Shared Word on John 12:20-33

Shared Word CSM April 6, 2003 (During Combat Phase of Iraq War)

Text: John 12: 20-33

“Whoever loves his own life will lose it. Whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.”

I suspect in not a few churches in the US this morning, this passage was used to praise the sacrifice of US troops now engaged in the war against Iraq.

What does it mean to “Support our Troops” during a time of war? I want to share two excerpts about this question. The first is from an op-ed piece in a Texas newspaper from David Wiggins, an honors graduate of West Point and a former Captain in the US Army who resigned his commission and left the Army as a Conscientious Objector during the first Gulf War while he was on the front lines:

Considering the common practice of talking about "supporting the troops" in times of hostilities, I want to let the troops know how I feel.

With all due respect, I want them to know that if they participate in this conflict, they are not serving me, and I don't support them. Speaking for myself, I feel those who participate will be damaging my reputation as an American, and further endangering me and my children by creating hatred that will someday be returned to us -- perhaps someday soon. Our troops' actions will not lead to a safer world, but a more dangerous world of pre-emption and unilateral decisions to commit mayhem. I don't support that.

This talk of "supporting the troops" is just another method our government uses to manipulate and control us. I don't support the troops, but I certainly fear for the lives of the troops. I would support the troops staying home. I regret that our so-called leaders have involved the troops in such a foolish, misguided undertaking. I would support the troops disobeying orders. I feel sorry for the troops' families. I would support the troops if they realized that the best way to defend their families would be to stay alive and healthy and resist this war.
The only people the troops are possibly serving are those who agree with this act of military aggression. Perhaps they are not even serving them if the troops end up suffering retribution for their actions.
I feel for the troops and the difficult decisions they must make. I hope this note frees them of any sense of obligation to serve me and helps them make a conscientious decision that they will be proud to accept complete responsibility for making.
Our troops' actions will not lead to a safer world, but a more dangerous world of pre-emption and unilateral decisions to commit mayhem. I don't support that.

I also want to share a passage from the end of Mark Twain’s, The War Prayer .
The setting is a church service where the congregation has just heard a prayer to “Bless the troops”-
"You have heard your servant's prayer -- the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it -- that part which the pastor -- and also you in your hearts -- fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory -- must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. 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 their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
I suspect that many of us who hoist signs saying “Support our Troops- Bring them Home” are not calling for victory first.

But … are we willing to join Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “praying for the defeat of our nation”?

Two American professors coaxed Bonhoeffer into returning to the US from Germany in the late 1930’s to a teaching position in NYC. As soon as the boat docked Bonhoeffer knew he had made a mistake. He knew that Germany would shortly be at war, knew that the devastation of his native land would be indescribable. He was convinced he would have no credibility in assisting with its recovery and restoration unless he himself endured the devastation first-hand. He was in the US only four weeks.

By this time he was forbidden to speak anywhere in the Reich. The General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, asked him, "What do you pray for in these days?" "If you want to know the truth", replied Bonhoeffer, "I pray for the defeat of my nation." Listen to what Bonhoeffer wrote on the eve of World War II:
"Sitting here in Dr.[William Sloane] Coffin's garden I have had time to think and pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God's will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the trials of this time with my people. My brethren in the Confessing Synod wanted me to go. They may have been right in urging me to do so; but I was wrong in going. Such a decision each man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany shortly before the war started. He led an underground seminary as part of “the Confessing Church” before he was arrested and jailed by the Nazis. In a book of his collected writings from his jail, entitled Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrote this before he was hanged, naked, from a piano wire in 1945:
I am guilty of cowardly silence at a time when I ought to have spoken. I am guilty of hypocrisy and untruthfulness in the face of force. I have been lacking in compassion and I have denied the poorest of my brethren.... We, the church, must confess that we have not proclaimed often or clearly enough our message of the one God who has revealed Himself for all times in Jesus Christ and who will tolerate no other gods beside Himself. She must confess her timidity, her evasiveness, her dangerous concessions. She has often been untrue to her office of guardianship and to her office of comfort. She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. She has failed to speak the right word in the right way at the right time. She has not resisted to the uttermost the apostasy of faith, and she has brought upon herself the guilt of the godlessness of the masses.... The church must confess that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred, and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.... The church must confess that she has desired security, peace and quiet, possessions and honor, to which she has no right.... She has not borne witness to the truth of God.... By her own silence she has rendered herself guilty because of her unwillingness to suffer for what she knows to be right.

Our own President George W. Bush said this last year when speaking to the German Bundestag:
One of the greatest Germans of the 20th century was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. -- who left the security of America to stand against Nazi rule. In a dark hour, he gave witness to the Gospel of life, and paid the cost of his discipleship, being put to death only days before his [concentration] camp was liberated.

"I believe," said Bonhoeffer, "that God can and wants to create good out of everything, even evil."

Oh, the irony of Caesar or Pilate or Herod Agrippa praising the Christ-figure! But, of course, we know how hands will be washed and it will be said “we’re just following the will of the masses!” And it is true- Americans want to continue to enjoy cheap oil and economic and military dominance. Our leaders often do reflect the shadow-side of our lifestyles and our desire to live in comfort.

Praying for the defeat of one’s country becomes very troublesome for me, however, when I realize the severe costs of an empire in the throes of defeat. The lethal firepower of a wounded, but not yet disarmed, giant will be deadly for those in its wake. If only the US could go the route of the former Soviet Union whose demise was relatively blood-free. I want this war to be over for the sake of the Iraqi people. But for the empire to be defeated, it almost must be prolonged. Any notion of the US “winning” the war in Iraq will continue to feed the monster we have allowed to be created. It only re-enforces the theology of “might makes right” and that we are the new “God’s chosen people.” If we win this war, we will continue to spend the lives of our youth on more fields of battle – not to mention the costs to those who might stand in the way of our greed, avarice, and our lust for power and control.

The pain and anguish expressed by the mother of a dead Marine in front of Alliant Tech this past Wednesday brought tears to many of our eyes. Patrick, who was poisoned by depleted uranium in the Iraqi desert in 1991 died an excruciating death in 1995. His death is multiplied by thousands more to come until that radioactive mess is cleaned up. But right now we are adding to those deposits with more of the radioactive detritus. And, according to reports this week, throwing in cluster bombs for good measure.

I’m not willing to write off the sacrificing of the Iraqi people and the US troops in a prolonged war in hopes that it might eventually bring a defeat to the US Empire. The example of the one we call “Lord” must be instructive even though Jesus found himself on the other side of the Empire of his day. His example of nonviolent resistance to “the domination system” must be applied both within and without the Empire.

Are we willing to “lose our lives”, to “take up our cross”, like Jesus, like Bonhoeffer, like Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Franz Jaeggestetter, Andre Trocme, Rosa Parks, Phillip Berrigan, Benigno Aquino, Corrie Ten Boom, Oscar Romero, and countless others? Are we willing to invest our lives, to spend them, in the promise of our Lord that such an investment will be honored by our Creator in the end?

I am aware of the irony that this call may sound disturbingly similar to the call that Osama bin Laden has issued to his disciples. I’m not promising 72 virgins or a ticket to Paradise in exchange for martyrdom. Although both Jesus and Osama agree that there is something worth dying for, Jesus tells us there is nothing worth killing for.
How do we stand in the way of the Empire in an attempt to protect the lives it wishes to consume? Or are we so busy trying to “save our own lives” do we “love our lives” so much that we can’t face this question?

Thank you for the witness of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Iraq Peace Team this week. Thank you for the budding of The Nonviolent Peace Force. Thank you for the Cloud of Witnesses that have preceded us.

Let us pray.

God, you have given us Jesus as a teacher, a friend, and a model. Please help us as we struggle within the Empire to find ways to follow him. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, for the living of these days. Amen.

Song: “God of Grace and God of Glory”.