We are now facing what some people are beginning to call the “Forever War.” Whatever or whoever or however it is we are fighting, the war just keeps going on and on and on. Afghanistan has now become the longest war in American history with no end in sight. We can’t seem to get out of Iraq, and our armed forces and military hardware are entangled throughout the Middle East. In addition to the enormous physical toll on the young men and women in combat on both sides of the conflict, there are additional casualties which are often largely hidden from us: the millions of civilians killed and injured, the millions more refugees, and the psychological damage on everyone involved. We’re now hearing a new term — moral injury — which is the toll we’re beginning to realize that soldiers pay for taking someone’s life, even when society considers that action appropriate.
The current situation is untenable. We have a God-given responsibility to work for an end to this endless conflict. I’d like to offer some spiritual resources to help end the Forever War.
‘Fish on the other side of the boat’
The first spiritual resource we have is the ability to see new possibilities in the midst of old realities. The Bible is a book not just about old things but also about the ability to see old things in a new way. The prophet Isaiah told us that he heard God saying “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” The apostle Paul told us not to be conformed to the world but to renew ourselves, to put on the mind of Christ. John 21:1-7 echoes the same call: to be open to new ideas; to “fish on the other side of the boat.” Jesus said: Try some new thinking.
What might constitute “fishing on the other side of the boat” today? Twenty years ago the world was talking about Saddam Hussein, and we talked ourselves into one of the most disastrous wars our country ever fought. I was working with Church World Service then, and we began hearing about the terrible economic sanctions that had been imposed upon the people of Iraq by the United Nations at the request of the United States. I “fished on the other side of the boat” by traveling to Iraq to meet the people there and to better understand the sanctions. What I found on that journey was that the children of Iraq were dying from the lack of food and medicines that the sanctions had caused.
I fell in love with the Middle East and the people there, and I have spent the past 20 years of my life traveling to the Arab and Muslim world. I have made some 20 trips, trying to “fish on the other side of the boat.” I have tried to hear what they have to say and to see the world from their point of view.
Hearing the ‘still, small voice’
One of the dangers we face today of being “conformed to this world,” as Paul puts it, is that we have unconsciously become military analysts. Because we get most of our news about the Middle East from politicians, military officials and think tanks related to the military-industrial complex, we have unconsciously begun thinking as the world thinks. We’re beginning to see the world like the Romans of Jesus’ day: thinking about what is the best military and geopolitical solution to the latest crisis in the Middle East from the United States’ point of view instead of viewing the world like Jesus did — thinking and feeling with compassion about the people there and seeking for ways to work for a just peace for everyone.
One my favorite Bible stories as a child was of Elijah and the still, small voice. The prophet heard the voice of God not in the thunder or the earthquake or the fire but in the still, small voice.
We are hearing many loud voices in our world today, but God calls us to listen intently to hear the still, small voice. I heard that voice in the voice of the children in Baghdad who were suffering under sanctions. They could not get enough food or medicine. Today, we need to continue to hear the still, small voices of the many children in the Middle East who continue to die from bombs in the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen and from the continuing violence in Libya and Iraq. We also need to hear the voices of the refugees who are drowning in sinking boats while trying to cross the Mediterranean and of young Palestinians being held in illegal “administrative detention” in Israeli prisons.
Another way of hearing that “still, small voice” is to read articles published about the Middle East and attend meetings about the region from our mainline historic Christian churches. They are another often forgotten spiritual resource. Sadly, the views of most of our fundamentalist and many of our evangelical sister and brother churches are more often part of the problem rather than part of the solution on issues relating to ending the Forever War.
‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’
Another spiritual resource we have is the teaching “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” All of us have no doubt wondered what it is like to be bombed. I know from experience. I have been bombed, and I can tell you that it is terrible to endure. I didn’t like it, and I don’t think we should do it to other people.
I am one of only a handful of people who have had the unique experience of being bombed on both sides of this terrible Forever War. I was in New York City when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and I still remember the fear of the moment. I live in Manhattan not far from the World Trade Towers, and that was a profoundly frightening time.
We Americans have often thought about what happened to us on 9/11, but we think much less about what happens to other people who are being bombed by us. I was a humanitarian worker on an extended visit to Baghdad in December, 1998, and I endured four nights of bombing during the Desert Fox operation when the U.S. bombed part of the infrastructure of Iraq as a prelude to the U.S. invasion five years later. As the bombs crashed around me, I ran down to the basement of the Al Fanar hotel along the Tigris River. Hours of prayer during the bombing sustained me, but I can assure you that four nights of bombing was a truly terrifying experience. And it helped me to better appreciate how billions of people have experienced attacks throughout history.
The U.S. has done a whole lot of bombing in the Middle East in the past several decades and this has made a whole lot of people very angry at us. We must do our part to stop the attacks and invasions and stop the cycle of violence.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy Muslim neighbor
I recently experienced a sad milestone in my career: I received my first “contempt mailing” in a letter addressed to me at Common Humanity. It was from a prospective new member to our mailing list. I opened it, thinking perhaps a check would fall out as occasionally happens when we get a contribution. But no check fell out. Instead I got what I would call a “contempt letter.”
The writer was responding to the fundraising letter I had sent, in which I pointed out that 99.99% of the Muslims in the world are not terrorists but instead good, decent people like us who would just like to be left alone and live in peace. The letter I received said that either I was stupid or I was lying. Muslims, the writer of my contempt letter firmly believed, were bad people with malicious designs upon innocent Christians. I was able to shrug it off, mostly, but there’s still a little sting from that letter which lingers with me today.
The Bible tells us that we should not lie. It is wrong to spread untruths about anyone, including Muslims. Today, there’s a lot of untruth going around in our U.S. media about Muslims. We know it is not true that Muslims want to hurt Christians because historically Christians and Muslims has been lived in peace, and I saw that truth again and again in my travels. I also know this because I have personally been treated well by Muslims throughout my many travels. In fact, when I was being bombed in Baghdad, it was the baptized or at least culturally Christian American Air Force pilots above me who were endangering my life, and it was the Muslim staff of the hotel who took me in and protected me. They could have harmed me as a representative of the enemy nation that was endangering their lives, but they didn’t. Instead, they protected me and kept me safe.
The Parable of the Good Muslim
Luke 10:30-37 is the familiar passage of the Good Samaritan — so familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to miss the remarkable message of the text. The hero of Jesus’ story believed what was incorrect theology from the orthodox Jewish point of view. The Samaritans were descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel who had strayed from the orthodox faith into a syncretistic religion.
I’m convinced that if Jesus were teaching today, he would tell us the Parable of the Good Muslim. I have personally experienced much good from my many Muslim friends who are beloved by God just as the Good Samaritan was. We should celebrate and honor that goodness.
Confession is good for the soul
Another important spiritual resource we have is admitting our mistakes. One thing I’d like to believe I have learned in the years since I was a teenager and attended Saturday evening youth meetings here at East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church is that it is impossible to be perfect. If it is impossible for individuals to be perfect, it surely follows that countries as well are not perfect.
Our policies in the U.S. and the West in general over centuries have been offensive and disrespectful of the Arab and Muslim world. No, a thousand times no — nothing justifies the terrible evil of terrorism, and, no, it’s not all our fault; there’s a lot of blame to go around. But we have to understand how the actions of our fellow European Christian nations in colonizing the Middle East in past centuries and our own U.S. current actions of regime change and invasions have been part of the anger that fuels these attacks. We need to confess our mistaken U.S. policies and change our ways if we are to find an end to the Forever War.
Trusting our Arab Christian sisters and brothers
Finally, a great undiscovered spiritual resource we have is to trust our Arab Christian sisters and brothers. Sometimes I think that when we get to heaven, one of the first things the Lord will say to us American Christians after the Celestial Seasonings tea has been served and the room assignments have been made is, “Why on earth didn’t you listen to what Arab Christians had to say?!”
We should form individual and congregational partnerships with Arab Christans and listen and then listen and then listen some more to them. Then, after all of that listening, we should begin a dialogue with them. That dialogue, I’m absolutely convinced, could be an important step in finding our way to an end to this Forever War in which we find ourselves.
Mel Lehman directs Common Humanity, a nonprofit organization based in New York that seeks to build understanding, respect and friendship with the Arab and Muslim world. This post is adapted from a sermon he preached Oct. 1, 2017 at East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa.