The Common Good
January-February 2002

Hard Questions for Peacemakers

by Jim Wallis | January-February 2002

Theologians of nonviolence wrestle with how to resist terrorism.

This has been a very difficult time for Christian peacemakers, for those of us who believe that following Jesus leads us to the path of nonviolence. Despite the great challenges to that commitment since the terrorist attacks, I still identify myself as a Christian peacemaker. But since Sept. 11, I think we have to go deeper in that commitment.

I’ve been part of the peace movement for more than three decades. But the U.S. government’s "war on terrorism" presents far more difficult challenges than the other wars and interventions I’ve fought against. In those other wars—declared and otherwise, from Vietnam to Central America, from Chile to the Congo—there was no worthy goal to be pursued, and any notion of "defending" America was nothing but propaganda. In fact, I believe that most American foreign policy since World War II has been wrong. In the name of anti-communism, the United States violated its professed values by backing a succession of ugly regimes that killed tens of thousands of their own people, trampling on every human right we hold dear. Our government backed the wrong people in South Africa until the very end. We have never really stood up for Palestinian rights against our ally Israel, and we made the Persian Gulf safe not for democracy but for our own oil interests. For 50 years, U.S. nuclear weapons policy has been based on a willingness to exterminate hundreds of millions of people. U.S. weapons sales have fueled conflicts around the world. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, U.S. foreign policy has been morally flawed at its core. That’s what I believe, and I’ve protested it with 20 arrests in 30 years, all for nonviolent civil disobedience.

But the current challenge is much more complicated. The Sept. 11 terrorists murdered almost 4,000 people in one day, and they did so with a cruel intentionality. That those people were civilians mattered nothing to the mass murderers. While President Bush’s morally simplistic "good vs. evil" rhetoric is unacceptable (America has hardly been "good," given the above litany of grievances), an inability to see the stark face of evil in the events of Sept. 11 is a moral failure. Our postmodern and politically correct world has a hard time naming evil, but Christians shouldn’t. This was a horrific crime against humanity.

Although I’ve opposed the language and tactics of war in this campaign against terrorism, the task of preventing further terrorist violence against innocent people is a very worthy goal, and the self-defense of Americans and other people is clearly at stake here. If there is a good—and even necessary—purpose in defeating terrorism, and if the lives of my neighbors and my family are indeed at risk, how do I respond?

While the terrorists use and manipulate American global injustices to justify their crimes and to recruit the angry and desperate for their violent purposes, they have no interest in the global justice and peace that many of us have lived and fought for—indeed, they are its enemies. Their vision for the world is absolutely oppressive; they would destroy democracy, deny human rights, repress women, and persecute people of other faiths and even those of their own religion who disagree with them. Even worse, they blaspheme the name of God by doing their violent work in the name of religion. To dismiss them as merely Islamic fundamentalists or marginal extremists is not enough; these terrorists are educated, well-financed, and coldly calculating ideologues who will quickly and massively kill whenever it suits their clear purpose—which is taking power over Islam and the entire Muslim world. We must be realistic at this moment and confront the fact that terrorists are even now planning further violence against innocent people, on as massive a scale as their weapons and capacities will allow. They are people who seem not to be bound by conscience or limits on the destruction they seek.

SO HOW DO WE stop them? How do we prevent them from killing more innocents? And most poignantly, how do advocates of nonviolence try to stop them? For nonviolence to be credible, it must answer the questions that violence purports to answer, but in a better way. I oppose a widening war that bombs more people and countries, recruiting even more terrorists, and fueling an unending cycle of violence. But those who oppose bombing must have an alternative.

I’ve advocated the mobilization of the most extensive international and diplomatic pressure the world has ever seen against bin Laden and his networks of terror—focusing the world’s political will, intelligence, security, legal action, and police enforcement against terrorism. The international community must dry up the terrorists’ financial networks, isolate them politically, discredit them before an international tribunal, and expose the ugly brutality behind their terror. But when the international community has spoken, tried and found them guilty, and authorized their apprehension and incarceration, we will still have to confront the ethical dilemmas involved in enforcing those measures. The terrorists must be found, captured, and stopped. This involves using some kind of force.

To accept any use of force is a very difficult thing for those of us committed to nonviolent solutions. Is any kind of force consistent with nonviolence? If so, what kind? What limitations are required? What ethical considerations must be brought to bear?

Since Sept. 11, I’ve talked to a wide range of Christian peacemakers. Some are delving into Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s painful decision, as a pacifist, to join the plot to assassinate Hitler. Others are rereading French theologian Jacques Ellul, who explained his decision to support the resistance movement against Nazism by appealing to the "necessity of violence" but wasn’t willing to call such recourse "Christian." Many are going back to Gandhi and asking what he meant when he said that nonviolent resistance is the best thing, but that violent resistance to evil is better than no resistance at all.

Some believe that there can be no resistance to terrorism, either because of American foreign policy sins or because of their principled pacifism. Others are only willing to deal with "root causes" and continue to oppose the American foreign policy that, in their view, is behind this terrorism. They point out the true fact that the United States has been guilty itself of sponsoring or supporting "state terrorism"—a painful reality I’ve observed most recently in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, occupied by Israeli Defense Forces.

But many practitioners of Christian peacemaking, including me, can’t accept such a nonresponse to horrific terrorism, despite the history of U. S. foreign policy. Gandhi said that if a lunatic is loose in the village and threatening the people, you first deal with the lunatic, and then the lunacy. I believe we must find a way to deal with the threat of terrorism—a threat that must not be avoided or minimized by those committed to nonviolence. We cannot turn away from this. But how do we confront this crisis?

The "just war" theory has been used and abused to justify far too many of our wars. This crisis should not turn us to the just war theory, but rather to a deeper consideration of what peacemaking means. In the modern world of warfare, where far more civilians die than soldiers, war has become ethically obsolete as a way of resolving humankind’s inevitable conflicts. Indeed, the number of people, projects, and institutions experimenting in nonviolent methods of conflict resolution has been growing steadily over the past decade with some promising results.

I AM INCREASINGLY convinced that the way forward may be found in the wisdom gained in the practice of conflict resolution and the energy of a faith-based commitment to peacemaking. For example, most nonviolence advocates, even pacifists, support the role of police in protecting people in their neighborhoods. Perhaps it is time to explore a theology for global police forces, including ethics for the use of internationally sanctioned enforcement—precisely as an alternative to war.

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder was engaged in that very task near the end of his life. He was asking whether those committed to nonviolence might support the kind of necessary force utilized by police, because it is (or is designed to be) much more constrained, controlled, and circumscribed by the rule of law than is the violence of war, which knows few real boundaries. If that is true for the function of domestic police, how might it be extrapolated to an international police force acting with the multinational authorization of international law? Yoder’s work in this area was never completed, but perhaps now it should be. I recently heard New Testament theologian Tom Wright provocatively suggest that the ethics for global policing possibly might be extrapolated from Romans 13.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, author of the seminal The Peaceable Kingdom and other works, says, "I just don’t feel like I’ve found a voice about all this yet." Hauerwas doesn’t like it when people tell pacifists to "just shut up and sit down" during a time like this. He believes that pacifists cannot be expected to have easy policy answers for every difficult political situation that are often created, in part, by not listening to the voices of nonviolence in the first place.

Nevertheless, he believes the advocates of nonviolence can and should offer alternatives that reduce the violence in any conflict. As a professor of ethics, he is quite willing to call governments to observe the principles of a "just war," such as the recognition that soldiers killing each other is morally preferable to soldiers murdering civilians. And Hauerwas favors the use of international courts and global police to resolve conflicts. But he doesn’t agree with the conventional wisdom that says "The world changed on Sept. 11." Hauerwas says, "No, the world changed in 33 A.D. The question is how to narrate what happened on Sept. 11 in light of what happened in 33 A.D."

Walter Wink, a biblical scholar at Auburn Theological Seminary, offers a crucial critique of how—in the war against terrorism—the "myth of redemptive violence" is again being used to try to prove to us how violence can save us. He remains convinced that it cannot. Nonetheless, he admits to being glad when the "bad guys" lose in Afghanistan and women, among others, are liberated from Taliban tyranny. He too would greatly prefer the course of international law and police. We simply haven’t trained the churches, or anybody else for that matter, in the crucial theology and practice of active nonviolence, says Wink. That must now become our priority. Wink would no doubt agree with the approach of Fuller Theological Seminary professor Glen Stassen, who speaks convincingly of the "transforming initiatives" that can be taken to reduce violence in any situation of conflict. Exploring what practical nonviolent initiatives can be undertaken to open up new possibilities is more important to Stassen than merely reiterating that one doesn’t believe in violence.

John Paul Lederach, who teaches at Notre Dame and Eastern Mennonite University, is perhaps doing more to open up those possibilities than any other contemporary Christian thinker or practitioner of nonviolence. In this terrorism crisis, he has many creative insights into how a network like bin Laden’s might be de-fanged and defeated without bombing an entire country. In particular, Lederach speaks of the need to form "new alliances" with those closest to the "inside" of a violent situation. In this case, he feels that Islamic fundamentalists who don’t share the terrorist’s commitment to violence might be the most instrumental group in defeating them. Undermining violence from within, Lederach feels, can often be more effective than attacking it from without.

In this crisis, Christians must continue to defend the innocent from military reprisal, prevent a dangerous and wider war, and oppose the unilateralism of superpowers. But we must also help stop bin Laden, his networks of violence, and the threat they pose to everything we love and value. All that presents difficult questions for peacemakers, but it is a challenge we dare not turn away from.

No one has all the answers. Humility is a good trait for Christian peacemakers, while self-righteousness is both spiritually inappropriate and politically self-defeating. This much is clear: Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, not just peacelovers. That will inevitably call us to face hard questions with no easy answers. In the end, Christian peacemaking is more a path than a position.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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