I remember when we were trying to help my son discover what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. I wanted my kids to be able to do what they wanted to do, so I didn’t try to push them into any field. I also knew that college would give them some advantages, and like most parents, I worried about paying for it. It seemed natural for me to consider the option of the military. My grandfather had served in World War 2. My uncle had served in Vietnam. My brother-in-law and my brother were both in the military. I have great respect for those that risk their life in military service.
War to me seemed like an inevitable reality of the world we live in. I figured that it would be a way for me to avoid the cost of sending a kid through college and teach them some discipline. Laura had a different opinion. For her, the military represented sending her only son into the ravages of war and facing the possibility that he may never come home. For whatever reason, my son was also not the least interested. So, we set about to try to finance a college education in the most reasonable way possible. He had to work but at least he didn’t have to risk his life and that made everyone happy.
When the World Trade Center was bombed on September 11, 2001, like most Americans, I was tuned in. How could this happen? It seemed apocalyptic–like the world was coming to an end. I remember thinking that the event was so much like an action movie with people scurrying into buildings as the huge cloud of dust rolled down the narrow streets. When George W. Bush stood on the rubble and basically vowed revenge for the atrocities that happened on “9/11,” I felt some hope. And, like most Americans, I watched from the comfort of my living room as the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the coming months. Although I knew Jesus teaching on violence, I nicely was able to set that aside for a moment and enjoyed the pride of being an American. I felt like someone had stood up for me and that was some sort of justice – it all seems a little twisted now, but at the time, I felt vindicated.
In later years, I visited the war memorials in Washington D.C. We took a night tour of the monuments. It was stunning and beautiful, and our tour guide really made it fun. The most striking of the monuments by far was the Korean War memorial. If you have never seen it, the soldiers in this memorial all wear raincoats and seem to be rising out of some kind of marsh. At least that is the way I remember it. It was dimly lit, and when observed at night, leaves most visitors to simply express that they feel a certain eeriness. My mind immediately went to my grandpa that was involved in the second World War. As far as I know, he was never injured, but I remember asking him about the war which he never talked about. In later years, he donated his medals and uniforms to charity and refused to discuss what he experienced there. I also thought of my uncle who was injured in Vietnam and suffered tremendously until he passed away somewhat prematurely. I just cried softly to myself—I wasn’t angry—just sad.
Most of us do what we need to do to survive. When we consider painful or troubling things, we make certain justification in our minds or we just refuse to dwell on them. We consider all the horrible things in the world and built our philosophies and theologies around what we think we must do to survive. The early church faced intense persecution for the first 300 years. It also flourished in many ways, but it suffered none-the-less. Eventually Constantine was able to convince the church to join forces with the Empire—the same Empire that was killing them—and, in a relatively short amount of time, Christians were killing other Christians. Religion got more organized and stable, but we also adopted some policies of just war and just killing as Jesus’ teaching about non-violence was repressed just enough to advocate the current practices. We still said, “love your neighbor,” but like the disciples, we re-drew some of the boundaries of who was our neighbor and who was the “enemy.”
Over the years, since the 4th century, God’s people have been involved in almost every kid of war imaginable. Hitler’s army was comprised mostly of Catholic and Protestant Christians. We have somehow justified the killing of millions of other people, mostly because they were not “us” or they were against us. Genocide of Native Americans, slavery, apartheid, world wars, military actions, civil wars, gang wars, school shootings—the list seems endless!
Something changed in my view a few years ago. I had always accepted that violence was simply a reality of life. I assumed that even God understood that we could only take so much. After all, even He is portrayed as angry and retributive at times. But Jesus didn’t accept that supposed reality. When the Empire that encircled his world promoted a culture of violence and conquest, Jesus offered an alternative reality of peace. Even while his Jewish culture was hoping that he would bring justice in the form of military might, he stayed true to his message of non-violence and love of enemies and compassion for all people. Slowly, I began to accept the Jesus paradigm with all its mystery and uncertainty and paradox.
I really don’t have an end to the story. I live in a country that has made Nationalism into an alternative religion. The “us against them” sentiment is strong especially among those that follow the Prince of Peace. So, I don’t know how this story is going to end. It seems that one option might just be to keep killing each other and hope like hell that God is on our side. I find this one hard to fathom now especially since my country has spent most of its short history exterminating the natives of our land, enslaving people from another continent and engaging in wars at every opportunity. With all the blood on our hands, the possibility or probability of God being on our side (if that’s even a thing) seems unlikely.
The other outcome, although it seems improbable, is to follow the prophets and poets and imagine an alternative outcome. If we choose to, we can imagine and work toward a world that Jesus believed was possible. It is the world that loves its enemy and doesn’t return evil for evil but pays back evil with good. We can begin with our own small worlds and change it first to a place that sees love and peace and grace and mercy as priorities and not exceptions. We can encourage and promote that companies put people over profit and that organization exists first for the common good and not just to “win.”
Just like Jesus, when I begin to speak this way, people begin to accuse me of not loving my country or being against the military or some nonsense like that. Nothing could be further from the truth! I am extremely impressed with this amazing experiment of not only the United States but also of the American church. But, just like with any experiment, we need to examine the parts of that experiment that have failed. How about we imagine (hypothesize) about a new way of tackling the problems we face? We don’t have to trash the whole experiment, but maybe let’s do some reengineering of our religion and our society? For those of us that claim to be followers of Jesus, maybe we should put his ideas into practice.
Maybe we should make the second 250 years of our country to truly be more like Jesus and less like Constantine. Maybe we could be less dualistic and more comfortable with mystery and paradox. Maybe we could imagine not having to “win” and focus more on what we become.
Some days, it is hard to be optimistic and easy to just accept things as they are. But the Americans and Christians have always been dreamers. John Lennon said, “You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” I hope that that, more and more, we begin to realize the dream of living in the society that Jesus imagined—a world of love—a world of peace—the world of genuine hope.
My son eventually did go overseas after he graduated from college. He currently lives in Taiwan where he teaches English. Taiwan is a very peaceful country and safe to abide in. That makes Laura happy. I was struck by the friendliness of everyone I met. Ironically, I seemed to experience that dream that Jesus had of an alternative society more in Taiwan that I sometimes do in my home country that imagines itself as a Christian nation. Before anyone lights the torches and tells me “move there if I love it so much,” please understand what I am saying. I’m just saying that it is possible. It is possible to love our neighbor and treat people with respect and worry less about being the best and more about being what we should.
Taiwan and my son have taught me that Jesus’ dream of a better world is still alive—it’s still possible—it’s still the best option.