Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
A strange, sense of gladness overtook me as I heard on the radio that a coalition of forces had begun air strikes against ISIS. During the weeks preceding the air strikes, I had seen dreadful images of ISIS’ violence directed toward all who crossed their path including young children around the age of my own son. I had heard account after account of the desecration of churches, of homes, of the lives of women and men young and old. My gladness, I believed, was righteous anger directed against those who failed to respect the dignity of human life. They were receiving what they deserved, what was ultimately right and just.
In the days following the bombings, I began to reflect a bit on the precise sense of joy that I felt when hearing about the coalition strikes. What ultimately disturbed me was how happy I was about said bombings. I did not see these bombings as a necessary evil, a just response needed to save the lives of countless women and men. Rather, some part of me was rejoicing that those who have caused so much suffering in the region, would now experience a taste of their own medicine. I wanted the terrorists to experience the domination that they had inflected upon those who they murdered. I wanted revenge.
Indeed, I still see the validity of the air strikes that continue to take place in Iraq and Syria alike. But, the problem for me as a Christian, remains my own twisted delight at the entrance of violence into the world. Rather than acknowledge with lament the continued reign of sin and death with a heavy heart, I found myself celebrating this coronation of death. The gift of peace that Christ bestowed was of little interest to me, as I savored the intoxicating fumes of war.
My delight in the raising of the banner of war is, of course, a symptom of the problem of sin itself. In baptism, we acknowledge that the fullness of human flourishing is not to be found in the grasping of power, being held captive by the reign of sin and death. Rather, entering into Christ’s own life through the saving waters of the font, we pledge to live once again as creatures, who refuse to claim godliness as something to be grasped (cf. Phil. 2). We become receivers, rather than takers, offerers rather than those who seize at all costs.
Yet, the logic of sin and death is not so easy to give up. We still seek control and domination at all costs–if not through the banners of war than in our personal relationships, in our politics, in our daily labors. As Christians, we are being healed of our tendency to seize and grasp at all costs, of our poisonous addiction to sin. To put it positively, we are learning again to be creatures, women and men who continue to recognize their utter dependency upon God. And who see all other creatures, even our enemies, in light of this fact.
The precise temptation of war is not simply violence, for it is possible to engage in an act that would be considered violent with a sense of justice. Rather, it is the temptation to seek dominance, to impose our will at all costs, to rejoice in the suffering of others (a suffering that lets the “other” know where he/she stands in the world). It is to again enact that primal sin of humanity in which we define ourselves as ones who seize and grasp, rather than receive and gift.
Indeed, the Eucharist is essential to the healing of this desire to seize and grasp at all costs. Quoting Rowan Williams,
“The eucharist hints at the paradox that material things carry their fullest meaning for human minds and bodies–the meaning of God’s grace and of the common life thus formed–when they are the medium of gift, not instruments of control or objects for accumulation” (Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, 218).
I return again and again to the Eucharist precisely because a large part of me is utterly uninterested in letting this truth take flesh in the contours of my life. I rejoice in the announcement of war, because I still wants to abide according to the law of death, rather than the freedom of the kingdom of God. Control and power make more sense to me than self-emptying love. Yet, the concrete rite of the Eucharist heals this desire, as I practice self-donation rather than domination.
Of course, war (even just ones perhaps) will still happen. The reality of politics intervene. Yet, all Christians stand as radical signs in the world that the reign of sin and death has no power for those who seek to live Eucharistic lives of love. In other words, even in the midst of a perhaps necessary act of bombing, Christians cannot help but cry out with sorrow that the reign of death still continues in a wounded world. Our response to this sorrow must be to give ourselves away more, to return again and again to the Eucharistic life of the Church, discovering that self-donation, not self-preservation, is the medicine that the world needs. The medicine that I need. Dona nobis pacem–grant us peace.