I grew up in a rural north Texas town after relocating there with my family from Kansas City, MO in the early 1980s. During my childhood and teens, I was exposed to evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity of the conservative Church of Christ variety along with the Southern Baptist Church variety. In 1990, after graduating from high school, I went off to boot camp in August of that year, less than two weeks after America’s former puppet dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Despite me being a Christian, there didn’t seem to be any conflict with me joining the Marine Corps with people I knew from church, even though Jesus’ teachings are clearly pacifistic (though not at all passive) according to the Gospel accounts of his life. Many conservative Christians have fallen into the trap of equating national military actions with God’s will and the supposed Divine sanction of America, its government and military. Alas, this is spurious theology, and in the estimation of theologians of peace who strive to follow Christ’s teachings, it is satanic.
Many people when finding out that I was a Marine will say “Thank you for your service.” I know that many of them genuinely believe in that sentiment, and believe that America is a beacon of peace and freedom. Others doubtless say it because it’s just what you do when you meet a vet. I know this, and yet I cringe when I hear it, because I have studied American history as an undergraduate history major and have become aware of the disparity between American rhetoric and actions as well as its propaganda and truth. As a seminarian, I studied church history (all Christians were pacifists for the first couple of centuries after Jesus’ death) and how the Roman Empire and the church merged into an unholy alliance which has wreaked havoc on the world for the better part of 16 centuries in some form of fashion. This conflation of church and empire has lead directly to such horrific ideas and actions such as Manifest Destiny, genocide of indigenous people, the hero worship of military personnel, and the blind loyalty of patriotic nationalism that has been prevalent in America for so long.
We’re told on Memorial Day to remember “our fallen heroes”, while being dismissive of the untold numbers of dead Native Americans, Latin Americans from Mexico and Central America, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Afghani, Yemeni, Iraqi, Syrian, and Palestinian people (to name just a few) who have died as a result of America’s military and diplomatic actions. There is nothing Christlike in the Memorial Day holiday. The powers that be would have us believe that the wars we fight are justifiable, are for protecting our freedoms, and in defense of “American interests.” The reality is, that as Major General Smedley Butler USMC wrote, “War is a racket. It always has been,” and that is why, I cringe when people thank me for my service. I didn’t serve the American “people”; I served (as does every member of the rank and file), as a minor cog, in the American Military Industrial Complex that terrorizes the rest of the world. I was trained to kill without question, people whom Jesus said I was to love, without reservation or conditions.
I remained a practicing fundamentalist for another 12 years or so after I joined the Marines. By then, I had long since finished my tour in the Marines, mercifully without ever seeing combat, though I did end up with PTSD due to an accident that occurred during a training mission in 1993. The doctrinal points of emphasis for most of the churches I had attended while I was a fundamentalist were focused on personal sin and individual salvation, again in spite of Jesus’ own teachings about what was most important. Somehow, by grace, I was finally able to see what was in plain site in the Gospels, that which Jesus himself proclaimed to be of utmost importance to those who would attempt to live out his teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives his version of the Golden Rule (it is found in some form in every major faith) in verse 12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” In other words, everything written in the Hebrew scriptures boils down to treating people the way we ourselves would want ourselves and loved ones treated. In Luke 10:25-37, in response to questions from a lawyer, Jesus tells his hearers that in order to inherit eternal life, that one must love God with all one’s being and must love one’s neighbor as himself. To further illustrate the point, he used a member of a reviled ethnic group as an illustration–the Samaritan who risked safety and incurred expenses in order to show a wounded Jew mercy. Those points of focus are radically different than zeroing in on individual sin and salvation. Those focal points also make it impossible to reconcile Christianity with warfare, nationalism, or patriotic holidays that honor those who were trained to kill their neighbors and died while attempting to do so.
We cannot love our neighbors by killing them, by excluding them with border walls and repressive policies. Nor can we love our neighbors by celebrating a holiday like Memorial Day, which perpetuates the myth of redemptive violence, the myth of Us versus Them, the myth that our country is the one whose side God is on, and that violence towards anyone is compatible with following Jesus.
For further reading:
A Farewell to Mars- Brian Zahnd
The Nonviolent Atonement- J. Denny Weaver
Engaging the Powers- Walter Wink
Go Golden – Dillon Naber Cruz