For centuries, U.S. civic leaders have told a narrative that violence and warfare are necessary for the flourishing of life. In order to be truly free, people in the United States say, we must be willing to kill.
As a society we advocate for the right to bear arms, the justice of our incarceration system and the death penalty, or the necessity of an army capable of providing defense to our borders. Our national leaders have directed military force against refugees, other nations and even their own fellow citizens in times of unrest.
The recent bombing of Syria with 105 Tomahawk missiles was so matter-of-fact and pedestrian that CNN featured a video story on its website on April 14 documenting a factory tour of the Raytheon Company, where each one is made. The reporter highlighted the technological marvels of these weapons and touted the impressive technology and ability of each one. It was as if he was touring a car factory, admiring the sleek lines and impressive feats.
Almost an afterthought in the story was the price tag: more than $1.1 million per missile, not including the transportation and human costs involved. Loss of life and the creation of warfare refugees were not even mentioned, despite the fact that the reporter was touring a factory creating items specifically designed for destruction and displacement of marginalized peoples.
In the midst of one more heartbreaking story of the powerful flexing their muscles at the sake of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, the Raytheon spokesperson shared with glowing appreciation of the way the Tomahawk allows us to never have to set foot in the community or region we’re bombing. We engage in warfare without engaging the people.
The massive cost of war, both in terms of financial capital and in potential loss of life, is always rationalized.
Perhaps as people living in the United States we believe that in hitting military targets of our enemies we will improve the lives of others. Perhaps we believe that the strength and power of the U.S. military must be on display to preserve our place of power. Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that the only way to handle a bully is to be an even bigger bully. Perhaps our righteous rejection of a certain political party allows us to disconnect from the action. Perhaps we believe we are the global police force administering violent justice as we see fit. Perhaps none of this registers, as we simply cannot fathom what it is like to live in a war-torn region.
But perhaps the biggest culprit is that many of us have bought in to the perplexing notion that our life and freedom is only possible through ongoing violence.
Today I offer all of this as a lament. Our history as a peace church includes nonviolent solutions that have not always been practical or clear to those who are not from our faith tradition. I know our voices of peace have not always been loud enough, and our hearts have not been willing enough to engage conflict in a significant way. Those of us who are free from persecution and live stable and secure lives have sometimes used that privilege to opt out of warfare, providing ourselves with a false sense of peace. We offer our thoughts and prayers to the people of Syria with the same hollow sound that gun violence survivors hear.
I’m grateful for our peace church tradition as it considers its role in creating a better future. My hope is that peace churches are able to acknowledge our own participation in the violent U.S. system, and the ways we sometimes fail to act. My hope is that we are able to reject false notions that peace only comes through military might. And my prayer is that we can live out and model a better and brighter alternative.
Let us raise our voices and highlight the ways we are building bridges with those whom we disagree. Let us highlight those in our midst who are actively engaging this country’s violent reality, and increase our support of initiatives such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office, EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and others who are already doing this work. In the midst of warfare, peace be with all God’s children.
Ben Wideman is campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania.