The Things That Make for Peace . . . in the United States

The Things That Make for Peace . . . in the United States

By Ken Brooker Langston

In Psalm 85, we read and hear the following:
I am listening to what the Lord God is saying;
God is promising peace to us, God’s own people,
if we do go back to our foolish ways.
Surely God is ready to save those who honor him,
and God’s saving presence will remain in our land.
Love and faithfulness will meet.
Justice and peace will embrace.
Human loyalty will reach up from the earth,
And God’s justice will look down from heaven.
The Lord will prosper us,
Our land will be rich with harvest.
Justice will go before the Lord
And prepare the path for our God.

=========== Part One =============

Unfortunately, the world today is very far from the world spoken about in that vision. Ours is a world with too much violence, too much injustice, and far, far too little peace.

As we have heard here today and see on the news everyday, there is still conflict in the very land from which this vision comes. The bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues—with the Israeli military confronting other Israelis, and Palestinians in gun battles with other Palestinians.

  • There is the US stand-off with Iran over the use of nuclear technology.
  • There is the ongoing and dangerous conflict with North Korea over nuclear weapons.
  • There is the continuing US hostility towards Cuba, and the growing US hostility towards Venezuela.
  • There is genocide in Darfur—acknowledged, but still largely unaddressed.
  • And, of course, there’s the conflict that most Americans see everyday on their televisions, hear about everyday on their radios, or read about in their newspapers: the war in Iraq.

Recently, vice-President Cheney said we were winning. Then Secretary of Defense Rumsfield said we had turned the corner. Then the pro-US leader of Iraq said he feared that his nation might be moving closer to civil war.

In response to this, President Bush admitted that we’d be in Iraq for a while—at least until we get the job done. But no one seems to know exactly what “done” means.

If it means stopping the insurgency, we’re far from done: the number, strength, and deadliness of the insurgents continue to grow.

If it means the Iraqis defending themselves, we’re still far from done: the recruitment and training of Iraqi forces is not going as smoothly and as rapidly as the Administration had hoped.

If it means leaving behind a democratic Iraq, then it’s unclear exactly when we’ll be done.

Yes, there was a handing over of sovereignty. But it was more in name than in fact. Yes, there were elections. But Egypt and Iran also have elections. And no one is holding these nations up as models of democracy. And yes, they’re drafting a constitution. But unless there is genuine buy-in from all factions in Iraq, any constitution is not worth the paper on which it’s written.

You know, I heard on NPR a couple of days ago that there was much excitement in Washington and among the current leaders of Iraq because the process of drafting a constitution was going faster than anticipated.

According to the report, the only details that remained to be worked out in this divided Muslim nation were the division of power among the factions and the role of Islam. It seems to me that these would be rather major details!

But here are some more details—grim ones:

  • Over 1700 US soldiers killed in Iraq.
  • Over 13,000 US troops wounded in Iraq.
  • Nearly 25,000 Iraqi civilians dead.
  • And billions of dollars spent on Iraq that could have been spent to meet human needs here—as well as alleviate suffering around the world.

But the President says we must continue fighting no matter what the cost. Why? Because it’s central to the war against terrorism: We’re fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.

Well, it seems to me that what just happened in London might call that strategy into question—unless, of course, the President thinks that London, also, is ‘over there.’

When asked about his unpopular campaign to destroy Social Security, the President said, “The easy path is to say, ‘Oh, we don’t have a problem. Let’s ignore it—yet again.'” It is truly tragic that the President will not apply this thinking to Iraq.

More directly related to the war on terrorism than Iraq are the prisoners being held at the US Base in Guantanamo, Cuba. We’ve often heard from conservatives about the violation of human rights in Cuba—and now we know it’s true.

Large numbers of people are being held there—by the US government—for an indefinite period of time, with no charges formally made against them, and with no access to legal advice or help. As ‘enemy combatants,’ they’re even denied the basic rights granted to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention.

Amnesty International recently called attention to this situation. The organization issued a report in which it criticized the harsh and abusive treatment of the prisoners by the US military. Responding to this criticism, the President called the report ‘absurd.’ Why? Because “we’re Americans” and Americans “don’t do things like that.”

He also called the report biased. Why? Because it was “based on allegations by people who were held in detention.” Furthermore, these are “people who hate America.” Hard to argue with logic like that, isn’t it?

During the same press conference in which the President dismissed the findings of Amnesty International, he said the following: “In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty. You shouldn’t be judged guilty before you’ve had a fair trial.”

In order to prevent any confusion, please be aware that the President was not applying this principle in any way to the prisoners at Guantanamo. Instead, he was expressing his profound concern about the arrest of an oil tycoon in Russia!

All of this—the war in Iraq and our treatment of prisoners—is having a very negative effect on our image in the world. Most of our allies are dismayed by our behavior and our attitude. And while recruitment numbers are down for the US military, they appear to be up for terrorist groups like Al Queda.

But the Bush Administration is not sitting still on the recruitment issue. Given that recruitment levels are down even in the face of less-than-honest tactics by military recruiters, our government is on top of things. They’re now requesting that, in order to receive particular federal monies, schools must provide information on their students to military recruiters. It sort of gives a new twist to the slogan, “Leave No Child Behind.”

Going at the problem from the other end, this Administration continues to stretch our current military to the limit. But for a growing number of military families, that limit has been reached.

Here’s an interesting story: For those of you who don’t know about him, Walter B. Jones Jr. is a congressman from North Carolina. He’s an ideological soul-mate of former Senator Jesse Helms, and he’s a darling of the Religious Right. He’s the force behind a bill to allow churches to get more directly involved in partisan politics. And he’s the guy who promoted a House resolution to rename french fries “freedom fries—because he confused the use of the word “French” in relation to a nationality with the use of a similar word describing a method for cutting potatoes. And, based on this confusion, he recommended that we change the name of this popular food because the French were opposed to our invasion of Iraq, an action he strongly supported.

But now, congressman Jones is the co-sponsor of a bill with Dennis Kucinich to set a timetable for getting the troops out of Iraq. Why? According to Jones, there are two main reasons: First, the reasons we went to war have proven to be false. Second, his district has two military bases full of families who are growing in their opposition to the war. Many of their loved ones have died, others have been there too long, and the families—as well as the local economy—are enduring too much stress under these conditions.

This same sentiment of uneasiness about the war is growing among military families across the nation—and among all Americans. That’s why the President’s job approval ratings are falling. That’s why he has to take time away from important things like defending Karl Rove and stacking the courts with right-wingers: he’s got to keep trying to defend the war.

Parenthetically, I don’t know if Karl Rove committed a crime or not when he identified a covert agent by her relationship with her husband rather than by her name. But I do know this: the real crime was trying to suppress the truth and to punish anyone who could, with some credibility, call into question the Administration’s false claims about the dangers to America posed by Iraq.

And this very mindset—this desire to punish critics and truth-tellers—is exactly why many of us are so concerned about the Patriot Act. . . .

============ Part Two =============

So what we do about all of this? What are people of faith who seek peace with justice supposed to do?

There are many things, of course—too many for mere mortals. But I want to suggest four, maybe five.

FIRST, in the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, “Keep hope alive.” Believe me, if Congressman Jones can see the truth about the war, anyone can.

In fact, to help other members of Congress to see it better, he posts pictures of the dead soldiers from his district on the wall outside his congressional office. It doesn’t exactly win him a lot of friends in his own party. But whether it does or not, it’s the right thing to do.

And this fact is important for all the people who are feeling pessimistic about the war and about the overall political climate in America. Hope is not the same as optimism and is therefore not the opposite of pessimism. It is the opposite of the kind of deep despair related to a complete loss of faith in the essential goodness of creation and in the eschatological promises of God. And it is this kind of deep despair out of which people of faith are called, and against which people of faith must witness.

Why? Because true hope is grounded in a faith that includes both a conviction of the right and the belief expressed by Dr. King that “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”

So, as people of faith committed to a faith-based vision of peace and justice, and as Christians grasped by the Biblical vision of shalom, we must keep hope alive.

SECOND, I think we need to get the big picture. There are many reasons behind what is going on in Iraq and other war-torn places around the world.

And there are many reasons why the United States is doing what it is doing in Iraq and elsewhere.

Yes, there’s ideology—foreign policy has been hijacked by a small but powerful group of neoconservatives.

Yes, there’s economic interest—not just oil, but the billions of dollars that Vice President Cheney’s corporation is making by rebuilding what the invasion destroyed.

And yes, there’s stupidity—our leaders have made mistakes and miscalculations all along the way.

But I’d like to suggest to you that there is a larger force at work that helps bind these others together, and gives them the power they have. This force is religious nationalism.

It’s a dangerous theology and a destructive ideology that identifies America with God, wraps the flag around the cross, and confuses patriotism with religious faith. It makes a false god out of the nation and a political prostitute out of religion. It subtly draws people of faith into idolatry and effectively robs religious faith of its prophetic voice. Like the abomination mentioned in Daniel 11 and Mark 13, religious nationalism “stands where it ought not,” it “pollutes the sanctuary” of authentic faith, and it “makes desolate” the healing power of true religion.

This is the force that drives the political agenda of the Religious Right. This is the national religion over which President Bush presides. And this is the demonic force that encourages—and then sanctifies—war.

As I have already said, there are certainly more forces at work than religious nationalism. And in many ways, religious nationalism serves as a cover for and distraction from the destructive side of globalization that accompanies the worldwide expansion of unrestrained, amoral and undemocratic forms of capitalism.

The direction of globalization should be a major concern for all people, including and especially people of faith. But just as in a previous time, the greatest danger for Christians as Christians was the Nazification of the Church, the greatest danger today for the Church and for all people of faith may well be the types of religious nationalism capturing the hearts and minds of millions in America and around the world.

Yes, religious nationalism is in one way a cover for and a distraction from the more negative side of globalization. But it is also the force that gives energy and power to an otherwise soulless set of institutions and relationships that desperately needs grounding in some spiritual reality, even if that reality is a demonic distortion of both religious faith and legitimate forms of patriotism.

As Christians, we must speak out against this powerfully destructive force. We must reassert the authentic power of religious faith, and affirm legitimate forms of patriotism as important, but lesser and different forms of loyalty. Otherwise religious nationalism will successfully support the emergence of a new form of feudalized capitalism with greater destructive potential than its previous Nazi, Fascist, and Stalinist manifestations.

The THIRD thing that faith-based peace and justice advocates need to do is enter into diverse and effective coalitions with others who are also working on peace and justice issues. This is not the time for turf wars and internal battles over which particular issues deserve the most attention. This is the time to come together and support each other in the effort to build and maintain a larger movement for peace and justice—one that corresponds to the shared vision of ‘the beloved community’ articulated by Dr. King, and one grounded in the faith-based vision of peace and justice revealed in the Bible and encouraged by the holy books and writings of other people of faith.

Let me briefly give you some examples of this principle at work:

A coalition of people—including our own Rita Brock and Al Pennybacker—came together at Riverside Church in New York to commemorate the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., to read his statement against the war in Vietnam, and to promote King’s vision of the beloved community.

A large number of groups supported this event, and the energy from this event and its planning flowed into other events and campaigns:

  • a ‘Break the Silence’ bus tour to cities across the nation,
  • a Peace-not-Poverty statement collectively written by hundreds of peace advocates,
  • protests at recruiting stations in various cities,
  • local vigils with diverse people of faith praying for peace,
  • and the formation of new groups—such as a new Clergy and Laity Concerned organization focused on Iraq.

This September, the 24th – 26th, there will be a massive peace mobilization in Washington, DC, highlighting the need to end the war in Iraq. The event will include:

  • a massive march and rally,
  • a peace festival,
  • an interfaith service,
  • grassroots training,
  • lobbying,
  • and civil disobedience.

Christians and other people of faith will be participating in organizing the event and are encouraged to come and give witness to their faith-based commitment to peace with justice. And so, while I’m here today, I encourage all Disciples of Christ who are able to do so to do just that.

In October, there will be an interfaith campaign called “God’s October Surprise.” Based on the fact that this year, the religious holy days of many religious traditions occur in the month of October, people of various faith communities will be working together to organize shared worship, fasts, vigils, and feasts to celebrate our common commitment to peace with justice. Institutional and individual support for this effort is rapidly growing, and I encourage all of you to get involved in congregational, ecumenical, interfaith and community events.

There are, of course, many, many other things going on. Our task is to find ways to join them, promote them and support them. And we must do so not just for the secular reasons of strategic wisdom and political effectiveness, but also, and more importantly, because as Christians we are called to participate—self-critically but in faithful risk—in mutually edifying and mutually corrective relationships with the prophetic forms of what Paul Tillich called ‘the latent church.’

FOURTH, in dealing with issues of justice and peace, we need to maintain a healthy balance between the prophetic and the practical, between protest and pragmatic participation in the development of better public policy.

I don’t know if I heard this somewhere, if I dreamed it, or if I made it up. It’s a little too silly and far too cute. But it’s true nevertheless. It goes like this: Without a vision, the practical is merely tactical. Without a plan, the prophetic is politically pathetic.

Prophetic vision and prophetic criticism of war and injustice are absolutely necessary parts of authentic Christian faith. But if we are to make even a marginal difference in the world situation, our prophetic vision must be translated into practical public policy. This involves planning in a less than orderly world, making moral judgments in a morally ambiguous situation, choosing between less-than-desirable options, compromising with less-than-admirable opponents, and, almost always, settling for less than perfect results.

Practical politics must always be subject to prophetic criticism—otherwise it degenerates into morally indifferent and merely calculating forms of thinking and acting. But prophetic witness must also be subject to prophetic criticism. Otherwise, it, like so many other things in life, can become an idol: it can lose its transforming potential and become instead an escape from responsibility, a way to secure our moral superiority and sanctify our rituals of protest instead of risking decision and imperfect action in the world of injustice and violence in which we are all entangled. Again: we must risk action, and we must be practical as well as prophetic when we do so.

ONE LAST THING: for people of faith, the struggle for world peace must always be grounded in God’s peace. As Christians, our advocacy is authorized and guided by the ministry of our Advocate, the Lord Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Paraclete sent to us—the one breathed upon his disciples by the Prince of Peace.

Therefore, protest should always be grounded in prayer. Public witness should always be connected to what happens to us in public worship. And the grace that accompanies true repentance should always temper our righteous indignation about those who—for personal, institutional, and/or ideological reasons—promote the twin evils of war and injustice.

Keep hope alive. Get the big picture. Join forces with others. Be practical as well as prophetic. And always ground our work for world peace in the peace that passes all understanding.

In my view, these are the things that make for a more peace-loving America, and also make for greater peace with justice around the world.

Thank you.