Just War Principles and Iraq
October 6, 2002
Not all the parables of Jesus show us how to live. Some merely describe the world as it is, and sometimes those descriptions can be frightening. This is the case with today’s parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard. This parable does not show us what we need to do, but instead describes a frightening pattern that is present in our world: the pattern of escalating violence. The tenants kill the owner’s slaves, then they kill more slaves, then they kill his son, and in turn the owner comes and kills them. There are no winners in this parable. Everyone is mortally wounded. This parable is not an example but is rather a warning, a warning of how dangerous it is to live in a world where violence can spin out of control and hurt us all. As Americans, the warning of this parable is particularly appropriate for us today as our country contemplates war with Iraq.
I know that you are aware that our congress, and indeed our entire country, is now involved in a debate whether it is appropriate for us to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The gospel reminds us that you and I, as Christian believers, must make our voices a part of that debate. As Catholic Christians we recognize that God is the author of all things and that the life on this earth is something precious. We are a community that strives to protect life: to protect the unborn life in the womb, to protect the value of those who suffer the challenges of mental or physical disability, to uplift the value of the poor, to protect victims of verbal or physical abuse. This is the stance that we take as a community because we value and respect life. We understand that any military action threatens life, and therefore we believe that military action must be limited only to extreme cases. This is why our voices must be a part of this discussion of American policy. It is connected to our faith.
Our Catholic tradition gives us guidance here. This is not the first time that Catholic Christians have struggled with the realities of military intervention. Over the centuries the Catholic experience has developed a set of principles that are meant to guide us as these kinds of decisions are made. Catholic moral teaching calls these the Just War Principles. In these principles there is an overwhelming presumption against the use of military force. This is because military action will almost always inflict real harm on some form of life. But the Just War Principles say that when certain conditions are met, military force can in fact be justified as a part of a just war.
Last month, the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote a letter to President Bush saying that according to Catholic teaching, any unilateral, preemptive strike into Iraq at this time could not be justified under the principles of the just war. Now I know that the stock of the Bishops is rather low at this time because of their mishandling of the sexual abuse issues. Nevertheless, they remain the leaders of our church community and when they speak on an important issue we should consider what they say as part of our own conscience formation. In the letter to President Bush many reasons are given explaining why the present action that the United States is contemplating cannot be justified. (If you want to read all of them there are copies of the letter in the kiosk.***) But let me share just one reason with you.
According to the just war principles, military force can be justified only when an attack or a threat by another nation is lasting, grave, and certain. The United States Bishops believe we do not, at present, meet the requirement of certainty. I agree with their assessment. There has been no clear-cut connection established between the attack of September 11th and Iraq. Moreover, there does not seem to be now an immediate and grave threat from Iraq to our country. Now clearly Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and we would all be much better off if he were not in power. However, what is being contemplated is the use of direct violence, and that use must meet a higher criteria than simply the elimination of future problem.
Clearly, the situation in the world today is complex. However, we are as a country are now standing on the brink of war. This is why we as Christian believers must raise our voice and ask serious questions. Such questioning is not simply our moral responsibility but also a part of our democratic process. We need to ask, is military intervention the only option? Is it the best option? And if it were to be used, could it be justified? These are the questions that we must bring to our prayer. These are questions we must discuss with one another. These are questions we should help raise in the minds of other Americans.
The warning of today’s parable must be taken seriously. We live in a world where violence begets violence. We live in a world where the destruction of human life can all too easily escalate. We owe it to ourselves to make sure that if our country uses military force, that use of violence will not create evils that are greater than the evil we seek to eliminate. As Christians and as Americans we must not only assure ourselves that military action is a just action; we must also try to be very sure that if we go to war, such violence is truly a last resort.
The Mystery of God’s Choice
October 2, 2005
Today’s parable is peculiar. It is not only violent, but parts of it do not make much sense. With their previous behavior, why would the landowner think that the tenants would respect his son? Why would the tenants imagine that if they killed the son, they would gain the inheritance? In short this is a difficult parable to interpret as a whole. But what we can do is zero in on particular details in this parable to see what they reveal about God and about us. This is what I propose to do this weekend.
The one thing that is quite clear in the parable is that the landowner should have shown more care in choosing the tenants to run his vineyard. Their subsequent action proved them untrustworthy, not up for the job. But in the parable the only qualification which the landowner requires is that the tenant workers were available. Once they were hired the landowner gave trusted them to do what was right. They betrayed that trust, and that is a tragedy. But their failure is not the point we wish to emphasize today. Our focus is the action of the landowner and how his action reflects the action of God.
God calls us to build the Kingdom. God does not call us because we are the best, but because we are available. Having called us, God asks us to use whatever gifts we have and to be trustworthy. We can easily say to ourselves, “I am not the best father or mother,” but we have still been called to that service. God still expects us to be as good of a father or mother that we are able to be. We can say that other people have more patience, more wisdom than we do. God, nevertheless, asks us to use the patience and the wisdom that we have. It is always easy to point to someone else who is more qualified, better suited, to do the tasks that we have been called to do. But pointing to another does not excuse us. We are called not because we are the best, but because God needs someone to build the kingdom.
After communion today, Julieta from Women & Community will address us about our partnership with Women & Community in El Salvador. She will be speaking to us and asking for our prayerful and financial support. Her presence here today is an invitation to each one of us. We can, as always, say that someone else is more holy and better qualified to pray, that someone else is more wealthy and more qualified to give. But we are asked today to use the gifts that we have in order to build the Kingdom of God.
The tenants in the parable proved themselves unworthy of the trust that was placed in them. Each day we have an opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of the trust that God has placed in us.
Sharing the Vineyard
October 2, 2011
Not all of Jesus’ parables describe the bright future Kingdom of God. Some of them describe our present world. Those are often tragic parables. We have an example of this in today’s Gospel of the Parable of the Vineyard. This parable presents to us a downward spiral of destruction and violence in which everyone is harmed.
To understand the force of that downward spiral, we have to appreciate where the parable begins. It begins in a very good place. There is a verdant and protected vineyard with a hedge around it, a winepress in it, and a tower to guard it. There is every indication that this vineyard will be profitable, that it will produce an abundant harvest for all who are associated with it: for the owner who possess the land, built the tower, and dug the wine vat; for the workers who till the field and harvest the grapes. The parable begins in a very hopeful place, with abundance and production for all.
Then things go astray. The tenants decide that they are going to cut the owner out of his due produce. We are not told why they make this decision, only that they do. But their conviction about doing it is so strong that they are willing to go to any means to accomplish it. This leads to violence. They beat and kill the messengers and finally the owner’s son. Moreover, the violence of the tenants leads to corresponding violence from the owner, who kills the tenants. By the end of the parable everyone has been harmed, and the vineyard is destroyed.
This is a very grim parable. Why is Jesus telling it? He is telling it to warn us about making the crucial decision which led to the downward spiral in the parable. What was that decision? It was the decision by the tenants to cut the owner out. It was the decision by some of those in the vineyard that led them to believe that the goods of the vineyard did not need to be shared with everyone. Now we might call this decision greed, but we might even more appropriately call it pride. It was pride that led some in the vineyard to conclude that their life and need were more valuable than the life and need of others. It was pride to decide that the rights of others could be negated.
This parable can apply on many levels in our life. Our families could be the vineyard. Families, when they work together, produce life and joy and a bright future. But if some members of the family decide that their needs, wants, and dreams are more important than those of other members of the family, then jealously and resentment emerge. The life of the family is undermined.
The vineyard could be our country. Our country is blessed with bounty and resources for all of its citizens. But when some politicians decide that it is more important to be elected than to serve the common good, when economic and social structures are set up in a way that they benefit some of the people and not the others, then the bounty of our country is dissipated. The downward spiral begins.
The vineyard could be our planet, a planet graced with so many resources from the hand of God. But when some people make the decision to exploit those resources rather than preserve them or when the desire for profit becomes more important than sustaining the resources that God has given us, then common resources are wasted. The promise of the earth is lost.
Now, of course, none of us can by our decision alone change the planet or our country or even our families. But this parable reminds us that we should never take that first prideful step. We should never accept the thought that our life, ideas, or agenda are more important than those of others. The parable reminds us that we all share the same vineyard. Therefore, either we will thrive together, or we will go down together. This is why we must remember our connectedness to one another and avoid the temptation of trying to cut someone out. For when we make that prideful choice, the spiral of recrimination and violence begins. And, trust me, when that spiral begins, it’s a long way down.