Van Ens: What U.S. wars win God’s support?
Those who exalt our nation’s wars usually have never experienced combat or haven’t heard military officials rap on their doors, carrying grim news of a beloved’s death or crushing wounds on a battlefield.
On Memorial Day, we honor fallen heroes who fought in popular and unpopular wars. Some joined the military because they believed the U.S. waged war for the right reason of protecting life that flourishes when liberty thrives. Others fought under protest, not convinced that a war’s cause justified it.
Enlistees and draftees fought to defend our freedom. Many returned in caskets.
Unfortunately, the past is repeatedly stained by ill-advised wars in which God has been recruited to justify them. Such military fights, writes The New York Times Op-ed columnist Frank Bruni, “… rip families and communities apart, sucking their loved ones in and spitting them back out in coffins, on respirators, with missing pieces, with scrambled minds.”
History records how Christians have used God to justify winning wars.
Pilgrims exploited a grim reminder of past military exploits in which they defeated Native Americans. Pilgrims hoisted skulls picked of flesh by vultures on a pole for prominent display in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1676. The skull once was the head of the Wampanoag tribal chief King Philip, who resented being forced to observe the Christian Sabbath.
Pilgrims and Native American enemies fought a bloody war. King Philip’s warriors slaughtered more than a thousand white New Englanders. Survivors vowed to wipe out these heathen Indians. After butchering King Philip’s corpse, the winners mounted the chief’s head on a pole as a grisly reminder of what happens to those who mess with the Pilgrims’ god.
Historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School tells how the renowned Pilgrim cleric Cotton Mather denigrated Native Americans. Indians were castigated as “ … pernicious creatures, diabolical hypocritical wretches, Scythian wolves, inaccessible enemies, likened to devils, ‘savage hounds’ who worried God’s ‘dear flocks.’”
Because the Good Shepherd protected his white Christian sheep, the Rev. Mather insisted it would be “the most unexceptional piece of justice to extinguish them” (“Faith of Our Fathers: Religion, Awakening and Revolution,” McGrath Publishing Co., 1977, Page 5).
Christian historian George Marsden definitively studied the Christian Right’s political rise, with evangelicals ardently supporting wars in Vietnam and Iraq. He warns of aligning U.S. foreign policy with God’s will. God works in history for just causes, believes Marsden, but the Lord’s codes aren’t simple to crack in reference to wars.
Evangelicals hold “… a commendable sense of God’s active role in history,” notes Marsden, “but [Christians in past eras] thought they could identify God’s special providences. English Protestants, for instance, long held that God’s special providence was manifested in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
“Many adherents of popular Christianity today, despite an equally commendable sense of God’s work in their lives, show a similar confusion of the Holy Spirit’s work and their own wishes and political aspirations.” (“The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,” Oxford University Press, 1997, Page 95).
Don’t assume God has endorsed each U.S. war. Step back from such outlandish claims. Humbly ask whether our nation’s wars and God fight on the same side.
Mixing sadness with honor and wisdom, let citizens gather on Memorial Day at graves adorned with Old Glory smartly waving over them.
Sad, because so many of our military daughters and sons were cut down before they could seize their dreams, accomplish their quests and love and be loved by families and friends into their veteran years.
Honored, because they sacrificed sacred lives for us.
Wise, because we are reticent to believe God supports all U.S. wars.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.