"U.S. Death Toll in ___ reaches ___." "Vows of Reprisals as Arabs Mourn Slain Hamas Leader." As new headlines remind us every day, international relations are deteriorating further, unleashing fresh tensions not only in the Muslim world but around the entire globe.
Every day another alarm is sounded somewhere, and each one has immediate consequences. Flights are cancelled, and embassies closed; security is heightened at transportation hubs. Worse, each one fuels new fears that yet another attack is imminent. Indeed, despite all the talk about making the world a safer place, it seems more dangerous now than it did right after 9-11.
Even the strongest supporters of America's "war on terror" agree that it is not going well. They admit that the Pentagon's attempts to stabilize the Middle East have been far from successful, and that our national security and intelligence systems are not what they should be. At the same time, they see no other option than pressing forward down the same militaristic path that has placed a hundred thousand young men and women in harm's way and brought us into the current crisis.
Strangely, though our nation is supposedly Christian, and people are always talking about Judeo-Christian heritage, we have forgotten the Gospel's simple advice on the best way to combat terror: by living for love, which "casts out fear."
Take the idea of the pre-emptive strike, which many Americans defend as having been the only sane way to remove Saddam Hussein. Jesus, who lived in Roman-occupied Palestine and therefore knew plenty about hatred and war, preached a very different sort of pre-emptive strike: he taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. As for disarming an opponent once he has initiated a fight, he again advised the use of compassion:
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek; turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
This astounding teaching, which runs counter to every human conception of fairness, is one-hundred percent failsafe, and just as applicable now as it was two millennia ago. How different the world could look if we heeded this advice on an individual, national, and international level! Look at Spain's decision to withdraw from Iraq: within hours, it was met with a gesture of good will from Imam al-Sadr, who called on his followers to stop attacking Spanish troops. Perhaps love could immobilize the entire Al Qaeda network?
Sadly, though many people claim to believe in the power of love, they prefer to rely on tanks and missiles when the chips are down. In doing so, they leave God completely out of the picture. Can't they see that without him, even the ablest army will never win the war on terror?
Along with love, we have forgotten another biblical tactic: prayer. The early Christian Tertullian calls it the "fortress of faith" and says it is a "shield and weapon against any foe." Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, speaks of it too, when he admonishes his fellow believers to put on the "whole armor of God" and thereby enlist his aid.
As someone who firmly believes that all war and all killing is wrong, I should say here that I cannot accept the simplistic idea that God is on the American side of the current struggle to control Iraq. I was brought up with the conviction that peace is the only answer to violence; that hatred is best countered and overcome by love. To quote Käthe Kollwitz, "Each armed conflict carries within it the seeds of the next"- and this has certainly been true of every war in my lifetime.
At the same time, I cannot simply stand on the sidelines and say that I am "against war." The world is mired in a conflict of massive proportions. It stands at a momentous juncture. Each of us needs to consider his task?and to find it out, doesn't each of us need to pray like never before?
Henri Nouwen says that when we pray, we "put our entire life in the balance." And when I think of the countless soldiers (and civilians) whose lives are currently on the line throughout the Middle East, it seems the least I can do is pray that God is with them.
As a history buff intrigued by the potential lessons of the past, I recently stumbled on an interesting story about General George S. Patton. An ardent believer, Patton noted that in times of battle, his men all prayed, but that when things quieted down, the praying stopped. This disturbed him and, in a nutshell, led him to write a "training letter" that was eventually distributed to every unit under his command. It read, in part:
Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers. Hands lifted up, smash more battalions then hands that strike. Urge all of your men to pray, not alone in church, but everywhere. Pray when driving. Pray when fighting. Pray alone. Pray with others. Pray by night and pray by day. Pray for our Army, and pray for peace.
We must march together, all out for God. The soldier who 'cracks up' does not need sympathy or comfort as much as he needs strength and prayer. We are not trying to make the best of these days. It is our job to make the most of them. Now it is not the time to follow God from 'afar off.' We need the assurance and the faith that God is with us. With prayer, we cannot fail.
These words were written during the Battle of the Bulge, when a sudden break in the weather handed the Allies an unexpected victory over Hitler's forces. Patton, and many others, attributed the outcome to prayer.
No matter what one believes about whether God takes sides in war, it is clear that he does intervene decisively in history. Surely he does not ignore those who, like Patton, believe in him and look to him for guidance. At any event, what Patton says about prayer holds true even for those of us who believe war is never justified. Because if we claim to be followers of Christ, each of us is also a soldier in a sense. And given the uncertainty of these trying times, it is our job (as Patton puts it) to make the most of each new day.