Saturday, March 17, 2007

Peace for our time?

This post is ambitious. I hope to look at the nature of war, the threat of perpetual war, my take on the proper Christian response, and what we can do about it. I should make a note here that while I have faithfully tried to represent Orthodox Christian teaching as I understand it, there are a number of Orthodox Christians who would disagree with my take that all war (understood as combat between humans) is evil and avoidable for Christians. I earnestly entreat the forgiveness of any who might be scandalized by what I've written here.

Though I’ve been actively involved in peace-making since 2002, the particular stimulus for sitting down to write now is a pair of interviews on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. Most recent was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s evaluation of how the last three presidential administrations have squandered opportunities to change our foreign policy to effect peace.


Ted Koppel on “Our Children’s Children’s War”

After watching Brzezinski’s interview, my wife turned to me, holding our three and a half week old boy and said,” I don’t want us to still be at war in twenty years.” Her statement was fraught with meaning. What would perpetual war mean for an already de-stabilized economy? How much further might our socio-political relations crumble in the face of increased fundamentalism (on all sides)? What role might our son be forced to play in this future? I responded that we have to be proactive in pursuing peace.

During my military training (Army National Guard), I came to a realization that I would wrestle with for five years. The realization didn’t crystallize overnight, but was something I came to gradually. The first germ of the realization was in the cognitive dissonance I had trying to integrate the training I was receiving into my still-developing value system. My mother had instructed me never to start fights, but told me to finish one if someone else started a fight with me. My drill instructor told us that he believed he was damned to hell because he had participated in war. If the notion that a strong military is a deterrent to military aggression, thereby securing peace, was true, then it seemed as though civilization was being held together by training men and women to do the most uncivilized of things. To Kill. Basic training has a number of facets. New soldiers learn chain of command, equipment recognition, disaster response, first aid, teamwork, and self-respect (and probably not enough military history and ethics). But, if all that had to be trimmed out of the training process, what would remain would be combat training: rifles, grenades, bayonets, and hand-to-hand combat. I recognized that the change in me was that I now knew how to kill someone. I don’t expect that 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds regularly engage in this kind of metacognitive evaluation (neither, I suspect, does the military establishment).

War has become a very useful metaphor in the English language. We can wage war against drugs, cancer, obesity, poverty, and a number of other social and physical ills. We are also able to war against an idea: Terrorism. In Western Christian history, the idea of the “Just War” developed to provide some insight into the always sticky prospect of Christian participation in war. One thing that just war theory, and most wars up until our “War on Terror” commenced, assume is a known enemy. War, as it has been redefined, is not limited to a particular theatre, enemy, or timeframe. Instead the war against terrorism mirrors those socio-political “wars” in that it is a protracted, consuming struggle, or “jihad” as the concept is known in Islam. In Christianity, an analogue might be asceticism. I don’t believe that Bush43’s polarizing statements about an “axis of evil” and a fight between the forces of good versus evil are gaffes. I think that in those moments he is being truly transparent and revealing in that language his moral understanding of the stakes of this war. This is truly and epic, ongoing, and eternal struggle.

If that doesn’t trouble you, then I suspect that you are among the growing number of American revolutionists that wish to change our form of government. If you are troubled by the thought of becoming the (nominally) Christian answer to RadIslamism (not to mention the financial stake that this administration, broadly imagined, stands to gain from perpetual war) our call to action is simple. We need a radical politic of peace.

In the process of working for peace, Christians must be careful not to make the struggle an end unto itself, but understand such work as serving Christ, however disfigured His image might be, in our enemies, in the poor and destitute, in those imprisoned, and those dealing with spiritual and physical illness. We have to be careful not to expect Paradise here on earth (chiliaism), but to be good stewards of the economic and political power we’ve been granted. We Christians that have the privilege of living in the United States should certainly be grateful for the freedom we enjoy to practice our faith. At the same time though, that security is not worth mortgaging our faith. We should look to the early martyrs as examples of fidelity. If we truly believe in Christ’s radical transformation of reality, and that we have the opportunity to participate (however imperfectly) in Paradise now, we need step into a role of active peacemakers, forgiving and loving our enemies. For the obvious reasons, this would be an inappropriate stance for the United States government to take, given its role in the social contract to protect its citizens. Indeed, this would be an inappropriate stance for any secular government to take, as it would require its citizenry to be willing to become martyrs. As individuals, however, we can utilize the means at our disposal—wealth, influence, and votes—to influence a compromise in the direction of true Peace.

My response to my wife’s concern about perpetual war, that we have to proactively wage peace, is ultimately a personal choice with universal implications. St. Seraphim of Sarov told us that if we could acquire peace, thousands around us would be saved. I believe that St. Seraphim is talking about physical and metaphysical salvation. Ghandi’s experience with Christianity in practice led him to conclude that Christians aren’t much like Christ. As Christians practicing in what is arguably the most permissive (on all sides) society we have ever known, we don’t all naturally get the privilege of suffering for Christ. Like the men and women that fled to the desert to preserve Christianity, I think that modern Christians can find a useful ascetic yoke in pursuing peace through practicing a personal politic of peace. We have few examples of this path which seems difficult to our comfortable sensibilities.

In persons like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa and Mohandas Ghandi, Christians can distill a sense of the spiritual import of waging peace. For Orthodox Christians, the example of St. Maria of Paris, and countless other Holy Fools for Christ stand out as shining examples of how we can put into practice the hard sayings of our Lord. Nor is this a journey that needs to be taken alone. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is one of many Christian organizations (also Sojourners, CPT, Fellowship of Reconciliation) that persons with pacifistic mindsets can turn to for support and guidance in waging peace. There are analogous peace organizations that represent a number of religious and political affiliations. The crux of the matter is that peacemakers can’t be passive; we have to actively assert love and forgiveness, speak truth to power, and engage in these actions in our own lives.

Selected peacemaker resources:

Orthodox Peace Fellowship

Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors

The Saints on Peacemaking

The Early Fathers on War and Military Service – Louis J. Swift (out of print…I have permission from the author to distribute copies to my friends as necessary. Contact me if you need one)

The Peace Alliance – Campaign to establish a cabinet-level U.S. Department of Peace

Ladder of the Beatitudes - Jim Forest. This is a nice meditation on how to actually live out the "hard sayings" of Christ.

Love is the Measure - Jim Forest. A biography of Dorothy Day.

Mother Maria Skobtsova - Essential Writings - St. Maria of Paris

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