Sunday, January 28, 2007

Stop The Idiocy

Early on the morning of Saturday, January 27th, four of us (Cynthia, Phoebe & Drick Boyd, and Laura Rosenberger) loaded into our car for Washington, DC to join nearly 100,000 like-minded folks on the National Mall in front of the Capitol Building. Our purpose was to urge our government, particularly our Congresspersons, to use their power to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, and to oppose President’s Bush’s plan to send a “surge” of 21,000 more soldiers to that embattled country.

One could not have asked for a nicer January day for such an event. The sun was shining and the temperature was pleasant. But more than the weather, the spirit of the rally was positive and upbeat. There were drummers, and jugglers and people with all kinds of costumes and signs. Speakers representing all sorts of organizations from anti-war groups like Code Pink and United for Peace and Justice, to military vets and families of current and past soldiers, to well known celebrities and politicians praised us for our presence and exhorted us to chants, cheers and songs. I was particularly struck by the diversity of age and race in the crowd. This was not just a young person’s or an older person's or a white person's or a black person’s march; it was a march that represented the diverse demographic that is the United States.

What brought me there was a strong sense that our policies toward Iraq would only deepen the crisis that already exists there. Someone once wrote that idiocy is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. By that definition President Bush’s Iraq policy is idiocy. I am neither pro-war nor pro-military, but when patriotic types and military personnel question the wisdom of the Bush policy, and. when a group of seasoned diplomats like the Baker-Hamilton Commission counsel a different approach, one can be assured that the current approach is idiocy.

I am no expert on Mideast policy or of the Arab-Muslim mindset. Yet, it is apparent that our presence in Iraq only enflames an already explosive situation. The leaders of Iraq must be forced to end the hostilities between their competing factions. While U.S. personnel are being injured and killed, even more so the Iraqi people are suffering in the current violence. Iraq’s neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Syria and Turkey, as well Muslim states like Egypt and Algeria, must use their influence to end the hostilities. U.S. diplomatic efforts should center on engaging these nations in working with the Iraq government to find a path for peace.

U.S. policy has led to massive death and violence. Adding soldiers and firepower to the current situation will only add to the death toll and increase the violence. The idiocy of the Bush policy is that it seeks to do more of the same, vainly hoping for a different result. What is needed is not more troops, but a different approach.

As one who thinks of himself as a Christian peacemaker, my prayer and hope is that a Muslim peace movement might arise not only in the U.S. but more importantly across the Mideast. Missing from Saturday’s demonstration was a strong Muslim presence. While most people see the “war on terror” as a battle of Arabs against the United States, in a very real sense it is an intra-Muslim conflict. By this I don’t mean to suggest that U.S. actions haven’t contributed greatly to the problem, because indeed they have. What I mean is that if groups such as al-Quaeda don’t represent mainstream Muslim thinking, then Muslims must silence them. If the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq is out of control, them cooler, wiser Muslim heads must prevail. Muslims who yearn for peace must take center stage.

For too long the powers of the world, starting with the U.S., have resorted to war and violence and criticized efforts of diplomacy and peacemaking as “unrealistic.” From where I sit, war in Iraq has done a pretty lousy job of saving lives and increasing security. Furthermore, the weapons of war are too dangerous to be used judiciously. War has been tried and been found wanting; its time for peacemakers to stand between the warring factions and say “enough is enough.” I would hope that as peacemakers across the globe and across the religious spectrum, we could raise up an army of reconciliation. Now that would be a rally that could stop the idiocy!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Biblical Language and Life as a Battle: Some Thoughts

I have been a committed pacifist for much of my adult life. Recently, I have come to realize that peacemaking is not only about opposing war; it also involves conceiving of life in a different way. In this quest for peacemaking at a deeper level, I have looked to the Bible for guidance. However, I am troubled by the violence and battle language I find there.

My pacifism has largely arisen out of my study of the Bible and church history. As a Baptist pastor in the early 1990’s, I spoke out publicly against the first Gulf War. I received a great deal of criticism from people both inside and outside the church for that stand. This criticism prompted me to engage in an extensive study of peace theology in the Bible and early church history. I came out of that study convinced that when one used the life and ministry of Jesus as the starting point, the Bible supported a pacifist position. Furthermore, it was clear from a study of early church history that for the first 300 years of their existence, Christians were largely non-violent and opposed to participation in military service.

However, when we look at the Bible as a whole, and not just at Jesus, we see that God is often portrayed in militaristic and violent terms. Exodus 15.3 proclaims “God is a warrior.” The Old Testament is full of stories where God leads people into battle to defeat the enemies of the Jews. Furthermore, God is often depicted as commanding people to completely destroy their enemies, their houses and their livestock in accordance with the Hebrew concept of “the ban” (see Numbers 21.1-3; Deuteronomy 20, Joshua 7-8). To my mind “the ban” is not much different than the Islamic idea of “jihad” or “holy war.” Now granted, God often won those battles in unconventional ways like having Gideon only take soldiers who drank water a certain way (Judges 7) or Moses holding up his arms (Exodus 17), or Joshua walking around the city of Jericho seven times (Joshua 6). At other times angels appeared and scared off the enemies of the Jews. Even so, Yahweh is portrayed as a warrior God who vanquishes the enemies of his people.

Furthermore, when Jesus was recognized as the Messiah, one of the disconcerting things about him to the Jews of his time is that he was not a conquering king. Jewish tradition had prepared them to expect a warrior Messiah and Jesus did not fit that role. Even so, it appears that Jesus did not erase the image of a warrior king, he only postponed it. For in his vision of the Second Coming, John depicts the apocalyptic Christ as a mighty warrior who comes to slay the enemies of God (see Revelation 19.11-21). “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32. 35; Romans 12.19). Believers get their retribution, just a little later

Moreover, the spiritual life itself is often described using military and battle imagery. In Psalm 80.1 God is invoked to do battle with the enemy:

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel…
Awaken your might and come and save us

Psalm 137.9 calls on God to seize the infants of the Babylonians and “dash them against the rocks.”

Paul explicitly calls on this battle imagery in Ephesians 6 when he says

Finally be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the devil’s schemes (vss. 10-11).

Furthermore, Paul refers to the spiritual life as a battle “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil” (vs. 12).
Now certainly there are other images of God found in Scripture (Redeemer, Savior, Midwife, Shelter), but one can not deny how often God is associated with violence and battle.

Philosophers of language have pointed out that the words people use reflect their thought forms, and in turn those thought forms profoundly influence the paradigms or cognitive lens through which they interpret events in the world. The Biblical writers lived in a violent time and were under constant physical threat from foreign armies. Furthermore, some of their own leaders were ruthless military leaders. They drew on imagery and language that was familiar to them: the imagery of battle. By extension the Bible profoundly influences the words most Christians use and the ways they think about their lives in the world. The preponderance of biblical violence and battle imagery can not help but cause Christians to see their lives in terms of a battle against temptation, against evil, and against those who oppose or obstruct the things of God.

In the introduction to Terror in the Mind of God (a study of religiously-based terrorism), sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer asks “Why does religion seem to need violence and violence religion, and why is a divine mandate for destruction accepted with such certainty by some believers?” (p. 7). While it is a large leap from reading the Bible to someone like Timothy McVeigh bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in part the answer to that question lies in the battle mindset embedded in the Scriptural narrative. We are set up for violence by the underlying polarities in the Scripture. Increasingly, I struggle with the tension between my convictions for peace-making (which is Jesus –centered and Biblically based) and the violence and battle mentality so prevalent in the Bible.

Parker Palmer suggests that we reconceptualize the spiritual life as a journey rather than a battle. His comment underscores the important point that all language about God is at best metaphorical and symbolic. People use images and words familiar to them to describe a Presence and a Spirit they can not literally see or touch. The language we use does not describe the reality of God as much as it helps us talk intelligently about transcendent realities beyond our full comprehension. Perhaps as Palmer suggests we need to embrace other biblical imagery for the spiritual life other than life as a battle, weaning at the breast of a nursing mother (Psalm 131)or as a process of growth from seed to plant (Mark 4.1-20).

At this point I have more questions than answers, because I find myself confused and troubled by the fact that I worship and serve a God who seems to be so violent. Collins concludes his study of Biblical violence by suggesting that the Biblical depictions of violence give “an unvarnished picture of human nature of the dynamics of history” (p. 31). I seek to live a life of peacemaking that does not ignore that unvarnished picture of human nature. We live in a violent world. I believe that realistic pacifism must engage that world in part by helping people see themselves and others in new ways. That’s why the issue of language and mindset concerns me so deeply.