I think of the soldiers who went off to World War I full of nationalistic zeal only to have it choked out of them in gas-filled trenches. My German grandfather was a foot soldier for the Kaiser in World War I. My uncle, his son, was a Nazi submariner, who survived World War II physically, but came home at the end of the war with deep, emotional scars. Those who go out rejoicing, often come home weeping.
But it’s not only the losers who experience a profound sense of betrayal and loss. It was a British soldier, Wilfred Owen, who wrote the bitter and haunting poem Dulce et Decorum Est, and Owen was on the winning side. Winning side? Can there be any winners in war?
The fifth-century BC Greek dramatist Aeschylus said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Or, as an updated, pop culture version has it: “The first casualty of war is innocence” (Platoon). Truth, innocence, idealism, patriotism, sanity . . . there are many victims.
If you had asked me in March 2003, why the U.S. military was getting ready to invade Iraq, I would have said, “Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction he’s ready to use on us and our allies. We have to stop him now before he does!” Everyone else in my battalion would have said the same. I was convinced that our cause was just because of the credible, serious, and imminent threat our government (and a president I voted for) outlined repeatedly on TV. I never suspected for a minute that they could be mistaken, or worse, lying. (Even after returning from Iraq, I was sure WMDs would be found, soon. You can read my comments here.) Whether willfully or not, the U.S. Government told us what appears in hindsight to be false, and the casus belli for the Iraq War has long since disappeared like mirage in the desert.
Many people have had times that rocked their world and turned deeply held value judgments upside down. Those experiences leave you wondering, “If I was wrong about that, what else have I gotten wrong?” Has that ever happened to you?
The Apostle Peter too had his Aha! moment. In Mark 8:31-38, Peter is so sure he’s right, he tells Jesus he’s wrong. It takes a good deal of moral courage to stand up to the boss and tell him off—especially if your boss is the Son of God!
Peter confronted Jesus about his defeatism, his crazy idea of the Messiah as a suffering victim, rather than a conquering king: “that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31).
Then the rebuker becomes the rebuked. Jesus yells at Peter: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” (v. 33). Has Jesus lost his mind?! He’s screaming at his lead apostle as if he were demon-possessed. In a moment Peter passes from disciple to devil.
The words “behind me” (opiso mou in Greek) appear twice in this passage. In verse 33, “Get behind me!” means “Get out of my way!” In the very next verse, however, Jesus declares, “Whosoever will come after me (opiso mou), let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” It’s a play on words that almost works in English. Jesus is saying, in effect, “Either get behind me or get out of my way, Peter!”
There are two choices: the path to power and glory or the one to shame and suffering. Peter was so sure that the Messiah was supposed to be on the former, he rebuked Jesus for suggesting he would go down the latter. Suffering Messiah? No way! It’s an oxymoron. You know, like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence” or maybe even (gulp) . . . “Christian soldier”? Nah, that’s going too far.
The only way to be a true disciple of Jesus is to follow him down the low road, the road to defeat and humiliation. But before we can do that, we have to repent. Repentance (metanoia) means to have a change of mind. We’ve got to admit where we’ve gotten it all wrong. But that’s not easy to do, now is it?