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Fire from heaven: musings on peace from an armed pickup truck
April 4, 2013
AKRON, Pa. – It was just after breakfast when the pickup truck arrived that would take me, a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, on a trip into the countryside to visit a health clinic. To my surprise, on the back of the truck stood four Lao soldiers, armed with AK-47 submachine guns and grenade launchers. My travels that day with a doctor from the Ministry of Health would take us through “insecure territory,” and the ministry had arranged for soldiers to travel with us for our protection. Today, nearly three decades later, I still struggle with the implications of what happened that day in 1984.
The logic of taking four soldiers for protection is as common and everyday as the air we breathe. This logic permeates the evening news, our entertainment industry, our national security policy, our school playgrounds and even our homes. If someone threatens you, be prepared to threaten them back. If someone attempts to harm you, harm them first. Intimidate, frighten or beat anyone who might plot ill against you. And in a fascinating sequence in Luke’s gospel (Luke 9:51-56), we find that this same logic was also active in the minds of Jesus’ disciples.
On their way to Jerusalem from Galilee, Jesus and his disciples walked through Samaria, widely known as hostile territory due to the long-standing enmity between Samaritans and Jews. When they were refused hospitality at a Samaritan village, James and John seethed with anger. “Shall we call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” they asked Jesus. Having just argued about who was the greatest, they were eager to use their power to set up the kingdom in Jerusalem. Peeved by the nettlesome Samaritans in their path, their response was as old as Cain and Abel and as new as drone strikes in Afghanistan: a holy and revenge-filled fire from heaven.
Jesus rebuked his disciples, and they went on to another village.
To my deep regret, I must acknowledge that I did not challenge the preemptive fire from heaven assembled on the pickup truck that day in Lao PDR. I sat in my front seat and tried not to think about the soldiers in the back. By taking my seat that day I violated my most deeply held beliefs about the nature of God, the way of Christ and my own commitment to peace. Had any of the four Lao soldiers been harmed or had they harmed or killed someone else, I would have been devastated.
My reflections on this troubling experience surfaced with greater intensity in an MCC project visit to Iraq in 2004, just about a year after the U.S. invasion. Knowing that we would be spending time with a landmine clearance agency which regularly used armed guards and not wanting to repeat the experience in Lao PDR, I arranged in advance not to travel in one of their vehicles. Yet everywhere we went there were U.S. military Humvees and trucks, all with many M-16s sticking out the side with trigger fingers at the ready. There were huge military bases, military convoys, guard posts and checkpoints. We were still surrounded by lethal firepower even though our vehicle was unarmed.
And so I have come to realize that for all intents and purposes, I am still in an armed pickup truck.
As U.S. citizens and members of a community of faith who follow the way of Jesus, we struggle with a mighty contradiction. For as we pledge our allegiance, not to nations but to a God who calls us to love even our enemies, we travel the world in a metaphorical U.S. pickup truck bristling with real weapons. “Fire from heaven” streaks from the truck with regularity, creating the smoldering ruins of villages such as the disciples of old had envisioned. With high-tech weaponry available in abundance, there is no need for government to implore God to send down fire from heaven. Yet God’s blessing is regularly invoked by political and religious leaders alike.
Held in the truck by thousands of economic tethers sewn by our own hands, we are bound to the interests of corporations in the global market that bring many of us the good life. We purchase relatively cheap food, fuel, clothing, electronics and entertainment brought to us through trade policies that are often unjust. In the context of a military that outspends the next 15 countries combined, our malls, sports industry and Hollywood are like a narcotic, dulling us to the pain we visit on God’s children here and abroad.
Yet many in our communities are realizing the truth of the prophet Samuel who warned the people of Israel about the inevitable oppression of a king with a standing army (I Samuel 8). A highly militarized power structure will take resources from the people, sucking up the very air that the common good needs to breathe. While the king will have his chariots and horses, his drones and smart bombs, the people on the margins and the agencies that serve their needs will struggle to survive. Indeed not everyone on our U.S. pickup truck is enjoying the ride. While high-cost weaponry glistens on the exterior, poverty and hunger stalk the interior of the truck.
Several days after James and John had nearly fire-bombed a Samaritan village, Jesus told a story about a man who was robbed while walking on the rocky road from Jerusalem to Jericho and left beside the road for dead. Holy people, a priest and a Levite, came along and passed by on the other side of the road. Jesus’ disciples leaned in to listen, knowing that the next person will be the hero. Likely expecting it to be someone like themselves, they are astounded to hear Jesus declare that a Samaritan was the one who offered grace and healing to the wounded traveler. It is almost as if Jesus deliberately reached back several days’ journey to the village the disciples wanted to reduce to a pile of ashes and picked up a Samaritan to place into the story.
In so doing, Jesus challenged the disciples even as he challenges us to reject the popular narrative of enemy stereotyping and violent revenge that so characterize our national life. Yet Jesus goes way beyond inviting us to be civil or tolerant toward our enemies. In the form of a story, he reminds us that people whom we may want to destroy may in fact be capable of offering grace and healing from God. He reminds us that it is we who carry self-images of cultural and national superiority, who may in fact be the wounded ones in need of healing.
And so, I wonder:
What would happen if we were bold enough to humanize our enemies as Jesus did? What would happen if we routinely remembered the victims of U.S. drone strikes in our Sunday morning prayers and regularly drew attention to them in letters to our local newspapers?
What would happen if our churches became a place where nonviolent peacemakers of all nations and religions were so celebrated that their names rolled off the tongues of our youth as easily as the names of sports stars, movie actors/actresses and pop singers?
Where might God’s Spirit lead us collectively, if we who benefit from the protection of the guards on the pickup truck withheld our war taxes? What if our taxes dollars went instead toward local and international acts of justice, mercy and peacemaking? Might we find blessing in such a corporate act of restoration and healing?
What would happen if we loved the soldiers on our pickup truck, especially those wounded in soul and spirit from the brutality of war? What if we recognized that their wounds symbolize our collective failure to learn and practice the ways of peace?
What would happen if we invested the same energy to prevent our nation’s bombs from falling on others, as we have invested in seeking our own exemption from military service?
What would happen if training in nonviolence became a part of preparation for baptism?
In all likelihood, I will travel the world on this metaphorical U.S. pickup truck the rest of my life. I will be blessed by the many good things on the pickup truck, but I hope I will never stop struggling with the contradictions between the faith I live by and the logic of empire that permeates many of the realities in my life. For this struggle, surely we all need another visitation of fire from heaven, like the fire of the Holy Spirit that descended on fearful believers at Pentecost. This was not a fire that destroyed. Rather, it brought together the entire known world, breaking down the barriers of language, culture, race and nation, inspiring a season of sharing and unity. Would that such a fire would burn within our community of faith on the pickup truck, inspiring courage and creativity in our commitment to living Christ’s way of peace.
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ