God and War
Local religious leaders offer ways to understand the conflict in Iraq.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Rev. Jay Bartow of First Presbyterian Church of Monterey recalls the first time he had trouble reconciling war with his world vision. “I was 8 years old,” he says. “I asked my dad, ‘Why are there wars?’”
Bartow’s now 60, which means he’s been reflecting on the subject for some time. Today, once on the topic, the bespectacled minister immediately turns to two famous war-themed works: Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
He says “War Prayer” is “as appropriate now as ever.” In Twain’s famous poem, a charismatic minister leads a rousing prayer in which he asks God to bring his gathering armies glorious victory. Twain writes:
None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language…an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would…make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory—
In the poem, a solemn elderly stranger moves through the congregation silently, then interrupts the minister’s prayer, saying that he has been “commissioned of God to put into words the other part” of the victory prayer—the implicit, uglier side of the appeal:
O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of our patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain…
In the last line of the poem, Twain writes that the man is “believed to be a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”
Bartow says he finds the verses “very, very pungent.”
“God’s on no one’s side,” he says. “We don’t hear anything like that in our present political scene—the sense that war is really tragic and not God’s plan for the human family. Nobody’s that humble.
“We hear, ‘There’s good guys and bad guys, and let’s take care of business.’ The bad guys are parents and wives. They may have an ideology that’s different, but they’re human beings.”
The pastor finds a similarly timely message in Lincoln’s March 4, 1865 address, which came a month before his assassination. Bartow sees someone “who was never a church member and was perhaps the most theologically astute” leader of his time.
Less than six weeks before Lee surrendered to Grant in Virginia to end the Civil War, Lincoln said: “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not.”
That awareness was critical, says Bartow. “Lincoln had a deep sadness of going through this horrendous Civil War. They were the same religions. Lincoln refused to say, ‘I know whose side God is on.’ It was ‘malice toward none and charity toward all.’
“It’s so far from what I hear now it blows my mind,” Bartow says.
Bartow is one of many local religious leaders spending significant amounts of time considering the theological ramifications of the Iraq War. Across the county, whether Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, Islamic imam or Protestant Army chaplain, these leaders are ministering to their congregations by helping them understand the war and giving them ways to deal with it.
Conversations with these open and articulate religious leaders reveal how much they consider themes of justice, peace and godliness—and how intriguing and sobering religion’s relevance in times of war can be.
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It’s Nov. 6, 2005, 11 days after the 2,000th American soldier was killed in Iraq. Chaplain Maj. Albert Ghergich is reciting a pastoral prayer over the bowed heads in the spacious sanctuary of the Ord Military Community Chapel.
“That leaders of nations with ambitions of dominance and violence over other peoples,” he reads, “receive the grace of conversion and come to know Christ, who is merciful, let us pray to the Lord.”
The congregation of families, retirees and active military absorb the words in silence.
Maj. Ghergich continues. “That our armed forces come to be perceived as standing for peace, justice and a force for good,” he says, “especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, let us pray to the Lord.”
As his prayer proceeds, the notion of God intervening in Iraq, through conversions and changes in perception, lingers, a local example of a familiar pattern in world history: Christians invoking God in times of war.
It wasn’t always so. For centuries, Christians didn’t participate in wars, instead ascribing to the peaceful ways of Jesus, turning a collective cheek. (Not to be confused with the Old Testament Jews, who got into their fair share of fracases.) That changed when Roman Emperor Constantine announced he had a very specific sort of vision in 312 AD.
Constantine was preparing for a battle in Rome against Emperor Maxentius for control of the western half of the Roman Empire. On the eve of the battle, he claimed to see in the sky a flaming cross framed with an inscription: “By this sign, thou shalt conquer.” He promptly inscribed such a cross on the shields of his soldiers, who charged to victory. A miracle had taken place, said Constantine, and he considered himself converted. He quickly legalized Christianity in his kingdom.
Reconciling the peaceful ethic of the Christian tradition with a warring empire became a focus for the philosophic Saint Augustine in the early 400s. Drawing largely from ancient philosophers of ethics, he evolved guidelines for a “just war.”
Augustine’s precepts included essential provisions simple in spirit yet complex in application. A war must have peace as a goal, and its purpose must be to secure justice. (Augustine did note that justice should lie on only one side of the war.)
Some principles were more abstract: A war must be waged in love. Others were concrete: it must be made not by private citizens but by legitimate rulers. And some just felt right: the war must be waged with a minimum of cruelty—no wanton destruction, torture or violence.
The Roman Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) took the idea of just war further. Aquinas laid out clauses particularly relevant today: A war may only be undertaken after all means of peaceful solution have been exhausted—and a war must have a serious chance of success.
The Roman Catholic Church continued to develop Aquinas’ thesis further, articulating that “all aggression is condemned; only defensive war is legitimate,” and that “the only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace...neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain not ideological supremacy is justified.” These ideas arrived in the comprehensive volume The Law of War and Peace by noted Catholic scholar Hugo Grotius.
Much talk on just-war theory in the current era of advanced technology and nuclear capabilities centers around the definition of self-defense. Leaders and scholars alike split over whether pre-emptive action qualifies as such, and just what role outside parties like the US should take in conflicts where injustice is present outside their borders.
Locally, leaders from a range of faiths and denominations—Evangelical, Lutheran, Presbyterian and even Jewish—still invoke these rules or more recent versions, a pattern indicative of Augustine’s ongoing status as creator of the standard just war guidelines for nearly all churches across the country.
Just this March, the local branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church met in Carmel Valley to talk pacifism, just war and “holy wars.” Roy Blumhorst, former presiding minister of St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Carmel Valley, attended.
“The bishop of the ELCA has joined with the other top [religious] leaders in opposition to the War in Iraq,” Blumhorst says, “based on good Bible verses and Christian history.”
Bartow of First Presbyterian can see why.
“They didn’t meet the tests international agencies or historic Christian thinkers had to go to war,” he says. “They didn’t go down that list.”
Former Army chaplain assistant Rick Skorik, who currently studies at the DLI and plans to enter seminary in 2007, says that list is antiquated.
“Everything is based on Augustine in the 400s,” he says. “We don’t take the church’s rules on homosexuality from then and apply it today. Clearly warfare and politics have changed.”
Skorik continues, “I went to my bishop. I [was] in the 82nd Airborne—what if I kill someone? Is it just? Is it murder or not? The ELCA wants to support the troops who are fighting an unjust war; that doesn’t make sense. Are you supporting murderers?”
Ord Military Community Church’s Maj. Ghergich and his former supervising Chaplain Lt. Col. Steven Young skip such debate altogether. “We don’t get political,” Young said after the Nov. 5 service. “And we never get in arguments of ‘Is it a holy war?’ We stay with, I guess, the whole theme of taking care of each other and respecting people’s rights even if they may differ in opinion.
“We just want to make our own soldiers and their families as spiritually ready as they can be for conflicts.”
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Of course, Christians don’t own a monopoly on spirituality during wartime or any time.
“Religion is peace,” says Islamic Imam Abdellah Khidar, “and teaching peace.” He’s speaking in Arabic with the help of translators, who are seated with him on the carpet of the long upstairs hall in Seaside that has housed the Islamic Society of Monterey County since June. Parallel strips of masking tape run diagonally across the 90-foot-long room of the former Grange No. 492. When local Muslims place their stockinged feet on those lines during frequent prayers, they are pointed precisely in the direction of Mecca.
“War is a double-edged sword,” the black-robed imam continues. “It is bad or good. If it is for unjust aims or goals, or to achieve any other political or human achievements, Allah, or God, isn’t involved. It’s just human-made.
“Allah, or God, only permits war to be involved to free people, to bring justice.”
When asked if the 3-year-old war in Iraq fits these criteria, he fixes his gentle gaze, smiles, and asks if he can answer with a question. “Can you not judge for yourself?”
Eventually he elaborates. “Children are being killed,” Khidar says. “Families are without shelter and homes. Infrastructure is being destroyed. The economy is zero. People are afraid of their shadows. People are being tortured. So what kind of justice is that?
“Many conflicts on earth are going on because of personal psychological conflicts or materialistic concerns,” the 35-year-old Moroccan immigrant says, “and have nothing to do with God and freeing people.”
When war is “manmade,” Imam Khidar contends, it comes from a specific source.
“There are two kinds of people who would start a [manmade] war. Some think what they are doing is right according to sacred law, out of ignorance. The other kind are hypocrites who deceive in the name of religion.
“They are different, but both are wrong.”
Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum of Temple Beth Israel in Carmel Valley, a congregation that he says holds fairly liberal, or “reform”-minded Jewish views, felt compelled to evaluate the war’s spirituality as well.
“Religion deals with life and death,” he says. “And war obviously impacts on life and death. In Jewish law and Jewish tradition, there’s a lot written about war and a lot of discussion about whether a war is just or not, so I delivered a sermon to give the perspective according to the Talmud.”
Greenbaum speaks to the view of the preeminent scholarly committee of the Reform Jewish faith, the Responsa committee, which wrote a four-page discussion that says, “We are morally justified in waging war only when war is absolutely necessary and unavoidable.”
“A war fought today for anything other than defensive purposes must therefore be viewed as an unnecessary evil,” the decision reads, “as a transgression of the message of the Torah, and as a repudiation of our most cherished values and commitments.”
Greenbaum later simplifies the position further.
“We started this war—that’s why I don’t think it’s a just war,” he says. “We weren’t attacked. We’re the dominating force here.”
Rev. Jerry McCormick of St. Angela’s Catholic Church in Pacific Grove anticipated this consensus amongst faiths, and sees it as part of a potential solution. “We ought to stand up for what is the truth, for what we believe as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists. I think basically it’s peace.
“To hold our leaders accountable in times of conflict, I would love to see the Bishop of Rome—the Pope, el Papa—the head imam, and the head Buddhist, head Hindu and the heads of different great other groups meet…in Iraq and have a big summit and talk about what’s going on. You know, we wouldn’t even have to have any soldiers to protect them.”
Bartow also thinks the religious community is “all too compliant.”
“The church’s job was [once] to kind of make government accountable, to be like a watchdog,” Bartow says. “The government’s role is to restrain evil and restore good. When they do that, good. When they don’t, they’ve overstepped their deal. The church’s responsibility is to say ‘We don’t support you.’”
Senior Rev. Howard Hugo of Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, meanwhile, feels such a vocal role isn’t in the best interests of the country.
“We have a responsibility as Christians to pray for and seek peace in a very proactive way,” he says, “but we have to be quick not to judge those people that have more information than we do…we are not a PAC [political action committee]. We are a church to tell people about God’s love. He’s not Democratic or Republican. He’s not even American.”
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Posted on a back wall of the sanctuary of the Unity Church of Monterey Bay in Monterey are 12 prayers from a dozen distinct faiths of the world that share one specific aim: peace. Between a Jainist prayer and a Buddhist prayer, there’s a Zoroastrian prayer that reads, “We pray to God…that trust triumph over contempt, and that truth triumph over falsehood.”
The juxtaposition of these unifying prayers, which were originally offered in Assisi, Italy on the day of Prayer for World Peace during the UN’s International Year of Peace (1986), has appealed enough to locals that the church had posters designed and printed; they have since been reordered to meet demand. This coincides nicely with co-ministers Vicky and Rory Elder and their open faith congregation, who feel strength in diversity is a powerful way of practicing religion.
“There are many paths, but only one God,” Vicky Elder says on a midweek morning, wearing a tracksuit and holding a cup of convenience store coffee. “We need all the qualities different religions bring.”
When it comes to cultivating peace—and helping the local people they serve reach peace of mind—the area’s religious leaders select a number of different paths themselves.
Elder turns to prayer. “Prayer doesn’t change God,” she says, “it helps us align with God’s principles that already exist. As we pray for peace, we become more peaceful; as we pray for peace in the world, we pray for the leaders to become more peaceful.”
A different sort of peace is pursued when the congregation is made up of soldiers instead of citizens.
At the Ord Community church, Chaplain Young draws upon themes of personal safety and trust in God to bring peace to the heart of his men.
“There’s always the fear of the unknown and safety,” says Young, whose assignments have included time in Saudi Arabia. “Our goal is to bring as much peace into the heart of a soldier, and help [create] a 100 percent healthy family situation. We stress safety, train safety and try to talk about God’s protection. God will see us through.”
Rev. Tim Knauf of Calvary Baptist Church in Marina helps his congregation trust in an omniscent, albeit hawkish, Old Testament-style God.
“Basically we understand if we study the Bible,” says Knauf, “that whether there’s war or peace, God’s in control.
“Sometimes peace comes at a price. Some American people say we can get peace by talking. Sometimes you can’t get peace by talking. You have to go to war. I think that some folks you just can’t talk to. So therefore there has to be war.
“[God] is a god of judgment and wrath,” Knauf continues. “He has to be. He uses war in a couple different ways: To bring nations back to him and he uses war to judge nations for going in a wrong direction and abusing [power]. He didn’t create people to be slaves to other people.”
Knauf sees the nexus of the Iraq War as an example of the latter. “God is judging a country because it has taken advantage of people who do not have a say. I think that our president has stepped in and said we need to allow these people to have some freedoms—that God is judging a nation and using other nations to bring judgment upon a nation that has not allowed freedoms.”
Knauf and his congregation know the price of peace, and of God’s “judgment.” Just days before Christmas 2004, teenaged Robert Johnson of Seaside was killed along with 13 other US servicemen by a suicide bomber in an Army cafeteria in Mosul, Iraq. Knauf says the Calvary congregation and Johnson’s aunt and uncle, who remain longtime members of Calvary, found peace in God’s will.
“People die whether there is war or peace and God’s timing is always perfect,” says Knauf. “In this war he chose to take the lives of these men who have given their lives for freedom. It was his time.
“That was God’s perfect will—and we don’t know God’s perfect will. We can pray that his perfect will will take place in this world. Not a sparrow falls from this sky that God doesn’t know about. Not a hair in our head falls out that God doesn’t know about.
“If we leave it in his hands, all things will work out…”
But Knauf’s strong tendency toward a resolute peace reveals some equivocation.
“As bad as it looks…he has a plan,” he says. “We have to trust that it’s a perfect plan and that our government follows that plan.”
Rev. Dr. Therese DesCamp of the Community Church of the Monterey Peninsula sees it quite differently.
“We human beings project a lot of stuff onto God that isn’t God,” she says. “‘I don’t understand why God is letting my son die.’ God stands with us and weeps with us when bad things happen. But God’s not making them happen. That’s being a human: to suffer. We make great decisions and horrible decisions.
“God wants us to move into a deeper, more joyful place. The place for faith, if for nothing else, is to remind you that you’re not abandoned at the times when it can seem the worst.
“I can’t believe that God ever condones war. I just can’t believe that. God would always choose for us to find another way.”