Our belief that there is such a thing as redemptive violence is deeply problematic on both a theological and a pragmatic level.
I find I can no longer nuance the use of violence. It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. The defining characteristic of all kinds of warfare in our time is that civilians are the overwhelming majority of those who are killed. That’s true whether they are the victims of terrorist attacks or well-executed military campaigns.
What if the Church stood against all forms of violence: the war in Iraq, the Israeli Occupation, and the violence and tactics of asymmetric warfare, or what we call terrorism? Equating God with the cause of the domination of one people over another is morally abhorrent, whether it’s we who do it in the United States or Osama Bin Laden who does it in the name of Allah.
I propose a third way, the way of the cross, to respond to the fear we feel and the violence that overwhelms us in the world today. This is the kind of security that comes from upside-down, Gospel-inspired thinking. Security, in Jesus’ world, comes not at the point of a gun that protects us from our enemies but from the peace that can only be achieved when we all feel secure. What if we had spent $200 billion dollars on housing and clean water in the Middle East instead of on waging war there? What if everyone had a good place to live and the possibility of an education and a future for his children? What if my own privilege didn’t appear to come at the expense of another person’s ability to provide for the most basic needs of her family?
Many believe I am naïve to think that one can follow Christ’s witness and refuse to respond to violence with violence. I would suggest that nothing could be more naïve than the continued insistence that a war on terrorism has made us safer, or that it has any potential to do so in the future.
Some suggest that the church shouldn’t involve itself in political matters. I wonder if we are reading different Gospels. Jesus’ actions had profoundly political implications, and in the end he was hung on a cross by the Roman Empire because of the ways in which he challenged the dominant power structures of his time. The church has no legitimate interest in being political in the sense of being partisan, because no partisan political institutions or candidates are capable of ushering in the reign of God. However, if we strive to live the Gospel, our actions, like Jesus’ actions, will have profoundly political implications.
Am I proposing passivity? Not unless Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, his acceding to a public trial and beating, and his crucifixion could be considered passivity.
There is a nascent movement of Christians who believe that we are called to be nonviolent peacemakers in the midst of war and violent conflict. Christian Peacemaker Teams trains volunteers to intervene with nonviolent conflict reduction methods to lessen the overt violence of a conflict and create space for other kinds of conflict transformation work. What would happen if we had a corps of thousands of Christians as committed to risking their lives for peacemaking as so many Christians are to risking their lives for the making of war? What if 10,000 nonviolent peacemakers had shown up in Rwanda, or Bosnia? What if 200,000 Christians trained in nonviolence had gone to Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of September 11, 2004?
This is a difficult conversation to nurture in a country at war. Though many won’t believe me, my reflections are in no way intended to be a condemnation of individual soldiers. I know soldiers who are quite serious about their faith and are doing their best to live God’s will in their lives. I am concerned about the families of well over one thousand soldiers who have given their lives over the past year and a half in Iraq. In our church, many of our requests on Sunday morning are for the soldiers who are members of our families. To pray for peace, and to propose peaceful alternatives to war, must not be equated with being a traitor to one’s country.
Further, I have no illusion that I speak for a majority of Presbyterians, and I am deeply aware of my own brokenness and inability to understand the mind of God. This is not about my being right and everyone else being wrong. However, I have little hope that our commitment to redemptive violence can ever offer a way out of the spiral of fear into which we’re falling.
As we debate the wisdom of the General Assembly’s pronouncements on the War in Iraq and their action to begin a process of selective divestment from companies doing business in a way that supports the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, I pray for a new kind of conversation that will help us to get unstuck. The refusal to choose good over evil offers us the promise of a new dialogue. It means that no matter how just some of us believe the cause of the Palestinian people to be, we have no business rationalizing the use of terrorism to further that cause. However, it also means that no matter how much kinship we may feel with our Jewish brothers and sisters, we must have the courage to stand firmly against the false security of the military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Put another way, perhaps we don’t have to choose between being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Maybe Jesus offers a way to stand with both.
As your moderator, I give thanks to God for this opportunity to wrestle with you about these hard issues, and I look forward to what I hope will be a respectful and thoughtful dialogue together.
It is my conviction that the Peace of Christ is possible.
RICK UFFORD-CHASE is Moderator of the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Click here for responses to this article published online
Send your comment on this report to The Outlook
Please include your full name, hometown and state.