Reba Place Fellowship, the Mennonite community in Chicago which serves as a model for us in so many ways, understands community to be a form of protest against the three idols of our time: Mars, Mammon, and Me. Mars is the Roman god of war, and today at the Lotus House we joined millions of people around the world in prayer for peace in Syria, and in particular that the United States would not escalate the violence in the region through military intervention.

Mars is a powerful god in this country. Professor Harry Stout begins his essay “Religion, War, and the Meaning of America” with this disturbing truth: “The norm of American national life is war.”  From the earliest colonial days to the present, there has not been a generation which was not preoccupied with wars, threats of wars, and military intervention on foreign soil. One of my earliest memories is sitting around the television with my family and watching Wolf Blitzer’s nightly reports on the Gulf War (1991). At that time I was totally unaware of the American interventions in Libya (1986), Angola (1976-92), in Somalia (1992-94) and Haiti (1994). I now also know about the operations in Bosnia (1993-95), in Iraq (1998), Serbia (1999-2001). Our children, the oldest of whom is ten, has never seen a year in which the U.S. was not at war. In my own lifetime, there has not been a single year in which the U.S. military was not engaged on foreign soil.

Why has war been such an important part of American life? Chris Hedges explains in War is a Force that Gives us Meaning that Mars offers people a “purpose, meaning, and a reason for living.” In the case of Syria, the U.S. is acting to protect the innocent victims of the civil war who have been attacked with chemical weapons, and to set a precedent that the use of such weapons in the future will be punished.Yet why does the U.S. believe they have the right to set precedent and defend the innocent all over the world? In part, because it reinforces American identity as a “Redeemer nation” called (by God) to do the hard work of enforcing peace in a hostile world. Woodrow Wilson summed up this noble vision when he said, “We go to war but grudgingly and then only what compelled by the requirements of restoring the peace, justice, and good order, for we among all the peoples of the world comprise the most peace-loving of nations.” The story of Christians’ involvement in this Savior myth is long and complex (see Richard Hughes’ Myths America Lives By), but here it’s sufficient to note, with professor Stout, that “without religion, the institution of war could not have thrived in America.”

Confessing Jesus as Lord, we turn from the god Mammon and all the false hope and empty meaning he offers. So then how do we combat real evils such as despotism, violence, and persecution? The answer varies with the situation, but it seems clear that Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” prevents us from harming them. One way Christians have opposed evil from the earliest time is prayer. The Egyptian Christian thinker Origen summed up this reasoning well: “And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them.” We pray because we believe that the true enemy is not any particular nation or people, no matter how violent and cruel, but the demonic impulse to force our will on others. Spiritual impulses like this cannot be altered with bombs or poison gas.

The prayer we prayed this morning came from Brian McLaren, who posted it on HuffPost yesterday. Here’s the full text:

Living God, our world is broken-hearted by the atrocity of chemical weapons being used in Syria, killing children, women, and men indiscriminately. And our hearts grieve no less for the many tens of thousands killed and millions displaced by the civil war there. We pray for peace, God of peace: not just the cessation of conflict, but a new day of reconciliation, civility, and collaboration for the common good … in the Middle East, and around the world.

We also pray for the United States, whose leaders are contemplating military strikes in retaliation for the atrocity, to punish those who ordered it, and to deter those who might plan similar atrocities in the future. We acknowledge that our leaders are trying to do what is needed and right, based on the understanding they have. But on this day, as millions of us around the world pray, we ask for greater wisdom, greater understanding, greater foresight, so that we can find new, better, and non-violent ways to achieve lasting and profound peace.

We know from bitter experience that “our” violence promises to end “their” violence, but in the end, it only intensifies vicious cycles of offense and revenge. We also know from bitter experience that inaction and passivity also aid and abet evil. So on this day, we seek your wisdom, for a better way forward … a new way that we do not yet see.

We Americans sense that our nation is on the verge of rethinking its role in the world. In this moment of rethinking, we also pray for guidance. Help us learn from past mistakes, and help us imagine better possibilities for the future. In this time of political tension and turmoil – not only between, but within our political parties – may your Spirit move like the wind and give us a fresh vision of what can be, so that we do not repeat old, tired, and destructive cycles of what has been. May the wisdom and ways of Jesus, upon whom your Spirit descended like a dove, guide us now – to a wise and responsible role as good neighbors in our world. Amen.

*UPDATE*

Someone brought my attention to a deeply moving and personal prayer written by a Syrian Jesuit named Tony Homsey. I encourage you to check it out as well. It begins, “Jesus, my friend, I don’t ask you these things often, but, what if you were a Syrian in your thirties?”

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