Do you remember when the party in power intimidated voters, “lost” opposition votes, and stuffed ballot boxes? They lost in a landslide to their opponents, but they refused to let the winners take office. The nation came close to violence that night and in the following days. Only a massive appeal from civil and religious leaders convinced the defeated party to vacate their offices and end the standoff. But that was after five days of a tense, 24-hour curfew.
You don’t remember? Of course not. Because you weren’t in Sri Lanka in 1994, when Chandrika won in a landslide after a courageous campaign that defied death threats and intimidation. (It’s a place where death threats should be taken seriously: her father and her husband had both been assassinated.)
I remember the collective sigh of relief when someone turned on the TV and we watched Chandrika being sworn in as Prime Minister. And I remember thinking, ‘Thank God this could never happen in my home country.”
Or could it? USPS (run by an appointee of the President who has been slashing postal services) has lost 300,000 mail-in ballots– and has defied a court order to find them. Democrats are far more likely to mail their ballots than Republicans. So it’s likely that over a quarter of a million votes for Biden have already been declared missing.
Not only that, but the mail-in preference of Democrats will cause their votes to be counted last, potentially creating the illusion that Trump won even though all the votes haven’t been counted.
And Trump has signaled that he may not accept the election results.
All of which adds up, for me, to deja vu.
I sat with a political activist who supported Chandrika shortly before the election. He told me how, just the night before, someone had come to his home after hearing a rumor that Chandrika had been shot. The activist confirmed that the rumor was false. And he asked the man what he would have done if it had been true. The man replied that he and his friends had planned to kill every opposition supporter in town.
We’ve already seen the violence our nation is capable of in recent protests and counter-protests. I pray that this election goes smoothly. Because what it feels like tonight is that the world is holding its breath. I imagine this is what it felt like in 1936. As songwriter Robyn Hitchcock summarized,
Chamberlain came crawling from Munich
With one piece of paper. He waved at the camera.
Peace in our time, Oh thank you Herr Hitler.
Tell that to the Polish. Tell that to the Jews!
May God be with us this night, and in the days to come.
I’m tired of violence. I’m tired of hate speech. And I’m especially tired of it from people who deny they’re doing it.
Let me start with a proposition: When American young people spat on soldiers returning from Vietnam, that was an act of violent hatred. It didn’t physically injure them. But as we now know, some of the worst wounds a person can endure are not physical. Denying a person their self-respect and pride is an act of violence.
Let’s fast forward this principle to today, in which we look back at those veterans as men and women who did their best in a war that never should have happened and was poorly managed by our government. If I might be so bold, the U.S. fought on the wrong side, and lost. Yet the veterans who answered the call of their government deserve their pride, and they definitely should not be denied self-respect.
As we acknowledge this fact, there’s a movement afoot to take away the pride and self-respect of the descendants of those who fought in another war 150 years ago. That, too, was a war that didn’t need to happen. They fought on the wrong side, and they lost. Their leader, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned for two years, until northern liberals posted his bail and he was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, along with all others who supported the Confederacy.
It should be noted that there were no trials for treason, in part because there was no judicial precedent that secession was in fact treason– that wouldn’t come until 1869. So some folks now look back and judge the Confederates as treasonous based on law that hadn’t been written at the time of the war.
This has become a pattern for us here in America. Slavery was legal throughout the colonies, with the exception of the Republic of Vermont which joined the Union as the first free state in 1777. Massachusetts became the first state to ban slavery in 1783. It wasn’t banned throughout the northern states until 1820, just 40 years before the war. And the general consensus among northern liberals–including Abraham Lincoln– was that slaves should be freed and shipped back to Africa. Here’s a quote from Lincoln:
“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Do we really want to judge the South or the North at the time of the Civil War by our current, post-modern standards?
But that’s not the point. The Civil War was rooted in complex causes, like any war. One of those was the economic impact of abolition on the South, especially in the face of lopsided industrialization favoring the North. Yet this was but one facet of how far the federal government could intrude on states’ rights– a battle still being fought today. And at the time, there was nothing in the Constitution that had definitively prohibited secession. That was the ultimate issue on which the South stood: the right to remove themselves from the Union.
They lost. We know this. And they paid. Their leaders were jailed and barred from holding elected office.
But what do we make of the soldiers who fought for them? Does winning or losing change the dedication, the sacrifice, or the amount of blood spilled?
But that was a different time, when there was still some level of cooperation between disagreeing perspectives. We no longer live in that America. These days, it’s “We won, so you can suck an egg.” I’m not speaking of just Donald Trump. The same attitude accompanied Barrack Obama and George W. Bush to the White House. Maybe it began under Clinton, when conservatives basically declared all-out war on his presidency. Maybe its roots go back further, to Nixon, when the government was considered by some liberals to be the enemy.
In any case, we’ve become a nation of violence– violent speech and violent action. It’s most obvious among conservatives because they don’t try to hide it. But the not-so-subtle images put forward by too many liberals about gun-toting, ignorant, racist rednecks is equally violent. As I’ve posted before, there are reasons people voted for Trump, and they have nothing to do with race. Just as there are reasons people voted for Clinton, and they have little to do with LGBTQ issues.
But I digress. We have a movement to take away the pride of a group of states. The proponents may see it as a way to address racism, but that’s not how the recipients view it. And if you tell someone that their great-grandfather was a racist piece of trash, how do you think they’re going to react? Are you making friends? Convincing people of your message? If anything, you’re pushing them to the other side.
Enter the white supremacists. They’ve now been given a platform for their own brand of violent speech that they think will gain them sympathy. “Y’all have been told that your ancestors were racist trash!” And maybe they do gain some sympathy. But obviously not among the proponents of removing the symbols of Southern history.
The proponents show up and counter-demonstrate, shouting slogans to drown out the slogans of the white supremacists. Now we have a news event! And the temptation to violence is never far away. Let’s be clear about this: shouting slogans is not a conversation, it’s a battle. Demonstrators and counter-demonstrators were already engaged in violence. Mick Jagger was right: bloodshed is just a shot away.
But that’s what our culture has become. We don’t really care about solutions. We say we do, but our actions say something different. We care about winning; we care about being right. No matter what. And if we inflame our enemies in the process, so much the better– we get to shout that much louder.
Here’s a hint: You don’t end a conflict by engaging in or inflaming the conflict. You end a conflict by finding out what the other side really wants, and you won’t learn that in a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. Nor will you convince them of your position with a soundbite, a slogan, or a protest sign. You don’t get your point across by calling someone an idiot. Does being called an idiot make you want to improve yourself–or lash out at the person who said it? You won’t win friends with insults or attacks on their long-established culture. You win friends by sitting down and talking, even sharing a meal together.
One of my most meaningful friendships is with a couple who are very conservative. They call me a liberal, which I’m not (as my liberal friends will attest), but I don’t hold that against them. Yet we are able to sit and have long, meaningful discussions about politics and other matters. I remember the day I told the gentleman that George W. Bush spent money like a drunken Democrat. His face turned red for a moment. Then he thought about it and said, “You know, if Teddy Kennedy stood up and said that on the floor of the Senate, I’d respect him for it.”
Which brings me to why I quit Facebook. I’ve always struggled with the false sense of community it creates. It doesn’t encourage truthful, meaningful interaction. It encourages soundbites, slogans, and trolls. Over the years, I’ve done my best to be a voice of moderation and reconciliation. But let’s face it: Facebook is a venue for speaking, not listening. Few people bold enough to post a political opinion on Facebook are interested in reconciliation. In that sense, Facebook itself is a medium for violence.
I’ve sought reconciliation for almost all of my adult life. I helped bring about a cease-fire in a civil war. I know a little about bringing people together. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. It doesn’t happen nearly enough in society at large.
My friend and fellow peace-worker, Shariff Abdullah, predicts that we’re on the verge of a civil war. He may be right. But I think we’re already at war, we just haven’t started shooting yet.
P.S. My posts will still be automatically posted to Facebook, as they are to Twitter and Goodreads, but I’ve stopped checking my Facebook page. If you want to contact me, comment or use the contact form on my blog page.
The aftermath of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, continue to rock the country. What happened there, just a short drive away from my home, was unthinkable. But not really.
The demonstrations were reportedly sparked by an effort to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Proponents of removing the statue see it as a monument to white supremacy. Opponents accuse them of trying to erase history. The demonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville seemed to support the assertion that the statue is indeed a monument to white supremacy.
As the debates raged, my family was touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, where three days of fighting produced 51,000 American casualties, almost a third of the soldiers on the field. The Confederates lost, as history tells, us, and the battle is considered the turning point of the war.
There’s more to the story, of course. Lee was a dedicated Union general who opposed the secession of Texas, where he was posted in 1861. It’s important to recognize that the issue of secession wasn’t addressed in the Constitution, and no court case dealt with it until Texas v White in 1869. But Lee didn’t favor secession. He wanted a strong and united Union.
Lee was also a slaveholder, and by some accounts not a good one. But his reason for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army had nothing to do with slavery– he simply could not conceive of being ordered to attack and kill his own friends and family. He struggled with his decision, but eventually decided to side with his people rather than his country. I’m not sure most of us outside the South or the state of Utah can conceive of having to make that choice.
As the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Lee was seen by some Union leaders as invincible. He’d fought an amazing series of campaigns with limited resources. The first day of the battle seemed to support that reputation as Lee crushed the Union lines. However, the Union reformed, and after three days of fighting, Lee failed to break the Union Army. He retreated, and Union General Meade was later criticized for not pursuing him, though at that point both armies were in shambles. The war would continue for two more years, finally ending with the surrender of the last Confederate general, Cherokee Chief Stand Watie and his Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Osage fighters on June 23, 1865, and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865.
Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a poignant and tasteful memorial to the Americans who fought and died there. Memorials to the units that fought stand at the positions they were posted. These memorials recognize soldiers from Maine to Florida, and from Virginia to Minnesota.
In 1938, veterans from both sides gathered to dedicate the Eternal Peace Memorial. A Confederate veteran unveiled the statue, and Union troops fired an artillery salute. The base of the monument is inscribed, “Peace forever in a nation united.”
Today, we don’t much look like a nation united in peace. There’s a movement to erase the history of the South. Groups have even threatened to burn Confederate flags and deface Confederate gravestones at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. And there’s a counter-movement of white supremacists who take these threats personally.
In a recent and unsatisfying discussion with two liberals, one of them presented a singular and simple view of the Civil War: it was about slavery, and therefore the Confederate flag is a racist emblem. The North abolished slavery, the South seceded rather than following suit, we fought a war and beat them. Over and done.
Unfortunately, this is a primitive and, at best, outdated and conservative view of history. Historian Philip Sheldrake calls such linear view of history the “Whig view” (though in actuality I would characterize this gentleman’s view as more of a middle school understanding).
Lee’s own struggle with which side to support shows that nothing was that simple. Lee believed in the Union, despite its actions that would eventually take away his slaves. What he could not do was fight against his own people, his friends and family.
We might also consider the case of Charles Crockett, who was 17 years old when he died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, along with nine of his classmates. He’d been a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute here in the Shenandoah Valley. Was he fighting to protect slavery, or for his state and his people?
It’s easy to say the Civil War was about slavery and racism–and in part, it was. But remember that four slave states and nearly half of Virginia remained loyal to the Union. Virginia first voted to stay with the Union, and didn’t change its mind until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Moreover, History.com says,
Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new [Lincoln] administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states, not in the five loyal slave states and not in Louisiana, which had surrendered. Its purpose was to inflict damage on the rebel economy, not to outlaw slavery.
Yes, the southern states claimed slavery as the issue over which they seceded. But it wasn’t really the issue. As I’ve said before with regard to analyzing conflict, “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” This was a war about how far the Federal government could intrude on states’ rights– and that’s an issue that is still unresolved.
It’s easy to wave the American flag and claim that anyone who opposes it is a traitor. It’s not that simple. California and Colorado defy federal law every day with their tolerance of marijuana. Utah and Idaho have defied federal law on guns. None of them have seceded, though some in California would like to and it looks like they’ll put an initiative to that effect on the ballot next year. (Texas v White, however, says that a state can’t secede “except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”)
But let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why are we so upset about Civil War memorials? Why, 80 years after veterans of both sides declared “Peace forever in a nation united,” are we tearing open old wounds?
Do liberals really believe that Southerners who fly the Confederate flag support slavery? My neighbor, an old Baptist minister, flies it next to an American flag on his motorcycle. He does so not because he’s a racist, but because his ancestors fought and died in what they believed was a fight to protect their liberty. Yes, they lost. So did Vietnam vets, but I would never tell them they can’t be proud of what they tried to do, misguided though our leaders were who sent them there.
I’ve been told (by white people) that “some black people are uncomfortable when they see a Confederate flag.” I’m sure that’s true. But what many black people have told me is that badges and uniforms make them uncomfortable. Racism is not confined to the South, nor exclusively represented by one particular flag.
Is there a history of racism in the South? Yes. The protests by white supremacists make that obvious. And it needs to be productively addressed.
But what do we accomplish by addressing not acts of racism, but the symbols of the sacrifice of people’s ancestors? Will telling someone that 17-year-old Charles Crockett wasn’t a hero, he was just a stupid kid who should have known better, win you any friends? Or will tearing down a stature of one of America’s greatest generals who did a very respectable job even though he fought for the losing side? It’s history. It happened. We should learn from it. If we deny it, we risk reliving it.
Therein lies the problem: we’re not trying to fix things anymore. We’ve become a nation of insults and disrespect. We’ve become a nation that wants to fight, not reconcile. And we surely don’t want to convince or be convinced. While I blame a generation of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for starting this, I’m now equally offended by liberal hate speech.
I stood on Oak Ridge, looked down over the fields, and felt the weight of 51,000 American casualties. North and South, they were Americans. Are we going to have to fight some more before we remember that?
One of the characteristics of the current national dialog seems to be that both sides think the other is crazy, perhaps even evil. I want to challenge us to move beyond that perception.
I do admit that we live in a nation structured to promote this view. Our two party system presents us with the view that there are only two options, and you’re going to be on the receiving end of one of them. Media now targets its message for the particular political realities of its intended audience. And hatemongering has become a regular “news” feature, from Bryan Fischer to Rachel Maddow. We’re being programmed to discount those who disagree with us as irrelevant.
But why do they disagree with us? Do we care? Or are we so self-enthralled (or dare I suggest arrogant) that we claim to have the only possible correct opinion? Surely there can be no one correct opinion. Ask a professional fisherman, a surfer, an environmentalist, and a real estate developer what ought to happen to a coastal area and you’ll get four “obviously correct” but competing proposals.
I think we’ve forgotten that.
Not everyone lives and works in a city. And not everyone lives and works in a rural community. Those are the major lines along which we’re divided.
Let’s take racial issues for example. Los Angeles County is only 29% non-Hispanic white. Race is a huge issue. Yet some 70% of American white people live in “white enclaves,” where minority issues are not prominent. Or consider government overreach. Few urban folks can imagine a situation in which a militarized government agency comes in and shuts down what you thought was a legal business, yet that’s the reality small rural dairies and food producers live with. Likewise, few urban people can imagine living in an area in which the federal government owns 2/3 of the whole state. I’ll take the urban/rural divide over gun control to be obvious, and I’ve tried to explain it elsewhere.
When someone vehemently holds to an idea you find offensive, there’s a good reason for it. And it’s usually not the obvious reason. Most often, people’s livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened. But they’re not going to say that. No one wants to admit that they are “selfish” enough to want government policy to reflect their own needs.
Why did hundreds of ranchers show up to support the anti-BLM protest in Bunkerville? Because that was an issue that directly affected their ability to put food on the table. I’ve seen urban folks claim that no one makes a living ranching. That makes it easy to dismiss the participants as “crazy” or “radical.” Obviously those commentators haven’t been to areas like Utah where ranching supports thousands of families.
Why are urban people more likely to support LGBT rights? Because urban communities are more diverse, and they are more likely to have economic or family connections with someone who identifies as LGBT. (My uncle moved from a small rural town to Los Angeles before “coming out.” I can’t say I blame him.) And there’s more identification with “other.” If gays lose rights, how long before Muslims lose them? And Hispanics? And blacks? And Jews? And pot smokers? How long before Asians are once again banned from owning property? Think that’s far-fetched? It was only 65 years ago that certain racial groups (notably Asians) gained the right to become U.S. citizens! And there are still Japanese-Americans who remember Manzanar. But take a drive through Cedar City, Utah, and you’d never know that race is an issue. The county is 90% white and 7% Hispanic. And the gay community (yes, there is one) is largely hidden. In a largely homogeneous community, there’s little incentive to care what happens to other people who don’t live there, and who are perceived as different and possibly threatening.
I’m not saying we have to agree with each other. I am saying that, if we want to remain a unified and peaceful nation, we need to start thinking beyond what the media and politicians tell us.
We need to try to understand why people disagree with us.
Otherwise, our nation will dissolve into something we won’t like very much. (And those who so often comment that conservatives have all the guns obviously haven’t taken an evening stroll through Compton, CA recently. Ugly will mean ugly for everyone.)
Think beyond the sound bites. Why do these people hold these opinions?
The biggest objection I hear to allowing refugees into the U.S. is the danger that some of them might be extremists. Now, the chances of being killed by an Islamic Extremist is a fraction of the chances of being killed by eating cheeseburgers, but I have to acknowledge that it’s a valid fear.
But it’s not a Christian fear.
The Bible is clear about how we should treat our enemies.
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink… (Proverbs 25:21)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47 redacted)
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. (Romans 12:17a)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
Surely that’s a foolish approach. Yet that’s what the Bible says, in the Old Testament and the New, from both Jesus and Paul.
Maybe they weren’t serious?
Yet Jesus, as he was hanging from the Cross while being executed as an innocent man, held true to this teaching:
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
This, I think, is the point: Being Jesus wasn’t safe. Following Jesus isn’t safe. As Paul wrote:
All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)
As we consider the question of refugees, we might question which is more important: the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor people trying to escape from violence and conditions we cannot imagine, or the risk of a handful of extremists who might try and might succeed in committing violence against us. And even if they did, is that an unreasonable cost?
Yes, we can throw up our protests of safety, but in doing so we run the risk of creating yet more enemies where we might have made friends. Moreover, we reject Jesus, who called us to do the opposite.
Let me say that more clearly: following Jesus is not the safe path. Ask the crucified Christ. Ask the executed Paul. Ask Peter, who was crucified upside down. Ask Dirk Willems (d. 1569), who as he was escaping from prison from a charge of heresy, stopped to rescue one of his pursuers who had fallen through the ice of a frozen pond, saving the man’s life. Willems was recaptured and burned at the stake.
Do we want to take the safe road, or do we want to follow Jesus? I know my answer. What’s yours?
My friend Kim flew across the country to attend the Women’s March in Washington DC today. I applaud her commitment to voice her dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the way things might change for the worse in the near future. But the question remains: now what? Will a demonstration of a hundred thousand or a million or even a billion people change anything? How does that translate into political power? The government regularly takes actions that most of its citizens oppose. Unless there’s a lever to translate that opposition into consequences, they do it anyway.
First the obvious bad news: Trump will be our president for the next four years. This would seem to be bad news for much of the country, which currently gives him a favorable rating of 37%. And if you look at who his policies are likely to hurt the most, the people who currently support him are probably (as H.L. Mencken put it) going to get it good and hard. But it could be worse. If Trump steps down, we get President Mike Pence, and not many people want that. I’m reminded of the 1973 movie, “The President’s Plane is Missing,” in which the best guarantee of the President’s safety was that the VP was an idiot, and not even our enemies wanted to see him in office. (Naturally the President’s plane goes down and the VP becomes president just as we are having a crisis with China…)
But maybe this isn’t all bad news. People need motivation to consider change, and perhaps time will motivate us.
Put another way, there’s a need for change and an approaching window of opportunity.
It’s time to plan.
As it happens, I have some experience with this sort of planning. For nine years, I worked on peace strategy in Sri Lanka. My team helped bring about a six-year cease-fire.
For the purpose of this brief discussion, the planning process can be oversimplified into three steps:
Humanize and build bridges
Apply political pressure
This is where it gets tough. Because the first question is the hardest: what do we want? Vague ideas of equality aren’t going to cut it. We’re facing a system that promotes the status quo at best. It divides us, the electorate, roughly along urban/rural lines. And it’s supported by a media system that pits intellectual elites against the working class, dividing us further. And when you look at who does get what they want, it appears to serve corporations and the financial elite, not any of the divisions of the broader electorate.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The first principle of a sub-group trying to rule a majority is distraction. The most common means is to identify an outside enemy, while dividing any possible resistance from within.
The point is, we need to know what we want to change. Corporate influence on politics? The dualistic two-party system? Centralization of power that insists there is one solution for the entire country? D. All of the above? A constitutional convention implementing a parliamentary system? Dissolution of the Union? Some or all of these will appeal to people in different situations. It’s important to know what we want before we move forward.
We need a vision.
Then comes humanization and bridge building. We’ve been divided. We’ve been taught that “the other side” is the enemy. That’s a deception. They aren’t. We have to make the effort to reach out to them and try to understand why they see things the way they do. Urban voters are unlikely to understand why a militarized Bureau of Land Management is such a big issue for rural voters. And rural voters can’t really understand what infrastructure means in an urban setting. We’re going to have to sit down with each other and talk it through. Spend a week on a farm, or (for farmers) with a family in the city. We’ve got to bridge the divide if we hope to accomplish anything.
There will be resistance. Those who divided us in the first place don’t want us to humanize the other side. It suits them for liberals to believe that all Trump voters are racists, and for conservatives to believe that Hillary voters are gay socialist devil-worshipers.
But the alternative is continuing the slide, or dissolution, or civil war.
Only when we have identified a vision and built bridges can we consider applying political pressure. Otherwise, it’s just partisan politics as usual. Or it will become partisan politics as usual, as soon as the two parties get involved.
Which means we need to start now. Plan now. Build bridges now.
There will come a window of opportunity when everyone is fed up. Will we be ready?
ISIS wants us to hate Muslims. In fact, ISIS needs us to hate Muslims. And it’s in our nature to want to blame all Muslims for ISIS and similar organizations. But there are important reasons we should resist that urge.
Lately I’ve attended a number of gatherings about “interfaith relations” – which seems to be code for “the Muslim question.” There have been parallels cited from WWI, in which aliens of German origin were forced to register and, in thousands of instances, were arrested. And of course, in WWII Japanese, German, and Italian aliens were expelled or subject to internment. Japanese resident aliens and Japanese-Americans were by far the most numerous, and are also the most publicized.
Many Christians argue that this was wrong, that thousands of innocents suffered based on the risk that a small number might be a security risk. There seems to be little evidence that internment actually did any good. And the question might be asked, did the ill-will generated actually harm our nation in the long run?
But there’s another, far more practical aspect of these actions: Did internment help or hinder the enemy nations from which these residents originated? Was the German or Japanese war effort affected in any meaningful way by our interment of their citizens? I don’t think so. The internment decision was a moral one based on fears that appear in hindsight to have been unfounded. Internment had no real effect on the war itself.
Times have changed. Our nation’s enemy combatants are no longer nations. They are terrorist groups, paramilitary organizations that seek influence rather than territory or resources. We can’t easily find them, but we need to react against someone. So we react against the people our enemies claim to represent. But what worked against Nazi Germany will not work against ISIS. In fact, it’s what they want us to do.
The majority of Muslims have no interest in supporting ISIS or any other extremist group, any more than the majority of Christians support the KKK or Timothy McVeigh. ISIS wants to change that. And the most powerful tool they have is making Muslims hated by everyone else.
Think about this: if ISIS can get us angry enough to turn on Muslims in general, where will those Muslims turn for support? If ISIS can get us to take actions that make Muslims hate us, ISIS’s message is going to sound more palatable. If we hate Muslims, we’re helping ISIS. It’s what they want. It’s what they need. It’s what every terrorist leader dreams of.
ISIS, and all organizations like it, have a strategy: They attack us. We get angry. We retaliate against Muslims. ISIS gains support.
The bad news is, there’s no military response to a war like this. (Unless we’re willing to commit genocide.) Any military action helps our enemy. Remember Al Queda? They used to be a few guys hiding in caves, planning attacks. After we attacked Iraq, Al Queda became one of the most powerful paramilitary groups in the world.
What eliminated Al Queda was not military action, but intelligence (in the broader governmental sense). Leaders were identified and eliminated. Unfortunately, our government often killed civilians in the process, which created more enemies just waiting for new leaders.
Whether a government can conduct surgical strikes precise enough to eliminate terrorist leaders without harming civilians is a question I can’t answer. But there’s an alternative (and necessary) approach we haven’t taken often enough.
Terrorists are disempowered when we refuse to hate the people they want us to hate. Yes, they’ll try again. Yes, there’s a price for that. But in war, there always is. Doesn’t it make sense to prevent new enemies rather than having to fight them?
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A handful of Evangelical Christians have tried to convince me that this verse means Christians will need to take up arms to defend the faith. I haven’t found that borne out in any of Christ’s other teachings, nor do the various Biblical commentaries support that view. Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,
Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures. Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith. He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom. Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with in his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost.
But even this view is outnumbered. The majority of commentators suggest that “the sword” refers to the influence of evil over men, who will then argue about the true message of Jesus’s teachings in the short term, while peace will indeed be the eventual result of Jesus’s reign.
In any case, the seems little support for the idea that this verse prepares us to take up arms. Rather, it seems to be warning that, despite Jesus’s teaching, people will take up arms.
On the subject of self defense, we have Luke 22:36:
He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one…”
This Jesus says at the Last Supper, as He prepared to send the Apostles out into the world without Him. On the surface, He does seem to be warning them that they will need a weapon suitable for self-defense.
However, this truck me as inconsistent with Jesus’s words as he is arrested. One of the Disciples strikes the chief priest with a sword and cuts off his ear. (Luke 22:50 doesn’t say which one, but John 18:10 says it was Simon Peter.) Jesus rebukes the disciple and heals the priest’s ear. The he rebukes the priests for coming armed, clearly implying that Jesus would have gone with them without being forced and that weapons were unnecessary.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The inconsistency between this instruction and the arrest on the one hand, with the instruction at the Last Supper on the other, bothered me. There doesn’t seem to be much room for an argument in favor of self-defense.
Then it occured to me: “The one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag,” and if he has no sword he must sell his cloak and buy one. But Jesus explicitly instructed his Disciples.
[T]o take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… (and Luke adds, “no extra shirt.” Mark 6:8, Luke 9:3)
So a man with a purse would need all those things, but the Disciples had no purses and therefore did not need these things.
It’s also clear that Jesus had no intention of using violence to avoid arrest or violence or even death. And He called his followers to do as He did. “Follow Me” is the second most common instruction in the Gospels, after “Love.” Or, as Paul puts it, “Imitate Him.”
Many commentators argue that the word “sword” in the passage is symbolic, and means the same as its use in Matthew 10:34, meaning that dangerous times are coming and the Disciples should spiritually prepare themselves. That’s possible. But to me, it seems that Jesus is reminding His disciples that if they had possessions, they would need luggage and protection, but they are specifically instructed not to have possessions.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.