I am a senior in high school. I am eating mozzarella sticks in the cafeteria. A fellow student sits down across from me. He wants to talk about an anti-war poem he found in our English textbook. He is a pacifist.
I stonewall him. I do not like this fellow student because he is scruffy. He smokes. He takes art classes. He is an atheist. He sleeps with his girlfriend. I identify all this with weakness. Therefore pacifism is weakness, and so I am not a pacifist, Q.E.D.
I am a college freshman and it is September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center disappears, and the world metamorphoses, on a cloudless sapphire Tuesday morning. I walk across my silent, mostly deserted university campus to Latin class. I wince when a military jet roars over my head. It is the only thing interrupting the no-fly zone above the Chicago lakefront.
It is September 14, 2001, the feast of the Holy Cross. I attend Mass celebrated by a Jesuit. He says governments have a right to defend their people from threats like Al Qaeda. But individual Christians should aspire to be as defenseless as Jesus was, even to the point of crucifixion.
Complexity hacks its way into my thinking. Suddenly I can break patriotism and Christianity apart. I can analyze and compare them. I can pit God against Caesar and not assume they work together. Yet my new talent lies dormant for a while.
I am a college sophomore. I am a peer minister. My supervising chaplain gives me a handbook called Peacemaking: Day by Day from Pax Christi. It is full of quotes from Gandhi and Joan Chittister and Daniel Berrigan. I am weirded-out and disoriented. My Catholicism, though increasingly unsettled, remains resolutely suburban.
I do notice that, when the President speaks to the U.N. that same month, the threat has mysteriously shape-shifted from Al Qaeda to the Taliban to Iraq. I don’t understand. I feel tectonic plates within me begin to move.
It is March of sophomore year. I do laundry and make tea and popcorn in my dorm’s basement. I watch the TV where Iraq is being bombed in video-game green. CNN faces speak gravely of Saddam and Uday and Qusay.
I briefly decide to support the carnage because of the lurid accounts of the many things done by Saddam and Uday and Qusay. But I can’t sustain my support. It feels hollow. I am learning to trust feelings.
I am a college junior. I am aboard a bus early on a Friday morning. I am going to protest the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I don’t know why. Peer pressure made me do it. I know little about the SOA. I don’t think of myself as a protester. Protesters are hippies.
But then the shades on the windows go down. There is a screen in the front of the bus. The university ministry people have a video to show us.
The movie is about the soldiers the SOA has trained. It is about the multitudes of people in Latin America whom they have terrorized. It is about the surfeit of money the U.S. government spent on the SOA while keeping one eye blind and the other turned away.
I suddenly realize this is what governments, and powerful people, do. I realize the Iraq war might be a cornucopia of deception as well. I grasp, for the first time, that the powerful use God but rarely consult God. I no longer care about looking funny at the protest. I carry a white cross for several hours and turn red with a late November sunburn.
I am a college senior. I dig out the Peacemaking: Day by Day book again. I find this quote from St. Hippolytus of Rome, who lived from 170 to 235:
If anyone studying to be a Christian, or any one of the faithful wants to become a soldier, let him be turned away….Christian soldiers are not to kill, even if commanded to….Christians are not to become soldiers voluntarily….He who carries a sword must be sure that he does not shed blood. If he does shed blood, he must not participate in the sacraments.
Ancient essentials, from an age so near to Jesus, blossom before me. They boggle my mind. I think of how “not participating in the sacraments” means something totally different in the 21st century. Nowadays the nonnegotiable sin is sex.
I go to the SOA again. I am riding the bus home and it is night and it is cold. On the bus there is a microphone into which we speak about our experiences in Georgia. At some point the bus driver requests the microphone. He says it’s interesting how we’ve all done this peace-protesting stuff and everything. But he wants to tell us what has brought him real peace in his life: Jesus.
I am dizzy. Jesus is, for many of the eighty-five people in our group, the reason why we’re doing this. But any connection is simply not obvious to our proselytizing driver.
I graduate college. A high-school buddy who graduated from West Point goes to Iraq. He periodically sends mass emails about what he is doing there. I read them. I save them. I dread the day I get an email from his mom or dad instead of him. I never do.
I periodically attend the Lutheran church where my dad is an elder. Waiting for him after Divine Service, I stare at a battered wooden plaque just off the vestibule. It honors World War II veterans. My grandfather and his brothers and his sister are listed. It strikes me that war memorial plaques and churches both serve a purpose, but are woefully mismatched as partners.
This year I attend, as always, a Memorial Day ceremony in my hometown. The proprietor of the local funeral home is our town orator. He is generally a one-trick pony: freedom isn’t free.
But this time he has an addendum: how our soldiers did not die so that these younger Americans could do immoral and unnatural things. It is clear he means gay marriage. He gets irritably excited. He quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14 about repenting of our wicked ways.
I see in a flash why it’s so hard to talk sense about war and peace. You yank one string, and what tumbles forth is a tangled mess of God, country, the way things ought to be, the way things used to be.
Now I hear about Syria. I hear of chemical attacks, of women and children. I am horrified. I hear of how American force must intervene. I pause.
Because, while I am assured this time is not like the other times, I must recall again that the powerful–the powerful on either side, on any side–use God but rarely consult God. There are eternal truths. This is one.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, dona nobis pacem. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us. Grant us peace.