Jan 10 — Books, not Bombs

Texts:  Matthew 2:1-12

An excerpt from a letter to Greg Mortenson in Stones into Schools, by LTC Chris Kolenda, U.S. Army —

I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general and Afghanistan specifically is education. The conflict here will not be won with bombs but with books and ideas that excite the imagination toward peace, tolerance and prosperity. The thirst for education here is palpable. People are tired of war after 30 years and want a better future. Education will make the difference, whether the next generation grows up to be educated patriots or illiterate fighters. The stakes could not be higher.

According to the story — the wise men were led by a great light in the night sky to the newborn savior.  My hope today is to try to make some sense of the recent deployment of 1500 Vermonters to war in Afghanistan,  by looking to that light. I’d like to shed more light on the issue, than generate heat — but some heat is not all that bad either.  We are after all sending friends and neighbors to war in a desperately brutal land.

To do this, I want to point us back to the Christmas story, for in the familiar and beloved language of Luke’s infancy narratives and again in Matthew’s addition of the story of the three wise men, is, hidden to us non-Greek speakers, clues that this birth will have political ramifications.  That Jesus and those who follow him will have to do with the political order.


When the angels appear to the shepherds they bring a message — a special kind of message — one known as Euangelion.  The Euangelion was the announcement to the people that an heir to the Roman Emperor’s throne had been born.  It was obviously a rare moment, but one filled with a great deal of import.  To announce Jesus’ birth in this way is no mere coincidence.    It is Luke’s way of notifying us that this baby, because he’s clearly not the next in line for the Roman throne, will turn the whole idea of empire on its head. The real empire will be the empire of God.

An early Christian saying in Latin is  “radix omnium malorum avaritia” — the first letter of each word forming an acrostic — the Latin word for the empire, Roma. Translated literally, radix omnium malorum avaritia simply means “avarice is the root of all evil.”  In the context of the early Christian acrostic it means that Rome is the root of all evil.  Marcus Borg, the popular scholar of early Christianity notes that this was the early Christian experience of empire: ” The embodiment of greed in domination systems is the root of all evil”  and located in the Roman Empire (Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 137.).

Luke also has the angels announce that the one to be born would be a Savior, Christ the Lord.  Again, for those not steeped in the everyday-ness of those words now as Christian, it was a surprising turn of phrase, another signal — Savior and lord, both titles belonging solely to Caesar.

And what about Matthew?  I mentioned last week, that Matthew’s opening chapter, describing the genealogy of Jesus was coded for those familiar with the cast of characters that Jesus’s ministry would embrace those of his day who would otherwise have been discarded.  Now in the story of his birth — a brief mention that it happened, and a longer story about some visitors from the East.  Kings or wise men, we have no easy translation.  Herodotus mentions that the magi as they are called in Greek, are astrologers.  What we know about astrologers at the time is that they were the ones studying nature and scripture and history.  They were the scholars of the day.

When these scholars finally arrive in Palestine, they naturally go to the King, Herod to ascertain where the heir to the throne is to be found.  The contrast is striking.  Luke’s Herod is stereotypically Rome — he is the root of all evil, and he slays innocent children just to protect his throne.   The scholars are likewise stereotyped — as they remain open to the voice of inspiration.  They are warned in a dream that the intentions of King Herod, in wanting the men to return to him when they’ve found the newborn, are to protect the pax romana by killing this threat to it.  They will have no part in the avarice of empire.  They go home another way.


In a sermon about 8 years ago, on the occasion of our country’s invasion of Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, I preached a sermon that I’m not likely ever to forget.  I don’t remember the details, I remember the reaction. I was critical of the decision and labeled it imperialist.  That day and the aftermath taught me a few lessons about the care that must be taken when going down this road.

That said,  I am not going to avoid calling our country imperialist, I just want to do so lovingly and carefully.  I do not want to mean that by using that terminology that our country is not worth loving, or even dying for.   In many respects  being the world’s superpower has been a good thing for the world. More importantly I do not want to mean that we are calculating imperialists. Or that we were to sit back and do nothing following those attacks.  But I am concerned today, as I was 8 years ago, that we do not carefully enough consider what it means to be the world’s superpower when we begin military action on foreign soil.  The question was, what did that mean as we moved to defend our country after the attacks of September 11?  And what does it mean now, 8 years later?

It was that experience of preaching 8 years ago, that drove me to study the writings of scholars known as the post-colonialists, ultimately leading me to Colorado where I presented a paper on theology in a post 9/11 world and arguing with Jean Bethke Elshtain, a renown just- war scholar and supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2002.

My argument that it was not just, was, in a nutshell, that the origins of all of this violence has deeper and more tangled roots than we like to admit.  Post-colonial scholars help us see that one of the oddest things about the experience of empire is that it dislocates the cultures involved  such that the aims of freedom are veiled in experiences and ideas that masquerade as freedom.  When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in 313, that masquerade was fully institutionalized and Christianity itself became a disolaction.  The religion that originally used the word Lord and Savior in a kind of revolt against the avarice and violence of empire had hybridized in order to accommodate empire.

The moral of that story for me has been to be aware that as soon as a superpower  invades a country — it has responsibilities that involve being aware of just this kind of hybridization.  The thing we asserted through our invasion, regardless of whether you think it was justified or not, becomes reversed and our efforts become tangled in a complex dislocating relationship — far more complex than the old Marxian formula of the oppressed seeking revolution against its oppressor.  Far more complex than the politics of identity so often espoused by political liberals where the political action to be taken is simply dictated by the interests of the members of the group who are oppressed by hegemony.


I think you can see how it was of interest to me to read the letter from LTC Chris Kolenda to Greg Mortensen which he reproduces in his new book.  Mortensen writes that prior to the extraordinary attention garnered by his book Three Cups of Tea, which was about the experience of building a school in Afghanistan after a failed mountain climbing expedition, that his “judgment of the American military conduct in Afghanistan was harsh and rather uncompromising. . . .”  He remains concerned, but he says that after sharing the equivalent of three cups of tea with the U.S. military his perspective began to change.  He hopes those meetings also began to change the military.  Nevertheless, Mortenson and many members of the military, some of whom are high ranking, ultimately agree with Luke, we’ve been warned in a dream and we best go home another way.

I’m not sure what that means in a real, boots on the ground way.  I am quite conflicted about this.  I’m not sure we can have peace with troops and I’m not sure we can see it without troops.  But either way — one thing is clear — we are called to realize that empires get into trouble like this.  To avoid trouble, different tactics are required.    LTC Kolenda is clear — we cannot win in the traditional way.  To win, a different approach through the hearts and minds of everyone involved, Americans and Afghans, Brits and Indians, is required  Books open minds.  And open minds receive inspiration to go home another way, to choke the aspirations of empire and feed the aspirations of a real peace.

We face two ways.  Let me close with an old Native American parable that offers advice about choosing the right path.

A young boy went to see his grandfather because he was angry that one of his friends had committed an injustice against him and he wanted revenge and he wanted his grandfather’s advice on how to get it.  His grandfather sat him down and said, “I know these feelings.  I’ve had them myself.  I too have had the feelings of hatred and anger and lust for blood and a lust for revenge.  It’s as though there were two wolves inside of me fighting for control of my soul.  One is a good wolf who takes care of its pups and who is a peaceful wolf that only fights when its necessary.  And the other wolf is an angry, angry, angry wolf that strikes out in all directions whenever its given a chance.”

“And these two wolves,” the grandfather added, “are inside me all the time fighting to dominate my soul.”  The grandson thought about this for a moment and he said, “I don’t get it, grandfather, which wolf wins?”

And the grandfather said, “The one that I feed.”

We have crossed the border and we will get home again one way or another — but whether violence follows us depends in large part, upon which wolf we feed while we are there.  Greg Mortenson’s story gives me hope that the right one is being fed by a larger and larger number of people.  In the days and months ahead, I hope that we can find ways to feed the first wolf and reach out our hands to help those others who are suffering, here and abroad.  Amen.


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