by Rosemarie Pace
Pax Christi New York
Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you.
Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times.
You who live by the sword will die by the sword.
Many Americans refer to the United States of America as a Christian nation, but what does that mean? The Gospel verses above are all teachings of Jesus the Christ for whom the term “Christian nation” is named. It’s easy to say Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, at least not for all people in all circumstances, but let’s take a moment to look a little more deeply at his life.
Scripture tells us Jesus was born in a place for animals because his parents were far from home and had nowhere else to stay. Shortly after his birth, this little family became refugees because his life was under threat. When they returned home it was to an occupied land. When he became a man he knew the pain and suffering of outcasts: widows and orphans, the sick and disabled, the impoverished and oppressed. He dedicated himself to helping these people, teaching very unpopular lessons like the ones above, which made him an enemy of the most powerful people in his faith and state. Some opposed him so strongly that they unjustly arrested him, tortured him, and chose him for crucifixion over a known criminal. Still, while hanging on a cross, he prayed that God forgive his executioners.
Jesus was not naïve. He was not unfamiliar with affliction. He did not deny the reality of cruelty and evil, of enemies and violence. He even warned that these would be part of the lives of anyone who followed him; yet, he still said, “Follow me.”
In that light, just how well does the U.S.A. measure up as a “Christian nation”? Twenty years ago, on September 11th, 2001, terrorists brutally attacked the U.S.A., killing nearly 3000 people. Far more were left in shock and mourning. Since then even more have died from illnesses attributed to their work in the toxic environment of the fallen buildings and polluted air. Much of the world rallied round the U.S.A. in sympathy and support. Millions of voices, anticipating vengeance, cried out, “Not in our names.” Official statements were written calling for a nonviolent response. Prayers were offered. Some even dared to recognize that our suffering was not unique, that other countries and other peoples had already experienced similar assaults on their lands.
But how did the U.S.A., as a nation, respond? Within a month, we were at war in Afghanistan, a country from which not one of the terrorists came. In time, U.S. troops were waging a “War on Terror” not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. Torture became an everyday practice. The U.S. opened a prison in Guantanamo and filled it with men without charge, many of whom were guilty of nothing, suspects based on false and unverified information. At home, the new Department of Homeland Security was created, breeding fear to muster support for military actions abroad and stoking hostility toward all Muslims and anyone mistaken for Muslim. There were and still are restrictions placed not only on foreigners, but U.S. citizens as well.
What started with approximately 3000 dead has now claimed nearly a million lives across nations and continents, including civilians, members of national military and police forces, opposition fighters killed by U.S.-led coalition troops and their allies, U.S. military service members and contractors, as well as allied Western troops, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers. (It is important to note here that despite being described as unwilling to fight for their country, 32 times more Afghan soldiers died than U.S. military in 20 years of war there.)
In addition to these deaths, the whole Middle East has been destabilized. There are secondary conflicts erupting where none existed before. New terrorist groups, like ISIS, have emerged.
The “War on Terror” has also had a huge financial impact. The Cost of War project calculates over $8 trillion. That is $8 trillion not spent on health care even as the world faces a pandemic, a climate crisis that threatens the future of the entire planet, poverty relief around the world, affordable housing and living wages here at home, along with free education through college, and so much more.
And who have paid the highest of these costs, both human and monetary? First and foremost our own veterans who have been deployed repeatedly. Far too many who weren’t killed suffer from long-term if not permanent physical injuries and PTSD. The suicide rate among them is about four times the number killed in battle. Many are homeless. And a disproportionate number are people of color on both sides of the conflict. Interpreters and others who helped U.S. and allied troops have risked theirs and their families’ lives with no guarantee of refuge. And then there are the innocent civilians killed “by mistake” in drone attacks, one of the U.S.’s new favorite means of fighting. And not to be forgotten are those victims of the “War on Immigrants” into which the “War on Terror” has evolved.
The War on Terror began in this “Christian nation” because 19 men using U.S. jet liners attacked us. Their simple, low-tech strategy turned the world upside down, but did it have to? Could this “Christian nation” have responded differently? Could we have actually followed Jesus? Could we have set aside our rush to vengeance and humbly and honestly examined why this happened? What of our own policies and practices might have aroused such hatred? (And, if we are humble and honest, we will have to admit it wasn’t because of our freedom.) Could we have opened our hearts and minds to listen and learn about the cultures of the peoples and nations we claimed to want to protect and defend without taking the time to understand what they needed and wanted? Could we have chosen the hard work of loving our enemies, of forgiving, of abandoning the sword and choosing diplomacy and international law instead? Could President Biden, the U.S.’s very Catholic Christian president, who proclaimed emphatically that “We will not forgive” when ISIS-K attacked the Kabul Airport during the long-overdue U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, have demonstrated instead that we are, indeed, a “Christian nation” by not retaliating and killing, among others, an innocent family of 10, including several young children? Sadly his words and his action demonstrate that we, as a nation, have learned nothing about the futility and destructiveness, imprecision and injustice of violent vengeance.
But neither President Biden nor any of his three predecessors will have the last word. Since 9/11/01, many people have chosen to love and forgive and to put away the sword. In particular, many people of different faiths have rallied together to learn about each other, to pray together, and to become community. What we learned was that at the heart of every religion undistorted and undefiled is LOVE. We also learned that many people who profess no religion also share this belief in LOVE.
It is now time for us all to unite in making the U.S.A. truly a “Christian nation,” but only by accepting the fact that that means a nation in which Christ-like behavior for those who are Christian is also the behavior of all people who know that love is paramount. Rather than anyone calling the U.S.A. a “Christian nation,” let us be a “Nation for All People,” a nation willing to engage in the hard work of peacemaking. Let us never forget one more teaching of Jesus, perhaps the most important one of all, at least as we commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Special thanks to the following for critical facts and stats:
Over Two Decades, U.S.’s Global War on Terror Has Taken Nearly 1 Million Lives and Cost $8 Trillion: A new report from the Costs of War Project makes staggering estimates for the human and financial costs of the global forever wars by Murtaza Hussain
High Suicide Rates among United States Service Members and Veterans of the Post-9/11 Wars by Thomas Howard Suitt, III, Boston University,
STATE OF INSECURITY: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11 by Lindsay Koshgarian, Ashik Siddique, and Lorah Steichen