|US soldier holding Iraqi child|
Ten years now—since an American administration lied through its shiny white teeth and led all of us blindly into a catastrophe beyond imagining in Iraq. While it’s terribly hard to generalize, in assessing ten years of chaos and war, there are lessons to learn. I dare say, for starters, that we’re more fearful as a nation than we were ten years ago. Xenophobia is rampant. Racism is still an open wound in our body politic. It’s hard to see how ten years of misadventure have made us safer and wiser.
Last week, the military reported that—over ten years—at least 70,000 soldiers have returned from battle diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What becomes of these women and men? How do our communities absorb their anxieties, their pain, their trauma? Was last month’s horrific murder of 17 Afghanis—gunned down by a crazed sergeant in their sleep—an isolated incident? Or was it a devastating reminder of what war does to the human spirit? I’m not sure we know.
In Christian scripture, we read a story of a deranged man, tormented by a demon, roaming the countryside. When Jesus asks, the demon says something like: “My name is War.” Or maybe: “My name is Violence.” It’s clear to scholars that Jesus is speaking to the devastating consequences of organized violence. Imperial Roman violence. But the crazed man in the story represents so many others—tormented by bloody nighttime raids, deadly drone attacks and brute force in the name of our wars on terror. “My name is War.”
Ten years later—ten years, thousands of lives, a shattered economy--I wonder if American mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan has something to do with grief and violence in the streets of Florida. It seems to me, after all, that both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are victims of toxic fear and xenophobia. George Zimmerman is like that crazed man in the gospel—wandering the streets looking for trouble, frightened beyond reason by stereotype and prejudice. And suddenly, terribly, Trayvon Martin is shot dead: nothing but candy in his pockets. Once again, a young black kid is targeted simply for the color of his skin. Race is lethal in America.
Just days after Trayvon was killed, the author James McBride (The Color of Water) said that the sixteen-year-old “was another victim of our culture of fear.” Himself a black man, McBride called out the ubiquitous markers of that culture: gated communities keeping strangers out; armored SUVs and Hummers on the roads; panic buttons on our car keys; and hatemongering across the media. Fear, he said, draws its lifeblood from a clearly feared ‘other.’ In our America, that ‘other’ is the person of color: the illegal immigrant, or the black man, or (in this case) the young black kid wandering his neighborhood at dinnertime.
No matter that we’ve elected an African-American president, says James McBride, we’ve got fear in our national DNA. After all, what makes Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck so disturbingly popular? They speak directly to fear and angst and everything that’s slipping away. Fear sells. And it killed Trayvon Martin.
I hear James McBride asking the same question Trayvon Martin’s family is asking in Florida: What are we going to do? About all this fear? About all this violence? Where’s the moral compass? Where’s the beloved community? Where’s the conscience of America? Enough war! Enough violence! Enough of racism and xenophobia and pundits blaming immigrants for all our troubles! Isn’t it time somebody, somewhere, said enough?
I believe, in the depths of my being, that the Christian vocation is one of peacemaking. I guess I believe it’s the human vocation. But peacemaking—honest peacemaking—is difficult and costly. Tie-dye t-shirts and “Kum Bah Yah” are hardly enough. Peacemakers have to address the deep roots of American fear and American xenophobia. Peacemakers have to speak directly, truthfully and lovingly to frightened young men like George Zimmerman—warriors wandering the streets, looking for trouble, armed to the teeth. And peacemakers have to practice faithful resistance: resisting the organized violence of empire, resisting the fearful politics of the dominant culture, resisting despair on all fronts. It’s not easy. It takes the most profound courage and maturity.
One of the most thrilling and inspiring lines in Christian scripture is this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” If Christian faith has any meaning anymore, any relevance in the public square, this has to be our moment. We have to embrace perfect love. We have to proclaim perfect love. We have to risk everything for perfect love. Gandhi did. Cesar Chavez did. Mother Teresa did. Jesus did.
We can too.
Like these saints, we believe that there can be no fear, no bigotry, no racism and no violence in love. That’s our gospel. And like these saints, we believe that love—and only love—can truly liberate the immense blessing in our human diversity. War can’t. Fear won’t. Violence never has. “There is no fear in love,” scripture says, “but perfect love casts out fear.” That's our gospel.
Tonight I’m praying for those grieving families in Afghanistan and the American family of a troubled sergeant as well. I imagine all of their lives have been unimaginably shattered this spring. Lord, have mercy. And tonight I’m praying for the families of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in Florida. Somehow, someway: may we find the courage and compassion to bind these wounds. Somehow, someway: may we find the grace to turn from all this violence, to turn toward a future of peace.
Faith tells me, it’s not too late.