War or Peace?

A House Divided

Many Christians seem unaware of a huge challenge facing the church. It concerns War and Peace, a theme constantly in the media now and for the coming years. The Christian voice has been muted in most of the reflections on the First World War and the churches are not really sure what they think about the issue. Behind our murmurs of peace lies a failure which has existed for at least a century. The Peace of the Lord does not seem to cut it in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and especially in the two World Wars seared in our memory. Peace is an ideal, we hear; the reality is War.

More than this, our Christian thinking seems divided. “Are you Just War or Pacifist?” is the ritual debate among Christians. On the one hand Just War Christians have developed an approach to war which emphasizes justice. It looks at the conditions under which war might sometimes be just - the thoughtful and humanitarian conditions. On the other hand Christian Pacifists have developed an understanding of the crucial Christian commitment to peace, crucial in the sense that Christ was on the cross reconciling us to God and one another. We have sporadic and inconclusive debates on pacifism and just war, signifying some Christian disagreement. It is a long-standing problem. In the First World War the same empasse was present. Bishops were supposed to have blessed battleships and Christian conchies were traitors. We could conclude that British Christians had gone along with militarism and empire for a century or more and had no coherent view on war.

This disagreement was institutionalised in the denominations. Let us typify each side in an oversimplified but partly accurate way. On the first side, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other established churches tended towards Just War Theory. This was partly because the “State” pressured churches to accept and even bless their wars, and sometimes these churches acceded. But mainly it was a good conviction that there must be a full Christian understanding of the state, within which issues of war sit. This has been best worked out in Reformed and Catholic traditions of Christianity. Most recently, this Christian Just War tradition has impressed on us how stringent the demands of justice are in relation to war compared with much contemporary practice. On the other side, Pacifism has tended to be associated with disestablished and Anabaptist traditions – Mennonites, Quakers, Methodists and others who were excluded from access to and participation in government for much of the early modern period, partly because they would not toe the militarist line. Christian pacifists look towards the full and clear Christian understanding of peace, love of enemies, reconciliation and peace-making. They saw that the kingdom of God, the gentle rule of God, requires a generic world-wide message of peace. This group has said less about a theology of the state, and they became outsiders to politics.

Both Just War Theory and Pacifism are Right

When there is Christian disagreement, it is a good move to suppose that there has been a mistake somewhere. The one hand and the other hand are both joined to the same body of Christ. The either-or is at certain levels an error. This is true here in that most thinking Christians cannot but sign up to both emphases in these traditions. It is both-and. The Just War people are right on at least three counts. First, Christianity requires a theology of the state, because as the Old Testament, Christ and Paul make clear, it is God’s institution for our good, subject to God’s norms of justice. Second, peace cannot be dissociated from justice and war from injustice; we need peace and justice. Third, war at certain times of acute injustice cannot be ignored or wished away; evil regimes do fight and sometimes need defeating. At the same time, the Christian Pacifists are also right on three counts. First, peace, with God, with ourselves, with one another and between nations is a deep and important Christian teaching, rooted in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ. Christ’s peace is with us and we are to love enemies. Second, there is a biblical and Christian critique of militarism; weapons beget wars and wars beget further wars. There is also a Christian answer to it – swords into ploughshares – which needs proclaiming, because without weapons peace, trust and law-abiding living can grow unthreatened. Third, the kingdom or rule of Christ, recognised now by some two billion Christians world-wide, grows on God’s terms and trumps all statecraft and politicking. It does not seem to involve any contradictions to be a fully signed up supporter of all of these views. If this is so, where does our supposed disagreement come from?

Not just War, but really a Military-Industrial Establishment

Perhaps it comes from the view that each side feels that the other option is not practical and has not worked. Again, both sides may well be right, but it is worth asking why they are right? The Just War tradition typically faces the challenge in this way. A war might be imminent, but then, instead of ethically considering the War, the Establishment steamrollers it through with whatever arguments for injustice on the other side can be mounted or concocted, as the Iraq Inquiry Report at minimum must conclude happened in that particular case, and patriotism is called in to close down the debate. This outcome is not surprising. For a hundred and fifty years the military-industrial establishments of the West have been running the business of declaring war and have predisposed states to war. Propaganda for war swamps the media as, for example, Keir Hardie and Jean Jaures found in 1914, and the BBC found in 2003. It is drummed up and ubiquitous. Even as the march of a million was passing Downing Street, Blair was one the phone to Murdoch getting the right headlines. Intelligence (or lack of it) was being frogmarched into seeing Saddam as an imminent threat. States clothe themselves in being right and drown out other positions. As a result the Just War tradition faces a string of wars through modern history which do not seem to be reduced by appeal to its principles. It is easily sidelined; it has not actually worked.

But, there is another reason. There is a direct weakness in the focus on “War” in Just War Theory. War is an event. It crops up every five or ten years in an explosive situation, but between these periods Just War Theory goes into recess. It seems not to be needed. Actually, of course, war and peace, and especially militarism, are issues all of the time. The military-industrial establishment has been in heavy training since the days of Alfred Krupp. It is an active business and it needs wars to survive. There is not a day when the arms companies are not looking for work and the doors revolve in the Pentagon or Whitehall with new contracts passing through. They and their kind run the system: the permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s most heavily armed states. Put another way, if wars take ten years to form, looking at the issue only in the last three months is 97% inadequate. If we are fighting war and militarism, we cannot just turn up for battle late on a Friday afternoon. We Christians need to address war and militarism fully, and Just War Theory is incomplete. It does not address the system which is generating war after war. As yet, the Church, aside some courageous individuals, has not turned up for the full spiritual battle against this formidable foe.

Defeating and Individualising Pacifism

Does Christian pacifism fare any better? No, it has been sabotaged and even persecuted to get it off the stage. Those who will not fight are a threat to the system. The pattern is seen in Russia more than a century ago. The Doukobours were an Anabaptist pacifist group in Russia called up into the Tsar’s army. After a chat together, they decided to have a party and a bonfire where they stood around singing hymns and burned their rifles. What a great party! The Tsar, not amused, killed many and transported thousands to Siberia to die there. Old Man Tolstoy, that lover of Christ, spitting up blood at the end of his life with tuberculosis, wrote what may really be the world’s greatest novel, Resurrection, so that the royalties could be used to transport the remaining Doukobours to Canada. Those who will not fight are portrayed as enemies of the State, as was Christ. Especially during the Cold War and with McCarthyism this technique of demonization worked easily. Pacifists were painted as traitors. The United States even tried it with Paul Robeson; with suspect logic it concluded that a friend of the USSR must be an enemy of the United States. Bruce Kent was ludicrously accused of receiving money from the USSR; his response was, “Come and see my office.” There was an industry of discrediting pacifists.

Yet, the biggest trick was to make pacifism seem unrealistic. The lie at the beginning of the article – peace is idealistic and unreal, while militarism is realistic and faces the world as it is – is hung round the neck of the pacifists. To be a pacifist was to be disloyal, undermine the state, but most of all to be out of touch and a hopeless dreamer, an assertion backed by a propaganda machine. The idea that WW1, WW2, the Iraq War or the nuclear arms race are realistic is bemusing. WW1 wasted perhaps a billion and a half years of human labour; how practical and realistic is that? The hopelessly idealistic view is that wars work, a hope that only lasted to the first Christmas in World War One. On the contrary wars sow the seeds of the next war, while peace is realistic, saving lives, money, injury, destruction, hatred, economic dislocation and even the planet. World-wide competitive militarisation is a mistake based on an illusion. The arms people have propagandized the pacifists out of politics on the basis of a shallow lie which needs to be called out into the open.

Thus, Pacifist groups have largely been defeated, not because they are not right, but by a vast propaganda machine. They have been pushed from the field of battle and retired from active politics. Pacifism has been made to seem like mere individual withdrawal from conscription and war, a negative retreat in a difficult situation. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex has been allowed to assert that arms alone keep us safe and prevent wars while at the same time selling weapons competitively to all nations in order to generate wars. “Weapons keep us safe”, but when weapons are used, more and more weapons are needed to keep us safely at war. Collateral damage from the arms industry is considerable. Arms manufacturers have helped generate military dictators round the world. They have provided the tools for terrorists. They have destroyed the rule of law and undermine democracy in the name of democracy. They have distorted international politics, and they think they have seen off pacifism, because we are ritually scared. But if we really ask whether militarism has worked in Europe, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Japan, in China, in the USSR and in the Great War, the poppies will give us the answer.

The Fight for Disarmament and Peace

So the time has come for this to change. Billions of ordinary people know that wars do not work. Especially in 2014 – 2019 we have time to reflect in depth on the history of arming and war. Competitive arming produces wars, military dictators, unrest and distrust and terrorism; we can see its calamities daily on the news. We know the arms companies are keen to fuel other superpower cold wars, and arms are set to increase, leaching into terrorism and inter-state chaos. Since we are not all safer with three loaded guns under our pillow, we need a growing public witness that multilateral disarmament and peace is a practical possibility, even a necessity. The irony is that all world leaders are in favour of world multilateral disarmament already; it is just that when they discuss it, they put the military establishments in charge of negotiations which then fail. World disarmament can end most poverty, make us all richer (as disarmed Germany and Japan found after WW2) and cut total world CO2 emissions by 5%.

The world-wide Christian community can drive the commitment to peace and disarmament needed to change this situation. Even 1% of two billion Christians could change the world through normal democratic processes. If Christians of the world unite in their attitude to disarmament and peace, world multilateral disarmament (the new WMD) becomes immanent. A 10% cut in military spending and arms each year by all states, policed by the UN, will eradicate all military threats in a decade. It is the real long term choice for Peace. Useless nuclear weapons that can only destroy the planet and kill us all can go. Fifty five million men marching up and down with expensive destructive equipment can instead do useful work, because the Gospel of Peace makes sense.

For an hundred and fifty years, the military-industrial establishments have promoted militarization and precipitated wars. They are the pipers who have called the tune, well identified in the 1930s as the merchants of death. The arms people and their military allies sabotaged the great 1932 Geneva Disarmament Conference, allowing Hitler to take power. In 1939 they moved into political control of international “defence” policy where they have stayed ever since. Since then Christians have been cowed by the military-industrial establishments, embedded in governments everywhere, into accepting that we need competitive arming, international distrust, the “solution” of weapons and peace-does-not-work thinking. We have ignored Jesus’ careful deconstruction of military power, his warning that those who take weapons die by them - a fact every nation in World War One can attest. Without change, wars, including big wars, will come. Such a move to disarmament and peace requires wise, concerted, public networking, now possible through the web, and the Christian community could do it.

The time has come for the coherent Christian message of peace to flow round the world. We need a lead to promote the great democratic transformation which moves all military establishments to the side. The Church of England could do it, if it left behind its confused past; it could even be, broadly, of one mind. The Lamb is on the throne and it is time Christians everywhere gathered to him.

6 thoughts on “War or Peace?”

  1. Pursuant to the Budget Control Act of 2011 (aka “the sequester”), the United States budget for defense is being reduced below its 2010 level each year until 2023. In 2013, it was 11.6% less than in 2010, in 2014, 17% percent less.






  2. A 10% annual cut is something like 50% in 7 years. As a multilateral policy this would fail at some part. On the other hand is is big enough to have an immediate economic effect for example in the US UK and Germany. It will fail in countries which perceive their current military budgets as inadequate e.g. North Korea. An alternative would be 5 year agreements for a 25% reduction

    In order to maintain the peace you need a rough equality of power. War then becomes too expensive.

    The old style pacifism which says we should not have armies is impractical. The old Roman saying “If you want peace, prepare for war” should not be disregarded,

    This list may help you consider the sugestion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_level_of_military_equipment

    • With respect to the US defense budget, Dave, Mr Romney’s Republican Party is roughly divided between Tea Party members who are fond of the crude, automatic “sequestrations” that I mentioned above, and more moderate members who prefer to achieve budget reductions by reorganizing forces in more economical configurations. In that context, I read his remarks as a signal to fellow Republicans– threatening to some of them– that he takes the latter view, and that advocates for the “sequestrations” could be viewed by donors and voters as promoting American weakness. However, even a President Romney would probably now be facilitating gradual reductions in the core Pentagon budget just as Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all done, though seemingly waging war without end. The debate is about how, not whether, American spending on defense should glide to some lower level.

      Without boring English readers with Pentagon budget scenarios, I should point out that less money does not perfectly correlate to less death and destruction. Special forces, missiles, smart bombs, and drones are all quicker and cheaper to deploy than armies, but for just that reason they are being used with noticeably less hesitation. And some influential voices seek renewal and expansion of the decaying US nuclear arsenal precisely because they expect a continually shrinking defense budget in the future. In some situations, spending reductions can result in forces that are more lethal rather than less.

  3. Alan, I agree entirely with the sentiments of your article, and am stirred by the passion and vision offered. My difficulty is in trying to understand how your new WMD (World Multilateral Disarmament) can come about when world leaders today are not merely heads of governments, but heads of powerful and wealthy multinational companies. Witness the American “right to bear arms” and equate the individuals of USA with nation states. The difficulty of eradicating weapons in American life looks a lot like the difficulty of eradicating weapons from the world stage. I suppose I am questioning the power of the world’s governments to disarm, even if they have the will. And when it comes to the will: unless it is demonstrably multilateral, the “good guys” (Western democracies – yes it’s ironic) will always want to ensure that “we” have the military power to defeat “the bad guys” (ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Al Quaida, LRA, etc) if “we” need to. I guess I need to put your book on my Christmas list and try to reflect more deeply on these things. Thanks for your prophetic voice. Somewhere deep inside I know you are right.

  4. Alan, what a superb article but I am also mindful that despite our very best efforts to do what is right every day of our lives Edmund Burke is correct when he said for evil to triumph good men simply do nothing. I know that prayer and the voice of the 10% is something or a 10% cut in the world’s defence spending would help, but that will never change the innate nature of fallen mankind.

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