Ten years ago this week, Leah and I joined a group of peacemakers in Baghdad during our government’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The experience has shaped the rest of our life. As I remember the millions of people, both Iraqi and American, whose lives have been affected, a reflection on what I learned there:
I am sitting in the lobby of a small hotel in Baghdad, listening to an American grandmother who has spent her last six months in Iraq. She is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a literal reserves for foot soldiers in the army of the Lord. Since 1986, CPT has made it their mission to “get in the way” of violence by practicing direct action nonviolence in conflict zones. I grew up singing camp songs about being in “the Lord’s army,” but never imagined the call of duty would lead me here. I am in a war zone, my head foggy from several nights of interrupted sleep, looking to a wiser soul for direction.
Many of CPT’s Iraqi friends are suggesting that we leave. Saddam Hussein’s regime is crumbling, the city is under siege, and every night brings another series of bombs that shake the earth beneath us. We have been eager to know what we can do, but the locals know too well how little can be done when every night is spent hunkered down with the kids, listening to air raid sirens and waiting to see if the roof comes crashing in on you. Why be here if you don’t have to be—if it’s not your home, your kids, your city that you’re praying will be spared from this madness?
In the distance, somewhere out on the city’s edge, we hear bombing begin again. This brings a pause to the morning report, and I look around this circle of twenty peacemakers to gauge the general level of anxiety. An older gentleman across from me, his hands crossed on his lap, has his face turned up to the sky from which the bombs are falling. He begins to sing:
I remember a few days ago hearing a reporter ask this man if he was afraid. “Oh, yes, I’m afraid,” he said calmly. Then, with a slight smile, he added, “but maybe not for the reason you think. I’m not afraid of dying. My life belongs to God. But I am afraid of the belief that war brings freedom. I am afraid to sit at home while this kind of violence is carried out by my government. I am afraid that what Martin Luther King said is true: our only choice now is between nonviolence and nonexistence.”
We decide to stay, at least for the time being, and we survive the bombing. A couple of days later, I go home as siege turns to occupation and terrorist cells spring up with the single mission of driving out US troops by any means necessary. CPT stays to accompany Iraqis through check-points manned by teenagers from the Midwest, to inquire about accusations of abuse at prisons, to train a Muslim Peacemaker Team, to say over and again, “Another way is possible.”
The witness of Christian Peacemaking Teams, strange as it may seem, has a long precedent among God’s people. When Moses declared to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” he had no power to liberate the Hebrew children from slavery. But Moses had met the living God in a burning bush and was filled with holy boldness to declare that God could make a way out of no way. In a different context, when Babylon was the world power to deal with, three Israelites refused to bow down to a statue of the king and were thrown into a furnace of fire as punishment. The way the book of Daniel remembers it, they came out of the fire without so much as a hint of smoke on their clothes. Someone said they’d seen a fourth person walking with them in the flames.
Stories like this remind God’s people that the rulers and authorities of the world as we know it don’t have the last word. Kings and Presidents are used to people heeding their commands. If we do not, they have whole armies to encourage compliance. Violence is their trump card. But God’s people remember that no king is higher than the King of the Universe and that the Creator of life is stronger than death. If the law of the land contradicts the word of our Lord, we know whose command we must follow.
Jesus inhabits this tradition of divine obedience (and civil disobedience) when he is called before King Herod and Pilate in Jerusalem. From his triumphal entry to his cleansing of the temple to his death as a political criminal, Jesus challenges worldly authority by submitting to his Father. “Not my will, but yours be done,” he prays. Standing before earthly authorities, Jesus fulfills a long tradition of divine obedience over and against the powers that be in this world.
But Jesus is also doing a new thing. Through his death and resurrection in the face of the powers that be, Jesus is inaugurating a new era in human history. If he really is the hope of Israel, then Jesus is not only the epitome of its best ideals, not just the incarnation of its deepest logic. Jesus is more than that. If Jesus is Messiah—if Israel’s story advances to its conclusion in him—then something genuinely new has been actualized in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. What the church finds “in Christ” is not one more goal to strive for, but a new way of being human. Or, in the memorable summary of John’s first epistle: “as he is, so are we in the world.”
Though the new era of God’s peaceable kingdom was real in the community of the Messiah, the early church knew from experience that the kingdoms of this world were also still present and very real. The advent of Messiah’s reign had not immediately ended the kingdoms of this world, though their ultimate defeat was assured at the cross. Christians understood themselves to be living the way of the peaceable kingdom right alongside the violence of an order that was passing away. The challenge was not to overcome the world. Jesus had already done that. The challenge was to faithfully inhabit Jesus’ way of engaging the powers. The “new thing” they found in Jesus was a new way of being in the world.
When Christians gained considerable worldly power, first in the Roman Empire and subsequently in other kingdoms and nation-states, Jesus’ peculiar way of nonviolent love seemed less realistic and, to a growing number of believers, irresponsible. How can any authority both establish the rule of law and turn the other cheek? What decent person who had the power to stop a Hitler would not kill a tyrant to save a whole people? Still, as necessary as violence seemed to many Christians, the conviction that Jesus inaugurated a new era in human history has always meant that Christians have a problem with war. In order to name when war is unjust, and thus not permissible for any Christian, the church developed criteria for a “just war.”
In considerations of the Christian tradition on war and peace, “just war” is often presented as the majority position over and against the minority stance of pacifism or Christian nonviolence. Such a presentation of church history, however, does not recognize the fact that just war teaching always limited violence to adult men in police or military units. This actually excluded the vast majority of Christians from the use of violence, simply by virtue of their being women, children, clergy, monastics, or everyday citizens not engaged in a just war or police action. What is more, it was assumed for most of the church’s history that participation in acts of violence—even acts deemed “just”—was a concession to the ways of the world that no doubt led Christians to sin. The church made provision for repentance and reconciliation—not celebration—when soldiers came home from battle. Even when war seems inevitable, our hope is not in military victory but in the reconciliation of all things through Jesus Christ.
When God’s people hold onto the hope of reconciliation through the peculiar way of the cross, we interrupt the assumptions of a culture of violence. But the truth is that all of us—not just soldiers and police officers—are well practiced in the use of worldly power. Those of us who come from positions of privilege in society lean on the silent power of money and social norms, trusting in systems of control that have favored people who speak our language or share our skin color. At the same time, people who live with their backs against the wall resort to subversive acts of violence, carving out a space for survival by manipulating the fears those who seem to be “in control.” We can see these dynamics at work in local and international political negotiations. And, if we pay attention, we can see the same habits worked out between husbands and wives, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, pastors and congregations. In the world that is passing away, violence rules. But in the new world that has already begun, Jesus shows us a better way.