March 10: Bloodstained Hands

For your hands are defiled with blood,
   and your fingers with iniquity …
Their works are works of iniquity,
   and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
   and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity,
   desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
   and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
   no one who walks in them knows peace.
Isaiah 59:3, 6-8

The first military casualty of the new administration occurred a few weeks ago in a strike on the country of Yemen. The action sparked controversy in the US because of conflicting accounts of whether the raid was “successful” or not. The widow of the slain Navy SEAL soldier was honored in the President’s first joint address to Congress, receiving a long standing ovation.

What is largely lost in the news reports, however, is the fact that six women and ten children of the village of al Ghayil also died in the raid, dozens of homes were destroyed, and over 120 sheep and goats were killed.

Nobody has given these women and children any kind of ovation. In fact, these civilians will forever remain nameless in the minds of Americans, a mere afterthought in our ongoing war against terror. Most of us don’t even know that civilians died in the raid. And even if we do, we find ourselves justifying the deaths as “collateral damage,” as one of the “necessary” evils of war.

The desire to eradicate terror in our world is noble and worthwhile; in fact, it is a pressing necessity in the 21st century. Terrorism freezes the collective good, and laces all social interactions with fear.

But the way in which nations and states combat terror often only ends up compounding fear and doubling down on evil. 

In chapter 59, the prophet Isaiah condemns the bloodshed and violence of Israel’s army and people. His listeners may very well have complained that their violence was “defensive” and “justified.” They may have argued that it was necessary to kill evildoers in order to protect their borders; they may have defended the idea that sometimes there was collateral damage, even among civilians. They may have justified every drop of blood that had been spilled by their army’s actions.

Yet Isaiah is relentless. 

“Your hands are defiled with blood,” he says. Blood on the hands is an indictment, a sign that one is unclean before God and covered in shame.

“They rush to shed innocent blood,” he says. The critical distinction between combatants and non-combatants is blatantly ignored in a rush to be militarily strong.

“The way of peace they do not know,” he says. The violent always take the violent option first in conflict, ignoring the many possibilities inherent in a nonviolent response.

Isaiah argues that violence always spirals; it never ends up settling the conflict it sets out to settle, but only ends up furthering and lengthening the cycle of revenge. As Jesus himself said, those who take up the sword will ultimately die by the sword.

Lent is the appropriate time for Americans to consider their own nation’s bent toward violence, particularly as it is expressed through its armed forces. 

In Yemen alone, the US has conducted 197 drone strikes since 2002, which have killed between 1100 and 1400 people, including civilians. The US also uses military drones in Somalia and Pakistan, and similar data can be retrieved on these strikes. But because American lives are not at risk when drones strike, these stories are rarely covered or noticed.

But just because we don’t see these victims or hear their stories, doesn’t mean that our hands are clean.

Prayer: God, you hate it when humans use guns, bombs, missiles, and tanks. Your heart breaks every time one of the beings whom you lovingly created is maimed, wounded, or killed. How do you handle the grief? Amen.

Justice Challenge: The new administration is proposing a $54 billion increase in military spending this year. The US already spends more on defense than the next seven countries COMBINED, including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, Japan, and France. If a national budget is a moral document, as Christian organization, Sojourners, maintains, then our national spending is already immoral and sinful, particularly when spending that benefits the more vulnerable people in our society continues to be cut. Read more about the budget online at CodePink, and sign their online petition to Rodney Frelinghuysen, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Mac Thornberry, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to resist the President’s request.