Two weeks ago we looked at corruption and political power. Last week we looked at religious bigotry. Next week we’ll look at class contempt and division. So this week, we will tackle militarism. We should be able to tackle this in less than an hour, right?
Okay, so the easy way to preach this sermon is to say, “War is wrong.” We can lift up how Jesus always stood against violence as a strategy of addressing conflict. It simply escalates the conflict instead of transforming it into peace.
Martin Luther King said a lot of things about war, too. Here are a few of his quotes:
“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
The fact is that the major culprit in this economic meltdown has been the unfunded wars of choice that we have been fighting. In the last administration, these wars were paid for with emergency spending and were never a part of the national budget, ballooning the deficit to the extent that our children’s children will be paying for these wars. Now, 57% of our tax dollars go to the military and veterans affairs. We are living the wounds of war.
But anyone can look up the statistics. We can quote the brightest and the best. We can say war is wrong. I could preach a sermon in it and it would be a good sermon, maybe one we need to hear. And yet, I think the transforming initiative, the thing this world needs is people to address the wounds of war—The physical and the psychological aftermath of those who have been in war. This goes for the combat veteran as well as those who experience the conflict in the comfort or terror of their own home.
This past week, MPR did a story about a woman who did the unspeakable. She left her husband while he was serving in Iraq. While it might have been time to end the relationship and all that, there is an unspoken rule that you don’t leave someone while they are fighting. Sometimes it is the love awaiting them that is the only thing keeping them sane. So for the sake of the soldier or the sake of the kids, people that ought not be together when things are normal stay together. This is a wound of war.
And yet, a soldier is by definition a stay away parent. It’s a special calling to be in such a family and it’s also immensely hard on the children as well as the soldier to come to some kind of normalcy. This is a wound of war—a tear in the fabric of our humanity.
Think about it. In order to participate in war, a soldier needs to suspend aspects of humanity. They need to train to take life in order to preserve life. And it leads to a morbid and base kind of dealing with the world. Martin Luther King said, “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote about the military culture surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion in this way:
“With his arrest Jesus fell into the hands of the war system. When the soldiers stripped him, beat his back with the leaded whip, pressed the wreath of thorns into his scalp, draped a purple mantle around him and saluted this amusing king of the Jews, and when they blindfolded and struck him, asking him to prophesy who it was and spitting in his face,--this was the humour of the barrack room. This was fun as the professional soldiers of the Roman Empire saw it. The men who drove the spikes through his hands and feet were the equivalent of a firing squad told off for duty at an execution, and when they gambled for his clothes, they were taking their soldiers’ perquisites.” (A Theology for a Social Gospel, 1917: 256)
I remember the first time I was arrested in the mid 1980’s. I was protesting the contra war in Nicaragua and I refused to leave my Ohio congressman’s office. The dozen or so of us were stuck in a holding cell for a few hours. We got an education from one of our fellow inmates. He told us about how many of the people in the justice system were Vietnam veterans. He said that vets often become cops, because they need to be enforcers. Others end up on the streets because they can’t make the transition back to civilian life. A wound of war.
There are students that are coming back to the University community after having served in war. Their worldview has shifted and they have trouble reintegrating with a community that cannot understand what they have gone through. They confront people who say “War is wrong”, and they cannot know how conflicted the returning soldiers are. They want the war to end, and yet they want their comrades to be safe that are still there. This conundrum and the breakdown of community is a wound of war.
The book of Judges recounts the stories of wars as the people tried to establish themselves as a people in the Promised Land. Most of the battles were against enemies who didn’t like the Israelites taking over their land. Ancestral residents made valiant defenses of their land. Countless thousands were slain.
But it got really bad when the tribes started fighting each other. In today’s scripture, we have the people of Israel raising arms against the tribe of Benjamin. The reason for this is the rape of a woman allegedly by a member of the tribe of Benjamin. It was a revenge attack that accounted for over 50,000 deaths.
Benjamin was the tribe of origin for Ruth’s husband Boaz, King David and eventually Jesus’ own family for Joseph went to Bethlehem which is the homeland of the tribe of Benjamin. It was his ancestors’ hometown. But now, before God and seemingly with God’s permission, the people of Israel slay the people of the house of Benjamin. They ponder seemingly without irony, “Shall we…battle our kinfolk the Benjaminites?”
The scripture tells of a brilliant military strategy and yet it affirms that they have killed their families. And there seems to be little remorse for the bloodshed. The last chapter of the book of judges tells how the tribe of Benjamin is repopulated with virgin women of another defeated enemy that they “gave to the tribe of Benjamin”. The spoils of war. This is the chaos of war. It’s what it brings upon the people. It’s a stain of inhumanity. It gives new meaning that a virgin was the one to bear Jesus. Such was the legacy of the tribe of Benjamin.
The wounds of war infect our very scriptures. And the yawning silence of the criticism of all of the bloodshed serves to immunize ourselves against peacemaking. War becomes synonymous with God. This is another wound of war.
And I think it’s one of the things that Jesus sought to end.
Whenever Jesus was given the opportunity to punish someone with violence, he chose a different tactic. He transformed the situation into one where we could see the humanity in our opponent. Even when the Roman guards cast lots for his clothing and debased him, he chose not to curse them. He would have been in his right to do so, being God and all. But his transforming initiative was to expose their brutality and show by the cross a new way to overcome evil.
Jesus reminded the people of the prophetic call to beat swords in to ploughshares and pound spears in to pruning hooks. Long for the day when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the fatling and the calf together, when nation shall not rise up against nation and neither shall they study war anymore.
The good news is that people who are seeking to live the way Jesus’ wanted us to live are looking for ways to address the wounds of war. We not only attempt to stop the war, but we also try our best to deal with the wounded. The wounded in body, in spirit, in community. For we are a community wounded by war.
May we not sacrifice our best attributes and our greatest hopes and our deepest compassion on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan or Israel or Palestine or Iran or Somalia or the Sudan.
May we seek to transform our methods of addressing conflict with as much commitment as a soldier.
But may we be committed to compassion.
May we be committed to love.
May we be committed to justice.
May we be committed to mercy.
For when one member of our human community hurts, we all hurt.
When the first gulf war erupted, I was serving in my first church in Hartford, Connecticut. Eight people from our community were shipped over there. All of them were people of color who joined the military for its promised exit from poverty. I was against the war and often said so from the pulpit. But how was that going to help the pain of the people whose family was deployed?
Each Sunday we prayed for them. We started a support group for their families. We sent them letters and drawings by our kids. I remember when Dwight Hall came back at the end of the war. He spoke about his horror and his terror in the unknown landscape of war. He spoke about how the people praying for him and sending him letters helped him get through it.
And then he pulled out the crayon drawings made by the children in Sunday School. He said it was a glimpse of hope and a reminder that life was about more than war.
And that’s what we are here to do. The church has been planted as a witness to beauty, to hope to mercy and compassion. It has also been planted as triage for those effected by the wounds of war.
War affects us all, not just the soldiers, but also their families. And it can even invade our very souls as cynicism dries up our hope.
We need each other, we need the church to be that voice crying in the wilderness.
We need that voice that says there is hope.
We need that voice that reminds us we are not alone.
And maybe you can be that voice.
Maybe you can bind up the wounds of a soldier.
Maybe you can sit and listen to their horror.
Maybe you can see reality together.
Then we will truly be in communion with one another—at a transformed table that calls for not only an end to war, but a place where the wounds of war can be bound up, moving toward a restored community and world.
That’s what this table is about.
That’s what Jesus was about.
Is that what we’re about?
The wounds of war are all around us. And so is the treatment for the wounds, the salve, the balm, the realization that God calls not only for an end to war, but calls God’s people to bind up the wounded and restore them to community.
May we envision that day and embrace the opportunity to do our part to heal the wounds of war.