Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This morning's news covered President Obama's pending announcement of 30,000 new troops for Afghanistan. He is expected to work hard to defend the decision to a country a bit war-weary. He has come to this decision through a long and involved process, what seems to me to be more deliberate than perhaps previous commanders-in-chief, but there will be those who immediately decry the decision.

Whether he is right or not to do so is an interesting question to ask. The fact is, we are in the middle of a conflict, we've punched the tar baby and there's no easy way out, that's all there is to it. An increase in troop-force in order to eventually let us leave could make sense. I'm not on the ground there to be able to say. On the other hand, the ultimate question of whether this war is even winnable is on the tongues of increasing numbers of Americans. I've had a number of soldiers in my office in the past three years or so, wondering about the moral defensibility of this war effort. It puts them in an awful spot. They have vowed to uphold the constitution and laws of the United States, and their commanders have put them in harm's way on our behalf. That's all stuff we know and hold dear. On the other hand, they have seen the devil in the details, and have begun to wonder.

It is an interesting dilemma. The concept of a holy war is something only a religious people can address. A religious nation wages holy war, believing that they are defending the truth about God and humanity. On the other hand, a religious nation is the only one who can also declare a war unholy and refuse to participate. Why is it that heaven and hell are both at hand when we talk about them? And why is it, as Barbara Brown Taylor said, we never behave more badly toward one another than when we feel like we have to defend God?

In our increasingly secular culture the question becomes, How does one establish moral authority without invoking divine backing? Claiming that certain rights and principles are unreducible and unailable only makes gods of those rights and principles, and usually reveal, on greater scrutiny that they serve the purposes of the people who hold them in some very utilitarian way. So much for moral authority. It all boils down to "might makes right," and "survival of the fittest." If that is the bottom line then the ultimate good is the integrity of my own skin, I make a god of my own, or my society's continued existence, and create God in my own image. The Kingdom of God has already come, because the world is already a place where goups of people beat up on each other in order to continue their way of life. So much for "no greater love has he than to lay down his life for his friend." (--Jesus.)

What's my answer? Nations wage war for a hundred reasons, almost none of which are the stated ones. Morality in war in that situation is something determined in the policies of each nation, which ultimately becomes one of "might makes right." It is unrealistic to expect the government of a nation to wage or not wage war on its moral defensibility, no matter what your criteria. The question is, can I as a religious person, or can we as a religious community engage in warfare defensibly? Like most theology, we will differ about this one until the coming of the Kingdom. Thank God it doesn't go to the heart of our salvation!

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