On Memorial Day I took our youth group to help feed the hungry in downtown Seattle. Bread of Life, a Christian non-profit, sponsored the picnic—their goal was to feed homeless veterans. We served over 500, though the majority were not veterans. Nonetheless, Bread of Life put on a short worship service, a former beauty queen sang “America the Beautiful,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the U.S.A,” with the line, “… at least I know I’m free.” It’s Seattle so during this worship and picnic, it rained. As I looked at those faces of the homeless, I wondered, “Can they relate to that line, ‘at least I know I’m free’”—they looked to me neither proud nor free, but bound by hunger, desperation and loneliness. Our group did the best we could to salve their wounds.
I wanted to follow up on my last post where I considered Obama’s recent speech on the “War on Terror” (See Andrew Bacevich’s brilliant piece on naming America’s war(s) of empire: http://www.juancole.com/2013/05/forever-speak-bacevich.html). I suggested that he was trying to lay out a careful justification, based on a theory of just war, that despite the civilian causalities, drone warfare was not only just but effective. And I suggested that Niebuhr’s “proximate justice” was an implicit theoretical background for this form of war. At the same time, I argued that Obama follows in the line of a type of Social Gospel extending from the early 20th century through to the neoconservative movement embodied most potently in George W. Bush. I argued that this is an Evangelical Civic Gospel nicely represented in the worship that I experienced at Bread of Life: God, country, duty and patriotism, all celebrated in a robust civil religion.
In a recent reflection on Obama’s speech by Glenn Greenwald, in which he quotes Ross Douthat http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/05/27-5, Obama’s speech is called by Douthat, “preening pageantry,” and by Greenwald, “heavy on feel good rhetoric” hiding policies with little real difference from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush’s policy of “preemption,” may have sounded high-minded, but is, in essence, a form of “crusade.” That is, an attack by a state that is not made in defense but preemptively to kill an enemy before they attack you. There is nothing in Augustine or Aquinas that justifies this kind of war. Both Bush and Obama, in this sense, are tied to a primitive form of retribution that has no relation to the Jesus that they both profess to follow.
As I mentioned in my last post, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas represent a contemporary incarnation of the pacifist position. They argue that neither just war nor preemption reflect the spirit of Jesus. They argue that just war and preemption are loyal first to state power and are always and only interested in that power; any claim to justice, by definition, is a mere rationalization for power. By definition then, a Christian cannot simultaneously be loyal to the state and to Christ, and so citizens must choose—Christ or Caesar.
In the early centuries of the Christian Church, as Christianity became more identified with state power, the distinction of church and state disappeared. And by Augustine, in the 4th century, with his construction of Just War Theory, Christians cozied up to the state rationalizing their participation in the cover of its violence. And since then, few Christians walk the lonely path of pacifism.
As I mentioned, Quakers and some Mennonites still identify as pacifists today; others do as well, but it’s never been a majority position and, by definition, at least sociologically, it tends to be sectarian—no state could or would find a reason to adopt it.
Strikingly, recent examples of megachurch pastors have taken hard lines against war, Greg Boyd, Rob Bell and even Bill Hybels. Hybels preached a sermon before the Iraq War, defining the options—realism, just war and pacifism, and then came out for pacifism. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/magazine/28Evangelicals-t.html?pagewanted=6&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Organizations/L/Los%20Angeles%20Philharmonic&_r=1&. Each of these three pastors paid a price—the loss of members from their congregations—the worse thing that can happen to a megachurch pastor.
It puts a whole different shine on that Memorial Day service we attended on Monday. I’m sure the Bread of Life organization has fine intentions, but at what price does it pay for its loyalty to the state relative to its service to the poor? The Pentecostal Army Chaplain who led the service said, “Soldiers hate war.” And I thought, “Then why do they go?” Reinhold Niebuhr would argue, “Stopping evil and limiting death saves lives.” But doesn’t that eventually lead one to justify war, or more pointedly, preemptive war as a way to police one’s empire? And the answer seems to be it does, at least in the United States. Yoder and Hauerwas would argue that Niebuhr sacrifices his soul for the porridge of state status. No matter which option one chooses, it seems to me, Christians (and people of good conscience everywhere) should have an uneasy conscience when it comes to these matters—I know I do.
Check out Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church; Rob Bell and Don Golden’s Jesus Wants to Save Christians: Learning to Read a Dangerous Book.