This Sunday, the minister of the church we were visiting began his sermon with a disturbing story from the Pacific War: an invasion by US Marines to re-take one of many, tiny islands from the Japanese in the Allies’ “island hopping” campaign. He described in some detail the US tactics in battle, including the use of flamethrowers, which the Marines employed en masse to clear Japanese trenches and bunker complexes. Such brutal measures, combined with the sheer number of US forces, contributed to their victory, but at great cost to both sides. The minister reported that the bodies of thousands of dead men lay rotting on the island for many days after the battle’s end.
By using this illustration, the minister certainly was not glorifying warfare or the resulting carnage. In fact, he compared the island battle to the judgment of God upon the nations in Isaiah 34:2-3: “The LORD is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will send up a stench; the mountains will be soaked with their blood.” And certainly the minister is not unique in his use of a war narrative in his sermon, for the annals of US warfare have been popular sources for preaching in America for some time.
Even so, there was something about the way the minister told the story that was troubling to me. When he described the reasons for the Marines’ invasion and the goals of the island hopping strategy, he used the pronoun “we”: “We needed to take back strategic islands from the Japanese.” As he portrayed in detail the methods US troops used to kill Japanese soldiers, again he used “we”: “We used flamethrowers to clear out Japanese bunkers.” And, when he detailed the carnage that followed the Marines’ victory, he used “we”: “We suffered tremendous losses, but we re-captured the island.” This may seem like a non-issue to most readers. I’m sure none of the worshipers this morning thought anything of this matter. But, I think his use of a first-person, collective pronoun to tell a bloody war story while preaching to the Church is seriously problematic.
In what follows, I will briefly discuss why I respectfully disagree with the minister’s use of “we-language.” I will organize my thoughts on this matter by addressing the following three questions: (1) Where are we? (2) Who are we? (3) What are we to do about America’s wars? For most readers, this will be more of a “first word” than a “last word.” Honestly, in a short reflection paper, it is impossible to answer all the questions or fill in all the possible gaps. But my ultimate hope is to begin to re-frame the way we—followers of Jesus in American churches—perceive ourselves in relation to the United States and its many wars.
Where Are We?
I don’t think we can really address the central question “Who are we?” without first answering the question, “Where are we?” For the sake of our discussion, the simple answer is the United States of America. This is the country in which we dwell—me, most of my readers, not to mention the minister and the church setting described above. I would like to “unpack” this answer at more depth, however, realizing that the USA as a location for living life is not a neutral concept, especially for Christians. This will be a difficult task, for it is a bit like examining the water we are swimming in. But, with critical reflection and open minds, I think we can approach at least a quasi-objective perspective. So, what can we say about the United States of America? Where exactly are we?
The first thing we can say is that the USA is a nation-state. This means that it derives its political legitimacy by serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. Typically, a nation is understood to be a cultural and/or ethnic entity and a state is understood to be a political and geopolitical entity. So, the term “nation-state” implies that these two geographically coincide, which makes it different from pre-national states. Some distinguishing marks of a modern nation are a united economy and a centralized government and public administration—both of which are evident in the US. But, the most important aspect of the nation-state for our present discussion is the creation of a uniform national culture through state policy.
This is especially true in the US, where the population does not necessarily have a common ethnicity, common language, or shared culture. One way (but not the only way) of dealing with this is through the creation of national systems of compulsory primary education with a relatively uniform curriculum. This ensures that the national language is spread and the national history taught, in such a way as to promote and hold up an idealized picture of the nation-state. In the US, this national history has taken on mythological status, so that stories of the “Founding Fathers,” the Revolutionary War, and most major wars since, rival even the biblical narratives in their power, romance, and ability to captivate the imagination.
This leads me, and many others, to the conclusion that America is more than just a modern nation-state. Based upon its historical mythology, the US has become the embodiment of numerous powerful ideals, which have a charismatic hold on its citizens and those aspiring to be citizens: freedom, equality, justice, and happiness, just to name a few. But, these ideals are markedly undefined, so that they can be reinterpreted and re-imagined to suit every potential interpreter. This allows for America the nation-state to make all the various religious traditions subordinate to its own purposes and ideals. Each tradition learns to tell its own version of the American story, writing themselves into America’s history and allowing themselves to be devoted to the American project in a way that works with their tradition.
So, Roman Catholics can see themselves as the rightful heirs and protectors of the American project even as Southern Baptists see themselves in a similar light. In this way, the various religious stories represented by the citizens of the US, including the Christian story, becomes subordinate to and enmeshed with the winsome, romantic story of the American nation-state. This synthesis of the Christian religion and American ideology has created a civil religion of sorts, which is at times indistinguishable from the religion of Jesus Christ practiced and preached by the Church.
This is seriously problematic when we recall our initial assertion that the United States is, above all, a nation-state. And, like all nation-states, its main focus is self-preservation and self-promotion. There is no way around this. It is what nations and nation-states do. Without any agreement on what constitutes the Good or the good life, nation-states promote their way of life, seek their own success, and advance their own causes. (Or, more accurately, the life, success, and causes of the majority.) Certainly, the American government has involved American tax dollars in humanitarian assistance and other forms of aid worldwide, and that this is a good thing. But, it does not change the fact that America is like every other nation-state on the planet: it prioritizes its own. Trade deals are negotiated for this reason, immigration laws are created for this reason, and yes, wars are fought for this reason.
Getting back to the idea of American mythology, some have argued (I think, rightly) that war making is a necessity to maintain American ideals. Indeed, the American story is impossible to tell without the wars that have occupied its population since its inception. Wars bring unity to an otherwise divided people and provide a common enemy—a “them” for “us” to hate. Wars perpetuate the myth of invincibility and the unique blessing of God. And, the blood sacrifices of young lives are deemed essential for the preservation of the American ideals mentioned above. Furthermore, with every sacrifice of American life in war, another, future sacrifice is justified, so that the past dead are honored and it is assured that they have not died in vain. In this way, warfare is essential to the American nation-state and buttressed by the powerful American ideals and common mythology, to which all its citizens ascribe.
Now, we cannot leave the subject of “Where are we?” without thinking about this issue at a deeper theological level. Even though the New Testament speaks affirmatively, at times, of earthly governments (Rom 13), there is no doubt that it is equally critical of the kind of all-encompassing and all-subsuming power wielded by nation-states like the US (Rev 13). Indeed, in light of the way we have described the American mythology above, I think it is justified to suggest, with many others, that the US is one of many “principalities and powers,” which ultimately seek to rival the Kingdom of God (Rom 8:38; Eph 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:15). This is evident in the fact that the American story has often co-opted and absorbed the story of Christ, so much so that Christians think nothing of the demand to kill in order to advance American purposes and for the sake of American ideals. In this way, the American nation-state becomes a rival to Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.
Who Are We?
Based on the above description of the United States, I hope it is clear why the question, “Who are we?” is not a simple one. Being a citizen of the US is a complicated matter in and of itself, but being Christian citizens of the US—being the Church in the US—is a matter that can border on the indecipherable. Even so, we cannot allow the “where” to determine the “who”—we cannot allow the American story to be the defining reality for the Church. The source from which we must determine who we are is the word of God, which testifies to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. God’s story, not the American story, is the determining reality for Christians. And, even though the Church may claim to know the story well, I think that perhaps a little reminder is in order.
When Jesus of Nazareth emerged on the stage of world history he announced that the healing power of God’s reign had decisively broken into creation. His proclamation of this good news came at the climactic moment of the story of God’s redemptive work as told in the Hebrew scriptures, a story extending back to God’s original promise in Adam and Eve, and arising from God’s intention in his covenant with Israel. The gospel announced that in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, the power of God to renew the entire creation was now present.
Jesus explained this liberating, nonviolent power by his teaching and demonstrated it in his life and deeds. He battled the powers of sin and evil through his sacrificial death on the cross and gained the ultimate victory. In his resurrection Jesus entered as “the firstborn among many” into the resurrection life of the new creation. Before his ascension he commissioned his followers to continue his mission until he returned, making the Gospel known and initiating people from all nations into the reign of God. With the power of Jesus’ presence, the initiation into the reign of God takes place by submerging disciples in the Trinitarian reality and teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught.
Jesus now reigns in power at the right hand of God over all creation and by his Spirit, is revealing his restorative and comprehensive rule through his people as they embody and proclaim the good news. One day God’s reign will be fully realized through the new heavens and new earth. At that time, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Creator, Redeemer, and Lord. Until then the church is called to participate in the Spirit’s work of making known the good news as a witness to, and sign of the reign of God.
So then, what does this story mean for us? Jesus Christ has called us to be his disciples, or apprentices, in the Kingdom of God, out of every tribe, language, people, and nation. He has established the Church to be the witnessing community to signify and embody the new creation. And, because Jesus Christ is Lord over all, Christians have no claim on the progress of history, nor can they allow themselves to be defined by their nation-state. This means that the “we” of the Church is significantly different from the “we” of the US. The stories are different. The heroes are different. The calling is different. The practices are different. This gets to the heart of the why the “we” in the minister’s war story bothered me so much. It presumes that these differences don’t exist and subsumes the Church’s “we” into the nation-state’s “we.” But, if we derive our identity from God’s story rather than the mythology of America, we realize that we—the Church of Jesus Christ—transcends nationalism and the earthly priorities of the nation-state.
What Should We Do About America’s Wars?
So what? President Barack Obama just announced that he is sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, a war that the US has been engaged in for eight years. This is in addition to the 36,000 troops already there, not to mention the 130,000 troops presently in Iraq, with who knows how many paid military “contractors” in both countries. Now that we know where we are and who we are, what are we to do about that? While I will refrain from making absolute statements about what Christians in America must or must not do, I think a path of critical questioning is important to help us to re-think the role of Christians in the American nation-state and re-frame the way Christians view themselves in relation to America’s wars.
First, we should begin by recognizing who the rightful “we” is when the wars of the US are addressed and refuse to allow ourselves to be included in the religion of American nationalism. There is no doubt that Christian citizenship is a complicated matter, which I do not have the space to explore in any depth now. But, if nothing else, Christians must take seriously that the Church is a reality that transcends the boundaries of nation-state, even the most powerful and winsome nation-state on earth. And, the task of the Church is to be a community of witnesses to the reality of God’s reconciliation of the world. So, any practice, any agenda, any mission, anything, that co-opts this task or threatens its efficacy must be rebuked for what it is—a rival to the Kingdom of God—and set aside.
We can begin extracting ourselves from the “we” of America by critically examining the many ways in which the priorities and ideals of the American nation-state conflict with the practices and beliefs of the Church. This means asking counter-cultural questions and acting upon our answers. Is patriotism a Christian virtue? Are constructs like capitalism, democracy, and federalism compatible with Christianity? In what way does America set up an opposing “church” to the Church of Jesus Christ? Are the enemies of America the enemies of the Christian? And, perhaps most controversially, should Christians kill for the American nation-state?
People who claim the label “realists” will say that to question the use of warfare and the Christian’s participation in it is unrealistic and irresponsible. War is a tragic reality of our sinful world and Christians must accept this and do their best to live within it. But, my response is that war is not the reality of our world—the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is. His death, resurrection, and ascension are the defining reality for the world, not the violent and brutal methods that nation-states use to defend their borders, their economies, and their positions of power. The real realists are those who see war for what it is: the violent disfigurement of the image of God and the bloody dismemberment of the body of Christ. Jesus Christ has proven that nonviolent love is the way of God in the world and the real realists are those who seek to live faithfully in light of this truth.
Once, a long time ago, before the state church of Constantine, the age of the Enlightenment, or the “American dream,” the belief in Jesus made the Christian sect a target for persecution and social ostracism because they refused the compelling voice of Caesar who demanded, “Worship me! Kill for me!” Certainly, in his escalation of troop levels, President Obama is not making such a blatantly anti-Christian demand. Even so, I urge my readers not to be drawn in to the trap of reading the Christian “we” into the nation-state’s “we.” For this move has served in years past to wrench from the hands of the Church its God-given power to witness to the Kingdom of God in this present evil age. We are the Church in the midst of the American nation-state and no matter the complexities and difficulties of this situation, we answer to one King and one Kingdom, neither of which fly the red, white, and blue.
Sources and References for Further Reading
Baxter, Michael J. “Dispelling the ‘We’ Fallacy from the Body of Christ: The Task of Catholics in a Time of War.” Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11. Eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia. Durham, NC: Duke Unviersity Press, 2003. pp. 107-120.
Hauerwas, Stanley. “Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism?” Criswell Theological Review, N.S. 6/1 (Fall 2008): 57-70.
Hauerwas, Stanley. “Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War.” Criswell Theological Review, N.S. 4 (Spring 2007): 77-95.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Theorizing Citizenship. Ed. Ronald Beiner. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995. pp. 209-228.
Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
Yoder, John Howard. Christians Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution. Eds. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.