President Obama is not Christian enough for some mysterious reason even though he’s a professed Christian. Mitt Romney is not Christian enough because he’s Mormon. All kinds of litmus tests are established for when its ok or not ok for our national leaders to step outside of Christian wisdom and thought.

Recently, several candidates have taken a calculated step away from classic interpretations of Christian doctrine and ethics in at least one key area: war. Is it OK or not OK for our leaders to step outside the Christian faith on what should be one of the most central issues of our time?

At a weekend engagement with a Texas VFW, our fine governor distanced himself from Sixteen hundred years of accepted Christian practice, saying, “We must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home.” Having tried to blatantly establish himself as the “Christian” candidate of choice in his August 6 prayer “Response,” it can’t go unnoticed how novel an idea preemption is!

Indeed, herein lies the problem. The novelty of preemption should not be lost on Christians who come from nearly any and every branch of Christianity, including: mainline, evangelical, Pentecostal, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox – all of whom have no room for preemptive strikes in their accepted doctrines of either Christian pacifism or Just War Theory.

Here’s a little refresher course in how we Christians have fought, and not fought, for the last 2 millenium. For the first 300-400 years of our history, Christians were largely pacifists and abstained from military service. After the Constintinian shift which attempted to “christianize” empire, theologians sought pragmatic ways to restrain violence and “fight fair.” The very concept of fighting fair would have been anathema to the early church, but nontheless, they developed tried and true rules for establishing what came to be known as a “Just War.” These principles have, with few exceptions, guided mainstream Christianity ever since. Here, according to justwartheory.com, are the basics: 

  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort.
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause. Further, a just war can only be fought with “right” intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.

So let’s be clear: there is absolutely no way for a pre-emptive war to be called a “Just War.” It’s a new thing, with zero support from the great ones like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, etc… No one save the embarressing Crusaders (who even Wheaton College and Campus Crusade for Christ distance themselves from now) and perhaps the German Church have tried to Christianize preemption. So is it OK or not?

Perry is, unfortunately, not the only powerful politician (current or potential) who is trading his faith for a war ethic with little or no resemblance to the classic Christian thoughts and rules. Recent debates have brought out strong voices for war with Iran, claims that we need to do “everything necessary,” and strong militaristic language that echoes the drumbeats preceeding Shock and Awe. A former VP is touting for all to hear how torture needs to proudly be the new normal in American policy. Perhaps its just a sign of the times that our current President, as hawkish and war-minded as any, absurdly won the Nobel Peace Prize. His policies are as wrong as his receipt of the award.

One thing is becoming ever more clear: no matter who wins in November 2012, the myth of redemptive violence will live on.

How do you, dear Christian readers, feel about having one of your most ancient and sacred theories (Just War) trampled as if it were nothing? What does it mean when we cease trusting accepted Christian practices as normative? Do we today have the right to stray from the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors? When do Presidents have the moral authority to step outside of Christian wisdom and thought? And, when they do, who is willing to hold our candidates accountable on this key issue like we hold them accountable on various other issues?

As someone commited to making peace through peace and not war, I do not hold as most Christians do to the Just War Theory. But it makes sense to me that if you’re going to hold to a theory, you should hold to the theory. Particularly when lives (so many lives!) are at stake, and trillions of dollars, and our own moral health. Shouldn’t we be more commited than ever to those Christian convictions that have guided us? Now is not the time for novelty. Now is the time to make peace.

If I could just find a candidate willing to step away from Just War in the other direction, my vote might become a little more clear.

My friendly denominational magazine recently quoted the following from the New York Times.

  • United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, including more than six times as much as China, the next highest.
  • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago.
  • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
  • The United States will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

That seems like a lot of money to me. The pie chart to the left reveals a whopping 54% of our national budget goes towards military spending.

News Reports suggest that our involvement in Libya is set to exceed the $750 million estimate by the Pentagon, a statistic not likely to help our blossoming national debt.

Of course it’s a lot of money. But perhaps we’ve decided as a community it’s necessary for our salvation.

Competing Gospels
But where does our salvation really come from? There’s a great worship song by Crystal Lewis sung in many of our local churches which says:

Salvation belongs to our God
who sits upon the throne
and unto the lamb
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength
be to our God forever and ever

These lyrics – a direct quote from Revelation 7:10 & 12 – are hard to argue with: salvation belongs to God. But in the historical context of Roman empire that these words were first penned, its not saying God and not Vishnu, Jesus not Allah is God. No, they’re a powerful and dangerous political statement: God, and not Caesar who promises pax Romana, is source of salvation.

This apparently is not a sideshow for the early church, but a central spiritual and linguistic premise. Jesus, Paul, and John all borrow explicitly political, explicitly Roman cultural-linguistic concepts to communicate the faith. Words like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “son of God,” “peace,” “Lord,” and even salvation are borrowed directly from Roman political culture to establish what NT Wright calls “a parady of the imperial cult.” 

Take for instance the word “gospel,” a key concept in Christian theology and identity. Jesus and the early church had a wide range of words to choose from to sum up the message. Out of that linguistic soup they chose the “secular” greek word “euangelion,” a strictly imperial word referring narrowly to imperial news, usually pertaining to news from the front lines of battle. Why choose this secular word to describe Jesus message? Precisely because it sets up a choice of competing gospels to choose from: Caesar’s empire, or Jesus’ kingdom. Paul makes his choice clear, proclaiming for those in the imperial capital to hear: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He bookends his letter to Rome with an equally dangerous counter-claim to Caesar that “all” people will praise Jesus and not Caesar.

It’s into this context of competing gospels that John assigns salvation to God, and not the “shock and awe” military might of pax Romana. The nature of each gospel and the character of each kingdom is radically different. Revelation portrays Caesar’s empire as a beast gobbling up innocents; but Jesus is portrayed not as a mighty warrior, but as the slain Lamb. Richard B. Hays writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion (pg. 330).”

Military Spending in Context
As I write this I’m sitting in the safety of the most overwelming military muscle the world has ever prioritized paying for. Direct parallels to Rome’s pax Romana are striking. I’m also sitting in the presence of the slain now-risen Lamb, celebrated weekly in churches on every Houston corner through the breaking and pouring of bread and wine. So I’m forced to ask, to whom belongs our salvation? Do the absurdity of these budgetary numbers supply the answer? 

The gospels of Caesar and Jesus continue to recruit followers to this day, inviting us to repent, for their kingdom is near at hand. Can we afford to choose any differently than John and Paul?

 Sing it with me church! You know the words:

Salvation belongs to our God…
We the redeemed shall be strong
in purpose and unity
declaring aloud
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength!
Be to our God forever and ever

This post co-published at Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog called The Peace Pastor.  
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As a teenager, my mother always sent me out into the world saying, “Remember who you are.” She intuitively knew that memories define us and play an important role in our behavior and future decisions.

We see this in young children, where developing a memory allows children to define selves in relation to others and the world around them. When encountering a new experience, categorizing based upon past experience relieves stress and allows for comprehension of new information. Likewise, the loss of memory in aging adults removes our ability to define ourselves in meaningful ways. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy revealed the pain and dislocation of non-memory when a character taped a post-it to her husband saying, “This is Robert. Robert is your husband.” Remembering who we are helps us act in accord with our values and self image.

This is equally true of nations and communities. What we choose to remember defines our identity and directs our future. U.S. history, our history, is the history of freedom, we’re told. In pursuit of that goal, we the people have continued to broaden freedom to more and more people groups, often through war. Picture the Mall on Washington and the story it tells through symbol. Flowing down from the Capital (symbol of democracy) is the monument to Washington, telling the story of courageous freedoms fought for and won against a non-democratic oppressor.  The Lincoln memorial stands as a testament to war’s ability to bring freedom and unity when we persevere. The WWII memorial is one of the most stunning examples of how symbols communicate power, a true testament to something many refer as the “Good War.”

These and several other stories are the key memory bricks we’ve used to erect our national image. The story is clear: we are a nation of heroes bent on freedom at any cost. And so today, in our next step as valiant warrior, we’re spreading ‘peace and freedom’ in the Arab world. In erecting this image, it becomes inconvenient to remember aspects of our story that don’t further this metanarrative: bad bricks, if you will. Absent from Washington’s Mall are two of the most definitive and core stories of our nation: the 300 years of chattel slavery, and the genocide of the First Nations people. Why? Is it because bad bricks disrupt our self image and derail our inevitable march towards ‘freedom’?

Selective memory may be beneficial in stroking our ego, but it’s not helpful in producing wise, relevant decisions regarding our future. Paul Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it (pg 88).” True words allow for growth and change. Selective memory severely limits our ability to learn from history, to grow as a nation, and to be defined in ways appropriate to this context in these times.

Today, we selectively forget the true cost of the wars we’re fighting. Civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (etc…) are counted in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Drone attacks in Pakistan, notorious for killing civilians, have increased since Osama bin Laden’s death rather than disappeared. Our economy (and national, state, and city budgets) continues to flounder without drawing connection to the trillions spent on war.

But remembering the fullness of who we are is both Biblical, and practical. The Hebrew Scripture (what Christians call “The Old Testament”) erects a national mall in stark contrast to our own: including bad bricks almost to the exclusion of anything good (Psalm 95 is a nice ode to bad bricks). Jesus (Luke 24:13-35) and Stephen (Acts 7) both preach early post-resurrection stories inviting listeners to build their house of faith using both good and bad memory bricks. Christians celebrate this “complete memory” each and every time we break the bread and pour the cup of communion. From the perspective of faith, it seems imperative to resist forces which limit or bury memory, else our whitewashed “pure” self-image will blind us to the consequences of our choices. Both the good and the bad memory bricks are, apparently, essential in erecting a just and peaceful world.

This weekend we’re invited to erect a holistic house using both our good and bad memory bricks. Discovery Green is hosting a memorial to all lives lost in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Event information says:

Memorial to Military and Civilian Losses in Iraq and Afghanistan Wars May 28th – 30th. The memorial consists of a labeled US and Texas flag for each of the almost 600 Texans killed in both conflicts and prayer flags and photos to denote the many tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilian losses. 

Is it possible that the greatness of our nation tomorrow depends on the fullness of our memory today? Perhaps.

Remember who you are!

Also posted at Marty’sHouston Chronicle  The Peace Pastor blog at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor. Follow Marty on Twitter.

Is it time to end the war?

On May 1, 2011, 8 years to the day after President George W. Bush mistakenly announced to the world “Mission Accomplished,” it has finally happened.

The war in Afghanistan was a direct response to the atrocities of 9/11: we were looking for a terrorist. Iraq too, was mistakenly sold to the US public as being necessary to defeat Al Qaeda. But does it make sense to continue wars begun in an effort to hunt Osama bin Laden, now that he is dead?

But of course terrorism is not the only reason we fight. Though begun primarily to pursue Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, these wars have been defended time and again on grounds that we are expanding the fundamental rights of democracy and freedom to the poor folks in Afghanistan and Iraq. For instance, Time magazine famously ran pictures in July 2010 of women in Afghanistan who were victimized by the Taliban, asking “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?”

So why are we still fighting: response to 9/11, or freedom for citizens of another country? Our telling of engagement in WW2 has unfolded in a similar vein: entry clearly as response to Pearl Harbor, with later justification wrapped almost exclusively around the Holocaust.

These are important questions, because the costs are unspeakable! We’re scheduled to spend $113 Billion in Afghanistan in 2011 alone, good money we don’t have that could easily be used for good causes here at home. We’ve also lost over 1500 service men and women, with 10,000 wounded. If we continue to fight, we better have a good reason!

So what do you think, is it time to end the war/s, or are there good reasons for continuing the fight?

Jim Wallis of Sojourners says clearly,

There is no more room or time for excuses. The war in Afghanistan — now the longest war in American history — no longer has any justification, and I am calling upon Christians, along with other people of good, moral sense, to lead the effort to finally end this war and bring our troops home. On moral, financial, and strategic grounds, the continuation of the war in Afghanistan cannot be justified.

This is directly in line with classic Just War theory, in both its Christian and secular varieties. When the intention of war has been met, the war must be called to an end. Bin Laden is dead; Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is, according to Leon Panetta, “relatively small. At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.” Sounds like Mission Accomplished to me.

But what about the complex issue of secondary justification I mentioned earlier? How does a pacifist Christian like myself (I prefer the label “peacemaker” to pacifist) respond to the charge that we still have unfinished business in the Arab world?

Deep into the Easter season, my mind is fresh with Jesus’ choice in Gethsemene: will he use violence or nonviolence to bring peace to our world? Erica Chenoweth, in a brilliant article called People Power, provides incredible evidence that Jesus decision wasn’t just right for him, but was the most remarkable option in all settings. Comparing the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance and armed conflict to bring social change, Chenoweth says the results are “stunning.”

Among 323 major violent insurgencies and nonviolent mass movements that occurred from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent insurgencies, succeeding more than 55 percent of the time. In fact, successful nonviolent mass action has occurred in countries as diverse as Serbia, Poland, Madagascar, South Africa, Chile, Venezuela, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Nepal… And, in fact, the overall trend suggests that even in situations where regimes used violence to crack down on resistance campaigns, 46 percent of nonviolent campaigns have prevailed, whereas only 20 percent of violent campaigns succeeded against these violently repressive states.

Set now in the context of the amazing Arab Spring, our continuing presence in the Middle East seems antiquated, proud, and, terribly misinformed. Nonviolence isn’t a quaint method from a bygone era, it has and is working in places as diverse as Wisconsin and Egypt. To continue to pursue social transformation through military might when nonviolent resistance is redefining the modern world is a morally misguided choice we can no longer afford to make.

Jesus choice can be ours: we can and must turn our back on violence without also turning our back on responsibility. The time to end the wars is now. The time to pursue peace through peace-making rather than war is here.

If our government refuses to abide by Just War standards of war-making, than its time for the church to call not just for an end to this war, but to all wars, and an end of our children joining the military.

The time will come, said an ancient leader, when God’s people will transform weapons into tools of productivity, and upgrade curriculums from war-making to peace.
Is this that time? If not now, when?