A Nation Faces Its Own “Terrible Alternatives”

James M. Lawson, Jr.

In September of 1939 the word of God came to the prophet Dietrich, who was working in New York. Bonhoeffer arrived in New York in June of that year for his own safety. Ecumenical friends from around the West had urged him to flee Germany because as a very young prophet the word of God persuaded him that there could be no compromise between the Gospel of Jesus and the rising gospel of a Third Reich. He had become a marked man.

Both political parties have governed by cultivating the fears of the people rather than our aspirations.

Nevertheless, by September the prophet Dietrich realized his ministry must be in the extremely dangerous place he called home.

Before leaving America, Bonhoeffer wrote Reinhold Niebuhr saying, “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.”

The churches of Germany and the vast majority of their members did not agree with the word of the Lord that their son was willing to receive and live. They accepted many benefits from the emerging militarized, authoritarian state, with its booming economy that employed millions, restored discipline, and purged certain unsavory elements. After all, they said, the racism did not “affect our daily lives.”

On April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung (read “crucified”) in Flossenburg Prison.

The prophet Jeremiah faced a similar quandary. Around 586 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon is attacking Jerusalem. King Zedekiah sends members of his palace cabinet to Jeremiah, seeking a wonderful word from the Lord that the Babylonians will withdraw in defeat. Unfortunately for Judah, the word of the Lord that Jeremiah heard presented them with another terrible alternative: “… I am going to turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands. … I Myself will battle against you. … I set before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jer. 21). Surrender to the enemy and live.

These two prophets were not robots. They loved their God, which meant they loved their people, their culture, and their lands. But they dared to speak and live out of the word of God that clasped their lives: terrible alternatives.

Whether we know it or not, whether we will wrestle with it or not, Christians and other religionists in the USA confront a similar “terrible alternative.”

We must actively seek the defeat of our Iraq syndicate! We can call this the Kennedy Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine or the Tyler Doctrine: The point is our invasion of Iraq is not some accident in contradiction to our history. All our homegrown, anti-democratic, economic, political, military and white-civilization chauvinism, the advocates for world domination, voices and powers that have been—all have merged with unprecedented force to produce the Iraq War and the perpetual war on terrorism.

In other words, there have always been elements in our history advocating slavery, the abject conquest of the Indian, the American business domination of the Western hemisphere and the world. Those voices, principalities and powers of our denied history and intent now largely control the direction of our national government. They are supported by networks of movements that call themselves “conservative” or “theocratic” but are largely birthed out of the soul of slavery and racism.

If this direction of government is not defeated, our Constitution and Declaration of Independence will be largely replaced by our own version of the military security state.

The admirable aspirations of this 300 million people will crash in chaos and despair.

This is our twenty-first century terrible alternative.

Allow me to write this another way: Our government, which is supposed to reflect the well-being of this 300 million, is the number one enemy of peace and justice in the world today. It is the only super-power, and it is managed by its military and defense industry as lobbied by its plantation capitalism, which demands the right to make the entire world its plantation and to be sustained by our fleets in every ocean and by our nearly 800 military bases on every continent. Sadly, very few religionists can see this unfolding tragic, chaotic history. We cannot believe the sins of the past can come to power in the present.

After all, more than half of us are baptized people. We do not have indecent intentions—except, most of the harm and evil wrought in any nation is executed by mostly decent citizens who think what they propose and do is for good and not evil, right and not wrong.

But too many of us are drunk with the wine of our own exceptionality.

Nevertheless, 2007 is not 1933. The USA is not Germany. Looking back, we know that Third Reich Germany not only engendered an extremely costly war, but also promoted the murder of upwards of 26 million people.

The prophet Dietrich did not have access to the unfolding future. Only the “word of the Lord” came to him. He did not proof-text chapter and verse in our Bible. Only the word came to him, simply insisting: Jesus is incompatible with Nazism and its drive toward a racialized, fascist, wealthy, military state with the right to invade at will.

Our terrible alternative is far more complicated and perplexing. Most of us have no serious knowledge of the state of our land. For decades many facets of our government have been secret and classified. Congress has not supervised or given oversight. Congress and presidents have provided the budgets and human resources for many governmental activities to be covert. We have little idea of what the CIA, FBI, military intelligence, Pentagon, State Department or privatized entities do around the world in our name. For the most part we do not know that our so-called news outlets basically report what our governments want reported. We are largely unaware that massive corporations demand and receive governmental support as they spread plantation capitalism abroad and perpetuate the economic injustice of the colonialism of the last 500 years.

Unions and churches alike see our defense industry as benevolent and patriotic. We are ignorant of the high profits those investors and corporate heads receive. Their profits and salaries come from our tax dollars. So quality education for all the children of our land is robbed while many of the defense corporation CEOs receive millions of dollars annually. We pay the tax dollars from wages that have remained stagnant for most working families since 1969. With such policies we rob our children and young people of their access to life. We steal from the children of Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

Worst of all, the soul of our wonderful land has been poisoned (intentionally or unintentionally) by the spiritual forces of wickedness—namely racism, sexism, violence, greed, and materialism. (Our prophet Martin would insist upon adding militarism.) Most Christians are more influenced by the spiritual teachings of these forces than by the wisdom of Jesus.

This is the choice our people of faith face today. Do not think that the elections of 2008 will turn this USA ship back towards our miraculous experiment in self-governance. For decades both of our national parties have advocated militarism, the privatization of war, greed economics. They have dismissed goals of a world-class education for all the children of the land, an economy fully employing and benefiting the people, or dismantling sexism, racism, our culture of violence. Both parties have governed by cultivating the fears of the people rather than our aspirations.

We must quietly but audaciously withdraw our consent from this Clinton/Bush Doctrine. If we love God and this 300 million people, we must demand the end to these gathering forces from our past and insist upon governments that seek the equality, liberty and justice of all the people and move toward the beloved community.

James m. Lawson, Jr. has been a strategist and mentor of nonviolence for more than fifty years. He was associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1957–68 in the nonviolent effort to establish justice. He was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974–99 and is now a Distinguished Professor at Vanderbilt University.