To Whomever Is In Charge Of Waging War: A Pastoral Letter

Author's note: I read this letter as part of a sermon I preached at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California on August 28, 2016.

Dear Whoever Is In Charge:

I hope you will forgive me for not addressing you by name. I mean no disrespect by my general salutation. It's just that I am writing to you on matters of war and peace and the wellbeing of God's children, and when it comes to such matters, I really don't know who is in charge.

I'm not ignorant: I still remember most of what I learned in my civics class at Mendocino High School (Hail to the fighting Cardinals), and in the more than three decades since I sat in that class, doing my level best to overcome the hormonally-driven, angst-inducing fog of adolescence, I have improved on my knowledge of how our Government works, mostly because I am curious about such things, and because I enjoy the process of learning.

I try also to be a worthy observer of current events, and as such, when it comes to matters of war and peace, I'm not sure I can say with any certainty that I know who is calling the shots. I trust that our President is a good man, yet with some regularity, he authorizes drone strikes that have killed a disturbing number of civilians. From where I sit these drone strikes go against the general character of our Commander in Chief. I confess I hold members of the legislative branch in lower esteem than I do our President, but still -- people go into various kinds of public service because they want to make the world a better place, and I trust this is true for an overwhelming majority of our nation's senators and representatives. Yet the legislative branch, if anything, seems to want even more warfare then currently we are waging. When I'm honest it seems to me as if our political leaders are like boats which have lost both rudder and keel; they are blown sideways by winds and currents and they are powerless to change course.

It would be easy to blame our military for our ongoing warfare, but I am a pastor who has had the privilege of hearing the stories of members of the military, often as they are making deathbed confessions, preparing to meet their maker with a clean conscience. I understand that no one knows the horrors of war more than do members of the military, and I know that military personnel often are the last people to want a war to happen.

Perhaps the problem is the so-called "military-industrial complex." Certainly war is a racket. Whenever there is a war a few people make a lot of money, and we live in a country where money tends to call the shots, but in our society money only exerts power when politicians are corrupt, which may be the case in our country today, but my observation of current events leads me to believe that no one is in charge of the American War Machine. Everything we are doing seems to be reactive rather than proactive. If there is an intelligent design to our military strategy, I don't know about it. As far as I can tell, we're just killing civilians or we're not using our influence to stop the slaughter of innocence, without any coherent military or political objectives.

All of which is a long way of saying I don't know who you are when I address this letter to whomever is in charge. And whoever you are, I wish you were here to listen to this letter as I read it to the members and friends of my congregation in the context of Christian worship. Our congregation is a lovely group of folks who worship in a beautiful place, along the banks of Temescal creek in the hills above Oakland, California. Usually we worship I the morning inside a truly remarkable a-framed sanctuary, but today we are worshiping outside in the afternoon, in our church's courtyard. We are surrounded by the beauty of redwoods and live Oak; there are birds singing, and after our worship we will be eating dinner together in the fading light of an August evening. Even as I speak these words, the congregation can smell the pulled pork that in short order will fill our bellies, and there is a joyful impatience among us. I wish you could share the beauty of this evening with us, in part because I suspect going to church might be a new experience for you.

I don't mean to sound judgmental when I suggest the experience of worship might be a new thing for you. I say this not because I am a guilt-mongering, Bible-thumping, Calvinist preacher man, I base my suggestion that Church might be a new thing for you because when I look at the world you have created, at the pain you have inflicted, at the blood you have shed, and the lives you have destroyed, I have to conclude that you do not go to church -- at least you don't go to a church that takes seriously the Biblical vision of a Kingdom of God in which swords are beat into ploughshares or spears into pruning hooks. You don't attend a church that longs for a day when God's children will study war no more. Which is to say -- and I'm going to sound judgmental again here -- if you go to church, you would do well to expand your ecclesiastical horizons (which is a fancy way of saying, get thee to a new church).

I'm not suggesting that you have to go out and join one of the traditionally pacifist religious traditions. Even though I don't know who you are, I still have a hard time imagining you farming with the Amish or going door to door with the Jehovah's Witnesses; and for your style there may be too many vegans among the Quakers. I get it.

Mostly I'd recommend you attend any church that values tradition and learning and that promotes a rational faith. Which is to say, I'd love for you to attend just about any mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic Church and listen to what those churches and their traditions have to say about the morality of warfare.

Most Western Christians subscribe to some version of the Just War theory, and there are different expressions of Just War theory, but every expression of the Just War theory I know about includes the following elements:

  1. A just war must have a just cause: usually this means the war must be waged in defense of one's country or in defense of a vulnerable population somewhere else. Waging war to secure a supply for oil doesn't count.
  2. A just war must have a just motivation: no fair coming up with a just cause when your motivation is unjust. So, for example, even if you are fighting the evil of ISIS, the war isn't just if what you really want is to preserve a supply of oil.
  3. Just wars must be waged by legitimate authorities: arming a surrogate army of unaffiliated rebels to fight wars on your behalf in places like Nicaragua or Syria is unjust.
  4. Just wars are waged in such a way that civilians and civilian infrastructure are spared and protected: the fact that there are more refugees in the world today than at any time since World War II is clear evidence that modern military modalities are not just.
  5. Just wars are waged proportionally: Gandhi once warned that "and eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind, and that may be true, but the goal of modern warfare is not eye for eye and tooth for tooth, it's more like a village for an eye, and a city for a tooth; or, if you prefer actual numbers, it's nearly a million civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan for 4,000 victims of a particularly horrific terrorist attack fifteen years ago.

Now, Whoever Is In Charge, let me lay down a challenge. Name one war that you have waged or that currently you are waging which conforms to the commonly accepted principles of Just war. Go back as far as you want. World War II? Forget about it. In that war you had just cause and just motivation; the war was waged by legitimate authorities, but if it's going to be just, a war must comply with all of the conditions set forth in a just war. I would direct your attention to the charred remains of Dresden and Nagasaki as a reminder that even in that so-called "Good War" you targeted civilians and your conduct was not proportional.

Now, you may be of the opinion that the Just War Theory is outmoded, that it is unrealistic; if that's so, I disagree with you, but I'm happy to shift focus to the simplest and most commonly held rule for ethics, the Golden Rule: "do unto others what you would have them to unto you," or "love your neighbor as yourself." To disagree with this guideline is to put yourself at odds with every religious and secular system of ethics I know about.

So, people in charge, whoever you are, if you won't go to church, I ask you, at the very least, to turn from your work of waging war for just a moment. Be human. Perhaps you have parents who are getting old. Do you want them to spend their last years on earth as refugees? Maybe you have children. Do you wan them to be ripped from your life by bombs dropped from remote-control aircraft? Maybe you live in a vibrant neighborhood with lots of great restaurants and galleries and bookstores, and places to buy vinyl records for that great collection of jazz you've been working on since your youth. Would you like the community you call home to be reduced to gravel and smoke by the power of thousands of tons of explosives?

Of course not, but this is exactly what you are doing -- either directly or complicity -- to other people's parents and children and neighborhoods, and you do it with alarming regularity. Now, I know you think you are engaging in this destruction with good reasons. There be terrorists, or communists, or enemies who hate us and want us dead. And you may be right, but let me ask you this: is there anything our government could do that would be so horrendous as to justify sending your elderly parents out to wander as refugees in the heat of summer and the cold of winter until they die an uncomfortable and undignified death? Can any terrorist plot hatched by your neighbors ever be so heinous as to merit the death of your children? Could the people in your neighborhood ever hold political views so dangerous as to necessitate the destruction of your home place?

I rather doubt you have answered in the affirmative to any of the questions in the last paragraph, and if I'm correct, then you have an ethical problem on your hands. If displacement, murder and destruction would never be justified in your family or in your community, then they cannot be justified in the families and in the communities of other people, even if they live in far-off places and speak unfamiliar languages, and eat bizarre food, and pray facing holy cities that are not your own.

This letter is getting long, so I'll stop here, by inviting further conversation. I don't know who you are, but if you've read this letter you know who I am. Feel free to contact me. It would be an honor to buy you a beer and to help you think through how you can work to put an end to war.

I remain,

Yours Sincerely,

The Rev. Ben Daniel
Montclair Presbyterian Church
Oakland, CA