Between Death and Redemption

By Joe Pusateri

As we approach Easter, I have been confronted many times with many variations of the same theological question.  None posed it more directly than my own five-year old, who asked, “Why did God kill Jesus?”

When I was called into the ministry, I vastly underestimated the amount of time that I would spend trying to explain to people the difference between oppressive empires and God.  Of course, as a cynic, I expect empires to attempt to wield the power of God.   I never dreamed how successful the former would be at impersonating the latter.

Ten years ago this month, the leaders of our nation made the decision to invade Iraq.  To the 24-year old I was at the time, the official case made by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein’s regime was an imminent threat to the security of the United States and the free world seemed compelling enough.  I was no enthusiastic supporter of war, but only because I was raised to never be an advocate of war.  I was effectively nudged, however, into the complicit space of reluctant non-resistance.  I figured, “I guess it’s inevitable.  War is not preferred, but I guess we have no choice.”

Now that a decade has passed, I can say only with shame that it took me quite a few years to realize that my own lack of critical examination allowed me to stay ambivalent and silent while more than a few brave souls risked alienation in a culture of rabid fear and patriotism in protest as the so-called War Against Terror opened a new front.  I can speak boldly now against the sins of my nation’s foreign policy, beating my chest before like-minded pacifists, over the silent bodies of 4000 American soldiers and perhaps half a million dead Iraqi civilians.

Across the media, and from both of the dominant political camps, the range of reflection and criticism of the war seems to fit all within the one statement of “it was too expensive and mismanaged.”  Iraq, like Vietnam, was simply another example of the government’s inability to control costs.  The doves cry out that the problems of Iraq/the Middle East are better solved by methods less costly than war, while the hawks believe that critical mistakes such as disbanding the army or failing to secure weapons depots were the unfortunate mistakes that led to an insurgency and its collateral costs.  Conspicuously absent is the suggestion that our obligation to hasten the end of the “problems” of the Middle East is perhaps to stop funding or arming oppressive regimes, especially if the US government expects citizens to take seriously its pledge to uphold the ideals of democracy and human rights.

And I am offended, albeit not surprised, that there is no suggestion by anyone that the United States government was morally wrong in its preemptive war against Iraq.  What made the US misadventure in Iraq a failure was not its human and financial costs, not its faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction, and not its strategic miscalculations.  What made the US War in Iraq a failure was blatant disregard for human life, its disregard for the principle of universality (namely the idea that one cannot impose standards on another that one is not willing to meet itself) and the immediate disregard of international law and the consent of the governed.  To this last point, I strongly urge one to consider that throwing aside international structures that were designed to hold Nazi war criminals to account is to share moral real estate with the Nazis, and to resist the notion that effective propaganda in the lead up to the war counts as “consent of the governed.”

Finally, as a clergyperson, I have the sacred duty of looking into the eyes and holding the hands of human beings from their birth to death.  I hold the sanctity of life and the dignity of personhood in the highest regard, regardless of race, gender, nation of origin and political commitments.  To those who would accuse me of dishonoring the brave citizens who have risked and given their lives under the orders of this country, I take great offense.  To the contrary, I believe that exploiting the dedication and oath of a soldier is far more dishonorable (and dehumanizing) than to call to account those who trample law, order and decency and send soldiers away from their families and neighbors in order to defend imperial doctrine.

As a Christian, the most faithful thing I can do is speak truth at the right time, at the right place, and to the right people.   It is easy to take a stand against a war machine that is already far out of sight, which has already crushed one nation and endangered the world.  Even as the discussion of nuclear annihilation floats carelessly around the Korean peninsula and US drones bomb peasants in Pakistan, it is a piece of cake to stake a claim for peace.  It is easy to defend a case for justice and reconciliation with freethinking adults in an open society, even with those who disagree.  What keeps me up at night is the prospect of having to endlessly get down on one knee to explain to the five-year old daughters of the world that God did not murder Christ, that it was people who killed Jesus.  People like us, who were told they were doing the right thing for God and country, for law and order.  God, on the other hand, is the one who raised him, and will surely one day raise all of the crucified Iraqi children, sacrificed American soldiers and all the rest of us from the terrible weight of war.