On earth, peace
I just want to sing Christmas carols and disarm the U.S. juggernaut
Have you ever sung “O Holy Night” by candlelight on Christmas Eve in America? This verse stands out:
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
A Boston Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight wrote the English lyrics in 1855, when chattel slavery was the law of the land in the United States. The message was not subtle: There is no peace until we break the chains.
We talk a lot about peace at Christmastime. The Gospel of Luke tells us that terrifying angels dropped in on some poor shepherds when Jesus was born and proclaimed “on earth peace, good will toward men.” Songs like “O Holy Night” drive home the point that peace on earth is about more than ~ good vibes ~ .
Peace requires a change of material conditions. Pope Francis said it in his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti last year:
We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing, and work for all. This is the true path of peace, not the senseless and myopic strategy of sowing fear and mistrust in the face of outside threats.
The four weeks leading up to Christmas are known as Advent, a season of waiting. In some churches each week of Advent has a theme, and the theme of the second week was Peace.
In our church we talked about the peace of Christ and how it differed from Pax Romana, the false peace of the Roman empire won through conquest and hegemony. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you,” Jesus said near the end of his life on earth. “I do not give to you as the world gives.”
And what about Pax Americana? This Peace Week, on Dec. 7, the nominally Christian majority in Congress joined in a 363-70 vote to approve one of the largest military budgets in human history.
It’s a cliche by now to note that no one asks “How will we pay for it?” when it comes to the military. In a country governed by two pro-war parties but currently controlled by the more progressive one, Congress signed off on $768 billion worth of military spending, with little public debate, in the space of a single news cycle. The amount exceeded President Biden’s request by $24 billion, and it passed during nominal peacetime.
Nothing we know about the U.S. Department of Defense would suggest it is an instrument of peace. It’s been a long time since this country’s military crushed the Southern slaveocracy and liberated people from Nazi concentration camps. Now that it’s a global superpower, it recruits soldiers from the poorest high schools, wages wars of aggression, and dodges accountability for war crimes from the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court with impunity.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. military has trained death squad leaders at the School of the Americas (a.k.a. WHINSEC), dropped napalm and white phosphorus on civilians, and sprayed 600,000 gallons of Agent Orange on the Laotian people while top brass lied to cover it up. The U.S. has interfered in at least 81 foreign elections at the behest of private corporations and anticommunist ideologues in addition to providing direct support and funding to right-wing coups in countries including Iran, Guatemala, and Chile.
The U.S. war machine is an ongoing ecological disaster. If the U.S. military were its own country, it would be the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases on earth, and that’s just taking into account fuel consumption. The Air Force in particular is an efficient machine for converting fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, and open-air burn pits at overseas bases have poisoned our own troops while increasing their risk of cancer. A series of warmongering presidents from both parties have used the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to run military operations in 85 countries in the years 2018-2020 alone, according to the Brown University Cost of War Project.
Less remarked on, but still fully present, is the threat of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Ours is the only country that ever dropped an atomic bomb on a city, and we did it twice. While pop culture has mostly moved on from the threat of mutually assured destruction by the great nuclear powers, leading U.S.-subsidized weapons manufacturers including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin keep raking in billions while stoking the arms race amid growing global instability. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has said for two years in a row now that our planet is closer to nuclear annihilation than at any time since 1947.
This fall marked the formal end of the 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, a war that began on spurious pretenses, enriched war profiteers and corrupt government officials, pitted U.S. forces against the same religious extremists the U.S. helped arm and finance in the 1980s, left another generation of soldiers reeling with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians while destabilizing the region and creating a power vacuum that accelerated the rise of ISIS-K and the return of the Taliban.
The withdrawal itself was a bloodbath. On August 29, during the final days of retreat, a U.S. Reaper drone fired a 20-pound Hellfire missile at a white Toyota Corolla on the streets of Kabul, exploding the car and killing multiple people in a nearby courtyard. In the wake of a deadly ISIS strike at the Kabul airport, U.S. military intelligence supposedly indicated that someone in the car was taking explosives to the airport as part of another ISIS attack.
“The procedures were critically followed and it was a righteous strike,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Civilians on the ground immediately disputed the official report, and a review of video evidence showed that a child was visible in the strike zone 2 minutes before the operator fired the missile.
In fact the missile strike had killed 10 civilians, including 7 children and a humanitarian aid worker named Zemerai Ahmadi. None of these people were facilitating an ISIS strike, as Milley had originally claimed. What U.S. intelligence referred to as an “unknown compound” where the Corolla had parked was in fact the office of Ahmadi’s employer, Nutrition & Education International, a well-established organization founded by an Ohio State grad to fight malnutrition in Afghanistan. The white Corolla was a company car, and the “suspicious” items he had loaded into it were either laptop computers, jugs of water for his family, or both.
At the time of his death, Ahmadi and his family were waiting for approval as refugees to the United States. Our country’s military murdered him and several members of his family, then tried to shirk responsibility until Afghan locals and journalists reviewed the footage and revealed the truth.
The Pentagon conducted an internal investigation, found no fault, and punished no one.
“I feel only pain,” said Romal Ahmadi, who lost his three children ages 2-7 in the attack, in an interview published by the Associated Press yesterday.
“But America is a superpower,” he continued. “We are powerless to do anything so we leave it to God to punish them.”
It is difficult, but I suppose not impossible, to argue that the globe-bestriding U.S. war juggernaut makes the world more peaceful. If it creates peace, it does it in the same sense that the Roman Empire did: through conquest.
At the start of the next U.S. military aggression, there will be an army of well-paid pundits ready to plead the case for war on TV and in the opinion pages of the New York Times, whose editorial board has not opposed a U.S. war since Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983. We need to be prepared for the next propaganda campaign selling a war in Iran, or in China, or in Russia, or in another country whose people we will kill as proxies.
There is a way for Christians to live morally within the heart of an empire, but it’s not easy. It’s a way of resistance, of saying “not in our name.” When we sing, “His gospel is peace,” it’s a proclamation of the peace of Christ and a renunciation of Pax Americana. It makes no sense to sing it one day and pledge allegiance to the flag on the next.
Merry Advent. On earth peace, good will toward men.
One of my favorite radical Christian podcasts, The Magnificast, had an excellent episode this Advent on the theme of peace. If you’re wondering why I’m all fired up with Christmas spirit right now, that’s part of the reason. You can listen to it here or wherever you get podcasts.
One resource for resisting the nuclear arms industry is a new report from PAX, “Perilous Profiteering: The companies building nuclear arsenals and their financial backers.” It’s a helpful look at how we can continue pressuring banks, pension funds, and asset managers to divest from nuclear weapon manufacturers.
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The 2021 Weirdly Specific Holiday Book Guide is available here.