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War, Peace, and Bumper Stickers

[Religion News Service, May 7, 1995]


I can’t get the bumper‑sticker out of my mind; it’s stuck there like a wad of gum under a theater seat. "World Peace," read the message on the back of the Dodge, in faux‑childish crayon scrawl. It had a smiley‑face in the middle. No doubt the woman toting this sticker likes world peace, and wanted to suggest it as an option the rest of us had not yet considered.

Well, I can see her peace‑points and raise them. I also think peace is a good idea. I’ve said so on several occasions and can produce witnesses. In fact, at one time I regularly wore a metal peace symbol on a leather thong around my neck, but it didn’t do much good. I think people must have just been too proud to listen to me.

Still, I persevere. Whenever I hear of a war, I deplore it. I have made a personal rule not to kill anybody, one of those habits where practice really does make perfect. Helpful hint: Remind yourself once a day, perhaps right after flossing.

I can’t do as well against the sticker that reads, "Warning! I brake for animals." I prefer to speed up and run over animals ‑‑ doesn’t everybody? Or the little square one that says, "Mean People Suck." Gee, and all this time I’d been thinking, "If only there were more mean people, what a fine world this would be."

Inane, self‑righteous bumper‑stickers can quickly raise my serum cantankerose levels to dangerous heights, but more serious concerns are at stake. World (Smile) Peace trivializes not only the hell that war is, but also the complex and wrenching issues involved in making or refusing it. There is a vast gap between a measured, sober decision not to fight and a giddy, crayoned assertion that peace is dandy.

The brief, gem‑like focus of the Gulf War caused many of my generation to rethink their early pacifism, and many (including some I’m married to) came out of that process more hawk than dove. But I became more uncertain. I recall particularly a press conference celebrating the smart bomb, with a grainy video showing the device honing in behind an open Jeep as it puttered alone in the desert. "Just about this time, he’s looking in his rear‑view mirror," chuckled General Schwartzkopf. The Jeep exploded in a cloud of rolling smoke, and Schwartzkopf’s audience chuckled too, with deep satisfaction.

This troubled me and raised questions about defense, vengeance, sacrifice, and the practical ineffectiveness of the classic criteria that determine a "just war" ‑‑ which inevitably get stretched to cover just about any war you want.

I came to think that being anti‑abortion might require me to be anti‑war as well and that whatever "love your enemies" means, it couldn’t include frying them in a Jeep. I came to think that it may be right to die for faith or family, but not right to kill. Cautiously, gravely, I moved dove‑ward ‑‑ aware all the time I might be wrong, that this could just be a sprout of sentimental self‑indulgence blooming in the luxury of peacetime security.

World (Smile) Peace is infuriating because it pretends this is all easy. It dismisses past wartime sacrifice with an amused wave of the hand, as if our ancestors went to war by mistake because, oops, they forgot. It refuses to calculate what principled non‑ violence entails (probably, enduring someone else’s violence).

It posits the absurd and peculiar American myth that everybody is really nice, deep down inside, and if we could just talk it out we’d all get along. We tell ourselves that "all around the world people are just alike" but we mean "just like us." When we find that others decline to share our shopping‑mall notions of bland diversity, that some have passionate religious or nationalistic beliefs for which they are willing both to kill and die, we are surprised. The persistence of this naive delusion about the interchangeable well‑meaning goodness of humanity is strange, given the fact that it is flatly refuted on the front page of the paper every day.

I propose a Bumper‑Balance Law: The more vague and lofty a goal espoused by a bumper‑sticker, the greater the personal sacrifice a user must have made to that cause. Most people couldn’t earn a World (Smile) Peace sticker, though Gandhi would get a couple, and Jesus a crateful. But this woman in the Dodge wouldn’t get one. I’m not even sure she deserves a bumper.

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