Wednesday, Sept 17, 2008
On February 1, 1996, I retired from the United States Army. I had served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam as an infantryman, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Ranger Battalion, the Jungle Operations Training Center, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta, the United States Military Academy at West Point, 1st Ranger Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, 75th Ranger Regiment, and finally 3rd Special Forces Group. I worked all over “hot spots” in Latin America during the 80s and early 90s. I participated in Grenada and Somalia; and I was the team sergeant for a Special Forces A-Detachment during the 1994 invasion of Haiti. In all that time, I was one of those atheists in the foxholes they say don’t exist. I could never have known that I’d find the faith to follow Christ and be baptized on Easter of my 56th year. But I did, even when I’d never grasped for spiritual reassurance as I slogged through the Central Highlands of Vietnam, leapt from airplanes into the night, or had helicopters shot out from under me. I’ve been taking up residence close to death for a long time. My faith isn’t about jumping over death. It’s about reconciling with God, who Jesus Christ showed us is Love.
When I was baptized I continued to carry my history; but one identity was sloughed off in the water and a new one born out of it. I write this open letter to troops, brothers and sisters — of all branches — who profess the faith of Christ. I write you to ask that you remember your baptism, because at that baptism you declared your renunciation of evil. * The big preposition Note the preposition. I didn’t say faith in Christ, I said faith of Christ. Christian is a diminutive term; it means “little Christ.” To be a Christian is not to merely have faith in Christ. That’s too easy, and Jesus of Nazareth was not about easy. To be Christian is to aspire to have the faith of Christ. Christ’s call is not to go along with the program, say the magic words, then be rescued from death. Christ did not merely command belief. Christ commands you to follow him. That command does not wait until death for it to become effective in your life. “Love your enemy.” This is not an etching at some altar that you visit; it is your path laid before you by the footsteps of Christ in this world. This is an action religion, not an abracadrabra religion. Christ tells us to take up the cross. That means be willing to risk all, to suffer all when suffering can heal the brokenness in the world. The brokenness of 1st Century Palestine was not altogether different from the brokenness of the world now. Jesus’ ministry was conducted in the teeth of a Roman military occupation. Like Nuri al Malaki’s “government,” the Palestinian Jewish upper-class then lived in an uncomfortable collaboration with that occupation. There were also Jewish insurgents who fought the Roman occupation, who fought among themselves, and who attacked collaborating Jewish sects as well. One particular nationalist party that emerged prior to the revolt with Rome was known as the Zealots. You may recall that Jesus had such folk among his small band of disciples. “And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot…” (Luke 6:13-15)
We can’t beat around the bush about this comparison. It’s clear.
America is now Rome. You are Rome’s army of occupation. To the Roman soldier, when Jesus passed down the dusty byways of his occupied land, he appeared no more or less than a random Iraqi or Afghan appears to you. What do you look like to them? Jesus himself looked at the Jewish resistance to Roman occupation, then looked at the corpses rotting on crosses along the roads as Roman examples to the Palestinian Jew,; and he chose a new way. His way was neither passivity, nor counter-violence, but non-violent resistance, just like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, who both cited Jesus’ ministry in their own prophetic missions. Jesus looked at the violence-counterviolence cycle, and determined that each person in that system was redeemable as an individual - each a child of God, each beloved of God. Jewish, Roman, Samaritan, male, female… no matter. He also looked at how the system itself — operating with a self-reinforcing dynamic that transcends the individual — led people into the cycles of accusation and violence; and he proposed to undermine that system with this radical doctrine of spiritual equality, a redemption open to all through grace, and a redemption never imposed at the point of a sword… or under threat of a bomb. In the original story, written in Greek, Jesus says, “I am not of this world.” At least that’s how many interpretations go. But the original Greek word kosmos means world, flesh, or system, depending on context. “I am not of this system.” Not simply the system of Roman occupation, but the system of violence-counterviolence… all systems of domination, because domination breeds the cycle of violence-counterviolence.
Pretensions of the devil
Scripture has been interpreted to suit plenty that is the very evil you renounced at your baptism. The subjugation of women. Slavery. War. Even the white supremacist sects have quoted Scripture. But in order to do so, literalism and decontextualizaton have been used to distort the essence and spirit of the Scriptures for the most impure of motives. In America, we hear much about a few references to sex in the Bible, but little about the many references to poverty, and less about Jesus’ provocations on peace. When Jesus says his way will break the dominance of one generation over another within the family, between slave and master, between male and female, he does not confine this vision to heaven - where the upside-down “kingdom” without oppression lives in the dimension of Spirit. He says “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus was an earthy guy. He bathed in rivers, shat on the ground, and broke bread with fishmongers, tax-collectors, outcasts, prostitutes, Zealots… and he showed mercy to the child of a Roman soldier.
Even on the cross, in his final breaths as the Romans’ victim, he cries out to God on behalf of those who kill him: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:33-34) What do you think that means? Certainly the Roman soldiers (soldiers like you) knew they were participating in a crucifixion. The Roman troops had done this many times.
What they did not understand was how their system led them to do this. In Matthew 27:54, it was a Centurion who heard these words — “forgive them” — and experienced an earthquake, saying, “Truly, this is the Son of God.” (Do you see how the symbolic truth here is more powerful than the literal seismology?) Forgiveness unmasks Satan, who is not the boogyman of popular culture, but the spirit in the culture — some would call it a zeitgeist — that acts as God’s jealous pretender, that promotes Self as God, that plays the accuser to stir up the mob (weapons of mass destruction?), that sets up idols… so that we will “know not what we do,” so we will not know who and whose we are. You can hear the voice of Satan in every instance of boasting, humiliation of another, profaning of what we know to be sacred (like God’s Creation), every thought and word of aggression or revenge, every put-down of other people (all beloved of God). Where you are, you can see how the state of war and occupation — putting you at odds with an occupied population that does not want to be occupied — amplifies and focuses the malevolent spirit. Now ask yourself why? Why do troops run down civilians with vehicles to avoid slowing down? Why do troops throw bottles and cans at pedestrians to entertain themselves? Why did the massacres like Haditha occur? Why did the utter destruction of Fallujah happen? Why are wedding parties bombed by US aircraft? Why did a whole squad participate in the premeditated half-hour-long rape and murder of a screaming 14-year-old girl? Why is it that approaching an invader’s roadblock can carry death sentence for a whole family? Why can children can be woken from their beds by soldiers kicking down the house doors? Why are thousands are held imprisoned without casue? Why are Iraqi and Afghan elders obliged to obey 20-year-old invaders who can’t even speak their language? Why do your peers (perhaps even you) refer to all Iraqis or Afghans with epithets? Why do your peers laugh when they retell stories of their own cruelties and their humiliations of the people whose nations they have invaded? Why are you there? What is the spirit in our culture that spins out clever excuses for these evils? It is that same spirit that you renounced at your baptism, which I call on you to remember now. Remember your baptism, where you renounced Satan.
Making and unmaking enemies
Do you really understand — any better than the Roman soldiers who “did their jobs” at Golgotha — how this system has led you to where you are today? You are in the system; but that system is not God’s. It is a system of human concupiscience, human malice, human domination, human hubris… a system that functions when you follow the crowd against the Holy Spirit. Satan loves a crowd. These are the weapons of the Satanic spirit that seizes the lynch mob, that calls us to domination and calls it self-defense — even altruism. This is the spirit of our zeitgeist. Remember your baptism. You declared your renunciation of Satan, and you made that declaration to God.
Did you think it would be easy? The Roman soldiers had been convinced, and had convinced themselves, that they were right to do what they did. To make it alright in their own minds to do what they did, they had to withdraw recognition of the Jewish Palestinians’ basic humanity. I don’t know what they called the Palestinians, but I am sure there was some equivalent of the term “rag head” or “hajji.” And in turn, no doubt, many angry Jews in Palestine had dehumanizing epithets for the Romans. That’s the cycle. And as Gandhi said, “and eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Jesus said the same thing. He said that not only were you not to attack your enemies, you are commanded by God to love them. It was on the mountainside, there with His disciples sitting before the crowds, He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:43-45) That’s how Christ told us to break the cycle of enemy-making. Fight the system by loving the “enemy,” but fight the system nonetheless. Provoke with your presence, but do not batter. This is how demonic power is unmasked, and how it was unmasked on the cross, where Christ baited a snare for Satan with his own frail body. Loving the enemy neutralizes the category of enemy.
Unfortunately, even with phalanxes of chaplains ready to distort and press the message of Christ into the business of war, this means that you are now part of an organization that has no reason to exist without an enemy. The ethic of the military is inscribed in the infantry phrase, “close with The Enemy and destroy him.” The ethic of Christ is inscribed in neighbor-love — love of anyone who is near, and enemy-love — the unmaking of the category of “enemy.” These two perspectives - military doctrine and the ethic of Christ — cannot be reconciled. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors (enemies who exploited the people for the economic benefit of Rome) do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles (those who were not of the Jewish nation) do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:46-48) Christ told you to “love your enemies.” Break the cycle of enemy-making.
Yet the armed forces are based, at their very core, on the existence of an enemy to destroy. The very doctrine that governs your organization, your technology, and your methods, cannot exist without The Enemy. To accomplish that, the armed forces must do two things: they must devalue the lives of all who are not members of the nation, and they must set up an idol to supplant God.
The idolatry of nation
In your military chapels hang American flags. But God’s Creation does not stop at the border of the United States; and God’s love is not extended exclusively to Americans; just as God’s love was not extended exclusively to the Jews, but also embraced Samaritans and Gentiles and tax-collectors, and even the Roman soldiery who conducted the crucifixion of Jesus. And when we say we are blessed, we need to understand that blessing is not a reward of material goods or social power. To bless means to make whole… to heal brokenness. The root word in “salvation” is not save, but salve… a healing balm. If God is to bless America, then first and foremost, that means “heal” America — reconcile America to God. Not put the symbol of political authority in the chapel where it can pose as something holy. America cannot be blessed by God without that same blessing — that same making whole — extending to the entire human family, because under God, the human family is indivisible. As theologian Shane Claiborne notes:
No wonder it is hard for seekers to find God nowadays. It is difficult to know where Christianity ends and America begins. Our money says, ‘In God we Trust.’ God’s name is on American money, and America’s flag is on God’s altars.
The Hebraic tradition of Jesus forbids idolatry. Making the flag of a nation, one that has entered history only recently and will as surely leave it some day, an object of worship is idolatry. For God clearly says, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I am a jealous God …” (Exodus 20:3-6) And at the heart of belief is not whether we have the proper mental acquiesce to a particular religious decree but whether or not we will follow this God who loves so passionately that even the enemy becomes the object of love. Such love is always contrary to the systems of empire and domination. Jesus clearly refuses the claim of Caesar over his life, economically and as a point of worship. Remember, he asks the followers of the Pharisees and Herod to hold up a coin with a graven image, an image of Caesar - the ‘divine one,’ an image explicitly forbidden by Judaic law, and then says, “give to this image, this false God, what it is due.” “…Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’” (Mark 12:17) Jesus was facing an attempt to entrap him in a debate about not paying taxes to The Enemy (Rome). His reply: Caesar’s money? That’s part of Caesar’s system, not mine, and not God’s. The use of this story today to claim one realm for religion and another for obedience to the state, the idea that there were two separate spheres in the state and religion then at all, is a grotesque retrojection of later interpretations into 1st Century Palestine. It is an absurdity that exploits our historical ignorance about that time and place.
This obedience-to-the-state interpretation of the story of the coin with Casear’s graven image was proffered when the church was merged with the state… and it is blasphemy, a demonic co-optation of Scripture by principalities and powers to trick subject populations into support for the schemes of power. Christ didn’t obey the state; he subverted it. Then the state bowed to the lynch mob and nailed this gentle rabbi to a cross for a slow and painful execution. There are a couple of things that we can never seem to separate from the state, however: money and war. * The pigeon-sellers of war The one time Jesus became physically angry in Scripture was when he overturned the tables of the pigeon-sellers and money-changers who were encamped on the steps of the temple, driving them out when they exploit and abuse and rob the poor ones who only seek obedience to God, corrupting a practice that was meant to connect and honor and instead making it an exploitive practice done in the name of religion and under the sanction of Rome. (Mark 11:15-18) Remember your baptism; and know that God’s currency is courage in love, not the currency of Caesar that dissolves communities with obsession and envy and war. Can you see the money-changers at work again? Look around you now at the orgy of war-profiteering, the get-rich(er)-quick schemes that attach to war like pilot fish on a shark. But the shark must have enemies to feed upon. Now, even when there is no credible military threat to the United States that a standing military can prevent, you are being bent to the will of a doctrine that must have The Enemy. If there is no enemy, then one must be created.
The Enemy is the raison d’etre of the armed forces. And so other nations - nations of people who have already suffered terribly - were selected to become The Enemy in order to justify the plundering of their resources and the subsidized economies of war - from no-bid contracts for hi-tech weapons to contractors who pay exorbitant salaries and charge outrageous prices to wash your clothes, feed you, and run facilities that insulate you from the harsh and incessant realities of the nations you now occupy. Do you really think that were it not for oil, you would even be in that region? Do you know how many campaign contributions are funneled to politicians of both parties by “defense” contractors? Enemies make money. Enemies are good business. The business of war is good these days. The structures of evil and the evil of structures are visible to anyone who consents to see. Consenting to see constitutes an entry through the passageway of Grace.
Entering the New Life
You — as an individual human being — are redeemable through grace. Faith — radical trust — is how we act into Grace. “Consider the lilies of the field…” All the excuses and twisted explanations that are made for these wars of occupation - and that is what they are, lies and excuses - are designed to clear away the psychological and spiritual obstacles to your carrying out this occupation of other peoples’ lands. The politicians are creating the twisted logic. The contractors are supporting the twisted logic. The warlike culture in America is directed by the very spirit you renounced at your baptism. The malevolent spirit is not just the devil; it is a devil-maker… a demonizer, an enemy-maker. The devil — the malevolent within our zeitgeist — demonizes Arabs (our brothers and sisters before God), demonizes Muslims (our brothers and sisters before God) and expresses these explanations-for-war as pus is expressed from an infected wound. Even some clergy are complicit - as it was in the time of Jesus, when the clergy itself called for his execution. (Mark 11:17) You — soldier, sailor, airman, marine… and you, officer — must pray for them; and you must not obey them. You know, many of you, that the ugliness of any description of war can never be equal to the stark and actual obscenity of war. That obscenity is the visible face of Satan that many of us are working very very hard not to see. It’s the twisted imitator of God, the demonic spirit, the misleader… that crafts a War Jesus. That millions have been misled does not in any way change what it is. Jesus never gave his sanction to war. The most common quote from scripture used by warmongering government and clergy is Luke 12:49-53, where Jesus says He will sow discord in the family.
I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He does not say “not peace, but war.” He’s says “not peace, but division.” And the faultline for that division is between generations. Age and gender in 1st Century Palestine defined familial authority. Familial authority was the basis of social stability (the “peace” of Power). Get your head around that.
These divisions are not between brothers and sisters who are the co-children of God, but between generations and the hereditary powers that inhered in the system of human authority. To name this passage a call to war, or its justification, simply because it says he comes not to bring “peace” to domination in the patriarchal household, is a rhetorical acrobatic, just as the return of Caesar’s image is not by any stretch a call to obey the government.
This passage is a call to divide human authority in order to reunite authority under a loving God. And it is a clear call. The official doctrine of the armed forces is based on an Enemy. The doctrine of the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven” has no enemies. Ever since Constantine subverted the church by making it a state religion, the powers and principalities have taken the name of Christ and abused it to make war. Christ invoked to support prejudice and oppression. Christ invoked to line pockets (ignoring that Jesus said you cannot serve God and money at the same time). (Matt 6:24) Look past these centuries of pretenders, because the Word that is the Christ remains unshakable, even when it is a minority view in a broken and warlike culture. You are called to disobey human authority each and every time that authority commands you to increase the brokenness of the world. Refuse to fight. Refuse to support the fighting. Lay down your weapons and refuse to fight, and you will be blessed. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt 5:9). You will be healed and made whole; you will be reconciled to God because you will have begun your reconciliation with the billions of human beings who are — under God — one family. You will be reviled — powerfully at first — as Christ was on the way to Golgotha. The malevolent spirit will writhe. You will be ridiculed as an extremist, less-than-a-real-man (or whichever other gendered attack), an apostate, just as Jesus was when even his closest friends refused to acknowledge their relation to him while the crowd howled for his blood. And you will enter into conflict with your own families. You will not be nailed to a cross; but you may be jailed, spat on, isolated, abused… but you will also be embraced, accepted, and loved. We already love you. This is what you need far more than the esteem of the demonic macho culture of war that glorifies the taking of human life - God has already forgiven your past and pointed to the path ahead. Do not any longer give the glory to Rome that belongs to God. * From Jerusalem to Baghdad Do not expect praise or stained-glass or elegiac music in the background when you refuse. This path blazed by Christ is gritty and hard. As George MacLeod once said,
I simply argue that the cross should be raised at the center of the [street market] as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a cross road, so cosmopolitan they had to write His title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek… At the kind of a place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died for. And that is what He died about. That is where [Christians] ought to be and what [Christians] ought to be about.
“About” in a place not unlike Mosul or Baghdad or Bagram or Khoust. The mission that made Jesus into the Christ, the anointed, was not cleaned and pressed, not shiny like a supermarket, not sanitary like a freshly scrubbed bathroom, not air-conditioned, not safe. You are at the kind of place where God breaks into the world to the exact degree that you let yourself become a “little Christ” — the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Christ. Christ doesn’t demand your mere belief. Christ demands participation in the work of God. Lay down your weapons, refuse your orders, accept the ridicule and abuse of the mob that “does not know what it is doing,” and Christ will walk beside you. You’ll be surprised at how many of us will walk beside you, too.
Who would lead a total revolution that would shake off internal oppression as well as the foreign yoke… Jesus’ approach stood in unique opposition to the prevailing assumptions of his day. He articulated an altogether different way… He did not come in the sectarian guise of his time, offering redemption only to those belonging to a particular group, nor did he adopt a primarily adversarial stance. He came with a prophetic message concerned for the good of all and with an eagerness to bring God’s kingdom within reach of everybody, even the enemy.
[from Jesus and the Non-Violent Revolution, by Andre Trocme] Remember your baptism. Your allegiance is to the eternal God, not the flag of a transient empire. Who and whose are you? You will hear people say that this burnt out veteran has no authority to speak as a Christian on these matters. And I am burnt out; and I did come to Christianity late in life. But I am not making any of this up. Honest and fearless Christian theologians of the ecumenical, prophetic, and evangelical churches have spoken out against war, and in exactly the terms presented here. I bring nothing original to this plea for obedience to the God of the Nazarene. I write to you as one who has shared your experience, not that of the clergy or the Academy. I have known your position, trapped between the regrets and guilt of the past and the anxieties of the future, plodding against the current of Holy Spirit to clutch at the “esteem” of your militarized nation, “proving” yourselves again and again to your peers who define masculinity and human value by the ability to risk one’s own safety to dominate or destroy others. That is who I was before I was baptized into who and whose I am, and that is why I can tell you that the risk you must take is the risk not to dominate. It is the risk of losing the esteem of those who “know not what they do.” Seek your redemption and the redemption of the world, the flesh, the system… by taking up the cross, walking the painful path to Golgotha, and overcoming your alienation from the triune God, who Paul - himself a violent persecutor of Jesus’ followers until his epiphany - called Love, Grace, and Fellowship with your human family. The fellowship you lose if and when you refuse to fight, if you refuse to give another hour of support to this obscene enterprise, will be replaced not seven-fold, but seven-hundredfold by the fellowship of Peace: Christians, non-Christians, veterans, and non-veterans, and from many nations. This Pentecost waits for you. Have faith, knowing that faith is not sorcery… not magic… not abracadabra. Faith is radical trust that God has your back. And trust the evidence not of what those around you try to excuse and explain, but of what you see them actually do. Watch how your institution treats ‘the least among us,” because that is how the institution is treating Christ (Matt 25:40). You cannot point a gun at another human being, frighten a child, bully a man, demean a woman, violate the sanctity of a threshold, or kill, and not be doing this violence to Christ. There is nothing circumstantial about it. Christ was categorical about this. You must resist; and you must do so without violence and be prepared to love those who abuse you for your refusal. And trust, too, that all will be well, even though you might pass through a dark night first. Your obedience to peer pressure and your obedience to the government are both superceded absolutely by obedience to God. Elections will not stop this war, just shift its emphasis. Only you will stop it, starting with yourself. That is the way Jesus worked; and at your baptism you promised to follow the Christ. Refuse your work. Refuse your orders. Refuse to pick up the weapon and fight; and pray for the redemtion of those who will stand against you when you stand with God. When you do, and do so in the name of Christ, there are thousands more waiting that will follow. And there is One who will walk beside you every step of the way.Stan Goff is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000), “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003 He is a Methodist and an organic gardener. He has written about the military and militarism, and about masculinity-constructed-as-conquest.