The following is a transcript from September 10, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of the “Daily Sabbath: Discuss” fall semester rhythm, the following theological provocation questions whether or not war can and/or should be used as a method of peacemaking, with a specific focus on the crisis in Syria.
If there is such a thing as hell on earth, the first place to look for it is in Syria.
President Bashar Al-Assad is being accused of using chemical weapons against his own people, and rebel leaders continue to kill their enemy prisoners with savagery and brutality. Since its recent civil war began, Syria has become dramatically fragmented and its national identity has all but disappeared. As a result, it would now seem that its citizens either align with the government or with the resistance, the Alawhites, the Sunni’s, or the Shiites, Aleppo residents, or Damascus dwellers. Women and children are being slaughtered, and the situation grows worse with each passing day.
As we gather thing morning to discuss whether or not war can bring peace in Syria, we seek to start with a baseline assumption that something must be done by someone in order to stop the massive loss of life, as the African proverb reminds us, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
And so, with these introductory thoughts in mind, the question to be posed today is not necessarily if we in the United States of America should intervene as peacemakers in Syria, but it is more a matter of how. Which means, more specifically, the question to be posed in this forum surrounds whether or not war can and/or should be utilized as a method of peacemaking. And as we pose this question at this time and in this place, many here would already know that the President of the United States has already offered his answer, and he concluded that we must intervene in Syria with violent military strikes. While the term “war” has strategically not been used by our federal administration, the reality is that active warfare is one of many options being discussed and considered by our elected representatives. And so, for us, this morning, we also are invited to discuss the question of was as a method of peacemaking. And we will do so here in Christ Chapel primarily, from the perspective of faith, learning, and life.
Now, moving forward…
The question of war is grounded, for me, as a follower of Jesus within the Lutheran tradition, in the biblical text, through the notion of grace, and in the historical person of Jesus. Which means, we are drawn to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 9, which records Jesus as saying: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God”. And in drawing from these words, there are two traditional paradigms of interpretation for us to consider:
First… Christian Pacifism, and…
Second… Just War Theory.
This morning, as we question the possibility of peacemaking through the prospects of war, I wish for us to pause and reflect briefly on these two traditional options. We will do so first by considering what these two traditions share and then consider where they part ways:
First, in terms of similarities:
One of the most common similarities between Christian Pacifism and just war theory is that both are often deeply misunderstood. For example, whereas “pacifism” is often wrongly taken by some to mean “passive non-resistance,” the concept of “just war” is also often wrongly taken to be solely about justifying the act of war. Another similarity is the baseline conviction that reconciliation is the shared calling for people of faith. An additional similarity is that both conceptions acknowledge that we live in a messed-up world filled with messed-up people. And finally, another similarity is that both Christian pacifism and just war theory agree that the welfare of others is to be placed within the same moral framework as one’s own and guided by the same standards.
And so, all together, it would appear that Christian pacifism and just war theory do have a great deal in common. However, where they part ways is over the question of violence – and more specifically – the violence required with killing another human being.
On the one hand, just war advocates often conclude that there are morally permissible uses of exceptional, deadly violence in stringently limited ways, and just war theory has elaborated a set of criteria for measuring whether or not deadly violence can and should be employed. On the other hand, Christian pacifists frequently argue for the full rejection of all killing violence.
To take the Christian pacifist argument further, from an ethical perspective it argues that lethal violence is self-defeating for society in the long run and usually self-defeating in the short run as well. And to take the argument even further, the primary theological grounding for Christian pacifism is that followers of Jesus are called to a community whose way of life should not include killing any whom God loves; and as a statement of Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition, we believe that there is no one for whom God does not love. In other words, Christian pacifism is grounded in the belief that God is never glorified by human violence and our humanity is never honored through it.
In terms of just war theory, many conclude that Christian Pacifism simply is not realistic, for we live in a violent world that requires violence in order to uphold justice. Therefore, those who advocate for Just War Theory often perceive Christian Pacifism as irresponsible and hypocritical, for it seems to be distant from that which actually takes place in the real world. And so, there exists a strong connection between just war theory and realism, which is thought to have begun with Augustine’s account of the two cities, then hardened into doctrine with Martin Luther’s two kingdoms, and eventually given its most distinctive formulation in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. As a result, Augustine is often identified as the Christian theologian who set the stage for the development of just war reflection that enables Christians to use violence in a limited way to secure tolerable order. It is assumed, therefore, that just war theory is set within the larger framework of a realist view of the world. Along these lines, Martin Luther gave expression to this realist perspective with his customary bluntness, when he claimed that a pacifist perspective would simply, and I quote, “…loosen the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts” and let them “bite and mangle everyone” (…yes, you cannot blame Luther for being too subtle!).
In many ways, Martin Luther viewed war is a plague, but he believed war was a plague that prevented greater plagues. In addition, Luther felt that war could be justified as a method of peacemaking because Christians do not fight for themselves, but for their neighbor, as he said that the small lack of peace called war can set a limit to a larger lack of peace so often found in our world.
Now, to counter the idea that just war theory is somehow more realistic than Christian Pacifism, Stanley Hauerwas and others – especially those in the Mennonite tradition, have concluded that Christian pacifism is indeed grounded in the so-called real world, for it has a built-in understanding that, because of our broken nature as human beings, we simply cannot trust others who try to convince others to justify war. In other words, for Christian Pacifists, “being real” about violence means being real about the human propensity for violence. Which means, from a Christian Pacifist perspective, Hauerwas and others claim that victory and peace does not arrive through the death of others, but rather, Jesus showed that putting one’s own life on the line in the face of violence without requiring the death of others is truly the embodiment of victory and peace. From a Lutheran perspective, we could argue that because we have been set free by God’s grace alone, we are set free from the need to achieve victory over others through the death of others.
All together, to review, over the past minutes I have briefly and admittedly crudely offered Christian Pacifism and Just War theory as options as we consider “war” as method of bringing peace. Without question, there is much that has been left out, and much more that one could consider. Nevertheless, for the sake of time, while I hesitate to offer my personal perspective on this matter, I would rather be open about my own biases than blatantly fail at trying to be impartial. And so, please allow me to close this morning by first offering a personal anecdote and second by making a statement of belief.
First, it should be made known that my personal views on this matter are framed by the reality that my father currently works for the Department of Veteran Affairs, and I have spent many hours visiting with him and listening to the stories of those who have fought for the U.S. military. Because I deeply admire the bravery and honor the service of our veterans and active service-women and service-men, each time I visit with them I am reminded that, whenever someone is responsible for the death of another person, in many ways two lives are lost. And not only that, but whenever I listen to the veterans share their personal experiences of war and the horrible after-effects of such dehumanizing violence, I am repeatedly reminded that no one ever actually wins a war because, everyone loses whenever there is war anywhere.
Second, as a statement of belief, as a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I am deeply troubled about the possibility of a military response to the violence in Syria.
I believe the Jesus made known in the New Testament told us to put down our swords.
I believe Jesus consistently taught a way to respond to violence which included neither fight nor flight.
I believe that Jesus teaches that evil can be opposed without being mirrored, oppressors can be resisted without being emulated, and enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.
And perhaps most of all…
I believe Jesus showed on the cross that violence can be opposed with non-violence, and hatred can be countered with grace and love.
And so, for me, I wish to make it known this morning that I am praying for a non-violent imagination to be placed in the hearts and minds of the leaders of our country, so that we will indeed use our national power to intervene in the crisis in Syria, but we will find ways other than killing violence to do so. As history has shown over and over again, when we fight fire with fire, we only get a bigger fire, and a bigger mess. And real power is shown not through the sword, but on the cross, and in the pursuit of peace.
Perhaps you feel the same as I do. Perhaps you disagree. Whatever the case, we all deserve a chance to listen and speak through civil discourse, and the people of Syria deserve to be lifted out of the hell in which they currently find themselves within. And so, I hope we will embrace this time in this Chapel to discuss this important question:
Can we use war as a method to make peace?
May God bless our discussions.
May God continue to bless the peacemakers.
Thank you. Amen.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. He holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol.