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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Front Row Seats

With the Texas Rangers in the baseball playoffs this year it’s not uncommon to see George W. Bush sitting in a front row box with Ranger president Nolan Ryan or some other baseball luminary watching the team he used to own contend for the World Series title.  I’m sure he’s having a grand time.

President Obama’s announcement last week that all U.S. troops would soon be leaving Iraq, effectively ending over eight years of carnage, got me thinking about the front row seats at graves in Arlington National Cemetery and other military and civilian cemeteries across the country occupied by the grieving families of over 4,000 men and women killed in Iraq, not to mention the legions of grieving relatives of Iraqis killed in the brutal sectarian violence unleashed by the American “liberation” of their country.  Few of these folk are enjoying beer and hot dogs at the World Series.  And even if they have gotten to a point in their grief that enables them to enjoy a ball game again, the gnawing ache of loss no doubt is never gone.

The architects of the war in Iraq have all written their memoires, explaining away the lies and justifying the deceit that led us into this catastrophe.  Weapons of mass destruction turned out to be little more than words of mass deception; we now know that intelligence was not used to guide and shape policy, but to justify and promote policies already predetermined.  No one has been held accountable for the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  Guantanamo remains open, a national embarrassment for a country presumably bound by the rule of law.  Military contractors, the polite word for mercenaries who hide profits beyond a show of patriotism, have avoided prosecution for crimes against Iraqi citizens, and numerous corporations, including many linked to the very leaders who orchestrated the war, have grown rich from contracts to rebuild the infrastructure we destroyed.

Meanwhile, President Obama, elected in part because of the nation’s disgust with the war, resolutely refuses to allow any examination of the policies and the actors who plunged us into this moral and humanitarian abyss.  We claim to honor the men and women whose families watched them lowered before their front row seats into hallowed ground.  But our honoring of them comes along with a convenient forgetfulness over the crimes of those who sent them to drive over IED’s.  The reward for those in whose name neatly folded flags were presented appears to be a box seat at the World Series and lucrative book contracts.

Of course, many of us in the church had front row seats for all of this, too.  We may not have cheered on the war, but our resistance, such as it was, was often timid.  Too many church leaders reigned in their protests for fear of offending church members whose consciences had been overrun by the shock of 9/11, or of appearing insensitive to the families of those who would soon become fodder for the killing machines.  Too many church members allowed their moral compass to be overtaken by the magnetic rhetoric of the war on terror and the axis of evil.  Too many of us were intimidated by the enormous flags and the military color guards and the boisterous singing of “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch to challenge a national pride that had been distorted by arrogance and vanity.  And even when some of us did say no, it was not loud enough, persistent enough, creative enough or courageous enough to be heard in the crowd.

I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge George Bush his front row seat at the ball park.  Perhaps he does, from time to time, think of the wives and husbands, partners and lovers, parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents and aunts and uncles who sat in a very different kind of front row seat over the past eight years, though I do recall that he refused to meet with mothers camped out one summer near his ranch sharing their collective grief and pleading for the madness to stop.  Little in his memoire suggests that he suffers from an uneasy conscience, let alone a guilty one.  But in the end, whether George Bush enjoys a ball game is not the point.  We in the church all had front row seats for this moral catastrophe, too.  And for the most part we simply watched.  Kyrie eleison.

John H. Thomas

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