This was written at the very beginning of the invasion of Iraq. Much has changed -- but not the perennial concerns of Christian people.
Like most people I have spent a great deal of time sorting through a myriad of perspectives on the war in which we are involved. The more I learn, the more conflicted I become. There was no justification for the horror of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That is bottom line. At the same time, as adults in a free society, it is important that we understand why militants and moderates in the Middle East feel as they do. Our country has done many things in that area in the name of anti-communism that have caused distress and often outrage among the ordinary people of the region. Will this be a time when, in defending ourselves on the one hand, we also find ways of reviewing and purifying the hurtful parts of our foreign policy? Can we love our country while at the same time acknowledging its imperfections (patriotism) or do we have to believe that we are entirely good and our enemies the epitome of evil (nationalism)?
Over this past month, I have been struck by the questions I have been asked by children. Especially the very simple question: “Why do we have to have wars?” It is that question that raises, for me the equally important question: As people of faith, what do we tell our children about the war, even given our own confusion?
I think I would begin with two stories. The first story is our oldest story, the story of Adam and Eve and their children. Most of us remember their two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain was so jealous of his brother and so filled with resentment and unable, I think, to talk about his feelings to anyone at all that he . . . .
We know what he did. That story is in the Bible because it reflects something that happens in families and nations (especially nations) over and over again. That story forms much of the basis for the greatest story of the Salinas Valley, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I don’t know why brothers and sisters fight so much. My brother and I didn’t stop fighting until I was 50 years old! Thank God we didn’t kill each other or injure one another in those long years of struggling.
The other story that is important to know is the story of Abraham and his two sons. Abraham had been promised by God that he would be the father/grandfather/great grandfather, etc. of all the people of God, through all time. This was a thrilling prospect; but there was a hitch. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, tried to have children and couldn’t. In utter frustration, Sarah suggested that Abraham have the child with his servant Hagar. And so he did, with the birth of Ishmael. Ishmael proceeded to spend the rest of his life preparing to be the head of the family when Abraham died.
But then, just when Abraham was near death and Ishmael would come into his glory, God told Abraham and Sarah to get ready. They, in their late eighties, were going to have a baby! Sarah’s response was to laugh – and when the child was born nine months later, Sarah named the boy “Isaac,” which means laughter.
So what happened to Ishmael? Ishmael was no longer the chosen one. Ishmael had to leave – and his people became the people we now call Arabs. Isaac got to stay and his people became the Jews – and one of the Jews was Jesus, whom Christians follow. From the two sons came two families: the children of Isaac, Jews and Christians; and the children of Ishmael, the Arab peoples and the heart of Islam. Both families have become great families, rich in generosity and achievement and dedication. But we have also been like brothers and sisters who don’t get along – and our history has been filled with distrust and jealousy. There have been times when Christians have been terrible to the Jews and to the Arabs – and times when the Arabs have been terrible to the Jews. . and on and on.
All three religions are wonderful religions; but people in each of our three major religions, because of their jealousy, prejudice, resentment and fears, have twisted the goodness in their religion to hurt others.
Why do we have wars? One way to answer the question is with a story: the other is to say that wars begin when jealousy, resentment, hopelessness and fear get out of hand. When you’ve got too much prejudice, you’ve got war. When you’ve got too must resentment or fear, you have war.
There are three things I would like our children to know. The first thing they need to know is that the war is one part of our lives: it is not the whole of our lives. They need to know that it is their parents’ job to keep them safe – their parents will worry about all the things that need worrying about. We need to let our children know that when they get overwhelmed by all the news of the war, they can ask us to turn off our televisions.
Second, our children are, in so many ways, the most important people in the world right now. That is so because they know, in ways the rest of us have forgotten, that we are all children of God. They know that everybody belongs to God and they are the ones who will make a difference to the prejudice in the world. I want my children to know that when someone is being bullied, teased, ignored or hurt because of who they are, then God needs them to befriend those who are being hurt.
It is an old truism that the first casualty in war is truth – and that has been just as true in our country as in any other. In mobilizing for war, we paint ourselves with all goodness and our enemies as entirely evil. We create caricatures of other races and peoples. We did not fight Germans, we fought Krauts. We did not fight the Japanese government, we fought Japs and then Slopeheads and Diaperheads and on and on. I hope and pray our children know better.
The last concern I have for our children is that they understand about violence. For centuries people have wanted to get even when they have been threatened or hurt. The Biblical admonition “an eye for an eye” was an early attempt to mitigate the evils of revenge but our religions have gone beyond the notion of “an eye for an eye” to opposing revenge, itself, as a way of responding to violence or hurt. As Gandhi said, “if all that we have is ‘an eye for an eye,’ eventually the whole world will be blind.”
The first thing God wants us to do when faced with evil is to stop it, to restrain it -- but not to add to it. If we have to lock someone up to restrain him, we lock him up. If we have to destroy someone’s weapons, we destroy them. But when we try to get even, we become the evil we deplore.
My last words are for parents and the rest of us. In the midst of worry, anxiety and terror, we need to remember that God’s peace is real and that it is present. The blessing that is used in so many Christian churches, “The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God . . . .” That was written by Paul, not while lazing on the beach and feeling good about the world, but as he was facing a death sentence. There are wars, there is jealousy, resentment, hopelessness and poverty all around us; but at the heart of it all is the peace of God which will sustain us as we, with others, work calmly and with absolute resolution to restore God’s wholeness and holiness to this broken world.