Throughout the entire Obama presidency, none of his words have resonated so deeply with me as these, folded into his speech at Hiroshima last week. Their truth goes to the very core of our deepest needs as a people: to imagine solutions to our conflicts beyond blame and fear and to see within our enemies fellow human beings – friends waiting to be reconciled. Indeed, we must change our minds, we must wipe from our brains the old and deadly debris of violence that has poisoned us since the foundation of the world.
But this radical reorientation can only come when we dare to look past the mask of false nobility to the raw, ugly horror of our own violence and recognize it for the crime and abomination that it is. This frightening prospect will upend the mythos that permeates our entire self-perception and leave us vulnerable to our own worst self-judgments in ways few of us are ready for. Ultimately, this is why President Obama could not apologize at Hiroshima, this is what all the political calculations amount to. We as a people are terrified of repentance.
And on days like today, Memorial Day, we keep the myth of noble violence alive in a flourish of fanfare and ritual. Patriotic rhythms drown our conscience. We conflate mourning our dead soldiers and honoring acts of real heroism (sacrificing personal safety with the intention of protecting kin and country, rescuing comrades from danger, etc.) with celebrating a perceived righteousness of the cause for which they fought.
The truth is, there is no good war. Cases have been made by peace activists like David Swanson that causes achieved by war, including abolition and liberation, could have been achieved more thoroughly and more deeply by other means. Noble justifications for war are propagandized after wars are planned and often after they are already launched for power and profit. War dehumanizes fighters on all sides, increases hatred and cruelty, enables murder, coercion, rape, destruction of homes and livelihoods, and all crimes humanity has ever known. It is the supreme injustice. Yet we honor and glorify it, ever sanctifying our violence. The specter of a foe that we refuse to recognize as human binds us together for a time; the enemies abroad refocuses enmity away from home. But these “benefits” of sacred violence are continually unraveling. As we recognize the humanity of our victims, as the wealth gap between rich and poor grows exponentially under endless war, as our own nation collapses under the cost of militarism that crushes others, the unifying effects of war lose their grip on us. We are a nation sick of war, sick with war.
But as we cling to the glory of our past wars, reluctant to fully recognize their human toll, reluctant to see their cost in an increasingly unstable world where violence is spiraling out of control, we nurture the myth that makes wars possible, that makes them seem inevitable, that may one day destroy us all.
We cannot change our mindset about war itself without repenting of our own violence, and we cannot repent of our own violence when we are locked in fear. Fear of retaliation, fear of judgment, fear of rebuilding our lives without the foundation of an identity based on superiority to an evil “other.” As long as we content ourselves to considering war a horrible inevitability because of the evil of someone else, we will not see the ability to end war as within our control. We will continue to dehumanize others and fail to see the potential for cooperation, friendship, mutual enrichment. We will deny and avoid our own responsibility and sew enmity. We will continue to resort to destruction of our fellow human beings and in the process destroy our environment. And a deepening distrust eroding the security of our planet will keep nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert until one misjudgment or accident obliterates us all.
I believe that the Author of All Creation is ever the victim, not the commander, of our violence. How could it be otherwise, if we are all God’s children? What parent doesn’t suffer seeing their children locked in rivalry and hatred? This is the truth revealed in Jesus, slain by human violence, made alive again in the fullness of Love that overcomes violence and restores life to the dead. God has always been in the midst of our violence as our victim, not as movement behind our slaying hands. But the Love in whose image we are made is endless creative potential that sees infinitely beyond our violence to the amazing good we have within us. Forgiveness allows us to let go of the false security of violence that slowly erodes our souls as it eliminates our enemies. The truth we recognize in the light of forgiveness is our interconnection – that as we destroy each other, we destroy ourselves. But as we love each other, we build ourselves up and open potential for endless wonder.
Forgiveness can help us come to grips with the horrors of our wars. The forgiveness our president received in the embrace of a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic blast that destroyed over 100,000 lives at Hiroshima, is the grace of God gently weaning us away from our need to cling to the deception of war. Those we once considered enemies are full of great love. We are full of great evil, but we are redeemable, capable of building love out of ashes. We should have no fear of making an apology, which is the outward symbol of an inward change of heart acknowledging and renouncing our violence. We should apologize not only in Hiroshima, but in Nagasaki, Vietnam, Fallujah, Kunduz, around the world and upon our own shores with reparations to Native and African Americans. Repentance from our own violence is the acknowledgement of deep, systemic victimization and the reorientation of our values so that privilege is replaced with equality and friendship-building.
We should remember our wars with contrition and repentance, and remember our soldiers as those with infinite potential beyond their ability to obey and kill. Soldiers willing to put their lives on the line for the safety and freedom of others deserve to be free from the lie that some must die so that others may live. We need the love, discipline, and strength of our soldiers as well as our citizenry applied to the tasks of reconciliation, reparation for the destruction of human violence, and rebuilding a world on the foundation of cooperation, mercy and love.
This Memorial Day, let us honor fallen soldiers by ensuring that the horror in which they died is never repeated. Let us honor living soldiers by proclaiming that the best they have to offer is ahead, not behind, them, as we reorient ourselves toward peace. Let us change, forever, our mind about war.
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