In the spirit of Howard Fineman's excellent piece that appeared recently on The Huffington Post, let me ask you a question: Where were you 10 years ago, when the United States invaded Iraq? I'm asking because the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq is today, and if we are honest, you and I, we'd have to admit that for most of us who are men and women of the cloth, the last decade has been a time of shameful silence in the face of a colossal humanitarian disaster.
No one knows for sure how many people died as a result of the United States' invasion of Iraq, but estimates range between 110,000 and more than 1 million deaths, with at least 60,000 -- and as many as 110,000 -- of those deaths being civilian casualties. Those are staggering numbers, especially when we consider that the United States invaded Iraq in response to a terrorist attack that killed fewer than 3,000 Americans and in which Iraq played no part.
If any other country killed a similar number of civilians while prosecuting a non-defensive, unprovoked war, you and I would be quick to call it a crime against humanity. We would clamor for boycotts, divestments and sanctions. We'd put bumper stickers on our cars, and we would be right to do so. But when our nation killed a staggering number of innocent people in Iraq, we kept silent. We didn't protest when jingoistic members of our congregations called the carnage patriotism. We allowed ourselves to be convinced that the best way to support America's men and women in uniform was not to bring them home, but to ask no questions and to pretend that everything was fine.
As a way of justifying the carnage our nation was inflicting in Mesopotamia, hateful American voices started blaming Islam for the bloodshed. The prevailing narrative spoke of American Christians standing firm against oppressive and violent Muslims who hated us for our freedoms and wanted to replace our constitutional democracy with Islamic fascism based in sharia. We knew it was malarkey, but we said nothing. When the purveyors of misinformation demanded peaceful words from moderate imams, we failed to point out the irony (this is something I write about in my new book, "The Search for Truth about Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction").
Now, you and I didn't go to seminary or forgo potentially lucrative careers because we wanted to keep silence while innocent people -- many of them children -- died courtesy of American bombs. People like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoffer inspired us with their self-sacrificial and principled resistance against the evil of their times, and we promised that when the time came we would join the company of Christians who were brave enough to stand against societal and political evil, even if it cost us dearly, even if we had to take up a cross and follow our Savior to Calvary. We promised ourselves that we would speak truth to power and we would confront evil with the Gospel of peace.
Except that's not what happened.
It turns out that it's hard to speak up, especially from the pulpit, to condemn an evil that a majority of the folks in the congregation support. I know. I am one of a small minority of Christian pastors who condemned the war from the pulpit 10 years ago, and when I did, I watched people walk out of worship, never to return. And it hurt so much that I learned to keep my silence like almost every other pastor. Oh, I attended anti-war rallies, and I wrote about my pacifist leanings, but in my congregation, the place where my voice was most needed and most important, I learned to bite my tongue because I didn't want to watch people I love leave the church I also love.
"Don't mix faith and politics," they told us, as if religion is meant to redeem every portion of human life except the part that has the power to wage war or make peace, and we obeyed. "Healthy, growing churches don't do controversy," they reprimand us, as if the Gospel called Jesus' disciples to a life of ease, and we believed them.
If we are honest, you and me, we will acknowledge that our silence during the war in Iraq was a spiritual failure, and it's not too soon to ask what will happen the next time the United States dances off to war on a whim and a cloud of patriotic posturing. Will you be silent next time? Will I?