"Our Lives Come First"

Monday, 13 September 2004

A group of right-wing Israeli rabbis and other radical West Bank Israeli leaders have sent an open letter to Israel's Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, arguing for harsher policies against Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank. The group advocated a get-tough approach to fighting the Palestinians, even if it means that more innocent Palestinian civilians will be killed. Quoting the second century C.E. Jewish leader Rabbi Akiva (Aqiba), the West Bank leaders said, "Our lives come first." Israel "should not panic from Christian missionaries who preach turning the other cheek, and we will not view favorably those who prefer the lives of our enemies over our own lives," said the group. They explicitly rejected a "Christian ethic which demands placing the lives of our enemy ahead of our lives."

(That this view is not the ubiquitous Jewish view is evident in the response of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights. They dispute the Talmudic references used by the West Bank group, claiming that they were taken out of context. They further state:

There is no doubt that the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] has both the right and the responsibility to protect the citizens of the country from those who come to murder them. However this right does not relinquish the IDF from the responsibility to the lives of innocent men, women and children that were created in the image of God, even though that in their midst are those who are arising to murder us.)

As I read this story, I thought about the fact that many American Christians agree wholeheartedly with the statement "our lives come first." How else can they justify their support of preemptive war and innumerable bombing campaigns? Why else would we count American dead and wounded in Iraq but care nothing at all about the numbers of Iraqi dead and wounded? The answer is simple: the lives of Iraqis matter less to many people than the lives of Americans, if they matter at all. If a bombing run kills suspected opposition fighters it is deemed a success, even if many civilians are also killed. We remember the 3,000+ American deaths on September 11, 2001, with reverence, but we couldn't care less about the 12,000+ Iraqi civilian deaths that America has directly caused in the past two years (and that number is a low-end estimate). U.S. troops yesterday fired a rocket into the crowd surrounding a burning Bradley armored vehicle (it had been burning for hours and no American personnel were in danger nearby), killing thirteen civilians, including an Arab journalist who was reporting live from the scene at the time. If we valued Iraqi life at all, that rocket would never have been fired.

Many Christians in the U.S. have no problem with the U.S. government's actions in Iraq. It is especially noteworthy that the majority of evangelical Christians in the U.S. support President Bush for re-election, in part because they agree that his attack on Iraq was justified and because they continue to support the war. Being a Christian must involve more than simply wearing a cross or going to church on Sunday. Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of Jesus, including his radical statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Even the West Bank rabbis know that Christian principles don't allow the slaughter of innocents, even in war. Why do so many Christians not seem to know this?

Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. Paul said that we should consider others as more important than ourselves. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that God loves the whole world. Given these and numerous other clear teachings of the New Testament, how is it that so many Christians support a regime that violates Christ's teachings so blatantly? (Many of these same Christians support Israel's harsh treatment of Palestinian civilians as well.)

Not only is "our lives come first" diametrically opposed to the teaching of Jesus, it also clashes with the example Jesus set in his own life. Millions of viewers flocked to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ this past summer, and many Christians gave it rave reviews. Particularly noteworthy in this regard were conservative Christian commentators, who almost universally praised the message of the movie. But Jesus in the movie--and in the passion narratives--clearly demonstrates that his own life does not come first. Believing his death to be God's will, he voluntarily lays down his life for others. Where in the life of Jesus do we see the philosophy that "our lives come first"?

Those who think that being a Christian includes taking the teachings and example of Christ seriously must speak out against the un-Christian actions of our own government, and we must do all we can to persuade our fellow Christians that Jesus' teachings are not irrelevant in today's world. The failure of progressive Christians to convince those who claim to take the New Testament picture of Jesus seriously is a shortcoming that we must work hard to overcome. "Our lives come first" is the siren call of selfish, fearful nationalism. Those who would follow Christ must resist this message and model instead the radical selflessness of Jesus.

© Copyright 2004, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology