As the Iraq War reaches its fifth anniversary today, it is time for the church to repent.
It is true that the church was opposed to the war from the outset. With an almost unanimous voice, church leaders and ordinary Christians said ‘no’ in loud and clear voices. We declared it to be an ‘unjust war’. And so we were on the ‘right side of history’.
But is it enough to say no to a war with our voices only?
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that the church took the easy path. We wrote letters, said prayers, marched in the streets. We did all the things we needed to do to salve our own consciences about the war, and absolutely nothing to stop it from happening.
When the government showed the limits of these ‘formal channels’ of protest and persuasion, we did not respond with the kind of nonviolent direct action proven to be successful in other times and places. We did not intervene. We did not risk arrest. We did not risk our lives to save others from certain annihilation.
Five years on, our silence about the ongoing nightmare in Iraq – which has now claimed over 1 million lives – begs the question: are we for war or against war? Do we even believe our own doctrines about just war and the primacy of nonviolent conflict resolution? Do we believe that Iraqi children are just as human as Australian children, both equally made in the image of God?
The churches have, on rare occasions, expressed concern about the ongoing violence in Iraq. But until the members and leaders of the churches actually do something about it, they remain complicit in an occupation that is exacerbating the conflict, not solving it.
Lord, have mercy.
It should not need saying that a carefully worded statement, which is not even sent to their own congregations, once every few years, does not constitute doing something.
When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, he was not referring to those who write polite letters to the government. He was not referring to those who desire peace – who doesn’t? – or those who pray for peace inside the stone walls of the church. He was referring to those who make peace with their whole lives, those who will confront the Powers of Death with their bodies and witness to the Prince of Peace, those who live out their prayers in action.
When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, he was not referring to the Church five years ago. We forsook the hard path that comes at a price. And so the prophetic words of Fr Daniel Berrigan remain searingly true:
“Because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war making continues, because the making of war, by its nature, is total – but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.”
Christ have mercy.
In this time of Lent, we are reminded again and again of two central themes of the Gospel: the Way of Christ leads to the Cross; and it is never too late for God to bring resurrection life to the dry bones of a fallen people.
I suspect most of us in the church believe in neither of these things. We want to believe, but the power and seduction of the world is too strong. It was true then, too. That, indeed, is part of the point of the stories: the Israelites did not believe in the time of Ezekiel, the disciples did not believe when Lazarus was dead, James and John did not believe that Jesus meant it when he said he must die after coming down from the mountain.
These stories have power because they speak directly to our condition today. The church has given up the Way of the Cross, seemingly no longer believing that discipleship comes with a cost. We are like James and John, squabbling over the good seats at the table of power (which we call ‘influence’).
The Good News for the poor has become the Good News for the middle class: the Holy Spirit is like a credit card with no limit, and better still, no hidden fees and charges. We now hold the Bible in one hand and the latest share prices in the other.
On Sundays we preach that a person must lay down their life in order to save it. On Mondays we lay down our morals to work for the institutions of a market system that destroys people and the planet.
Lord, have mercy.
There are, of course, many Christians who do incredible things with almost nothing. Small groups based around intentional communities like Catholic Worker and Iona are engaging in costly peacemaking. Some of our overseas aid agencies are engaged in small but vital peacemaking action in conflict zones. Christian Peacemaker Teams reduce violence in war zones by literally ‘getting in the Way’.
These are prophets of our time who are living the prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the United States, the churches and thousands of Christians from across the country are engaged in radical, costly, peacemaking action through the Declaration of Peace, Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, and other campaigns. Why is the church in America more ready to take risky action to live out the call to be peacemakers than we are?
The Really Good News is that it is never too late to repent of our sins and turn to the Prince of Peace. Even two thousand years of church history cannot come between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ.
If we repent now, we can begin now to stop the next war. For there will be another call for war – if not with Iran, with someone else. This is the inevitable consequence of the insatiable lust for resources that drives the global economy.
The church needs to become a place of learning and action in nonviolence, as the black churches in the American South and in South Africa were, as the Confessing Church was in Nazi Germany, as the Catholic Worker community is today.
If the church started now to form its people as peacemakers, schooled in the rich history of Christian nonviolence and ready to put a spoke in the wheels of war, it would be ready when the time comes. In the meantime, the church can be an agent of peacemaking that builds the architecture of a just, peaceful and sustainable world that need study war no longer.
The Christian Peacemaker Teams were founded on a question: “what would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”
On my bad days, I fear we will never find out. But as we approach the miracle of the resurrection, I recall the testimony of scripture: it is never too late for resurrection; in God all things are possible for one who believes.
On this the fifth anniversary of an unjust, illegal and sickening war, let us commit to a new path of peacemaking, even though we struggle to believe it is possible. Let us join the desperate father and say “I believe, help me in my unbelief!”
And may the Holy Spirit work her healing power on us, driving our feet and putting words in our mouths.
Jesus comes bearing God’s forgiveness. Live then, forgiven and free, following his path to God’s kingdom.