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July/August 2011 Issue

Disarming Might, Reconciling Enemies, Loving Resistance

Celebrations outside the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC. February 2011

By David Wildman

“Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit,” says the Lord Almighty. --Zechariah 4:6b

Across the Arab world, people in one nation after another are rising up to shake off repressive military regimes. People subjected to decades of brutal rule finally cast off paralyzing fear and took to the streets in nonviolent protest. Equally important, thousands of men in uniform refused to obey orders to attack their own people.

Images of Egyptian protesters and soldiers embracing on the streets of Cairo flooded the media, especially in other Arab countries. Walls of fear that long divided people collapsed as they raised their voices and took to the streets. As the masses swelled, their demands to be heard and to be treated with respect overwhelmed any government threats of force. Like the earliest flowers of spring, these grassroots moments of reconciliation spread rapidly from one city to another and one nation to another with a sense of inevitability.

The U.S. and other governments seemed caught by surprise and unsure of how to respond. For years the United States made alliances with corrupt, authoritarian regimes and propped them up with massive shipments of weapons. These alliances generated huge profits for U.S. military companies, enabled the United States to establish military bases in the Middle East and guarantee a cheap, steady supply of oil. Yet these same alliances also fed a harvest of deepening poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor.

What lessons might we in churches learn about the task of reconciliation from these recent popular uprisings? Perhaps more than anything, these broad-based grassroots actions affirm a biblical notion that reconciliation takes place from the bottom up. The one-way, top-down dictating of rulers gets interrupted by the voices and actions of people demanding to be heard. In the face of longstanding systemic injustice and violence, the weak and oppressed interrupt and displace military might, economic power and fear through their nonviolent, loving action.

Reconciliation, then, involves an ongoing process of:

  • Breaking the cycle of violence, fear and revenge through nonviolent, loving resistance.
  • Restoring two-way conversations between the powerful and the oppressed.
  • Transforming unjust relations by practicing equality and mutual respect.

Reconciling ministry challenges the powerful

“As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict.”
The Social Principles, ¶ 165C The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008

The New Testament was written by communities living under brutal local military rule closely aligned with the powerful empire of the day, Rome. Today, the United States and its corporate interests are the world’s empire. The United States, as 5 percent of the world’s population, devotes roughly the same amount of resources to military spending as the other 95 percent of the world combined. U.S. military bases span the globe, and U.S. companies profit from huge investments in other countries. The United States consumes roughly 25 percent of the world’s energy and other resources. Such gross disparities are neither sustainable nor just. They cannot be reconciled with a God who calls us to love our enemies, forgive others and take the log out of our own eye first.

The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967, still ring true today: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of [war] cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

In the name of a “war on terror” the U.S. government has greatly expanded the terror of war and militarism with devastating consequences. The cost of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will far surpass $3 trillion. The United States devotes half of all income taxes to national security — about $1.2 trillion a year. That includes military spending, homeland security, Central Intelligence Agency covert operations, veteran’s programs, interest payments on past wars and foreign military aid.

Yet Congress and the Obama administration refuse to touch the sacred cow of military spending. Instead, they seek budget cuts in nonmilitary programs serving people’s needs. The Sermon on the Mount reminds us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

Nearly every state and local government in the nation face massive layoffs and cuts in public services to meet mounting budget deficits. These budget deficits are roughly equal to the money taken from each state to fund ongoing war in Afghanistan. Wisconsin, for instance, faces a budget gap of $1.8 billion at the same time that $1.7 billion from Wisconsin will go to war. The National Priorities project offers comparisons of military spending and social spending for each state and major city. Students, public employees and working people are flooding state capitols across the country to protest massive cuts. They draw inspiration from protestors in Egypt and other Arab nations. Signs translated into Arabic read, “We are Egyptians too.”

It costs $1 million a year for each U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. My wife is principal of a public elementary school in the South Bronx in New York City, the poorest congressional district in the United States. “Three soldiers! That’s all we would need to run our school, or open after-school programs in several schools,” she said. “But instead we are facing teacher layoffs and cuts in education. It’s not right.”

How many soldiers would your community be able to bring home to save teachers’ jobs and improve public education?

As we take to the streets in loving resistance, we begin to reconcile our actions with longstanding United Methodist Social Principles, ¶ 165C:

“We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped.”

We will save lives, save jobs, meet people’s needs and reconcile state budgets by bringing U.S. troops home now and ending all foreign military aid.

Reconciliation speaks truth to power

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
1 Corinthians 13:6

One of the first casualties in war is truth. In situations of war and oppression, we are taught to divide people rigidly into “us and them,” “good and evil” and to hate and dehumanize our enemies. Indeed, many countries torn apart by conflict set up truth and reconciliation commissions to restore truth as a critical step to lasting reconciliation between former enemies. Most truth commissions take place only after a change in political power, as was the case in South Africa, Rwanda, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Argentina and Brazil. However, the task of reconciling and truth-telling starts in the midst of conflict.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus repeatedly challenges established truths by declaring, “You have heard it said … But I say to you …” In place of anger, revenge, hate and violence, Jesus offers reconciliation, service, love and prayer. Jesus urges us as disciples to subvert the false truths of the empire — that military might solves problems or that wealth is the measure of power — with our loving actions.

U.S. generals and military experts all agree there is no military solution for Afghanistan, yet they keep escalating military action. Less than two years after recommending a tripling of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a Feb. 25 speech at West Point Military Academy, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Despite such candor, Mr. Gates continues to advocate at least four more years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Not a single member of Congress worries about losing his or her seat for allocating more precious resources to wage war and ordering more young soldiers to kill and be killed. Yet many legislators fear being seen as soft on terrorism and enemies or being too hard on the rich and wealthy.

Warren Carter, in his book Matthew and Empire, points out that the Roman imperial system depended on tax collectors, soldiers and “an imperial mindset” to maintain its economic, military and theological domination over people. He concludes, “Without soldiers there can be no large-scale acts of aggression against other peoples. Without an imperial mindset there can be reconciliation and transformation.”

A people enslaved to a mindset that worships wealth and national security cannot serve two masters. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, challenge us as Christians in the United States, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

Again and again in the New Testament reconciling truth and loving resistance rise up from the rank and file. As we break the chains of militarism and wealth, we open ourselves to join in God’s ministry of reconciling love. And it will be those at the margins and at the bottom — workers, widows, refugees, migrants, veterans and peacemakers, who take the lead.

David Wildman is executive secretary for human rights and racial justice for the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

Last Updated: 03/17/2014

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