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Keep Us Safe

For Sunday April 3, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Acts 2:14a, 22–43
           Psalm 16
           1 Peter 1:3–9
           John 20:19–31

Teenage soldiers in the Congo
Teenage soldiers in the Congo

           You know a good prayer when you hear it. The best prayers, those that are most authentic and heartfelt, those shorn of tired cliches and pious platitudes, are often our shortest prayers. The writer Anne Lamott insists that she has prayer down to one word: "Help!" The Psalmist for this week utters a prayer notable for its brevity, tenderness and power. It is just four words, and you can pray it at any time, at any place, for any reason: "Lord, keep me safe" (Psalm 16:1). It is a prayer rich with pastoral and political ramifications.

           The Psalmist's prayer implicitly acknowledges what we all know from experience, that far too much of our world, for far too many people, is not a safe place. For many the world is a horror of devastation and destruction, vulnerability and sorrow. In a favorite hymn of mine, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) admitted that ours is a "world with devils filled, that threaten to undo us." Still, the Hebrew Psalmist is confident about the God whom he worships; he is a God who counsels and instructs, and to be sure "he will not abandon us" (Psalm 16:7, 10). In an unsafe world He is a God of protection, preservation and refuge.

           Today far too many people suffer the ravages of a world at war. Right now there are about fifteen so-called "major wars" in the world, defined by the United Nations as wars that inflict at least 1,000 military deaths per year. In addition, there are over twenty "lesser" conflicts. But things are worse than the UN criterion might suggest, for it used to be that wars killed mainly combatants. In World War I, for example, only about 5% of the casualties were civilians. Today more than 75% of war casualties are non-combatants. For these millions of people the world is very unsafe. Consider three examples.

           On March 20, the world marked the beginning of the third year of the Iraq war. Many people protested; others pointed to encouraging signs. It will take a generation to learn whether Iraq evolves into the first democratic government among the twenty-two Arab states, or devolves and destabilizes that region even further. You can find evidence, statistics, and pundits for both views (for under-reported good news on Iraq, see one of the many sites like But this much is already crystal clear: the costs for two years of war, with no end or exit strategy in sight, have been stratospheric.

Darfur refugees in Sudan
Darfur refugees in Sudan

           In economic terms, based upon estimates from congressional appropriations, the United States has spent about $158 billion for the Iraq war. For that same amount of money we could have fully funded global anti-hunger programs for six years, worldwide AIDS programs for fifteen years, or provided basic immunizations for every child in the world for fifty-two years. I have wondered what our world might look and feel like today if the Christian United States, in a preemptive and unilateral decision, purely from motives of self-interest and international security, had invested $158 billion in the Muslim world for health care and hospitals, schools and AIDS clinics, micro-enterprise and cultural institutions. God knows, their own governments have hardly done so. The political costs of the war, in terms of America's international credibility, dangerous precedents, our fractured country, and incredulous allies have also been high, at least as counted by the majority of our global neighbors.

           And what of the human toll, mainly paid by innocent civilians? So far in Iraq, about 1700 coalition soldiers have been killed. Estimates vary for civilians, but those deaths number upwards of 20,000, meaning 90% of the war deaths have been civilian. Every week I visit a friend in the local Veterans Hospital, and as I walk the corridors I glance into the rooms of former soldiers who have been maimed by war in body, mind and spirit, many for life. In addition to bodily injury, many of these brave people suffer from lifelong psychological and emotional damage, for as William Sloane Coffin Jr. observed, war might transform some young boys into men, but it also turns many human beings into animals. Prison torture reminded us of that, as have the recent revelations that American troops have murdered 26 prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002.1

           In Sudan's western Darfur region, Africans are systematically killing Africans in an "intrastate" war. Two million people out of a population of four million have been displaced. Their homes have been razed, their wells poisoned, their subsistence agricultural economy ruined, their women systematically raped and branded, and their villages destroyed. This on top of twenty years of drought and famine that the government has wielded as a weapon of war. It is hard to know Darfur's death toll from war, disease and starvation, because the government, through its proxy militia the Janjaweed (literally, "devils on horseback"), has vowed to target foreigners and international aid workers who could provide reliable analyses. Recently the United Nations withdrew its staff because conditions were too dangerous. Estimates suggest that 350,000 people have died in Darfur's genocide.

           The most under-reported war, certainly relative to its death toll, has been the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) that has involved at least eight other African nations. Since 1998 when the war started, according to the International Rescue Committee, about 3 million people have perished. With a population of about 50 million Congolese, from about 200 different ethnic groups (none of which is a majority), that is 6% of the population. A comparitive figure for our own country would be 17 million deaths out of a population of 280 million. Millions more Congolese have been displaced or fled to countries that are barely more stable. Even though this war is officially "over" after numerous peace accords, the economic, political, cultural, social, and human costs are mind-numbing.

           The wars in Iraq, Sudan, and Congo, and those in Chechnya, Palestine, Rwanda, Kashmir and around the world, did not have to happen. They do not have to continue. They indict our failure of international will, political imagination, moral integrity, and basic good will toward fellow human beings. From an economic viewpoint wars are irrational, as Jeffrey Sachs observes in his new book The End of Poverty (2005):

In 1910, a leading British pundit, Norman Angell, wrote The Great Illusion, which rightly argued that national economies had become so interdependent, so much part of a global division of labor, that war among the economic leaders had become unimaginably destructive. War, Angell warned, would so undermine the network of international trade that no military venture by a European power against another could conceivably lead to economic benefits for the aggressor. He surmised that war itself would cease once the costs and benefits of war were more clearly understood.

Angell was correct, economically-speaking, but as Sachs observes, he grossly underestimated human irrationality. Just a few years after Angell published his book, World War I, a Great Depression, then World War II, unleashed catastrophic consequences, economic and otherwise, for all the world.

Mass grave at Ovcara, Croatia
Mass grave at Ovcara, Croatia

           In the spring of 2003 I lectured at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia. Twelve years earlier, in June 1991, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. The Serbs would not have it and surrounded Vukovar, only about twenty minutes from the seminary, on all four sides so that people could not escape. Tanks rumbled down residential neighborhoods; combat raged from house to house. Vukovar epitomized a hellish war that, as a student of mine put it, “had no rules.” It fell to the Serbs on November 18, 1991. As I walked through the streets of Vukovar with my host that spring, trees grew out of what used to be living rooms and kitchens. At the train station I scooped up a handful of shrapnel that now sits on my bookshelf.

           Vukovar provided one of the best documented and thoroughly investigated cases of horrific war crimes. Today web pages feature photos of soldiers proudly displaying the decapitated heads of the enemy. Of special note was the case of the Vukovar hospital. On November 20, 1991, the Serbs raided the hospital and loaded up nearly 300 patients, medical staff and civilians. They drove these Croats outside of town a few kilometers to Ovcara, where they slaughtered them and dumped them into a mass grave. Today on that road to Ovcara signs still warn you of land mines.

            As I stood silently in the sweltering sun by that mass grave in Ovcara, I felt overwhelmed. What did my two seminary students who were from Vukovar remember of all of this? How had it scarred their psyches? What were the bus loads of children who came here for field trips told? Were they told, “see what these bastards did to us? Revenge will be ours some day.”? Or were they told, “love your neighbor and don’t ever let something like this happen again.”? What did the elderly people from the capital of Zagreb (four hours away) think and feel when they came here to make their peace with history?

           Christian prayer to stop war is thus both a pastoral and a political act. We pray for soldiers and civilians alike, for governments and diplomats, for peace makers and treaty negotiators, for Iraqis and Congolese, Palestinians and Chechnyans, as much as for Americans: "Lord, keep us safe. Somehow. Some way. Save us from our warring impulses. Please, keep us safe."

[1] See Thomas Friedman, "George W. to George W.," The New York Times (March 24, 2005). None of these homicides occured in Abu Ghraib.

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