Wars and Rumors of Wars

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Protesters and police clash during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Photo uploaded by Flickr user oxfamnovib.

This is the first in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other essays at the bottom of this page.

From the ends of the earth comes a primal cry, a desperate yearning for reconciliation. We have all felt it at one time or another, even if we remain ignorant as to its cause. Within our souls, we long for the discord of this world to be cast aside in favor of harmony. We sense that things are not as they should be.

Yet, that is all the further that many of us will tread, for we cannot agree on the cause of our predicament, let alone arrive at a solution. We see war, strife, and dissension tearing apart our nations, our friendships, our marriages – indeed, our very existence. But if peace on earth is the desire of all, why do we perpetually fail to achieve it?

Just take a look at the news and see where we stand. Bombings in the Middle East, or perhaps today some other part of the world. Another celebrity couple headed for divorce. Politicians behaving like schoolyard brats. Human beings enslaved and trafficked across continents. Neighborhoods torn apart by escalating violence. Girls shot just for attending school. Racism that still pervades every nation on this earth – the flavor different, yet the result the same. Corporate executives looking to save themselves while their employees suffer.

There are few people who would openly admit to preferring strife over peace, but when we disagree as to both the cause and remedy of that strife, what hope is there that we can bring it to an end? The truth is that we want peace on our own terms, at a time of our choosing, in a way that best suits our own ends.

The most commonly suggested remedy is the one promoted by The Beatles: “All you need is love.” If only we were more tolerant, more feeling, more neighborly, more flexible! If we could just love one another, or barring that, accept one another…then we could have peace. It’s a powerful idea, largely because it is based on the truth. Love, or at least endurance: the vast majority of the world could get in line and sing that tune. So why have we failed to achieve the goal?

The Christian theologian Reinhold Neibuhr once wrote that the Church itself “has insisted that the law of love is a simple possibility, when every experience proves that the real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love one another, but do not.”[1] Here we arrive at the beginning of our malaise, for we are targeting the wrong problem. We are looking to manage the consequences of human discord without getting at the root cause.

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Two NHL players duking it out. Photo by Wikipedia user ArtBrom.

Here’s a question that’s been debated since time immemorial: Are we good, or are we bad? I had a chance to put this question to a representative group of 18-27 year old Americans when I was working on a national survey research project. The specific wording asked if they believe that people are generally good. Nearly all of them – regardless of race, religion, gender, or socioeconomic status – answered in the affirmative. Of course, the majority of them also believed they would have their ideal job by age 30, so this was a fairly optimistic group.

A more universally respected authority on issues of morality is Pope Francis. In a 2013 interview with the Italian publication La Reppublica, he said, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”[2] This is not strictly an incorrect statement. The world would certainly be a better place if people did what they thought was good rather than what they thought was evil. However, this statement in isolation is incapable of removing discord, for it relies on a subjective view of “good” and “evil”: the concepts are “as he conceives them”. The fact is that many perceived doers of evil believe that their actions are in the interest of good.

I sometimes wonder if I am living in the same world as everybody else. From where I sit, the world is full of evidence that contradicts the cheery analyses of so many. I do not see a humanity that is just a tad ignorant, a bit misunderstood, or taken advantage of by a few bad apples. I see a humanity that becomes embroiled in conflict not as an exception, but as a rule. I see selfishness that is not a product of environment, but of birth.

The disciples of Jesus Christ once asked Him to give a “sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age”. (Matthew 24:3) Among the things He said to them was, “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.” (Matthew 24:6) Had He not added that second clarifying sentence, I might have said that Jesus had all the prophetic vision of a fortune cookie. Predicting that there will be “wars and rumors of wars” is rather like predicting that China will perform well in table tennis at the next Olympics. Everyone knows it will happen, because it always happens.

It is a sad state of affairs that this should be a defining fact of our existence: wars and rumors of wars. Having made a study of the history of warfare, I can assure you that there has always been a war or the makings of a war going on somewhere on this globe throughout recorded history. In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, Benjamin Franklin famously declared that, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”[3] To this list, we could easily add “war”, and even more easily “disagreement”.

If humanity is progressing toward something better, and if the 20th century was our most progressive yet, then we have a lot of explaining to do. More people were killed in or as a result of war in the 20th century than any other on record. It also contained many of the worst genocides the world has ever seen, a lot more slavery than any of us would care to acknowledge, and arguably the biggest breakdown in family structures (i.e. two parents and any children living together in the same place, extended families supporting one another, etc.). There was definite improvement in the areas of human rights, but I don’t know that we could say there was an increase in our “humanity”: not with a track record like that.

From the Enlightenment on through Romanticism and Modernism, Western philosophy tended to favor the view that humanity was capable of bettering itself and bringing about a new era far superior to any that had come before it. Much of this thinking entered into Christian theology, with many believing that love and truth were destined to flourish until the entire world accepted the message. This view was dealt a serious blow – though certainly not destroyed – by the World War period from 1914-1945. The capacity of human beings for evil was put on full display, and some were forced to question their belief in the goodness of humanity.

How easily those two wars flowed into one another, and how easily we have since moved on to the Cold War, the War on Terror, and whatever war is likely to break out tomorrow! Our standard of living has certainly improved, but what about the things that so many of us claim really matter: what about our relationships?

 Police and protesters clash during the Ferguson, Missouri riots in August 2014.

Police and protesters clash during the Ferguson, Missouri riots in August 2014. Photo by Wikipedia user Loavesofbread.

Right now, you can probably call to mind a friendship, family tie, group allegiance, or the like that is either in jeopardy or has recently been pulled apart. The situation comedies that inhabit our television screens are meant to provide examples of everyday circumstances. They often try to be relatable, reminding us of people or events that occur in our own lives. Yet, when my husband gave me his opinion on a couple of the most popular sitcoms of recent years, his conclusion was that the characters spent a lot of time fighting. I guess the mirror sometimes shows us more than we wish to see.

Allow me to present the position of the Bible, because if there is one thing that convinces me of its accuracy more than anything, it is its analysis of the human condition. I look in the mirror of those pages and know that I see myself and my fellow humans, for it is in line with all of my independent observation. Here is what the Bible has to say about us: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.”(Jeremiah 17:9)

Yes, Scripture points the finger of blame directly at our hearts. As the Apostle James wrote, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” (James 3:16) Our real problem is that each and every one of us is driven by “jealousy and selfish ambition”. This is what Christians call “the sinful nature”: the tendency to act according to one’s own desires, even if it is harmful to others and violates the commands of God.

The Bible isn’t the only source that suggests that humans are selfish. Charles Darwin, Immanuel Kant, and a host of other famous names all believed this without holding to an orthodox understanding of Christianity. But while Darwin and many of his ideological children would attribute this to the desire for self-preservation, the Bible suggests something more sinister. It is the spirit of the king of Babylon, whose pride is denounced in Isaiah 14:3-14:

But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’

Many Christians throughout history have seen in this declaration an echo of the devil himself. It is the desire not merely for preservation, but for escalation. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we all believe ourselves to be supremely important. Why else do we get so concerned about things in our own lives that we might ignore in someone else’s? Why else do we feel an insult against ourselves so much more strongly than one against a stranger? We are by nature an inwardly focused species out for our own good. In our own little kingdom, we are on the throne, raised above everything and everybody else.

The bodies of civilians killed during the WWII bombing of Dresden, Germany are piled for cremation. Photo from the German Federal Archive.

The bodies of civilians killed during the WWII bombing of Dresden, Germany are piled for cremation. Photo from the German Federal Archive.

Collective wisdom would suggest that there are some people who go really bad, perhaps even downright evil. Depending on where you sit, this might include (in no particular order): the Nazis, the KKK, radical Islamic terrorists, third-world tyrants, serial killers, rapists, IRS auditors…you get the idea. We tend to place such types in a different mental category than ourselves. This allows us to maintain the pretense that most people are mostly good – not egomaniacs capable of carrying out heinous acts under the right conditions.

Psychology and history both suggest that such thinking is incorrect. Bad behavior is best thought of as a continuum, not categories. The Nazis had the tacit or outright support of millions of people, and while stopping short of mass murder, the U.S. and other countries sent suspect minorities off to internment camps during the same period. We may not all don the costume, but support for the KKK was once widespread in the United States, as were lynchings and other forms of racial violence. Even today, racism is hard to miss in the U.S. and the rest of the so-called “developed” world.

All tyrants had mothers, most of whom loved them. Hitler was one of many murderous dictators to have a soft spot for animals. Many are educated in the West at institutions with at least some basic understanding of human values. No one is born the way Idi Amin turned out, or Josef Stalin, or any of the rest of them – not in terms of their actions. More common murderers and rapists can have sympathetic back stories: parents who sung them lullabies, first loves, careers that just didn’t pan out, etc.

Most terrifying of all is the realization that all of us have the potential within ourselves not only to end up like our heroes and heroines, but also to end up on history’s evil list. I hate to quote from a badly scripted movie, but in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Yoda tells the future Darth Vader, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” A slightly different saying could encapsulate our human condition: Pride leads to discord. Discord leads to hate. Hate leads to violence.

Whether you call it pride, or selfishness, or sinful desire, there is no question that our hearts are “desperately sick”. When you have seven billion people all crammed onto one planet, each one out for his or her own best interest, and many of those interests necessarily conflicting with one another, your result is not going to be peace. Only when we accept that this is our true problem can we have any hope of finding a solution. For too many of us, even this first step is a bridge too far.

I suppose the question then becomes, how tired are you of these wars and rumors of wars, not only in terms of international relations, but also in terms of personal relations? The former is only an expansion on the latter. Have you despaired of humanity’s condition? Do you accept your own role in this plague of discord? Are you ready to take the hard path of reconciliation – the narrow road on which you will follow after the Prince of Peace?

If you have felt the desperate yearning in your soul and heard that primal cry of pain, then perhaps you have concluded that this last resort is your only resort. If so, then take a journey with me this week to discover the true nature of reconciliation.

[1] Neibuhr, Reinhold. The Essential Rehinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. Edited by Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982) From the chapter “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order”, Pg. 96.

[2] Scalfari, Eugenio. “The Pope: How the Church will change”. La Repubblica. 1 October 2013. http://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/?refresh_ce

[3] This letter, written in 1789, was reprinted in The Works of Benjamin Franklin, itself published in 1817. Franklin may not have been the first person to utter the phrase, for Daniel Defoe alluded to something similar in his The Political History of the Devil, published in 1726.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Other articles in this series:

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just