar of weaponry caused. Jesus talked about walking the second mile, and perhaps today he would talk about paying the second dollar. If this means raising taxes, Mr. President, I for one will pay twice the taxes to have the chance to do right to the Iraqi people after the war – if we must go to war.
This would, I realize, triple the cost of war for us. But that would not be a bad thing at all. I think you’ll agree: war should be costly, too costly. A cheap, convenient, easy war could make it easy for us to become barbarians, abusing the power and wealth which we have been given, and for which we will be held accountable as stewards. When we add the high cost of postwar rebuilding to the high cost of war to begin with, we will be more likely to seek creative alternatives to war. We may realize that it would be a bargain to be more generous, to use our money to make friends through wise generosity and humanitarian development rather than using it to make enemies through foreign war.
So, if you and our other national leaders can not find a good alternative to going to war, we must remember after the fighting ends: there is a high cost to being cheap. If we wound but do not heal, the memories of our enemies will keep track of our debt, which will accrue a high rate of interest, perhaps for decades if not centuries. This is one of the consequences of victory, which can be even more dangerous than the consequences of defeat. That final cost of victory may be multiplied a thousand times over our initial expenditure on bombs, bullets, and MRE’s, compared to twice that expenditure on aid immediately after the war.
4. Finally, Mr. President, even if we must prepare for war, up until the very, very, very last minute, I would hope that you would keep asking (and praying), “Can we wait another day? Can we pursue another option? Can we see any other way ahead? Can this cup pass from us?” I will never forget the day in 1994 I heard on the radio news that Nelson Mandela had been elected as president of South Africa. When I thought of the bloodshed that his election precluded, when I thought of the tenure of injustice and oppression that his election ended, my heart leapt with joy. I was driving down the highway, listening to the radio, and tears of joy brimmed in my eyes.
Mr. President, if you fight and win a war in the spirit I have described above, I think the whole world will look back with gratitude that you were elected president. And if you manage to avoid a war while increasing the security of our little planet, our gratitude will overflow in tears of joy and pride, and history will never forget that you represent one of the peacemakers whom Jesus said are truly blessed.
Well, I promised to be brief, and perhaps I have broken that promise. This is my sermon for you. I do not envy you or your associates in making these grave decisions. I know it is easy for others to criticize from the sidelines, easy for pundits and commentators to chide or mock, but they would find it very different if they walked in your shoes, sat at your desk, slept and woke with your pressures on their minds and hearts.
Perhaps I am saying things so obvious that they don’t need to be said. Saying them, of course, is not enough, so I and my congregation will pray for you, and for our world, and for our enemies, and for peace, during these difficult days. May God bless you, and may God bless America, and may God bless our enemies, and may God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.