A minister friend once told me that he was puzzled as to why although one the one hand humankind has made tremendous progress in terms of knowledge and ability to sustain and support population, yet although there have been vast improvements and safety with transport and even much improved understanding in what makes us tick, there has been almost zero corresponding improvement in morality. Our wars are more violent and kill a greater percentage of civilians. Further, wealthy nations will callously exploit vulnerable nations for resources and only intervene for peace if there is a clear advantage in self interest. Financial fraud is virtually out of control and whole nations as well as local economies have been threatened in the process. The number of refugees is horrendously high and the gap between rich and poor mounts daily.
His analysis is probably fair comment. Towards the end of World War 2 the fire storms over the cities of Coventry, Dresden and Tokyo certain showed what total war might mean and we can take small comfort that at least thus far there haven’t been more nuclear weapons used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but as Christians we should feel very uncomfortable that whereas wars in previous centuries typically had of the order of 10% civilian casualty and 90% military casualty, yet for many of the modern wars our nation has since supported, those percentages are now approximately reversed and it has been the civilian component of the local population who have suffered the most.
Today is Peace Sunday, the Sunday closest to Hiroshima Day, when on the 6 August 1945, at 8.15 am a bomber crew on the Enola Gay, after having had the success of their mission blessed by a chaplain, dropped a bomb on the city of Hiroshima – immediately killing an estimated 70,000 men women and children – and leaving many more to die slowly and painfully over the next few weeks and months. Tactically yes, it may well have shortened the war and the fact that few were military casualties was certainly no worse than what had happened in the firestorms over Tokyo – yet the real question is why the war needed to have taken place in the first place? And then the consequent question, what in practice would help bring about peace lest it happen again?
Perhaps we should start by admitting to ourselves that the potential for violence is probably part of the human condition. Biologically, the scientists tell us that the brain is organised in layers with the most primitive part – the brain stem (sometimes called colloquially the lizard brain) in common with many higher animals. Certainly this structure is associated with instinctive behaviours including flight and fight particularly when we feel threatened, and assuming the mainstream scientists are correct, over the centuries these functions are part of the basic biology that has helped us survive as a species.
Unfortunately for our basic biological reactions, over recent millennia as a species we have evolved higher intelligence and the human inventive brain has evolved progressively more sophisticated methods of inflicting serious damage to those who we see as enemies. This has developed to the point where anyone with reasonable access to information (ie internet access) can readily find the means for killing very many of our fellows. If the target is a group or even a population that are not only seen as enemies, but for which our leaders have sanctioned the violence, there are few practical restraints to stop us employing our weapons with deadly effect.
Curiously we operate on a series of double standards. For example if we are officially at war we delegate our forces to drop high explosives on whole societies of anonymous people and reward them for so doing – yet should an individual deliberately and knowingly kill even one baby when war is not declared it is deemed a serious crime. Hundreds of thousands of children died as a result of sanctioned policy at the beginning of the Iraq war, yet a suicide bomber who kills a handful on the London underground is quite reasonably regarded as a mass murderer. The distinction between one who suffers burns from fire from 20 000 feet and the one who suffers the same sort of burns by being physically thrown on the fire is subtle but whether or not the victim cares about the difference is a moot point.
They used to ask a standard question of all conscientious objectors when they were called up and were trying to avoid military service. The question was, “ Would you take a weapon to stop someone attacking your wife and child?” When the conflict is one of those nasty modern conflicts where the civilians are the main casualties, I wonder if the most appropriate answer might be – “since civilians are the main ones who will be killed by our soldiers, who will be doing the threatening?”
Although the weapon development has made it urgently imperative to find new ways of making peace there is little sign that many appreciate that such a change in thinking is on the horizon. In the US in particular history conspires to add to the problems. Dating back to the American war against Britain and the need to mobilize a militia when the community is threatened, the right to bear arms is now seen as an essential part of their Constitution. As weapons have become steadily more lethal and the accessibility has increased, the problem they now have is that weapons can be and are purchased not only to protect a community – but in the hands of the antisocial, actually become the means to threaten the community. In the US, total gun crime may have come down a little from the appallingly figure of a few years ago, but incidents of mass shootings have remained at unacceptably high levels, and far higher than most civilized countries. We are in no position to advise the US on their gun laws, but we must also decide for ourselves which direction our gun laws should be heading if we are to have a safe community.
At the heart of all armed violence – sanctioned or not – lie the attitudes we have towards one another. As a people who claim to live in an essentially Christian nation, and one with a proud history of military involvement with conflict, we are probably a little uncomfortable to note that Jesus gave very clear direction about peace making. Because he also lived his message in a society which was no stranger to violence, he is justifiably reported as being opposed to violence at every level.
“Turn the other cheek” he taught. “Keep no score of wrongs……” Where does that sit in our foreign policy? “ You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say don’t use violence to resist evil”. (Matthew 5: 38-39) “Love your neighbour as yourself” Then he explained that one with the story of the good Samaritan, which in view of the religious differences between the Jews and the Samaritans seems remarkably contemporary as a pointer to best action in Middle East politics. Don’t forget he entered Jerusalem on a donkey as if to underline his commitment to peace.
To be truthful only a small minority of Christians have maintained Jesus’ uncompromising insistence on rejecting violence. Even St Paul acknowledged the practical difficulty of achieving total pacifism and instead in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans came out with: “If it is possible, as far as you can, live at peace with all men” We seem to have drifted further than Paul from Jesus’ determination to insist violence must never be the best answer. Are you aware, for example, that for something like 300 years the early Church did take this message seriously. For example they adopted non violent methods of resistance, and what is more their list of who should not be baptized included soldiers along with gladiators, idol- worshippers, brothel keepers, and magistrates who exercised the power of the sword.
Unfortunately for Jesus’ message, once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its approved state religion, the arming of Christians in defence of the empire became standard practice – and although the uneasy relationship between State and Church eventually led to such distortions of Jesus’ teaching as the crusades, some of the orthodox Churches reinstated the insistence that soldiers could not be baptized and continue to fight.
You may remember that years later Ivan the Terrible compromised on this and insisted that since his personal guard should be baptised, their sword arms should be held high during the ceremony and not immersed so that the un-baptized part of their bodies could still be used in his defence.
Few branches of the Church currently insist on total pacifism. The Quakers and Jehovah’s witnesses are probably among the most opposed to war – and there are of course those individuals within the mainline churches who have either been total pacifist or who have chosen to make a stand against specific wars they believed to be unjust.
Regardless of individual attitudes, honesty requires that we choose wisely for ourselves and that we understand that some areas of conflict are complex and offer shades of grey rather than issues which are black and white. Should the occasion arise it may well be totally reprehensible to turn a blind eye to some actions initiated by our own government and our own armed forces. Genocide is always unacceptable and it is hard to imagine any situation where torture would be OK. Some weapons like cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, land mines, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons are also inconsistent with Jesus teaching and it would be difficult for a mainline church to justify an investment policy with companies producing such weapons. Yet shades of grey include deciding what actions should be taken for example against a dictator who appears to be perpetrating atrocities.
In an imperfect world it is also clear that historically some conflicts have been avoided by the efforts of peacekeeping forces. Christians are by no means agreed about whether or not a just war can be fought and it would be a great pity to legislate against those who are genuinely following their conscience. Unless our own consciences are clear that we have genuinely done everything possible to avoid conflict, there would be a moral problem if we were to insist we had the right to tell others who were going to join up – what they must or must not do.
But ultimately the real problem is with our individual and collective treatment of those we chose to call our enemies. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been known to say “enemies are friends I am yet to make”, and it does appear to be a fact that it is difficult to choose to fight someone who is being nice to you. Perhaps there is a message here for all of us.
Mark Twain pointed out long ago that the most durable, dangerous, all-encompassing and cowardly lie of all is “the lie of silent assertion”—the maintenance by the mass of people that all is well even when obvious facts make it clear that all is not well.
Perhaps it is not too late to return to Jesus’ advice about peace-making and see for ourselves if the one we claim to follow might have had it right all along.