May 24, 2013
The Body Baggers of Iraq
Posted on Jun 15, 2011
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, and we’re speaking with Michael Long, a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College. And that’s convenient, because those are the two subjects we want to talk to you about. Welcome.
Michael Long: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Josh Scheer: So what is a Christian nonviolent history?
Michael Long: I’m sorry, say that again?
Michael Long: It’s a big history. I guess that’s one of the main points that I wanted to emphasize. Peace runs from the beginning of Christianity up to the present day, and there are no breaks along the way. One might think that there would be breaks, because of the Crusades and other big events in which Christians have slaughtered lots of other people, millions of other people. But there are no breaks of peace themes in Christian writings and practices through the years.
Josh Scheer: And now, there’s a quote that was in your book from John Haynes Holmes, which is “If war is right, then Christianity is … false, a lie.” I mean, do you think that’s a common thread, besides the Crusades and some other … ?
Michael Long: I think it’s a common thread in the writings that I include in the book. And I believe that most of the writers begin with Jesus’ words, love your enemies, and then go from there. And they take those words—it’s really constitutive of Christian convictions; it’s not something that follows from general Christian beliefs, but it is Christianity. It’s the heart of Christianity, this theme of nonviolence, the theme of loving your enemies. That is what Christianity is all about, most of these writers believe.
Peter Scheer: Has the idea of religion—I’m thinking of the great tradition in America of religious peace and progressivism—and I’m wondering if you feel like religion has been hijacked in this country by extremists.
Michael Long: Well, I don’t know whether Christianity has been hijacked by extremists, because for God’s sake, there are a lot of death-dealing themes in the Bible—in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. And I do not want to diminish that at all; you can find God calling for the slaughter of innocents in the Hebrew scriptures; you can find God in the New Testament who sends people to hell for the rest of their lives, and that’s a rather, that’s a practice that runs against just war theory, which calls for proportionate justice. And so you can find a God in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament who calls for a lot of deaths …. And I don’t want to say that people who follow that God have hijacked religion, because that God is in Christianity as well. What I want to do is say that there’s another God there that you need to tend to; there are a couple of different Gods in the Bible. And by saying this, I’m sure I’ll just set off a lot of people. But there are different Gods in the Bible, there are different visions of Jesus in the Bible. And the one that I try to tend to is the nonviolent Jesus.
Josh Scheer: But that’s not a fringe sect of Christianity, right? I mean, the nonviolent…
Michael Long: I don’t think it’s a fringe sect, no. Let’s be clear, though; I think if we were to take a poll of Christians, almost…a vast majority of them would be people who believe in either Crusade theory or just war theory. We have a president now who is, who claims to be a Christian, and yet is engaged in how many wars? President George W. Bush claimed to be a Christian, and yet led major wars. … President Clinton claimed to be a Christian. For God’s sake, I went to his church in Washington, D.C., and he carried out military engagement after military engagement. I think most Christian leaders believe in things like just war theory and, to be fair, carrying out violence for humanitarian reasons. But there is this group of dissenters, and those are the people who are nonviolent practitioners of the faith. … I think that they’re in the minority, I really do. But though they’re in the minority, they are, I believe, the essence of Christianity, because of Jesus’ teachings: Love your enemies. It all begins with that.
Josh Scheer: You know, I remember being, a friend of mine being on a religious cruise, and it was right after, I believe, the war in Iraq started. And people were getting very fired up about, you know, we’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do this. My friend, who happened to be liberal, his brother was doing the cruise, said doesn’t the Bible say thou shall not kill, or thou shall not murder? And … everyone kind of shushed him down, but this priest they had on the stage whispered to him later that he was right.
Michael Long: He whispered to him … [Laughs]
Peter Scheer: Yeah, that’s very courageous of him. [Laughter] Let me just ask you, he brings up the Iraq War—George W. Bush claimed to be taking instruction from God. And you say there’s this minority that’s maybe more in keeping with the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. Why is one group more legitimate than the other?
Michael Long: Well, I think it’s difficult to find a crusade theory in Jesus’ words or practices. I think George W. Bush would be hard-pressed to say that Jesus told him to go to war. I mean, he didn’t say that, and I don’t think anybody would say that, because the Jesus that we know of is the Jesus who said love your enemies; the Jesus who said turn the other cheek; the Jesus who died nonviolently on the cross; the Jesus who didn’t fight back, who told his disciples to put down their swords, said those who take up the sword will die by the sword. So this is the Jesus that we know, and people who move away from that Jesus are moving away from the essence of Christianity, I believe. And that’s why I think that you can rank these things. I think you can say that pacifism, Christian pacifism, is much more in line with the teachings of Jesus than the crusade war theory of George W. Bush, or the just war theory of Barack Obama. Those two latter ones are just out of sync with the one they call lord, Jesus. In fact, they’re so far away from Jesus they don’t know it. They’re blinded by their convictions about the United States; they’re blinded by convictions about U.S. exceptionalism; they’re blinded by just about everything except Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence. So I’m always sitting there at presidential debates, at the time when they’re talking about war, thinking to myself, why doesn’t somebody ask these guys how they can square their convictions about war with their convictions about faith?
Josh Scheer: And then, to go into a war that was long since over, but Frederick Douglass, and talking about pacifism, even though slavery was a big part of his life, being against the Civil War.
Michael Long: Yeah. Well, what’s interesting is that the Civil War was a really difficult time for pacifists. Because most of them, as you rightly note, are social liberals. And so the Civil War was a great cause for social liberals, and you can find a lot of pacifists at that point putting aside their pacifist convictions for the cause of liberation of slaves. And while that is understandable, there are some like Joshua Blanchard who say that those who put aside their convictions, like as Lucretia Mott did, as some of the major abolitionists did, were simple faulty, and they were faulty because they were no longer following their Christian convictions; they were allowing others, other convictions to trump them. But yeah, that was a really tough war, and so was World War II; that was a very tough war for pacifists. Why? Because of Hitler, you know. And Hitler was depicted as this huge monstrosity of evil, and most Americans believed that. But you did have folks like Bayard Rustin, who ended up organizing the march on Washington in 1963, standing against even World War II. And they did it based on their Christian convictions. You know, what’s really fascinating about this is that I remember somebody asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu—who’s a great figure for pacifists, and especially Christian pacifists—whether he believed in war and using force. And he replied that—something like this, I don’t have it verbatim, but he said something like this: Somebody needs to stop Hitler from throwing the babies in the gas chambers. And that’s a really powerful argument; it really is. And pacifists don’t have a great answer for that, other than to say you should live the type of life that won’t get us to that point, where people are throwing babies into gas chambers.
Peter Scheer: But when they are …
Michael Long: But when they are, what do you do? You do—Tolstoy makes this point—you do everything you possibly can; you can interpose your body between the oppressor and the victim, you can offer your body instead, you can shout at somebody, you can do everything except harm them physically and kill them.
Peter Scheer: Let me just ask you a question as we wrap it up. I confess to a bit of ignorance about, well, a bit—a lot of ignorance about religion. And in Googling in preparation for this, I see this line in the Bible that Jesus is supposed to have said: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.” What is that?
Michael Long: Well, that’s a line [laughter] Jesus is reported to have said. Did he say that? I don’t know, but I do know this much: He wasn’t talking about a physical sword that would kill people. It’s silly and absurd for people to point to that line and to say that there’s justification for Jesus granting me the permission to go to war and kill people. That’s not what he meant. He talked about—it’s in reference to the power of the faith even dividing families; it’s a metaphorical use of the word sword. Every other piece of evidence that we have from Jesus’ life suggests that he was somebody who believed in nonviolence and pacifism … as part of his faith journey with God.
Peter Scheer: I guess that’s what happens when a rhetorical flourish becomes hearsay, and then translated a thousand times. Well, I have to just end it here, but thank you, Michael Long, so much for joining us.
Michael Long: You bet, my pleasure.
Peter Scheer: Michael Long is a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College.
That’s it for this week’s show. Join us again next Wednesday at 2 on KPFK or anytime online at Truthdig.com. Thanks to our guests, Dave Hnida, David Muhammad and Michael Long. Thanks also to our board-op Jee, engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky. For Reese Erlich, Narda Zacchino, Eunice Wong and the Scheer brothers, thanks for listening.
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