Politics / April 30, 2024

War, Genocide, Violence, and the Gospel’s Response

I come asking with brother Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on? What’s going on?”

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
Rev. William Barber speaking in front of the US Supreme Court
The Rev. Dr. William Barber, cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaks at the National Call for Moral Revival Rally at the US Supreme Court on October 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Jemal Countess / Getty Images for Repairers of the Breach)

The following sermon by Bishop William J. Barber, II was delivered on April 26 at the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As we are gathered together on the edge of a university campus this evening, protests are interrupting the end of the school year at colleges and universities across the country.

As scenes of conflict in places we’re familiar with fill our screens, people are arguing about tactics, about the responses from administrators and local law enforcement, about extreme words and actions that endanger others. A dozen arguments at once creates a lot of noise—and the noise has gained national and international attention. But the noise has obscured the basic human cry for life in a world at war—in a world where there is on-going genocide and violence.

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I come here tonight to speak, yes even to preach, on a subject that cannot be ignored if we are truly concerned about a more perfect union and the establishment of justice. It cannot be ignored if we are concerned about moral injury and the deepest moral foundations of our faith that call us to embrace and prophetically imagine and promote an agenda of love, truth, justice, care for the immigrant and the poor and the least of these.

I come here tonight to speak on a subject that cannot be ignored if we truly are concerned about this democracy—not just saving the democracy, but having a democracy worth saving. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, and we know, that if every decision is shaped by a nation’s commitment to a philosophy and ideology that privileges militarism, that nation sows its own demise. Dr. King courageously said “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

When he said that, preachers and civil rights organizations came out against him and he lost his open invitation to the White House. I don’t know what will come of this sermon tonight, but I do know we are called to preach the truth of the gospel in times like these.

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I am the grandson of a man who was a WWI veteran who served in the military and was among those threatened when they came back home in a land where Black men were being lynched on an average of one per day in the early 1900’s and Black soldiers faced riots of white supremacists who sought to put them in their place. My grandfather went to war, but coming back from war he was an ardent voice against war because of what he’d seen.

My father was a WWII Navy veteran who was drafted as a college student at Elizabeth City State University, into a segregated Navy, asked to go and fight for the world’s safety against Hitler, and yet had to suffer because of white supremacy in America the indignity of riding in the back of the train while German war veterans rode in the front. Still, he came back to this nation and worked as a tremendous voice for peace.

I was on the plane one day with an Army general, and he said to me, “Thank you.” I said, “Thank you for what?” He said, “For being a voice for peace.” And I said, “But you’re a general fighting the war,” and he said, “Because know the pain of war, I know we need people like you. Otherwise, we could become totally unchecked. I may be a general in the Army, but I know we need soldiers for love and for mercy.”

I come with no hatred toward this country, but with a prayerful commitment to be among those who love her enough to be the real kind of patriots that dare to tell her the truth and to join with others who would tell the truth.

I don’t come proposing to know everything. I also don’t come naive enough to think that we do not have real dangers in the world. But I do come tonight from all of those different directions and even remembering the words of my father who was in war, but still knew that violence and war, hatred and killing is not the answer.

I come asking with brother Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on? What’s going on?”

As a preacher—and I stand firmly in my faith tonight—we must first hear the Scriptures. Proverbs 6:

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

I want you to notice the connections to community in this text. All of these things are connected: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush in to evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community. If we look at them deeply, we see that when a person or system disregards the image of God in other people, that’s when all of these things happen. And they stir up conflict in the community. God hates all of that. When any system or action sheds innocent blood, God says, “I hate that.”

I hate the lies that make it possible. I hate the pride that makes it possible. I hate whatever it is that gives people license to shed innocent blood.

The second text tonight is Matthew 26:52: “But Jesus told him, ‘Put your sword away. Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting.’”

The saying “anyone who ‘takes up’ the sword” is found only in Matthew. The word here literally means to marry—to have and to hold dear, to love. Jesus is saying, “anyone who marries the sword will die by the sword.” If when people think of you, they think of weapons, you are doomed, Jesus said.

This is why all the early teachers of the church were against war: Origin, Tertulian, Justin the Martyr. They understood that Jesus had taught them to divorce the sword and its logic of violence. They knew that being married to weapons of war will only produce more bitterness. That’s what the Scriptures say. When we say violence is the answer, we extend it. People who experience genocide often make it their life’s aim to get revenge. And it is contrary to the gospel.

This is why today’s religious nationalism is so dangerous. It always embraces violence and war—whatever faith tradition it exploits. In this country when we see it, they say more guns, more military spending, hating gay people and immigrants, and tax cuts for corporations is God’s agenda. It’s heretical, but it’s there—paid for by big money. We see it in Putin, we see it in Trump, we see it in Netanyahu. They all insist that God is on the side of violence and vengeance. And it is contrary to the gospel.

President Eisenhower, who had been a general, warned of this blind faith in the sword in his farewell address. Listen to what he said:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

In other words, Eisenhower knew that the love of money is the root of all evil. He knew that when you mesh making money with making war, and you don’t have an engaged citizenry ready to engage in protest, your nation is in spiritual danger. When we ask, “Where’s the money?” it’s not simply a question of where the money comes from. We must ask who stands to benefit from all of this violence? Who has been incentivized to encourage more war, more death, and more killing?

In light of the moral mandates of these two texts and this warning, we must reflect on our own history of death, genocide, and violence in America that we have never fully repented of.

In the US Supreme Court, in an 1823 case, Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in his opinion on the unanimous decision that the principle of “discovery” gave European nations an absolute right to new worlds and new lands. In essence, American Indians had only the right of occupancy which could be abolished. That meant white European settlers using military force as they moved westward to seize the land across the continent could establish networks of forts and militarized communities where Native communities once thrived, killing all those who stood in their way. This was legal. Whole communities—entire nations—were forced off their land on long treks like the Trail of Tears, where tens of thousands died.

The racism toward Native People was not simply hatred of a people who were different from the European; it was key to legitimizing genocidal wars among ordinary, self-described, “God-fearing people.”

In June 1864, Civil War hero Colonel John M, Chivington led a Colorado militia against the Black Kettle band of Cheyenne and Arapaho, then camped at Sand Creek. The PBS special, “Who is the Savage?” described how some regular army officers protested that to attack the peaceable village would betray the army’s pledge of safety. Chivington ignored them and said, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians.” He said “kill and scalp all, big and little, nits make lice.” He ordered the attack, and he not only was a colonel, but at that time was also a Methodist minister.

Today at Oak Flat in Arizona, the Apaches are fighting to hold onto their holiest site—their Mount Sinai. It’s all they have left, because they were driven out of the mountains and killed in the nineteenth century, then driven onto reservation land. We must repent if we’re ever to hear the cry for life that continues to rise up from so many hurting people.

Killing folks has been OK’d by the highest authorities in our nation. Because of our own history of sin, we should be the first to say, “No!” During the Middle Passage, we don’t know how many millions were murdered, but we know that the sharks followed the boats.

We must repent if we’re ever to hear the cry for life that continues to rise up from so many hurting people.

Most human conflict is not genocide. We must be clear about this. Yes, humans have to negotiate security. But the elimination of whole peoples is a peculiar phenomenon. The Genocide Convention codified genocide as a crime under international law in 1948. It outlawed any attempt to destroy in whole or in part a group of people by killing members of the group, causing them bodily harm, imposing living conditions meant to destroy the group, preventing births, and separating members of the group from their children. Once the convention was passed, every member state was supposed to be obligated to enforce it throughout the world.

In his book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Goldhagen makes the case, based on extensive research that has been done, that these atrocities are preventable. “The history of our time suggests that eliminationism is actually integral to politics,” says Goldhagen. “Mass murder is a political act.”

Everyday people do not slaughter their neighbors without political campaigns that first demonize those neighbors and suggest they are worthy of elimination. And this demonization can be stopped when people stand up and say, “No.” But when we don’t stand up, allowing one form of genocide over here can encourage or facilitate allowing it somewhere else.

So we must repent of being too quiet about other genocides going on right now, even before what is happening in Israel and Gaza, where there is so much killing. Since February 2003, government-sponsored militias known as the Janjaweed have conducted a calculated campaign of slaughter, rape, starvation, and displacement in Darfur. It is estimated that 400,000 people have died due to violence, starvation, and disease. More than 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes, and over 200,000 have fled across the border to Chad. Many now live in camps, lacking adequate food, shelter, sanitation, and health care. Where has the outrage about this genocide been?

Since 1996 the Democratic Republic of Congo has been embroiled in violence that has killed as many as 6 million people. The genocide that began the same year in Rwanda is now well documented, and Bill Clinton, who was President at the time, has apologized for not acting when there was time for the international community to step in and say, “No.”

Somalia has been in almost constant civil war for decades. Between 350,000 and a million people have died since 1991. 2.6 million Somalians have been internally displaced. 3.5 million face starvation.

Where has the outrage been? Someone said to me, “Those conflicts are different.” And I said, “what, because they’re African?” And they said, “No, because the US isn’t directly involved.” But I said, “You don’t think we have military interests in Africa?”

So we have to first repent. Someone said to me, “You don’t want those deaths to distract you from dealing with the death in Gaza.” But how is caring about life a distraction? We must reorient ourselves in order to be able to hear the cry for life wherever it is coming from.

The text says God hates hands that shed innocent blood. It doesn’t say which hands. White hands, Black hands, Jewish hands, Muslim hands. It doesn’t say where the blood is shed or the politics around it. No, God hates the hands that shed of innocent blood. If I’m with God, then I have to repent of not being concerned about any killing.

As we see what is happening in Israel and Gaza now, we must say no to what Hamas did and take seriously the reporting that Netanyahu is partly responsible for propping up Hamas in Gaza.

Let us be clear: Hamas murdered 1,400 people in Israel and took hundreds of them hostage. They brutalized innocent people—in many cases, Israelis who opposed Netanyahu’s extreme policies before the current war. There is no question: it is terrorism. A moral commitment to nonviolence means I must say no to that. On my grandfather’s side of our family, we were enslaved in this country. Yet my people never endorsed violence. Don’t tell me it’s not possible.

Still, having said that, we must not dismiss the history of what Netanyahu’s regime had done before October 7 and the injustice of what he has done since. In fact, the prophets of ancient Israel are against what he is doing. Isaiah 10 says, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right, making women and children their prey.” The Proverbs text we read tonight is from the Hebrew Bible. “God hates the shedding of innocent blood.”

We must question what Netanyahu has done and the apartheid-like situation Palestinians have been living in. But we have to distinguish the Israeli people from his regime and those carrying out his orders. There’s nothing anti-Israel about saying that Netanyahu’s extreme policies endanger everyone. There’s nothing antisemitic about wanting an end to the warring madness that has consumed so many innocent lives. We must question giving more money that empowers Netanyahu to do more.

But we do have the be careful of generalizing. Because there are people in Israel fighting for justice. We have Jewish friends around the world who want peace in Israel and oppose Netanyahu’s policies. As a Black man in America, if I have experienced racism, should I be against all white people? If somebody who’d a fellow Christian takes up religious nationalism, am I now supposed to condemn all Christians? We’ve got to be careful of generalization. We can’t go condemning whole peoples if we are opposed to genocide.

We must question how fast our government can move to fund defense. Congress and the White House moved quickly this week to pass a $95 billion aid package—most of which will go to support military defense in Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

I want to be clear: I understand Ukraine’s desire to defend itself against Russia and Israel’s security concerns with Iran and its proxies in the region. Without a doubt, lives are at stake in these conflicts.

I also strongly object to the unjust actions of Netanyahu’s government in Israel and support conditioning aid to Israel on a ceasefire in Gaza and a release of captives. The world has seen enough to know that thousands of innocent Palestinians have already died in an unjust war that must end.

But the speed at which the US Congress moved nearly $100 billion dollars this week highlighted for me a bi-partisan agreement that runs deeper than the hot button issues that politicians argue about on the news every day. Because people’s lives are at stake—because democracy is at stake—Republicans and Democrats can come together and agree that we have resources to invest in a moment of crisis.

This isn’t a criticism of any one administration—all of them have spent too much on war. The moral question is, if the will and the money are there when lives and democracy are on the line, why can’t the same political forces act when 800 people right here in our own country are dying every day from poverty?

They say we’re too divided to act, but it’s not true. They moved with lightning speed in DC this week.

They say we don’t have enough money, but it’s not true. We just wrote a check for $100 billion and didn’t have to sit and wait for any underwriter to approve a loan.

The problem isn’t gridlock or a lack of resources. The problem is that we refuse to see the crisis in front of us. The biggest threat to American democracy is the poverty we allow to kill 295,000 of our neighbors every year—mostly white people, though disproportionately Black and brown.

We’ve married the sword. “In Sword We Trust.”

There must be a moral coming together. We need Jews, Muslims and Christians who will raise a moral cry and challenge the shedding of innocent blood together. When I met with the Vice President, I asked her to tell the President, “If we can’t come together here, how are we going to ask them to come together over there?”

On November 11, a group of us came together and wrote:

Even as we witness gross distortions of faith by Christian nationalists in public life, we also celebrate how people from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions around the world are coming together to cry for peace. So say cease-fire, some say a “cessation of hostilities,” some say humanitarian pause. Some just say, “Stop for the babies!” But the world is experiencing a kind of Pentecost as people cry out in different tongues with a unified call to end the violence.

Judaism teaches through the prophet Amos that God hears a united remnant against injustice. Islam teaches that “God is with the group.” And Jesus prayed that we all might be One, even as he and his Father are One. There is power in the unified cry of faithful people.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share moral convictions that ground our response to this moment.

We believe that every human being is created in the image of God. Both the Talmud and Islamic teaching say that to save a single life is to save all humanity, and Jesus extends the law of love for kin and neighbors even to those who are our enemies. Together we believe that every Israeli life is precious; every Palestinian life is precious; every single life is precious.

We also share the conviction that vengeance belongs to God. While governments have a right and duty to ensure security, our traditions insist on restraint and limits when the state exercises its power. No government knows enough to become the ultimate arbiter of justice.

Finally, our traditions share a commitment to justice, especially for those who are weak and vulnerable in this world. Whenever there is an imbalance of power, God hears the cries of those who are suffering and calls us to join their cry for justice.

Because of these shared convictions and our knowledge that a “three-fold chord is not easily broken,” we join our voices with Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world who are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the safe return of all hostages and civilian prisoners taken in the present conflict.

While “cease-fire” is a technical term of international law, our faith demands that we outline a basic moral call to CEASE-FIRE.

Confront and stop immediately indiscriminate violence against any civilian, especially women, children, and the sick.

End the denial of basic necessities to any population, including food, water, electricity, fuel, internet, and medical supplies.

Affirm the image of God in every human being.

Stop the practice of holding hostages and ensure the safe return of all hostages and prisoners home.

Exercise nonviolent power to build a just peace for all people.

Faithfully work as Jews, Christians, and Muslims to support a viable alternative to the brutality of Hamas and to challenge the Netanyahu administration’s practices of occupation and apartheid.

Insist that human rights for all people are nonnegotiable.

Raise a moral cry against murder, indiscriminate violence, war, and public policies rooted in vengeance, no matter which faith is used to justify violence.

Engage nonviolently to interrupt the violence that is being carried out against fellow human beings.”

Some years ago, Christians in Palestine wrote something called the Kairos Document. The world should have listened then. Listen to what they said:

Our word is a cry of hope, with love, prayer and faith in God. We address it first of all to ourselves and then to all the churches and Christians in the world, asking them to stand against injustice and apartheid, urging them to work for a just peace.

We proclaim our word based on our Christian faith and our sense of Palestinian belonging—a word of faith, hope and love.

We declare that the military occupation of Palestinian land constitutes a sin against God and humanity. Any theology that legitimizes the occupation and justifies crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people lies far from Christian teachings.

We urge the international community to stand with the Palestinian people in their struggle against oppression, displacement, and apartheid.

We demand that all people, political leaders and decision-makers put pressure on Israel and take legal measures in order to oblige its government to end its oppression and disregard for international law.

We hold a clear position that non-violent resistance to this injustice is a right and duty for all Palestinians, including Christians.

We support Palestinian civil society organizations, international NGOs and religious institutions that call on individuals, companies and states to engage in boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli occupation.

Everything that happens in our land, everyone who lives there, all the pains and hopes, all the injustice and all the efforts to stop this injustice, are part and parcel of the prayer of the Palestinian Church and the service of all her institutions.

We must pray for the wisdom to heed the cry for life that is rising across the globe and the courage to join our voices with theirs.

We must learn to sing with the old hymn that says:

God of grace and God of glory,
on your people pour your pow’r;
crown your ancient Church’s story,
bring its bud to glorious flow’r.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the facing of this hour,
for the facing of this hour.

And in the third verse:

Cure your children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to your control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.

Amen.

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Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, and Professor in the Practice of Public Theology and Public Policy and Founding Director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School. His most recent book is White Poverty: How Exposing Myths About Race and Class Can Reconstruct American Democracy.

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