By David Gushee
I have decided that it is not my place as one offering Christian moral witness to endorse any nation’s wars, including my own. This is a change for me. In previous times I have weighed in either for (Afghanistan, 2001), or against (Iraq, 2003) America’s decisions to go to war. But I have concluded that for me, joining the nation’s punditocracy in evaluating the nation’s wars within the framework of the nation’s interests, even if layered over with some just-war theory, manifests a confusion of loyalties and calling.
I am returning to the earliest understanding of the relationship of the community of Christ-followers to the state(s) in which we are located — a relationship that has become clearer to me than ever through research for my upcoming book on the sanctity of life. In trying to discern how it was that the earliest Christians managed such a resolute and comprehensive witness amidst the grotesqueries of the Roman Empire, five patterns seem apparent:
1. They interpreted reality within the narrative framework of the biblical reign of God, not the Roman Empire, and attempted to embody God’s reign in their churches.
2. Jesus loomed in their consciousness as their beloved Lord and Master. He dominated their moral vision, and thus their way of living.
3. They carefully maintained their distance from the Roman Empire, its idolatries, wars and cultural practices; they carefully protected their separate identity as Christians.
4. Their periodic experience of persecution and violence at Roman hands helped to inoculate them from Rome’s seductions.
5. Their relative social powerlessness for a long time helped forestall the development of confusions in their identity or allegiances.
It seems to me that Christians in the United States have experienced/assented to the reversal of every one of these five patterns.
We have interpreted reality primarily within the framework of the “American way of life.” The Jesus of the New Testament no longer dominates our moral vision and way of living, though we are happy to lean on his death for entry into heaven. We do not carefully maintain our distance from the American empire and its idolatries, wars and cultural practices, nor do we protect our identity carefully. We have not experienced sufficient persecution at the hands of the state (in our recent history) to be inoculated from America’s seductions. We remain socially powerful, though we scream at small, recurrent evidences of the decline of our power.
In the earliest days of the church if the Roman emperor, however enlightened, had announced to the Roman legions or to the Senate or to the populace a new war-fighting strategy on the fringe of the empire, the church’s leaders would not have busied themselves with attempting to second-guess the strategic wisdom of that decision. They would not have gotten out their maps of Baluchistan and North Waziristan and tried to figure out whether the president was right that a surge of 30,000 troops might add extra security at a reasonable cost to the treasury.
The church is responsible for bearing witness to the peace of the Kingdom of God and for embodying that commitment through what it does in every aspect of its (our) life together. In public, the church sometimes can make a contribution by raising questions about the efficacy of the constant resort to arms in human affairs. It can highlight the observations of those on the ground in Afghanistan who are suggesting that the Afghans would respond much better to 30,000 more schools than to 30,000 more American troops. It can point to other transforming initiatives that might help the United States change the dynamics of the situation rather than once again attempting to blast our way through them. It can and must, above all, pray — for the somber young men and women who listened quietly to the president’s West Point speech, for their terrified parents, for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, for reconciliation and for peace.
At West Point, President Obama exhibited certain laudable virtues. He had studied the matter at hand carefully and reflected that study in his presentation. He seemed properly weighed down by the burdens of his decision to order troops into combat. By facing the impossibly young men and women who would be most directly affected by his decision he helped the nation count the true costs of war. By setting a quick timetable for (beginning) an exit he communicated something about the tragedy of war. He took personal responsibility for his decision.
Diligence, sobriety, caution, mournfulness, and responsibility are appropriate for a nation’s president, and among statesmen these virtues are better than their corresponding vices.
Meanwhile, at Advent, let Christians pray for earthly peace, and for the final peace of Christ’s return.