“Pray for our troops.”
Millions of signs and bumper stickers carry the message, and part of me likes it. But part of me keeps waiting for another bumper sticker – the one I still haven’t seen. Whether Jesus would drive an SUV, I’m still not sure. Truth is he’d probably ride the bus. Or the subway. But if he had money for a car and didn’t give it all away to the hookers and the homeless before he got to the used-car lot, I’m pretty sure that his bumper sticker would say “pray for our enemies.”
Before you write me off as a left-wing crackpot, consider what we know. During his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said three things relevant to the subject of war:
• Blessed are the peacemakers.
• Turn the other cheek.
• Pray for your enemies.
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Here’s something else we know. Three-quarters of the U.S. population consider themselves Christian. That translates into about 224 million Americans.
So why are so few of us taking the teachings of Jesus seriously when it comes to this latest war? Out here in the heartland, only a handful of churches are even talking about it.
The most plausible explanation is that we’re scared. Some things, it seems, may trump religion. Fear is one of them. If Christians are afraid (and who could blame them after 9/11?), it’s not surprising that they’re listening to other voices besides Jesus’ when it comes to the war in Iraq. So what should the three-fourths of Americans who identify themselves as “Christian” make of the Iraq war?
We could spend a lot of time debating whether St. Augustine’s “Just War Theory” can be stretched to accommodate our invasion of Iraq, but at this late date it really doesn’t matter. We invaded. And, if the Just War Theory means anything, it means that we shouldn’t leave Iraq in a bigger mess than we found it. Americans of faith, it would seem, are obligated to do at least the following:
• Express concern for all suffering, including that of our enemies. That means more than paying lip service. As James, the brother of Jesus, said, it does not suffice to tell a hungry man “God bless you!” or “We will pray for you!” We must address his hunger. The same can be said for the additional food, health care, police and countless other things the Iraqi people need. And, though an immediate withdrawal would be precipitous, we must work diligently to respond to the Iraqis’ desire that our troops leave as quickly as possible.
• Recommit ourselves to the fundamental principles of justice and human rights that have been a hallmark of our faith, as well as of our nation. That means no more secret prisons, no more secret trials and no more torture. America cannot resort to the worst practices of the Gulag (where citizens were declared “enemies of the state” and whisked away to Siberian work camps without the benefit of a fair trial or the assistance of counsel) and expect to be an accepted member of the world community, much less a leader of it.
• Repudiate the statements of any religious or political leader who suggests that America has a special claim on God. He may have a special claim on us, but we do not have a special claim on him. Our beloved nation is a civil state, not a religious one. There are no references to God in our Constitution. The only reference to religion – other than in the First Amendment – is found in Article VI, which proclaims that there will be no religious test for public office in the USA. The Founding Fathers gave us a secular state in which all religions are free to flourish or flounder on their own initiative without interference by the government. Those running around claiming we are “in the army of God” or slapping up copies of the Ten Commandments on government buildings threaten to turn us into the very sort of society we are fighting against in this new war.
• Force our elected officials to address the conditions that have given rise to global terrorism in the first place. Terrorism exists for a reason. One of those reasons is that our society has been far too unconcerned about the plight of Muslim people around the world. Why, for example, have we not instituted a mini-Marshall Plan for the millions of Palestinians who have often gone without adequate land, roads, hospitals and schools since the 1967 war with Israel? Corruption among Palestinian leaders has squandered billions in the past, but responsible partners on the ground can and must be found. Private foundations with a long history of engagement might be a good place to start.
Tackling terrorism’s roots
We need not and should not repudiate our long-standing alliance with Israel to accomplish this. It’s simply that our religious traditions teach us that to whom much is given, much is required. The irony, of course, is that it’s in our best interest to relieve Palestinian suffering. True, some terrorist leaders come from affluent families and cite Western worldliness and decadence as their motivation for jihad, but the economic factor cannot be ignored. There is no better recruiting ground for the troops of terror than the maddening monotony and grinding poverty of a refugee camp.
In ancient times, particular gods were associated with particular nations. “Tribal deities,” we call them. Today we know better. God is not the mascot of Republicans, Democrats or, for that matter, Americans. God transcends all national and political affiliations. His precinct is the universe.
America is in the deep woods. Never have we been less popular in the eyes of the world. Never have we faced so unsettling an enemy. But before we circle the wagons, Christians should get serious about following the teachings of the one by whose name we are called. He might just know the way out.
Oliver “Buzz” Thomas is a minister in Tennessee and author of an upcoming book, 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job).