It’s been going on for years now. Almost daily we read that another child, another parent, another sister or brother, another grandpa or aunt, is killed in Afghanistan or Iraq by U.S. weaponry in Mr. Bush’s “war on terror.” Sometimes it’s a wedding party, or a bunch of kids, or a family of six. Sometimes it’s a journalist, or a whole group of journalists, who may even be killed on camera in real time for all the world to see and hear.
But no matter how bad it gets, nothing seems to change Americans’ support for war, which for some reason is stiffest among Christian supporters of the Bush administration. “Stuff happens in a war zone.” “Don’t worry because God is in control.” With these and other slogans, I’ve been reassured by countless pro-war Christians that, as long as civilians aren’t intentionally targeted, taking their lives is okay, maybe even predestined, God’s will.
Recently a Christian from Australia wrote to ask, “Why are American Christians so bloodthirsty? Why do they support the war in Iraq, no matter how many innocent people are made to suffer? We just don’t understand why they’re willing to kill other people so that they can feel more safe – it’s so selfish!”
She’s right, and she’s wrong. She’s right about the fact that many Christians in America will blindly support whichever war their president promotes, with the assumption that his much-advertised praying guarantees us that God approves of all those bombs and missiles, and even the inevitable collateral damage.
This “don’t worry, be happy” stance of pro-war Christians can make those of us who suffer at the news of civilian deaths almost green with envy: How do they go blithely to church, pray and give an offering, then go eat some nice mashed potatoes and gravy at Cracker Barrel with nary a worry about the families being bombed or shot or crushed by their own military at that very moment?
But she’s wrong in her assumption that all Christians in the U.S. find civilian deaths an acceptable price to (let someone else) pay for Mr. Bush’s ultimate goals. Many, including those in the evangelical community, were raised to obey Jesus’ teachings above any other, and suffer mightily whenever they learn that more innocent people have lost their lives to this terrorizing “war on terror.”
She’s also wrong about the seemingly bloodthirsty attitude of pro-war Christians; most of them are nice people on a personal basis. They love their kids and their fellow Americans, and would never have supported the bombing of, say, Oklahoma City’s malls and suburbs in an effort to target a Timothy McVeigh. And they certainly don’t go around saying they hope a lot more civilians are killed by U.S. bombs and guns. They’ve been trained to deny it’s happening or downplay its importance, thinking instead about Iraq’s future democracy, the next life, or the “big picture.”
Failure to Care: How it Happens
The reasons for blindness or indifference toward civilian casualties are several. Many if not most pro-war Christians, particularly those in the southern and midwestern states:
- rarely see news accounts of civilian casualties because our major TV news programs and newspapers either omit those stories altogether or mention them in passing (without photos, the crucial element in terms of public opinion) and, wanting to believe that Bush’s war is working, do not seek out evidence of the maiming and killing of our troops or of Iraqi civilians,
- have been immunized against thinking for themselves or doubting the Bush administration with certain Bible verses (particularly those verses in Romans telling us to obey and submit to governmental authority figures) – a passive stance that’s strikingly different from the questioning that Jesus both urged and modeled toward greedy, power-seeking, and hypocritical authority figures (e.g., “false prophets” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing”),
- are told not to worry, when they do hear of civilian casualties, that life in the flesh is less important than life eternal (one European writer told me that a friend confided, “Yes it’s sad, but if some Iraqi civilians are killed by U.S. bombs and it saves even one soul, it will have been worth it” – a sentiment that, sadly, is not unusual),
- feel they dare not oppose this or any war because talking about peace, objecting to war’s human cost, or even referring to the United Nations has become associated in their minds with the Antichrist and eternal damnation, thanks to fictional works based on Thessalonians such as the Left Behind books and video (this video makes clear the fearful reasoning behind the knee-jerk reactions of many pro-war Christians against peace itself, peacemakers of any kind [poignant indeed in light of Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers”], the Middle East “road map,” international dialogue and cooperation, and any form of human rights accountability), and
- have been convinced by right-wing preachers, authors and radio hosts (people like Rush Limbaugh are the most influential, because their voices are heard for hours daily rather than written in a book or heard once a week in church) to shift their allegiance away from Jesus’ teachings about merciful behavior toward and compassion for family and stranger alike (“the least of these”) to the more pro-violence, pro-war values espoused by various non-Gospel biblical writers.
Each of these is a powerful influence, but when combined, they dramatically alter Christian values in fundamental ways. Whereas evangelical churches used to teach compassion (in liberal doses, not conservative soundbites) and warn against responding to threats or attacks with violence, today’s conservative churches urge parishioners to support capital punishment, zero-tolerance policies of all kinds, and corporal punishment to “shape the will” of babies, toddlers, and children. Someone raised in this kind of environment grows up to become an adult who’s afraid to step out of line, and who naturally resents or even hates those who feel free to do so.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card summed it up best: President Bush sees Americans as so many children who need a father to guide and protect them. Indeed, conservative Christians are raised for a dictatorship where the “leaders” make the calls and are not to be questioned, rather than a democracy, where dissent is a cherished right. As linguistics professor George Lakoff has concluded from his study of the conservative-liberal divide that’s polarizing American society, conservatives (the popular but by no means accurate label) are accustomed to, hence gravitate toward, a strict father – and nothing can be more strict than “our father” Bush demanding that we accept without question all the “stuff” that happens in his war.
Moral Relativism: In War, Anything Goes
But most importantly, conservative Christianity in the U.S. has succumbed to that which it has, in decades past, most rigorously warned against: moral relativism. By restricting any discussion of morality to sexual behavior, right-wing politicians have obliterated the once-central Christian teaching that the way we treat others is of paramount importance to God. Cleverly “working the room,” pro-war politicians have infiltrated churches to such a degree that killings and torture are no longer within the province of morality. When morality is only about sex, no aspect of war – even the killing of entire families – can arouse criticism, much less condemnation.
In short, everything that happens in the execution of war, even that which is flagrantly in violation of the moral values that Jesus taught regarding violence and revenge, prayer for enemies and peacemaking, becomes acceptable when Jesus’ teachings are compartmentalized as relevant only in our personal lives. When Jesus is sidelined, those parts of the Bible that support authority, no matter what it does to innocent people, will take precedence. This is what has happened (often with the prodding, political influence and financial support of right-wing political organizations) in many of our churches today. Unless Christians begin to speak up publicly for the teachings of Christ – the cornerstone of our faith – we will continue to slide into the kind of moral relativism that causes others to wonder why we are so bloodthirsty.