*I wrote this the evening I separated from the US Army on October 19, 2006. I sat down at a coffee shop and hammered out about 10 pages, after I had started the first two a few days prior, but didn’t feel led to finish. I originally sent this out to close friends and contacts, and got some varying replies. The original email is included before before getting into the essay itself.
It is with a heavy heart that I share with you something that has been on my heart for many months now. I am now, as of October 19th, counted as a private citizen, so perhaps it is with an inflated confidence that I share these thoughts with you. Please read it, but only once you have time to truly reflect on it and consider its implications. For a few months now, I have realized my message is two fold, though I have been more vocal with the one; nonviolence and unconditional love for others. The second I knew would be met with slightly more hesitation than the first. I found something in the Old Testament that disturbed me when I was trying to figure out why God allowed war to be fought by, and more disturbingly, brought against, the Israelites. Many times, it was their own nationalistic egotism and pride that disabled them from fully committing themselves to Yahweh. God used other nations, insultingly gentile nations, to remind them that they were to rely only on Him, and not on their military force and elitist tendencies. Side note; Isaiah 56:3-7 reminds us that Judaism was not intended to be exclusive, but inclusive. (Israel was to be ‘set apart,’ yes, but not exclusivist, it seems. Please correct me if I am mistaken) I see much of the same tendencies in America today. Leaders at all levels have high-jacked the noble beginnings of our country and are on a joy ride with our global reputation. I love my country (not as much as I love Jesus, but I love it nonetheless), and what is passed off as ‘patriotism’ is appalling. The way people throw this idolatrous label around is alarmingly unpatriotic (pardon the pun, and yes it was intended). Our own forefathers would be labeled unpatriotic by today’s standards. I am truly afraid for what our once beautiful nation may degenerate into if those of us who still love our country deeply do not speak up.
I look forward to any responses that you all have.
Liberty and Justice for All
I recently visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, PA. The walkway leading to the actual display builds the visitor up in awe and inspiration; they are reminded how this object of their attention is a beautiful reminder of this country’s esteemed past and heritage. Many people stopped to read various inscriptions and historical references to the Bell. At the entrance to the building that houses the Liberty Bell, there is a verse from Leviticus in bold letters; “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” For a new student of biblical history, which I playfully fancy myself, this had a slight impact to me. If my memory serves me, the verse is what is actually engraved upon the Liberty Bell itself. Isn’t that an awesome thing; Liberty? It seems that we are, as a nation, asked by God to proclaim liberty throughout the land. Does this explain America’s neocolonialism? Is this why we have vested economical interests spread through the entire world; to proclaim liberty and justice for all? I had to look up this verse; to dwell on it, to meditate on it. I didn’t have my Bible on me, so it had to wait.
Meanwhile, I continued on my way toward the actual bell. I learned that it had been cracked since basically it’s creation in 1751, but that modern science had devised a way to keep it intact in order to avoid further damage or even collapse. The crack as it appears now is rumored to have been made on Washington’s death in 1846. I almost had pity on it; that poor decrepit bell had been clinging to what was left of its structural integrity for nearly its entire being. I took some pictures, had a few pleasant thoughts and moved on. When I got back to where I was staying, I looked up Leviticus 25:10. Wait a minute. The passage at the display was only an abbreviated version of a longer verse! Here is the passage in it’s entirety:
“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.”
Hm. Not quite a harkening call to go out and plant our beliefs through the rest of the world. Without getting into too much detail about the Jubilee year (many other men have commented on it much more eloquently and exhaustively), this was actually a time for all of God’s people to release each other from debt and free slaves who were serving to pay off debts to their masters. The Jubilee is what Jesus proclaimed at one of his earliest sermons in Nazareth; they ran him out of town and nearly threw him off a cliff… As I reflected on what it meant to have a jubilee verse engraved on a national icon, I was overwhelmed by a sense of irony. The Jubilee was one of the Mosaic traditions that the Jews did not practice with much consistency. To do so meant that all the wealthy Jews would lose their capital every 7 and 49 years. Anyway, I was pretty shell shocked by the duplicity of having such an obviously redemptive passage inscribed on one of the symbols of a nation that declared that by destroying massive areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, even Vietnam, that we were “liberating” said nations.
Hence; my introduction into nationalistic egotism and all of its evils. Patriotism as our founding fathers knew it; in the civil disobedience of such events as the Boston Tea party and the Declaration of Independence, is dead. It has been replaced by an uncompromising insistence to blindly obey its established ideologies. Jim Wallis claimed in his book Call to Conversion; “Nations tend to demand total allegiance. They then become idolatrous and rebellious against the will of God. Even at its best, a government cannot act completely according to the justice of God because no nation, except the church, confesses Christ’s rule as its foundation.” When I read this, I was struck by the truth contained in it. I had been exposed to it first hand; I have been accused of aiding the ‘enemies of America’ and straying from the path of God because I would not assist the Army in its mission of fighting the nation’s wars. How could this be, I wondered, if God is the only entity I am to swear unswerving allegiance to? Was Nation (also referred to as Empire) an equal of God? A stand-in? Does America speak for God? I had to know what the bible said about this.
Consulting my trusty concordance, I was steered toward the stories of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. Why were the Israelites allowed to be taken captive by pagan nations? The answer lies in their allegiances. The Jews had begun to trust in the strength of their chariots and the number and might of their soldiers. By relinquishing their trust in God, the Almighty was no longer bound by His covenant to protect them. Also, their disinterest and lack of loyalty pissed Him the heck off! The Hebrew nation had been brought under judgment in order to remind them where the real power lies; in God, not in the sword. Unfortunately, it was when they were in their most dire times that the Israelites finally admitted their need for a merciful God. It took punishment to bring them to the feet of the Loving Father. People haven’t changed much; we still act up until our parents ‘teach us a lesson.’ Groups act similarly to individuals; behaving poorly until we are reminded that we are not in control and must rely on a higher power for guidance and support (be it a governmental or spiritual authority).
Where does that leave America? Eisenhower, in his farewell speech to the country at the conclusion of his distinguished presidency, warned us of an ominous machine that loomed to take the US captive, if we were not careful to resist it. The machine: the ‘military industrial complex.’
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”
The former president, and enamored war hero, went on to describe our folly in consciously deciding to build our nation henceforth upon the strength of our armed forces; placing idolatrous faith in our tanks and, even worse, in our very soldiers (trusting in ‘the multitude of [our] chariots and the great strength of [our] horsemen,’ as spoken of in Isaiah 31:1). This career soldier, who expressed a “definite sense of disappointment” in hindsight toward the performance of his duties, thought it decidedly unwise to tempt the rest of the world into an arms and militarism race by essentially drawing the starting line. He closed with an appeal that we as a nation be “confident but humble with power,” and be able to “come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.” Perhaps good ole Ike was a bit of a prophet…
In my six years in the military industrial complex, I have seen many leaders arrogantly (though I hope it has more to do with innocent ignorance) twist scripture, including Luke 9:50 and Mark 9:40 to proudly, and perhaps mistakenly, align their own political agenda with Christian teaching. I have seen firsthand the faith many soldiers place in commanders, their own weapons, or the bombs that fall from the air at the squelch of a radio transmission. They march boldly forward, presumably safe as long as they have their ‘best friends;’ Mr. M-4 and Mrs. Kevlar. Jesus said “fear not He who can destroy the body but cannot destroy the soul (Matthew 10:28). What safety does a weapon grant but a false sense of it? Why do men who trust in Jesus still fear death? Wasn’t a large part of His ministry the proclamation of eternal life? What amazes Jesus above anything else is always faith. He is awestruck by it because it is so beautiful in the sight of God, in fact it is pretty much all he asks of us. Faith is trust, trust is love. Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27 all remind us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [“strength” in Deut.].”
God demands it all, just as He offers to us. No nation can substitute. This is idolatry, to place ANYTHING on the altar of God that does not belong; an oath, a flag, a president. Yes, we are to be subservient to Empire, but only insofar as it does not ask us to place itself above the Lord our God. We pay taxes, suffer through jury duty, and often we serve in the military. However, nothing may take the place of God or ask us to sacrifice our obedience to Him. This is what the age of Martyrs is about, and what prophets preached about; to never allow anything to take from God what is rightfully His, our ultimate allegiance to Him. As for obedience; we must obey Man only as long as it does not compromise what Jesus has taught us. Acts 5:29 reminds us who we are to obey in situations where one seems to contradict the other. Leo Tolstoy wrote in the essay ‘Of Holy Disobedience;’
“So that by killing by order of your commander you are a murderer as much as the thief who kills a rich man to rob him. He is tempted by money, and you by the desire not to be punished, or to receive a reward [such as praise or recognition]. A Christian cannot surrender his conscience into the power of another man, no matter by what title he may be called.”
Just because a man makes a command, by its own right it is not necessarily moral or justified. Temporal authority does not absolve anyone of spiritual responsibility. God spoke morals into being; He is the final authority on what is ‘right.’ He elaborates on it in the Gospels when he commands us to pray for those who persecute us and to do good to those who harm us (Deuteronomy 18:18-19 tells us that Jesus speaks directly for God the father, and what he will do to those who disobey – “…I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command them. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” Un-italicized by me for emphasis). Nonviolence, among other things, is a simple matter of obedience to God. Sometimes it seems irrational, absurd even! Jesus, in each individual Gospel never heals a person in the same way twice, one time He even spits on a man to heal his blindness (Mark 8:22-26)!
A problem I see with men who justify straying from single minded obedience to Jesus must assume (for the sake of their argument) that Jesus is merely an idealist. This is hard for me to sympathize with; I believe in the idea that Jesus is eternal and that He was with the Father at the creation of the world. To make the argument of an idealist-Jesus, one must base his argument on the idea that Jesus, the creator of the world as we know it, knows nothing about how the world must actually be run. This is to say “who does that Jesus think he is? War is necessary, he was just being idealistic!” Logically, they also must claim that ‘good’ is dependent upon the existence of evil (since evil is ‘necessary’ and ‘good’ is simply an ideal). I believe the opposite to be true, that we make evil necessary simply by surrendering ourselves to flawed theology. Let us not hide behind our sin and throw up our hands in defeat, instead let’s place our faith in the One who frees us from the darkness and gives us a Way to live today and forever.
Many times, I have been placed, hypothetically, in many different scenarios, all of which seemingly demanded that I kill someone in order to defend myself or someone I love. After I mentally shrug off the repetitiveness of people offering hypothetical suggestions in lieu of the very clear teachings of Christ, my response always has something to do with me dying instead of the aggressor. This is the first reason I give; the greatest gift I can give is my own life so that another may live (John 15:12-13). Why would I, as a faithful follower of Jesus, value my physical life so much that I would grasp at every straw to maintain it? I think it was Brennan Manning in ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ who wrote “Death is but a threshold that leads to the only true sense of ‘life’ that we will ever experience.” Additionally, I know in the depths of my heart that I am ready to be judged, the person that threatens my life clearly is not. This leads me to my second reason; to spare my aggressor’s life is to give him precious more moments on this earth in which he might experience redemption. My favorite band, Relient K, has a new song which prophetically proclaims “with every passing second comes a second chance.” I wonder if my questioners would have killed Paul had they been at Stephen’s stoning, for it was these precious moments that enabled him to experience grace on the road to Damascus. The same deceived people I am expected to ‘punish justly’ do not understand redemption because they have never been offered it. To consciously and willfully end their life in a moment of sin, I eternally condemn them. Essentially, at that moment I take from them the gift of salvation that Christ offers through the cross, I seal their fate; I have judged them, not the Righteous Father. The Relient K song “Fallen Man” goes on to say ;
“All because the judge of you is someone I could never be,
is why you should thank the Lord that it is Him, and it’s not me.”
The third reason I often give is that I cannot take that which is not mine. God alone created life, not little old me. If I have not given something, how can I take it away? It is exactly because God has given life through Christ that he forbids us from taking it.
In 1 Samuel 8, the true birth of hierarchy is revealed. The people demand a king so that they can be like other nations, to have someone lead them in battle. Samuel is heartbroken because the Israelites have missed the point; they are supposed to be different, ‘set apart,’ His holy people! He is afraid they have rejected him, but God reassures poor Sam; He says “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their King.” This is the introduction we have to the birth of the king-dom of Israel. However, God used even this transgression for good. He promises a kingly line that will eventually bring the Messiah. Matthew and Luke both trace Jesus’ lineage directly from King David, the royal heritage that God promises to bless the nations through. In all the fullness of time, the Messiah is born (read Revelation 12:1-6 for a nativity scene you don’t always hear about…). He is crucified 33 years later (or so) and on the third day, he is resurrected, promising the same for us if only we follow Him. He is walking around; wounds in His hands, feet, and side, alive as alive can be. After some time, God calls Him to return to Heaven. He does not die a second time; He is still alive in the world today, a King among kings! It is to Him that I swear allegiance to, to Him that I place my trust. No other man on Earth can claim to speak for Him because He speaks to each of us directly through the Holy Spirit. What does a prime minister, a president, or a dictator offer that Jesus has not already given me? Freedom? Peace?
The temptation account in Luke 4:5-6 reminds us that Satan has been given all the kingdoms of the Earth. They are his to do with as he chooses. So when a nation of the world asks me to go to war, I must ask myself how I am to involve myself as a soldier first of God. It is to His kingdom that I am a citizen above any citizenship I may hold on earth. The whole of humanity are but tenants upon His property, His children were aliens in a foreign land (Philippians 3:20, Lev. 25:23, Heb. 11:13-16, 1 Pet. 2:11, Psalms 39:12). Ephesians 2:19 goes on to say we are no longer foreign members, but are unified by Christ. James 4:1-3 is clear what causes war; it is the sins and desires of men’s hearts. How can I take part in this? How do I answer to the world when it demands this of me? If I am to ally myself with the world and allow myself to be thrown into the maelstrom of war as a participant, I fear to do so is to be precariously close to disobedience toward God. I firmly believe that Jesus is the Lord of every man’s conscience, and that I will never fully understand His ways. This is to say, which I have several times to those who debate this subject with me, that if a man has honestly, humbly and earnestly sought God’s will in His life, and that man is sure that He has placed his feet upon the tumultuous path of ‘just-violence,’ than we would have nothing to argue about. Interestingly enough, I have never received such an assurance that they have indeed asked God with a right heart. So far the responses have been nervous unease and awkward silence.
I am brought back to our Liberty Bell and its symbolic irony. The Bell represents so much to us as a nation; freedom, liberty, justice for all. In a way, it (among other national icons) defines and identifies us; when we see that bell in our mind, we may as well be thinking of our very country. However, what does it represent to a visitor from another country; perhaps a pregnant mother who works in a South American sweatshop producing Sony electronics components, or a young, ethnically humiliated and frustrated Arab Muslim man, or an Iraqi orphan? They might be reminded that the Bell is intrinsically flawed in its very design. It has been that way since nearly its creation in the late 1700’s. It takes a complex system of levers and tension just to keep itself in one piece. The Bell’s structural integrity is in serious doubt if it is separated from a foreign device that provides unseen support within the Bell itself. The weight of the Bell is completely reliant upon a foreign force; a force which the average American is utterly unaware and blissfully ignorant of, lest they peek under its skirts to lay their eyes upon its dark undercarriage. When these people see Our Liberty Bell, in their mind they may as well be thinking of our very country. Heaven forbid they open their mouths and expose the truth behind the red, white and blue curtain.
How dare I question the moral character of such a great country? I must admit, I am not the first, nor will I be the last. Many came before me, some of their names; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Amos; the list goes on. I am nobody to speak, let the authority of the Bible speak for itself; Jeremiah 34:17 holds the grim judgment for those called upon to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” and fail horribly at being the stewards of Liberty for all the inhabitants of the earth;
“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen. So now I proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the LORD – ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague, and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth.”
I pray for those who would forget that we must see the entire global community as our family, because I fear that the Father may not see them that way in return. By our own judgment we will be judged. Let us remember Sodom’s sins as written in Ezekiel 16:49. As a nation, let us repent of our political arrogance, economic obesity, and lack of concern for our fellow man. Let us be as the publican Jesus describes, not as the Pharisee, in Luke 18:9-14. May God have mercy on us; sinners.