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Peace is Patriotic
Reflections for the Fourth of July

For Sunday July 2, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15; 2:23–24
           Psalm 130 or Psalm 30 or Lamentations 3:23–33
           2 Corinthians 8:7–15
           Mark 5:21–43

Chris Hedges.
Chris Hedges.

           However else you might characterize the Bible, some parts of it are so gruesome that you wonder why the writers included them in a sacred book. The Old Testament reading for this week recounts David's lament at the death of king Saul. Turn back one page in your Bible and you can read about what today we would call a war crime: "The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his [decapitated] body to the wall of Beth Shan" (1 Samuel 31:8–10; cf. 1 Chronicles 10:10).

           Right after reading about the mutilation of Saul's corpse, I happened to read an interview with Chris Hedges (War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) in which he recalled what he had seen in twenty years as a war correspondent. His war narrative is separated from king Saul's by 3,000 years, but the two accounts are eerily similar. In war, says Hedges, "routine death becomes boring. It's why you would go into central Bosnia and see bodies crucified on the sides of barns, or why in El Salvador genitals were stuffed in people's faces—mutilation, you know, the body as sort of trophy, the body as a kind of performance art."1

General Peter Pace and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
General Peter Pace and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

            Nailing Saul's beheaded corpse to the wall of a Philistine temple, and the bodies of young soldiers to Bosnian barns, are horrific reminders of the true nature of war, whether ancient or modern. They stand in stark contrast to the sanitized sound bites of embedded reporters or the propaganda of government spokesmen. So do My Lai (1968), dragging dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu (1993), torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib (2003), hanging the naked and charred bodies of four American soldiers from a bridge over the Euphrates River (2004), and murdering two dozen civilians in Haditha. You might explain these desecrations as rare exceptions committed by deranged individuals, but I believe that Hedges is right when he characterizes them as "an inevitable consequence of war." They peel back the rhetorical veneer of war to reveal its true nature as what he calls "almost pure sin."

           If you want to know what real war is like, says Hedges, listen to the losers. The vanquished are better guides than the victors:

They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war. The vanquished know the essence of war—death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.2

In a spiral of violence begetting violence, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, and the losers savor their bitter memories of the past in hopes of revenge in the future. This is why Slobodan Milosevic's war rhetoric reached back to Serbia's humiliation by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, or why when King David learned of Saul's death he executed the messenger who brought the news. Instead of waging peace David lamented the demise of Israel's military might: "How the mighty have fallen / the weapons of war have perished!" (2 Samuel 1:27).

           Some wars appear necessary, even unavoidable. For all his passionate opposition to war Hedges admits that some wars are a "moral imperative." The gist of Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell is precisely that—the moral failure of the United States to intervene to stop genocides in places like Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur. When we lived in Moscow (1991–1995) Russian war veterans in their seventies would smile and grab our hands on the sidewalk at a metro station, thanking America for what we did in World War II—"we were allies against Hitler!," they would exclaim. But war as a regrettable last resort, when every eligible citizen-soldier does his part, is different than the unilateral and pre-emptive use of military force, when waged by the proxy of a professional army and as a de facto tool of diplomacy.

Noam Chomsky.
Noam Chomsky.

            In recent years a growing number of observers have lamented what the cultural conservative Andrew Bacevich calls "the new American militarism." Our military idolatry, Bacevich believes, is now so comprehensive and beguiling that it "pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies." We have normalized war, romanticized military life that formally was deemed degrading and inhuman, measured our national greatness in terms of military superiority, and harbored naive, unlimited expectations about how waging war, long considered a tragic last resort that signaled failure, can further our national self-interests. Utilizing a "military metaphysic" to justify our misguided ambitions to recreate the world in our own image, with ideals that we imagine are universal, has taken about thirty years to emerge in its present form. It is a problem not merely of the government or of any single administration, says Bacevich, but of American society at large.

           When we moved to Moscow in September 1991 a defrocked dissident priest named Gleb Yakunin was grabbing headlines. During the Soviet period Yakunin was a champion of religious freedom and a harsh critic of the Russian Orthodox Church's cooperation with the government. Because of his prophetic stance he was barred from the priesthood, imprisoned for five years, banished to internal exile for another five years, and then finally released in 1987. After his release he continued his outspoken criticisms as a political leader in Russia's emerging democracy, and eventually was elected to the parliament. When he published materials from the newly accessible KGB archives about church leaders who served as KGB agents, and demanded that the Orthodox Church publicly repent, the patriarchy had enough. In 1997 it excommunicated him from the church.

Father Gleb Yakunin.
Father Gleb Yakunin.

           A few weeks ago I was watching a book program on C-Span and was shocked to see Noam Chomsky giving a speech at West Point. A professor of linguistics from MIT who describes himself as a libertarian socialist and the United States as one of the world's "leading terrorist states" speaking at our military academy?! The show reminded me of the remarkable privilege, opportunity and even obligation that we have of dissent. Specifically Christian dissent, like Yakunin's, that reminds believers and church leaders how uncritical allegiance to state ideology threatens Christian integrity, is one of the greatest services that Christians can offer their country. So, although I do not recommend getting your theology from bumper stickers, I do pray that our country will turn from its militaristic ways and proudly embrace peace as patriotic.

For further reflection:

* What has been your experience of war?
* How do you see Christians responding to the ethics of war?
* What are the implications of the fact that 70–90% of war deaths are civilian?
* Do you think our country would think differently about militarism if we had compulsory conscription?
* How do we honor the sacrifices made by our soldiers while dissenting from militaristic ideology?
* See Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

[1] Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, January 31, 2003, Episode no. 622. See
[2] New York Review of Books, December 16, 2004.

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