Shortly after the terrorism of September 11, 2001, the “moderate” Baptist church my wife and I were attending as seminarians made a decision. In their immoderate confusion, on the brink of a war without an enemy or a conceivable ending, the Baptist church erected a tall pole to fly an American flag.
The country was out for vengeance, and the churches were in no mood to stop it. As a substitutionary punishment, the George W. Bush administration elected the people of Afghanistan to suffer America’s wrath.
Afghanistan had little or nothing to do with the violence in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, though. In order to justify the incongruence of widespread violence in an ancient civilization, the Bush administration officials and their congressional enablers elected to go to war against “Terror.” Not an enemy, just an idea. They began a campaign of endless war, a conflict that could never be won, that could only go on without ceasing.
“A moment of crisis tends to lead a system or an individual to act out of its default settings. There for Christians to observe, in those moments and now, was that our default instincts have become to choose empire over the reign of God; to side with a human strongman over the Prince of Peace.”
On the first Sunday morning after their pole began competing with the steeple, the Baptist congregation was invited to join hands around Old Glory and pray. I was not present to hear what they said, but I imagine it was a nationalistic adaptation of a familiar Christian prayer: “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: war without end.”
Only 18 months later, in February 2003, the George W. Bush administration was campaigning for another war, this one in Iraq. By this time, national religious leaders around the country were developing a consensus that Bush’s cowboy foreign policy was both unjust and deeply unwise. The president’s own United Methodist Church cautioned him, though without fully rejecting his case for war.
Leadership of the Church of God in Christ, a primarily black denomination, was more forthright, saying war in Iraq was “morally suspect and perhaps morally unacceptable in the eyes of the church universal and under the gaze of a just and holy God.”
Pope John Paul II preached: “No to war! It is always a defeat for humanity.”
The National Council of Churches called the war “an inappropriate means to achieve disarmament of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”
The World Council of Churches said that “war against Iraq would be immoral, unwise and in breach of the principles of the United Nations Charter.”
The National Association of Evangelicals, most major Christian mainline denominations, and a host of religious bodies and leaders from across multiple religions spoke words of caution or outright condemnation of the war.
Some notable white evangelicals spoke in favor of the president’s case, including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Bush himself claimed some sort of divine inspiration. “God would tell me, ‘George, go end the tyranny in Iraq,’” he told an Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2005.
With some of the world’s great religious and wisdom traditions counseling them against it, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others continued building a case for an unnecessary war by using deception and outright falsehoods.
“Whether the people in the pews will rise up to resist another chapter of endless war is in question again.”
Repeating the lies were a number of familiar names, often with well-known Christian commitments, including now Vice President Mike Pence, then a U.S. congressman. They claimed the hand of God, or the voice of God, or some moral justification, despite the war’s inconsistency with traditional Christian teachings.
A more crucial collective voice than those of the religious authorities of that time was the popular voice, published through polling and research centers. Although their bishops and general ministers and denominational presidents spoke out against a war lacking moral justification and built on deliberate lies, the people in the pews supported it.
A Pew Research study in March 2003, just before the war began, found that Americans backed the effort, with nearly 60 percent in favor, and only 30 percent opposed. When disaggregated by race, the data was even more clear: White American Christians strongly supported the war effort, and were more likely to support it than their non-Christian peers.
What the American church was experiencing – or more precisely, what white American religious groups were experiencing – in those moments was a failure of discipleship. Whatever the preachers had been preaching and the teachers had been teaching had not discipled the people in the pews into the things that make for peace. A moment of crisis tends to lead a system or an individual to act out of its default settings. There for Christians to observe, in those moments and now, was that our default instincts have become to choose empire over the reign of God; to side with a human strongman over the Prince of Peace.
The peculiarities of almost two decades ago matter now because these moments in history look so much like 2003. In a smartly argued piece in The Atlantic, David A. Graham shows the striking similarities between this moment and that one. From the series of specious claims, to the lack of forethought for exit strategies, to the lack of clarity on the reasons for an attack, Graham says “it doesn’t even require that much squinting” to see the parallels.
Whether the people in the pews will rise up to resist another chapter of endless war is in question again. It seems clear, initially, that both lay and ordained Christians are more vocally opposed to war with Iran than they were to war with Iraq, and are already gathering in public squares and online to resist the Trump administration.
“We’ll need every voice, Christian and otherwise, to march down another war.”
But vocal opposition in one moment is not the long-term dismantling of the war machine. In theological terms, a revival is not the same as lifelong discipleship. One incites passions and energy at a crucial time; the other changes the default settings.
There are plentiful reasons to question whether white American Christians, as a group, learned the right lessons following the so-called “War on Terror.” Our default settings have not changed.
In the succeeding years, military budgets have continued to rise. No Bush administration officials have ever been held accountable for illegal and immoral wars. Christian communities in Iraq have been decimated.
The Obama administration continued the imperial violence of the Bush years primarily through drone strikes. At least 542 drone attacks have been documented during the Obama years, resulting in nearly 4,000 more deaths, including at least 324 civilians. Many more may have taken place without being disclosed.
The Trump administration is determined to continue the violence, first in Syria, and now in Iran. The new military budget continues to be bloated, including the absurd “Space Force.” War, to infinity and beyond.
We’ll need every voice, Christian and otherwise, to march down another war. God may yet intervene. We may get to help. But stopping another war is not peace. A temporary cessation in the escalating violence, as we have seen over the past week, should not be an occasion for stopping our work to “study war no more.” Peace will require years-long organizing coupled with prayer; noisy advocacy alongside contemplation; dismantling the war machine while undoing the violence of our own hearts.
A vigorous movement against an Iran war may win. Perhaps not. In either case, the work done now will not end when hostilities between Washington and Tehran subside. What we do today will be but a beginning, to be pursued with daily, lifelong discipline, to make the next war unnecessary and unthinkable.