Wednesday, March 19, 2008

War and Faith

I preached this sermon on March 23, 2003. It was just a few days after the start of the Iraq War. I was very nervous about it, especially in a small church in a small town. But, as one of my senior clergy colleagues told me, if you feel strongly about this and don’t do it, you may end up regretting it for the rest of your ordained ministry.



Well, here it is – my “war sermon.” It’s a topic I’ve prayed to avoid. But it’s also been an ever-present reality since the beginning of my ordained ministry.


I never would have dreamed I would be ordained a deacon just one week after an event like 9/11. And I can hardly believe we’d begin another war with Iraq near the first anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Terrorism and war: they color my being set apart into holy orders.

Now I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the justness of this war. It’s a deeply divisive issue. That’s why we need to come together as a community of prayer. And that’s why we need to be honest about our concerns, our fears, and our struggles. So as your priest and your pastor, I want to share with you today the anguish of my fears and my worries, my questions and concerns. And I do this because I want to invite you to enter deeply into your own fears, questions, and worries. For it’s in the anguish and struggle with our fears and our questions that we’re likely to find deeper intimacy with the God who suffers and redeems in Christ.

I know that some critics say, “The Church should stay out of politics.” And they’re often quite right. But war is not politics. War is the failure of politics. War is death and destruction. So whether we agree with this war or not, surely we can agree that war, even when necessary, is a necessary evil. War is Satan running amuck. And that’s why, from the very beginning to this day, the Church has spoken out on issues of war and peace.

If Christians remain silent on these pressing issues, we’re actually sending a loud message: a message that our faith is irrelevant to the concerns of the real world. My brothers and sisters, if our faith is irrelevant to the concerns of the real world, then we’d do well to abandon the Christian faith for something that is.

I refuse to do that. And thanks be to God, I know that I’m not alone. Indeed, one of the things that’s been so overwhelming over the last several months has been the unanimous voice of all the mainline Church leaders about this war. It’s been a truly historic moment in the life of the Church. Not only in the United States, but all over the world, Anglicans and Presbyterians, Methodists and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and Disciples of Christ – among many others – have been speaking with one voice. Whether we agree or not, as people who take Christian faith seriously, this nearly unprecedented consensus of the Church should give us pause. At the very least, it should make Christians feel uncomfortable with waging war. It should conjure up fears about the consequences of war. And it should make us ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Let me share my fears and worries with you. One of my biggest fears is for the men and women of our armed services. Many of them are only in their late teens and early twenties. Many of them have families with children under the age of 6. They’ve never experienced war before. What they are getting into will forever change their lives for good or for bad. I know that you join me in praying for their safety and for their joyous return home to family and friends. And I know that you join me in praying for the anguished families who are left behind, especially those who have already lost loved ones.

I’m also worried for our nation. I’m troubled by the suggestion that asking questions and having concerns about this war is unpatriotic and un-American. It scares me to hear our leaders say that we’re either with them or we support terrorism. The suggestion that loyal dissent is unpatriotic doesn’t just slam the door shut on civil discourse. It constitutes a direct attack on Christian witness and mission. Is Christian faith simply a rubber stamp for whatever our leaders want to do?

What would Jesus do?

And then there are questions of faith. Where is God in all of this? My deepest fear is that, amidst the sound and fury of war, we Christians will no longer hear Jesus’ call to walk the way of the cross. My fear is that we will set aside our baptismal vocation to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Even those with whom we disagree. Even our enemies.

What would Jesus do?

I’m also deeply distressed by some of the talk coming from certain sectors of the Church. I’ve heard God’s blessing invoked as though we can safely assume that God is unequivocally on our side. It scares me when I hear fallible human beings claiming to know the mind of God with absolute certainty. After all, that’s what the Osama bin Laden’s of the world do.

Should we be asking, “Is God on our side?” Or would it be better to ask, “Are we on God’s side?”

What would Jesus say?

I’ve even heard some Christians flat out declare that God prefers war as a method for enacting His will.

"God prefers war."

Can Christians really believe that?

Does God revel in bloodshed and violence? Does God will the deaths of men, women, and children to advance His purposes?

What would Jesus say?

It’s sometimes said that “war is hell.” Theologically speaking, that’s false. Hell is by definition the absence of God. But the truth is, bidden or unbidden, God is always present, even in war. So where is God in this war?

Let me share with you what I believe. I believe that God is in Christ, and Christ is on the cross, suffering and dying with our service men and women and their families and will the nameless, faceless ones we conveniently categorize as “collateral damage.” If there is to be any redemption in this human tragedy, it can only come through Christ’s passion and resurrection.

Let me also say what I hope. I hope that my fears prove groundless. I hope that God is working to bring renewal and transformation out of this tragedy.

But regardless of what happens, I am confident of three things. First of all, God loves everyone and wills their salvation, regardless of what side they’re on.

Secondly, in Jesus Christ, God calls us to stand in solidarity with all those who are suffering on both sides of this war. It wasn’t for nothing, after all, that Jesus said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44) and “be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk. 6:35).

And finally, even in the midst of this war, God continues to call us to faithfully seek the justice, peace, and reconciliation of His kingdom.

I recently read a poem that deeply moved me. I’d like to close by sharing it with you. It was written on Ash Wednesday by a Presbyterian named Ann Weems. The title is, “I No Longer Pray for Peace.”


On the edge of war, one foot already in,
I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the ‘God talk’ will take bones,
and stand up and shed its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might sit down together
and share its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God,
and that we can truly love on another.

I no longer pray for peace;
I pray for miracles.

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