The Christian Problem With (Nuclear) War

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

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War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen. And in response to President Trump’s words, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

The Most Hipster Passage From The Old Testament

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice went down to Durham, NC a couple weeks ago to interview Stanley Hauerwas for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Dr. Hauerwas gave us a lot to chew on. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn about the most hipster passage from the Old Testament, you can check out the podcast here: Year A – Lent 4

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Why You Can’t Read John 3.16 without John 3.1-15

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice went down to Durham, NC a couple weeks ago to interview Stanley Hauerwas for our new lectionary Podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the second Sunday of Lent during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Dr. Hauerwas gave us a lot to chew on. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn why you can’t read John 3.16 without John 3.1-15, you can check out the podcast here: Year A – Lent 2

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On Why Christians Should Not Read The Bible

A reflection on Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture:

I was 9 years old and sitting in one of the front pews at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia when I was called up to the altar and given a red hardback copy of the New Revised Stand Version of the Bible. I can remember feeling the thin pages in my fingers while I flipped between the Old and New Testaments and ignored whatever the preacher was preaching about. I knew it was the same bible as the one sitting on the back of the pew in front of me, but there was something different about it being my bible. From that point forward, whenever I grew tired or distracted by whatever was going on in the pulpit, I always knew I could open up the book in front of me and enter the strange new world of the bible.

I still have that bible that was given to me almost 20 years ago; it sits on one of my shelves next to the never-ending row of different translations that I have accumulated over the years. I had it with me in college when I grew frustrated with different campus ministries, I had it with me in seminary while I was helping multiple churches, and I still have it now while pastoring a church. For years I came to rely on that bible’s words to reveal something to me about the nature of God, particularly when I felt like worship was not making the cut.

This is why, according to Stanley Hauerwas in Unleashing the Scripture, we need to take the bible away from North American Christians.

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Most American Christians believe they have a right and obligation to regularly read from the bible. Ask almost anyone in the church I serve and they will tell you about how important it is for them to start their mornings by reading scripture. As Protestants we celebrate the great availability of the Bible and regularly call for individuals to read it on a daily basis. But through the privatization of scripture we have transformed our understanding of the bible into it being treated like any other book, rather than the living Word of God.

The scriptures we affirm as the holy and living Word of the Lord cannot be properly understood outside of the church community that gathers around the Word every week. Or, to put it another way, to read scripture in isolation without the community of faith assumes that the text of scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.

Reading in isolation, or believing that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ revealed through scripture alone (sola scriptura) is enough, has led to some of the most profound abuses of scripture through a practice called proof-texting (Cherry-picking particular verses to make a singular argument).

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The collection of both the Old and New Testaments contain a remarkable number of stories and teaching that make it difficult to treat as a whole. Whenever someone makes the comment, “The Bible says…” I am always thinking of another place in the Bible that says something contrary to the first point. The bible is a strange and beautiful thing that cannot be limited to a handful of verses.

However, this is exactly what many Christians do when they want to argue a very specific position. For instance, there are passages in both the Old and New Testaments that advocate for the subjugation or lower status of women (ex. 1 Corinthians 11.8-9), but these verses can only be properly understood in the light of scripture as a whole and within the worshipping community. Because only in a worshipping community can the scriptures be read, debated, and proclaimed. Only in a worshipping community can a differing opinion be brought forth and used to consider the first scripture at hand. Only in a worshipping community that gathers at the table are we forced to confront the deep and profound truth that we (men and women) have been created in God’s image, that we (men and women) are invited to partake without cost, and we (men and women) are offered the body and the blood of the Lord.

Similarly, proof-texting has been used to advocate for the horrific treatment of members of the LGBTQ community by reading verses from the likes of Leviticus and the letters of Paul without confronting the fact that Jesus never says anything about homosexuality in the four gospels. It is only in the community of faith that we are challenged to read the scriptures that go against our opinion and then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are we able to take steps forward in faith.

The temptation to read our bibles in isolation results in the Scripture being broken up as separate texts, commandments, and opinions. The Church, as the body of Christ, is the corrective to this temptation and is the place where scripture lives and becomes incarnate in the way we live.

It is good and right for us to have our own bibles and to read from them from time to time. I’ll admit that to call for the Bible to be taken away from individuals who wish to read the Word of God is an absurd proposition. Yet, in the Church’s current situation, the overwhelming opinion that every person has the “right” to interpret scripture has led to the fractured and divisive nature of the Church.

Instead, we are most faithful when we turn in our bibles together in the midst of worship, when we pray for the Lord to speak to us once again through the Word, and when we wrestle with what God is saying as a community.

God, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Fourth of July

Today our nation celebrates the Fourth of July. Untold sums of people will adorn themselves in red, white, and blue to celebrate the freedoms we hold so dear. It is one of those rare days that entire communities, though regularly separated over things like race and socioeconomic status, will join together to remember how our country got started.

As a Christian, and particularly as a pastor, I often wonder about the celebration of the Fourth of July and what it says about the church. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, has wrestled with it as well. This is what he has to say about this holiday in his sermon titled, “God and the Fourth of July” from his book Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries.

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“For Christians, the Fourth of July is not our day. It is not “not our day” because Christians must oppose nationalism, though we should. It is not “not our day” because America is an imperial power whose use of the military is increasingly indiscriminate and disproportionate, though as Christians committed to peace that is a development we must oppose. The fourth is not a problem for us because of what we are against; it is a problem because our desires have been formed by our Lord. We are simply so consumed by the consummation of Christ with his bride, the church, that we find celebrations like the Fourth of July distracting.

“But, the bands and the fireworks are so undeniably entertaining. I am not suggesting we should avoid such entertainment. No, I will not tell you that. However, I will point out that if such entertainment seems more compelling that the celebration of this meal we are about to share together then we have a problem. For in this Eucharist God gives to us the very body and blood of his Son so that our desires will become part of God’s desire of his world. This is the end of all sacrifice, particularly the sacrifices made in the name of nations, so that we can rest in the presence of one another without fear, envy, and violence. In this meal, the beauty of our Lord blazes across the sky, rendering pale all other celebrations. So, come and taste the goodness and the beauty of our God, and, in so consuming, may we be a people who may even be able to enjoy the Fourth without being consumed by it.” – Stanley Hauerwas

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As Christians, what are we celebrating when we celebrate our freedom? Is it our freedom from the monarchic rule of England almost 250 years ago? Or are we be celebrating our freedom from the destructive powers of sin? Are we celebrating our freedom to drink beer, have a BBQ, and blow stuff up? Or are we celebrating our freedom from the shadow of death?