My small North Georgia congregation held a vigil the Sunday before the beginning of the war, before the first of now 2,000 American military personnel and countless thousands of Iraqis have died in a bloody enterprise that needs to be ended. We were so in the minority then, and the catcalls from passing cars and the parade of flags that greeted us in the weeks that followed were very powerful and sometimes frightening. I am so proud to have been part of a courageous peace corner that day.
Bring the troops home.
— Rev. Marti Keller
I got up the day before a war is scheduled to be officially declared like any and every other day.
The dogs woke me before the alarm went off, whining to go out. In the pre-dawn, I opened the back door and breathed in the damp cool air. I went back upstairs to start the coffee maker. I refilled an aluminum water bowl.
Each of these acts, these simple, automatic acts, I remembered even as I was performing them. I needed to have them properly stored in a place where I can call them up, recall where and what I was doing before the bombs batter Baghdad, before the screams I cannot hear ring out. Before the troops invade in the dust and heat.
Since my memory is not always so good, already, I have been practicing remembering what I have done at the same time I am doing things.
A Buddhist friend of mine told me yesterday at breakfast over raspberry sweet rolls that he had predicted five months ago that we would invade Iraq in March. Not so much because he figured if we waited any longer our soldiers would be crippled by the desert blaze, but because he was sitting at a railroad crossing here in Georgia one day watching train car after train car full of army equipment rolling by.
It seemed inevitable to him after that, the pre-emptive attack.
But at least, he said, we could remain mindful. We could be as present as possible. We could remember, in as much detail as possible, what we saw and how we felt so that the stupidity and the stubbornness and the suffering would not be forgotten.
The last time I waited for a war to start, for the bombs to whistle and shriek, I was a young teen. It was the day before we were supposed to go to war with Russia over their bases in Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don’t remember how I knew what was going to happen. Perhaps I watched Walter Cronkite on the network news, or listened to the broadcasters on my little pink transistor radio, my first-ever purchase with babysitting money.
I don’t remember my parents telling me anything. I don’t remember hearing them talk, or acting afraid. Afraid like I was, a 12-year-old girl, when my mother sent me to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of white bread at the supermarket a few blocks away.
Terrified, riding as quickly as I could on my 26-inch bike, feeling all alone on that wide suburban street. Expecting at any moment that the sky would go black and then be full of fire. An aloneness I can only describe now as the overwhelming feeling that whatever God-ness or sense of over-arching comfort and protection I had previously known had vanished.
Like Holocaust survivor and writer Eli Weisel said when asked where God was in the Warsaw ghetto or at Auschwitz.
God was missing, he responded.
I do not know what John Kennedy’s morning routine was, or where he found his source of guidance for the decisions he had to make in those tense and terrible times more than 40 years ago.
But in these days of instant news coverage, we will know where and what President Bush was doing, down to the last detail. Who he was with, what he was eating for breakfast.
According to a recent Newsweek article, if his day of decision-making is like most other days, he will rise and take a cup of coffee from his wife Laura, go to some quiet place and read something religious, a piece of scripture perhaps, or a conservative Christian tract or article. Perhaps a recent column like the one by Southern Baptist columnist James A. Smith, Jr., who proposed that the question before us is very large and very simple: Can — and will — the civilized part of humanity disarm the Barbarians who would use the ultimate knowledge for the ultimate destruction?
In this first-person piece, Smith shared his impression of a presidential visit to Jacksonville, Florida last month. He wrote that at Mayport naval air station, with two massive naval war vessels as his backdrop and thousands of sailors and their families as his audience, I kept thinking, he said, of what an awesome responsibility George W. Bush carries on his shoulders.
Fighting a worldwide campaign to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism, the article goes on, was not on Bush’s agenda (or anyone else’s) when he ran for President. But now, in God’s providence, the war on terror is clearly the defining responsibility and mission of his presidency.
If God was missing, or at least silent, for the Jews in concentration camps, or the Christian and Muslim children in the former Yugoslavia, God is present and very talkative in the private and public faith of this American President.
Bush’s God, his providential God, is an on-duty God, guiding humankind. A managerial God, a hands-on God, a Commander-in-Chief God.
Providence is a recurring theme for our 43rd President, as is noted by journalist David Frum in his best-selling book The Right Man. Frum recalls that nine days after terrorists struck America, after Bush gave a special address to a joint session of Congress, he called his chief speechwriter Michael Gerson (a strong evangelical Christian) to thank him for his work on the widely hailed speech.
Gerson told the President that, “when I saw you on television, I thought — God wanted you there.”
Near the first anniversary of 9/11, Bush invited five religious leaders to meet with him in the Oval Office, to offer him their prayers. He told them that, “you (all) know I had a drinking problem. Right now, I should be in a bar in Texas, not in the White House. There is only one reason I am here and not in that bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.”
Bush is the right man, we are told, because of the providence of God.
According to White House insiders, Bush still talks regularly to pastors and loves to hear that people are praying for him. The atmosphere in this administration’s West Wing is suffused with the aura of prayerfulness. There have always been study groups, even the Clintons had one. But now the groups are everywhere.
Lately, we are told, the President’s own admittedly “simple faith” has grown darker, with a sense of Destiny that approaches the Calvinistic, the sense that everything is pre-ordained by an incomprehensible God. There is a fatalistic element, according to speechwriter Frum. If you are convinced that God rules the world, all you can do is to do your best and things will work out.
This hyper-infusion of faith language is not new. As religious scholar and Lutheran minister Martin Marty has written, for decades, chief executives have acted like priests of the national religion. Sometimes they soothe — he reminds us — think of shuttle disasters or the acts of terrorism — and sometimes they inflame — as in times of war.
Few doubt, Marty says, that Bush is sincere in his faith, a worthy virtue when he alone must decide whether to lead 270 million people into war, possibly killing thousands of others.
The problem, he believes, is not with Bush’s sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he is doing God’s will. No second guessing, no arguing, no negotiating. No debate, not even religious.
From the outside — other moral concerns aside for a moment — President Bush’s war plans seem just plain risky. Foolish even, according to former, and even present, military advisors.
They may be risky, another columnist, Jackson Lears, wrote this past week, but Mr. Bush is no gambler. Events are not moved by blind change and chance, he has said, but by the hand of a just and faithful God.
Bush’s talks are filled with references and metaphors of good and evil. Holy battles.
As for the war in Iraq, it is part, in Bush’s view, of a global war against evil. A kind of Protestant Jihad.
We do not claim to know all the ways of providence, yet we can trust in them. God is at work always in world affairs, calling for the United States to lead a liberating crusade in the Middle East. And this call of history, Bush is convinced, has come to the right country.
Just the word “crusade” is inspiring to some, particularly those of fundamentalist evangelical persuasion. Evoking images of the Great Crusade, that period from the 11th to the 13th century when European Christians went on military expeditions into the Holy Land to retake areas captured by Muslim forces.
Having been sufficiently chastised by the American Muslim community for even using a word like “crusade,” which evokes the slaughter and suffering of their own ancestors, Bush has not used that word of late. But it is there, under the surface of his portrayal of terrorists as absolutely evil, and calls by some of Bush’s closest religious advisors that Islam is a very evil and wicked religion.
While this vision thing, this conviction that, one, there is a God of Providence in control of all human fate, and two, that President Bush is the right man at the right time to do God’s will, is not, of course, universally shared by either the national or international faith community. But, to date, the concerns of world religious leaders about this war have not induced the White House to open its door to a broader theological debate.
Not even the Pope, the American Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, many Jewish groups, and most Muslim leaders, as well as hundreds of other religious leaders, including our own denominational president, Rev. William Sinkford, have gotten a hearing. Only dismissal.
The President’s sin, if I may use the word, is not that he has his own religious convictions, but that, as Martin Marty has pointed out, that his is a sin of pride. That he alone knows the will of God. A flyer I picked up at a peace rally in Gainesville last weekend says it well: Ask your clergy, Whom would Jesus Bomb? Ask your President.
Christian theologians by the dozen are wary, Marty reports, when Bush uses the words of Jesus to draw neat lines and challenges the whole rest of the world (indeed anyone in this country who dissents) if you are not for us, or with us, you are against us.
And against God.
Rabbi Edward Feld, a Jewish chaplain, has written powerfully about finding faith after the Holocaust. He observes that in the aftermath of the events of World War II, that when theologians of earlier generations spoke of God’s will and power, when we imagined God’s watching over creation, our theological language said too much. Our understanding of God’s relationship to history was false.
We conceived of God as too much of a person, when God is really spirit. Our images of God were idolatrous and are now shattered by the events we have endured, the events we have witnessed.
Or remembered. Or will remember to remember in the days to come.
We no longer believe in divine inspiration, he says, that will comes from the outside. Instead we must learn that we can let holiness enter us, that we can make space for the divine, that which is most deeply nourishing, that which sparks the soul of each of us.
When we listen to the silent calling of God, impelling us to reach out and shatter the hard reality constructed by evil, to affirm the humanity of our neighbor — that is divine intervention.
The last time, as I said earlier, that I was waiting for a war to start, for the planes to swoop down and bombs to fall, I was a child. A child who felt alone and abandoned, waiting for the sky to fall.
And that day, that time of reckoning, the bombers were turned back.
This time, I am a fully-grown woman, and what I have been thinking about most is the children of Iraq, waiting themselves for the sky to fall.
And the words to that old Welsh lullaby come to me: Sleep my child and peace attend you, all through the night. I who love you shall be near you, all through the night. Soft the drowsy hours are creeping, hill and vale in slumber sleeping. I, my loving vigil keeping, all through the night.
This afternoon’s vigil is just that, not a rally, not a protest, but a holy stand — against this war, against this arrogance of power, this arrogance of righteousness.
For the children, for all of us.
There will be, by all accounts, more than 5,555 vigils in 3,786 cities and 126 nations. Some in daylight. Some by candlelight. All by faith.
A stubborn, loving faith that war is not the answer, not yet.
All through the night.