By Gary G. Kohls, MD
Editor’s Note: Seven years ago as the United States was readying for aggressive war in Iraq, President George W. Bush tamped down the bellicose rhetoric during the Christmas season to downplay the contradiction between Jesus’s message of peace and the carnage that was about to be unleashed.
Once the Christmas season had passed, Bush was back pounding the war drums – and many Christians put away their “Peace on Earth” holiday cards and joined the march toward a bloody invasion that has killed hundreds of thousands, a contradiction in Christian philosophy examined in this guest essay by retired physician Gary G. Kohls:
When Gulf War I ended (during George Bush the Elder’s presidency), General Norman Schwartzkopf, the field commander, triumphantly proclaimed, “God must have been on our side!”
Such statements aren’t unusual for glory-seeking dictators, kings, princes, presidents and generals, regardless of what religion justified their particular war, but I cringed when I heard this self-professed Christian warrior claim God’s blessings on the war that made him famous.
In his memoir, It Doesn’t Take A Hero, Schwartzkopf claimed that he kept a Bible at his bedside throughout the war.
I cringed knowing that, according to the biblical Jesus, God is never on the side of the victors. The God of love that Jesus revealed was on the side of the victims, the oppressed, the starving, the sick, the naked, the meek who were victimized by unjust power.
Jesus’s God would not be on the side of the war-makers, but on the side of the peacemakers, the compassionate and long-suffering ones who work to prevent killing and to relieve the suffering of the victims of war.
I cringed when I heard Schwartzkopf claim God’s blessings on the carnage that he helped orchestrate because similar claims have been used to rationalize killing throughout history, from ancient times to some of the darkest days of the modern era.
As the German Nazis went about their systematic purging of any and all leftist or anti-fascist groups – Jews, socialists, homosexuals, liberals, communists, trade unionists and conscientious objectors to war – they insisted that God was on their side, too.
Adolf Hitler claimed that he was doing God’s will. German soldiers, both in WWI and WWII, went into battle with the words “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us) inscribed on their belt buckles.
Invoking “Gott Mit Uns” didn’t work just on the uneducated, brain-washable and obedient citizens and conscripted soldiers of Germany. The slogan also convinced most of the educated Protestant and Catholic clergymen to comfortably proclaim from their pulpits that Hitler’s wars were endorsed by the Christian God, and therefore every military action could be justified and carried out without guilt.
Most Germans wanted to believe that Hitler’s wars had to be fought for some higher purpose, a master plan that they trusted would benefit them all by creating “Lebensraum” (living space), which would mean security for the pure Aryan race.
Aggression as Defensive
In the Nazis’ up-is-down world, the propagandists convinced average Germans that Hitler’s wars were purely defensive (“the sword has been forced into our hands”). The terrorizing of foreigners in a neighboring country, in order to steal their land, was the patriotic thing to do.
Convincing the German public to engage in murder for the state took a lot of diligent work from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.
Goebbels had to persuade the Germans that their neighbor’s land and oil and mineral resources could legitimately be taken by any means necessary in order to realize the Fuhrer’s dream of the “Thousand-year Reich,” where perpetual peace for the privileged German people would finally be realized.
The “collateral damage” done to the innocent civilian-victims of Europe and the Soviet Union, was felt to be unavoidable, and the “disappearances” of the non-Aryan “Untermenschen," mentioned above, was orchestrated with conscienceless bureaucratic efficiency.
Bishops, priests and pastors, most of whom had taken an oath of allegiance to Hitler, told their parishioners that it was their Christian duty to join the military and fight and kill for the Fuhrer.
Resentment also played an important role in the swastika-waving terror. Most of the street-fighting militias loyal to the Nazi party’s politics were WWI veterans who had been rendered unemployable by years of horrific trench warfare experiences.
They were justifiably angry about their joblessness, poverty, physical disabilities, mental ill health, traumatic brain injuries, hunger, all worsened by the hyperinflation and impoverishment that go hand in hand with the huge costs of having standing armies and fighting perpetual wars.
Many of these unemployed veterans rushed to join the militia groups for the food, shelter and camaraderie, perhaps not realizing that they were helping to create the chaos that would destroy the liberal democratic Weimar republic, an action that would lead the world into another world war that would ultimately turn out to be suicidal for Germany.
Most German churches cooperated with, or at least did not vocally oppose, Hitler’s agenda. Pastors cheered the Fuhrer from swastika-draped pulpits or they stood by silently as the concentration camps and prisons filled with those suspected by the Gestapo of not being supportive of the regime.
All efforts to resist came too late, for the people who objected to the dictatorship were leaderless and unschooled in any nonviolent resistance actions. They had no Gandhi or Martin Luther King and were totally unprepared to act en masse.
Though Hitler’s Nazi regime represented an exceptional form of horror in theindustrialized slaughter committed during the Holocaust and related mass killings, it must be acknowledged that other countries, including the United States, have undertaken actions that have destroyed other populations and cultures, often with the blessings of religious leaders.
In the last two decades, the two Bush administrations mounted wars in the Persian Gulf region that had the consent (or acquiescence) of the majority of U.S. church leaders, with prayers from Billy Graham in the White House the night before the invasions began.
Virtually all Christian evangelical, conservative and many mainstream church leaders and their congregations were active supporters of the Bush wars.
Only four American Catholic bishops voted in opposition to Bush the Elder’s Gulf War I (at an annual conference of U.S. Catholic bishops). In Gulf War II, Pope John Paul II declared that the war was contrary to the teachings of Jesus, but most American Catholic leaders and parishioners ignored the pontiff’s warnings and supported the war. Most American Protestants did the same.
Yet, General Schwartzkopf and both Presidents Bush are in “good” company when it comes to believing that God is on their side in war. All U.S. presidents and presidential candidates in recent memory, even President Obama, end their speeches with “May God Bless the United States of America,” the equivalent of the German military’s “Gott Mit Uns.”
My Veterans for Peace friends are of the opinion that modern war amounts to legally sanctioned, highly organized mass murder and that basic training is psychological rape with serious, often permanent consequences for everybody involved: the victims, bystanders and maybe especially the soldiers.
And today, the killing is not just done by soldiers on the ground who can see the “whites of their eyes.” War is now often done from a safe distance by the high-tech “soldiering” of high-altitude bombing, supersonic jet fighters, long-range missiles (many of them computer-guided from unmanned drones), and radioactive DU armor-piercing ordnance that will continue killing for many centuries into the future.
The victims of this kind of lopsided modern warfare (for which the human targets have no defense) regard these tactics as cowardly acts.
Bureaucracies of Death
These days, wars are started and perpetuated by a huge conglomeration of war profiteers: corporations (and their lobbyists), government bureaucracies (that obediently follow orders from above), the handlers of pro-war politicians and the financial underwriters of their campaigns, the ruling class, and the Department of War/Defense which has, as job # 1, the planning and orchestrating of current and future military conflicts, whether originating from real, imaginary or invented threats.
A major unasked question is “what should be the role of religion (specifically Christianity) in the starting and perpetuation of politically motivated wars?”
If war-makers mix religion and politics by invoking God’s blessings on the cannons and the cannon fodder, shouldn’t the churches, which are supposed to be the consciences of the nation, apply core Christian ethical principles to the war question and refuse to cooperate with the slaughter of fellow children of God?
Sadly, for the past 1,700 years, Christian churches have not done so. They have largely failed in their moral obligation to teach and live the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount.
One only has to read the gruesome history of the many “holy wars” and atrocities committed in the history of Christendom, including the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the wars of the Reformation and counter-Reformation, the various genocides including the Nazi Holocaust.
While the churches have played key roles in the promotion and cover-ups of these brutalities, the churches have not been alone. Whitewashes and excuses have often come from politicians, pundits, “embedded” journalists and co-opted history-writers, especially the authors of high school textbooks.
Recall how, when military spokesmen try to explain away the deaths of non-combatants in these wars, they invoke the term “collateral damage” (the euphemism for the unintended killing and maiming of innocents in wartime) and quickly dismiss those deaths by spouting the unconvincing phrase that Schwartzkopf and all other apologists for war use: “we regret the loss of innocent life.”
And they piously mouth these equally insincere words: “our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.” The same rote phraseology too often comes from the lips of religious leaders.
How can the legalized mass slaughter of war, often progressing to the point of genocide, be a part of a Christian tradition that started out with a small group of inspired, oppressed and impoverished peasants who were trying to live by the highly ethical, nonviolent teachings of their pacifist leader?
Interestingly, the active pacifism of the early Christian church did prove to be successful – and even practical. During the first few centuries of Christianity, enmity and eye-for-an-eye retaliation were rejected. The Golden Rule and the refusal to kill the enemy were actually taught in the church.
Gospel non-violence was the norm, so the professed enemies of those communities of faith were not provoked to retaliation because there was nothing against which to retaliate. Rather, enemies were befriended, prayed for, fed, nourished and embraced as neighbors – potential friends who needed understanding and mercy.
The church survived the persecutions of those early years and thrived, largely because of its commitment to the nonviolence of Jesus. It was not until the church was co-opted by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th Century that power and wealth changed the priorities of church leaders.
Today however, it is obvious that the vast majority of professed Christians have been misled, intentionally or unintentionally, into believing that they can immerse themselves in un-Christ-like realities like war and killing and somehow still be following the gentle Jesus.
Today, American Christianity is at risk of going the way of the pro-war “Christianity” of pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany, which may in the long run discredit the faith much the way Christianity lost credibility among many Germans because their churches and church leaders facilitated those destructive wars.
The vast majority of Germans before World War II were baptized members of a Christian church, but since WWII ended church membership has fallen sharply and the number of Germans attending weekly worship services is now estimated to be in the single digits.
The psychological and spiritual wounding of the soldiers and their families in the two world wars stripped the German churches of their moral standing.
Those PTSD-afflicted ex-church-going combat veterans who lost their faith in the wars, along with their traumatized families, found out much too late that they had not been warned by the very institutions that theoretically should have courageously and faithfully taken on the heavy responsibility to teach private and public morality.
Many Germans who survived the wars felt betrayed by their churches and therefore had no inclination to try to reclaim their lost faith. The churches sank toward irrelevancy.
The world would have been far better off if the Christian leaders of the world had been faithful to the ethical teachings of the gospels and quit making blasphemous appeals to God on behalf of war, whether with those “Gott Mit Uns” belt buckles or the “God Bless America” political sloganeering.
Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who writes about issues of war, peace, justice, mental health and nonviolence and feels it is important to mix religion and non-partisan politics. One of his areas of interest and expertise is combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder. Dr. Kohls is a founding member of the interdenominational peace group, Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org), whose stated goal is to gradually transform Christian churches back to the original form of Christianity.