Many of us, I suspect, had the same reaction when, on January 16th, we heard the news that war had broken out in the Persian Gulf. We sat glued to our television sets, asking:  “How can this be happening in the late 20th century? Haven’t we learned anything from all our previous wars? Surely there must be another solution? This can’t be real?”

At the level of feeling, most of us, I suspect, felt the same depressing mixture of numbness, helplessness, frustration, anger, disbelief, confusion, and eeriness. Beyond these feelings we were haunted by the sense that we should be doing something, beyond watching simply this on TV.  What is being asked of us?

What should we be doing?

At one level, the answer is obvious, prayer. We must be praying to acknowledge our sin and helplessness and to invite the power of God into our lives and into this situation. But this is not a simple prayer. True petitionary prayer in a situation like this calls for a number of things.

To pray properly in this situation calls, first of all, for a certain displacement. To be in solidarity with those whose lives are so suddenly ripped apart, brought to a violent end, or irrevocably damaged, means that we cannot go on living our own lives in such a way as if nothing in them has been irrevocably ripped apart, damaged, or died. Proper prayer must rip apart and derail (and irrevocably) our agendas, plans, and comfort. If we are really praying for peace and for the victims in this war, we will not go on with “business as usual”.

Beyond this displacement, proper prayer calls for a deeper confrontation with the reasons for this war, including those within us. Here we must be prepared to face some searing truths, truths which take us beyond the selective explanations of both the right and the left.

This is not a war brought about simply by the inflexible personalities of two men, George Bush and Saddam Hussein, or the historical intolerance of two countries, Iraq and the USA. Nor is it simply about aggression and oil. Beyond economics, politics, oil, and personalities, it’s about how we all live, about our own violations (minute and gross) of the moral and aesthetic orders, and about our own inflexibility, greed, intolerance, inability to compromise, and incapacity to find roads that lead beyond historical injustice and entrenchment to present reconciliation.  Let me try to word this more simply:

A slogan that I very much agree with says: Peace depends upon justice. That’s true, but that algebra goes further. Peace depends on justice, but justice itself is rooted not just in economics and politics, but also in the wider moral and aesthetic order. What this means is that justice is about more than political and economic power, though surely it is about these. It’s also about morality, aesthetics, and chastity in every area of life, public and private. The whole moral order is inextricably linked and thus how can we expect George Bush and Saddam Hussein to compromise and move beyond historically entrenched positions to new possibilities, when we cannot do this in our own families, marriages, religious communities, academic classrooms, or even between the sexes? How can we not expect that ideology can become so rooted that it allows violence and death, when we let that precise thing happen in our personal relationships and in our church circles?  How can we expect our political leaders to be too morally sensitive to violate the preciousness of human life when, daily, we violate beauty, preciousness, and dignity through disrespect, vicious judgment, slander, irresponsible sexuality, and greed? How can we not expect hatred at a world level when there is so much of it in our own personal lives?

Simply put, how can we expect countries to get along when we cannot get along with each other in our families, marriages, communities, and churches? When we are, almost always, suspicious of each other and at war in our personal relationships can we expect anything else at a world level?

War is not something we may accept. Pacifists are right, there is no such thing as a just war. As Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle puts it: “Some things may be worth dying for but nothing is worth killing for!” True prayer understands that and it wages peace by displacing the one praying from both the smugness and comfort of a non-displaced life and from the smugness and comfort of the selective morality and ideology of both the right and the left …  who have convinced us (when we don’t pray) that others, not we ourselves, are the cause of war. True peacemaking comes out of prayer and wages peace in the public domain and it begins and ends in the seamless heart of God within which the tiniest and the largest things are both important and within which private and communal chastity are one and the same thing. 

(Next week … A Prayer for Peace)