Patriotism and faithfulness in a time of war
Goshen College Convocation, 11 September 2006
By: Keith Graber Miller,
Professor of Bible, Religion and Philosophy
: this article has been extended from the print version
CV Image The Goshen News headline smacked me like a punch to the gut: "Dissenting voices not welcome in a flag-waving chorus across America."
- Keith Graber Miller
Nearly all of us here, I suspect, remember where we were during the tragic, unfolding events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Even those of us who were living elsewhere in the world likely recall hearing of the devastation on U.S. soil that day, a horrific loss not unlike that which occurs with some regularity in war-torn countries around the globe, not unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor 65 years ago, but unique to those of us born after World War II. Thousands dead at the World Trade Center Towers in New York, and at the Pentagon in Washington, and in a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.

That morning I was in the final throes of preparing a lecture for my Ethics and Morality class when the reports began coming through the airwaves and the Internet. Still stunned, I met my Ethics students at 9:30 a.m. with a television in the front of the classroom, and for the next two hours we watched the towers explode, collapse and plummet into the street in the astounding footage that has now seared its way into our psyches. The classroom was nearly silent except for the reporters’ voices. Some wept. Some were fearful. Early accounts suggested that other planes were headed for cities spread across the country.

Later that afternoon we processed the day’s events with our 9-year-old, who had been shielded from any news by the teachers at his elementary school. Throughout the evening we remained riveted to the television, hearing the emerging descriptions of the possible hijackers and their motives, and the germinal calls for retributive justice. We had entered a new world, a world of suspicion and terror, smart bombs and collateral damage, Freedom fries rather than French fries.

We know well the events that ensued in the following months. First was our relatively brief war with Afghanistan, where we believed Al Qaeda was based even though the 19 hijackers were primarily from Saudi Arabia. Then came the elusive search for Osama bin Laden, followed by brewing U.S. antagonism toward Iraq, false claims of links between Iraq and the events of Sept. 11, and our long and loping war on Iraqi soil. As a nation we are daily reminded of the tragic violence we continue to do, and the gut-wrenching violence that is done to our troops, in Afghanistan and Iraq. In nearly every day’s paper we read of another five killed by a car bomb, another 20 blown to bits in a police recruiting line, an extended family wiped out in the quest for a purported terrorist.

In the weeks immediately following Sept. 11, small pockets of U.S. citizens – some pacifists, some cautious just-war theorists, some veterans and military officers – began raising their voices for a reasoned, moderate, multilateral response to the violence of Sept. 11. But those voices were in a minority. By late September, the Goshen News carried a banner headline that said, “Dissenting Voices Not Welcome In a Flag-Waving Chorus Across America.”

The military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have revealed significant differences among many U.S. Christians. Some Christians have too fully imbibed and embraced American patriotism, too uncritically accepting the rhetoric of the (Christian) right, while others have perhaps too comfortably embraced the left or settled for the complacency of relatively obscure and secure small-town Midwest America.

Divisions have been evident within congregations and across denominations regarding appropriate Christian responses: Can we be faithful to Jesus, whom we call the Prince of Peace, hold our government accountable, and still acknowledge gratitude for our country? Can we be both Christians and patriots? Because we are both citizens of this world and of the world to come, I believe God is calling us to do just that.

Traditionally, Mennonites’ peace position has been rooted in the biblical portrayal of Jesus’ way of love and his willingness to suffer on the cross. Mennonites have been less optimistic about human nature than some liberal pacifists of the early 20th century, but have instead believed simply that Jesus calls his followers to be nonviolent. Sometimes this pacifism “works,” and sometimes it doesn’t. But in the Anabaptist tradition, as in many other religious traditions, faithfulness takes priority over effectiveness. Faithfulness is near the heart of Mennonite theological and ethical thinking, with the deep, confident hope and belief that God has structured the world in such a way that faithfulness also will be, eventually, effective.

Partly as a result of their pacifistic past, Mennonites have not developed a particularly nationalistic or patriotic spirit, in the ways these terms are generally understood in the U.S. Mennonites nearly always have experienced tensions in the countries in which they have lived. Frequently they have had to emigrate because of persecution or a lack of religious freedom. On our campus we fly a U.S. flag alongside a U.N. flag just north of the Union. But we don’t sing the national anthem at athletic, inaugural, or academic events.

Mennonite ethicist J.R. Burkholder once responded to a critic by noting that what the critic had called “anti-Americanism” could better be described as “more-than-Americanism.” “Pacifists identify with the entire human community and the long sweep of history,” writes Burkholder. “For the pacifist, citizenship in a particular nation-state is just not that important. She cares less about national interests than about the well-being of the people of all nations." Burkholder adds that pacifists, at their best, “consciously adopt a more global worldview than most Americans. They wear tribal identifications lightly and see themselves as global citizens.” In the midst of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, among the pro- and anti-war bumper stickers pervasive in our region of the Midwest – is one you’ve likely seen, stating, “God Bless the Whole World: No Exceptions.”

The question of citizenship is essentially a question of competing loyalties, all of which may demand our wholehearted – and therefore perhaps contradictory – allegiance. For believers, we are citizens of a particular nation, we are global citizens, and we are Christians. Pacifist Christians traditionally have viewed themselves as first and foremost disciples of Christ and citizens of God’s reign, then citizens of the world, and finally citizens of a given country. In contrast to that ordering, during times of warfare many Christians believe that national citizenship should trump all other loyalties. For pacifists this is not possible, especially if we are citizens of a powerful nation that is frequently at war.

The rise of patriotism during periods of warfare, with national symbols springing up where no flag has flown before, is evidence of what sociologists call civil religion, a religion that remains relatively dormant in peaceful times. Civil religion pulls together disparate religious and ethnic groups into a cohesive whole by finding a common rallying point – and often marginalizing those who don’t fully board the patriotic train.

Many peace-loving Christians continue to feel deeply ambivalent about the language of citizenship, and about the rise of wartime patriotism. Without question, U.S. pacifists need to acknowledge both the ways in which we benefit by living in the U.S. and the responsibility we share for our nation’s actions through our payment of taxes, our silence, and our uncritical enjoyment of the benefits of U.S. citizenship.

But I want to continue to look for ways to be creatively Christian and creatively U.S.-American, drawing on the best from both traditions. Among the specific postures and practices that may allow conscientious, peaceable Christians to work at God’s calling at this point in history are the following:

Maintain our humility as we dialogue with our neighbors and speak to national leaders. All of us must admit that we do not have quick or easy answers for responding to complex, 21st-century world conflicts. When we disagree with decisions our political leaders make, we must respond in a more gracious manner than our natural inclinations might normally take us. As good citizens of the United States who anticipate with hope God’s reign, we should respect and pray for our country’s decision-makers, even while we challenge and critique their decisions, when necessary.

Listen to those who believe differently than we do. We need to seek out ways to share with those who don’t agree with us and genuinely listen to their stories. We need to listen to Muslims, Jews and other Christians, to peacemakers and patriots, to people in our own communities and country and to those in other parts of the world. We need to be open to learning from others, including those on our campus who have served in the military. We certainly ought not vilify individual soldiers who serve out of a sense of patriotic or religious obligation, nor think that we as pacifists are any less complicit in the actions of our national leadership. Morally, we are all in this together. As part of this, we should at least commit ourselves to nonviolence in our personal lives, seeking to address conflicts with others in direct, honest, and loving ways.

Recognize the dangers of the myth of redemptive violence. Redemptive violence is the belief that violence saves, that war makes peace, and that death brings life. Such a view is problematic in theory as well as in practice. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Colonel Richard Dunn, former chief of the Army’s internal think tank, said, “You can go and kill every one of their terrorists and hang bin Laden in front of the White House and you will not have solved the problem – and you probably have created hundreds of new terrorists. So you could win tactically, and lose strategically.” By Fall 2004, the U.S. Defense Department acknowledged that Iraqi bitterness was a greater threat to the U.S. than the terrorism that purportedly prompted the U.S. to attack Iraq.

In a similar vein, a student in my Liberation Theologies class two years ago wrote, “War never brings peace – only uncertainty and fear for the civilians left behind when the soldiers go home. The thing about war is no one really wins. We can say our military beat yours, but how many families will never be the same? How many children will be consumed by hate? What new enemy might spring forth from the rubble left in the wake of a passing Army? Violence never brings about peace, it just brings more violence, and this in my opinion is the true legacy of war.” The student’s statement nearly moved me to tears, partly because she was not a Mennonite pacifist, but a 30-something Presbyterian – and a veteran of the first Gulf War. She continued, “I have not only seen oppression, but through my military service I have been an oppressor. I have many conflicting feelings about the role I played in the first Gulf War. On the one hand I wanted to help save lives, yet in the process of doing so I was taking lives, taking freedoms, and taking hope from those very people I so longed to help.”

Challenge our nation to end its reliance on violence to solve problems and call for more international awareness and creativity. As one sage put it, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Christian peacemakers hope the U.S. and other countries can work at the roots of terrorism – poverty and gross economic disparity, the arrogance of nations, imperialism, exploitation, injustice – rather than react only militarily. As a nation, we must pay attention to the causes of terrorism as much as the terrorism itself. Following the Apostle Paul’s directive in Romans 12, we cannot destroy evil with evil, but must seek to overcome it with good.

As peacemaker Ron Kraybill wrote in a recent issue of Mennonite Weekly Review, if we can get to the point “when ordinary people all over the world know that America makes their lives better with clean water, health, education, jobs, and a say in their own future, the appeal of terrorists will be limited … If we are creative and generous, we can make it difficult for hatred to spread to others. The good will of our global neighbors will bring us more security in the long run than all the guns and bombs we could ever accumulate.”

For decades the U.S. has been last among the industrialized nations in the percentage of its federal budget and Gross National Product we contribute for humanitarian aid to other countries. We give less than 1 percent of our budget and one-tenth-of-a-percent of our GNP to foreign aid. In 2005 we earmarked for international aid $10.9 billion, a tiny fraction of what we spent on warfare. To put it another way, what we give annually in total foreign aid would run the Iraq War for about three weeks. And much of that $10.9 billion never made its way into the hands of nationals in other countries. Instead, it went to U.S.-based companies who provided services overseas. Overall, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have cost the U.S. more than the sum needed to pay off the debts of every poor nation on earth. What if as a nation we could become known for our humanitarian generosity rather than our military-industrial complex?

Seek out the truth, and hold our military, political and media leaders responsible for basic honesty and integrity. U.S.-Americans often are in the dark about the extent of the casualties of our military actions, especially now that we’re several years into the war with Iraq. By now the number of Afghanis and Iraqis killed in the ongoing war is between 30 and 60 times the number of Americans killed in the Sept. 11 tragedy. At a minimum we need to believe some of the alternative and even mainstream news accounts about the stew of disinformation, deception and disrepute brewing among some of our senior political officials. Being knowledgeable about our country’s actions is part of good citizenship. And as President Theodore Roosevelt said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” This isn’t about being a Democrat or Republican, conservative or progressive, but about making independent moral judgments.

Live responsibly by reducing our consumption of the world’s resources. We need to model a lifestyle that needs less defending by our military. Our standard of living that demands a disproportionate share of the world’s resources increases our perceived need for a military to protect us. As conscientious Christians, we ought to voluntarily reduce our consumption of oil and other goods so that our calls for justice in other parts of the world have integrity.

Serve our brothers and sisters at home and around the world. For those unwilling to participate in warfare for conscientious reasons, we need to work to find contemporary moral equivalents to the sacrifices of war. We should encourage all of those who believe in peace to participate in a one-year or multi-year service assignment, at home or overseas, through one of many faithful church agencies or through other worthwhile humanitarian organizations around the world.

In short, pacifist Christians can be good U.S. citizens in a conflict-ridden time by being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, impassioned peacemakers and hospitable friends to those we perceive as “the other,” whether they are our nation’s leaders, our Muslim sisters and brothers, or our flag-hoisting neighbors. In a complex 21st-century world, conscientious Christians can be good citizens by giving our first allegiance to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. We can live our lives in ways that are faithful to the gospel. And we can share Christ’s message of peace in a world often drawn to violence. Such a way of life is faithful to Jesus’ teaching, and that may be sufficient. But it also is a way of being that – we can humbly hope – is as relevant in a violence-prone world as are alternative responses.

More than 70 years ago, long before there was a war on terror, Lloyd Stone wrote “This Is My Song,” to the tune of composer Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia.” The tune is number 73, “Be Still My Soul,” in our red hymnals, and in closing we’ll hear Stone’s 1934 version sung by Harmonious Combustion.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.