Christmas is widely seen as a feast of peace. Last night I looked through all the Christmas cards and letters that were delivered to our house from near and far in recent weeks, and no word appears more often in them than peace. A number of cards used the biblical announcement sung by angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem:
Peace on earth, good will toward men!
In some cards Jesus is referred to as Prince of Peace. Along with news of children and grandchildren, many of the letters enclosed with cards expressed the hope that 2018 would be more peaceful than 2017.
Peace. Apart from the rare psychopath, a deep longing for peace is something we all share: a world without war, a world without nuclear weapons, a world in which no one starves to death, a world in which children are safe, a world without poisoned air and water….
Good wishes. But as the saying goes, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The sad reality is that, in our passivity, we are quiet accomplices of war, and our churches docile chaplains of war.
As 2018 begins, we find ourselves in a state of endless war, but not many of us know much about them. Few of us are engaged in efforts to make the world less war-afflicted.
How many wars and not-quite-wars are being fought as we enter the New Year? In how many of them is our own country involved?
In an article for This Week entitled “America’s Endless, Invisible Wars,” Damon Linker guesses that the majority of Americans are unaware that the US and its allies are currently at war “in at least seven countries across the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan.”
Linker further notes:
If we include covert operations, for example, we’re almost certainly engaged in acts of war in several additional countries beyond those seven. And then there’s the tendency among the members of our political class, including many journalists who cover it, to avoid using the term “war” for military actions that fall short of the deployment of ground troops—even when they include such acts of war as the firing of missiles at sovereign nations and the imposition or enforcement of naval blockades against them.
In its List of Ongoing Armed Conflicts Wikipedia lists four wars—Afghanistan, Mexico, Syria, and Iraq—that have killed more than 10,000 people during the year just ended, and fourteen more that have cost between 1,000 and 10,000 deaths in the same period.
The Linker article comments:
Consider the Pentagon’s low-key announcement earlier this month that the U.S. military will continue operations in Syria “as long as we need to.” This declaration of an open-ended commitment to the deployment of American forces was barely noted in the news or in the halls of Congress. The latter is especially revealing, since Congress never authorized the deployment of forces to Syria in the first place. Yet our forces are there nonetheless, and we have now been flatly informed that they will remain with no end in sight.
Perhaps we should be grateful that we were informed at all. It would be shockingly easy for the White House and Department of Defense to do whatever they wanted with no meaningful democratic oversight at all. Our wars are fought thousands of miles from American shores with an all-volunteer force drawn from a tiny percentage of the population. Meanwhile, the country has spent the astonishing sum of $250 million a day on war-making for each of the nearly 6,000 days since the 9/11 attacks 16 years ago. Instead of raising taxes to pay for it, Congress has cut taxes, insulating the American people entirely from the cost and handing the bill to future generations of Americans in the form of debt.
Linker notes that neither of America’s principal political parties can point an accusing finger at the other. Both share the blame.
And the churches too cannot wash their hands of some degree of responsibility. We look back with sorrow and shame at the silence of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches in Germany in the Nazi period. Millions went to concentration camps, never to return, with almost no word of protest from German or Austrian Christian leaders. Millions more fought in wars launched by the Hitler regime without any local bishop questioning the justice of such wars. In fact, many supported Hitler’s wars with vigor. The few young people who refused to fight were executed without a word of support from their pastors.
But how different are our churches as 2018 begins? War resistance is definitely not a hallmark of contemporary Christianity. How rare are the bishops who dare challenge the idea that love of one’s country does not require blessing its wars. Can you cite any bishops who warn the young adults in their pastoral care that war leaves many of those who take part the bearers of grave spiritual and psychic wounds for bloody events in which they were participants? Or bishops who speak favorably of conscientious objection? How often do we hear sermons that remind us that, in His years of earthly ministry, Christ took part in no war, killed no one, and waved no flags?
While Christ gives a special blessing to peacemakers, calling them children of God, it seems to be a blessing not many wish to embrace.
A proposed resolution for the New Year for each of us: May I begin to become a peacemaker. May I pray for peace with more urgency and focus. May God help me to take more steps to combat war.
Jim Forest has devoted many decades of his life to the cause of peace. He serves currently as the international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and has authored and edited books on the subject of world peace. These include his recent At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan and his earlier The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, which won the International Thomas Merton Society‘s Louie Award. He is a reader at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.