Thursday, September 4, 2008

How has war affected your family?

My father, Earl Koehn, was a conscientious objector during World War II and served in several Civilian Public Service camps during a span of about four years. My grandfather on my mother’s side, David Duerksen, was drafted into the army during World War I, but he was a Christian pacifist and refused to fight. My great grandparents on both sides of my family migrated from Russia to central Kansas in 1875, when there was growing pressure for men in the Mennonite colonies in Russia to participate in the military. They were recruited as wheat farmers by the Santa Fe railroad to settle the frontier, grow wheat, and provide raw materials to be shipped by rail. These lands had recently been won in wars against the Native Americans. Several generations earlier in the 1780s, my ancestors were recruited from Holland and Poland to Russia to by Catherine the Great, to grow wheat and settle lands that she had recently won in a war with the Turks. They were promised complete religious freedom and exemption from military service for all time.

This brief sketch of family history shows that my family was affected by war by trying to stay out of it – by preserving a Mennonite understanding of Christian discipleship that did not allow the killing of enemies. They were also affected by war in that they (probably unknowingly) settled on land in Russia and the United States that had recently been won through war. Thus they were the unwitting beneficiaries of the immoral practice of war, which they deplored.

How has war affected your family?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Military Families Lose Faith in Iraq War

As the American death toll in Iraq has continued to climb and as sectarian violence continues to cast doubt on the possibility of democracy in Iraq, I have asked for the last two years: “How long with the evangelical Christian families from the heartland and the South continue to be willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters to this fruitless war?

A glimpse of an answer was published on December 7 in the Chicago Tribune – “Poll: Military families losing faith.” A survey that covered active-duty service members, veterans, and their families shows that a majority has concluded that the invasion of Iraq was not worth it. “Nearly 6 out of every 10 military families disapprove of Bushes’ job performance and the way he has run the war, rating him only slightly better than the general population does, the poll shows.”

Seven out of ten military families favor a withdrawal within the coming year or “right away.”

One mother of an Iraq War veteran who was seriously injured in Iraq last year said, “I pray to God that they did not die in vain, but I don’t think our president is even sensitive at all to what it’s like to have a child serving over there.”

When veterans and their family say this war is not worth it, America will soon be electing politicians who will bring the troops home.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

What Would Jesus Do?

One of the most profound teachings of Jesus is recorded in Matthew’s collection in the sermon on the mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:43-45)

In a parallel passage Luke adds these words from Jesus, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

The revolutionary theological content here is that God makes the sun to shine on the evil, sends rain on the unrighteous, and is kind to the wicked. I suspect that this was unbelievable to most of Jesus hearers. They knew from their scriptures and from the priests and prophets that God punishes the evil and the wicked, taking away their possessions, their land, and their lives.

I suggest several steps for all persons who wish to find meaning and orientation in the traditions of Jesus of Nazareth:
  • Become familiar with the convictions and the debates in the historical Jesus scholarship over the last fifty years.
  • Use this informed understanding of Jesus to evaluate, critique, re-interpret, relativize, and reject parts of scripture that do not support the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Use contemporary knowledge and analysis to understand human well-being and human suffering; take non-violent actions to support that which enhances human well-being and minimizes human suffering.
I suspect that understanding of the historical Jesus and understandings of contemporary human experience will validate each other most of the time.

This approach to biblical interpretation and biblical ethics will involve struggle and humility. I personally warm up to Jesus teachings about God and love of enemies. I am less inclined to embrace his teachings on possessions and wealth. We all have room to grow.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Responding to Violence in the Bible

What do we do when the Bible supports beliefs that we judge today to be very dangerous to human health and survival? I think several approaches have been used.

First of all, some would contend that the points that I raised in an earlier posting are not troubling at all. This is indeed how Gods works in the world: God does have a chosen people, who gets land. God blesses this chosen people and destroys its enemies. God punishes those who are evil and blesses those who are good. This is right and just. This is the moral order that God has created.

But those of us who are troubled by the biblical beliefs that I have identified take a number of other approaches:
  • God in the Bible is depicted as jealous, vindictive, and violent, but the biblical God was still an improvement over the gods of other near-eastern cultures; the Hebrews were leaning in the right direction.
  • The jealous, vindictive, and violent God is not the only image in scripture; we simply need to put more emphasis on those passages that depict God as compassionate, just, and concerned about universal humanity.
  • The name of God was abused by biblical people, but the prophets are included in scripture as a corrective to these abuses.
  • The jealous, vindictive, and violent language about God in scripture is not historically literal; it is poetry that is suggestive of theological concerns that do not call for killing human beings.
  • The jealous, vindictive, and violent images of God can be seen in actuality as being projections of human propensity to be jealous, vindictive, and violent. They do not instruct us in reality about the nature of God, but they point out the parts of our own nature that we tend to hide and deny.
My own preference for evaluating violent images of God in scripture is taken up by Jack Nelson-Palmeyer in "Jesus Against Christianity." It is also in line with that approach to scripture taken up by many early Anabaptists. We need to get to know the historical Jesus: his character, beliefs, actions, and teachings. He shows us a compassionate God who sustains the just and the unjust, loves the righteous and the sinners, forgives all who repent, and loves rather than kills enemies.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Origins of Evil & Violence

Several weeks ago I was on an on-line forum about religion in politics and friends of mine asked penetrating questions about the origins of evil and violence. I thought about this and responded.

Male Aggression

My own musings on this issue have to do with male experience and roles. I wonder if aggression served men well through hundreds of thousands of years as they set off on “the hunt” to secure meat, skins, and other animal parts. Through thousands of years the male brain prepared itself for battle and conquest, sometimes in life and death situations. The male brain began to assume that there is danger in the world and one must fight in order to survive. Thus males, having evolved a culture that no longer requires the hunt in order to meet basic needs for survival, still live with the unconscious assumption that a threat lurks on the horizon. In our American context that threat in the last hundred years has been communism and now terrorism. Much of the developing world and the Muslim world sees the threat as European colonialism and American imperialism. The male mind creates a threatening enemy to confirm its unconscious assumptions about the world. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. George W. Bush said that Al Qaeda was active in Iraq, when in actuality it was not there at all. But now, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda is there. The prophesy has been fulfilled.

I think the myth of the rivalry between Cain and Able has to do with the male transition from being a hunter to being a farmer of domesticated plants and animals. Cain tilled the soil and his son Enoch built the “first” city. Thus the domesticated male, has had this internal anger, unleashed as lethal against his “brother.” Males in America are still on “the hunt,” whether it is gang violence in inner cities, police and detective work, professional football, militias in Michigan, the KKK in Indiana, or plowing through the deserts of Iraq.

My understanding of Muhammad, Buddha, and Jesus is that they all came to bring restraint to male violence. The Karen Armstrong biographies of Muhammad and Buddha work on this theme.


Kathryn, you make the important observation the Martin Luther King held that “nonviolent resistance dos not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” Here too we have the presence of rivalry, which King sought to channel into nonviolent confrontation and eventually to friendship. Rene Girard has another concept here that might be useful: “scapegoat.” When individuals or a community are not able to acknowledge and deal with the aggression within their midst, they often project that aggression and threat onto a “scapegoat.” In ancient culture this was actually a goat that was ritually sacrificed. I wonder if white racism against blacks is a denial on the part of whites of our own submerged transgressions and then the project of these denied transgressions onto the “scapegoat” – most often the black male. We certainly lock up black men in shocking numbers. Michael Moore, in his film, “Bowling for Columbine,” concludes that white fear of black men is one of the forces that animates the white American psyche.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Bible and War

For the past three years I have been reading widely in scholarly literature about religion and war. I have become aware of how the language of religion and beliefs about God are used to sanction violence and war. I think that most war-making in the 21st century will be framed in religious language. A great deal of self-serving idolatry will be presented as authentic religious faith. Here is my judgment of some of the most dangerous war-supporting religious beliefs in the 21st Century.

Special Relationship
  1. God has chosen our people/nation for a special relationship and a special mission in the world. All others are outside of God’s favor.
  2. God has saved us and/or will save us from oppression and injustice, by defeating our enemies.
  3. God has given us land and has denied this land to others.

Defeat of Enemies
  1. God judges our enemies to be evil and calls on us to control, kill, and destroy those who are evil.
  2. Eventually all people and all nations will see the truth that God has given us; they will acknowledge our superiority and recognize our privileged role as messengers of God’s truth. The wealth of other nations will appropriately flow to us as a sign of our people/nation being blessed by God.
  3. Our victories in war are signs that our God is all-powerful and is blessing our righteousness.
  4. We have not always been treated justly by evil powers, and God commands that we re-establish justice even if this means going to war against our oppressors.
  5. Even if we do not appear to be victorious today, our God guarantees that at the end of the current age God will vindicate us and our enemies will be destroyed. At the end of this age God will send a righteous leader to lead God’s people to victory over the powers of evil.
  6. God will punish evil-doers, either in this world or the next world. This is a logically essential belief because God is all-powerful and demands justice.

Purity and Separation
  1. God requires that we be pure and separate from people who are evil.
  2. When we suffer temporary defeats this is God punishing us for our lack of purity and a call to redouble our purity and separation from those who are foreign and evil.
  3. When we re-establish our purity, God will save us and defeat our enemies.
  4. We must protect ourselves from the aliens who pollute our purity and threaten our identity, freedom, and security.

Material Blessings
  1. God has given us dominion over the earth and its resources, and God wants us to be wealthy and prosper.
  2. All of our wealth and prosperity is a gift from God and is God’s acknowledgement of our righteousness.

All of these beliefs can be supported by passages from the Bible. Jack Nelson-Palmeyer contends in Is Religion Killing Us? that, “Religious violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ text, not misinterpretation of ‘sacred’ text. The violence-of-God tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Quran must be understood and challenged if we are to have any realistic hope of building a peaceful world.” (p. 20)