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Advent Anticipation in a Time of Endless War

Just a year ago Pope Francis enjoined us in his World Day of Peace Message, Good Politics is at the Service of Peace,[1] to take up the beatitudes for politicians (§3) and to say no to war (§6). As we in the United States prepare for the 2020 elections, Francis promotes our responsibilities to participate in public life and for the opportunities therein to inspire work for justice and the rule of law. Amid the many tragedies that mark human history by declared wars and contemporary conflicts, Francis reminds us that the central mission of Christ’s disciples is to bring a peace to our house (§1)—the Church, our nation, and across our Common Home—a peace that respects and promotes fundamental human rights and mutual obligations we all share, enabling a bond of trust and gratitude to be forged between present and future generations (§3).

Francis’ message remains as critically important today as it was last year when many in the world watched agog and in disbelief at the tragedy and violence unfolding at the US-Mexico, Syria-Turkey-Greece, Israel-Palestine, Pakistan-India, and South China Sea borderlands as well as the daily domestic barrage of lethal brutality against predominantly minority populations, each of which tragedies continues today. At this moment in time there are nearly 30 conflicts of interest across the globe with immediate national security or trade relevance to the United States (on a scale from critical to significant to limited impact),[2] 134+/- Special Operations Command theatres,[3] and another dozen or so conflicts where US interests are not at stake (there are apparently no financial gains there). Are we to take comfort that this state of affairs confirms Jesus’ call to vigilance when we will “hear of wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7, Matt 24:6) but do nothing about it except to watch and be prepared for our own day of reckoning? Or should we begin now to “beat [our] swords into plowshares” (Is 2:4), our cannons into railway tracks, our guns into girders? How are we to reconcile the call to a peace that the world cannot give with a global order and a nation interminably stuck in destruction mode, an ideologically reinforced perpetual military culture, and a daily assault on our senses and on our hearts?[4]

I have never not known of war and conflict in either domestic or international contexts, indeed, “you will hear of wars.” In my childhood, I was aware that the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain kept Eastern Europe and the USSR separated from the West, that Israel and Palestine remain vehemently at odds, and that other colonized and oppressed peoples were and many still are fighting for liberty. On the home front, I watched the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded on the one tv set in the house, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the protests of that war; happier news brought Woodstock and the Summer of Love and entertainment like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Olympic Games, sitcoms, and the weekly adventures of “Route 66,” “Star Trek,” “The Mod Squad,” and others. My experience was fairly common. By mid-twentieth century many homes in the US boasted a single television set that brought the days’ news with the flip of a switch and a turn of a mechanical dial to channels 2-13. As the station broadcasts were limited (severely by today’s standards), most households watched the news and entertainment in a culturally homogenous way albeit with mixed reception given the dominant culture’s monopoly of the medium. Today’s media options have broken that homogeneity, in manners particularly mean that exacerbate domestic cultural wars. While the options are welcome, the rancor fueled by partisan politics and anti-diversity campaigns is counterproductive if not destructive for a nation of presumed firm purpose rooted in justice and faith (cf. Is 26:1-6).

As Historian Stephen Wertheim opines in a New York Times Editorial, The Only Way to End ‘Endless War’ is “to give up [our] pursuit of global dominance. … The basic cause is America’s infatuation with military force.”[5] Undoing this infatuation presents a hard sell to a public that honors its military servants as much as it glories in the victories won while forgetful of the casualties of military and collateral civilian deaths, acquired disability, and family strife. Even so, The Intercept reporter, Murtaza Hussain recognizes that with the end of required registration for the draft/mandatory enlistment, “the creation of an all-volunteer military has made the conflicts [in which an active US military presence is engaged] much easier [for the public] to ignore. As public attention has waned, it has become much easier for the US government to obscure its own role in helping foment violent crises that have sent waves of desperate refugees streaming across the world.”[6] And as Historian Jennifer Mittelstadt notes in The Highlight by Vox, Want to End America’s Forever Wars?, “By severing military and civilian life, the all-volunteer force has fostered a hands-off culture of deference to and reverence for armed forces.”[7] Similarly ignored, with post-service expectations of (greater?) employability and higher education benefits, up to 56% of this volunteer force is composed increasingly of recruits from—dare I say, expendable—Hispanic/Latinx and other racial minorities.[8]

This state of affairs remains intolerable. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized the counterfeit spirit of U.S. involvement in war: “his prophecy connects the war in Vietnam with our forever wars today.”[9] Speaking April 4, 1967 (a year to the date before his assassination) at Manhattan’s Riverside Church to clergy and laity, he broke his silence about the war in Beyond Vietnam: “We are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us. … like some demonic destructive suction tube. … I see the war as an enemy of the poor … Our only hope today lies in our ability to … go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”[10] Today’s trifecta triumph of hate[11] must be outed, rejected, and replaced with the hard work of peace, justice, and sacrificial love of and for one another. Hate of the “other” in our midst and across the globe stands in stark contrast to our call to discipleship. Instead of complacent resignation or despair in the face of so much violence, do something about it: break your silence, get involved, and work for what is right and just.

If we do nothing, a response contrary to the God of pathos, the initiatives of Empire will continue to hold sway. We are challenged this Advent to take courage—action from the depths of our hearts—to lay one brick and to take one step at a time in building a common home of respect and care for the dignity of all. In his 2019 Easter Message, Francis exhorts, “Before the many sufferings of our time, may the Lord of life not find us cold and indifferent. May he make us builders of bridges, not walls. May the One who gives us his peace end the roar of arms, both in areas of conflict and in our cities, and inspire the leaders of nations to work for an end to the arms race and the troubling spread of weaponry, especially in the economically more advanced countries.”[12]

“You know the time [sisters and brothers]; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep” (Romans 13:11).

[1] Pope Francis, “Good Politics is at the Service of Peace,” 52nd World Day of Peace Message (January 1, 2019).

[2] Council of Foreign Relations, “Global Conflict Tracker” (last updated November 12, 2019).

[3] Timothy McGrath, “The US is now involved in134 wars or none, depending on your definition of war,” Public Radio International (December 8, 2014); see also United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM Enterprise (

[4] James Joyner, “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology,” The Atlantic (May 11, 2011).

[5] Stephen Wertheim, “The Only Way to End ‘Endless Wars’,” New York Times (September 14, 2019).

[6] Murtaza Hussain, “It’s Time for America To Reckon with the Staggering Death Toll of the Post 9/11 Wars,” The Intercept (November 19, 2018).

[7] Jennifer Mittelstadt, “Want to End America’s Forever Wars? Bring back Conscription,” Vox (April 3, 2019).

[8] George M. Reynolds and Amanda Shendruk, “Demographics of the U.S. Military,” Council on Foreign Relations (April 24, 2018).

[9] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The MLK Speech We Need Today is Not the One We Remember Most,” Time (January 17, 2019).

[10] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (1967); available also in Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, eds, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 2001), 133-164.

[11] Among others, see Todd Essig, “How Trump’s Psychology of Hate Unleashed the MAGABomber,” Forbes (October 26, 2018).

[12] Pope Francis, Urbi et Orbi Easter Message,” (April 21, 2019).