Boston Globe, July 8, 2007
did American evangelicals not pause for a moment in the rush to war to consider
the near-unanimous disapproval of the global Christian community?
on our side, He'll stop the next war
EARLY ONE SUNDAY
morning in the spring of 2003, in the quiet hours before services would begin
at the evangelical church where I worship in Charlottesville, Virginia, I opened
files compiled by my research assistant and read the statements drafted by Christians
around the world in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq.
experience was profoundly moving and shaming: From Pentecostals in Brazil to the
Christian Councils of Ghana, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and
All the East to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, from Pope John Paul II to the
The Waldensian Reformed Church of Italy and the Christian Conference of Asia,
the voices of our brothers and sisters in the global ecumenical church spoke in
Why did American
evangelicals not pause for a moment in the rush to war to consider the near-unanimous
disapproval of the global Christian community? The worldwide Christian opposition
seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq:
Despite approval for the president's decision to go to war by 87 percent of white
evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost
every Christian leader in the world (and almost every nonevangelical leader in
the United States) voiced opposition to the war.
their enthusiastic support of the White House's decision to invade Iraq, evangelicals
in the United States practiced an ecumenical isolationism that mirrored the prevailing
political trend. Rush Limbaugh may have pleased his "dittoheads" in
mocking the dissenting pastors, archbishops, bishops, and church leaders who stuck
their noses into our nation's foreign policy, but the people in the United States
who call themselves Christian must organize their priorities and values on a different
standard than partisan loyalty.
past six years have been transformative in the religious history of the United
States. It is arguably the passing of the evangelical moment -- if not the end
of evangelicalism's cultural and political relevance, then certainly the loss
of its theological credibility. Conservative evangelical elites, in exchange for
political access and power, have ransacked the faith and trivialized its convictions.
It is as though these Christians consider themselves to be recipients of a special
revelation, as if God has whispered eternal secrets in their ears and summoned
them to world-historic leadership in the present and future.
thing, however, is clear: Any hope for renewal depends on the willingness to reach
out to our brothers and sisters abroad. We must reshape the way we live in the
global Christian community and form a deeper link to the human family and to life.
To do this, we must begin by learning to be quieter, and by reaffirming the simple
fact that our faith transcends political loyalty or nationhood.
In a German concentration
camp in 1944, the theologian, pastor, and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer
pondered the future of the church in Germany as it lay in the ruins of its fatal
allegiance to Hitler.
time of words is over," he wrote. "Our being a Christian today will
be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action."
who had actively opposed the Nazis since the passage of the Aryan Laws of 1933
and was executed in April 1945, believed that the church had so compromised its
witness to Jesus Christ that it was now incapable of "taking the word of
reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world." The misuse of the
language of faith had humiliated the Word; any hope for renewal would need to
begin with the humble recognition that God was most certainly tired of all our
It is time to give
Bonhoeffer's meditations a new hearing. With many other Christians in the United
States and many more abroad, I have watched with horror in recent years as the
name of Jesus has been used to serve national ambitions and justify war. Forgetting
the difference between discipleship and partisanship, and with complete indifference
to the wisdom and insights of the Christian tradition, we have recast the faith
according to our cultural preferences and baptized our prejudices, along with
our will-to-power, in the shallow waters of civic piety.
the time American troops began bombing Baghdad before sunrise on March 20, 2003,
the collective effort of the evangelical elites had sanctified the president's
decision and encouraged the laity to believe that the war was God's will for the
nation. Evangelicals preached for the war, prayed for the war, sang for the war,
and offered God's blessings on the war.
after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone
to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On
a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape
of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the
front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing
the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good
time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.
the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would
have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories
-- red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, "I support
our troops" ribbons, "God Bless America" gear, and an extraordinary
cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked
by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had
gone. The man's response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered
as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. "They're in
the back with the other discounted items," he said, nodding in that direction.
have thought of this visit to the local Christian bookstore many times in the
past several years. I remember the outrage I felt when I saw a photograph in Time
magazine during the 2004 presidential election of Christian Coalition activists
in Ohio. Two men, both white, and both identified as Coalition members, are holding
two crosses aloft. The crosses upon closer inspection appear to be made of balloons
twisted together. Across the beam-section of one of the crosses was the "Bush-Cheney"
logo, and alongside the president's name was the image of an American flag. In
the second cross, the president's name appeared in full at the places where Jesus's
hands were nailed.
Like Bonhoeffer, I fear
that the gospel has been humiliated in our time. But if this has happened, it
is not because the message -- the good news that God loves us unconditionally
in Jesus Christ, that we are freed and forgiven in God's amazing grace -- has
changed. Nor is it due to the machinations of secularists, or because the post-Enlightenment
world has dispensed with the hypothesis of God. The Christian faith has not only
endured modernity and post-modernity, but flourished in its new settings.
gospel has been humiliated because too many American Christians have decided that
there are more important things to talk about. We would rather talk about our
country, our values, our troops, and our way of life; and although we might think
we are paying tribute to God when we speak of these other things, we are only
only holiness were measured by the volume of our incessant chatter, we would be
universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical
piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to
know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine
will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is
on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos.
a nation filled with intense religious fervor, the Hebrew prophet Amos said: You
are not the holy people you imagine yourselves to be. Though the land is filled
with festivals and assemblies, with songs and melodies, and with so much pious
talk, these are not sounds and sights that are pleasing to the Lord. "Take
away from me the noise of your congregations," Amos says, "you who have
turned justice into poison."
46 tells us, "Be still and know that I am God." Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
in his classic work on Christian community, "Life Together," spoke of
a silence "before the Word." He affirmed the wisdom of the Psalmist,
and spoke of a listening silence that brings "clarification, purification,
and concentration upon the essential thing."
all the talk and the noise, it is time for Christians in the United States to
enter a season of quietness, being still, and learning to wait on God (perhaps
for the first time).
wrote "Life Together" during the years he directed an illegal seminary
in the North German village of Finkenwalde. The school's mission was training
pastors in the Confessing Church, a reform movement that opposed the nazified
German Evangelical Church. Bonhoeffer had served in the Abwehr, the Nazi counterintelligence
agency, as a double agent -- helping Jewish families escape to Switzerland and
organizing a coup attempt against the Nazi regime -- and he participated in several
assassination attempts on Hitler. For Bonhoeffer, being still in a time of enormous
historical and ecclesial crisis was no invitation to idleness or indifference;
rather, it was a call to discernment and responsible action.
Indeed, there are times
when silence is an admonition fraught with danger. Martin Luther King Jr. warned
of the "appalling silence of the good people" and those who turned their
faces from suffering and oppression. But Dr. King also knew that careful and respectful
speech was born of honest discernment of God's moral demands for the present age
-- a discernment that begins in humility and quiet introspection.
came of age in the American South in the 1960s, and the moral values shared by
most families in the churches of my childhood were deeply interwoven with our
culture's hold on white supremacy. The vigilant and quite often neurotic defense
we made of the Southern Way of Life blinded us not only to the sufferings of African-Americans
-- the victims of our collective self-righteousness -- but also to our spiritual
arrogance and group pride. We believed that our conception of Christianity and
our cherished family values were the most wholesome and pure the world had ever
known. Inside this serene delusion, we presumed ourselves to be paragons of virtue,
although we rarely lifted a finger to help anyone but our own.
was unsettling to learn, sometime in my adolescence, that the moral values I inherited
as a white Southerner were not the marks of true Christian piety.
Jesus spoke of the family, he had in mind the new community of God. "Who
are my mother and my brothers?" he said one day upon hearing that his family
was asking for him. "Here are my mother and my brothers!" Jesus said,
pointing to the people gathered around him, who marveled at his words. "Whoever
does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Jesus knew that
loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven would often require the renunciation of family
traditions, habits, culture, and custom.
in the national debate on faith and politics, there are signs of hope as an emerging
generation of Christian leaders holds out the promise of a more comprehensively
just and moral account of faith than the narrow agendas of the Christian right.
In particular, the success of Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis's 2005 book,
"God's Politics," introduced many Americans to a vibrant culture of
progressive Christianity ready to exert its growing influence over national politics
and mobilize the churches around global poverty and AIDS relief.
there are other encouraging signs: Criticisms of torture and detention practices
of the US military by prominent Christian conservatives have been symbolically
powerful moments. The emerging environmental consciousness among an increasing
number of evangelical leaders and laity signals a more holistic social mission.
so, as welcome as these developments are, no explicitly partisan movement -- left
or right -- to reclaim the soul of politics can reckon successfully with the grave
effects of the Christian saturation of the American public square. Unless conditioned
by clear and public confession of our support of the immoral and catastrophic
war in Iraq, and our complicity in the humiliation of the Word, these efforts
will lack coherence and a vital center.
Graham, the evangelist (and son of Billy Graham), boasted that the American invasion
of Iraq opens up exciting new opportunities for missions to non-Christian Arabs.
This is not what the Hebrew or Christian prophets meant by righteousness and discipleship.
In fact, the grotesque notion that preemptive war and the destruction of innocent
life pave the way for the preaching of the Christian message strikes me as a mockery
and a betrayal.
Franklin Graham speaks truthfully of the Christian faith and its mission in the
world -- as many evangelicals seem to believe -- then we should have none of it.
Rather, we should join the ranks of righteous unbelievers and big-hearted humanists
who rage against cruelty and oppression with the intensity of people who live
fully in this world. I am certain that it would be better for Christians to stand
in solidarity with compassionate atheists and agnostics, firmly resolved against
injustice and cruelty, than to sing "Amazing Grace" with the heroic
masses who cannot tell the difference between the cross and the flag.
Marsh is professor of religion and director of the Project on Lived Theology at
the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his new book, "Wayward
Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity" (Oxford).
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