Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"The Christian and War" - a response

Four months ago a Facebook "Friend" (actually someone from high school whom I never knew very well to begin with and haven't seen in almost 30 years - he graduated two years before I did) solicited my opinion on an essay called "The Christian and War." The essay was written by Stan Warford, a professor of computer science at Pepperdine University, and delivered in September 2008 at something called the "Red Letter Christians Convocation Series" at Pepperdine University (which, don't forget, is a religiously affiliated university). You can read his essay by clicking here.

In the essay Professor Warford outlines the unequivocal anti-war position which is at the heart of Christianity, then he presents an historical account of how Christian leaders have succeeded in rationalizing and justifying war and Christians' partipation in it. If I'm understanding his essay correctly, he is advising fellow Christians not to participate in or to condone war, including the defense industry; he is exposing and rejecting any and all attempts by Christians to legitimate war.

Bradley, you asked me what I thought of his essay, and I couldn't agree more with the points he makes, i.e., that according to Christ's teachings, war is wrong under any circumstances. (Granted, some wars are easier to defend than others, as per the "just war" theory he describes.) What I really have a problem with is the end of the essay, where he explains that he worked in the defense industry for many years until he saw the light, began to develop a conscience, and decided to quit the war business. My response, then, is "What took him so long?!"

Here's a quote from the essay:

"Allow me to conclude my presentation on a personal note. I have a confession to make. At one point in my professional career I was an aerospace engineer with a company whose revenue was derived entirely from government contracts from NASA and the Pentagon. I have always been fascinated with mathematics, physics, and technology and in my youth did not pay much attention to the ethical implications of my work. While I worked on civilian projects like the Viking mission to Mars and the Space Shuttle, I also worked on military projects. Some of my work is in the Minuteman ballistic missile deployed in silos across the United States, and some is in the Polaris missile deployed in nuclear submarines around the world.

"My regret is the number of years it took for my conscience to evolve to the point where I could no longer participate in warfare projects. One reason I resigned from my position and came to Pepperdine was the desire to influence students like you. My hope is that this talk will prompt you to consider the nature of war in light of the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps my experience will influence someone in this audience so that the years of your youth will not be spent as a proponent of war, which you will later grow to regret."

So he's sort of like the Ancient Mariner, I guess, walking around with an albatross around his neck and warning others not to be like him. (I'm sure there's an apt Biblical character who could be referenced, but I'm not that up on Bible stories.)

His own professional experience, like the history of Christianity that he traces in his essay, points out the core problem with Christianity: it often fails to represent a morally righteous position, it frequently puts itself at the service of government and authority-figures, and it does not encourage people to have what Professor Warford might call a highly evolved conscience. Instead, it encourages people NOT to think for themselves, and to do what church leaders tell them to do, even if it's in direct contradiction to what's in the Bible.

I'm not at all surprised that Professor Warford worked for the military-industrial complex all those years while calling himself a Christian; that sort of hypocrisy is endemic to Christianity, at least in the United States (which is the only culture I'm familiar enough with to judge). Look at all the so-called Christians who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 even though he had led our country into a disastrous war based on out-and-out lies. Too many Christians are willing to let their preachers, their political party, or other folks in positions of authority tell them what to think -- to do the thinking for them. (Remember how the Protestant Reformation was about having people read the Bible for themselves, instead of having the clergy interpret it for them?)

In my view, which Professor Warford points out in his essay, the downfall of Christianity came in the fourth century when Constantine adopted the sign of the cross. Christianity was coopted by the state, and still is. Ever since that time, many Christians -- especially those in authority -- have used their positions to advocate for the status quo, to bolster whatever political regime was in power, and basically not to rock the boat.

The story of someone close to me -- whom I won't identify out of respect for his privacy -- is just as strange to me as Professor Warford's flip-flop. This person went to college with no real religious beliefs, but sometime during the third year was converted by a rather conservative group of campus Christians; they got him to do all kinds of bizarre things, like going to shopping malls so he could accost complete strangers and try to convert them. [I was actually with him once on a bus in Chicago; we were getting off the bus, and he suddenly ran after some poor guy who had gotten off at the same stop, to "witness to him about Christ." When I asked him why, he said that the Holy Spirit had "moved" him to do it. The guy he had approached didn't speak any English.] About a year after this conversion to a right-wing branch of Christianity, this person was recruited by the U.S. Navy -- he was a Physics major, and he signed up for the Nuclear Navy. It wasn't until several years later that he decided he was a conscientious objector, and filed for an honorable discharge from the service. The point of this story is, if Christianity were what it should be, then a fervent new convert wouldn't be signing up for the military in the first place! Would he? I mean, it seems like a no-brainer to me. He should have been a conscientious objector BEFORE he signed up for the Navy, right? I mean, he was a born-again Christian before he joined the Navy.

MY personal position, to be clear, is that I am a former Christian - a member of the United Methodist Church, first in Evanston, Illinois, and then in Santa Monica, California. I was very interested in Christianity and spirituality for several years. I started to become disenchanted with the church for a variety of reasons, but the main reason I dissociated myself from it (passively, not actively) was the political and religious climate of the United States as it evolved during the 1990s. The so-called "Religious Right" so hijacked public discourse about religion and politics that it became impossible to call oneself a Christian without having people assume the worst - that you're pro-war, you hate gays, and you are just generally intolerant and humorless. To be fair, most of the Christians I know are very tolerant, even compassionate; generous and charitable; respectful of other faiths; concerned about social justice; and many of them are even anti-war.

My problem is with the kind of Christians you see on TV: the Sarah Palins and the Cynthia Davises of the world, and worst of all, the George W. Bushes of the world. These folks make Christianity look like the worst catastrophe that ever struck humankind. Sarah Palin believes that an Alaskan oil pipeline is "God's will;" she urges folks at her church to pray for the pipeline because "God's will has to be done." Also the Iraq War - that's right, "God's plan." See the Sarah Palin Church Videos on YouTube.

In my view, religion and politics should be kept completely separate, but as long as people are using the "Christian" label to get themselves elected to the White House, they should at least understand what Christ represented. Those people give Christianity a bad name.

Posted July 11, 2009

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