Some of us recognize the speech above. FDR’s “Declaration of War” before Congress following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Listen to it. It’s a good place to start this week because today is Veteran’s Day, and it gives us something to wrestle with. Because it is a good speech, and powerful, and seemingly very timely. After all, of all wars, isn’t World War II the one that Americans romanticize most — it gives us the best movies and stories, it’s connected to that “great generation”, and above all it was a war that we weren’t even trying to be involved with but were drawn into. Having been surprised by a dastardly attack on our soil, leaving our entire west coast vulnerable, we felt the need to defend ourselves and join our allies, fitting what many call “just war”. And, and, we pushed through to overwhelming victory.
It’s the war that many love. It’s not one that many people doubt or question. But however confident we are even in WW2, can’t we still admit its atrocity? I mean, if nothing else the weapons of warfare had grown specially terrible — the first world war saw weapons like air combat, machine guns, and tanks, but these were all perfected in WW2. Jungle warfare that was renowned in Vietnam for its gruesome, face-to-face quality was rampant in the Pacific. After the fact we learned the extent of the Holocaust. Concluding the conflict we saw atomic weapons devastate civilians.
For me, even with our most romantic of conflicts, even those we exalt and celebrate, there cannot help but be mixed emotions. Veterans advocate that, probably better than any, that “war is hell.” So to honor them, and to honor God, even on Veterans Day as Christians we have discernment to do with war. How far do we go with it? Do we go with it at all? We who uphold grace, forgiveness, unconditional love, and love for enemies….
In Jesus’ life, we hear the disciples stir up a conversation that’s pretty similar, one of mixed emotions that calls for deep discernment. In Luke 21:5-19, as he and a crowd walk around Jerusalem, somebody looks up at the Temple and can’t help being awed by its beauty. Its stones, jewels, golden doors, and the idea that God dwells there with the people. And that little comment sparks Jesus here to get into a wild subject, “the end of days” when all that grand Temple would come down. If we’re in that crowd with him, all of a sudden this is a big moment — as Jews we’d know that to talk about the Temple’s destruction is to start thinking about the end of the world, so the prophets had been saying for centuries. If we’re in that crowd, our ears perk up at where the convo has gone…Jesus is gonna let us in on some of the big stuff, the end of the world stuff. So they jump into our usual questions, “What will happen? When? Wha? Wha?”
For me, what he describes smacks of deep discernment. Just look at the advice he gives:
First, in verses 8-9, “watch out that you are not deceived….” Jesus gives a warning for taking great care, being patient and wise, and not getting swept up in things when they start happening. He says, basically, “don’t just run after everybody claiming this or that, because most of them won’t be representative of me.” Why this warning? In part, I think, because imagine the excitement of the people at the “end of days.” As Jews who count themselves as God’s people, and as disciples following Jesus around who have seen his power at work and are convinced he’s the victorious Messiah, many folks thought the end would finally bring justice and judgment, and all their enemies would be dealt with, and they’d inherit the kingdom of God. A good hope, in a way. Some of that is what draws us towards armageddon movies and 2012 predictions, it’s wild to think we will take part in the most famous days in history, the END. So Jesus warns his followers not to be taken in by all this, not to be just swept up into it, but to be cautious.
That idea seems so true for our discernment with war. Can we agree that combat should be entered into cautiously (if at all), that above all we shouldn’t be swept up and drawn in by the excitement and go too far. I mean, what’s too far? There’s a popular country song that makes it more clear for me. It gets played a lot around Vets’ Day, called “The Angry American” and here’s the video (WARNING: THE LYRICS ARE FAIRLY EXPLICIT):
Watch it. Does it ever rub you wrong? Or only all right? At what point does it go too far? Again, as people of grace, called to love our enemies and even to die for them before we consider killing them, where do we stand so that we don’t enter that kind of conflict lightly?
Like FDR’s idea of “Righteous might”…I understand the emotions that fuelled his speech and our nation. Feelings of vulnerability, and really the fear along with it, of having our own soil harmed and under further threat. But I wonder if Jesus’ disciples had similar feelings. It sounds like Jesus didn’t want them overtaken with their fervor for justice/judgment. Righteous might, sure, but careful not to make it “self-righteous” might.
Then there’s the second piece of advice from Jesus. In verses 10 and 11, he describes the gnarly side of the end of time, the nation versus nation, natural disasters, and mighty groanings all over the earth — and it sounds to me like he’s almost trying to scare them. But I don’t think that’s it, if I believe all this is to try to prepare them (and us) for the end. Do I think Jesus wanted his disciples to be ostriches with their heads in the sand, or cowards fleeing for their lives? Jesus does get dubbed a big “pansey” much of the time for all his nonviolence, his “turn the other cheek” door-mat kind of talk. Is that it here? Negative. I think he hopes the people realize what’s coming so that they can hang on and endure.
It reminds of something I’ve heard said about people of faith, that connects to the September 11th attacks. On that day, as the buildings collapsed and the dust-clouds rolled out, hundreds of folks were all running in one direction: AWAY from the buildings. But hundreds of others in particular were heading in the opposite direction. Emergency personnel rushed directly into the darkness. That is exactly where we should find the people of God. Rushing even headlong into disaster, distress, and the greatest trouble holding the banner of our faith. When everybody else is running for it. So in death, in the scariest of times, in indecisive times, we can be fearless in Christ Jesus like no other people can.
I think Jesus gets at that here, preparing his followers so that they can endure in courage.
So in the face of two extremes: being swept up and charging too far versus fleeing away in fear, Jesus advises us on where to be in the mix. He says, “Stand firm”…”Stand firm, and you will win life.” Because the last verses here are clear that however exciting the times, and however insanely scary, they will also be personal. Faith will divide families, Christians will be disowned, persecuted, tortured, and killed.
And when that comes, can we cling to God’s righteous might without going too far on into vengeance and personal satisfaction? Can we resist aggression without turning to cowardice? Can we offer the other cheek, not as big pansies, but in defiance? Remember, Jesus who chose death for the sake of saving even those trying to kill him, he still stood defiantly as if to say, “You’re going to take this life? Then I will raise it again.”
Can we stand firm?