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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Monday, January 27, 2003

I Am Going Straight To Hell

There's a silver lining - it should mean a break from the cold weather.

Let me get started. Last Sunday the minister at our church devoted the sermon to war and peace. Now, on the one hand, this takes a bit of courage, since we are an Episcopal congregation in the heart of "Country Club Republican" Connecticut. On the other hand, the crowd does not generally jump ugly: last year we had an Anglican Bishop visit us just a few months after 9/11, and a few weeks after we had completed the last of the memorial services at this church for the local dead. The Bishop's message, which provoked a bit of rustling in the congregation, was that 9/11 might reasonably be interpreted as a warning from a God angered by our indifference to third world poverty. I kid you not. And although a number of people (yes, I among them) took a few moments after the service to tell the Bishop what we really thought, there was no tarring and feathering, and few raised voices.

So, I know where the bar is set for this sort of sermon. But I sat through it, and the minister was kind enough to e-mail me a copy of it, which I post below. With just a little bit of commentary. But "Fisking" a sermon? I'll be damned.

Invocation: I speak to you in the name of the Living God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

WAR looms on the horizon these days. And like an ominous dark cloud on a stormy day, it is seems to be moving closer. Like most of you, I have some strong feelings about the plans our government is making to go to war with Iraq. There are lots of gray areas. Saddam Hussein has an abysmal record in the area of human rights. He keeps company with terrorists, and may have weapons of mass destruction at his command. Should our military forces remove him from power – for the sake of his countrymen;

Hey, so far, so great. Maybe the hawks need better labels: instead of anti-war versus pro-war, let's bill this as "anti-war" versus "pro-liberation"!

...for the sake of our oil interests; for the sake of the hope of increased safety from terrorist attacks?

Chief among our feelings about the possibility of war with Iraq is the feeling of fear.

Personally, I am afraid that for the first time in my generation, we will find ourselves embroiled in war that begins in Iraq, but quickly spreads beyond the Middle East through terrorist attacks and bio-warfare in Europe and on our very shores.

I am afraid that for the second time in my generation, our country will instigate a military action, as we did in Operation Desert Storm, where our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and cousins fight and die in a foreign land – along with men, women, and children who are innocent bystanders, victims of a struggle of international powers.

Hmm, Charles Rangel is afraid of somewhat the opposite - how many folks in this building right now have a relative in the military? OK, my brother-in-law, but the rest of you?

But more than any of that, I am afraid that in the midst of preparations for war, we as Christians will not HEAR and DO the will of God. As Christians, we are not, first and foremost, citizens of the United States of America. We are citizens of the world our God created; we are brothers and sisters of God’s children throughout this world. While we, as Americans, owe our allegiance to the leaders of this land, we, as Christians, owe our ultimate allegiance to GOD, our Creator and Redeemer. As Christians, we must set patriotic rhetoric aside, and ask, what is God’s call to us in this time? What is God’s will?

In Old Testament times, when God wanted to instruct his people to do something, he sent a prophet, someone to speak the will of God directly to the people. Who is the prophet of God in our time? Who is carrying the banner of Christ in these debates about whether, and how, and when to make war?

This week, I found myself praying – God, send your people a prophet, someone who will tell us your will. And God answered –

As Christians, we cannot look to experts to be our prophets. Military experts can predict collateral damage in terms of life and property, and they can estimate the financial cost of the war. But they are not prophets. Pacifists, experts in avoiding war at all costs, can stress to us the value of verbal negotiations and can argue articulately against military intervention. But they are not prophets.

A prophet is someone who looks at this situation from God’s perspective, a perspective unclouded by human self-interest or nationalistic motive. God’s perspective takes into account not only the value of each and every human life, but also the way of thoroughgoing justice that leads to lasting peace. We won’t find God’s perspective in briefs from Capitol Hill or in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. God’s perspective can only be known by hearing the voice of God himself – through prayer and holy conversation, through Scripture and Sacrament.

As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, each one of us is called to live and act prophetically. If we as a community, as the Body of Christ, seek to know and do the will of God, God’s will will be manifest in the world through us.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” For all the jokes there are about how patient one has to be to be a fisherman, fishing for creatures with fins is infinitely easier than fishing for people, creatures with strong relational ties, mixed motives, and deep histories of brokenness and injustice. Yet the call of Jesus on our lives is to fish for people, to draw all people together in the net of God’s will, so that God’s vision for creation may be realized – on earth, as it is in heaven.

In Psalm 34, the Psalmist explains what it means to live in right relationship with God and our world. The Psalmist says –

“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”


Seeking peace is a prophetic act. As each one of us seeks peace moment by moment, in our daily interactions, we infuse a pattern of peacemaking into our culture that influences the course of our international relationships.

Seeking peace means striving to live into God’s vision for the world, a vision of wholeness and healing, a vision of justice and reconciliation, a vision of truth and beauty.

To seek peace is to restore wholeness in relationships – God’s relationship with his world, and our relationships with each other. Restoring wholeness involves rebuilding broken relationships, negotiating and seeing things from someone else’s perspective, and sometimes turning the other cheek. Restoring wholeness in relationships means cultivating an awareness of our connectedness with every other human being, valuing them as brothers and sisters, and seeking their good as we seek our own.

To seek peace is to be humble. This is especially important for us as people who have the power and resources to get what we want. Humility means being honest with ourselves about our own failings, motives and selfish desires. Humility involves being willing to wait for things to come together, for relationships to shift, for change to happen, rather than forcing our agenda because we have the power to do so. Exercising humility means using strength to build up rather than to tear down, to buy time for discernment and agreement instead of making unilateral decisions.

To seek peace is to allow ourselves to hope, to explore the unique possibilities of this age. We will not have the freedom to explore unique possibilities without learning to trust in God more than we trust in ourselves. Though we are citizens of a superpower nation, we must acknowledge that God is better at holding the world together than we are.

Boy, it seems rude to ask for evidence of that point, and I'm sure it's your area.... Perhaps we will come back to this.

Though the cost of waging war is high – in terms of money spent and lives lost – we find the cost of peace harder to bear. The cost of peace is setting aside our own agenda and timetable, trusting in God for justice, depending on other people to come together, and putting the good of all people ahead of what is good for us alone. The biggest cost of peace is surrendering the need to see what we think is right happen in OUR way, in OUR time.

Seeking peace may sound utopian, but it is the only hope we have. Making war, imposing any agenda by force, only perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred. War is always, ALWAYS an admission of failure – the breakdown of negotiations, the demise of hope, the collapse of mutual trust, the inability to root out evil any other way.

Please tell me that you have heard of Hitler, and World War Two. Please.

There are times, as was the case in World War II, when war becomes the only way to stop aggressive evil.

Hey, prayers answered on the spot! This church ought to advertise. And is it fair to ask which part of "aggressive evil" does not apply to Saddam?

But we must never resort to war in haste. The price is too high.

OK, eleven years of broken UN resolutions. Hasty?

For the destruction of war is not limited to the number of lives lost or the number of homes destroyed. The true cost of participating in the destruction of others is marked by the stains on our souls. We are made in the image of God. Our hearts are broken by the things that break the heart of God. Though we may try to convince ourselves of the necessity or justice of war, the damage we inflict in war leaves us emotionally and spiritually crippled. The stains on our souls leave our souls weakened and ever more vulnerable to believing the unholy lie of fear and hopelessness – that our God is not big enough and his way is not powerful enough to protect us against the evils of this world.

Heavy theological going here. Could our choices reflect His way? Should we only pray for the people of Iraq, or fight to save them from Saddam? What did abolitionists advocate before and during the Civil War? What do fireman do when they see people trapped in a burning building? I'm sure they pray too, but what I see on the news are the firefighters and the hoses and the ladders.

On Tuesday night this week, President George W. Bush will give the State of the Union address. It will contain the rhetoric of war, explaining – likely even in religious language – why our nation should move quickly and forcibly to take military action in Iraq. As you listen, hear President Bush’s words against the backdrop of these words of the prophet Jeremiah:

“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.”

OK, I may be shaky on my theology, but I know this about politics - if Bush gets on national television and glories in his knowledge of the Lord, there will be the devil to pay.

Act prophetically: seek peace – that God’s will may be done on earth, now and forever.


Amen. Peace is good. Absent any context, I hope and expect that roughly 99% of the world agrees that peace is good. But with Saddam, the choices are a bit less simple, and they are all terrible. Regrettably "peace" may not be the best path out of this mess.

UPDATE: So, do I face eternal fire? Or, more optimistically, am I on the path to Hot, or Not? Susanna says, Not. Well, if she's wrong I'll enjoy her company. And here is a NY Times guest who offers me hope.

UPDATE 2: This guy is going down, big time. Hot. What is it with these righties?

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