Some Theological Questions about War and Peace

I've been asked to comment on a few things I said - about truth, war and peace, and taxes, in a class at Fuller Seminary a few weeks ago, and am happy to do so here. Let's start with war and peace.

In short, my questioner asked if my opposition to the use of violence is complete, and if events like the Second World War do not themselves justify violent response. I'm quoting my email response to my questioner with his permission:

I'm grateful for the question, for the Second World War is of course a key example used in the discussion of non- and less-violent means of addressing conflict. I would never want to demean or trivialize the sacrifices made to prevent the evil intent of Hitler from achieving its ends; indeed, as is the case for so many of this generation, my grandparents directly participated in that sacrifice. But the question arises as to whether or not the cause of ending Hitler’s war justified the means used to end it; and whether there were other potential means that could have been used.

The answer is, of course, complex. I will mention only a few of the relevant factors.

1. The war occurred for many reasons; chief among them was the rise of Hitler. This itself occurred for many reasons, chief among them being the humiliation of the German people, and the bankrupting of the German economy by the reparations imposed under the auspices of the League of Nations in the period following the First World War. Another reason for the rise of Hitler was that there was not a substantial enough internal resistance movement within Germany to prevent this.

2. I mention this in the service of one conclusion: that if we wait until the day after Hitler invades Poland to ask ourselves what we are going to do about his aggression, we prove a simple fact: that human beings usually prefer to think in terms of reaction rather than prevention; and in terms of quick fix ‘easy’ solutions rather than long term ‘difficult’ ones. I don’t know what I would have done had I been in Neville Chamberlain’s shoes, or in those of the Chancellor of Germany deposed by Hitler in 1933. I can’t speak for them. But I am part of a historic church; and I consider that to mean that there are moral demands of church membership that, had I been a German Christian, would have been very difficult to meet. For instance, I think the German Catholic Church could have moved to excommunicate any church member who joined the Nazi party. At a time when church membership was considered with much greater seriousness than it usually is today, this might just have had the effect of helping inhibit the rise of Hitler, and therefore helped avoid the war. Such things have happened before and since, when cultural and social organizations have made participation in aggression or prejudice to be anathema, or at the very least, a social embarrassment. In Northern Ireland, many mothers inhibited their sons from joining paramilitary organizations because of the 'healthy shame' they instilled in their children; Christian youth work provided a profoundly important outlet for young people which in its absence might have led to their participation in violence.

Now of course, just excommunicating a lot of German Catholics (or threatening to do so) would not have been enough on its own to prevent the rise of Hitler. But it would have been a start, and would also have allowed the German Catholic Church to have a clean conscience.

3. Flash forward to 2003, when President Bush refused the request of US Methodist Bishops to meet with them on the eve of the Iraq war. Perhaps they should have excommunicated him. I'm serious. Not to punish. But to exercise the discipline of a church whose canons and by-laws presumably President Bush had signed up to; to tell him how far he was straying from the church’s understanding of the will of God; to attempt to compel him to consider his conscience. Again, this probably would not have been enough to change his mind. But the US Methodist church would have been behaving prophetically; and would have a clean conscience about doing everything it could to avert war.

4. In exploring whether or not the use of violence by the Allies was justified, it's helpful to ask when the Second World War ended. Did it end with Nazi surrender and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did it? Or did it end when Germany formed the European Community along with other neighbouring nations; and when Japanese efforts at reconciliation eventually included former US POWs embracing the people who had abused them, and when US Presidents shook the hands of Japanese emperors? If that’s when it ended, then the case that violence conflict only ever ends through non-violent means has been bolstered.

5. These, of course, are simple, and potentially simplistic headlines. They do not tell the whole story. So let me say a few more things:

I do not advocate allowing tanks to roll over the vulnerable without the rest of us doing something about it.

I merely believe that war is never simple; it never 'just begins' when it 'begins', nor does it 'end' when it 'ends'. There are thousands of examples of violent conflicts that could have been avoided by non-violent means. Here's a few:

The Kosovo war in the late 1990s which might not have occurred had non-violent reconciliation movements been properly resourced in the 1980s.

The Northern Ireland Troubles, which might not have occurred if the Protestant church leaders had taken seriously their call to serve the poor, and defended Catholics against discrimination, by joining the civil rights movement and helping ensure it engaged in strategic and comprehensive non-violent action.

And there are thousands of examples of how fewer people suffered because the means employed to bring about change were non-violent. If memory serves, up to 7000 Indians died in Gandhi’s independence civil disobedience struggle. A huge, and horrifying number. These people died in the non-violent service of justice, peace, and freedom. But just imagine the number that would have been killed had Gandhi chosen the ‘quick fix’ violence option. I have heard it estimated that the death toll would be close to a million Indians. So let me be clear: I do not think that non-violence is easy, nor is it safe. Of course people suffer when they use non-violent means. There is a cost to every courageous act. But I believe the total suffering in the world is reduced when we use non-violence rather than violence. And I am not an ideological pacifist. We live in a broken and fallen world, and often are faced with a series of flawed options. I just think that the recourse to violence is far too often reached without serious thought, or the exhaustion of other, non- or less-violent means.

6. The Iraq war could have been avoided, and Saddam could have been removed from power without a war. The will did not exist to do such things as ending the sanctions against Iraq and therefore allowing the Iraqi people to become strong enough to overthrow their leader in the kind of non-violent revolution that occurred in both what is now the Czech Republic and Ukraine; nor asking the UN to establish a tribunal to try Saddam for crimes against humanity and having him arrested (and let’s face it, if Milosevic can be basically kidnapped and brought to the Hague, why could a team of Navy SEALS not have been sent into one of his palaces with the same ends in mind? Not that I advocate kidnapping, but as I said, we are faced with flawed options, and kidnapping one man is a far better option than killing tens of thousands of innocent people); and affirming what was then called the Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East, with rhetoric and resources, to show that the US was bona fide in its desire to see that long-standing conflict transformed into a non-violent one.

These are some scattered thoughts for now. Let me say this: I believe that we spend far too much time talking about violence, and not enough about reducing it. We invest far too much in what we call the defence industry, and not the peace industry. We do not understand that prevention is better than cure. And so while I understand the appeal of violence, I do not believe it fixes anything. At best, it can arrest a process that would lead to harming the vulnerable – but it cannot transform it into peace. The overwhelmingly pressing need in our generation is to give as much time and attention to thinking about non- and less-violent means of addressing conflict as we do to making killing look sexy.

But that is not the final word – let’s keep talking.