I remember where I was on September 11, 2001. I was a pastor still trying to find his way in a fundamentalist Bible church. We had survived the year 2000 which many people thought might be the end of the world. It came and went, only to usher in the infamous 9/11 which most of us will never forget.
I also remember George W. Bush standing at ground zero a few days later and vowing revenge for those that would dare to attack an American target. My heart swelled with pride as I watched with anticipation while the United States and their allies invaded Iraq and later Afghanistan and unleased our brand of retributive justice. It wasn’t moral — it’s wasn’t just or holy — but, I cheered anyway.
Over the past 20 years, American armies have killed tens of thousands of human beings from other countries. I know, it’s messy and complicated and there are no easy answers. Withdrawals from these eternal wars are criticized by both sides, but my hope is that we are moving toward a better way.
The circle of violence never ends when we employ retributive justice. The terrorists were responding to an injustice they felt in their homeland for which they blamed the U. S. We responded with more violence, and the cycle continued.
It reminds me of a simple example from junior high. A guy named Mike made me mad on the playground so I pushed him down. He told the principal and I had to stay after school and write sentences on the board. Later, I found him and beat him up, so he told on me again and I got suspended for a day.
It doesn’t make violence right just because we are stronger or better at fighting.
Years later, I would come to realize that winning doesn’t necessarily make me right and God may not be on my side, even though i have imagined that he is. According to Jesus, it’s more about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies than conquering them. Other great moral leaders echo the same – violence is never the answer.
For the first 300 years of Christianity, followers of Christ employed this non-violent way. They flourished in many ways even though there were parts of their journey that were difficult. A Roman emperor, Constantine, offered to take away their momentary suffering if they would simply join with the state. Thus began centuries of endless wars and senseless violence and varying degrees of acceptance of retributive justice. Americans continued on this march to nowhere by leading the world from one conflict to another for the simple fact that we have always considered ourselves to be exceptional and as long as we triumphed, we assumed we must be right!
As long as we could kick Mike’s ass, we must be the moral superior. Right? No–a thousand times, no!
I applaud both of the recent presidents (Trump and Biden) for at least starting a withdrawal from endless combat and not committing to more violence. They both took heat for the messiness of doing so. And, we will also face criticism when we rally for new ways that contradict the norm. But, the faint whispers of peacemakers of the past calls to us like the drumbeat of a faithful army. The voice we harken to will make all the difference – the call to peace and the call to vengeance often sound the same.
Violence can never be the answer – may we never forget!
Be where you are, be who you are.