Peace at Church?

NOTE:  I originally posted this on my own blog and thought that some of YAL’s readership might be interested in it as well, though I realize many do not subscribe to Christianity.

I like the church I attend.  It seems to be doctrinally sound, committed to in-depth exegetical teaching, and populated with friendly people truly interested in serving the Lord and making me feel welcome.

But, as with many American churches, there’s always the occasional hint of — well, “idolatry” seems too strong a word in this case, though I’ve certainly seen my fair share of exactly that — thoughtlessness toward the military.  I don’t mean thoughtlessness as the opposite of thoughtfulness/kindness, but rather thoughtlessness in the sense of a simple lack of thought.

As in many churches, support for the military is taken as a given.  Many services include prayer for the troops and their safety.  Though I have some issues with this practice*, I understand the honest concern church-goers may have for their loved ones fighting abroad.  But, as Laurence Vance writes,

I still see on church signs and church websites the “support our troops,” “pray for our troops,” and “God bless our troops” mantras. It doesn’t matter where U.S. troops go, how many go, how long they stay, or what they do when they are there – support for the military is a fundamental of the faith, right up there with the Virgin Birth and the Deity of Christ.

And that concerns me.  After all, is not Christ the “Prince of Peace”?  Furthermore, as Norman Horn of Libertarian Christians writes in the excellent piece which sparked this post,

[I]f you consider [the Iraqi and Afghan civilians] as we do, that they are innocent victims and have been wronged by their own leaders, by extremists, and by our own military, then may we pray to God as Jesus taught his disciples: to be “delivered from evil.” If we can pray this for ourselves, surely we can do so for others.

But second, if you still consider these people our enemies, then may we do as Jesus said in Matthew 5: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” May this be the beginning of understanding what Jesus said moments before, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

As much as I often admire Vance’s boldness in opposing aggressive war, my dismay over the love of war I see in the American church doesn’t lead me to full agreement with his suggestions for how to “demilitarize” one’s own church home.  Though I’d like to see a good deal of this happen at my church, imagining that it would actually occur in the near future is impossible.  But I’m not interested in abandoning an otherwise good church over one problem which, compared to its manifestation in some churches I’ve visited, is really very minor here.

And that’s where Horn’s ideas come in.  He begins:

People regularly email me with questions about how to communicate with other Christians about liberty and peace. The greatest conundrum the Christian libertarian has, it seems, is persuading other Christians to stop supporting the immoral wars that governments perpetrate across the globe. It is particularly difficult in the United States, where “supporting the troops” is essentially part of the new orthodoxy in most evangelical Protestant churches. You can publicly criticize a minister that he preaches too long and someone will support you, but say one word criticizing the military (or even the police) and you become anathema.

This is all true.  But in most cases, it’s not because of any ill intent on the part of American churches.  On the contrary, they’ve simply forgotten that “war really is hell, and neglect the suffering war causes.”  Our modern wars are distant, endless, and have minimal effect on our personal lives.  News reports rattle off enormous estimates of military and civilian casualties without a second thought — and Christians are not exactly given a special ability to understand these numbers as the lives lost and devastated which they represent.

…or are we?  Is that not a very basic manifestation of Christ’s love for “the world” (including those with whom the American government is not happy) which we are to imitate?  Are we not called to help the hurting and actively pursue peaceIf anyone can comprehend the damage done by war and seek its remedy, shouldn’t it be Christians? And finally, oughtn’t this be reflected in our public prayer?

Horn continues:

In the past, even the Southern Baptists took the Word of God seriously and prayed for those affected by war. But when was the last time you heard a church pray for anyone in the Middle East, for instance, other than soldiers? When was the last time you heard a church pray for an end to war?

Recently, I was moved to step out and try something I have never heard of done before: ask the leaders of my congregation to take the lead in praying for those suffering in war.

He attended a meeting of church leadership, a letter signed by himself and several other members of his church in hand, and made his case for prayer for peace and the suffering of all those involved in America’s wars.  The full letter is available on his site for anyone to use, but here is one paragraph I found particularly important:

Changing our practice to include praying for the oppressed is not a political statement. In fact, this is not a political issue in the least; on the contrary it is a moral and theological issue. If we are to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then we should take seriously that Jesus came and died to proclaim peace on earth and to liberate the oppressed. We may expect that “wars and rumors of wars” will always exist, but this does not require a condoning or defeatist attitude of such events. Rather, this understanding should make us more sensitive and more compassionate toward those who suffer.

I’m new at my church, and only just beginning to get involved in ministry there.  But once I’ve become a little more established in the church community, I will similarly request to attend a meeting of church leadership to present this idea.  With all the hard work and planning already done for me, it would be irresponsible if I didn’t.

*If I accept that our current wars are unconstitutional, unnecessary, and immoral — which I do — then I must also accept that our military is killing people whom it should not be killing, many of them innocents.  There are, of course, many arguments which can be made about where the responsibility for this killing should be placed, but to remove all responsibility from individual soldiers seems obviously wrong.

From this I’d conclude that praying for the safety of the members of our military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is praying for the safety of people unjustly killing other people, i.e. praying that they will safely be able to continue to kill.  It’s not quite analogous, but would you pray for the safety of a serial killer?  What if he thought he was doing good by killing?  What if he was your son or brother?

This is a tricky issue, to say the least.  I’m inclined to say that it’s better to pray that those involved in unjust military actions would come to understand the implications of their roles and change their employment than it is to pray for their safety.  (Praying for their salvation would obviously be good as well.)  But I haven’t completely worked this out in my mind and don’t at this point stand firmly behind that claim — certainly not firmly enough to leave a church over prayers for the safety of the troops.  After all, even the most extreme take on their responsibility still leaves us required to love and pray for our enemies.

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