Who Would Jesus Bomb?

It’s President’s Day, which for all college professors means–as do all Monday holidays in the middle of the semester–“catch up day.” It’s the Spring semester’s version of Columbus Day. I will be spending most of the day catching up on the grading that never seems to end, particularly since I have this nasty habit of assigning my students a lot of writing assignments. But it’s also a time to think about Presidents–not the current one, if I can help it–as well as social policy and politics.

There are many things that I love about visiting our friends Mike and Suzy. Included among those things are the various and random items spread about their house that make me think. We usually enter their house through the garage; next to the door into the house is an extra refrigerator/freezer containing, amongst other thing, the better-than-Bud-and-Miller beer that Michael always makes sure is on hand for my visits. I take full responsibility for raising Michael’s beer awareness over the years and proudly survey the contents each visit.

For all of the years we have been visiting, two bumper stickers on the outside of this refrigerator have frequently caught my attention. The first: When Jesus said “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them. The second: Who Would Jesus Bomb?  Striking, provocative, and very timely. Although our country always seems to be wondering who to go to war with, these bumper stickers particularly came to mind a few years ago as the most “do-nothing” U. S. Congress in recent memory debateed what should be done in response to events on the other side of the world—the Syrian government’s apparent use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. Do-Nothing-Congress1[1]This was (and continues to be) a Congress whose members had become so constitutionally incapable of true discussion and compromise that they would rather use each other’s toothbrushes than try to understand each other’s arguments. Yet they were strangely united by the question of what is the best and most appropriate violent response to violence. Although possible diplomatic solutions were proposed, the tenor of the conversation seemed to be not so much whether to respond with violence, as when and how. And the Syrian conflict continues unabated.

I do not pretend to know what is in the best interest of the United States or of those in the Middle East. Whatever votes are taken, whatever decisions are made, and whatever actions are endorsed are always fraught with uncertainty and subject to endless second-guessing. I am also strongly committed to the separation of religion and politics in the sense that public policy should not be fashioned with any particularly religious framework in mind. But over the past few years I have begun to explore the parameters of my Christian faith in new ways, discovering over and over again that these parameters are more expansive and flexible than I could have ever imagined. wwjd-bracelet[1]Questions like whether or how to respond to what the Syrian government allegedly did to its own citizens jerk me up short when considered in the light of my Christian beliefs. Because I find absolutely no justification in the seminal texts of my faith to justify violence under any circumstances, even if such violence is proposed as a measured and proportional response to violence of a different order entirely. And this concerns me.

Truth in advertising requires that I reveal that my natural tendencies lean strongly toward pacifism and non-violence. I grew up in the sixties in the midst of the Vietnam War; my brother, three-and-a-half years older than I, was a conscientious objector. The draft lottery ended just as I became old enough to be subject to it; had it continued, I would have followed in my brother’s footsteps as a conscientious objector or perhaps in the footsteps of others to Canada.Vietnam_War_Protest_in_DC,_1967[1] So it is not surprising that I resonate with the non-violence and pacifism of the Gospel texts—they align with and confirm my natural tendencies. For exactly these reasons, I am very cautious about making claims concerning the appropriate Christian position to take in cases such as Syria. The philosopher in me knows that human beings, myself included, have a very strong tendency to interpret texts through subjective lenses and then treat that interpretation as if it was objectively true.

But I challenge anyone to find in the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s parables, or his teachings from the Gospels anything that justifies responding to violence with violence, regardless of the nature of the violence that demands a response. This is what makes even sketching the outlines of a consistent Christian position in cases such as Syria so maddeningly difficult. Jesus in the Gospels continually stresses the importance of caring for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick—the disenfranchised and powerless, in other words. _143081042209598[1]And could there be a more blatant example of abusing the powerless than killing innocent civilians, particularly children, by using chemical weapons?

A text I have used frequently in classes over the past several years is Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Philip Hallie’s riveting account of how the villagers of Le Chambon, a small Protestant village in southeastern France, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees, many of them children, under the noses of the Gestapo and the Vichy police during World War II. Inspired by the Gospel in action as taught to them by their dynamic pastor, Andre Trocme, the villagers hid and cared for refugees in their homes, farmhouses, shops and places of worship until they could safely be taken across the nearby border into neutral Switzerland. And they did all of this, at the continual risk of their own lives, in the open while fully dedicated to non-violence.

Hallie reports that upon the publication of his book recounting the story of Le Chambon, the author of one of the first letters he received sought to remind him of just how limited and insignificant the Le Chambon story really was in the larger context of World War II and the Holocaust. “Le Chambon wasn’t even in the war,” the author of the letter wrote. “Reverend Trocme and a miniscule number of equally eccentric kindred-spirits had no effect,” and mattered only to mushy-minded moralists. Only vast forces “make history,” forces energized by power that overwhelms moral niceties over and over again. Le-Chambon-before-the-war-634x397[1]“Nothing happened at Le Chambon,” the letter concluded, at least nothing worth paying much attention to.

Hallie admits that “the moral brilliance of the villagers does not light up the moral darkness around the village as much as it makes that vast darkness seem darker by contrast.” Individual and collective acts of moral bravery in the face of inhumanity, terror, and violence often appear to have no greater impact than spitting into the face of a hurricane. Force can only be met by greater force, violence often can only be thwarted by violence. Hallie himself was a combat artilleryman in the European theater during World War II, and writes “I knew that decent killers like me had done more to prevent the mass murders from continuing than this pacifist mountain village had done.” So in the real world, a world in which no one loves their enemies and no one turns the other cheek, why even try to think through violence within a framework of non-violence?

The world in which we live does not accommodate non-violence as a response to violence, peace as a response to aggression, apparent weakness as a response to power. Every attempt to institutionalize goodness and organize moral behavior ends up playing the same sort of power game that is supposedly being opposed. The message of the gospel is gutted every time it is joined to recognizably effective tools of power, even with the best of intentions. As followers of Jesus, we are saddled with a perspective and a call that is guaranteed to be a failure. Teachings_of_Jesus_6_of_40._parable_of_the_leaven._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible[1]And this should not be a surprise, since the whole Christian story is rooted in weakness, suffering, loss and apparent failure.

But this is what makes the presence of true faith and belief in this world so crucial. We are told in the gospels that “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Despite its apparent insignificance, yeast over time works its apparent magic on the lump of dough, changing it incrementally into something entirely different. Who would Jesus bomb? No one, because that is not the divine response to even the most horrific of evils. We are called to be present in the midst of it all, not proposing policies that God would endorse or solutions stamped with divine approval, but rather as witnesses of hope, of the possibility of transformation, and of an insistence that a better way is possible. As Philip Hallie wrote to his letter-writing critic, “thanks for your point of view. But something really did happen there.” We are called to be catalysts for changes that often are so small as to seem invisible. But as the proverb reminds us, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

7 thoughts on “Who Would Jesus Bomb?

  1. Suzy

    Thanks for tackling this difficult subject, Vance. I am glad to see the bumper stickers made an impact (it was probably the “Librarians for Peace” one that was most influential!).

    Reply
  2. Justin

    Hi Dad,

    Another fabulous blog post. I have been struggling these past few days to figure out what the right response would be to the awful situation in Syria. On one hand, my internal anger precipitated by this event wants the US to send 40 or 50 drones with the sole purpose of obliterating those responsible for the horrible atrocities committed on the innocent men, women, and children of Syria. But as you wrote, that would be a violent solution to a violent act and in the end, it would probably instigate even more violence. So practically speaking, it appears that is probably not the best solution.

    Then there is the diplomatic answer of acquiring the chemical weapons through negotiations and then destroying them so they cannot be used again. This seems the best solution with the most peaceful outcome to the immediate threat. However, I have a hard time with this solution as well because it ultimately allows those responsible for murdering over a thousand innocents to get away with it. I know some would tell me that it is not mine or anyone else’s place to judge those who sin. And that they will face the judgement when they pass from this life. However, I find it extraordinarily hard in this case to accept this idea and not to want revenge and justice for what happened.

    I guess that is my struggle when thinking about this and following the news. I know I have to come to terms as a Christian and also as a decent human being to hope for peace and a non-violent solution. But it feels like simply letting sleeping dogs lay and believing in some sort of karma (whether it be by some sort of eternal judgement or by the idea that those responsible will eventually get theirs through some form of cosmic justice). It doesn’t seem adequate and it is something I am having a very difficult time making peace with.

    I can’t stop thinking about the images of little children foaming at the mouth and gasping for breath. I can’t get out of my head the scenes of parents holding their dying children while helpless to stop an unspeakable death. I can’t reconcile those images with the uncertain idea that maybe someday the responsible parties will face justice. I know I am supposed to have faith, turn the other cheek, hope for the non-violent solution as Jesus taught, but right now I find myself running empty on the faith that that is good enough.

    Reply
  3. vancemorgan

    Dude: I wish you had been at the Living Stones group yesterday–I brought this essay to them for discussion. Seventeen people, the largest group we’ve ever had. Every angle imaginable was brought up, including those in your comments. The point for me is that there IS no best answer, except that when I approve of violence in response to violence, I cannot claim that my Christian faith is in line with it.

    Reply
  4. Patricia Enstad

    It is a problem that requires a higher level of moral and spiritual development then we currently possess. How do we respond to evil/destruction without becoming evil/destructive ourselves? And I think Jesus would suggest that we start this struggle with our neighbor, because truth be told, we don’t even know what to do when we witness a checkout clerk being rude and discriminatory toward the person is front of us. Our culture affirms and celebrates a rude, what I would call a violent response. Putting a person in their place. I don’t know what congress should do, but I know that I have a lot of work to do balancing judgment (we could say discernment) and mercy, holding boundaries and compassion together.

    Vance, I met you at Wisdom School last year. You missed a great week w/Cynthia on the role of memory in healing in Aug. Lots of discussion about forgiveness. Again, I agree with CB that Christ’s teaching are very challenging and that we might just be starting to understand them, but they cannot be grasped at the level of daily consciousness. I came away knowing I am just beginning to understand forgiveness. But the more I wrestle with it, the more love there is in my life.

    Reply
  5. Andy

    Thou shalt not murder. Some people need killing. Sounds callous and heartless. The problem you are struggling with is applying personal morality in a geopolitical context. The two don’t mesh well. What makes sense geopolitically may be abhorrent personally. This is the challenge of a statesman – how do I do what’s best for my country while honoring my personal religious beliefs? Complexity squared and not the turf for the faint of heart.

    Reply
    1. vancemorgan Post author

      The problem is that I don’t consider my Christian faith to simply be “personal morality”–it’s a call to bring Christ into the world (and hence change it). Which, as you say, presents a continuing and seemingly unsolvable challenge.

      Reply
  6. Jim

    Good thought provoking post in the parabolic tradition of the historical Jesus. How indeed do we create a benificent kingdom in the face of the domination systems most of us support? Asking this question, is the most important contribution Christanity can make to the world.

    Reply

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