Calculating the moral cost of war

(The following is a pastoral letter that I sent to my congregation at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the time between 9/11 and the lead up to the Second Gulf War with Iraq. It grew out of my ruminations about the story of Jonah. I just came across it and thought it worth revisiting, although events have surely moved on in the eight ensuing years.)

Since the ancient city of Nineveh in Assyria is located in modern Iraq, and we are preparing for a possible war with Iraq, the story of Jonah caught my eye. I know many of us get nervous when religion and politics get mixed up with each other. Many believe that religion and politics should be kept completely separate, which is pretty much what Jonah believed, so perhaps this story has more to tell us than we first imagined. Jonah wanted it both ways: to worship Yahweh, and hate the Ninevites. So Jonah would just as well see Nineveh burn as repent. Jonah’s theology was good, but one can have correct theology and still not know the ways of God. Jonah said “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” But for Jonah this was not an affirmation, but a complaint. The Ninevites were his enemy, and he liked it that way. That is why he ran away from God when God called him to preach to the Ninevites.

Jonah just doesn’t have enough imagination to understand the Ninevites as anything but the object of his hatred. Through the instruments of sea and storm and living creatures, most notably the famous vomiting whale, God brought Jonah to Nineveh. God commanded Jonah to walk through Nineveh and tell the people, “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And that suited Jonah just fine. But then things went wrong for Jonah. Because the Ninevites actually did repent. They put on sackcloth and ashes, even the animals, which makes for a somewhat comical picture.

It’s amazing. Jonah uttered seven or eight words of the Lord, depending on your translation, and the people believed God, and repented. Would that all preaching were so easy! But Jonah was not happy. He has predicted the destruction of Nineveh, and it didn’t happen. So he became angry with God.

Jonah’s anger at God is more like childish disappointment. There is something almost innocent about it, but no less dangerous for being so. Getting angry with God is a time-honored biblical practice. Moses, Job, David, and Peter all did it. And we do it, too. Maybe not in so many words, but often we prepare for the worst with a kind of relish, and are surprised when it doesn’t happen. That is what happened to Jonah. He is angry with God because he has been surprised by grace.

Jonah’s sin is a common sin—because God is more merciful than we are. At some level, humans like to hate. It is hard for us to admit it, but there is something darkly delicious about hating an enemy. And whom do we hate? Usually we hate those who are different from us. They are “the other” who conjures up in us fear. That is why the terrorists hate us. We are different and a threat to their way of life. Real security can never be merely military, but will arrive only when hatred and fear are overcome by respect and understanding. That takes time and patience. It takes generations. War doesn’t help the process.

Now our current enemy, Saddam Hussein, is a bad character. He unleashed chemical weapons against the Kurds in the north of his country. His sin is treating his own people as things that are expendable, as abstractions toward political ends, chiefly his own power and glory.

>Now we as a nation must be alert to the danger of being drawn into a similar mind set, of turning the Iraqi people into abstractions. The so-called “regime change” we are demanding is an abstraction that permits us to deny the horrible truth that tens of thousands of Iraqis, and who knows how many Americans, would most likely die making that happen. We employ euphemisms to make such harsh realities easier to face. For example, “collateral damage” means the injury or death of innocent civilians during war. But collateral damage is not an abstraction if it’s your loved ones who are killed. Since we are engaged in a long-term battle for the hearts and minds of a generation of young Muslims, it would seem to me that we would want to avoid inflaming passions with an ill-considered war with murky objectives.

I am not a pacifist, and I am not one of those people who believe America is always wrong. I know that there are times when, sadly, one must fight against evil and tyranny. It could be Saddam Hussein’s threat to the world is so grave we must go to war to stop him. But that argument has not been made persuasively, at least not to me. I have many questions: Why him? There are other unsavory dictators we could pick, some with weapons of mass destruction. Why now? We left him in power after the Gulf War because we thought a weakened Hussein was better than the alternatives. But do we really expect a leader with Jeffersonian principles to take over? Some of Hussein’s chief domestic opponents are Islamists sympathetic to Al Queda. Is that what we want to take his place? Isn’t Al Queda the actual enemy we face? With Pakistan and Afghanistan so precarious, do we really want to destabilize the region with an attack? Do we want to be the first Americans in history to go to war without being attacked first? Why not let UN inspectors go in and see what they can find! Can we afford to act unilaterally against the consent of our allies and in the face of world opinion? What will war do to our already staggering economy? Can we afford the 100 to 200 billion dollars that this war will cost? Who is asking these questions?

But, in the end, if we must go to war, I want us to be morally aware that it is a sin, even if a necessary sin to stop a greater evil. And as a Christian, I do not want us to go to war because we hate. For hate mongering always seems to accompany war mongering. First you make your enemy an abstraction, and then you can feel justified in the killing. After Pearl Harbor my father said that he could fight, but he wouldn’t hate, while he watched the whole country being drawn into hatred of all Japanese.

Notice how the enemy we hate changes over time. When I was a boy we hated and feared the Russians; now they are our friends. The Iraqis were our friends when they were fighting Iran, and we gave them weapons. The Islamists who spawned Al Queda were our allies against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Do these people change? Does their national character go through a great shift? Do we turn a switch and suddenly enemies become friends? Why is it that so many of our foreign policy decisions fall victim to the law of unintended consequences?

I believe that many of the world’s problems are a failure of imagination, the same failure of imagination that made it impossible for Jonah to rejoice in the salvation of the Ninevites. If we can only see people as abstractions to hate and fear, then all problems seem to require a military solution. Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, said recently: “If all you have are hammers, everything begins to look like a nail.”

Jonah had his theology straight, but he was clueless about the ways of God, of the largeness of God’s love, the wideness of God’s mercy. He saw everything through the eyes of Jonah. But God had a different plan and a different program. Let us beware of seeing the world only through the eyes of America. Let us beware of worshiping an idol of our own making, a national god who blesses only America. Let us allow the true God to open our eyes to experiences of amazing grace as we let the idols we worship fall away.

For that is where we often experience grace, in the gap between our little gods, and our narrow little plans, and the merciful God and his wide and vast plan. Jonah is angered because his little bush dies, and God says, “You are concerned about a bush . . . and should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city of a hundred and twenty thousand, and also many animals.” God’s care and concern is for the whole creation over which he has sovereignty and exercises freedom.

Let us not fool ourselves about war: the loss of life, the environmental degradation, the horror and cost involved. And what about the moral cost? I have said since 9/11 that our real enemy is hate. Let us pray that we will not succumb to hate those whom God counts as his children, and who fall under his concern and care every bit as much as we do.

5 thoughts on “Calculating the moral cost of war

  1. >Rick. Thanks for posting this. Two questions: 1. Has the passing of time meant any change in you thinking on this? In other words, if you were to write this pastoral letter now, are there things you might want to say differently, or not at all, or instead of? 2. When you say 'us' you mean 'America' don't you (as opposed to meaning 'the church')? I'm not suggesting that one is improper, but when one writes ex cathedra (so to speak), as in 'a pastoral letter' the tendency to blur boundaries here might be very unhelpful (at best). I'd love to hear/read your thoughts.(Note: these questions were first posed on Rick's Facebook page. Rick asked if I might repost them here.)

  2. >Thanks, Jason, for your comment and questions, and thanks for reposting them here. On your first question, I think it is too soon to tell what will happen In Iraq. I still think the war was ill-considered, unprovoked (to me the moral implications of initiating an unprovoked war are huge for my country), and lacked international backing, but there we are.As Colin Powell, a once respected leader in our country, who was sacrificed by the Bush administration to argue for this war, later said, “It's like Pottery Barn's (a popular American retailer) policy, “If you break it, you buy it!”So I pray things may stabilize there for the Iraqis. I am no longer a pastor, so any thoughts I would have now would be in a different context. Which speaks to your second question. The ‘us’ in the letter means the people reading the letter in it's original context, the members of that congregation. That is the danger of archiving a sermon or letter to a general audience on a public blog.

  3. >Rick, thanks for your response. Regarding my second question, my point was to make a distinction between two gospels: one concerning the finality of revelation in Jesus Christ; the other what we might call a gospel of nationalism. Just because the two have been in bed together for a long time doesn't make them natural mates. My question went to this issue of when one speaks as 'a pastor' one will often want to say things differently, or otherwise, than when one speaks as 'an American' or as 'an Australian'. You may refer to me as a Barmenite!

  4. >Good point mr cruciality, I also think there is an intrinsic relationship between nationalism of any kind, and the production of hate. In this sense the sociality of the crucified one will be a thorn in the flesh of any nation and any institution calling itself 'church' and propping up nations

  5. >Yes, I agree with Jason and Bruce's good points. Still, the Christian is a citizen, but it is always a penultimate loyalty. Even Karl Barth, who penned Barmen, was in the Swiss home guard. There is a dopy picture of him somewhere, maybe in the Busch biography, of him carrying his rifle. In the run-up to the Second Iraq war the vapid American civil religion was far less dangerous (even demonic) than certain strains of evangelicalism that identified American policy with God's will and threw words like crusade around loosely. Also, my letter lacks a Christological focus since it began as a sermon on Jonah.

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