Monday, April 24, 2006

Christians, War, and Peace

January 30, 2005

By Stephen L. White

Episcopal Church at Princeton University
Princeton University Chapel

Do you remember Eric Severeid? He was a pioneer TV journalist and at the end of his career was the nightly commentator on the CBS Evening News opposite "America's uncle," Walter Cronkite. He retired and went off the air in 1981.

In one of his opinion pieces, Severeid very famously said: "The major cause of problems are solutions."

I remembered that wise saying as I read through the lessons on peace [Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 37:1-6; 1 Cor 1:18-31; Mat 5:1-12] appointed for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Listen again to some of the key phrases from each of the readings:

> From St. Matthew: "Blessed are the meek, the righteous, the merciful...Blessed are the peacemakers."

> From First Corinthians: "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God."

> From Psalm 37: "Do not fret yourself over evildoers... Put your trust in the Lord and do good."

> And from the prophet Micah: "...the Lord has a controversy with his people... do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God..."

When Severeid said, "The major cause of problems are solutions," he was speaking of Vietnam. It was true that communists in the north of the Indochina peninsula were behind a massive insurgency in the south and that was perceived as a problem for democracies everywhere. The solution was first to send in massive amounts of military resources to fight the insurgency. That policy failed. And then, when that was not working, there was an attempt to "win the hearts and the minds" of the people by democratizing South Vietnam, American-style. That failed too.

The "solutions" to the problems in Vietnam resulted in between 1.2 and 3.1 million people dead in the American phase of the Vietnam War. But we usually only hear about the 58,000 Americans who died there.

Back then there were other solutions offered by people who, in their own way, were every bit as courageous as those fighting in the jungles in Vietnam. they were the ones calling for peace and for a cessation of the war. It took courage to say this, especially in the early days of the anti-war movement, because communism was then seen as the great evil force in the world that had to be opposed at all costs. We thought our freedom and liberty were at stake in every conflict, no matter how small or where it was fought. But people like Daniel and Philip Berrigan reminded us not to fret ourselves over evildoers and that peacemakers are always--always--the big winners in the end.

Sadly, those who are Christian leaders are not always the best source of wisdom concerning matters of war and peace. Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman of New York advised President Johnson as follows with regard to the North Vietnamese: "Bomb them, just bomb them." Billy Graham, the quintessential evangelical Christian, was at lunch with Johnson and Spellman when Spellman said this, and Graham remained quiet. And so a couple of million people died.

The interesting thing about matters of war and peace in the world is that there are at least two sets of language that are employed in our deliberations and we often mix them up. That is to say, there is the "world's" language, the language of Caesar. And there is the language of the Bible and of the risen Christ. We tend to mix them to suit our purposes. But it is clear that Caesar and Christ have different answers--different solutions--to the same problems.

The solution that worked for Caesar and the Roman Empire was one that we might summarize--and here I am borrowing from John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed's In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom--as "peace through victory" or implicit faith in a sequence of "piety, war, victory, and peace." Crossan and Reed suggest that the Roman world accepted this worldview as normal--how could things be otherwise? So you get the Pax Romana, but at an awful price in human suffering.

The alternative that St. Paul put forth--and this is what made Christianity radical than and makes it radical now--is a vision of "peace through justice." This vision was and still is based on a faith in the sequence of "covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace."

Covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. That is the counter-cultural unifying thread for all our readings tonight. We are put on notice about this theme in the Collect of the Day where we ask God " our time grant us your peace..." Your peace--that is, God's peace, not the world's version of peace, not Caesar's peace. In our time, not at the end of time. We ask, in other words, for the peace of the kingdom of God here and now, not for a peace that we await in the afterlife or for a peace that is transitory or that is only available to victors.

The biblical lessons concerning peace mentioned above suggest to us why there is such a noticeable difference in the peace that Caesar offers and the peace of Christ.

To achieve the peace of God through justice we must be just. We must walk with God. We must be meek, righteous, poor in spirit, merciful, and hungry for peace. We must not fret ourselves because of evildoers. We must trust God. We must walk humbly with our God. Humbly--not with the self-assurance and arrogance of those who now make war and plan for future wars--but humbly.

If you aspire to a life in politics, this is not a winning platform, this Christian vision of peace through justice. And I do want to emphasize that this, indeed, is the Christian agenda in its purest form. As the crusades of the 11th and 13th centuries as well as experiences from our own recent history point out, this vision of peace through justice has not been much identified with Christianity. In fact, it is the Roman paradigm of peace through victory that has most closely resembled the message that much of organized Christianity has preached to the world in a kind of echo chamber of the church telling the world what it wanted to hear. And even now some Christian leaders are enthusiastic about rumblings in the press about possible American military action against Iran. Once again we hear Christian leaders advising our president to "Bomb them, just bomb them."

Where is the true source of peace in our time or in any time? Is it through vanquishing the enemy or loving him? Killing and humiliating him or reassuring him justice? Does the solutuion we embrace to a problem bring real peace in our time or cause more problems?

And is the gulf between the way the world really works and the life the risen Christ beckons us so wide that it is not possible for a modern world power to embrace any other paradigm than Caesar's peace through victory, no matter what the cost? If so, we have to ask ourselves a question that is deeply and profoundly disturbing, a question that challenges our most cherished assumptions about who we are as a people. Brace yourself, because you're not going to like this. If the Christian vision is peace through justice, not peace through victory, then to what extent can America be Christian?

Mabe the historian Barbara Tuchman was right when she wrote in her 1978 book A Distant Mirror: "Christianity in its ideas was never the art of the possible." We might ask ourselves what each of us can do to prove her wrong.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

May God's peace be with us all in our time.